Category Archives: Reading notes

To know is to kill

There’s no happiness without knowledge. But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know that you’re happy is to realize that you’re experiencing a happy moment and will soon have to leave it behind. To know is to kill, in happiness as in everything else. Not to know, on the other hand, is not to exist.

—Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith), The Book of Disquiet

This line has been revolving around my head all day. Sometimes I can make sense of it. Sometimes not. Maybe if it would just stand still for a second? If I don't know what it means will I ever be happy?

Bonus: Thomas Swick. "Wandering Through Literary Lisbon in Search of Pessoa’s Disquiet". Literary Hub (2020-06-24)

The sound of leaves we couldn’t see

Not even we could say what homes, duties and loves we’d left behind. We were, in that moment, no more than wayfarers between what we had forgotten and what we didn’t know, knights on foot defending an abandoned ideal. But that explained, along with the steady sound of trampled leaves and the forever rough sound of an unsteady wind, the reason for our departure, or for our return, since, not knowing what the path was, or why, we didn’t know if we were coming or going. And always, all around us, the sound of leaves we couldn’t see, falling we didn’t know where, lulled the forest to sleep with sadness.

The entirety of fragment 386 in Richard Zenith's translation of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is perhaps my favorite of the book so far, about two-thirds of the way through. It's a long fragment—a few whole pages. The whole thing loops and meanders and doubles back on itself, very much like being lost in the woods in the dark. It's full of pair's contradictions—things that are and aren't, things that are done together alone or alone together. The scene is familiar but unknown, unknowable. And always there is a soft sound of leaves falling at the periphery.

The whole fragment is, I think, this long metaphor about what life is. There is no point, or maybe we forgot what it is, and there is no destination, but we have to move onward. And always the contradictions—as if you couldn't make sense of what is without also considering what isn't. And always a soft sound at the periphery, reminding you that what you can see is only a part of the whole.

Two-way monologues

Don’t apologize, and don’t pay any attention to what we’re talking about… Every good conversation should be a two-way monologue… We should ultimately be unable to tell whether we really talked with someone or simply imagined the conversation…

—Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.

I'm still winding through The Book of Disquiet—and perhaps always will be—and it's hard to categorize it, hard to say what it is. Talk of dreams. Talk of doing nothing. Interminable logics, painstakingly built up. And occasionally these cutting insights like the one above about the brief feelings we feel in the briefest passing-by moments of life. On its face, sure, it is nonsensical, but taken ironically it's like so many interactions that we have—which I suppose means it's not ironic at all.

A Secret Love

This evening we watched A Secret Love on Netflix. It was a bit of a random pick—a movie we had never heard of, and we accidentally hit the play button while reading the description. Might as well go with it, etc.

How are you going to think of gay people as terrible deviants when you listen to two grannies talk about 70 years together—nearly all of those years unknown explicitly to family back in Canada, although surely known in whatever community they found in Chicago. Seeing the 1940s and 1950s pictures of them together was almost like a strange alternative history—all of the props and poses and styles and cars and so on that I've seen before in vintage mid-century photos, but with two women occupying the focus of the shot. Effortless subversion of an archetype, but also a half-sad look at what could have been for so many other people.

“I used to see little kids struggling with their identity at school, and not all kids are lucky enough to have a family that says, ‘That’s OK, that doesn’t matter,’” she said. “So maybe this will help those people understand it a little bit more. I really hope this documentary shows that love is love. I can hear Auntie Terry in heaven chuckling, just being so happy that she’s helping people.”

—Amy Kaufman. "Love is love: How do you go on without your ‘little darling’?" The Los Angeles Times (2020-05-08).

Failures to build successful coalitions

It is easy to see the building of a network of support, either through the appointment and promotion process or through personal favors, as activities that are somehow illegitimate or inappropriate. Such a view would be incomplete at best. The development and exercise of power in organizations is about getting things accomplished. The very nature of organizations—interdependent, complex systems with many actors and many points of view—means that taking action is often problematic. Failures in implementation are almost invariably failures to build successful coalitions. Although networks of allies can obviously be misused, they are nevertheless essential in order to get things done. And, allies must be put in place through whatever practical means are at hand.

—Jeffrey Pfeffer. "Resources, Allies, and the New Golden Rule". Managing with Power (1992).

Now reading: Peopleware

Now reading: Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (2013).

Today at work I was talking—remotely, as ever—with an experienced software engineer. By "experienced", I mean that he said he's been working in software development for 50 years, which is both unbelievable and astounding. For all the magic that we see conjured by software, it seems like it could never be more than five or ten years old, even though we know better.

Fifty years? All of the funny lines and analogies seem insulting, and they get away from the underlying feeling: anyone with that much experience should be drawn from like a well. A deep, deep, deep well. Even if you decide later that you don't want or agree with what you get from that well, the direct and personal experience is worth the trouble.

