Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Last Inch and The Cubic Centimeter of Luck

This isn’t an essay on the differences between the English and Metric systems of measurement. Sorry to disappoint. The phrases used in the title are actually borrowed, so to speak, from literary and cinematic art. The “last inch” bit is taken from the 2005 movie V for Vendetta, while the “cubic centimeter of luck” comes from Carlos Castaneda’s series of books about his experiences as an apprentice of a Mexican man of knowledge named Don Juan Matus. What can these two references possibly have in common?

First off, allow me to quote that part of the movie to which I refer. It comes from one of the most important (in my opinion, anyway) scenes in the entire film, in which the viewer experiences a flashback to past events as an autobiography is narrated. The author of the autobiography, Valerie, writes the following:

Our integrity sells for so little, but it's all that we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free. […] I shall die here. Every last inch of me shall perish. Except one. An inch. It's small and it's fragile and it's the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

What is integrity, and why is it so important? The Oxford English Dictionary defines integrity as:

1. The condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety.

b. Something undivided; an integral whole.

The etymological roots are the Latin word integritas, which means “wholeness, entireness, completeness, chastity, purity,” and integer, which means “whole.”

One description of a person who has integrity is one whose every thought and action is based on a rock-solid foundation, an unwavering and indestructible “something” that holds it all together. This “something” may be argued to be the Self, or the feeling of continuity in one’s life that gives it meaning. Most of us would claim that we have this “something,” this unwavering sense of Self – to not have it would be akin to labeling ourselves insane!

Let’s add some controversy to this discussion. The modern age mystic named G. I. Gurdjieff had this to say:

It is the greatest mistake to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. And so it goes on all one's life.

Imagine a country where everyone can be king for five minutes and do during these five minutes just what he likes with the whole kingdom. That is our life.

Essentially, Gurdjieff is implying that humans have no integrity, no solid foundation on which their very lives stand firm. In fact, he is saying here that man’s life can be compared to a country in a state of continual chaos and anarchy. Impossible, you may say. You may further think that you have been “yourself” all of your life, fully aware of and able to account for every thought and action during every second, just as you are aware of them now. But – can you really?

Let’s add another perspective here, this time one of A. R. Orage, who wrote the following about human life back in 1925 as part of an essay called “Are We Awake?”:

There is a traditional doctrine, usually associated with religion, but now and then invading great literature, that our present waking state is not really being awake at all. It is not night-sleep certainly, nor is it the ordinary somnambulism or sleep-walking; but it is, the tradition says, a special form of sleep comparable to a hypnotic trance in which, however, there is no hypnotist but only suggestion or auto-suggestion.

But how can we convince ourselves that we are really in a form of sleep when, as it appears to us, we are really awake? By comparing the two chief states of consciousness known to us and observing their strikingly common features. What, for instance, are the outstanding features of our ordinary sleep as known to us through our recollected dreams? The dream happens, that is to say, we neither deliberately initiate it nor do we create its figures and events. And in this respect it resembles waking life, in that we do not predetermine our experiences, nor do we create or invent the figures and events we meet from day to day.

Another common element of our sleeping and waking modes of life is the variability of our conduct. We are sometimes horrified, sometimes gratified, to recall how we have behaved in a dream situation. It is true that whatever our conduct may have been, humiliating or flattering to our pride, we couldn't have made it otherwise. Our disquiet or satisfaction is solely an account of the presumed revelation of our unconscious selves. But how, at bottom, do these facts differ from the facts of our waking life-dreams? In life-dreams also we cut a sorry or a good figure, not by pre-determined design but as it happens; and our regret or satisfaction is equally contingent on the effect the episode has upon our self-pride. But can we truthfully say, beforehand, that, whatever happens, we shall behave ourselves thus and thus and not otherwise? Are we not subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm? Exactly as in sleep-dream, our waking life is always taking us by surprise; and we are constantly behaving as we should not have imagined we could behave.

It is true that of our waking life we preserve a more or less continuous recollection, whereas our dream-life is a series of discontinuous memories. But apart from this specific difference our actual memory-faculty appears to behave much the same in relation to both forms of experience. We know how difficult it is to recall at will a dream of the night before; the dream was vivid, and all its details were in our mind on awaking; but in an instant the whole of it has vanished, leaving not a wrack behind. Memory of yesterday's life-dream is not so treacherous, or capricious as regards its main features; but where today is the vivid detail of yesterday? We saw clearly a thousand and one objects, we even attended to them. We listened to conversation, we spoke, we watched men and things in the street, we read books or newspapers, we read and wrote letters, we ate and drank and did or perceived a host, that no man can number, of objects and actions. That was only yesterday, yesterday's vivid waking dream. How many of those details remain in our memory today; or how many could we by any effort recall? As completely as the dreams of the night, the mass of our life-dreams of yesterday fade into the oblivion of our unconsciousness.

In a nutshell, Orage claims that we are in a state of waking-sleep throughout most – if not all – of our lives. We are in no more control of our waking lives than we are in control of our dreams at night; things just seem to “happen” to us and we just sort of react, “subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm.” And then, when we look back on the events of our lives, we are often “surprised” at how we acted at the time, either glad or embarrassed of our thoughts and actions. It is as if disparate parts of our personalities “take over,” so to speak, depending on the sets of circumstances in particular situations that we come across in life. Furthermore, it is as if we are not “ourselves” at all, and the only thing similar to integrity that we really possess is the deeply ingrained illusion of continuity in our lives.

I would love to be able to mention here that the above ideas are outdated and untrue, that the people quoted had it wrong – but this is not the case. In reality, the more scientific research is done on human psychology, the more the above conclusions are made as working hypotheses amongst modern psychologists; albeit worded in more technical ways, these hypotheses in essence say exactly the same thing – that we, humans, are not “ourselves.”

A recently published book (2002) by Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D. titled The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness deals with this topic exclusively using groundbreaking clinical research. While philosophers and artists have identified this problem and attempted to show its effects, psychologists like Stout are taking a more scientific approach and trying to figure out its root causes. She writes, in part:

What we conceive of as an unbroken thread of consciousness is instead quite often a train of discontinuous fragments. Our awareness is divided. And much more commonly than we know, even our personalities are fragmented – disorganized team efforts trying to cope with the past – rather than the sane, unified wholes we anticipate in ourselves and in other people.

Dissociation, “which is the universal human reaction to extreme fear or pain [that] allows us to disconnect emotional content – the feeling part of our ‘selves’ – from our conscious awareness,” appears to be the culprit that causes the waking-sleep state in our lives. It is a survival mechanism that puts our bodies on auto-pilot, so to speak, and lets us get away from or deal with life-threatening situations in primitive ways, i.e. without conscious (over)thinking that could put us at greater risk. All of this would be fine, except, as Dr. Stout writes:

The ability to dissociate is like having an unlimited supply of medium-to-good narcotic that never habituates. And by the time we are adults, this mental analgesia is so trigger-happy that trauma or overwhelming fear or pain is no longer required to infuse it; because circumstances are frequently anxiety-provoking or difficult or confusing or just uncertain, we take small potentiated escapes from our present moments. As if even the most sober among us were lifelong addicts, our awareness goes in and out, in and out, often unnoticed, while our over-learned adult behaviors continue apace. Our lives have been this way for such a long time that we do not normally ponder these mental events any more than we normally ponder our own breathing.


