A Letter on “Hope.”

Joshua Preston Hope

A Letter on Hope

Recently on Fiverr, I was asked to write a letter, which being a (militant) advocate for written-correspondence I was glad to do. The only problem, though, was that I was asked to talk about “Hope.” Where does one even begin?

Deciding not to focus on my own experiences, I wanted to investigate what Hope actually is – and I wanted it to be more practical and philosophical than merely (and often unfulfillingly) poetic. You’ll find here no allusions to spring or sunrise. For such a nebulous but necessary emotion, I think it requires more seriousness than that.

For anyone interested in my letters, in September 2013 I posted a series called “Four Men in May,” in which I included one about the last week of my undergraduate career. If you’d like me to send you your own letter, visit my Fiverr page here.


February 7, 2015
Houston, TX

Dear _______,

Walking home from work the other day, I gave a lot of thought to your message, thinking about what I could possibly write that is unmistakably “hopeful.” It’s a challenge (I type with an insuppressible grin on my face) but for being such a fundamental part of the human experience, it is a necessary exercise and I’m thankful for the opportunity you’ve given me. I think you should try it, too, and I’d love if you sent me a copy of your thoughts. Because even if we are not always as hopeful as we’d like, Hope is imperative. As I’m sure I’m not the first to say: Without it, What’s the point?

So, already, we know that Hope is a guide: It guides us to what “the point” is. By this I mean it is the quickest way to identify those things that matter most to us. What are you hopeful for? Why? Ask yourself these questions the next time the feeling swells inside of you. Within your answer you’ll discover the aspirations and relationships you cherish most.

Yet, I don’t know if we encounter Hope or if it encounters us. For every instance when Hope takes hold, ensnaring us without warning, there are others when it’s discovered by engaging with our aspirations. When we know the obstacles to be overcome, sometimes we must search for Hope by breaking them into smaller, more-manageable components. For example, let’s say one is committed to but hopeless about passing an “impossible” class. Instead of focusing on the class as one giant, single problem, one ought to focus on the number of tests and ask What must I do to pass each one? Suddenly, the class ceases being “impossible,” and in that moment we feel in our chests a rush of relief: Hope.

Fearing that I may not have much to say about “Hope,” I reached out to a friend of mine, a young philosopher-poet named Andreana S., and asked what her thoughts were on this subject. Here’s an abridged version of what she sent me:

“Hope is a means of self-preservation in the face of helplessness. … Learning to cultivate hope is not self-deception, as some would dismiss it; some would say that hopefulness is fanciful thinking, … and that one would be better off focusing on the aspects of life within one’s control rather than hoping for a different, distant, but seemingly always-possible future. However, hope is self-sustenance – an act of friendship towards the self. It is a gift we give ourselves when we do not have anywhere else to turn for support.”

This, she added, allows one to “let go of judgment and permit in oneself an emotional investment” in what we aspire for. “Only with that emotional connection, that hope, can one then build upon that foundation by channeling the hopeful energy” into action. That cannot be stressed enough: Hope without action is mere faith. We cannot expect our problems to change for us; instead, Hope grants us the power to know that there is more in our control than instinct suggests — and for what we can control, we can change.

These are all the thoughts I have right now and I’d like to get this letter in the mail sooner rather than later.

Sincerely,
Joshua Preston

Posted in My Life, Philosophy, Poetry/Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing Advice from Sinclair Lewis on His 130th Birthday

Sinclair Lewis Yale University Honorary Degree

Professor Sinclair Lewis accepting an honorary degree from Yale University (1936). Minnesota Historical Society.

On this day in 1885, writer Sinclair Lewis was born. Author of Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927), Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1930). So to celebrate his 130th birthday, I’m sharing his writing advice from when he taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin (1940) and University of Minnesota (1942).

[Quotes are from Richard Lingeman’s biography, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street, 2002].

Although he’d held workshops and lectures across the country, in the fall of 1940, Lewis took his first step into academia by accepting a nonpaying position at the University of Wisconsin. Attracted to the city of Madison, he enjoyed teaching and so, once a week for two hours, he’d pace the room listing everything he’d ever learned about writing. One student, theater critic Frances Benn Hall, recorded one of Lewis’ lectures:

When you write don’t worry about whether or not it’ll sell …. Don’t want success at twenty-two. If you want fame, be a prize fighter or a movie star. If you write, write because you must write. Because you can’t help it. Write what you believe, what you know, what moves you. And always write the best you can. Be self-proud. You can fool the critics but never yourself. Remember you’re competing with the best that’s ever been written. Try to be better than the best. There’s no limit for you and there can be no writing but great writing. Possess a divine egotism. . . . And never forget that you’re competing with Shakespeare (451).

