Insight and Blindness

Insight might be a “bad” thing, even thought it, as a moment of reversal, feels so authentic. Instead, I propose this notion of “intentionality”, which is something less than an insight, yet more stable as well. I also want to speak about “interest” and “the zero”.

We might be getting too old for insight, we will need to outgrow it, if that makes sense. Let me give a personal example. The latest insight I had involved the “darkness” of Heart of Darkness. This is sort of related to the idea that HoD is “boring”. But the idea is that Conrad pretty much intentionally wrote so that there were no real descriptions there to be had, no real vision there. I became aware of just how dark the world was, for example, just how broken up it was, just how little the words provided towards imagery. This insight, or rather this situation, is highly paradoxical — since, at the the very moment that I understand Heart of Darkness to have no vision, I thereby gain of vision of that text, which is, “darkness”. More than that, I gain a total, holistic understanding of the text or some fragment of the text — or more precisely, I gain a vision of intentionalities, perhaps even “external, manipulative intentions” as we had been speaking of in this blog.

But the fact is that the text is never ‘boring’, or equivalently, holistic. I mean, “boring” is equivalent here to “insight” — it basically means that we need not read the text anymore because have grasped the holistic formula there. It’s never boring because it is always possible to engage with it, and to ask questions of it, which it will answer. (Well, just as a side note, along the same lines, there is no difference between an active reading and a passive, appreciative reading. There is indeed the sense that, if we are unlucky, we may have to ask questions of the text so that we may get lucky with our understanding, as someone who has, accidentally, already picked up some key to the text will not have to — but the point is that the latter is not more “natural” than the former, they would be the same.) The text is never boring because it is always interesting to somebody, in other words — and this is because all readings speak to each other, and are not merely interpretations. Anyone who finds the text interesting will see, in those who find it boring, a symptomatic misunderstanding. (Again, boring and it’s opposite, interesting, relate to the question of whether we can “read” the text without understand each individual word, whether a “familiar” understanding is possible. Boring basically means, “familiar”.)

It’s actually not so much a paradox as an error, or rather, an initial insight and then a blindness. The initial insight is negative, it actually critiques earlier understandings of the text that claim that, for example, the darkness is the darkness of the human psyche. No — rather, the darkness is the darkness of being unable to see, it is the darkness of intention — the human psyche thing assumes an vision of the text. But then this negative insight because a positive vision, not only of the text, but also (the two always come together) of the world that produces the text.

But the question is, is this a necessary error, or is there some stability to be had here: is it possible to read a text at all, if every development of an insight leads inevitably to failure and blindness. I believe it is, ‘yes’, bug at this point it is an optimistic hunch. I want to suggest a few possibilities, and talk about three things: (1) participation (2) interest (3) the zero.

(1) Participation: Right after paragraph 60, which we talked about in the last entry, there comes a kind of “intermission” moment, a fascinating moment really, when the narrator of the frame narrative takes over for about a paragraph, as Marlow stops talking for awhile in order to take a drag off his cigarette. He pauses because he speaks of this “dream sensation” and the impossibility of ever communicating the feeling at any particular moment. These passages remind us of the task of Marlow, and what exactly he is trying to accomplish. There is a later moment when Marlow speaks about testimony and his “voice that cannot be silenced”. If Marlow is not really giving a story, then what is he doing? We shouldn’t try to postulate anything extravagent here, I mean, he is not being entirely manipulative — I mean, psychologically, he is performing a process that could be classified as storytelling, ie, recollection, communication, etc.. But — I noticed this first of all in the “grove of death” scene — we do notice that, in this process of recollection he is not attempting to duplicate that prior moment, as is the unstated purpose of most novels — well, nor is he trying to reflect back on a past moment with a clearer vision. But rather, he sort of picks and choses from the scene certain … pregnant symbols, I guess. For the grove of death scene, what the reader will notice is that there is very little empathy for the dying natives, which really isn’t as amoral as we would think — I mean, we shouldn’t rush to judgment on this matter. Marlow actually seems to read the scene in a literary way — he says, for example, that the native “let his head rest on his knees in an appalling manner”. “Appalling” is an interesting word to use at this point, it suggests an intentional effort by the victim, like that he was trying to appall me. So what is intersting is that, from a moral perspective, an attentiveness to intentionality might seem to lack empathy, but is actually the more attentive to the human as an intentional expressive agent, while empathy, on the other hand, in fact tends to see the human merely as “victim”. The other interesting thing about this passage is that Marlow is himself very much a participant. This becomes clear in this line, “I was shocked” — I mean, spoken flatly. There is no effort here to explain why he was shocked, no effort — as a creative writing guru might tell you — to “show, not tell”.

But, as we were saying, the process of “storytelling” here involves the attempt to pick out significant elements from the past. I mean, this is simply how thinking occurs in a very general sense. But there is no precise way to say what exactly Marlow is doing, well, no precise positive, descriptive way. Of course, we do speak about Marlow in the above passage, but these are of particular lines and motions. This may indeed be related to the whereness question we spoke of last time: the stability of the text derives from the ability, not so much to figure out the intentions of Marlow at a grand level (“participation”, yes, but this is not specific enough) but rather to identify where intentionality occurs.

(2) The critique of interest / democracy

(3) The zero / mathematics

TBC

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