Friday, October 26, 2012

A Turing Machine is a Nightingale

The medieval streets of Cambridge are haunted by the ghosts of all the great minds who’ve called the town home over the centuries—and so are the poems of Göran Printz-Påhlson.  He, too, called Cambridge home, and met many of the luminaries (most notably the titular character of the poem “My Interview with I.A. Richards”).  Some of the early innovators of what became computer technology were Cambridge men, and Printz-Påhlson has a particular fondness for them: Charles Babbage, for example, strides through a Printz-Påhlson poem, as does Alan Turing.  In fact, Printz-Påhlson has a poem called “Turing Machine,” after the hypothetical tape-driven, algorithm-crunching machines Turning dreamed up in the 1930s.

The poem begins with what may seem like the most un-Romantic of subjects: the algorithms that inhabit Turing’s machines.  But by the end of the poem, we’ve twisted around until we’re in the same territory as that quintessential Romantic lyric, Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Here’s how Printz-Påhlson’s poem begins:

It’s their humility we can never imitate,
obsequious servants of more durable material:
they live in complex relays of electric circuits.

Rapidity, docility is their advantage.
You may ask: “What is 2 times 2?”  Or “Are you a machine?”
   They answer or
refuse to answer, all according to demand.

From here, we move to more complex types of machines, and more complex operations—including recursive functions, which reference and replicate themselves:

It is, however, true that other kinds of machines exist,
more abstract automata, stolidly intrepid and
eating their tape in mathematical formulae.

They imitate within the language. In infinite
paragraph loops, further and further back in their retreat
    towards more subtle
algorithms, in pursuit of more recursive functions.

So far, it’s all very reminiscent of math class, and unless you’re the type who sees the beauty in mathematical formulae, you’re probably not jumping out of your seat in excitement.  You’re certainly not anticipating a turn toward anything John Keats may have found interesting.  But then there’s this:

They appear consistent and yet auto-descriptive.
As when a man, pressing a hand-mirror straight to his nose,
    facing the mirror,
sees in due succession the same picture repeated

in a sad, shrinking, darkening corridor of glass.
That’s a Gödel-theorem fully as good as any.
    Looking at infinity,
but never getting to see his own face.

The reference is to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which tell us that no system of axioms that can be listed by a computer is capable of demonstrating its own consistency.  That is: the system, no matter how elaborate or recursive, no matter how much such a system can reveal, no matter how far it can take us, it can’t turn around and show us itself in its own consistent nature.  It’s terribly abstract, of course, especially to those of us who haven’t done any math more complicated than that which a tax form requires for many years.  But then we get something the poem’s been daringly light on so far: an image.  The image of a mirror, held close to another mirror and aimed at just the right angle, reflecting itself forever in a kind of trippy, curving infinity of recursion.  I remember when, as a kid, I discovered that I could line my mother’s hand mirror up against the bathroom mirror like this, and how I’d try to like the mirror up so I could see all the way to forever, which, it turns out, you can’t quite do.  Printz-Påhlson juxtaposes this image with that of a mirror in which we gaze on our own face, and notes that we can only have one or the other—an image of infinity, or an image of ourselves.

Here, at last, is where we tread on very Romantic ground: this business of infinity and the self comes straight out of the playbook of Romanticism, and is embodied most powerfully in Keats’ great “Ode to a Nightingale.”  The ode begins with a speaker—let’s just call him Keats—listening to the song of a nightingale hidden in the woods, and drifting off into a kind of narcoleptic state as he listens.  He begins to lose himself, hovering between wakefulness and sleep, until he senses himself disappearing as an individual, and merging into an unconscious state much like death (the ultimate end of the division between the self and the other):

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

  I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,

  To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

          In such an ecstasy!

  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

    To thy high requiem become a sod.

