Guiding Fiction

Fact                             -                      Fiction
Objective                    -                      Subjective
Complete                    -                      Incomplete
Top-down                   -                      Bottom-up
Narrow                        -                      Wide
Theory                         -                      Story
State                            -                      Process

A story, or theory, cannot account for everything - but can it account for enough?

A story is a heuristic, a general guide for action based on experience. A theory is a story at high resolution, a definitive statement on what is, and a prediction of what will be: a story taken literally.

Stories are entraining; they narrow us down, focus us on a certain set of information. Like a constellation, they select points from an infinitude, defining what is salient and what is not  In believing in a story, or theory, we plant our feet in the ground and commit to a position; this, not that. When we commit too much we become ideologues.

Stories are how we ‘kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.’ Meaning is, then, created retrospectively, by reflecting on past events.

Theories are man-made, and our sight is limited. The more simple the context, the more likely a theory may be good enough; the more complex, the more likely the theory will be insufficient.

Theories work within known/complicated domains. Because stories are 'loose' and allow room for interpretation (this looseness giving us what Taleb calls 'optionality'), they are better suited to complex domains. In a complex domain we do not want to be tied to a narrow range of action because it is likely that such action could be wrong. Snowden recommends a series of 'safe to fail' experiments; in other words, send probes in multiple directions, but be prepared for most of these to fail. Do not invest heavily in any single strategy, rather spread your investments lightly across multiple lines of inquiry. The looseness of the heuristic, or guiding story, allows for such a diverse approach.

Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful.


That which enables us to know and understand aright in the things of God, must be a living principle of holiness within us.

[John Smith the Platonist]

[...] knowledge comes about in so far as the object known is within the knower.

[St Thomas Aquinas]

[...] the world partly becomes - comes to be - how it is imagined.

[Gregory Bateson]
Mind and Nature, p.220

Theories [can] matter according to their use. They are not destinations, they are our means of transport ... the question about a belief is not whether it is true but, rather, how would my life be better if I believed it?

So a belief can never be an idol or a fetish (or a resting-place), it can only be a tool or an instrument.

However subtly, however difficult to discern, what we believe issues in what we do. Our theories are compasses, if not maps.

When [we ask] of any particular truth, 'What is its cash-value in terms of particular experience?' [we] imagine what this particular truth, this particular belief, can buy us, what experiences it can provide us with.

Our truths are not out there, like new planets, waiting for us to discover them; they are made by us (and for us) like uniforms. In the service of our needs, they equip us for our particular tasks.

What we believe about God - like what we believe about the differences between the sexes, or about creativity - will above all affect our conduct.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('On Not Making It Up'), p.76, 77, 78

Any attempt to square linguistic statements with the world is to compare apples and oranges, to try to climb out of our own minds and language to see the world as it is in itself, and Rorty saw no profit in it.

Indeed, following his own pragmatist criteria, he did not suggest that he was offering an alternative view of the world; rather, he proposed that his way of talking about things was useful. 

Instead of spending valuable time asking whether various types of inquiry—science, political thought, poetry, alchemy—are better or worse at capturing the truth, we should ask whether there are new ways of describing and redescribing the world that better serve our variety of goals, with the understanding that "hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts."

[James Ryerson]
'The Quest for Uncertainty: Richard Rorty's pragmatic pilgrimage'

In a letter to Popper [...] Einstein states quite clearly his agreement with Popper 'that theory cannot be fabricated out of the results of observation, but that it can only be invented.'

What is more, observation as such cannot be prior to theory as such, since some theory is presupposed by any observation. Failure to recognise this is, in Popper's view, the flaw in the foundations of the empirical tradition.

'[...] the belief that we can start with pure observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd; as may be illustrated by the story of the man who dedicated his life to natural science, wrote down everything he could observe, and bequeathed his priceless collection of observations to the Royal Society to be used as inductive evidence....

Twenty-five years ago I tried to bring home the same point to a group of physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: "Take a pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!" They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, "Observe!" is absurd....

Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem [...]'

This means 'that observations, and even more so observation statements and statements of experimental results, are always interpretations of the facts observed; that they are interpretations in the light of theories'. 

At every level, then, our knowledge can consist only of our theories.

