Afición

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with afición stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back. The good ones came each year. In Montoya’s room were their photographs. The photographs were dedicated to Juanito Montoya or to his sister. The photographs of bull-fighters Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of bull-fighters who had been without aficion Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk. They often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket. He did not want them around.

We often talked about bulls and bull-fighters. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about bulls. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full. Montoya introduced me to some of them. They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have afición. He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it. **When they saw that I had afición, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent,**

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises  (p. 115)

This may surprise you, but I’m not particularly into bullfighting.  Even so, I like Hemingway’s description of afición.

There are topics, ideas, and activities that I hold dear. I think the things – ideas, activities, whatever – that a person really associates with, really feels, make up who they are.

Sometimes, when you’re talking with someone about something close to you, something important to you, it’s apparent that they get it too.  And it’s meaningful – it’s meaningful because as Hemingway says, there’s “No password, not set of questions that could bring it out”.  It can’t be faked.  And it’s not about talent, or fame, or money.  A person could be the best in the world at something, or know the most about a topic, and still not really get it.  Not have afición.

So, you know, figure out where your afición lies.  It’s probably not bullfighting.

Damned Civilized

He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.

Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10

Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man.  Totally nuts.  Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion.  His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight.  Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.

It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.

Credit

What do we value in other people’s actions and behaviors?  What are we particularly impressed with, and what do we feel is not worth our attention – and not just our attention, but our praise, our validation? This is the kind of thing we generally take for granted, or assume is universal truth – it just is.  It’s interesting to try to further understand the (often) unspoken rules we apply to human interactions like this.  In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (which, to be fair, seems to be reasonably controversial), B.F. Skinner makes just such an attempt:

 

First, why do we give credit at all?

To give a person credit for winning a game is to emphasize the fact that the victory was contingent on something he did, and the victory may then become more reinforcing to him.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 45)

Once we’re giving credit, what are the determining factors in whether, and how much we give?

The amount of credit a person receives is related in a curious way to the visibility of the causes of his behavior. We withhold credit when the causes are conspicuous. We do not, for example, ordinarily commend a person for responding reflexly: we do not give him credit for coughing, sneezing, or vomiting even though the result may be valuable.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 45)

In other words: how much autonomy has the person shown in taking whatever action they took?  If we can clearly see why they took the action, and it’s an action anyone would have taken, we tend to not give credit.  But if the action had value, and it’s clear that the person was not coerced into doing it – in fact, maybe we can’t see why they did it, we tend to give more credit.

The extent of the credit varies with the magnitude of the opposing conditions. We commend loyalty in proportion to the intensity of the persecution, generosity in proportion to the sacrifices entailed, and celibacy in proportion to a person’s inclination to engage in sexual behavior. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked. All other goodness is generally nothing but indolence or impotence of will.”

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 47)

“No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked.” We’re not impressed by people doing things (or not doing things) that we know they don’t really have the guts to do anyway.  To receive credit, the person has to actually have made a choice.  This is an interesting philosophical question of its own, and it reminded me of this question from A Clockwork Orange:

Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (p. 71)

Finally:

We give … maximal credit if he has discovered how to operate it without help, since he then owes nothing to any instructor at any time; his behavior has been shaped wholly by the relatively inconspicuous contingencies arranged by the equipment, and these are now past history.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 48)

The less obvious it is how someone arrived somewhere, with some ability, or knowledge, or idea, the more prone we are to give credit for it.

We love magic.

 

Kilian

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

Pirsig, Robert M. | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Every time Kilian Jornet pops up in a video, I’m entertained by him.  In today’s sampling, he attempts the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway, a 77km route, in a single day, using only skis and feet as transport.  but my favorite part is (spoiler) when he fails – conditions aren’t quite right, and he can’t make it in a day.   He admits it, maybe he’s a little defeated, but it’s ok.  It’s a huge day just the same, and he’s expended a huge amount of effort.  And the cameraman asks him “What now?” and he replies

Kilian: Shower… Eat… And then just, I don’t know like, just to plan for tomorrow, ah?

Cameraman: (laughing) Are you serious?

The best part is that he’s completely oblivious to how nuts everyone else thinks this is.  It’s not nuts to him because it’s who he is.  To take the ZAMM quote literally, he wasn’t climbing the mountain to prove who he is, he was climbing the mountain _because_of who he is.  He had a goal, it was hard, he couldn’t reach it – but the point was not really the goal, the point was a fun day in the mountains, and tomorrow is no different.

Why Read Fiction?

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and I sat through a session where the presenter ran through a series of ideas about how to accomplish more.  Or be more productive.  Or maybe it was about APIs?  Something.  Honestly, I don’t remember – but one bit of it actually stuck with me (not so much that I can remember the conference, topic, or speaker.  Sorry, mystery person who helped shape my thoughts).  He said something to this effect (believe it or not, I’ll have to paraphrase):

Read fiction.  Nonfiction is great, and it’s important, and worth spending time reading.  But so is fiction.  Fiction gives you new perspectives – it helps give you the fuel to power your imagination.