The next stanza tells us how the individuality of the bird is lost in the timelessness of its song, which is the same for all nightingales everywhere and always. An ornithologist pal once told me that this is, in fact, false: that birds have regional accents, and that their songs evolve over time, so we might have to file “Ode to a Nightingale” with Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” where he gets his explorers wrong and Cortez when he means Balboa, as a Keatsian fact-blunder.  But who cares?  In the context of the poem, the point is clear enough:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

  No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

  In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

    She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

          The same that ofttimes hath

  Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

But this drawing away from selfhood toward the infinite doesn’t last: that word “forlorn” reminds Keats of his own little selfhood, and he recoils from identification with the infinite:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

  To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

  As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

  Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

    Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

          In the next valley-glades:

The final two lines of the poem are really wonderful, leaving us in a state where we can’t decide what is real and what is a dream:

  Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

    Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

Are we little individuals who only dream we can vanish and become one with something infinite?  Or is our sense of identity illusory, a brief dream between the infinities of non-selfhood that precede and follow our deaths?  Keats leaves it there, with no searching after certainty.  We can have our sense of identity, or we can have the mystical union with the infinite, but we can’t have them both at the same time.

And this is the same place Printz-Påhlson leaves us in his much more austere, cerebral poem: with the mirror reflecting itself forever, without us; or with the mirror reflecting us, whole, with no infinite recursion of reflections.  A Turing machine is many things: a grand thought experiment, a model for computer technology, a meditation on the limits of mechanical computation and, in this particular case, a nightingale.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Gnostic: Peter O'Leary and Norman Finkelstein

Hot news!  The latest Chicago Review is out, devoted, for the most part, to the poetry of A.R. Ammons, including previously unpublished poems, a never-before seen interview, and a host of critical essays (including work by John Wilkinson and Simon Jarvis, indicating that the Chicago Review continues to serve as the leading American venue for work by the Cambridge school of Prynne-influenced poets).

Lurking in the back, though, you'll find a little piece I wrote on another topic — the Gnostic poetry of Peter O'Leary and Norman Finkelstein.  This follows on the Chicago Review's earlier publication of what amounts to O'Leary's manifesto for Gnostic poetics, and comes between panels on Gnostic poetry at last summer's Orono conference and next February's Louisville conference (here's my contribution to the Orono conference, a paper called "History, Totality, Silence").

Here's the beginning of the piece:

Around the time Peter O’Leary’s Luminous Epinoia was published, another piece of his writing appeared in the pages of this journal, an essay called “Apocalypticism: A Way Forward for Poetry.”  Part memoir, part polemic, part literary appreciation, the essay argued that apocalypse—a sacred expression that can “unbind love from material desire, freeing it to embrace the unknown and the unspeakable”—has been erased from American poetry.  In O’Leary’s view, neither the old school of the workshop lyric nor the tradition of Language writing supports vatic or visionary poetry.  O’Leary’s own recent work, along with that of Norman Finkelstein, constitutes a strong argument for the vitality of this project. O’Leary, Finkelstein, and a number of other poets—one thinks of Pam Rehm, Michael Heller, Harriet Zinnes, and especially of Joseph Donahue and Nathaniel Mackey—make formal and conceptual links to this deeply rooted poetic tradition, which extends back through Duncan to Yeats and Blake.  In our formally diverse but overwhelmingly secular poetic moment their work represents a true counter-culture whose achievement has yet to be fully appreciated.
            Peter O’Leary’s Luminous Epinoia is a book of many things: surreal fables, reflections on sacred architecture, sermons on the meaning of love in a time of war, and the occasional jab at the policies of the Bush administration. (Its shiny, silver, jacketless cover embossed with religious symbols is also striking.) But most of all, Luminous Epinoia is a book concerned with incarnation.  Its title comes from the Apocryphon of John, a second century Gnostic gospel, where  the “luminous Epinoia” is a heterodox version of Eve, a physical extension of Adam and a helper who will restore to him the full, creative vision of religious experience. O’Leary’s book takes a strong influence from the great Catholic theologian and paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin, who reconciled his scientific and religious beliefs through imagining the physical universe as imperfectly embodying aspects of the divine, and looked at biological evolution as a teleological process bringing us ever closer to a union with God.