The result is that adult human memory performs something like the old-fashioned kinetoscope, a peephole looking into a winding roll of separate pictures that together simulate a moving, undivided whole. Though we are largely oblivious to the fact, our lives as they advance are lined with countless unwanted blank seams of nonawareness.

So, modern humans have, as a species, essentially grown accustomed to over-using the natural mechanism of dissociation to deal with less-than life threatening situations. Rarely do we find ourselves in what we would think of as truly life threatening situations anymore – not in this day and age; however, this modern way of life is far more insidious in its ability to bombard people with copious amounts of stress, stress that too often triggers episodes of dissociation. Consider the following news release from December 2006:

Feeling stressed? You're not alone, new poll says

December 21, 2006

CBC News

Stress, that tense feeling often connected to having too much to do, too many bills to pay and not enough time or money, appears to be a common emotion that knows few borders.

About three-fourths of people in Canada, the United States, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom said they experience stress on a daily basis, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

Just over three-fourths of the people in Canada, 76 per cent, said they feel stress in their daily lives frequently or sometimes. Canadians were most likely to name their jobs, 32 per cent, or their finances, 28 per cent, as the most important causes of that stress.

Spaniards, 61 per cent, were not as wound up as those in most other countries polled. And they could all take a lesson from Mexico, where more than half of Mexicans said they rarely or never experience stress in their daily lives.

But that is certainly not the experience for most people in the 10 countries polled - especially women.

When the word "stress" was mentioned to Heidi Zabit of Durham, Conn., recently, it seemed to touch a bundle of nerves.

"My life is just so stressful right now I'm exploding all over the place," said Zabit, a paralegal and single mother of three boys. "Financially, the stresses are putting me under the table. After a full day of work, we finish dinner and do homework. By 9 p.m., I'm fried.

"And it's magnified by the holidays," she said. "They emotionally string us all out, they string our kids out, as far as hopes and expectations."

Germans feel stress more intensely than those in other countries polled. People in the U.S. cite financial pressures as the top worry. About half the people in Britain said they frequently or sometimes felt life was beyond their control, the highest level in the 10 countries surveyed.

In most of those countries, men were more likely to say their lives were never out of control.

"The idea that we French lead the good life is totally utopian," said Pascale Mongay, a counsellor at a private Paris tutoring firm. "We are as stressed as anyone," she said.

Here's how the countries fared:

1. South Korea (81 per cent of population feels regular stress).

2. Australia (77 per cent).

3. Canada (76 per cent).

4. France (76 per cent).

5. United Kingdom (76 per cent).

6. United States (75 per cent).

7. Germany (75 per cent).

8. Italy (73 per cent).

9. Spain (61 per cent).

10. Mexico (45 per cent).

It is a bit ironic that what we would call the most “civilized” nations on Earth have the majority of their citizens stressed out on a regular basis. The results of this are obvious: the continuation of lifestyles that breed not self-awareness but automation; not lives that are truly lived but lives that are routine, forgettable, and unfulfilling. Worst of all, most of us lead shattered, dissociated lives – there isn’t much here that resembles integrity, only an illusion of integrity.

What caused this terrifying state of affairs? We need look no further than the troubled history of mankind, as Dr. Stout explains:

Hardship and survival of the fittest through the ages have endowed us with hormonally aggressive temperaments, and us-them wiring, the law-of-the-jungle logic of which is no more astute than “He is different. Kill him.” This wiring is the basis of violence seemingly without limit, and nearly all hatred, vengeance-taking, prejudice, bigotry, and other archaic predispositions that now make us miserable on our own planet, and that have directed our history as a perpetually traumatized group.


We are a thoroughly shell-shocked species. Though we have not all suffered abuse as children, we have all endured experiences that we perceived as terrifying, and that utterly exhausted our tender attempts to comprehend and cope. From a troubled world that often seems to menace, many of us have absorbed repeated, toxic doses of secondary trauma as well, from people we care about, and even from an impersonal media. And as a result of our histories, and of our inborn disposition to become dissociative when our minds need protection, moderately dissociative awareness is the normal mental status of all adult human beings.

That last sentence should give all of us some serious food for thought. Basically, we’re all “moderately” insane!

Going back to the initial quote from Valerie’s autobiography, we see that integrity is “all that we really have … it's the only thing in the world worth having.” The thing is, integrity appears to be something we have already largely lost in our present materialistic society. It is not a coincidence that Valerie warns that our last inch “sells” for so little, because, as was mentioned, the very society we live in drains every single inch from us via stress of all kinds, whether it is stress to conform to some dubious artificial standards or even stress to financially survive in dehumanizing work environments. This stress leads to dissociation and thus disintegration of our awareness, our Selves. Our integrity is all we really own, and Valerie warns that “we must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away … we must never let them take it from us;” indeed, integrity is what keeps us human and it is this humanity that is quickly slipping away from all of our lives.

Jesus is recorded in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas to have said: “One who knows everything and lacks in oneself lacks everything. […] If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.” That is, we have literally everything to lose by “selling” our integrity. Our only hope is to regain it and fight to keep it. If we don’t, Dr. Stout writes:

…the alternative is for us to continue in something reminiscent of a tedious science fiction plot in which the otherwise admirable characters are trapped in a hermetic time loop, and repeat over and over again the same galaxy-shattering mistakes, never ascertaining that they have done it all a fathomless number of times before.

An in-depth study of our history shows that absent superficial differences such as technological advancements, humanity appears to be stuck in a “time loop” of its own. Whole civilizations and empires continually rise and fall, we continue to fight the same wars (albeit more deadly by the century), and let dubious differences divide us – all in all, we seem to be making the same “galaxy-shattering mistakes” over and over again as a species, and also as individuals who conform thoughtlessly to this paradigm.

Clearly, if we are to lead truly fulfilling lives (as most of us claim to strive for), this state of affairs cannot last. First and foremost, awareness of dissociation happening in our daily lives is necessary – we must be able to witness this paradigm at work both in ourselves and those around us. Orage finishes the aforementioned essay by writing thusly:

It may be feared that there is something morbid in the foregoing speculations; and that an effort to see our waking life as merely a special form of sleep must diminish its importance for us and ours for it. But this attitude towards a possible and probable fact is itself morbidly timid. The truth is that just as in night-dreams the first symptom of waking is to suspect that one is dreaming, the first symptom of waking from the waking state—the second awaking of religion—is the suspicion that our present waking state is dreaming likewise. To be aware that we are asleep is to be on the point of waking; and to be aware that we are only partially awake is the first condition of becoming and making ourselves more fully awake.

Dr. Stout also elaborates on the solution to this problem:

We are a young species, evolutionally speaking, and the phenomenon of conscious awareness, supposedly our claim to fame, is extremely new to us. We are bare beginners at it.


The uniquely human question is not, “Can we adapt to trauma and survive?” but is instead, “Can we now overcome our memories of trauma, and learn truly to live?” Such a development would mark a new and higher plane of human functioning altogether. And if we are to continue at all, the transition may have to come relatively soon, perhaps even within this new millennium.

Notice that Dr. Stout notices the precipice at which humanity now stands in terms of either falling head-first into a permanent “time loop” of dissociative obscurity or turning around, facing the problem, and dealing with it via the practice of conscious awareness. The latter is the road towards true life, while the former can only lead to spiritual death and essential non-existence.

