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Naked Singularity Big Read: Do Geniuses Make Mistakes?

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

Earlier this week we were talking about ideas of perfection, which are introduced into A Naked Singularity at the beginning of this week’s reading, and which, I think, will come to dominate the rest of the novel, in one way or another. (And at this point I quite wholeheartedly add: feel free to disagree. My reading of A Naked Singularity is gravitating more and more toward ideas of perfection, but that is by no means the only way to read this book.)

After Dane tells his story of offering perfect representation, we’re back to Casi’s life as a public defender. (But before we get there: what do you think of Dane as a character? he clearly has some very strong opinions on things, and I find many of them distasteful, but I also think De La Pava does a good job of making him a comic enough figure that I can look past that as a reader and still enjoy his presence and his friendship with Casi.)

Anyway, Casi’s life as a PD. After and during Dane’s talk about perfection, I notice that there’s a lot of talk about errors and what could have been done differently. On page 187, in the context of a larger discussion of jurors, Dane mentions how the jurors always like to come up to an attorney after trial and explain why they voted as they did. And then again on page 191, they discuss “errors that boggle the mind in their stupidity.” We’re starting to get into some fairly thick terrain here with regard to what our concept of perfection can tolerate and exactly how error fits into it. I also note, in passing, the relevance that these questions have for our concepts of morality and justice.

After that, on page 207, we see the introduction of Wilfred Benitez, a real-life Puerto Rican “genius” boxer whose story will be fully told later in the novel. This introduction gives us Casi’s comic impression of what it must have been like for Benitez as a child, growing up with preternaturally enhanced boxing skills. It also introduces the question of what to do with genius in a capitalistic society. The answer is obvious: monetize it: “And maybe just this once, futuristic money would not be mentioned.” [208] This section also introduces the idea of making good on one’s genius, which is something Casi feels deeply in his own life.

I found Dane’s sermon on pp. 212-13 about a person being “nothing more than the sum of how he is perceived by others” as very much fitting in with the book’s emerging ideas about TV and reality, and the ensuing discussion of how that relates to dating life very reminiscent of David Foster Wallace.

And then, of course, after that we have DeLeon’s long story of an upcoming drug transaction involving an almost mythical brand of cocaine (again, legendary drugs, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace). I thought the telling of this story was fantastic, one of the book’s strongest sections. In addition to the obvious relevance this incident has to the plot of A Naked Singularity, I liked the thematic relevance. The way DeLeon’s story kept getting bigger and more complex, with so many threads that were present but could not be expanded on for continuity’s sake, all this put me in mind of a vast world operating side by side with the equally vast legal one Casi has endeavored to guide us through.

So a few questions:

1. What do you make of Uncle Sam and the monkey (pp 256-58)?

2. And something we haven’t discussed at all yet: what of the murdered child, the suspected child killers (who come out in this section), and all the truly crass media and audience participation in the incident?

3. And what about Casi’s defense of Arronaugh? How does this fit into the emerging plot threads involving Casi’s and Dane’s caper? I’m particularly curious about Casi’s defense, which relies much more on a legal loophole than any argument about guilt or innocence.

4. How’d you feel about Dane’s depiction of smoking crack? And how does his experiences therein fit into the book’s emerging ideas of being satisfied with one’s life, perfection, and justice/culpability?

For the rest of the Naked Singularity Big Read posts, click here.

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7 comments to Naked Singularity Big Read: Do Geniuses Make Mistakes?

  • GeorgeF

    Great title and entry, Scott. Hope this does not side track your conversation too much, but could not help but think of Joyce’s words from Ulysses: “A man of great genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

  • Iain

    I enjoyed Dane’s madness, though I expected at every moment for the novel to reveal that he is some distorted projection of Casi’s mind.
    The section of Dane’s sermon you refer to, its ties to Angus’ project, and notions of television and reality do persist throughout the novel. I found the strength of the novel’s examination of these themes to unravel as it continues, but I am interested to read what others thought.
    The Uncle Sam and the monkey passage was central to my reading of the novel. It marks a breaking point for Casi, and his grasp on reality begins to slip. While this is not made explicit, I was curious if others thought this as well?
    The ‘smoking crack’ passages, a send-up of Vollmann? Anyone?

  • Eric

    The image of the chimp and Uncle Sam forming an arch with their hands, then turning to follow Casi — a troubling, elusive, surreal image. Interesting that the chimp is referred to as the “ninety-eight-percent-human” … as if Casi’s being stalked by an evolutionary ancestor. The talk of mapping the human genome might also be pertinent here, though I’m more inclined to link the chimp to the McDonaldland reality that seems to be overtaking the novel.

