Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Girl Named Aletheia

At some point in the last year-- I don't remember when exactly-- I noticed that I no longer felt intimidated by philosophical speech, not from the mouth of anyone. Which isn't to say that all speech lost its power to intimidate me; compelling engagements in certain kinds of pop-rhetoric still captivate and quiet me. But that kind of speech, "pop-rhetoric" we'll continue to call it, has a very different purpose than philosophical speech; the many conventional language games we play in popular commerce are a kind of currency, grounded in power. The more confidently someone can use social conventions of communication, the more powerful in that social sphere a person can be.

And though philosophical rhetoric may also be a kind of currency, what's for sale isn't power. It deals in, for lack of a better term, Truth. Right perspective. Though it's likely that there is never a moment of philosophical communication free of power play, still it seems to me that a sincere attempt at "loving wisdom" is usually experienced as a directing of energy outside our conventional commerce, rather than into it-- that is, in philosophy we attempt to purchase, if it's possible, something outside human meaning. And I think the end of my intimidation from this sort of truth-bartering began when that purchase began to seem rather incomprehensible. Which is around the same time I met a girl named Aletheia.

No, not a girl, but if I do ever have the pleasure of having a daughter, I'd like to give her that name. Both for the sound, and for the concept it points to. And if I do give Aletheia as a daughter's name, it will already have been the pre-Socratic name for truth, one which Heidegger resurrected in the 20th century. That's right: Aletheia is a theory of truth. But not Truth in the way you are thinking; an unusual sort of truth. But what are you thinking?

The thinking, I think, usually goes like this: Truth is when you get something right in words. Right? There is coffee in my cup. Right, this is true. Hm. Well, what do you mean that it's true? I mean that there is coffee in my cup, in fact. I mean that I was right to say, "There is coffee in my cup." My words are in a true relationship with the world. This way of thinking about truth is often called "correspondence theory," and has its roots in the Socratic philosophers. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who set the table of Christian theology using Greek dinnerware, stated this theory of truth very simply: “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to [...] external reality;” or, as he said elsewhere, "Truth is the equation of things and intellect."

An aside: It's fun, right? That everything that you know was made by others for you to know. Perhaps it's true that there is nothing new under the sun, but it's certainly true that there is nothing new inside your head. We take things for granted, like truth and things, but these are little purchases that have been made, little market changes that you were born into. This life you're living (the one we're talking about) is a fiat money system, with no one at the helm who knows what's up. So, we keep inflating, borrowing, lowering rates...

There is another kind of life though, one that isn't in words. And there is a theory of truth for that as well: Aletheia. This theory of truth says: "truth does not reside in language." Truth doesn't happen when I say something about the world. After all, the picture of a pipe is not a pipe. Nor is the idea of a pipe. But is a pipe a pipe? "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." If I tell you that there is coffee in my cup, by this theory I am giving you instructions about what will happen to you if you come into contact with what we've agreed to know as a cup, and speak of as such.

An aside: I typed that phrase-- "truth does not reside in language"-- into ye olde google yesterday, and came up with a particularly annoying use of the phrase, because the author (of a blog, yes) almost meant something by it, but ended up falling short and contradicting himself in the next few sentences. Which is ... just a little annoying. It'd be like looking up the phrase "Human dogma" and finding a watered down expression of apathetic relativism. Real estate I've purchased via squatter's rights, so keep your hands off my apple tree. No matter how small and crooked it may be.

There ain't nothing new in my head neither, and yet I persist in making little power plays with language. "Look! I'm right!" Yes, and now the world can end, satisfied finally. Thank you.

All the while, Aletheia dances in a corner. All the while that other theory of truth made by the other theorists, the first theorists, the ones who first purchased abstract property, is what we all ... where we all... live. In presence. For the pre-Socratic Greeks, and for Heidegger, truth is aletheia: that which shows itself, that which is revealed to us in presence. Not what we say about it, how we represent it, how we conceptualize it, but what shows. My statement about my cup isn't true, but it is a representation of truth, of an event.