And here is where we finally come to Don Juan’s phrase, the “cubic centimeter of luck.” For the Mexican man of knowledge, gaining self-awareness requires a certain resolve – a resolve to control one’s negative emotions. By this token, Don Juan said:

Self-importance is man's greatest enemy. What weakens him is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of his fellow men. Self-importance requires that one spend most of one's life offended by something or someone.

Indeed, the weakening comes about because we let things get to us on a personal level – we feel like we always deserve more than what we’re getting. This kind of thinking makes us overly emotional, feeling victimized, angry, and greedy. Recall that traumatic, emotional, and stressful circumstances often trigger dissociative states. If, instead, we become more aware of such automatic egotistical responses and look at everything in a less subjective and more objective light, we can lessen the effect that dissociation has on our daily lives. If we can do that, we can become what Don Juan calls warriors: “the basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or as a curse.” This is, of course, similar to what Orage meant when he wrote about waking-sleep and the factors that play into putting us in this trance-like state:

In life-dreams also we cut a sorry or a good figure, not by pre-determined design but as it happens; and our regret or satisfaction is equally contingent on the effect the episode has upon our self-pride. But can we truthfully say, beforehand, that, whatever happens, we shall behave ourselves thus and thus and not otherwise? Are we not subject to the suggestion of the moment and liable to be carried away from our resolution by anger, greed, enthusiasm?

The key here is self-awareness – to catch ourselves before we dissociate into never-never land via runaway negative emotions and stress. Such “catching” of ourselves is called self-observation, and this requires much work and vigilance. Don Juan explains this by referring to the “cubic centimeter of luck”:

There is something you ought to be aware of by now. I call it the cubic centimeter of chance. All of us, whether or not we are warriors, have a cubic centimeter of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time. The difference between an average man and a warrior is that the warrior is aware of this, and one of his tasks is to be alert, deliberately waiting, so that when his cubic centimeter pops out he has the necessary speed, the prowess to pick it up. Chance, good luck, personal power, or whatever you may call it, is a peculiar state of affairs. It is like a very small stick that comes out in front of us and invites us to pluck it. Usually we are too busy, or too preoccupied, or just too stupid and lazy to realize that that is our cubic centimeter of luck. A warrior, on the other hand, is always alert and tight and has the spring, the gumption necessary to grab it.

Put simply, the “cubic centimeter of luck” refers to a fleeting realization, or moment of self-Truth, that, if we are willing and ready, becomes available for “plucking” in various life situations. As Don Juan explains, however, most of us in our daily lives let such opportunities go to waste by not paying attention and simply letting things “happen.” A warrior, or one who truly pays attention, can recognize a “cubic centimeter of luck” and make it his own – make that moment in life truly his own. And that, I think, is the point of all this: to truly live and not just thoughtlessly go through the motions as we usually do; to not dissociate and sleep-walk through our days mechanically but take each moment as a challenge and embrace it.

Gurdjieff, Orage, Don Juan, Dr. Stout, and even Jesus – though they come from vastly different backgrounds and offer quite different perspectives on this matter – are all essentially saying the same thing: we, as humans, are not “ourselves” because we do not know ourselves. Integrity can only come about from self-knowledge, and self-knowledge can only come about from self-awareness, which in turn takes vigilance and work on our part. Our society would have us give up on thinking altogether and get lost in the fleeting illusions of conformity to some absurd materialistic standards that, when truly analyzed, don’t mean a thing in the grand scheme of our lives. What “they” don’t tell us is that by adhering to these artificial principles, we essentially “sell” our integrity, our wholeness; little by little, inch by inch, we “sell” ourselves to these societal standards and it gets harder and harder for us to live up to them – it is essential slavery. As philosopher and theologist Boris Mouravieff put it:

A prisoner - perhaps voluntarily, but nevertheless a prisoner - man does not do what he wants to do in life, but does what he hates, blindly obeying a diabolical mechanicalness which, under its three aspects: fear, hunger, and sexuality, rules his life. This purely fictitious existence has nothing real except the possibility of evolution - which remains latent, and forms the objective of esoteric studies and work.

It isn’t hard to realize that underneath the veil of nice’n’warm labels like “freedom” and “love” that are thrown around as slogans nowadays by our governments and corporations are the three aspects that Mouravieff points to above that serve to keep us voluntarily imprisoned and ignorant of our true potential as human beings. Our integrity is all we have; let us fight for it with all we have, because we have literally everything to lose.

On a closing note, allow me to share another quote from Don Juan, this one more encouraging that kind of puts everything into perspective:

For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must take responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make each act count, since you are going to be here for only a short time; in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it.

Think about it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Fight against Structural Racism

The matrix of university departments, their individual instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer interactions is quite complex – the connections between them are anything but linear in that it isn’t a simple hierarchy as one might assume. In trying to explore the relationships between these intimately connected yet disjointed entities, it helps to first get an idea of the scale at which each operates. The university departments operate on a vast macro scale as systems that control the livelihoods of their instructors and serve the needs of their home institutions, which, ideally, ultimately serve the needs of the students. Instructors operate on more micro levels but, depending on the natures of the taught courses, tend to serve large numbers of students simultaneously; individual student interactions and considerations are often lacking. Writing Centers are usually not strictly affiliated with any one academic department and serve large numbers of students that come in from various departments across campus. Tutor-writer sessions are the most micro-level, intimate interactions in this matrix. Such differences of scale between the components of the matrix being studied here result in differing ideologies and philosophies in how each treats literacy and the writing process in terms of the students they all claim to serve.

The gap between the macro systems of university departments and individual students is vast, and instructors serve as connecting links between the two. Instructors, however, are bound by the rules of their respective departments which are themselves bound by the rules of the home institution. It is not surprising, then, that delicate, qualitative issues tend to get neglected in the bureaucratic web in which only quantitative issues (those that can be represented in numbers and statistics) are considered and funded. Here, I speak in generalities – of course there are instructors out there who do tend to individual student needs; the point is that in class sizes as big as they are at state universities, such interactions are often structurally impossible. The focus and modus operandi of Writing Centers are quite different from those of university departments and most instructors. Writing Centers exist, in part, to narrow the gap between the home institution and students by tending to individual, qualitative aspects of college education on one-to-one bases through tutor-writer sessions. Thus, issues often not considered by the macro systems of academia because of their disassociation from the needs of individual students can and should be addressed at the more micro levels of the Writing Center.

The pressing qualitative issue I wish to focus on in this paper is that of racial diversity. Contrary to popular belief, racism and racial inequality are prevalent in our society: “Racial practices that reproduce racial inequality in contemporary America are (1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) void of direct racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most whites” (Bonilla-Silva 158). All of the points brought up by Bonilla-Silva apply to the issue of racial inequality in educational institutions at the university level.

To understand how racial inequalities can persist seemingly unnoticed by the majority population in a contemporary society, a structural definition of racism needs to be introduced. “Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded” (Omi 11). To explain how this is possible, race must be regarded as a “socio-historical concept” (11). Race is made real by the prevailing racial ideas of society and their implementation into that society’s structure, including its political, economic, and social systems. This social construction of race and racism has certain fundamental aspects that help to explain its far-reaching role in shaping society and the interactions between its diverse constituents: it is highly dynamic, comprehensive in its influence, and deeply integrated into the workings of other societal systems. These aspects define the racial structure of society.