[Brian Magee]
Popper, p. 33-4

The person with whom saving is a desire springing from his personality gains also a profound psychological satisfaction in being able to act accordingly; that is, he is not only benefited practically when he saves, but he also feels satisfied psychologically.

One can easily convince oneself of this if one observes, for instance, a woman of the lower middle class shopping in the market and being as happy about two cents saved as another person of a different character may be about the enjoyment of some sensuous pleasure.

This psychological satisfaction occurs not only if a person acts in accordance with the demands springing from his character structure but also when he reads or listens to ideas that appeal to him for the same reason.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.243

In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. His (commonly unconscious) beliefs about what sort of world it is will determine how he sees it and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and acting will determine his beliefs about its nature.

The living man is thus bound within a net of epistemological and ontological premises which - regardless of ultimate truth or falsity - become partially self-validating for him.

[...] what is important is a body of habitual assumptions or premises implicit in the relationship between man and environment, and that these premises may be true or false [...] the net of premises which govern adaptation (or maladaptation) to the human and physical environment. In George Kelly's vocabulary, these are the rules by which an individual "construes" his experience.

I am concerned especially with that group of premises upon which Occidental concepts of the "self" are built, and conversely, with premises which are corrective to some of the more gross Occidental errors associated with that concept.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('The Cybernetics of "Self": A Theory of Alcoholism'), p.314-15

The way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives.

For the manner in which we tell ourselves about what is going on is the genre through which events become experiences. There are no bare events, plain facts, simple data - or rather this too is an archetypal fantasy: the simplistics of brute (or dead) nature.

... our fundamental unease with Freud's theory is not that it cannot be verified but that it does not satisfy. We fail to fall for it not because it empirically fails as a hypothesis about human nature, but because it fails poetically, as a deep enough, embracing enough, aesthetic enough plot for providing dynamic coherence and meaning to the dispersed narratives of our lives.

We see what our ideas ... allow us to see.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.11, 23, 36

"Being born, coming into this particular body, these particular parents, and in such a place, and what we call external circumstances ... form a unity and are as it were spun together." Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity - and none of us has an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

Images such as these fill the mind with lovely speculations, and have for centuries.

These cosmological myths place us in the world and involve us with it. The cosmologies of today - big bangs and black holes, antimatter and curved, ever-expanding space going nowhere - leave us in dread and senseless incomprehensibility.

Random events, nothing truly necessary. Science's cosmologies say nothing about the soul, and so they say nothing to the soul, about its reason for existence, how it comes to be and where it might be going, and what its tasks could be.

Explanation by the physical sciences of the ultimate origins of and reasons for our life may not be such a good way to go. Any cosmology that begins on the wrong foot will not only produce lame accounts; it will also lame our love of existence. The creation myth of random events in unimaginable space keeps the Western soul floating in a stratosphere where it cannot breathe.

No wonder ... Plato says of his "fable": "It may preserve us, if we are persuaded by it."

[James Hillman]
The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, p.46, 47

You also have to look at yourself in a temporal context - to have some sense of your life as a narrative, in order to judge whether it is going well or not.

This does not mean that everything from cutting your first teeth to losing the lot of them has to form a logically coherent whole. Not many narratives of any degree of subtlety have that kind of unity.

Narratives can be multiple, ruptured, recursive and diffuse and still be narratives.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.127

People find no resources within themselves and nothing to inspire them outside. It's a state of affairs that would be inconceivable in Tibetan society, where the dying are sustained by the teachings they're reflected on all their lives, and thanks to which they're prepared for death.

They have all the reference points and inner strength they need. Because they've been able to give meaning to their lives, they know how to give meaning to their death, too.

[Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.270

Storytelling plays a noble and historic role in our lives and in society.

Stories can give us a narrative to guide and instruct us. They are crucial to our knowing who we are; they provide a sense of identity. Some stories, however, become the limitation to creating anything new ... We need to distinguish between the stories that give meaning to our lives and help us find our voice, and those that limit our possibility.

The stories we find useful and fulfilling are the ones that are metaphors, signposts, parables, and inspiration for the fullest expression of our humanity.

Limiting stories are versions of the past.