I've made her case very poorly, I know, and I'm quitting before I've begun. My head swims with weird fishes. I've made her case poorly. Have I been making a case? But she isn't for sale; Truth isn't for sale. It's not something you can have, he says definitively. No, because by this way of thinking, truth is something that simply occurs. Sorry. We'd all like to be rich in truth, but the picture I'm seeing right now is one in which claiming you own the truth is like claiming you own the sunshine. Okay. Okay. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Portland's Party Hits

So, I've been listening to 107.5. If you're from Portland you might know that 107.5 is also know as Wild 107.5; its slogan is "Portland's Party Hits." Its beats are funky.
And I'm wondering if this signals some sort of emotional regression in me. Should I worry that I smile when Lil'Wayne's newest offering comes on -- "Call me Mr. Flintstone, I can make your bedrock" -- or that when Rhianna grinds into her bawdy list of musical imperatives for "Rude Boy," I start doing a (very pathetic) robot-dance move around the perimeter of my steering wheel? My favorites at the moment are two by someone named B.o.B.: "Nothing On You," and "Airplanes II."
It's true. And frankly, I'm both physically and emotionally moved by the lyrics of the latter, apparently co-produced and co-written by Eminem, our beloved, foul-mouthed American lyricist. In the song's chorus, B.o.B and Eminem ask if we might pretend that airplanes are shooting stars, because, as B.o.B tells us, he "could really use a wish right now." The third verse belongs to Eminem, and he wonders-in-rap what might have happened if he hadn't have pursued his musical career-- "let's pretend Marshall Mathers never picked up a pen" -- and then he proceeds to give a passionate and expletive-laced description of what his life would have been like if he hadn't had that drive, the excuses he might have made to himself. He says this pathetic alter-ego "wished it, but it didn't fall in his lap," so that "his alarm went off to wake him off but he didn’t make it to the rap Olympics, slept through his plane and he missed it."
Which reminds me of a dream I had a few weeks ago-- one of those strangely vivid dreams that seems to be more than a midnight mind-fart, a dream that seems to mean something. In it, I was scheduled to fly to Virginia for a speaking engagement at the university where a good friend teaches, and somehow I slept wildly late, completely missing the flight. Then, through a series of strange circumstances that could only be reasonable in a dream, I was afforded another opportunity to fly. But this time I got horribly lost in the airport. I remember realizing that my mind wasn't working, realizing I was acting crazily, that I'd only brought an empty suitcase. My ability to make rational choices had failed; I was only wandering, through brain and concourse.
Maybe my dreams and Eminem are conspiring. I've had a similar conversation with a few different people recently, about this, about the fact that unless we "risk this shit," as Eminem puts it, we may wake up 20 years from now and gape backwards through time at the obvious and incomprehensible timidity (i.e. laziness) of our younger selves.
I feel as though I did little risking throughout my 20's, no matter how much my friends and I told each other to "risk it," (the pet rallying cry for a few us). Sure, I had a few good philosophical reasons against buying into the idea of risking it, against choosing something in the face of no good criteria, no compass. In that philosophical stasis, I slept through an alarm or two.
And now, as Lowell tells us in "Skunk Hour," "my mind's not right." Now that I've been given this second chance, with a better understanding of the way this whole world-orientation thing works, my synapses keep hiccuping. I do strange things. I listen to radio I'd never have listened to 5 years ago. One way or another, I might miss the metaphorical plane.
But I did actually catch the real one. I made it on time, sighing inwardly at the luck of it, and flew to Virginia to do a short lecture on epiphany in poetry at Washington & Lee. It was lovely. But does it count as a risk? No, it's more of the result of having loved others and having been loved, connections being made, opportunities opening. And this seems to be true: without love, whatever the risking might achieve, it wouldn't give me any lasting pleasure. Love, or the desire for it, plays a prominent role in the power to will. Eminem says as much in his rap-rant: his bleak description of his failed self peaks in a picture of his two daughters, implying that their welfare is the primary reason he did what he did. And this morning on the radio, an a NBA draft candidate, who'll likely go as number one, spoke of his relationship with his mom, how she'd given up so much to get him where he's gotten, how glad he'll be to give back to her now, to let her relax finally after so many years of pulling 4 jobs. "That's just it, right there," he said. "That's the whole thing."
At this point, it seems right to swap the one cliche -- "risk it" -- for another: "Love is the answer." How is it that cliches can sometimes rear their banal little heads and be suddenly transformed, transfigured, glowing with the radiance of a universal Truth? But neither undergoes apotheosis without the other.