What gives racism its structural foundation is its stratified nature, “a hierarchy that produces definite social relations among the races” (Bonilla-Silva 151). The racial structure of a society is highly dynamic, however, and “racial meanings have varied tremendously over time and between different societies” (Omi 11). What doesn’t change between different racialized societies is the element of “racial inequality – that the subordinated races’ life chances are significantly lower than those of the dominant race” (Bonilla-Silva 151). Starting as collective ideas within the society’s dominant group, racial meanings eventually take root in that society’s social systems and start to indirectly influence all members of various racial groups. In this way, race comes to define concrete social relations among the races, including differences in political participation, access to economic opportunities, and cultural acceptance.

Because of racism’s integral part in the overall social structure, having taken root in its political, economic, and cultural systems, it indirectly influences everyone who is involved in and using these systems. “The meaning of black and white, the ‘racial formation,’ changes within the larger racial structure. [This] means that the social relations among races become institutionalized (form a structure as well as a culture) and affect social life whether or not individual members or races want it to” (Bonilla-Silva 154). This is the tragedy and harsh reality of the structural view of racism – everyone is involved and affected by it; all of the members of the dominant race benefit from it, and all of the members of the subordinate races get exploited by it.

Education is often regarded as the ultimate equalizer, as the most tolerant social institution that gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds as racial minorities an equal opportunity to succeed that is solely based on merit, not race. This idea is given credibility by the adoption of widespread policies of colorblindness: “Colorblindness is a way of avoiding the mess of racial history by pretending that racial differences don’t exist” (Barron & Grimm 59). As explained above, however, the institution of education has been built historically on a racist foundation and inherently acts as an institution which, by its very existence and maintenance of the status quo, propagates racial inequality in society. This is further explained by Barron and Grimm’s summary of Young’s work, as follows:

According to Young, oppression is “embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and collective consequences of following those rules” (Young 41). Oppression in a structural sense has more to do with “often unconscious assumption and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies [like universities] and market mechanisms – in short the normal processes of everyday life” (41). People just doing their jobs, without reflecting about how they are currently and potentially affecting the system, end up perpetuating oppression because they “do not understand themselves as agents of oppression” (42). (Barron & Grimm 69)

The rules and policies by which the institution of higher education operates benefits the dominant, white middle-class segment of the population: “Students who bring differences of color, class, and culture are expected to make themselves over to match the institutionalized image of a typical student, while white middle-class students’ sense of complacency is reinforced by the familiar values and routines of university life” (Barron & Grimm 59).

To reiterate what Bonilla-Silva pointed out above and fitting it to the current discussion of higher education, this form of racial discrimination is “(1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) void of direct racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most whites” (Bonilla-Silva 158). Indeed, “It is difficult for those of us who are white to see the invisible social structures and assumptions that impede productive engagements with difference. Members of the dominant group have difficulty conceptualizing systematic oppression because it lies outside of their lived experience” (Barron & Grimm 69). The supposed policy of “colorblindness” at the institutional level in higher education is merely a mask that covers up the harsh reality of racial inequality and its structural foundation in society.

Having covered the sociological background of racial inequality in some detail, let us know go back to the initial discussion of the intricate matrix consisting of university instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer interactions and expand on how each element of this matrix deals with the issue just described. As part of my field work for the course, I interviewed a faculty member at UIC and a director of a different Chicagoland university Writing Center.

I interviewed Professor Amanda E. Lewis (PhD, University of Michigan 2000) on April 27th, 2007. She is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and African American Studies at UIC. “Her primary areas of research and teaching include race and ethnic relations, sociology of education (particularly urban schools), gender, and qualitative and ethnographic research methods” (Lewis online). She is the author of many studies on the nature of racial inequality in education, including “The Impact of Color-Blind Ideologies on Students of Color: Intergroup Relations at a Predominantly White University” (with Mark Chesler and Tyrone Forman), published in the Journal of Negro Education in 2000. Her book, Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color-line in Classrooms and Communities, was published in 2003 by Rutgers University Press (Lewis online).

Dr. Lewis was my instructor three semesters ago of a course called “Racial and Ethnic Groups.” Taking this class, listening to her inspiring lectures, and reading the course material literally opened my eyes to the reality of racial discrimination in contemporary American society. Being a white, middle-class student, before taking this class I was ‘blinded’ by my society’s claim of “colorblindness.” To this day, I hold the conversations Dr. Lewis and I had outside of class to heart; the awareness she helped establish in me and the consequences this has had on my personal growth are truly priceless.

My interview with Dr. Lewis was interesting in that she approached my questions from a very practical point of view. Her vast experience in the field showed in her thoughtful and straightforward responses to my questions regarding racial diversity in higher education and its impact on literacy and the writing process. When asked to define racial identity, she responded with a two-fold definition: racial identity is composed of (1) self-identity, which is one’s connection and affiliation to a certain group and its history, and (2) how others define you. Her answer to a question about how such identity operates on a campus that pretends to be “colorblind” was that race matters among interactions between peers, TA’s, faculty, administrative officers, etc., and while universities may claim pride in diversity, how racial identities actually (in reality) manifest themselves in such interactions are a different story.

Dr. Lewis stressed the fact that racial identities truly manifest themselves in the interpersonal dynamic between two or more people of different racial backgrounds who hold certain pervasive stereotypes about one another. In terms of literacy and the writing process, many minority students deal with the psychological pressure of trying to overcome the stereotypes regarding academic performance that the dominant, mainstream culture may hold of them. There are fears, for example, of not being taken seriously when expressing one’s opinion in writing and instead falling for mainstream views, thus resulting in having one’s voice silenced by racial psychological oppression. As Barron and Grimm explain, “Students of color are supposed to write as though their color didn’t matter” (Barron & Grimm 59). This psychological fear is only reinforced by the usually-disadvantaged educational backgrounds that minority students tend to come from; it is well-established that racial minorities tend to get much poorer access to quality K-12 education than white, middle-class children. Coming out of such inferior schools and being thrown into a university environment that proclaims “colorblindness,” minority students are faced with unprecedented pressure (invisible to the mainstream population) to catch up in terms of the knowledge they are assumed to have by the dominant culture and its policies. This is a prime example of structural racism at work.

I asked Dr. Lewis what she would do if she could make campus-wide changes in how the university deals with literacy and the writing process. She responded that, as it is, not enough is invested in the Writing Center and in the courses that teach students proper writing composition skills. Too many students graduate from high school and struggle through university education because they don’t have the skills to communicate properly in the written form as a consequence of the structural racial inequalities at the K-12 level. As part of her hypothetical campus-wide changes, Dr. Lewis would expand the Writing Centernow to help disadvantaged students find their literary voice, Dr. Lewis responded that tutors must take an active role in getting these students up to speed with conventional writing practices. This is the most practical way in which to contribute to racial equality at the university level because if these students can’t communicate their ideas in the written form, their options in life and opportunities to succeed in the outside world become severely limited. Effectively, teaching structurally disadvantaged students to write correctly helps them most in finding their own voice in the world. This is the crux of the matter and the main point of this paper. structurally to include permanent tutors knowledgeable in disciplinary writing who would help disadvantaged students catch up on and improve their writing skills. When asked what tutors can do

In the matrix of university instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer sessions, the latter two can have tremendous impact in enacting positive social change. As mentioned before, Writing Centers and tutor-writer sessions are not as intimately bound to the rules and policies of the structurally racist university institution; they are able to confront more delicate, qualitative issues such as racial inequality that the more macro entities essentially ignore. While Dr. Lewis is aware of, and even teaches her students to be aware of such things, she can only do so much as an individual professor in the sociology department to help her students write better papers. She is bound by the rules of her department and those of the home institution to teach the material that she’s teaching in such a way as she’s teaching it. She is playing her part in counteracting structural racism by raising awareness of these issues. Tutors at the Writing Center can also take an active role in counteracting structural racism by giving those students who have been affected by it a better chance to succeed in society by getting them up to speed with growth in literacy and the conventional writing process.