 And here's a later paragraph on Norman Finkelstein:

Like O’Leary, Norman Finkelstein looks back to a legacy of Gnostic American poets: his 2010 book of literary criticism, On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry is the best and most current outline we have of this tradition. Like Duncan, Finkelstein often turns to the serial poem; like Jack Spicer and Armand Schwerner, he combines spiritual impulses with comic gestures. The connection with Schwerner runs particularly deep: Finkelstein emulates Schwerner’s focus on the mediation of spiritual knowledge by oral and literary traditions prone to fragmentation, distortion, decontextualization, and creative revision. Finkelstein’s work reveals the way an unseen world presses into our own experience: in his work, revelation is immanent, just beneath the surfaces of things.

More information on the issue can be found here.  And the entire piece on O'Leary and Finkelstein can be found in pdf format here.

Peter O'Leary and Robert Archambeau and a lot of empty glasses

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sudden Glory, or: Why We Laugh

"How long have we been married?" I asked my wife Valerie not long ago.  "Our next anniversary," she relied after a slight pause, "will be our 20th."  As soon as the words were out of her mouth we both dissolved in laughter.  But why?  It took me a while to bring things into focus, but I think I've understood — it's something we can get at if we take a quick trip back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the debate about the nature of laughter took the form of a scuffle between advocates of the superiority theory and the incongruity theory.  In the end, our outburst of laughter can be seen as coming from a combination of incongruity and a special kind of superiority.

Back in 1651, Thomas Hobbes managed to make himself the least popular thinker in England by publishing Leviathan.  The book's core premise—that people are essentially selfish—irked just about everyone who read the book, and many more who'd merely heard about it without turning a page.  It even earned Hobbes a sobriquet worthy of a modern wrestler: "the monster of Malmsbury."  At least one bishop wanted Hobbes put to death, and a great deal of ink spilled from philosopher's quills in an attempt to refute him.  The scandal of the book even led the Earl of Shaftesbury, years later, to develop the first truly modern theory of aesthetics, since to love art merely for its beauty was (or so the theory went) to show that something other than self-interest could motivate our passions—therefore refuting the premise of Leviathan.

As you might expect, Hobbes' theory of laughter is a bit nasty: he thinks he laugh at things because we feel superior to them.  He puts it this way:
Sudden Glory, is the passion which maketh those Grimaces we call LAUGHTER; and it is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.
It's blunt, and likely to put the laugher on the defensive, but it's not entirely off-base, really.  I mean, when we laugh at, say the know-nothing, ideologically blinkered blowhard played by Stephen Colbert, we're laughing from a position of superiority to the character.  There's pure dramatic irony at play: we know something about the character (that he's an idiot) that the character does not.  We inhabit a position of superiority to him, and this is a big part of Colbert's brand of comedy.  We inhabit a position of superiority vis-a-vis a great many comic characters: we like the hapless idiots played by Jim Carey, or the bungling and ineffective characters played by Zach Galifianakis, or the overwrought self-defeating nebbishes played by Woody Allen (well, okay, by the early Woody Allen), but we wouldn't want to be those people.   But even so, it's not a perfect theory: we don't laugh when we walk out on the street and see a homeless person coughing and wheezing while begging for change.  Unless, of course, we're the sort who attends private Romney fund-raising events and nods sagely while he condemns 47% of the American population.

One of the most influential refutations of Hobbes took place in a series of essays by Francis Hutcheson published in The Dublin Review in 1725.  Hutcheson notes that not all situations of superiority cause laughter, and not all laughter comes from situations of superiority: the healthy don't generally laugh at the ill; those who laugh at the application of epic techniques to a trivial topic in a poem like Pope's The Rape of the Lock aren't laughing because they feel superior to someone else.

Hutcheson offers, as an alternative, the notion that laughter comes from the perception of incongruity—specifically, the incongruity between the dignified and the undignified, or, as he puts it, between "ideas of grandeur, dignity, sanctity, perfection, and ideas of meanness, baseness, profanity."  So, you know, we laugh when the Pope goes out to bless the gathered flock and lets rip an enormous, irrefutable fart.  It's not that we feel superior to the hapless pontiff, but that we're surprised by the incongruity of the situation.  But how to account for our laughter we see someone step in dog shit or get a pie in the face, when that person is not a dignitary whose gravitas needs a little levitas?  Isn't this Hobbes' laughter by virtue of superiority of position?  Hutcheson addresses this by positing that there is an inherent human dignity to all of us at all times—so whenever something undignified happens to anyone, what we're seeing is an incongruity between basic human dignity and the baseness of the particular situation.