"Epiphany in poetry at Washington & Lee." Sounds like Eminem could do something with that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Berry on Freedom

"If freedom is understood as merely the privilege of the unconcerned and uncommitted to muddle about in error, then freedom will certainly destroy itself." - W. Berry

I found this quote posted on Facebook this afternoon. As I consider Berry my adopted grandfather and have a thing for succinct & cogent articulations, my immediate thought was to duplicate the quote. Paste it somewhere, on a tweet, in my own status box, on someone's facebook page. Take that! How do you like me now!

And then I began thinking about what he was saying. Not having any idea where the quote came from, I could only rely on what the original quoter quoted from whatever source, whatever bit of Berry text, they took it from. I suppose in the rest of the paragraph or essay, Berry goes on to describe how freedom should be understood.

As it stands now, out of context, I only know what he thinks it isn't: "the privilege of the unconcerned and uncommitted to muddle about in error." This seemed fairly clear and incisive for the few moments that my ego allowed it to be about everyone else-- the stupid, unthinking masses. Then it hit me that because of my inability to find a philosophical orientation, I often "muddle about in error" myself, and I could easily be grouped amongst the "uncommitted" by anyone else reading the quote; "uncommitted" because to commit is to have perspectival faith. That is, you have to believe that the way the conventions you exist in are allowing you to see the situation provides you with adequate reason to take what seems to you to be a definite course of action.

I'm not "unconcerned", and I don't want to be the brunt of Berry's condemnations. I don't want to muddle about in error, and my kind friends don't want me to either. But, admittedly, I am. So we offer each other conventions to commit to, telling each other that this or that way of seeing the world is right, and that by its light, this course of action is the most manly, the most godly, the most good.

Another Berry quote I've posted before: "Knowing how to live in ignorance is paramount." So, maybe it's the unconcerned muddling that Berry doesn't like. His philosophy is one of joyful and careful acceptance of our own ignorance-- perhaps we could say that he would advise, instead of muddling, "joyfully and concernedly living in error."

We do live in ignorance. If you think otherwise, you may be merely asserting the infallibility of a particular rhetorical convention. Which hardly even makes sense.

Ooh, idea-- I'm going to go post that quote, the "paramount" quote, as a reply to the facebook post. Ooh! How do you like me now!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Mule Got Drunk and Lost in Heaven

by Hafiz

Mind is ever a tourist
Wanting to touch and buy new things
Then toss them into an already
Filled closet.

So I craft my words into those guides
That will offer you something fresh
From the Hidden's Tavern.

Few things are stronger than
The mind's need for diverse

I am glad
Not many men or women can remain
Faithful lovers to the unreal.

There is a kind of adultery
That God encourages:

Your spirit needs to leave the bed
Of fear.

The gross, the subtle, the mental worlds
Become as a worthless husband.

Women need
To utilize their superior intelligence
About love

So that their hour's legacy
Can make us all stronger and more clement.

Sometimes a poem happens like this one:

The mule I sit on while I recite
Starts off in one direction
But then gets drunk

And lost in

Friday, April 23, 2010

Nebulas Delivered Daily

A new photograph taken by Hubble Space Telescope appeared on the internet today, and I viewed it. A hulking contraption hovering in Earth's orbit aimed its lensed-nozzle out toward the infinite deeps of space, snapped a photo, then zapped that photo down to earth via electromagnetic signals of some sort. This photo was enhanced and trimmed and made internet ready, then uploaded. Result: Justin in a coffee shop, sipping a cup of acidic coffee, gaping at the representation of a nebula while a couple nearby talks about their vacation home.

It's worth putting in the new kitchen, I think. Also, this nebula is beautiful. I love the description in the caption(such active language!): "this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope captures the chaotic activity atop a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas and dust that is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars. The pillar is also being assaulted from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks."

May we all be assaulted from within, by infant stars buried inside of us. May our vacation homes explode into three-light-year-tall pillars of gas and dust.

A poem of Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

Someone Should Start Laughing

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

What is God?