I also interviewed Carrie Brecke, the director of the Writing Center at Roosevelt University, on April 30, 2007. Carrie has been the Assistant Director of the UIC Writing CenterRoosevelt, which has only been open for one semester. What is unique about Roosevelt University is its diverse student population, even more so than UIC’s: Carrie said that the demographics are somewhere around 50% white, 50% non-white, including about 50% of students over the age of 25. Such non-traditional university demographics ought to make Roosevelt’s budding Writing Center teem with productive diversity. for fifteen years prior to starting the center at

As a result of Carrie Brecke’s experiences at UIC, she is making the WC at Roosevelt run in a similar way, with a similar philosophy of ‘peerness’ as a foundation for how it operates. The following quote appears at the top of the center’s website:

Our insistence on dialogue as the underlying structure of a peer tutoring program comes from an even more fundamental conviction that true education consists of dialogue.

- Singley and Boucher, “Dialogue in Tutor Training: Creating the Essential Space for Learning” (“Roosevelt University,” online)

At the core of the accepted WC tutoring philosophy at UIC and now Roosevelt is the idea of ‘peerness.’ As the WC handbook explains, ‘peerness’ involves “helping students grow as writers while respecting them as peers;” it is a way to give student writers a voice in their learning process much akin to participatory democracy, which “is less about ‘majority rule’ and more about people learning to listen seriously to each other about things that are important” (“An Introduction” 18-19). I do hope, however, that our “fundamental conviction” in the Socratic philosophy doesn’t, as Steven North wrote, “outlive [its] usefulness” and “come back to haunt us: mislead us, delude us, … or lock us into trajectories which – should we persist in following them – are likely to take us places that we don’t really want to go” (North 17). As I argue in my previous paper entitled “Socratic and Directive: a contextual fusion of tutoring methods,” there are alternative tutoring methods that can be very successful under the right circumstances.

It is important for the tutor to not have an ideological dependency on any one tutoring philosophy but to be open-minded to all methods and to be aware of the circumstances when each method can best help the writer in a tutoring session. In the end, it is the tutor’s awareness and ability to objectively monitor how his or her session is going that play the largest part in deciding which tutoring method to utilize so as to maximize the benefit for the writer. No one method can be considered best; each has its advantages and disadvantages in a variety of different circumstances. The accepted WC philosophy should thus be expanded to include both the directive and Socratic methods and all possible variations in between. I agree with Shamoon and Burns when they state:

If writing center practices are broadened to include both directive and non-directive tutoring, the result would be an enrichment of tutoring repertoires, stronger connections between the writing center and writers in other disciplines, and increased attention to the cognitive, social, and rhetorical needs of writers at all stages of development. (Burns & Shamoon 148)

Increasing the number of acceptable tutoring methods by contextually fusing the Socratic with the directive would raise the number of tools that tutors can use so as to best help the writer, whoever he or she may be.

It is especially critical to be aware of and consider all methods of tutoring when the writer is one who is a victim of structural racism. The point here is not to point fingers or make special policies regarding any particular writers, but to simply raise the awareness of the utmost importance that a tutor-writer session can be to students that truly need our help with more than just a paper. In a system that institutionally ignores their disadvantaged backgrounds, these students may seek the help of the Writing Center to get further in life and tutors ought to recognize and embrace such opportunities to help. This may mean going out of our way to make ourselves available to the writer by suggesting regular weekly meetings, taking a more active role in the writer’s learning process, and even setting aside more than our three assigned tutoring hours to meet the writer’s needs. Only by actively going against the structurally racist status quo can tutors, as individuals, hope to promote positive social change.

As a concluding thought, I shall share a relevant experience I had this semester as a tutor at the UIC Writing Center. During my first week as a tutor, a man of Middle Eastern descent that looked to be in his forties came into the center seeking information about the university’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) preparation classes. I didn’t have a session at the time and volunteered to help him find the information he was looking for online. We found that Kaplan was holding weekly courses at the university; I printed out the contact information for the man, for which he was very grateful. We got to talking and I suggested that I could help him with the essay writing part of the test, if he wished. He was very happy about the idea and from that day on I met with him regularly once, sometimes twice, a week for the majority of the semester.

I learned much about the man and his particular situation: he was an immigrant and a full-time physical therapist by trade for a number of years in the United States and was suddenly now required by law as a result of some new legislation to take and pass the TOEFL exam to be able to stay in his profession. The man could clearly communicate in the spoken word but, understandably, didn’t have much experience with proper English grammar and essay-writing, and now he was in a situation in which he was presented with what seemed like an ultimatum from the government – to get a certain percentile on the TOEFL by a certain date or lose his job in the U.S. So, while working full-time, he also had to take an expensive Kaplan course so as to maximize his chances at passing this test; considering he also agreed to meet with me as often as twice a week to go over his writing, it could be assumed that his situation was truly desperate.

I did my best to help the man with his writing, assigning essays for him to write that we would go over the next session, using every minute of our sessions to productively get him to write the ‘proper’ essay. After realizing the man’s situation, it was impossible for me to look at our sessions as just ‘another session.’ I was helping this man in something greater than just writing a good paper – I was fighting alongside him so that he may retain his livelihood. I witnessed tremendous progress in the man’s writing ability over the weeks we worked together and it was a truly rewarding experience for me. I do not know whether he succeeded or not, but I can only hope that my working with him helped him become a better writer so as to pass this test. However one may put it, this man was a victim of structural racism, and recognizing this at the time, I took the initiative to help fight against the system that was trying to bring him down.

Works Cited

“An Introduction to Tutoring at the UIC Writing Center.” Spring 2007.

Barron, Nancy and Nancy Grimm. “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal. Volume 22, Number 2. Spring/Summer 2002.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Racialized Social System Approach to Racism.” Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity. Ed. Charles Gallagher. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. 151-160.

Lewis, Amanda E. “Personal web site.” Department of Sociology. Last updated: August 27, 2003. University of Illinois at Chicago. Last accessed: May 6, 2007. .

North, Steven. “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center.’”

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “Racial Formations.” Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity. Ed. Charles Gallagher. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. 9-17.

Roosevelt University Writing Center.” Last updated: February 19, 2007. Roosevelt University. Last accessed: May 6, 2007. .

Young, Iris Marion. Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Agent-Causal Theory and the Nature of Choice

Roderick Chisholm, in his essay “Human Freedom and the Self,” describes an agent-causal theory in which an agent – presumably a moral agent, i.e. man – is seen, to use Chisholm’s choice of words, as the “immanent” cause of an event. This is to be contrasted with “transeunt” causation where an event is caused by another event. That is, the agent causes event B to happen (immanent causation), but not in the same way that event A causes event B to happen (transeunt causation); the difference is that “the agent is held to be a substance,” (Clarke 273) a concrete and tangible entity. Being thus the immanent starter of transeunt causal chains, the moral agent can be called the “prime mover unmoved,” meaning that nothing necessitates the agent to immanently cause an event. Chisholm explains that, “as [Thomas] Reid put it, though we may ‘reason from men’s motives [desires, beliefs, and stimuli] to their actions and, in many cases, with great probability,’ we can never do so ‘with absolute certainty’” (Chisholm 152). This is similar to what Leibniz theorized – that of desires/beliefs/stimuli that “incline without necessitating.” Chisholm adds: “at times the agent, if he chooses, may rise above his desires and do something else instead” (153). In light of this, I wish to explore the following questions: How does the agent choose to do something else? What is choice in this context?