The Hobbes-Hutcheson debate certainly doesn't exhaust the topic.  Nor does it really resolve anything: Hutcheson's theory covers a lot of ground, and may even be a key to understanding a lot of modernist slapstick, from Kafka to Beckett.  But it won't take any of us long to think of an incongruity that isn't funny at all, being either banal ("hey, there's a green Post-It note in here with all the yellow ones") or tragic (you can do a comic riff on Oedipus Rex, as Woody Allen did in his short film "Oedipus Wrecks," but the Sophoclean original is long on incongruity and terribly short on the yuckety-yucks).  But I do think both incongruity and superiority of a type can explain the recent outburst of laughter at the idea of an upcoming 20th anniversary.

Firstly, there's the matter of incongruity.  When Valerie and I burst out laughing at the idea of us having a 20th anniversary, much of what was going on was the sudden clash between how we think of ourselves and who we actually are at this point.  I suppose the thought we had could best be summarized as "how utterly ridiculous to think that we've been married that long—we're not old enough for that!"  That is, our self-images as youngish, goofy people more or less playing at the roles of being adults was at odds with the incongruous notion that we could possibly be the kind of middle-aged people with enough responsibility and gravitas to have nurtured a two-decade long marriage.  It's kind of Hutcheson in reverse: he felt we had an inherent dignity, and that we laughed when something undermined this, since it was incongruous with our dignified state.  Valerie and I had assumed a certain levity toward ourselves, a certain youthful carelessness, and now here we were with the calendar reminding us that we were in fact long-married people, with actual careers and actual responsibilities and an actual kid and an actual house and actual retirement plans and all of the other trappings of serious bourgeois people in their forties.  The incongruity was just killing us!

But there was more to our laughter, which was the result of a double whammy effect, with superiority humor layered on top of incongruity humor.  At almost the same moment that we felt the incongruity between our images of ourselves and the truth revealed by the calendar, we also experienced a kind of superiority to ourselves.

For Hobbes, we laugh when we feel superior to someone else, or find ourselves suddenly elevated above some set of circumstances.  But in the recent anniversary incident, Valerie and I felt superior not to others, but to ourselves—at least to ourselves mere moments before.  Almost simultaneously with laughing about how incongruous it was for people like us (you know: perpetually 25 years old, at least in our own minds) to have become middle aged, we realized how ridiculous our assumption that we were still somehow kids really was.  We were suddenly elevated above our previous unconscious assumption of youth, since it was so manifestly there, and so manifestly wrong.  We weren't just laughing at the incongruity of self and self-image: we were laughing at how foolish our self-image had been.  The "sudden glory" of which Hobbes speaks was there, for us, in the form of an sudden elevation from delusion to realization.  And it was funny, in just the way its funny when we suddenly realize we've spent three minutes swearing and glowering because we've been trying to open the door to the office with the key to the Honda.  

They say the 20th anniversary is the China and platinum anniversary.  I don't believe it.  For me, it's the anniversary of laughing one's ass off.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Tintin is my Tintern Abbey