Some guy | At some conference | Talking about something.  Probably < 2015.

What was so notable to me about this was that I had never heard anyone actually defend reading fiction before.  I mean, nobody is attacking here, so defend might not be the right word – but I’d never heard anyone sing the praises of fiction, outside of the context of either Art/Culture, which were terribly uninteresting to me at the time, or Entertainment, which was the only reason I could understand that anyone would read fiction.

But then I started reading more.

I’m not sure exactly why (maybe it was this guy!), but I felt compelled to start reading more.  So read more I did. And mostly these days, I read fiction.

It started, like I said, purely out of a desire for entertainment.  Reading fiction felt to me like really classy television:  You’re just in it for the entertainment, for the distraction, but the fact that you’re reading puts you in a different class than those mouth-breathing TV watchers (note: I’m a mouth breathing TV watcher, and my description of both the activity and myself probably deserve to be brought up with a therapist).  Reading fiction is compelling enough that I’ve stuck with it pretty regularly over the past few years, but my opinion of it has changed.

I no longer believe that reading fiction is entertainment; a distraction.

Why is the author writing?

The first book that really made me stop and question an author’s motives was Anathem, By Neal Stephenson.  Anathem may be my favorite book of all time – certainly top 5.  What made me stop and question was the feeling, relatively early on, that the author was not just trying to entertain me – he was trying to get at something himself.   He built an entire world around a few specific ideas, in a way that felt like the entire goal was simply to explore them.  “What would happen if the perception and role of religion and science were reversed?” felt like the first question in Anathem – and it could only be answered through real, thorough exploration.  I won’t spoil the book by asking the other questions he digs into in that book, but there are many, and they’re all interesting.

After Anathem, I dug into everything else from Stephenson I could find, and each time I found the same pattern:  An interesting question or idea, and an entire scenario, environment, world built simply in order to explore it.

Soon after, I started noticing the same pattern, if not quite so overt, in other authors’ work.  Slowly, it began to dawn on me:  It seems some questions can only be answered – or maybe it’s that they can only be shared – through stories.

What does it mean to me?

There’s an idea I mentioned yesterday, that is played on heavily in Siddhartha: Siddhartha is unwilling to accept the teachings of others.  I get this, I feel it, I relate to it.  But that’s exactly the point: By hearing the story of Siddhartha, which is, of course, fiction, I put myself in his shoes.  I figure out the ways in which we relate, and suddenly I can feel what is happening to him as though it were happening to me. I understand better his point of view, why he behaves the way he does – it’s as close as I can come to living his experiences without actually living them.

And, again, to reference the actual story in Siddhartha:  Sometimes in life we actually have to live things to understand them. I think there’s no way to get closer to that experience than to read well-written fiction (or, to be fair, nonfiction, told as a narrative).

So go read a trashy romance novel, and call it personal development.  If anybody questions you, just have them talk to me.

Siddhartha’s Many Deaths

Now he saw it and saw that the secret voice had been right, that no teacher would ever have been able to bring about his salvation. Therefore, he had to go out into the world, lose himself to lust and power, to woman and money, had to become a merchant, a dice-gambler, a drinker, and a greedy person, until the priest and Samana in him was dead. Therefore, he had to continue bearing these ugly years, bearing the disgust, the teachings, the pointlessness of a dreary and wasted life up to the end, up to bitter despair, until Siddhartha the lustful, Siddhartha the greedy could also die. He had died, a new Siddhartha had woken up from the sleep.

Hesse, Hermann | Siddhartha  (p. 46)

 

Siddhartha is a great book.  It’s not that long, it’s not a particularly difficult read, and it’s got a lot of interesting ideas (especially if, like me, you’re not particularly familiar with eastern philosophy).

There’s so much going going on in this quote, but I’ll just focus on one thing:  Siddhartha gives himself completely to whatever phase of life he’s in.  This idea is probably one of the things that had me thinking about consistency in opinion yesterday.  In the book, Siddhartha has a friend from youth, Govinda, who leaves him and becomes a follower of Buddha, where he stays for the rest of his life.  Govinda seems to lead a fulfilling life, and it’s one in which he really doesn’t have to change  who he is.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it for the rest of his life.  Which is great, and interesting, but, I think, not nearly interesting as how Siddhartha lived.

Siddhartha commits completely to whatever phase of his life he’s in.  When he’s an ascetic, he’s a committed ascetic. When he’s a merchant, he becomes wealthy and successful.  Siddhartha is unwilling to accept teachings without experiencing them firsthand for himself –  He accepts that he’ll change throughout his life, and that to find his path, to continue moving forward, he has to be different people, and then let those people die.

Siddhartha learned through living.