Torrential Output From Meager Input: On ‘Brain Fever’ and Transcending Any Available Evidence
By Dan Bjork
When I was 19, David Hume hit me like the holy ghost. It’s a typical story really: In high school, I was a slightly above-average student who hid inside the security of playing socially acceptable sports; a 10th-grade honors English open essay assignment found me sunk inside The Waste Land (which was my first adult literary holy ghost moment, I guess) — I spent the better part of three weeks living between the lines, writing an eight-and-a-half-page paper for a five-page assignment. Which I was told I was “incapable of writing” and then promptly failed for plagiarism. Which then made me ineligible for the first two games of the basketball season because I was failing English. I never invested again. (Huge public schools are amazingly effective at hammering students back into the meat of the bell curve; it’s a typical story, really.) I spent the next four years (two and a half of high school, one and a half of college) as that specific sort of hustler who paid extra attention in class and could pump out a fully formed essay the morning it was due, simply by detailing exactly how the teacher/professor felt on said subject. I was an A-/B+ machine. And my bio is true: I went to Hofstra solely because the New York Jets practiced there. At 19, I was well on my way to a future of managing a Crunch Fitness in southwest Suffolk County (or rather, this was the assumed realistic goal). I was majoring in floating around the dorms, running other young men in Madden during that early-evening, pre-gaming window as much as anything else. I was in The History of Western Philosophy solely because it fit my schedule. I didn’t even open my copy of The Treatise on Human Understanding until after our first class on it. But I became a philosophy major at some distinct moment inside that class session.
In that book, Hume is poking holes in the apparatus with which we successful maneuver through reality, the apparatus with which our minds by nature necessarily fill in the blanks. Silly, almost non-applicable concrete reality example: If you move fast enough past a wooden fence, you will see everything that’s on the other side; your brain will paste together all of the separate, eighth-of-an-inch images that escape from between the slats at synaptic speed. You are getting so very few of these pictures at the same time, yet you can see all of them as one complete picture. We successfully navigate reality because our minds are constantly filling in the blanks, by assumptions based on past experience — by nearly 100 percent accurate assumptions. Which then moves us to the inherent flaws of inductive reasoning, mistakenly taking a temporal relationship as a causal relationship, and on and on and on. Talking about abstractions is hard. Talking about the flaws in which we successfully digest reality is even harder. In lieu of taking on the last 400 years of epistemology (in a blog about quitting the NFL to read poetry), I’m hoping I can provide one quote, and then jump right into the collection itself. It’s a quote from W.V O. Quine’s “Epistemology Naturalized,” an essay which also states, “The Humean condition is the human condition.” I think it will help because it concerns the funky, abstract space between what we personally interpret as reality and what is accepted as concrete reality — the slippage, if you will — which I kept seeing as I read through Brain Fever.
Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded certain experimentally controlled input — certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance — and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three-dimensional external world and its history. The relation between meager input and torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology; namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence.
-W.V.O. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized”
There’s a bastardized version of this that I pull out at parties (without citation, of course). It’s sort of the Batman smoke bomb I drop when I’ve been cornered by esoteric terms at some gathering of aspiring literary types (usually long Latinate words I thought I understood until the very moment I hear them inside some curious usage, which then acts as a dropped, cast-iron anchor chained to the balloon of my self-belief). And this is my way of saying something before escaping to wherever the drinks are being served — but what about the way we digest reality? The torrential output from meager input? — poof. The space between what little we take in by our senses from the outside world and the full vibrancy with which we experience it. And again, my urge here is to go on for another 500 words — its primal almost; the urge to beat the abstraction (and, most likely, you, dear readers) into submission by pure word fatigue — desperately trying to box in this particular abstraction with other abstract descriptions, but it’s probably most helpful simply to talk about a poem, the second in the collection:
Waking: Canadian geese take flight from pond to field
A school bus idles across the road, my husband
Fetches wood and lights a fire—even before
I hear the electric toothbrush then his shower.
A wanton beeping, his cell. Yes?
Or am I still under
A B&B comforter or on some gurney—?
Does a flicker matter to anyone but the attendant
Who watches for awake in muted fluorescence?
