Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Master and His Emissary, pt. 2: More Thoughts

Initial book review here.

The premise of this book, that an overdependence on the left hemisphere is pervasive and heavily reinforced by current culture, resonated with me because it made sense of various things that seemed connected but I couldn't quite put my finger on how.

Like the difficulty people seem to have in handling the relationship between individual and universal experience. It crops up constantly in blog and online article wars, but I think that is just a place that is manifested, not its origin. Mostly there are people who conclude, "My experience is X, therefore X is true for everyone (or at least everyone in the category I have drawn)." Occasionally there are people who think individual experience is only that and tells us nothing of general value. And every once in a while there is a person who has an individual experience and is able to draw from it general applications while recognizing that it is not a hard and fast categorical description. However, such a person, knowing what they are up against, usually has to hedge their statements with so many qualifications and caveats that it is hard to get the point, and they are still jumped all over by people who just don't get it, who cannot fathom that something can be both individual and general and yet not hard and fast universally applicable.

In general, there seems to me to be an intolerance of fuzzy edges--if you can't draw a bright line test (as lawyers call it) between two things, then there's no meaningful difference between them at all. But really, all edges are fuzzy if you try to hone in too closely. At the molecular level, the line between my pants and the chair would be hard to spot, but it's definitely there. There's an inability to appreciate context and the whole that cannot ever quite be reduced to a check list or bullet points. (Indeed, sometimes it seems there is an inability to read or write anything that's not a checklist or bullet points.)

And there's an over-fondness for categories, for categorizing ourselves and everyone around us, as if people existed primarily as a compilation of their categories.  If someone doesn't fit so well in a particular category, then we must either get rid of the bits of them that don't fit OR create yet another category. When perhaps what people need is to not be categorized, but treated as an individual, whole person in relation with other individual, whole people.

Then there's the way often religious fundamentalists and materialist fundamentalists sound so much alike, in their insistence on facts, facts, facts. (I remember one lady saying that she referred to the Biblical "accounts" rather than "stories," that word that suggests, well, that facts themselves are not the most important thing.) 

And this may seem off the wall, but there's the quest for novelty and even transgression in perfectly ordinary pleasures. Enjoying the same things we have enjoyed before is never enough; people get bored quickly and we must always be chasing after something new. If someone's really trying to sell something, they'll label it naughty or sinful, even though it is merely a rich dessert or fancy lingerie. Apparently we have to *pretend* it's bad to enjoy it; we can't just be there, enjoying it for itself.

Even more vague, there's the sense that everything is awesome and yet people are unhappy; not just unhappy with the normal unhappiness of humans, but unhappy in a way that is rather different in human experience; unable to just be, needing to be either working or entertained, or else hopelessly bored. A sense that people are disconnected, not just from each other, but from themselves.

These things seem rather different, and yet there seems to be a common thread somewhere. This is what The Master and His Emissary ties together: all of these are aspects of a left-brain dominated outlook, an outlook that is very good at taking things apart, sorting and classifying and pinning things on paper, but not at all good at being alive, at seeing the whole thing, at remaining in contact with the world itself.

Next time, I still have some thoughts on how this relates to education.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rob Roy

I should be working, or cooking supper, or possibly writing the other blog post I was planning to write, but instead I'm going to write about Rob Roy.

When I read a tale of adventure about a noble bandit and political intrigue, I'm willing to accept the ordinary guy as protagonist who gets swept up into events beyond him.

I'm not really expecting him to then stand there the entire time with his hands in his pockets.

Also, what kind of a name is Osbaldistone?

I can't say I disliked Frank Osbaldistone. He seems a perfectly decent chap. Who goes on being a perfectly decent chap while he gets falsely accused of armed robbery and his cousin steals his father's money. Between the love interest and the outlaw and some complicated political machinations, it all gets returned and everything comes out OK. But other than riding about some exquisite Scottish scenery, and one brief comic round of fisticuffs with some drunken Highlanders, Frank doesn't do a thing for himself.