A couple of weeks ago I was poking around in a local bookstore, and had just given up on the poetry section when I noticed a few tall, svelte spines sticking up above their squat, chunky peers in the graphic novels section nearby. Having grown up reading a whole slew of French and Belgian comics—Tintin, Astérix, Lucky Luke, Iznogoud, and others—I knew at once what these were: English translations of various volumes of Hergé's series The Adventures of Tintin, in the British Metheun and Magnet editions and the slightly glossier, more luxurious American editions put out by Little, Brown. I scooped them up and headed for the cash register with all the speed and purpose of an addict on his way home with the first score after a long dry spell. I've been reading them compulsively ever since, and I think I know why. It's not just that most of them make for inherently compelling reading, with page-turning narrative cliffhangers and the forward thrust of all good whodunnits. It's that reading Tintin's adventures, as he chases around the globe with his dog Snowy and, at times, the bearish company of Captain Haddock, gives me a kind of double exposure. These were the books of my childhood, and reading them again in my forties both allows me to remember how I saw them when I first read them, and forces me to contrast that with how I see them now. What happens to me as I turn the brightly colored pages of The Broken Ear or The Secret of the Unicorn is like what happened to Wordsworth when he returned to his childhood haunts in "Tintern Abbey": I see myself as I was, and the world as I once saw it. Like Wordsworth, I realize that my perception of the world has become, in some crucial sense, a diminished thing.

The first thing everyone notices, coming back to Tintin after many years, is a certain cringe-worthiness in the depictions of non-Westerners.  While there are certainly characters of all ethnicities that Hergé intends as sympathetic, it's hard to get past the hook-nosed Arabs, buck-teethed Japanese, "Ugh!" and "How!" uttering Native Americans, and so-dark-they're-shiny Africans.  Indeed, this seems to have been a concern for the publishers, who have all-but-suppressed the most offensive volume, Tintin in the Congo, which does not appear listed with the other volumes on the back cover of the books after about 1980, even though other, more marginal volumes—the very early, black and white Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and the posthumous, incomplete Tintin and Alph-Art—make the cut.  It's certainly true that Hergé (the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi) didn't share our sensibilities on these issues.  In some ways, he held quite humane views: King Ottokar's Scepter is an anti-fascist work, and various books in the series express disdain for imperialism: in The Blue Lotus Tintin stops a western businessman in Shanghai from beating a Chinese rickshaw driver.  But nevertheless there's an uncomfortableness in coming back to these books and seeing some of the images.

When I first encountered Tintin, none of this was an issue for me, and I took the wide-ranging internationalism of the books in the spirit in which it was intended: as a kind of invitation to identify with the intrepid boy reporter as his adventures pulled him into all manner of exotic places.  The idea of a wide world spread out for me had an appeal, and a wonder, to it that I find hard to describe.  The best I can do to convey how I felt when I saw the cover of each new adventure—with Tintin striding out of a Balkan castle gate, or waving from a raft in a sea of sharks, or fleeing from the shadow of a Mayan pyramid, or intrepidly piloting a motorboat out to a black rock in the sea north of Scotland—is to quote a poem by the Swedish poet Jesper Svenbro that I had the good fortune to publish in Samizdat some years ago.  It's called "Idiolect," and it describes the way Svenbro, the son of a Lutheran minister, felt when his father spoke of "the world":
In my use of the word “world” there is a strangeness
which I have never been able to shake:
the word carries a hopefulness
which has no strict foundation
in the real world.
The world being what it is!
For although I know it cannot be used
in the sense I want to give it 
it is the same picture that faithfully
returns in my memory
whenever I pronounce it to myself—
it is the light space over my childhood,
white April sun over a province
whose horizon trembles in the distance:
The world rests over there.
It is the late 1940s. In those days
I went to Sunday school every week
in our northern Galilee. To me
Palestine was still a country
with heights, fields, and rivers such as ours;
and by a miracle
the hills of Rönneberga just outside of town
became the light green mountain
where on one spring day Jesus
had said to his pupils: “Go out into the whole world!”
Languages were buzzing in the air.
Jews, Arabs, Kappadocians, Egyptians!
We were in the Holy Land,
coltsfoots were blooming
along the ditch-banks of the whole world.
And among all the tongues that I heard 
was also the sound of my own.
Svenbro gets it exactly, that sense of the promise and the call of the whole world, languages buzzing in the air among exotic peoples, a world rich and strange, and about to include us—in the person of the dauntless and indomitable Tintin, to whom every door opened, for whom every scrape presented an unlikely deus ex machina rushing to the rescue.  What kid doesn't yearn for the world beyond the horizon, where the colors must be brighter and the streets more abuzz with life?  I certainly yearned for such a world away from my dusty, dry city on the Canadian prairies, and it seemed so tantalizingly possible to get there: how I envied my father, an artist always jetting off to then-forbidden China, or Japan, or some other enticing elsewhere, his rugged red duffle bag in the hallway, packed for unknown adventures.  My dad could do it, and Tintin, too: surely I'd soon be on my way.  And the possibilities were broad indeed, as one particularly resonant title in the Tintin series made clear: Destination Moon.  Tintin's globe-trotting appeared to me in the aspect of infinity, of possibility.  Political disapproval of his black-face Africans didn't appear on any map of my reading.