The space between asleep and awake is one of our easiest shorthands for talking about the space between personal reality and concrete reality. It’s an easily conveyed experience — hearing something from the world outside your dream, which then gets incorporated into your experience while dreaming (a car alarm outside your window doesn’t wake you, but rather finds a way to make sense inside your current dream, etc.) — which Kimiko Hahn captures beautifully here. Which is also the hinge moment of this particular poem. We are treated to this picture of an idyllic morning the narrator’s mind paints — the geese, the school bus, the fire wood, (plus a husband who is not fucking someone else, which for this collection, might be the most idyllic of all) — which then gets whittled back to this vision’s antecedents in consensus reality. And this is done most deftly: the first two concrete sounds we are given are given still through the lens of this morning — the narrator hears “the electric toothbrush then his shower.” A process which is laid bare in the next line, where we are given the sound first, “a wanton beeping,” then how this is incorporated into the vision “his cell, yes?” Which makes it easy for us to then go back, forensically, and take the first two sounds as any sort of comparable buzz and then whoosh.
The last three stanzas then paint two alternate realities ––still being under the comforter at some B&B or on a gurney in a medical facility — both equally as possible as the first, given how little stimulus caused this experience.
The collection revels in such spaces; it’s more than comfortable exploring this particular abstract, in similar easily conveyed moments of human consciousness. I also think it’s extremely telling that this section, named “consciousness,” ends with a situation that seems straight from a dream: five thousand black birds falling from the sky. Which is then immediately confirmed as concrete reality in the next line — “not mid-fairytale but News at Six” — before we spend several lines marching through all of the reason why this didn’t happen, “Once established / neither army test nor pesticide is at fault, // the mind races for causative agents in case we’re next.” The poem then gives the opinion of a single ranger, with a plausible fireworks theory that seems to fit with the few known facts. But the poem doesn’t end there, rather with, “Even so, since pyrotechnics are not sufficiently ominous // the blogosphere keeps alive a quest for the fabulous.” Concrete reality that begins like a dream is not allowed to die such a banal way.
Finally, I think it’s natural that the associative logic of these poems frequently finds its way to a cheating husband. Again, if we’re talking about consensus reality shorthands for communicating something abstract — even if only asymptotically — few things do that last line of the Quine quote better than infidelity. “…and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence.” Because, it seems, for an individual to become aware that their theory of nature has been transcending any available evidence, there needs to be a similar hinge moment. A fissure. A before and an after and a moment of awakening. Which comes readily with every uncovered infidelity. A whole series of moments — days, weeks, years — when you thought your husband wasn’t fucking someone else, but in consensus reality, he was. What better illustrates this than the following poem:
“Breaking old habits isn’t easy, since habits are
deeply ingrained neural shortcuts, a way of slurring
over details without having to dwell on them.”
Shortcuts? Like to grandmother’s?
When he saw his daughter’s new haircut, by way of a
greeting he said, “Did you read in the news that a lesbian
was raped in Prospect Park?
slurring or slur?
When she saw crumbs on the passenger seat, she assumed
he was cheating on her with an ex or with a babysitter or
neighbor or adjunct or manicurist—
She smelled a rat—
I didn’t watch the Jets again this week. But I deserve little credit for this — no old habit was being broken — the Jets played Monday night and I didn’t get home from work until halftime. It was oh-so-easy to avoid the second half when there was no full Sunday morning of anticipation. But we’re undefeated, and the real test comes next week.
By the way, I’m a Jets-Knicks-Mets fan, which means I’m one of those lucky few New York sports fans over 30 who doesn’t have a championship they remember. (The Mets won when I was five; I have detailed memories of my mother’s stories about this: She was very pregnant and it was a very hot fall and we were without an air conditioner. But those slew of extra innings Mets-Astros games — the ’86 NLCS? — kept her mind off the heat, a little. Whatever of this I had remembered has been overwritten by these fragments.) Not that I believe anything real could come in the modern, hands-off-receivers NFL with a Harvard man as quarterback, but the voice of the tortured sports fan solipsist inside me gets a little louder with every win.
Of course, they would win as soon as you’ve stopped watching.