It appears that in the case above, ‘choice’ is the first ‘event’ that the agent immanently causes. Choice must be a necessary consequence of the agent himself, for, without it, the agent could not act of his own free will; without making a choice to act, the agent cannot possibly be an immanent cause of another event. What seems to be the case as a result of this reasoning is that for an agent to be an immanent cause, a “prime mover unmoved,” his first ‘effect’ or consequence must be ‘choice.’ Additionally, for the agent to be considered ‘free,’ his choice must also be a conscious and voluntary choice, for if the agent himself does not know, understand, and wish what he chooses, then the choice can hardly be considered ‘his,’ and as a result belongs to something ‘other,’ in which case the agent cannot be considered an “immanent” cause of the chosen event. If the choice happens to not really be the agent’s, but is instead influenced by other factors such as desires, beliefs, and internal/external stimuli, then the agent simply acts as another link in previously started causal chains (those of the other factors influencing the agent’s “choice”) and is, as a result, nothing more than a “transeunt” cause of the chosen event.

How can an agent make a choice that is truly ‘his own’? While, as stated before, desires/beliefs/stimuli may “incline without necessitating,” choices cannot be made in a vacuum, either. The choice cannot be totally “indetermined” or random – such randomness does not happen in the macro world, at least not in cases of rational beings. Rather, choices are made within a ‘medium,’ a context objectively perceivable to the agent as facts and data. Also, choices are made with a certain aim, a concrete goal; otherwise, there would be no point to them. What’s the difference, then, between this concrete goal/contextual data and the aforementioned desires/beliefs/stimuli? It is impossible to explain this without bringing in the practical philosophy of Esotericism and the Tradition as taught by G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Boris Mouravieff.

According to these teachings, the desires/beliefs/stimuli are ‘outside’ factors acting on man, things he has learned through ‘nurture’ in society, and the things that act within him through ‘nature.’ They are nothing more than “mechanical laws” that influence his life in a myriad of ways, usually unbeknownst to him. Mouravieff explains it thus:

A prisoner - perhaps voluntarily, but nevertheless a prisoner - man does not do what he wants to do in life, but does what he hates, blindly obeying a diabolical mechanicalness which, under its three aspects: fear, hunger, and sexuality rules his life. This purely fictitious existence has nothing real except the possibility of evolution - which remains latent, and forms the objective of esoteric studies and Work. (Mouravieff 65)

As a result, the Tradition maintains that man – in his default state – is not free, but rather has the possibility of attaining freedom. Thus, free will is seen as a process of freeing oneself from the mechanical laws of the world, not as a natural faculty of man; it must be Worked for through constant self-struggle with one’s illusions and mechanicalness. These illusions are exactly the desires/beliefs/stimuli that “incline without necessitating,” except that, according to the Tradition, they almost always tend to ‘necessitate’ in the lives of contemporary men. The tragedy is that man has become so immersed in such illusions, he cannot distinguish what’s ‘his’ from what’s not anymore. Ouspensky observes:

This sleep of man, and absence of unity in him, create another very important characteristic, and this is, the complete mechanicalness of man. Man in this state is a machine controlled by external influences; he has no possibility to resist these external influences, and no possibility to distinguish them from one another, no possibility to study himself apart from these things. (Ouspensky The Fourth 16)

To get back to the topic, Ouspensky concludes: “Our power of choice begins only when we begin to realize our situation, our mechanicalness, and when we begin to struggle for something else” (Ouspensky The Fourth 246).

From the above brief introduction to the Esoteric philosophy as it relates to free will and the nature of choice, it ought to be clear that the moral agent – man – can only be an immanent cause after he has attained a certain knowledge about himself and the workings of his ‘machine.’ Only then can he truly know what’s ‘his’ and what is simply acting on him and through him mechanically. Only then can he make choices based on the true contextual data and with a true, personal aim in mind:

Instead of the discordant and often contradictory activity of different desires, there is one single ‘I,’ whole, indivisible, and permanent; there is individuality… Instead of the mechanical process of thinking there is consciousness. And there is will, that is, a power, not merely composed of various often contradictory desires belonging to different “I’s,” but issuing from consciousness and governed by individuality or a single and permanent “I.” Only such a will can be called “free,” for it is independent of accident and cannot be altered or directed from without. (Ouspensky In Search 42-3)

By raising his self-consciousness and knowledge of himself through self-observation and self-struggle against the illusions created in him by mechanical laws, man can become master of himself and his choices, a true “prime mover unmoved” as theorized by the agent-causal theory.

Works Cited

Chisholm, Roderick. “Human Freedom and the Self.” Free Will. Ed. Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997. 143-155.

Clarke, Randolph. “Agent Causation and Event Causation in the Production of Free Action.” Free Will. Ed. Derk Pereboom. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997. 273-300.

Mouravieff, Boris. Gnosis: Book One. Robertsbridge: Praxis Institute Press, 2002.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1949.

Ouspensky, P. D. The Fourth Way. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

The Jump: From Chaos Comes Clarity

I have felt this before, a long time ago. The circumstances were different, but the feelings involved were definitely the same. After all, one does not easily forget such powerful emotions.

These feelings are not inherently powerful in magnitude, though at times they can get pretty intense; their power is in their duration – the feelings can linger for months, even years on end. And then, like magic, they can suddenly disappear, only to remain as quick flashes of emotional events suspended in a sea of memories.

* * *

So there I was, roughly eleven years ago, a small boy seated in the back of a station wagon, barely able to see out the back window. I remember looking up at the colorful store signs as we passed them on our way home from the airport. The letters on them were familiar but the words they made up were odd-looking and unintelligible.

I remember sitting in a classroom looking up at a blackboard with those same familiar letters making up words that I could not understand. I copied those strange words dutifully into my notebook letter-by-letter, careful not to misspell the secret code my teacher had put on the blackboard. Later at home, I would break the code with the help of my sister’s Polish-English Dictionary and derive the meaning of that day’s lesson.

I also remember part of a conversation I had with a newly-met friend – Rafael was his name – who was well on his way to forgetting the Polish language while I was just starting to learn English. I didn’t understand what a “report card” was, and I asked him to explain it to me because our teacher kept repeating the phrase in class. He couldn’t recall the right word for it in Polish (I don’t blame him, it’s quite the tongue twister: “świadectwo”) and instead said something to the effect of:

“It is a piece of paper with letters on it."
“Letters?” I asked.
“Like the alphabet. It has A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, and F’s on it.”
“What happened to the E’s?”

Both of us were most likely starting to think that the other was pulling a joke. I was almost convinced that Rafael was describing a book, but then I thought: well, why don’t you just call it a “book”? The image of a report card (“świadectwo” to me) didn’t come to mind because in Poland academic grades are specified by numbers, not letters: 5 corresponds to A, 4 to B, and so on. I came out of this conversation wondering why certain books called “report cards” didn’t have E’s in them.