    The chimp reappears in the dream sequence which also brings in a fight against Benitez (possibly as a child or old man), an artificial womb, Rane’s killing of Superdad, and Tula’s coffin. I think the dream sequence effectively marshals a lot of Casi’s psychic flotsam from Part 1, giving us a strong sense that he’s at a psychological breaking point here.

    I have to think that De La Pava’s doing something with the extreme youth of both victim and perpetrators in the Tula case. The “bad baby” and the seven-year-old murderers as prodigies of a violent media culture, with Conley and the other betting lawyers as pundits savoring the kids’ precocity.

    I’d be curious to talk more about the Juan Hurtado defense. I think the scene works to show that Casi is no longer quite functioning within the system; something’s slipping at this point. His anger at Judge Arronaugh seems excessive and his defense sort of narrow and literalistic. This is in sharp contrast to the bail hearing, for example, when Casi seems to be making legally and morally sound arguments which are ignored by the presiding judge. Is this scene preparing us for his break with the system?

    This is a small point, but does anyone read anything into the court reporter’s name, Diane S. Salon? For some reason I kept staring at that name like it was going to reveal something to me.

  • Speaking of names, I’ve been trying to read up on Benitez on the side, and it seems his last win ever was against one Uncle Sam Wilson. Coincidence?

    The crack smoking was neat cuz it makes Dane like, what, a method lawyer. Trying to prove that you can get inside someone else’s head, make it real so to speak, so it somewhat related to the Honeymooners project. [I'm pressed for time now, will try to flesh this out later.]

  • Brandon

    Dane’s pursuit of perfection was a fantastic read. I too was fascinated by his unintentional pause at the end of his closing remarks and what this meant re: his attainment of perfection. And this is where I start to see the two major themes of the novel start to overlap: the quest of perfection, tied with the problem of perception.

    See Dane gave himself a failing grade when it came to achieving perfection; just as Casi says, there’d be no way for the jury to tell the difference between one of the “intentional fumbling or display of nerves” and this genuine pause that Dane suffers. So from the jury’s point of view, maybe Dane still did deliver the perfect defense. Although conversely, maybe even had Dane succeeded in his own mind, someone else in the jury may have seen some errors in the defense. There’s simply no way to ensure success within an unpredictable system, there are too many variables that are out of control: even Dane admits that jurors will “invariably” rush to tell the DA “what [they] did wrong,” to make themselves feel better about their decision, and all Dane could do in defense was create the intentional fumbling as a way to anticipate how jurors will react towards a “silver-tounged salesman.” Dane would argue that courtroom and jury behavior IS predicable, and thus, perfection can be achieved, but Casi’s case with Hurtado will illustrate otherwise…

    But so first: perfection is contingent upon perception. Which (jumping ahead by one page) on the first page of part 2, Casi’s sister says “you can’t just verbally negate a perception of mine.” One’s perceptions are subjective, and are not related to any objective truth or reality. This is hugely important, I think.

    But perceptions can be faulty, they can be broken or “hacked” into perceiving things that are not there, and they can gloss over or miss things that are in fact objectively real. This is where Angus comes in with his Honeymooners experiment. As entertaining as it is as a philosophy grad student exercise, Ralph Kramden is not going to be a “real” person, but will at the most be “constructed” as one within Angus’s *altered* mind: altered by marathon viewing sessions that bring to mind aboriginal dances that would go on for days leading to exhaustion and dehydration, ultimately culminating in “religious experiences” because of the altered state of mind that dancing for 36 hours straight brings about. Ralph Kramden would be no more real than the Ketamine-like chemically induced “white-light and dead relatives” that Casi and Timmy discuss in the beginning of part 2.

    OK back to Casi’s defense of Hurtado and how this relates to perfection/perception. This trial is incredibly interesting, I think, for the following reason: how many defenses could there possibly be for a guy who’s caught “red-bodied” in the van?