They are stories about the conclusions we drew from events that happened to us. Other limiting stories are those that are rehearsed or make the point that the future will be a slightly modified continuation of the past out of which the story arose. Stories of this nature place us as victims of events or even fate.

Theater, movies, song, literature, and art are storytelling of the highest order. These are the mediums for building an individual sense of what it means to be human.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.35

Gender egalitarian societies often have creation stories which give important roles to women. Without the active explanation in myth, there is no ideological underpinning for a high female status.

The same may be true for the berdache. In cultures where berdaches have high status, there is usually mythological justification for the practice. It is not enough that the religion be neutral or tolerant. It must actively explain the phenomenon in a positive manner.

[Walter L. Williams]
The Spirit and the Flesh, p. 188-9

"Should we be mindful of dreams?" Joseph asked. "Can we interpret them?"

The Master looked into his eyes and said tersely: "We should be mindful of everything, for we can interpret everything."

[Hermann Hesse]
The Glass Bead Game, p. 80-1

PTSD is often seen as resulting from an inability to create an organized narrative account of the trauma.

Therapeutic models of trauma in fact suggest that the generation of a comprehensible narrative account of the traumatic experience is an important part of the recovery process.

Such therapeutic processes can be understood within the EMU framework as helping to constrain the interpretation and behavioral implications of the event within a clear explanatory narrative, thereby dramatically reducing the uncertainty associated with the traumatic experience.

It has long been argued that one of the functions of religion is to reduce uncertainty about the meaning of the world. However, the EMU predicts that any strong interpretive structure (e.g., political ideology) would constrain the behavioral and perceptual affordances associated with an experience and, therefore, serve a similar uncertainty-reducing function (cf. Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Hogg, 2005).

[Jacob B. Hirsh, Raymond A. Mar, and Jordan B. Peterson]
Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety'

I care about the premises more than the theories, and I want to minimise reliance on theories, stay light on my feet, and reduce my surprises.

I want to be broadly right rather than precisely wrong. Elegance in theories is often indicative of Platonicity and weakness - it invites you to seek elegance for elegance’s sake. A theory is like medicine (or government): often useless, sometimes necessary, always self-serving, and on occasion lethal.

So it needs to be used with care, moderation, and close adult supervision.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 285

In Greek legend, there were two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimetheus means “after-thinker,” equivalent to someone who falls for the retrospective distortion of fitting theories to past events in an ex post narrative manner.

Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean - one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolises the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.

You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality […] It is a way - the only way - to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future, while reliance on narratives is the exact opposite: one is domesticated by uncertainty, and ironically set back. You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.

All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true - the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.

English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn’t behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte)  or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous.

Consider the role of the heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations - what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 211-13, 215

Definitions are neither true nor false; they're useful or useless.

We can only find out if a definition is useful by trying to apply it to organisms, conceptual issues, and experimental issues. Hopefully, it turns out to be interesting.

[Stuart Kauffman]
'The Adjacent Possible'

Science's answers derive from the same source as its questions. On the one hand, the scientist requires experiments to ascertain that his hypotheses are valid and thus true laws of nature; only by tests can he be sure there are no exceptions and that his concepts are genuine concepts of the understanding and not only imaginary. 

On the other hand, the scientist also requires a priori hypotheses even to approach the world, to observe and test it fruitfully. And the situation of science in turn reflects the nature of all human experience. 

Man can elicit from nature universal laws not by waiting on nature like a pupil for answers, but only, like an appointed judge, by putting shrewd questions to nature that will be deliberately and precisely revealing. 

[Richard Tarnas]
The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 346

The illumination and the color of all things have changed. 

We no longer understand altogether how the ancients experienced what was most familiar and frequent - for example, the day and waking. Since the ancients believed in dreams, waking appeared in a different light. 

The same goes for the whole of life, which was illumined by death and its significance; for us "death” means something quite different. All experiences shone differently because a god shone through them. All decisions and perspectives on the remote future, too; for they had oracles and secret portents and believed in prophecy. 

We have given things a new color; we go on painting them continually. But what do all our efforts to date avail when we hold them against the colored splendor of that old master - ancient humanity?

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science,152

One must have before one's eyes an imaginary goal that gives one an incentive. 