Likewise, the near-total absence of women in Tintin's world escaped my notice when I first read the books.  It can't escape my notice now.  You can go many, many pages with Tintin without a woman even appearing in the background.  I was surprised, when I recently re-read Cigars of the Pharoah, to find a woman appearing as early as page nine.  She even seems, for several frames, as if she's about to speak, but in the end she merely stands there, silently indignant at the goings-on: a fit emblem, if ever there was one, for the place of women in Hergé's boyish universe.  It's an utterly de-sexed universe, where men behave the way boys imagine they behave, and where anything resembling romance takes on the aspect of a comic trap: when the opera singer Bianca Castafiore takes an interest in Captain Haddock in The Castafiore Emerald, she becomes a figure for the Captain to escape, much as a boy might seek to escape from the cheek-pinching and embraces of an embarrassingly expressive and affectionate aunt.  It reminds one of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series, where women are out, for reasons beyond a chap's understanding, to tie a fellow down, when all he wants is a good adventure with the lads.

But these matters of one's adult awareness of racial politics and sexuality, contrasted with one's childhood naïveté, are minor league stuff compared with the really important difference in perception one notices coming back to the books after many years away.  I see those pages differently than I did when I was a boy, and it's in noting the specifics of how I see them differently that I notice that these books are a kind of Tintern Abbey for me.

For Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey was a haunted place—not in the literal sense, but in the sense that it was shrouded with past associations.  If you were ever to want an illustration for Wordsworth's precept that, in poetry, feeling gives importance to action, and not action to feeling, the poem "Tintern Abbey" is for you.  Here, the whole action of the poem involves the speaker (let's call him "Wordsworth," since in the convention of the Romantic descriptive-meditative poem the distance between author and speaker largely collapses) standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit a child, remembering things and glancing over at his sister Dorothy.  What's important is the aura of memories and associations surrounding the place—the specific feelings that haunt Wordsworth when he comes back to a location he'd known intimately as a boy, and sees it with both his adult eyes and the eyes of his childhood self.  Here's how he describes the return of his childhood sense of the place, and the difference between that sense and how he experiences the place as an adult:  
...with gleams of half-extinguish'd thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. 
He cannot paint what then he was: it's all just too different, too alien, yet uncannily, it is his own experience, and he bears it within himself.  He experiences the place as if he were himself a part of the natural landscape, one of the deer that ran through the scene, and all the sense details passed into and through him as if unmediated.  When he sees the abbey now, he experiences it screened through thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience.  He's analyzing and sorting it—a process that provides its own satisfactions, but it is a "remoter charm" than the charms of youthful experience, something supplied by thought and reflection. The earlier experience was more primitive, more vital—an appetite, a haunting, a fear and a love.

In the end, the difference between adult and childhood perception in "Tintern Abbey" is the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of experience: he stands back and understands things, now; but as a child he experienced no real division between himself and the world.  Freud, echoing Romain Rolland, called this the "oceanic feeling," the mystical oneness of self and other, and the preservation of a sense of this experience lies at the root of Wordsworth's pantheistic mysticism.

When I came back to Tintin, one of the things I noticed about the difference between how I read the books now and how I had read them as a boy was quite simple—and apparently quite trivial, compared to the differences Wordsworth felt vis-a-vis his childhood self: I read the books much faster now. This isn't a simple matter of being a better reader, being able to parse out sentences and arcs with the speed and skill of a longtime English professor, who totes around enough advanced degrees in literary studies to wallpaper a small faculty lounge. It's a matter of intuitively choosing the details that I'll treat as important. That is: I zip along in the narrative, noting which characters have entered the plot-arc, noticing the various narrative gaps that need to be filled in, and anticipating the curves in the road down which this plot-driven vehicle is heading.  I spend a lot less time than I did on seemingly irrelevant details: no longer do I pore over the depiction of a car's radiator grille, or the way a little Egyptian tea table in the background is put together, or how a Russian soldier's overcoat buttons up.  I remember how I lavished attention on these sorts of details, how I felt like I could spend a whole day sucking the juice out of each detail-rich page.  And it wasn't just visual details that held me: I remember trying to imagine the worlds in which those details would make sense.  In The Broken Ear, for example, Tintin's adventures take him to a couple of Latin American banana republics, and he ends up wearing an elaborate colonel's uniform—but it differs in cut and color from other uniforms worn by other colonels in the same army.  I tried to imagine the different branches of the military that might give rise to such differences, the social world and bureaucracy in which they'd make sense.  It haunted me for hours.  Or, in The Cigars of the Pharoah, I'd stare fascinated at a scene in which Tintin begins to hallucinate from the effects of a poison gas while trapped in an ancient Egyptian tomb.  He sees images out of Egyptian mythology, combined with the faces of people he knows, and as he passes out sees an image of his own face on the body of a baby crying in a cradle.  It all had a quality I'd recognize instantly when, as a teenager, I read a paperback copy of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater—and that I would recognize again a few years later when I first took certain hallucinogens in the company of a bunch of grad students in anthropology.  I remember groping for the significance of the image, and building a kind of nightmare vision of helplessness, of my own smallness in the vastness of that ancient Egyptian architecture and the huge duration of civilizational time.  It was one of my earliest intuitions of the sublime.  I could never get a sense like that from the image now: there's just no way it could cut through me like that.  I see the frame on the page, note the significance ("Tintin hallucinates, is helpless: plot point logged, time to move on") and turn the page.

The difference between how I read Tintin as a boy and how I read Tintin now is best understood by appealing to Aldous Huxley's notion of the mind as a "reducing valve."  In The Doors of Perception Huxley quotes the philosopher C.D. Broad, who says
The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful. 
Huxley then adds his own commentary, including these remarks
… in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, mind at large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet…. Most people, most of the time, know only what comes through the reducing valve and is consecrated as genuinely real by the local language. Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve…. Through these permanent or temporary by-passes there flows… something more than, and above all something different from, the carefully selected utilitarian material which our narrowed, individual minds regard as a complete, or at least sufficient, picture of reality.
We adults are experts at screening material for relevance, at editing out phenomena that are, or seem to be, of no particular use to us. We need to do this just to get through the day, and, depending on the kind of things we do in our highly-specialized society, we screen out very different things. I still remember going on bicycle rides with a field biologist friend, and being perpetually humbled by how much more he saw on the trails around us, how he could read the nuance and significance of the way a dead cicada's body had decayed. He was hopeless at reading a poem, though, having no idea what to look for in terms of allusion or alliteration, a fact in which my wounded pride found some comfort.  He'd learned a framework of understanding that revealed a great deal to him, but also took him away from whole swathes of experience, and I'd done the same in a different way.  We were both living in highly screened worlds, sorted for relevance to the way we lived and the things we did in our daily experience.  These are adult ways of perceiving: a child sees things differently.  A child does not yet have a framework of relevance to use as a screen, and as a result the child's experience is radically different from the adult's.

Or perhaps this isn't quite right.  Perhaps it's not just that, as children, we don't know what's relevant to us, and thus experience the world in a less thoroughly mediated way than do adults.  Perhaps it's that, as a necessary part of our building up of our mental worlds, we're taking in as much as we can about all things at all times.  Maybe I pored over those Latin American colonel's uniforms to learn about the visual manifestations of authority (shoulder braid and jodhpurs and peaked caps), and to learn about the possible varieties of hierarchy and social organization.  Perhaps it's not that I had no sense of relevance, but that so much more was relevant to me, back when the mental tabula was so much more rasa than it has since become.  Either way, the physiological differences between the child's brain—in which the channels for, say, language acquisition are so much more open than they are later in life—must surely play a role.

This screening of experience for relevance is a powerful thing.  It certainly allows me to absorb a great deal of information quickly: when one "guts" a critical book, taking from its 250 pages everything one needs in an hour of selective reading, one is screening quite efficiently.  But something very real is lost in the process of learning to screen for relevance.  In fact, what's lost is every bit as profound as what Wordsworth feels he's lost in "Tintern Abbey"—and may amount to much the same thing.

What Wordsworth lost was a kind of selflessness, not in the sense of being a giving or unselfish person, but in the sense of not feeling, immediately and intuitively, any division between the self and the world.  He lost the oceanic feeling, the mystical intuition of the essential unity of all things.  When I read Tintin without regard for the usefulness of particular details for my understanding of the plot, I was reading in what a Kantian philosopher might describe as a disinterested way.  Not uninterested (far from it), but without self-interest, without a desire to limit perception to what is relevant to my intentions and goals.  This is pure aesthetic experience, for Kant, and it takes us out of our individual desires and goals and self-interests—it takes us, that is, out of our selves.  We become like the ecstatic Ralph Waldo Emerson when, in "Nature," he depicts himself in a state where "all mean egotism vanishes" and, as he says, "I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me."  It's no small thing to Emerson, who continues his sentence by adding that, in such a state, he is "part or particle of God."

When I recall how I read, without self or self-interest, without the screening for relevance to my adult sense of what is significant, I feel that not having that experience any more is an enormous loss.  I feel the entry into self and self-interest—the entry into identity—is a loss, much as it is in Wordsworth's famous "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," where it is an entry into the "shades of the prison-house."  But, just as Wordsworth could recall his early, selfless self by returning to his childhood haunts, I can recall of my prior state by going back to the things over which I lavished my attention as a child—the two dozen or so volumes of The Adventures of Tintin.

Some might think there's a sad process of decline to be seen here, in that Wordsworth had his experiences of this sort at the dramatic ruins of an ancient abbey, and in the sublime forms of nature, and I'm describing mine as having occurred while reading the pages of that still-despised genre, the comic book.  But to think in this way is to miss out on a couple of things.  Firstly, there's the fact that Wordsworth's setting for such experiences only seems appropriately significance and literary to us because we live in the shadow of two centuries of Romantic and post-Romantic aesthetics.  Not too long before Wordsworth wrote, it would have seemed undignified and odd to locate significant experiences in a place as trivial and specific as an old, beat-up building in the boondocks.  When Milton wanted sublimity and significance, he took us to Eden, Heaven, and the halls of Pandemonium.  Secondly, it's less worthwhile to judge differences between the old abbey and the Tintin books than it is to understand their significance.  And there is, I think, some significance to the difference between how Wordsworth came to understand what he'd lost, in terms of childhood perception, and how I came to understand the same thing.

Wordsworth didn't experience his world as deeply rooted and traditional (his great poem "Michael," for example, is about the destruction of the rooted and the traditional).  But compared to us, he and his generation were astonishingly rooted—and this plays out in the ways we have our important experiences.  He has his by returning to a place he knew well as a child, a place near which he spent almost the entirety of his youth.  I, like a lot of people of my generation, had a much more mobile childhood—I lived in a city on the prairies of Canada, but I'd spend many weekends at a house on a lake up in the great evergreen forests, and part of each year in an industrial town in Ohio, and much of the summer in our house in Maine.  I moved houses more times than I can remember, often every year, and I've kept on moving ever since.  This may not be exactly typical, but it's indicative: we are no longer a people who grow up in one place, close to where our parents grew up, and then return to the same area for our adult lives.  We are a mobile people, and I think it's appropriate that my own early experience of self-loss, and my later experience of the difference between that early state and the world of adulthood, with it's very different charms, happened not in the rich experience of a physical locality, but in the act of reading.  Like other wanderers before us, we are a people of the book.