    I think Casi here has displayed a perfect defense. Bear with me. He found an obscure loophole that SHOULD HAVE gotten Hurtado off: The prosecution must show that it was impossible for Hurtado to NOT know that the van was in fact a “building” as defined in penal code whatever. (It needs to be clearly marked somehow that it’s a commercial vehicle). Without that fact, (which was in fact NOT displayed by the prosecution, if we are to trust Casi’s bat-like ears on page 302 rather than the court report document which drives the bulk of the narrative in this section) Hurtado is technically innocent of burglary in the third degree. Guilty of other crimes, sure, but those crimes weren’t being pressed, so Hurtado should’ve been R&R’d. So part of the reason for Casi’s breakdown here is that it’s now completely manifest that he is operating in a less than perfect system. He displayed a perfect defense in an imperfect system. Even the court reporter, whose job it is to create a perfect replication of reality in written form, makes the slightest error (adding the word “our”) which makes all the difference and turns the case against Casi and Hurtado. So how can you deal with an imperfect system? How can you anticipate what problems will arise? Even with a technically water-tight defense, all it takes is one tiny slip-up on behalf of the court reporter to throw it all to hell.

    Incidentally, its Hurd who has the third ear (get it? Har har), not Hurtado.

    I honestly don’t know what to make of Uncle Sam and the Chimp. The two make a bridge for Casi to duck underneath, and then the chimp takes a swing at Casi and misses by a hair. So damn strange. The first thing I think of when I see an Uncle Sam is Coover’s “A Public Burning,” where Uncle Sam is America personified, and that’s the simplest and most obvious interpretation here as well. But why the companionship of a chimpanzee? America’s fondness for the aggressive and subhuman? And why the aggression towards Casi? Is the aggression directed at Casi specifically or just radiated out in all directions and Casi was just in the wrong spot at the wrong time? I hope this becomes clearer to me as the narrative goes on.

  • Eric

    Brandon, impressive reading of the Hurtado case — you’ve really helped me understand that passage. Thanks. And your point about how the court reporter’s error gets admitted into the transcript/narrative … seems to go back to Dane’s statement about writing being a process “fraught with error.” Now I’m going to go back to making anagrams out of Diane S. Salon’s name …

  • Mark

    Major thanks for all the posts above; they’ve been marvelously helpful. in RE: Brandon, I do wonder whether *Casi* considers his defense perfect; as he repeatedly professes a disbelief in perfection generally, I imagine he agrees w/ Scott: that the argument, because it is based on a technicality, is inherently imperfect. As a matter of fact, I was kind of thinking of the entire trial as being a basic display of many of the ideas Dane & Casi have been discussing—all culminating in this eventual break that convinces Casi to join Dane—something I’m still kind of reeling from, personally.

    1) I’m getting some weird feeling that some of my fellow readers are interpreting this as being something Casi is imagining…? Weirdly enough, as a New Yorker, I have no trouble believing this is literal truth, haha. I’m afraid I’m just going to parrot some of the above comments regarding America hand-in-hand with subhumanity, etc. to really offer anything novel: I’m certainly going to keep it in mind throughout the rest of the novel, because I’m still somewhat unsure of what has happened to Casi in the past few days. (Presumably, this is “back when he used to think…”)

    2) Something else I’m still banking on! But it’s kinda crucial to me to see how it effects Casi: “You probably shouldn’t have seen the funeral, huh?” (or something to that effect). The image of the jar on the TV, practically overflowing w/ money, a 100$ bill visible, was pretty striking. (I’m going to give more thought to why Da La Pava would have Angus call in…)

    3) I dunno, maybe I’m in love w/ Casi, or can relate to him too strongly. I took his side almost immediately—he knows the system is bunk, he knows he’s “defending someone he knows is guilty”, he knows his argument is divorced from morality—all that can get him through it is his own—what?—success. We talked in the first chapter about the obvious farcical quality of one Judge’s reprimand: it’s interesting to contrast it to Casi’s interaction here. It seemed to me to occasionally crop up again (“Objection. Overruled.”), but whereas it was farce earlier, when Casi was merely tired, it’s tragedy now that he’s desperate.

    4) A strong theme for me, in my reading, is of racial justice—or, I guess, more exactly, ‘minority issues’. De La Pava is clearly sympathetic, and presents such issues as being so obvious that even someone like Dane—who goes out of his way to remind Casi that he doesn’t actually care about these people—is able to clearly articulate them. That and the discussion between Conley & Henry, the Macaroni & Cheese colored people—to Hurtado’s last sentence to Casi: “I picked you because you’re Hispanic. I thought it was a message from God—” very powerful.

    Uh, that’s kinda not answering the question, I just wasn’t sure if anyone brought up that aspect of the novel yet. I can definitely see the William T. Vollman parody, though.

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