[...] One would lose courage if one were not sustained by false ideas [...] If by some misfortune the truth were to show itself as it is, all would be lost; but it seems to grasp very well the importance of always remaining well concealed.

[Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle]
Dialogues of the Dead, Part V, Dialogue 2

It is important, nevertheless, to emphasize that interpretation can discover only whether a particular instance of behavior was "in character." That sometimes—perhaps often—it is possible to judge someone's behavior accurately as being "in character," however, should not lull us into believing that we have achieved certainty in judging a particular instance of behavior. 

That is, when we are dealing with complex adaptive systems, surprises are unavoidable. Because of their sensitivity to initial conditions - due, in turn, to their contextual and temporal embeddedness - complex adaptive systems are characterized by unusual twists and novel turns. 

Given this limitation, we must always keep in mind that reconstructing specific instances of behavior will always be, at best, an interpretation and not a deduction - a much more fallible type of explanation than we had previously hoped was available. Interpretations of human action are always tentative.

Absolute certainty about either what the agent just did, or what he or she will do—specifically—a year from now, is therefore impossible. As the title of Prigogine's latest book (1996) announces, the dynamics of complex systems signal the end of certainty. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.225 

Related posts:-
The Silence is the Source
Testing new opinions and courting new impressions
A necessary lie
A Higher Power
The gods are within us
Everything is alive
Faith vs Reason
Imagine something better 
Fear Visions
Take Aim
Where mind goes, body follows 
Playing With Your Self
Creative Partnerships
Hell in a basket
The Creation of Meaning
Memory Lane 
Case History
Ideas with weight 
Masters of the Universe
A Healthy Body  
Twisted out of Shape
The Death of Meaning 
Where language ends (and art begins) 
Which difference makes a difference?
Top-down / Bottom-up


It would be possible, from a psychoanalytic point of view, to describe the singularity of a person's life in terms of the risks courted and the risks evaded (in this sense, a symptom turns up when an opportunity has been missed, a risk not taken).

As Lenin insisted, it is always never the right time for a revolution.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('Learning to Live'), p.159

The development of one's essential traits depends indeed on circumstances that allow for practice and risk taking.

[James Hillman]
We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.70

I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth, I only regret in my chilled age certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.

[Henry James]

Virtue is heedless of personal safety and comport. Its antithesis, as Emerson makes clear in “Heroism” (1841), his most extended elaboration of this stoical conception of virtue, is not selfishness, a lack of altruism, or an unwillingness to subordinate self-interest to the common good but caution, timidity, “false prudence,” “sensual prosperity” - an inordinate concern for “health and wealth.”

“Tart cathartic virtue” is the antidote to the “despondency and cowardice of our religious and political theorists.” It is the “plenitude of energy and power” that announces itself in “contempt for safety and ease,” in “contradiction to the voice of mankind,” and in “good humour and hilarity.”

It is the “military attitude of the soul,” in short, to which “we give the name of Heroism.”

“Work and live,” Emerson exhorts his reader; but honest work is hard to come by. The more we need it, the more it eludes us. An honourable calling, which Emerson regards, in effect, as the everyday form of heroism, helps to reconcile us not merely to everyday disappointments but to the metaphysical terror and pain of existence.

We are oppressed by the disparity between our oceanic desires and our satisfactions, which are measured out in “drops”; between our longing for immortality and the certainty of death; between our need to know what will happen to us after death and the impossibility of finding out. In a faithless age, Emerson seems to suggest, the religious spirit lingers on chiefly in the “low curiosity” that makes us demand definitive answers to everything, or again in the nagging speculation about the “origin of evil” that he compares to mumps, measles, and whooping cough - adolescent diseases to which the “simple mind” is immune.

“The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses,” Emerson says, “is to forego all low curiosity, and accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live.”

England is the “best of actual nations,” but an excessive concern with comfort, a “headlong bias to utility,” and a “self-conceited modish life made up of trifles” have coarsened the English character and led to a loss of “commanding views in literature, philosophy and science.”

Their respect for workmanship notwithstanding, the English have nevertheless created a civilisation in which a “manly” life becomes more and more difficult to achieve. Their very success, which strengthens “base wealth” and “vulgar aims,” dampens youthful ardor or else forces it into the wrong channels.