Lewis’ time in Madison was short as, after six classes, he abruptly returned to New York, telling his students, “I’ve taught you all I know. From here on in, all would be repetition” (452).

Two years later, returning to Minnesota to gather material for his next novel (Gideon Planish, 1943), Lewis joined the University of Minnesota where he taught another writing course. Though there for only one semester, Lewis was uncomfortable socializing with his peers:

The novelist Robert Penn Warren was on the faculty there, but Lewis was wary of him because he was friendly with the critics Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop, also teaching at the university, whom Lewis felt looked down on him — which they did (468).

Presumably Lewis taught his course very similarly to that at Wisconsin, but when the semester ended he left with these last words for his students: “In writing as in life, righteousness is permissible” (469).

That’s advice that could be used today.

Posted in History, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The natural sciences can inform rather than dictate our public policy

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published October 30, 2012.

In an article titled “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe v. Wade?” William Egginton, professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University, cautions us to be careful in how we use the natural sciences to shape public policy. In this case, abortion rights. Egginton writes about attorney Rick Hearn’s suits against Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act “and others like it that cite neuroscientific findings of pain sentience on the part of fetuses as a basis for prohibiting abortions even prior to viability.” The reason for this is because Hearn believes that the government is using results from the natural sciences “as a basis for expanding or contracting the rights of its citizens.” The logic goes like this: if it can be proven that fetuses are capable of pain then they are conscious and thus a person deserving of their full rights under the constitution. This clearly has political overtones.

The turn to legislation based on alleged neuroscientific findings in search of an end-run around the protections provided by Roe v. Wade is popular among Republicans. Mitt Romney voiced his strong support for such legislation in 2011, when he wrote in a piece in National Review, “I will advocate for and support a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.” Since viability is, according to Roe v. Wade, the point at which the state’s interest in protecting “the potentiality of human life” becomes compelling enough to override its interest in protecting the right of a woman to make decisions regarding her body and its reproductive organs, Idaho’s statute and others like it would either be found unconstitutional or, if upheld, entail overturning a fundamental aspect of Roe v. Wade.

This is reasonable enough since the Republicans are simply trying to reinforce their philosophical arguments with evidence. If it is true that the fetus experiences pain (as we would conceive of it), that is a pretty strong argument in their corner. Unfortunately, when the Republicans refer to pain sentience there is the implication that these feelings arise from a primitive form of consciousness, which is debatable.

Current neuroscience distinguishes a spectrum of degrees of “consciousness” among organisms, ranging from basic perception of external stimuli to fully developed self-consciousness. … The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, for instance, distinguishes degrees of consciousness in terms of the kind of “self” wielding it: while nonhuman animals may exhibit the levels he calls proto-self and core-self, both necessary for conscious experience, he considers the autobiographical self, which provides the foundations of personal identity, to be an attribute largely limited to humans.

… For a fetus to be conscious in a sense that would establish it as a fully actualized human life, according both to current neuroscientific standards and to the philosophical tradition from which the concept stems, it would have to be capable of self-perception as well as simple perception of stimuli. … By turning to consciousness in an attempt to push Roe’s line-in-the-sand back toward conception, in other words, abortion opponents would in effect be pushing it forward, toward the sort of self-differentiation that only occurs well after birth and the emergence of what the phenomenological tradition has called “world” [Emphasis mine].

Fortunately for infants everywhere, though, philosophy is always evolving and we can change our views in light of the evidence. Acknowledging neuroscience’s views on consciousness does not suddenly mean that we need to allow abortions in the fourth trimester. Social policy is not strictly beholden to science. Instead, what we often do is use our experiences, intuitions, and philosophies to guide our research in a way that either reinforces or invalidates said experiences, intuitions, and philosophies, the latter of which we then amend accordingly. If our ideas on consciousness could, in theory, allow for the killing of babies, then let us change our philosophies to fit our intuition that killing babies is wrong. It is as simple as that. What our understanding of consciousness simply means (in this case) is that if the anti-abortion movement hopes to gain any traction it must discard the “pain sentience”/”consciousness” argument otherwise maybe we couldjustify abortion after-birth.

I am sure there are other arguments that can be made against abortion but citing pain sentience is not one of them.

Lastly, in this article I think Egginton places too much emphasis on what he calls the “hubris” of science to overreach into those fields he believes to be in the realm of philosophy. At face value I do not disagree but it is misleading for him to blame science’s role in the pain sentience debate rather than the idealogues who are cherry-picking and misusing it to support their ends. It is true that the non-scientific community will often regard SCIENCE! as a beacon of infallibility (except when it challenges their intuitions) but that is not the problem of science it’s the problem of society. This is just another example of how scientific illiteracy pollutes the discourse rather than science being “dictatorial.”

