Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Frauds and Doppelgangers

I have always been fascinated that a forger can be - or seem - more technically talented than the artist they're faking. I listen to Tom Waits sing, and wonder if there is a true and real Tom Waits, or only the one imitating a variety of possible Tom Waitses. I remember as a kid watching TV vocal impersonators, and wondering how to distinguish them from the vocal artists they sometimes imitated. They sounded just as good as the "real thing" to me. But what do I know? I'm no expert.

In my study of Chinese traditions, there's not, I think, so much hang-up on originality. Knowledge of sources is conveyed differently than by citation, which would insult both auditor and composer. That kind of knowledge is conveyed by usage and deftness. Both reader and writer have to share a received tradition which is somewhat revered. To copy is to honor, but it's worthless without something of your own. Those not properly educated need not apply.

But I am as shaky on any pronouncements I might make about Chinese traditions as I am about certain treasured memories. Every once in a while I spend stupid amounts of time trying to validate something I've reported as surely true. The jury is always out. Plenty of times I find myself utterly wrong about Chinese traditions.

Last night I watched Orson Welle's "F is for Fake" which I found brilliant in a number of dimensions. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen it before, but so much of it was familiar. Maybe from the Richard Gere "Hoax" which I'd watched getting filmed for a hot second down in Chelsea on Manhattan. Maybe from something diCaprio did. Maybe from general familiarity with parts of the story, which was maybe from Time Magazine as a kid. Heck, I probably saw this film as a "kid."

I've told this family story about being in Pompano Beach, Florida one Easter. Maybe I was fourteen or so. One rainy day we went to a very fancy by our standards restaurant, and all of us remember the drunk at the bar chanting out 'hey bop a ree bop' over and over. We made fun of it on the way home from Florida in our station wagon. We were there with our good family friends, one of whom would later go to work at Hughes Aircraft, in the lead shielded division. My own family would rarely eat out in fancy places, or take vacations that weren't camping. I'm pretty sure we were towing our tent-trailer, though maybe Mom was successful in her begging that time. I can't remember.

I have a distinct memory of reading in Time Magazine some time later about how Howard Hughes had spent time in that vicinity when his life was being handled, and hanging at the bar and singing 'hey bop-a-ree-bop.' This morning, I spent stupid amounts of time checking Time Magazine archives. I came tantalizingly close to what I remember, but no exact citation. I remember remarking what I'd read in Time to my family at the time, and I also remember being frustrated that I couldn't quite find enough detail. I guess it was, and remains, just something that I wanted to be true. Because it made a good story.

The other thing is - and this is very tangentially related - that I am often accosted by people who swear they know me. Maybe this happens to you, too. Sometimes I'm accosted by people who actually do know me, and I feel chastened and very small when I don't recognize them back, though generally I do after I take the time to allow the image and memory to resolve themselves. Again, as a kid, I once went on a reading jag of doppelganger books. It seems I'm not the only one fascinated by them.

But I do have all these criss-crossings with almost everyone I meet and almost everything I read, and somehow I want to remark about them. Mostly, I have the good grace to keep quiet, because I know I can be an insufferable name-dropper. 

But doppelgangering is related to a sense of regret for lost lives; lives we might had lived had we made other choices. I really don't do that. I feel always happy with my choices. Well, except I don't have a great history that way with women.

I do feel privileged for how many lives I've glimpsed, though. I feel like it enriches my world. And I'm not just talking about the prominent or wealthy ones. I feel privileges to have gotten peeks into so many different lives and traditions, though by no means as extensive as many folks I've read about, and even plenty that I know personally. Privilege is such a subjective matter.

But what I want to write about is how we might and should deal with what seems to be the explosion of not just crazy thinking, but very dangerous crazy thinking. It seems to me related to how unlikely our authoritative voices can be relied upon. Everybody calls everybody on some other side "fake."

We always suspect fakery; some motive behind the one that is represented. Our very craving for truth leads us into conspiracy theorizing. It can be as hard to tell the difference as to detect the sleight-of-hand with which Orson Welles begins his documentary look into Clifford Irving, Howard Hughes, and this fascinating art forger by the name of Elmyr De Hory.

