Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Mathematical Sublime

I had the strange experience this week of looking through a few dozen stories that I wrote 10 years ago in my first job, at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va.  Strange because I had to get my parents to send them to me -- they were in a box in my old room, because I never thought I'd have any reason to look at them again.  But somebody wanted to see them, for reasons that are a little complicated to explain, so here I found myself getting decade-old ink all over my fingers -- and cheap ink, as I shouldn't even have to say that the Daily Progress uses, truly does get all over your fingers -- and reading stories I wrote when I was 23.

The big question you are all of course waiting for me to answer is, were they good? And my answer is, actually, yeah, some were.  Maybe slightly dated, given that I referred to email, in one of them, as a "relatively new technology." Either way, some that I remembered being good were not so good, but a few that I didn't remember at all were pretty decent.

You'll just have to take my word for it, because at the time I worked there, the Daily Progress didn't archive stories on its web site.  This was a source of great frustration to us writers at the time, but honestly, maybe it's for the best.  This way I can tell you that I wrote some really solid stuff back then and you have to believe me.  (Although, I guess some will believe me and some won't.  This is why I found myself in the 99-cent store photocopying the paper copies of a few of the stories today: to provide one such doubter with proof.  There is a higher threshold of proof in some quarters.)

At this point, the truly curious reader does have one other recourse: If you google me just the right way, you can find stories of mine that random people copy/pasted onto random web sites.  Like, the Rivanna Trails Foundation has a story I wrote about the Rivanna Trail.  By the looks of it, I wrote it either just before or just after a very long Friday lunch.  Upon finding this story the other day, I figured I could save myself a bunch of photocopying time if I could just find some of the old stories online that I actually liked.  This led to a spiral of self-googling and, at the bottom of that, a deep existentialist dread brought on by the vastness and depth of the internet.

Long story short, I didn't find any of the good stories.  I found a strange one about a guinea fowl named Peep who appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.  I found some people (who I hadn't really forgotten about) who think I conspired to get a Republican elected to the City Council -- which makes perfect sense, right?  And, most intriguing, I found this: a blog post, written in Charlottesville, about a different blog post I wrote in New York, for the Times.  It's a little hard to explain why exactly that link made my head spin, but I'll try.

(Tangent 1: The dude who wrote that blog post must not have been paying his hosting bills, because it seems to have been taken down.  But I'm hoping that the magic of Google cache will keep it viewable for a little while longer.  If not, I'll summarize: In my post for the Times, I referred to Charlottesville's bygone yellow bike program.  This blogger saw that post, and my mention of having lived in Charlottesville, and wondered where I used to work when I was in town.)

(Tangent 2: This wasn't what made my head spin, but I was nonplussed to read the comments at the end of that post, in which somebody proclaims, "I have it on the best authority that Mooney is a total arse. LMFAO."  I don't remember offending any British people down there. Still,  I'm sure it's possible or even likely.  Those were the days before I was saved by the love of a good woman.)

(Tangent 3: This commenter is great:

30 Nov 2007 at 5:35 pm
Horatio said:
Apparently Mooney did not know that Charlottesville stole the idea from Portland, OR (or some other city on the west coast), which in turn stole it from countless cities in Europe.
Makes sense that Mooney used to work for the Daily Progress, as fact checking has not ever been at the top of the reporter’s creed there. Surprising he can get away with it at the NYT…

30 Nov 2007 at 5:37 pm
Horatio said:
Perhaps I should have read the column at the NYT before posting, as Mooney did in fact acknowledge the other cities before Charlottesville. Talk about not fact checking…

Hahaha.  Nice posts, guy.)

Anyway, anyway.  What made my head spin.  Since this post is now too long, I'd guess I'd just say, the vastness and depth of the internet.  It's amazing when you start to think about it.