If you think that the Truth can be known
From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing –-Now!

p.s. here's the photo.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Buying Shampoo

I'm not as indecisive as I used to be. Really, I'm not. But I am apparently capable of standing motionless in a supermarket for a very long time, staring blankly at the colorful rows of consumables, feeling something I'd be at a loss to describe if I were to exclude the word "indecisive." Today the catalyst of my "hesitancy" was shampoo. Same thing happened during my last shampoo trip: just stood there, weighing the options, entranced by the pretty labels, trying to gauge what the heck "laureth sulfate" might be and whether it was worth avoiding for 5 dollars more, trying to step back from the marketing schemes and decide what I would do, what I would do.

Even when ignoring the problem of what "I" means, being an informed and conscientious consumer is like conducting an orchestra with a blindfold on: there is a vague sense that the music wants your directing, that the trumpet section is staring at you expectantly. So you stand there in the aisle holding two bottles, gaping at ingredient labels, wondering what sorts of chemicals leech out of bottle-plastic and whether you could get away with using bar soap and olive oil.

You might say that I'm crazy to care -- and I wouldn't disagree -- or you might be crazy yourself, and eager to do the homework to find out what sorts of criteria we should use to make our supermarket choices. Ah, yes, the homework. I thought about "homework" awhile as I stared at Burt's Bees Moisturizing Shampoo, now with Aloe Vera, and came to this: how the heck am I supposed to do the homework? There are two kinds of information: 1.) the biased information provided by various Multinational Shampoo Conglomerates, or by federal entities, whose advisory boards are primarily composed of former Shampoo Conglomerate CEO's, and 2.) the other more-difficult-to-find, unbiased information... the kind that will all be outdated in five years. And it inevitably will be: in five years they'll tell me that the alternative to laureth sulfate was actually a leading cause of my ear herpes.

Most people choose not to think about it. And yet they walk through life, feeling like they are actively making their own decisions. They feel that not only is it music that the orchestra is producing, but that it is their music. Being one of the unlucky few who can't ever stop thinking about it, I'm skeptical about such empowered views of our role in decision making. To me it seems as though at every turn we submit to convention, that we make "choices" based on what presents itself immediately as an option, because of the community we live in. We "choose" as much as a child chooses when presented with the option of chocolate or vanilla pudding snack-- what about strawberry? What about a cigarette? Or in musical terms: we have about as much role in composing our music as does one who chooses a radio station-- we choose one of 15 stations, and then play along with whatever comes.

And yet I can't escape the feeling that if I'm lucid enough, I can choose better, I can make choices that are the right choices. I had this conversation with a good friend recently-- about what makes "rightness," about what standard I can use to responsibly judge my actions. A religious standard? What God says? I've stopped believing people who claim to know what God says, or claim to have the key to interpreting various inspired texts. That info is like the shampoo info: full of bias, pretense, and misguided surety. Then... what? Do I decide according to what I think is right?

We piece together two-dimensional sense in a four-dimensional world, like kids obsessed with little table-top puzzles. They tell me that wisdom comes when I finally stop thinking about what to do, and just do something. But action, which inevitably occurs, is where the problem lies-- action based on clearly confused and limited information will always lead to a confused and half-perceived destination. Where then is enlightenment? If truth does not reside in language, in convention, then where does it reside?

Where else, but in presence? In those moments of lucidity, when I'm standing in the grocery store, feeling absurd, holding two bottles, laughing a little. If you walk up to me and tell me I'm being indecisive, I'll nod stupidly, and then, once the sense hits, I'll disagree.

I'll tell you that I'm being present, and that although I'm about to knowingly plunge headlong into folly, I'll be damned if it isn't thoughtful folly.