None of us is really trained to tell when we're getting the truth and when we're being manipulated. I sure do remember watching Loose Change (as I think the film was called) about how Dubya deliberately brought down the Trade Towers. It was chilling in its way. There were manned tables all over the place to let you know the truth. Somehow it seems that there were Scientologists always hanging around nearby.

L. Ron Hubbard, anyone? So, as I sit here in quarantine with cabin fever in gloomy Buffalo, wondering how much freedom (from fear, to socialize, to shop with better abandon) my vague immunity might grant me, reading William H. Gass, whom I'd never heard of before and who is an absolute gas, who's writing about feelings of fraudulence in his protagonist, and thinking about my own feelings of fraudulence; as I sit here I feel the need to write. One can only read so much in a sitting.
As an unconscionable aside, I'm reading William Gass because he wrote an introduction to William Gaddis' The Recognitions which I'm eager to read because he gets named alongside Thomas Pynchon, who I read a lot, but I somehow never heard of Gaddis, so I'm eager, but delaying my gratification. Mostly because the library had a copy of Gass's novel, Middle C, while I'd have to enter the library to get The Recognitions as a physical book, so I bought it and can therefore be confident about being able to read it when I'm good and ready (by which time I'll likely be able to visit the library, but there you go! I'm fickle that way!)

The introduction Gass wrote for the other W. G.'s book was brilliant beyond almost anything I'd ever read, and written very much in the spirit of the Welle's "documentary." The novel is a little slower, with fewer sparks. I may have woofed the art in favor of the authentic, or something like that. No matter, it's a fine enough read. Gass can impersonate Gaddis who can impersonate Pynchon and the critics, like the art experts who confidently identify forgeries as genuine can do with paintings, and it won't much matter to me. I'm looking for what moves me, is all.

Meanwhile, I'm reading about how they've come up with this new vaccine by forgery of genes, and I think I'm on pretty solid ground to promote Chinesey treatments for intellectual property. How much time is it worth to prosecute genuinely talented forgers who punk the experts? How guilty should a person feel for stealing intellectual property if the result is curing disease?

Just how important is the Emperor's New Clothes confidence game of the art market? Hell, artists themselves are rarely the ones who profit, being the only intellectual workers (wrong term, I know, but I hate the term "creatives," mainly because I can have no claim on it) who don't get royalties for their work. There aren't that many Picassos who become sensations in their own time (another aspect of the Welles spoof).

I do know and do endorse the importance of "objective truth." It's what science runs on, and it's how we can maintain our democracy, if indeed we do, by having public standards to distinguish truth from falsehood. 

But I am also a radical disbeliever in any duality between mind and body, and so I would also maintain that there is validity to what each of us holds as true in our own personal narrative, even when its objective truth is not provable. Stories are fictions by definition, at least because you have to pick and choose what to highlight. It's what your subconscious mind does before handing you up something objective for you to make a snap emotional decision on, which then becomes conscious. The world is not built on objective truth. Objective truth is for procedures of trueing, and it's those procedures which hold us together. 

In some sense, that's what objective means. It means 'shared truth.' And that shared truth is at a higher level than to discover the structure of 'objective reality' so that we can gain evermore control over our environment. Science is a procedure for building trust in a shared reality. It's really the only one we've got, or will ever have. 

Subjective reality can be true in a different sense, of course. For instance, I  would never deny the reality of someone's belief in what they call God. I might argue with the way in which that reality gets distorted by men who want to create an empire around it.

The Orson Welles documentary begins with a display of sleight of hand, focusing on the delighted child being teased and fooled with money materializations. Then it slides into candid shots of men reacting to a stunningly gorgeous woman strolling by. The looks on the men's faces are exaggerated to the point of caricature. Welles exposes the hoax, and how he got so many good actors to act for free. It is evidently that good, the acting, that it just simply must be true.

Of course in my private space, I was inwardly looking exactly like those leering men. Have I fallen for beauty and believed it true. Well, yes I suppose I have. I've been divorce once in the legal sense, and plenty of other times in the practical sense. Beauty is a trickster.