The titular outlaw also was something of a disappointment. He doesn't even show up until the book is half over, and even then his role is somewhat ambiguous. He promises to help, but then is captured. He escapes. Meanwhile things are taken care of by other people. He comes to a dramatic rescue on almost the last page, but that's about it.

Fortunately the other characters were quite delightful: Diana Vernon, who manages to keep her outlawed father (NOT Rob Roy, someone else) hidden and her evil scheming cousin at bay, while excelling at horsemanship AND scholarship. (Why she marries the inoffensive Frank remains a mystery, except that being nurtured in a hotbed of Jacobite rebellion she wanted a quieter adult life, in which case I am sure she got what she was after, as she apparently always did.) Mrs. Rob Roy, apparently a competent general in her own right, if a bit blood-thirsty. Jarvie, the respectable Lowland merchant with secret Highland connections. Andrew Fairservice, the servant with a very strong sense of self-preservation. And the scenery is outstanding, and I don't usually even bother to read descriptions.

Still, it could have done with a livelier hero.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist

This book is one you should read, but probably won't. It's 462 pages long, and that's without the footnotes and bibliography. And they're big pages with small type.

But it's worth reading. It's even worth just skimming. I kept it to the end of our library's generous renewal policy once, and then I have kept it almost to the end again before getting it reviewed. It is a book that makes clear connections that I have long felt but not been able to fully explain.

It is more like two complimentary books, really. The first is on neuroscience and the different roles of the two hemispheres of the brain. Not in the simplistic manner of "Are you right-brained or left-brained?" quizzes or common dichotomies like words and logic vs. art and music.

In fact, everybody is using both hemispheres of their brain all the time for every task. The difference is not so much *what* the two halves do as *how* they do it. The left side of the brain takes things apart, creates clear divisions, handles and manipulates, deals in lists and syllogisms. The right side of the brain takes things in, absorbs the whole, understands and appreciates, deals in relationships and paradoxes. Without the left brain, we cannot find words, use tools, manipulate the world. Without the right brain, we cannot understand words, find meaning, know our place in relation to the world, appreciate the existence of reality outside ourselves.

The two hemispheres of the brain correspond to two ways of knowing, which were certainly understood and appreciated for centuries before the brain was so closely analyzed. They might be called analytic and synthetic. Or scientific and poetic. C. S. Lewis has a memorable passage in which he discusses the difference between looking "at" a beam of light in a dark shed and looking "along" that beam of light to the world outside.

The challenge is keeping these two parts of the brain in balance, working together even though it is their nature to operate at cross purposes. And the real challenge in this is that while the right side of the brain, which takes in the whole picture, can appreciate and understand what it needs the left side of the brain for, the left side of the brain doesn't. It thinks it's got the whole picture and can do everything itself. It thinks its way of looking at the world is the *right* way. (One reason this book is so huge is that all these points are meticulously documented with patient studies and other neurological and psychological research.) Without the right brain keeping it in check, it takes over and tries to do tasks for which it has no capacity

So, on to the second book within the book: the way the tension between the two hemispheres has played out over the history of Western civilization. Not that our brains have changed drastically over the course of recorded history, but the way we perceive and interact with our environment produces and is produced by culture, and it shifts over relatively short timeframes. (This part, also, is meticulously documented in a completely different way, with literary, historical, and philosophical references.)

The author is dealing with a very big picture here and can of necessity only bring fragments to sketch it, a difficult task but one I think he for the most part succeeds at. But the general idea is that the hemispheres tend to alternate dominance, first culture showing a flowering of right-brained creativity, and then a left-brained tendency to analyze and sharpen. He starts back in ancient Greece, then on through Rome and the middle ages, the Renaissance (right brain) followed by Reformation (shifting), leading to the Enlightenment (hard left), and then a rebellion against that with the right-brain emphasizing Romantic movement.

The challenge he sees is that over time the left-brain dominance becomes sharper. The left brain, after all, thinks its way is the right way. It dismisses the right-brain approach as illogical, inconsistent, inadequate. For most of human history, the right brain has had many supports to keep its place: our experience of nature and our own bodies, the presence of art and music and religion. These have kept the left brain from following its own drift too far.