Englishmen enjoy all the requirements of a good life except appropriate outlets for their energy and ambition, which therefore aim only to become well educated, clever, and comfortable […] A society that finds so little for young people to do cannot welcome new members with much enthusiasm - another sign, as Emerson puts it in another context, that England now “lives on its capital.”

In 1856, it was still possible to hope that things would turn out otherwise in the New World. “There, in that great sloven continent, in high Alleghany pastures, in the sea-wide, sky skirted prairie, still sleeps and murmurs and hides the great mother, long since driven away from the trim hedge-rows and over-cultivated garden of England. And, in England, I am quite too sensible of this. Every one is on his good behavior, and must be dressed for dinner at six.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p. 274-5, 277-80

National “opulence” led to “national effeminacy and effeteness”: “corruption exists in direct ratio to the wealth of a nation.” Lea blamed “excessive national wealth” for the spread of "luxury, feminism, theorism, [and] the decay of martial inclination and military capacity."

The fear of decadence haunted all the "over-civilized" industrial nations at this time, especially the patrician classes, who embraced imperialism not so much as a higher stage of capitalism but as the cure for capitalism - for the "purposeless gluttony," as Lea put it, that sapped the fighting spirit.

In the imaginative writing prompted by the British rule in India, according to Allen J. Greenberger, "the value of empire-building seems to have less to do with the Empire itself than with the development of certain qualities in the empire-builders." Colonization would revitalize the home country, overcoming the "almost oriental luxury," in the words of a minor novelist, that had "gone far to weaken the fibre" of the British middle class.

Henry Stanley, the explorer of darkest Africa, drew the usual lesson in his autobiography: "England is losing her great characteristics, she is becoming too effeminate and soft from long inactivity, long enfeeblement of purpose, brought about by indolence and ease, distrust of her own powers and shaken nerves."

Africa, in particular, appealed to European imperialists at the turn of the century for the same reason that images of the Wild West appealed to Americans. "A man's man here," says the hero of one of the many English novels celebrating the Boer War. "He means something. He can stretch himself […]”

The object of war was glory, not plunder or personal gain, and it appealed to heroism, not to envy and hatred.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.298-9, 311

Hard work and even danger ceased to be "repulsive" when they served the "innate pugnacity and all the love of glory" that modern man inherited from his ancestors.

Peaceloving people overlooked the importance and legitimacy of those needs, treating them as atavistic impulses destined to wither in the wake of modern rationalism and moral enlightenment. On the contrary, James argued, the need to participate in shared communities of risk and high purpose was inextinguishable.

"Martial virtues,” accordingly, were "absolute and permanent human goods.” If they could not be realized in some other way, they would continue to be realized in war itself. James urged pacifists “to enter more deeply into the esthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents.” They needed to understand why their humanitarian utopia "tastes mawkish and dishwatery to people who still keep a sense for life's more bitter flavors.”

Instead of dismissing out of hand the residual opposition to moral uplift and social improvement, they would do better to see it as the expression of an "unwillingness to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed."

Simon Patten foresaw a shift from a "pain economy" to a "pleasure economy," but even Patten, James noted, acknowledged the morally "disintegrative influences" of superabundance."Where is the sharpness and precipitousness," James wanted to know, "the contempt for life, whether one's own, or another? Where is the savage 'yes' and 'no,' the unconditional duty?”

Men and women achieved dignity only when asked to submit to an arduous discipline imposed by some "collectivity"; and "no collectivity is like an army for nourishing such pride.” The undemanding life of "pacific cosmopolitan industrialism," on the other hand, could only nourish a sense of "shame" in "worthy breasts."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.301

Mothers can be fatal to their sons. It is against the mother that men have erected their towering edifice of politics and sky-cult [...] The male projection of erection and ejaculation is the paradigm for all cultural projection and conceptualization—from art and philosophy to fantasy, hallucination, and obsession.

Women have conceptualized less in history not because men have kept them from doing so but because women do not need to conceptualize in order to exist.

[Camille Paglia]
Sexual Personae, p.14, 20

Courage is important, not simply as a quality of individuals, but as the quality necessary to sustain a household and a community.

