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There’s a certain Slant of light
by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

I have a 102.5 fever, so I missed yesterday’s post. Here it is!


It was a while ago now, but I just heard “Son of Sam” and felt compelled to write. Elliott Smith was really great, a bringer of beauty to the world. It breaks my heart, really. There’s a part of me that knows that sometimes, people just hurt a lot and feel the need to bow out. Another part of me wonders whether or not tragedy could be averted if we could find a way to prevent people from feeling like square pegs.

I feel like there are strong social norms toward integrity and consistency, strong intrinsic (or potentially learned) desires to feel like the world is an essentially good place, and strong social messages to people to be skeptical and critical.

There isn’t a widely accepted framework, though, that allows all three. As a result, I think most people that seem well-adjusted are either inconsistent, cynical, or naive.

That, in itself, might sound cynical, but it’s not. I think people are essentially good. I think people generally possess integrity, good will, and insight in vast reserves. I feel like the ones who are really serious about it, though–those who are diligent in their search for two of them–almost invariably end up violating the third.

It reminds me of Arrow’s impossibility theorem in some ways. Arrow’s impossibility theorem says, basically, that if you want to take a look at all possible policies, you want to ignore irrelevant policies, and you want to be able to rank policies consistently (a>b, b>c => a>c), and you want to allow no individual in the society to be a dictator, then you can’t do it. Somebody has to be the dictator in order to be complete, consistent and rational. I’m fudging the terms to translate it from math into English, but I think you get the point.

One of the things I love about music is its ability to satisfy consistency, beauty, and insight. The reason art can accomplish what reason so often fails to is, I think, the fact that art strives to be generally universal in its themes but particular in its subject matter. It doesn’t look at all possible policies.

(This is all false analogy, by the way, so it’s not a proof, but hopefully it’s pretty.)

Religion and grand philosophy have often failed to take advantage of this property. I think that’s one of the penetrating powers of science. In theory, at least, science is incredibly humble. As a result, it is incredibly powerful.

The insight is greater than science, though. It’s negative capability. Drop the completeness aspect and you can paint your way back out of the corner. There’s no shame in saying, “I don’t know.” It’s an empirical question, I guess, but I like to think that if we could say, it’s okay to bow out of life if it’s really not your thing–if we could say that, maybe less people would feel the need to bow out. Maybe if loss, poverty, sorrow weren’t so anathema, they wouldn’t compound. In complete sets of philosophy, though, in religion, in particular, there’s no room for random sadness and loss, no room for the inexplicable. All of it has to be God’s will, or none of it can be. I think we can work our way up to a consistent, beautiful, critical world-view that doesn’t need to be universal in order to have its force.

It’s striking to me, the prospect of bringing Pickle up without religion, without belief in God. It’s a different life from mine. I know it’s hard for P’s grandparents. I hope it makes sense to everyone, eventually, although I know it might not. I have faith, though, that the results will speak for themselves. I hope we can help make sense of sorrow as well as joy, though, in a way that integrates it into the beauty of the world, a beauty derived from transience, from the very randomness that makes godlessness seem scary to pretty much everyone, and in a way that looks at sorrow and joy in the complexity with which we actually experience them.

I think we can make sense of joy and sorrow (and love and death and beauty and sex and the origin of everything) by saying that, to be honest, we don’t really know. We’re just living through it like everybody else, and the joy thing is pretty great, and the sorrow thing, not so much, sometimes, but it’s all life, and I think life is good. Let’s talk about it some more and see what we come up with. It’s all about reducing it to a human scale. What we lose in breadth of stroke we gain in explanatory power and internal consistency. To get Integrity, Wonder, and Honesty requires Humility. Descriptive life.