We can take the station-skipper approach, flipping to a new station, a new convention, every time something comes along that we've learned to dislike, or we can take the station-faithful approach, where we whole-heartedly submit to a single convention or dogma, letting it be the rule by which we judge the confines and articles of our decisions. I think I'm somewhere in between the two, right about now. One bottle in one hand, one in the other. Under fluorescent lights. I'd like to think that it's not irony that turns upward the corners of my supermarket smile, but instead, that it's some sort of gentle affection for the strange, misguided little creature that I am.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Time & God & Stuff

Yesterday, a student in my Bible-school English class did a presentation on "Open Theism," and the ideas reminded me of The Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Open Theism, which is not a novel by Vonnegut, apparently argues for a special & potentially heretical way of viewing God's relationship to time. The classic conception, the one that Open Theism wants to reject, was displayed for us in a powerpoint picture: a two-dimensional line representing our experience of the past, present, and future, and then around it, beyond it, all-encirclingly: the all-knowing God. Despite having been taught this picture of the universe my whole life, seeing it actually graphed out made me laugh, and made me think of Vonnegut's novel -- Billy Pilgrim coming unloosed in time, and the extra-dimensional extraterrestrials who greet him. "I am a Tralfamadorian," says one to Billy, "seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is."

The Open Theists disagree. They don't suppose God to be very Tralfamadorian-like, though they don't deny God his omniscience. He does know everything that there is to know, everything that exists or has existed, but he doesn't know what doesn't exist yet-- i.e. the future. Which isn't to say he doesn't have an effect on what happens. He's big and powerful enough to make sure that what he wants to have happen will happen, kind of like when LeBron James says the Cavs will win the NBA championship this year. If King James says they're gonna win, you can be pretty darned sure they will. The dude's a monster. He can make it happen.

A few minutes ago, I ordered an iced americano, and by golly, I got it; but this isn't evidence supporting my own theological beliefs about time. A moment ago I wasn't drinking an iced americano, and now I am. I made it happen-- by the power of cash and suction, I made a way. But really, how did it happen, and why? I have no idea how to talk about it in a satisfactory way. Flesh and convention, language and motion, blah, blah.

The future doesn't seem to exist yet, but Einstein said some stuff once that countered that fact, and sounded pretty convincing, right? Or someone did. We are strange little creatures. We make assertions. We flail against the unknown. We tell each other what God says. We gather in little coffee shops and drink americanos, and watch the attractive lady who is standing in line, laughing annoyingly.

Another essai, another attempt, to voice alongside all of those who are voicing themselves and their assertions, something about existence. Something about the universe. My will is smaller than God's and LeBron's. My vision less keen than a tralfamadorian's. The only way I know to leap out of my own presence is to join the other humans in their little boats of meaning.

Here's a joke I heard once: God, Billy Pilgrim, and another guy take a boat ride into space. They ride the star-water waves, they tune their radio to pick up the song of Jupiter. They rock to it, they rock the boat. They make things happen. God says to Billy Pilgrim, "We making things happen." Billy smiles, and puts his arm around the other guy's shoulder, and says, "Let's keep this up forever, guys." Jupiter hums, deep space yawns spectacularly, and the other guy-- who is I, who is me-- quotes a passage from The Slaughterhouse Five, saying, "If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still--if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice." Which makes God smile. Which, of course, makes new galaxies bloom brightly all around us, like fields of brilliant tulips.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More Human Dogma

My ability to think and speak philosophically is like an accent that comes and goes depending on whether I'm around native speakers. And the person I've been around the most this past month, outside of my lovely house-mates, is no philosopher. John and I, both temporary, part-time employees of the Clear Wireless internet company, worked together as a door-to-door sales team. We took turns knocking, and "Welcoming you to the 4g network!", and handing out our fliers. Nothing like door-to-door knocking to put one in a philosophical mood-- all these box-homes, housing suburban creatures and their families, creatures who peek their little heads out to see what sort of visitors have come to call. It's us, John and I, trying to appear nonchalant, standing one forward one back, commenting on the prettiness of their decor, the beauty of their dog.

Though nearly every house is different, they begin to look so very similar, like turtles in a row, some with shiny, rain-washed shells, and some sporting mud and stick, a little filthy. But no one judges a dirty turtle, and it becomes difficult after awhile to judge the poor part of town as any different than the rich. It's just not. They live inside their little homes. They carry little ones in the pouch. They touch each other, and masticate their wheat and corn deliberately. They have their tastes, yes, but difficult to differentiate them by those slight differences after awhile.

Some insist by signpost and sticker that they support so and so. Others, the other one. Some rant about the turtle god's lack of existence, and some gasp at the audacity. And then they all go back to being turtles, bobbing in and out of their shells methodically.