But science doesn't only advance by cognitive effort and skill. There also has to be some craft and some artistry to conceive and devise the clever ways in which we test our theories. At the very frontiers of science, objective truth dissolves as we find it increasingly hard to distinguish hard fact from projected theory. Only mathematics can dissolve the paradoxes of Bell's theorem, but I, for one, without the math sill feel that I can understand it. Of course, mine is a very subjective understanding, since I doubt I could hold my own in any discussion among physicists. I keep my theories to myself in the same way I hide my leers.

In my amateur mind, using variations of the double-slit experiment, there is a distinction between the conceptual relation among particles and barriers, which are best understood in terms of waves, and the perceptual relation, which seems to boil down to the quanta which perception 'collapses' from a more wavy 'cloud' of probability - particles, so-called. 

I know, I know, waves are perceptual phenomena too, but it's the dissolution of hard boundaries and the foregrounding of interplay that interests me about waves. Waves remain valid across otherwise impenetrable barriers, including time. It's as though the particle senses the barrier before it "touches" it, impinges on it. The narrative order of time is disrupted at the most diminutive level of physical reality.

To me, that's about all there is to the difference between a computer or isolated brain as a thinking machine and a mind which is implicated in all of its environment. No spooky quantum entanglement required. No arcane structures. We are more one with the world than we are separate from it, is all. 

And yes, I am indeed a fraud, but mostly so are you. My narrative cannot entirely be trued with the more general public narrative, but at least I don't believe in things which are just patently nuts. Like a computational model for mind, for starters. 

Oh yes, I could go on, but this movie review is long enough already.

The trouble for me is that by inspiration about 38 years ago - call it communion with God, if you wish - I hit on a set of subtly altered definitions for terms in common usage. It happened on the basis of a (still now) fairly sketchy understanding both of physics and of aspects of Chinese tradition which acted, for me, as a corrective to some of those things in our own traditions here in the West that we almost never bother to question.

Unfortunately, nothing about what struck me grants me clearance to be considered either a 'creative' nor certainly a scientist or philosopher. But it still rings true as I anxiously navigate a troubled world to be inherited by my offspring. 

After a frenetic search for someone to understand what I was talking about - the closest I think I ever came was to a young poet of my acquaintance, who confessed after the car ride during which I was holding forth that he had been terrified that I was about to drive off the bridge. He thought I might be just that crazy.

After that I put my theorizing away, got married and carried on with life. I've never been quite diligent about any career, and remain as distantly fascinated by how others are diligent in the same way that I am distantly aware of football. But sometime in midlife I decided that a blog would be a good way to "publish" the writing I'd done while living on my sailboat. That writing remains here, utterly unread, as far as I can tell (You have to go back to the beginning to see it).

In somewhat simple terms, I realized that mind and emotion are not limited by the skins of sentient beings, but are as much a part of the cosmos apart from us as are the objects of physical science. I whittled the terminology down to percepts, concepts, motion and emotion. Physical forces act on percepts, while concepts define relations among objects in the mind. The relations are mathematical and not forceful. So mind gets outered as well, as an eternal and primordial aspect of cosmos. 

I'm not only quite comfortable with this understanding, but it relieves me of the stress of thinking that there's something more that we must discover before we can improve the world we live in. I don't doubt that we can and will do a much better job of spreading some version of 'the good life' across the globe. But there is no essential difference, for me, between waiting for God to descend to save us from ourselves, and waiting for science to guide us to some perfect resolution.

We are eternally implicated in the reality that we inhabit. Our integrity makes a decisive difference. There is no self-driving self. We need to take responsibility.

Of course that is a supremely useless statement, since each of us has a different sense of how to exercise that responsibility. But as one of the hundred monkeys needed before we can change the way we live in the world, I remain bizarrely confident that it will happen. That's because I know that my beliefs are true!

That's despite how hard I continue to try to find and accept some disproof. Absent that, I shall carry on in my insanity. You'll come around eventually. That's how the truth works. My God, how beautiful the women that frauds surround themselves with!

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