Kudos, glory, belongs to the individual who excels in battle or in contest as a mark of recognition by his household and his community. Other qualities linked to courage also merit public recognition because of the part they play in sustaining the public order.

In the Homeric poems cunning is such a quality because cunning may have its achievements where courage is lacking or courage fails.

[Alasdair MacIntyre]
After Virtue, p.143

Related posts:-
Life Is Too Short!
Being Brave
Hear the Calling

New Look

Three years ago, I had a nightmare that I cut off all my hair. Ever since I'd started growing out my hair at 17, I'd vowed that I would never cut it. As a teenager, I always felt skinnier and younger than anyone else, and somehow the extra hair made me feel bigger and more adult. Soon, I came to see my hair as a reflection of my integrity and personal steadfastness, and later, as the symbol of my identity as a rock-and-roll performer.

The year after I started growing my hair, I moved to New York to become an entertainer. I wanted to combine all the things I enjoyed most - music, performance, art, philosophy - into an experience of heightened fun. I fashioned my image accordingly. I associated long hair with freedom of spirit and rebellious living, and I wanted to harness those associations to entertain people.

So I transformed myself into an archetypal frontman, a character I could lose myself in. Onstage, my long, unkempt strands created a sense of additional craziness, amplifying every head bang, every body slam. My stage uniform was a white T-shirt, white jeans, running shoes, and a watch, with my hair obscuring an unshaven, dirty, sometimes bloody face.

The idea was to create a basic silhouette that would stick in people's minds. I wanted children to be able to draw me using just a few basic visual elements, like a cartoon superhero. I grew up drawing comics, and the idea of being able to represent a persona with just a few basic elements seemed almost mythic to me.

My hair was the envy of many women, even though I washed it only four times in six years, and sometimes it smelled so bad it made me sick. I wanted to get reactions out of people, to push the idea that I was wild and free. Abandoning personal hygiene was one obvious strategy. Sometimes, I even used fake dirt to make my clothes look as if they were covered with sweat and human waste. I was amazed by what a primal response filth could elicit from people - women in particular.

So the dream about cutting my hair made me think I'd lost everything. My entire identity was caught up in those oily locks!

But then I woke up. I leaped out of bed and looked in the mirror. It was still there - long and flowing. I felt like I'd been given a second chance.

The I started thinking. What if I did cut my hair? Would I look ridiculous? Would people think I was a sellout? Would my dance moves lose their power? Maybe my subconscious was telling me to shake things up. Had I become too safe, too predictable? Did my persona take all the risk out of creativity?

If I really wanted to be crazy, then maybe I needed to let go, since holding on to anything as superficial as a hairstyle was going to keep my real wildness from riding free. I wanted to shock myself. I wanted to do what I most feared, just for the sake of doing it. I wanted to embrace the idea that I could only discover myself through fearless living.

I called up an old friend and told him what I was thinking. "Are you crazy?" he shouted. "Do not cut your hair! It's career suicide!"

That was all I needed to hear. Thirty minutes later I was in a barber's chair. "It must have taken years to grow your hair so long," the barber said. "Why cut it now?""I had a dream that it would be the worst thing that could happen to me," I told him. "So I figured I better do it."

He began to snip. I watched in the mirror, expecting an unrecognizable face to emerge. But all I saw was me. Realizing that my identity transcended my aesthetic choices was liberating. But it was scary too. For so long I had maintained a fixed conception of myself, never considering that there were countless other possibilities, each one just as valid and real.

Offstage, people stopped recognizing me - not just fans, but also friends, business partners, even ex-girlfriends. People speculated that the "real" Andrew W.K. had been spirited off and some imposter had assumed his identity.

And in a way, people were right. I'm not the same Andrew W.K. anymore. Since I cut my hair, I've begun actively challenging many of the other assumptions I've always had about myself.

I used to think that I didn't want to make music with other people. So I started looking for opportunities to work with other musicians, and I wound up producing Repentance, the new album by Lee "Scratch" Perry. I used to insist that I would never participate in organised religion, so I began making friends who believed in God and went to church, and I even joined a church.

These decisions might sounds like contradictions, but I've never felt lost or uncertain about them. Instead, I feel more and more that I have nothing to be afraid of. No matter what I do, I can only be myself. It's the only choice I have.

[Andrew W.K.]

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