Posted in Bioethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Sarah Palin’s Spoken-Word Performance at the Iowa Freedom Summit

Josh Preston Sarah Palin Mall of America

The Author with spoken-word da da artist Sarah Palin at the release of her book-length prose poem, Going Rogue.

Recently speaking at the Iowa Freedom Summit, former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin gave a speech that, as one writer for the conservative National Review wrote, was “meandering and often bizarre.” Satirist Jon Stewart had a field day with this, of course, comparing Palin’s speech to those Lincoln commercials where Matthew McConaughey drives around making sounds. This criticism, though, is unfair.

I mean, sure, if you’re a philistine everything she said was stupid, babbling nonsense (that’s because you’re a philistine), but just look at how Palin’s speech has been excerpted/butchered by the mainstream media (note the formatting):

Things must change for our government. Look at it. It isn’t too big to fail. It’s too big to succeed! It’s too big to succeed, so we can afford no retreads or nothing will change with the same people and same policies that got us into the status quo. Another Latin word, status quo, and it stands for, ‘Man, the middle-class everyday Americans are really gettin’ taken for a ride.’ That’s status quo, and GOP leaders, by the way, y’know the man can only ride ya when your back is bent. So strengthen it. Then the man can’t ride ya, America won’t be taken for a ride, because so much is at stake and we can’t afford politicians playing games like nothing more is at stake than, oh, maybe just the next standing of theirs in the next election.

That’s a total misrepresentation of Palin’s work, and I’m not about to waste anyone’s time jumping on the liberal bandwagon and riding it to philistineville. Why? Because I respect any writer with the courage to stand up and drop one of the dopest SLAM poems of January 24, 2015. Now, I will cede that this wasn’t her best performance (who can forget the 2008 Republican National Convention?), but in this spoken-word, da da dreamscape, it doesn’t take a Harvard Professor to see the influences of John Berryman (the quirky asides), Allen Ginsberg (the not-so-subtle homoeroticism), and William McGonagall (just all of it).

Check it out for yourself, as it was meant to be read:

THINGS MUST CHANGE FOR OUR GOVERNMENT.

By Sarah Palin, Former Alaskan Governor.

I.

Look at it.

It isn’t too big to fail.
It’s too big to succeed!

It’s too big to succeed,
so we can afford no retreads
or nothing will change with
the same people and same policies
that got us into the status quo.

(Another LATIN word, “status quo” –
and it stands for:

“Man,
the middle-class
everyday Americans
are really getting’ taken for a ride.”

That’s “status quo”)

GOP leaders!
By the way!

Y’know the man can only ride ya
when your back in bent.

So strengthen it. 

Then the man can’t ride ya.

II.

America won’t be taken for a ride,
because so much is at stake
and we can’t afford politicians playing games
like
nothing more is at stake than,

oh, maybe just the next standing
of theirs in the next election.

Posted in News, Poetry/Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This is why I don’t take arguments about “moral and cultural decay” seriously.

There’s a common trope among conservatives that we’re living in an era of moral and cultural decay. With a nervous sweat on their brow, they cite Elvis Presley! Marilyn Manson! Miley Cyrus! and call for censorship, suggesting it’s the American thing to do. (And, I suppose in some ways it is).

But, alas, this kind of outrage is nothing new — the following comic was printed in Illinois’ Rock Island Argus in 1915. Replace the statue with Beyonce and the old, white aristocrat with … the old, white, aristocratic Gov. Mike Huckabee and it’s just as relevant a century later.

Rock Island Argus - I Never Thought of That - 1915

“I Never Thought of That,” The Rock Island Argus. August 30, 1915.

 

Posted in Archival Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of Alan Lightman’s “Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation” (2012)

Lightman_mr_g_book_jacket

Mr g by Alan Lightman

Ever since I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) and David Eagleman’s Sum (2009), I’ve been interested in magical realism — a playful, imaginative curiosity that, lately, has even snuck into my own writing. Shortly after reading their work, it did not take long for me to find Jorge Luis Borges and Alan Lightman (whose Einstein’s Dreams I reviewed last year). Lightman’s perspective on the genre I’ve particularly enjoyed given his background as an MIT physicist. So, I was excited when, once again prowling the stacks of Half Priced Books, I came across Mr. g: A Novel About the Creation (Vintage, 2012).