The thing is, when you're writing for a newspaper, at least in my experience, you're generally not thinking about the number of people who are actually going to read the story. But even if you are, the numbers are basically finite -- as long as the internet isn't involved.  If the Daily Progress circulates to, say, 30,000 people, then you can figure that some percentage of 30,000 people are going to read about Peep the guinea fowl.  (Probably a pretty small percentage, since from what I remember, roughly two-thirds of the paper's readers buy it just for the supermarket coupons.)  Even with a big paper, like the Times, I could guesstimate the number of readers, and the number of readers in New York, and the number of readers likely to flip to section Q or whatever the City section used to be.  And that's how many people would see the story.  And then a short time later, all the paper copies of the story would end up in the dump or in the library and that would be that.

But with the internet, this stuff just keeps expanding and expanding outward.  The number of readers is potentially limitless.  I was talking with somebody about all of this after a bunch of Old Overholts the other day, and he started telling me about the philosophical concept of the sublime.

The sublime, Wikipedia reminds me now, has to do with greatness or vast magnitude and its effect on us. There are a few different types of it.  Here I'm going to borrow from Kant, as explained to me after a bunch of whiskey, so please bear with me.  As he saw things, the first type, the dynamical sublime, has to do with when we're awed by an overwhelmingly powerful natural force, like a thunderstorm or the ocean. Its strength makes us ponder our own weakness, etc. The other type is the mathematical sublime.  To quote a guy on the internet:
The experience of the 'mathematical sublime' is occasioned by an almost ungraspably vast, formless object. Kant suggests that at a certain point, the powers of our senses and of our Imagination (the faculty of the mind that schematises and grasps the sensory world in images and 'forms') fail to be able to synthesise all of the immediate perceptions of such a huge and formless object into a full and unified image of a single figure; its sheer scale threatens to overwhelm the mind's powers of comprehension, our ability to grasp its magnitude with 'the mind's eye'.
This is how I feel when I google my stories and see all the weird places they've ended up, and imagine all the weirder places where they still will.  It's also, incidentally, how I feel when I look at the blog stats that Google helpfully provides and see how many people are reading this crap, some of them in countries where I'm fairly sure I don't know anybody. Basically, I think that roughly 90 percent of you are people who know me personally.  But that 10 percent, even that little bit makes my head spin.

I used to have this recurring nightmare when I was a kid that I could never really explain, and still can't.  Basically I'd have the feeling of being in the presence of something overwhelmingly large, and being dwarfed by it, and I'd wake up with a sensation of unplaceable dread. (Fun kid, right?) But I guess that's the mathematical sublime.  The mathematical sublime is also when I imagine my stories being read for the rest of eternity. And it's also when I consider how many people reading them think I'm an "arse."

Bonus content, because anybody who read all of that deserves a little bit extra...

-- Here's some stuff I wrote and actually got published recently:
City Limits
New York Magazine

-- I'm working on a thing about the NYC bike lanes now. If you haven't read the New York Magazine story on them yet, it's really good. Also, this piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who is a terrific reporter, and who sold me my current desk chair.  (Great chair. Around the same time, I sold my portable dishwasher to the guy who played piano on Range Life.  It's the circle of life.)

-- The original conversation on the mathematical sublime ... man, you should have heard it.  Much smarter than what I've managed to scratch out here.  Unfortunately -- Old Overholt, etc. -- most of it is lost to history.  Reminds me of a story I heard about Dylan, from around the time the Eat the Document documentary was made.  I guess he was staying up late in hotel rooms with Robbie Robertson writing some of the best stuff either of them ever wrote, but they were both so tired and strung out on drugs at that point that they never bothered to record or even write down most of them.  The little fragments that survived -- and please click on that link, because it's so beautiful -- just make you heartbroken that there aren't more of them.  And yes, I am comparing me and Austin and our butchering of Kant to Dylan and Robbie Robertson. Though I will grant you that Robbie Robertson is ever so slightly cooler in that video than we were at the bar.

-- Finally, somebody is impersonating Ghostface Killah in blog form.  There's something sublime about that too, though I'm not sure which type.

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