All I can remember from those earliest times are such random scenes of confusion. I had trouble communicating with my peers, and most of the time I ended up more lost than I was before I asked for help. Reading and writing in English was out of the question. Even the familiar letters ceased making sense after a while because they looked so alien when arranged in code-like sequences. I was – and felt – illiterate.

Can “illiteracy” be an emotion? Its closest synonyms would probably be: confusion, uncertainty, and a feeling of being lost in one’s environment; that’s certainly what being illiterate was, and is, for me. For a long time I felt uncomfortable and isolated because of this general lack of understanding of the English language, and my memories from the time are laden with such emotional pangs and mental chaos.

And then, all of a sudden the feelings were gone. I don’t recall a period of being half-confused, half-clear; there seemed to be no intermediate phase between “knowing” and “not knowing” the English language. At some point in time, something, like a missing piece of a puzzle, just “clicked” into place and I was able to put much of it together in my mind. The puzzle was far from finished, but I was finally able to make out and recognize the “big picture” – it became something concrete to build on, a solid foundation. It was as if after reaching a certain critical mass of acquired pockets of knowledge and experiences, I made a “quantum jump” from the plane of confusion to the plane of understanding, with no apparent transition.

What made such a “jump” to literacy possible? It certainly didn’t happen all by itself. It must have been the result of an elaborate process of learning, except this kind of learning is unique in its nature and scope, as all literacy-related adventures most likely are. At the time, I had no other choice but to struggle and work hard to learn the language of the environment I was now a part – it was the only route to any kind of success. This necessity must’ve pulled me through the long period of utter incomprehension and solitude. I was fully committed to finding a way of out the wilderness, and, as a result, I triumphed in my endeavor. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

The emotions were certainly the same then as they are now, though I’m not in the middle of learning a language, at least not one of the interpersonal, or “external,” kind. A feeling of uncertainty always lingers and intensifies whenever I focus my mind on my current undertaking. Am I really up to it?

Literacy of the Self involves, I now realize, a similar learning process to that of learning an actual language. To that extent, my past experiences of struggling to learn the English language have in a way prepared me for what I am presently going through; they also serve as a useful metaphor to those unfamiliar with what literacy of the Self might mean and what it entails. Learning to “know thyself” is like learning an intrapersonal, or “internal,” language, one which can be used to communicate with the Self – a kind of relay system between the subconscious domains of my inner thoughts and emotions and my conscious, awake state. As is the case with learning a regular language, obtaining literacy of the Self involves constant practice and perseverance.

The learning process involves voluntary attempts at objective Self-observation that, more often than not, lead to failure; it’s easy to give up and forget because all I have to do is shift my mind to something else and get lost in the happenings of the outside world. As such, this kind of learning requires tremendous self-discipline, and maintaining unwavering objectivity in my thought processes is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever attempted. The idea is to split awareness between the “external” world and the “internal” thoughts and emotions and to objectively take note of both environments without making any premature assumptions. The thought processes involved make use of the aforementioned “internal” language, only this language isn’t made up of words but rather of various sensations as they appear: images, sounds, emotions, and other data. The results can be quite fascinating: such self-observation, when successful, has revealed constructive information about me in various life situations that gave me a more factual and clear representation of myself than what I previously could only imagine.

For now, I can honestly admit to being Self-illiterate, and the nagging feelings of doubt and uncertainty persist. I cannot yet fully grasp my “internal” language nor do I have any clear idea of what it might be in its entirety. Perhaps I have not attained enough experience and practical knowledge to find the essential missing piece of my Self-puzzle; I do not have a concrete foundation on which to BE, only a loose idea of what it might consist of. In short, I have not collected enough data through Self-observation in order to make that crucial “jump” to attain literacy of the Self, and, given my current state of confusion about the whole thing, I may be a long way from it. However, if this endeavor is truly as similar to my experiences long ago as I have presented here, I am at least hopeful that through hard Self-work and determination I can someday attain a much greater understanding of who I really am.

Seeing Truth

A Literary Anthology

1. “Cathedral" by Raymond Carver
2. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens
3. “Axolotl" by Julio Cortázar
4. “Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller

"El arte es una mentira que nos acerca a la verdad."
Translation: "Art is a lie that leads us to the truth."

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s claim about art and its relation to truth may at first glance seem paradoxical. After all, how can a lie, or an Un-truth, lead to the Truth? Perhaps a better question to ask first would be: what is Truth? This is a very profound question, one that many intellectuals throughout the ages were asking themselves. Truth is what’s “real,” beyond any reasonable doubt. Truth is pure fact – objective reality, un-skewed and un-biased. But, what does one “truthfully” know for a “fact”? Simon Blackburn writes in his book Think:

These are problems of the self, and its mortality, its knowledge, and the nature of the world it inhabits; problems of reality and illusion. They are all raised in the oldest philosophical texts we have, the Indian Vedas, stemming from about 1500 BC. The generation immediately before Descartes had included the great French essayist Montaigne, whose motto was the title of one of his great essays: ‘Que sais-je?’ – what do I know? (16)

This is what mathematician and philosopher René Descartes was asking himself when he “shut himself away in a room heated by a stove, and had a vision followed by dreams, which he took to show him his life’s work: the unfolding of the one true way to find knowledge” (16). Descartes’ famous maxim in Meditations, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), resulted from first banishing from his mind all beliefs, assumptions, and everything else he took for granted and “starting from the foundations upwards” (16), after which he realized that the ONE thing he was absolutely sure of was his own existence. The esoteric teacher G. I. Gurdjieff says this about Truth:

To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth. The wish alone is not enough. To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and what a lie is, and first of all in oneself. (Ouspensky, 22)

This is clearly similar to the famous Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know Thyself,” which is usually attributed to the philosopher Socrates. Gurdjieff teaches that “knowing thyself” is one of the hardest quests any human being could embark on, because the human experience is so heavily shrouded by a subjective “veil” of assumptions and basic mechanical desires, that barely anything that one observes and thinks is Truth, but rather a distortion of it – an illusion or lie made by oneself to benefit solely oneself. Only by purging these subjective and mechanical “sacred cows” from one’s mind, as Descartes did in his little room, can one gain a glimpse of the Truth. Put differently, the “mechanicalness” of one’s daily life often requires certain “shocks” to snap out of it (to wake up) in order to begin to fully appreciate the essence of one’s being – the Truth in oneself and, by extension, the world.

Considering all that has been said about Truth, it can be deducted that art may serve as a “shock” to one’s mechanical nature so as to lead one to the Truth. Art itself, however, is a lie – it is the artist’s subjective “representation” of the Truth. Picasso’s famous mural “Guernica” is a classic example of this; the artist used distorted figures and abstract, dark imagery to represent the unbearable suffering of the townspeople during the Nazi bombings of the Spanish city. One can only guess whether the reality of the tragedy was as horrible as this mural makes one feel – it is exactly this kind of thinking that leads one to consider the objective reality of the actual event, leading one, in effect, to the Truth about the bombing of Guernica in particular and the evil of war in general. In this way, art elicits strong responses from people, causing “shocks” to their pre-conceived notions and subjective assumptions about reality and waking them up, so to speak, from the “mechanicalness” of everyday life to consider something greater and more profound.

In this anthology of carefully selected literary works, the goal is to expand on Picasso’s claim about art through an analysis of how each piece of literature adds to the definition of Truth (which is yet to be given) and how it may hint at ways of seeing the Truth in oneself, as was discussed before.

Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” provides a prime example of a character whose pre-conceived, subjective ideas about the world blind him from seeing the Truth. The irony in the short story is that Robert, a genuinely blind man, actually “sees” more than the narrator, a man from whose point of view the story is told. Throughout the exposition, the narrator exposes his ignorant nature by making dull comments such as these:

She’d told me a little bit about the blind man’s wife. Her name was Beulah. Beulah! That’s a name for a colored woman. […] They’d married, lived and worked together, slept together – had sex, sure – and then the blind man had to bury her. All this without his having seen what the goddamned woman looked like. It was beyond my understanding. And then I found myself thinking what a pitiful life this woman must have led. […] Robert was left with a small insurance policy and half of a twenty-peso Mexican coin. The other half of the coin went into the box with her. Pathetic. (Carver)

The narrator is incapable of understanding the deep bond that Robert and his late wife must have shared; this goes far to explain the rather dry relationship between the narrator and his wife, who invited Robert to stay at their house after Beulah’s death. It can be deducted from the story that the narrator is anti-social: he constantly drinks alcohol by himself, he doesn’t have any friends besides his wife, and he barely ever leaves the confines of his own house. The bulk of his “intelligence” and understanding seems to be based on clichés and sound-bites that he hears on television, all twisted in his mind to fit into his egotistical, subjective world-view. All of the above help to explain the narrator’s rather shallow personality; it is as if he is living in a self-made cage, either un-interested in or afraid of things that he doesn’t understand. It should be of no surprise, then, that nowhere in the story do we get the narrator’s name except the generic “bub” by which Robert refers to him in conversation.

Carver’s short story has a very unique ending. It is at the end that the reader really experiences the “shock” through which this literary work of art leads to a glimpse of Truth. After the narrator tries to explain to the blind man what cathedrals look like, Robert comes up with an idea for them to both “see” a cathedral: they would draw one together. The event becomes a moment of epiphany for the narrator, especially after Robert tells him to close his eyes:

So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

“It’s really something,” I said. (Carver)

It appears that the narrator has finally opened his eyes to the Truth; he did this by closing them. The Truth he observes is more of an experience, a realization that he isn’t “inside anything” in particular, that this self-made cage was only an illusion and that the Truth is “out there,” waiting to be discovered and truly “seen” for what it is. The focus in this short story is clearly on sight, and Carver seems to be trying to make the reader realize that when one’s eyes are taken for granted, they can blind more than they allow to be seen.

The second work in the anthology is Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Each of its thirteen stanzas presents a seemingly unique image, the only obvious similarity being the presence of a blackbird. This difficult poem is full of powerful imagery, the possible interpretations of which are numerous depending on one’s point of view. It is my interpretation that the blackbird represents objective reality, or the Truth.

In stanza II, the narrator in the poem says that he was “of three minds, like a tree in which there are three blackbirds.” Here, the narrator’s mind was split three ways between three interpretations of some idea or event – three semi-Truths, so to speak; if he was of one, unified mind, there would be no conflict and only one Truth. This seems to be reinforced in stanza IV, where it is said: “A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one,” meaning there is only one Truth, the objective reality, no matter the gender. In stanza VI, the “barbaric glass” which further obscures the “shadow of the blackbird” and presents “an indecipherable cause,” refers to the distortion of Truth that happens when one looks through the subjective veil of assumption. Stanza VII seems to be a criticism of religion and wishful thinking; instead of trying to “imagine golden birds,” the narrator is advising men to “see how the blackbird walks around the feet of the women about you,” meaning that the Truth is in the here and now, not in the world of imagination. In stanza VIII, the narrator affirms that “the blackbird is involved in what I know,” that the Truth is something inseparable from his knowledge. Stanza X refers to “bawds of euphony,” or people who try to make money from words with no substance, who “would cry out sharply” at the sight of blackbirds, which makes sense if blackbirds represent Truth. These are just a few of the stanzas in which the replacement of blackbird for Truth gives the poem a unified meaning.

The blackbird is a common type of bird, and seeing one everywhere reminds the narrator to keep an open mind and look for the Truth wherever he goes. The powerful and varied imagery of this poem and its representation of the Truth through a blackbird is the lie through which the careful reader can be lead towards seeing the Truth in his every-day life. Stevens also warns readers against the misuse of the imagination as it can blind one from seeing the Truth around the very “feet” of the people one associates with.

The third literary work in the anthology is Julio Cortázar’s short story “Axolotl.” The narrator here says outright that he has become the animal known as the axolotl, which is a strange claim to make at the outset of a story. Nonetheless, it becomes clear that the narrator’s obsession with the bizarre animal has a purpose. The narrator, through hours of observation, by focusing on every single detail of the axolotl in the aquarium, actually engages in very deep “self-observation.” In other words, the narrator begins to “know himself” by objectively observing himself through the eyes of the axolotl:

The eyes of the axolotls spoke to me of a presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.


In that instant I felt a muted pain; perhaps they were seeing me, attracting my strength to penetrate into the impenetrable thing of their lives. They were not human beings, but I had found in no such animal such a profound relation with myself. The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. […]

No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know.

To realize that was, for the first moment, like a horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate. (Cortázar)

When he sees the axolotl for the first time, the narrator is intrigued by the possibility of “another way of seeing.” It’s important to note that the axolotl’s eyes don’t have lids – they are always open and they see everything. The implications of this are obvious: the axolotl’s eyes are able to penetrate through every weakness of the narrator’s being. Every flawed assumption in his subjective worldview is exposed by the “terrifying purity in those transparent eyes.” The epiphany of having seen himself through the eyes of another being is like awakening from a life of sleep for the narrator.

Cortázar presents an important exercise – introspection – for helping to “see” the Truth. Gurdjieff says that in order to tell the Truth, one must be able to see the Truth in oneself – to truly “Know Oneself.” This means to be entirely objective with oneself, and to be able to, like the narrator, see oneself through the eyes of someone else. Picasso’s claim still applies to this literary work; the story about becoming an axolotl was truly an ingenious way to lead the reader to the Truth by presenting such a strange and “shocking” lie.

The last literary work of this anthology is Lisel Mueller’s poem “Monet Refuses the Operation.” Here is perhaps the best example of a creative mind who has succeeded in abolishing many of the assumptions of the every-day world. Monet, as the narrator, says in a monologue to his doctor, a man of science: “I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don’t see.” Through hard work, it seems, Monet is finally able to “see” the unity of the world through his own eyes, and does not want to acknowledge the old assumptions, which he calls his “youthful errors,” of “separateness” and unfamiliarity between objects and people.

Lisel Mueller’s poem proves that Truth is such a fundamental part of the human experience that it is impossible to give it a straightforward definition, especially with all the limitations of language. It appears that Truth must be, first and foremost, experienced in a personal nature. Just like the narrator in “Axolotl,” who sees himself for who he really is, and the narrator of Carver’s “Cathedral,” whose enlightening experience makes him realize how “blind” he really is, the function of art seems to be to give people necessary “shocks” to start thinking about their role in this world. What seems to be the crux of the matter is the destructive nature of the deceptive cage of mechanical subjectivity in which people tend to lock themselves. Art comes in at this point to offer us the possibility to “wake up,” even if temporarily, from the sleep of every-day life, in order to recognize the Truth that is to be found everywhere, even at our very feet, if we only wished to look for it.

Works Cited

Blackburn, Simon. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: The Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1949.