To be blunt: I have mixed feelings about it. Sadly, though, (to compromise my authority as an unbiased reviewer) I’m emotionally incapable of being too critical. You see, I once wrote Lightman a letter asking him to contribute to my blog Giraffes Drawn By People Who Should Not Be Drawing Giraffes. And he did. What a sweetheart.

I can’t just sink a relationship like that.

You understand.

Mr g is a first-person-except-when-it’s-not narrative about God’s creation of the universe (or rather a universe). Tolerating the squabbles and input of his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g introduces space and time to “The Void” (the non-dimensional realm they inhabit), deciding thereafter to create a universe merely to keep himself occupied. Beginning with a few “organizing principles” (natural laws), he spends most of his time fawning over the harmony of the cosmos’ as they effectively create themselves. In the book as in nature, it is rules that govern and build not a spirit’s hands. Thus emerge stars and the fusion of basic elements to create more, which in clicks of the atomic clock form the richness of planets, solar systems, galaxies. The way Lightman lays out this natural progression — leading to the emergence of life — was where I found his prose most engaging. Unfortunately, when this life becomes intelligent, moral, that’s when the writing becomes clumsy.

As Mr g quickly discovers, his act of changing the Void, creating something from what was literally nothing, led to the emergence of other trans-dimensional creatures: Belhor and two mischievous demons named Baphomet the Larger and Baphomet the Smaller. At different times in the universe’s development, they appear to discuss with God the nature of good and evil, principles versus loyalty, and so on. Each dialogue ends with Belhor commenting how great and clever his intellectual equal (God) is. As a reader, though, these are no more than mere assertions because at no point in the dialogues are these qualities evident (in either himself or God). In fact, they read like the grandstanding of two college freshmen who read the Wikipedia entry on Aristotle for the first time. I’ve heard it before.

Most readers, I’m sure, will enjoy the book — if you have a passing interest in science and enjoy the colorful, scientific prose of Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, you’ll enjoy it. (Though like all physicists and cosmologists, Lightman is not immune to saturating his text with the words “harmony” and “order” between references to classical music). The book’s merits don’t come from the strength of its named characters; instead, the only character who mattered to me was not the creator but the created: the universe. In 214 pages we witness the cosmos’ birth, life, and, in several beautifully-written chapters, its death. If you read Mr g, ignore the talking in the background: watch the show. This is a novel about creation after all.

Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Literature, Poetry/Fiction, Prose, Thoughts and Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on “American Sniper” (and “Nation’s Pride”)

Regardless as to what one may think of Clint Eastwood’s abilities as a filmmaker, his latest American Sniper has earned him the largest opening weekend success of his directorial career. For those unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it’s an adaptation of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, in which he brags about having murdered 255 human beings. The Raw Story notes in “Real ‘American Sniper’ was hate-filled killer — why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” that in his book he

… described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.

Kyle also looted Iraqi apartments and never doubted his work, seemingly incapable of understanding that the world isn’t black-and-white and that just because a country claims to be on a liberating mission does not, in fact, make it a liberator. Similarly, saying you’re a patriot does not make you a patriot. So when some writers called out Kyle’s narrow-mindedness — and dare I say nationalism? — the, well, nationalistic response was “swift and violent”:

“Move your America hating ass to Iraq, let ISIS rape you then cut your cunt head off, fucking media whore muslim,” wrote a rather unassuming-looking mom named Donna. “Rania, maybe we to take you ass overthere and give it to ISIS … Dumb bitch,” offered a bearded man named Ronald, who enjoys either bass fishing or playing the bass (we may never know). “Waterboarding is far from torture,” explained an army pilot named Benjamin, all helpfulness. “I wouldn’t mind giving you two a demonstration.”

To no one’s surprise, these same people are now, while celebrating the film, talking about how much they “really want to kill some fucking ragheads” (quoted in “Eastwood film ‘American Sniper’ sets box office record while setting off flurry of racist tweets“). It’s obvious there is no part of the neo-con psyche striving to “win the hearts and minds” of a people when they’re idolizing a man who — I can’t say this enough — bragged about personally murdering a record amount of human beings. If any other country celebrated a man who did this to American soldiers, what do you think the response would be? I promise no one would be debating the biopic’s artistic merits.

Years ago when I heard that American Sniper was being made into a film, I was reminded of Nation’s Pride, the film-within-a-film from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). In it a young, attractive Nazi sniper mans a tower heroically gunning down more than 200 soldiers while intermittently carving swastikas into the floorboards. Interesting.

They say Hollywood only has twelve scripts, but nationalism only has one: The culture hero always wins.

Posted in Politics, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments