Essay 9: How to Read a Book Meta-Intelligently

This re-education book wishes to see a book you may read, besides the plot and story, as a site of multiple “domains” tangled up together or, to use string theory lingo, curled up with each other invisibly.

Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous 1934 novel, Tender is the Night. The following excerpt comes from Book 1, Chapter 7, where a dinner party is described like this:

“There were fireflies riding on the dark air and a dog baying on some low and far-away ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights. And, as if a curious hushed laugh from Mrs. McKisco were a signal that such a detachment from the world had been attained, the two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand, as if to make up to their guests, already so subtly assured of their importance, so flattered with politeness, for anything they might still miss from that country well left behind. Just for a moment they seemed to speak to every one at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces turned up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree. Then abruptly the table broke up – the moment when the guests had been daringly lifted above conviviality into the rarer atmosphere of sentiment, was over before it could be irreverently breathed, before they had half realized it was there.”

The second sentence above describes the relationship of the guests, their sense of themselves, the table, the universe. The German thinker Max Scheler (died in 1928) has a book The Human Place in the Cosmos where he implies that one aspect of being human is the anxiety-inducing inability to figure out where we are, what our place is, in various senses. It makes humans fated to a kind of restlessness. This Scheler-esque sense of things is conveyed by Fitzgerald as a novelist with a narrative and not as a philosopher with a proposition or theory. While this is taking place, as you’d expect, the guests at the party hear and see expected parts of the natural “soundscape” such as the baying dog and the “fireflies riding on the dark air.”

A testy political exchange now occurs where the right-wing guest, Tommy Balaban, explains his views to the others:

“Well, I’m a soldier, Balaban answered pleasantly. My business is to kill people. I fought against the Rif because I am a European, and I have fought the Communists because they want to take my property from me.”

Think of this explanation by Balaban as implying a kind of political graph: on the vertical axis, you put “who I am” (my identity) [i.e., “a European”]. On the horizontal axis put what Balaban owns, “my property” in his version. This gives you a point of intersection on the graph of being and having, the intersection of what I am and what I have. Anything that pushes against this intersection point is met by violence and murder.

The Rifs in Balaban’s discussion are the North African tribesmen fighting against French colonialism, like the Berbers. The 1920s Rif War was extremely brutal and Franco and Pétain met in this conflict.

Thus, without discussing it explicitly, we have the world situation as a kind of backdrop or envelope for this Fitzgerald fiction.

Notice that all of these dimensions, both the hidden and near (such as the fireflies riding on the night air) are all part of the discussion and “curled up” on each other.

A meta-intelligent understanding of a book would notice how various domains and realms, various dimensions of things, come together in the book and evolve with the story.