Anyway, he recommended a few books to me while we were chatting on IM. One of them was this one. He suggested this one, out of the various suggestions, should be first because it deals with the human element of organizing projects with software and, most importantly, people. Somehow, people get treated like objects in projects, to the detriment of all.

Now reading: Managing with Power

Now reading: Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Managing with power: Politics and influence in organizations. Harvard Business Press, 1992 (Goodreads) (notes)

No, that doesn't really sound like the kind of book I would read, or the kind of topic I'd normally be interested in. But I'm taking a course called Power and Politics in Organizations this summer, and this book contains a bit of required reading, so here we are. It is a little difficult reading and studying power—Power—because it brings to mind a cavalcade of alphabros making gut decisions about things they don't understand and will have laddered their way up and out of the cleanup once the consequences have come home to roost. That is, I have a baseline distasteful feeling about.

[p. 10] By pretending that power and influence don't exist, or at least shouldn't exist, we contribute to what I and some others (such as John Gardner) see as the major problem facing many corporations today, particularly on the United States—the almost trained or produced incapacity of anyone except the highest-level managers to take action and get things accomplished.

I recognize that kind of person—it's many of the people I've worked with, and it's me. Some of the blame for not getting things done lies with those who set up and administer rigid top-down hierarchies that squeeze decisions out of the lower levels where they should be made. Some of the blame lies with the rest of us who don't do something about it.

One more line, and then we'll leave it for now. It's not explicitly about power, but it is about the frontloaded imbalance of the work to make decisions versus the work to make decisions work out.

[pp. 22-23] The important actions may not be the original choices, but rather what happens subsequently, and what actions are taken to make things work out. This is a significant point, because it means that we need to be somewhat less concerned about the quality of the decision at the time we make it (which, after all, we can't really know anyway) and more concerned with adapting our new decisions and actions to the information we learn as events unfold. [...] The most important skill may be managing the consequences of decisions. And, in organizations in which it is often difficult to take any action, the critical ability may be the capacity to have things implemented.

Hey—let's throw in some relevant Kurt Vonnegut here before we go. From The Sirens of Titan:

There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.

Good doesn't just triumph over evil because it has better ideas.

Superior to the norm rather than incapable of it

From fragment 356 in The Book of Disquiet:

I don’t trust masters who can’t be down-to-earth. For me they’re like those eccentric poets who can’t write like everybody else. I accept that they’re eccentric, but I’d like them to show me that it’s because they’re superior to the norm rather than incapable of it.

Or maybe in the words of Del The Funky Homosapien ("Check It Ooout"):

I love to peep a rhyme / First of all I'm seein' if my man can keep the time / If he go off beat, and it's on purpose / He gotta come back on beat / Or the effort is worthless

Either way—it's not genius just because it's different. It has to be better.

Painful surprise

The human soul is so inevitably the victim of pain that is suffers the pain of the painful surprise even with things it should have expected. A man who has always spoken of fickleness and unfaithfulness as perfectly normal behaviour in women will feel all the devastation of the sad surprise when he discovers that his sweetheart has been cheating on him, exactly as if he’d always held up female fidelity and constancy as a dogma or a rightful expectation. Another man, convinced that everything is hollow and empty, will feel like he’s been struck by lightning when he learns that what he writes is considered worthless, or that his efforts to educate people are in vain, or that it’s impossible to communicate his emotion.

—Fernando Pessoa. "245". The Book of Disquiet. Translated by Richard Zenith.

Offhandedly it seems like a rupture in personal logic—to be surprised by the thing you were ostensibly expecting. But that makes an assumption: that you were really expecting that difficult or bad thing to happen.

I think, at least sometimes, that expected pain is a talisman to ward against the pain coming—like taking an umbrella not to keep the rain off your head, but to keep the rain in the cloud. Maybe the right word or thought or action will keep the bad things away.

Probably not, but it's worth a shot.

The big trouble

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart.

—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (1959)

Apropos of nothing, I suppose, but that line has been banging around in my head.

I'm sorry I never met Kurt Vonnegut. ("He's up in Heaven now." [laughtrack]) Or maybe I'm not. I'd probably bore him. I don't have anything to say to any heroes—living or dead, real or fictional—and it doesn't bother me that much. Let us all keep our distance.

I've gone months now, if not years, without reading much of substance. Some articles here, some books there, but nothing much that gave me the Batman slap that I got from reading (some) Vonnegut for the first time. Maybe it's time to go back. That or Ed Abbey or Hunter Thompson—something to make the time go by, something to make the words coming in and going out have a little more something, I don't know what. I don't if that's something that's missing, but I miss it.

I don't know if Vonnegut was the inspiration, or if finding his writing was like finding a fellow thinker and that's why I latched on, but I've always felt comfortable in what I felt was the underlying current to all of his works that I read:

Bergeron's epitaph for the planet, I remember, which he said should be carved in big letters in a wall of the Grand Canyon for the flying-saucer people to find, was this:


Only he didn't say 'doggone.'