However, since the Industrial Revolution, we have less and less access to these anchors. Our environment is more and more not a thing outside ourselves, but predominantly the product of human technology, all straight lines and sharp angles. Science (a vital endeavor) has been turned into scientism, a dogmatic insistence that only the left-brained facts and figures have any truth value. Religion has responded mostly by abandoning its realm of mystery and splitting up into fundamentalism (an attempt to reduce the inexpressible to a logically consistent body of dogma) or modernism (eliminating the supernatural altogether). Art and music have ceased to be human endeavors toward the beautiful (the left brain can't handle the idea of beauty; it can't be reduced to specific parts) and have become exercises in novelty for the sake of novelty. The body itself becomes an object, not a thing we are, but a thing we own and try to manipulate.

In consequence, we have followed up Modernism, a triumph of the left brain if there ever was one, not with a right-brain revolution to restore our appreciation for the reality that is out there, for beauty and relationship and all those other things that don't quite reduce to figures, but with Post-Modernism--a retreat further into the left-hemisphere world, in which there is no longer an out there at all, but everything is simply a product of our own minds.

I have already summarized a book that is probably too long to read with a blog post that is also too long to read, so I will try to do a second post on how this resonates with me.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Old Goals, New Goals

It is the time of year for planning and goals and breaking down your lofty goals into manageable, achievable steps.

This seems very sound in theory, but in practice, manageable, achievable steps bore or frighten me (depending on how many of them there are).

It may be unorthodox, but on both a large and a small scale I do better if I think about the things that I want and then just putz about and do what seems to come next. If I want to get the house clean and I make a list and do one thing at a time and cross it off, I'll be exhausted and cranky at the end of the day. If I just leave a blank of time and do whatever inspires me most to do next, I get more done for less crankiness.

Sorry.  I know it's not supposed to work that way. And I freely confess I've never managed to make it on anyone's list of 30 under 30 and it's too late now. Probably the world of high-powered, amazing achievement is closed to me, as is the world of immaculate houses. But I'm OK with that. I do the stuff that really matters to me and I still have time to have fun.

On the large scale, life takes way too many twists and turns for me to make long-range plans. And yet the road has a curious way of curving back around to that spot I saw in the distance. A long, long time ago, at a time when most of the people in my life had extremely conservative ideas of what females could be doing, I had just started law school, and someone asked me, "But why are you going to law school? Don't you want to get married?"

"Well, maybe," I said, "But maybe my husband and I could practice law together."

I did wind up meeting DOB through law school, but then neither of us practiced law, and we even lived in a state where it was impossible to be licensed. Then we moved back to where we could be licensed, but he got hired and I started free-lancing and things looked like they would stay that way for a long time.

Last year I was taking the kids on one of our weekly hike/park days and I noticed the trail we were on went right behind an office park, including the offices of a local firm.

"Hey," I thought, "If I were practicing law more regularly, this would be the place to do it." Cities and desks I hate, but having a little trail by the creek leading down to the beach right out the door would do a lot toward making it survivable. (There just aren't that many jobs involving analysis and debate that also involve a lot of time outdoors. Street preaching, maybe?)

Well, late this year the road took an unexpected hairpin and all of a sudden . . . here we are. Starting our own firm as of January 1. And, what do you know, but the CPA firm that DOB knew that was eager to lease him office space--is in that very same office park. Technically I've hired him, as I'm maintaining majority control of my corporation, but as he's the rainmaker he's pretty sure he has job security.

Current plans are for me to work primarily from home doing drafting and research, maybe going in once a week and filling in at court from time to time, while continuing to home school. Right now DOB is still in transition, wrapping things up at his old firm. We are going crazy trying to set up phones and email and computers and insurance and all that stuff. We'll see how it all shakes out. I'm sure the road will stay curvy.

I do have one specific goal for the year: Green eggs. I've decided to add vegetables to breakfast. I abhor smoothies, but a mess of fried green stuff with eggs is a tasty way to start the day, and right now fat is rated as healthy, so I'll enjoy it. I was going to set a goal of not remodeling anything but the new law office to be is . . . of all colors . . . bright blue.