Also good for thinking about human nature: online dating. We'll fail to comment on the nature of the kind of mind that goes online to find a date, except to defend him by saying he's no different, in the long run, then the other, more traditional creature. Watch the way he eats, and how he dies-- identical. Like so many jungle cats.

But online dating is as illuminating as door-to-door knocking, and requires approximately the same kind of sales pitch: "Welcoming you to the time of your life!" "That dog in your pic is so cute!!" "I love Coldplay too!!!!"

One young lady (old enough, yes-- I'm not a creep) said something on her profile that rocked my little turtle world: she said "The question of god doesn't interest me." This after advising anyone who was religious in the least to stay away.

It just seemed so semantical to me (who was interested in her, because of her obvious intelligence and wit, other than that admission). It seemed rhetorical, separate from her actual life-in-body. Not interested in the question of god? That's like saying one isn't interested in the question of existence, the question of language. That's like saying one isn't interested. And it wasn't true, in her case-- she clearly was interested in what living had to give her. What would reveal itself as something to her by her being alive.

A tangle of words. I'm half the size of John, and I've lived much differently, from a narrow perspective-- but we both want to be interested, want food, want shelter, want sex, want to interact meaningfully with the meaning we are living within, whether by love, by laughter, or by watching the fibers of our words slowly split and scatter, like pollen in a summer wind.

That was way too romantic. Think instead of John and I like two fat turtles on a summer rock, sunning, and one is licking something off the rock, and one has his nose to the summer air, sniffing blackberries, while little turtle turds fall out his shell's back end.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I've recently been writing about a certain "mode" of poetry that was first conceived and practiced by the British Romantic poets; what some have called the "epiphanic mode." I've joined them in calling it that. Which a fun thing to do-- join a tradition, a convention. I'm with these guys over here, doing this thing, yeah.

The argument goes that this "epiphanic mode" arose as a reaction against philosophical problems posed by enlightenment thinkers. Such as this one: There's really no way for you to express rationally all those things you thought you knew about, because your narrow little mind screws up any perceptions it has of the world. Love, Kant.

The Romantic poets seem to have had two reactions: 1. Romantic Irony, and 2. Romantic Epiphany.

The Ironists weren't a bunch of bad-ass college freshman who just discovered that religion is stupid, and take smug pleasure in pointing out the ridiculousness of Dogma. However, these college kids are the bastard children of the original Romantic Ironists, who believed something to this effect: Human life is an organic language game, and the best minds keep themselves apprised of this fact. "Irony" is to appear other than you are, and Romantic Ironists recognize that we are always other than what we describe ourselves as; their essence is their creative capacity, and not the descriptions it creates. Therefore, they were the fathers of those whose primary way of being is anti-everything-else. Stupid, inert everything-else.

Romantic Epiphany is what I'm more interested in. It says something like this: if we are capacity, capacity is something. Either way, here I am-- I am presence. The writers of the Epiphanic Mode wrote poems that tried to get people to think to of themselves beyond the representations that they have in mind, to think of their more primary way of being: presence. I'd argue that the epiphanic mode is structured in order to perform this enlightenment. It serves to answer Kant, because it tells him: Silly goose, you're still stuck in Cartesian Dualism.

Anyway, I'm sick of irony. I say: Irony is no longer in. The cool kids have moved on; they've moved on to sincerity, which is far more difficult. If not impossible. To talk about, that is. Without resorting to irony. Or non-sequitur. Refrigerator.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Splendid Fairywren

This little fellow is a Splendid Fairywren, from Western Australia.
Here is his song.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Part V of East Coker, from The Four Quartets

Despite knowing that this little snippet has been pasted on a thousand-million blogs all the world over:

East Coker, Part V,
from the Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot


So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Scene in a Hospital

He was dying, and they all knew he was dying.
They’d brought flowers. “Well, I’m glad,”
he managed, and lifted his hand. With love,
they touched it gingerly— then his feet
harder through the blanket, and once, his ankle,
firm palm on the bone. So that when they left,
he leaned himself forward, and saw through bluish dark
that form on the bed. There was the dying thing.
He reached a finger to his stomach, poking,
then pulled up his shirt, and plied at the skin,
and in that touching, his hand became an object,
a strange form, which he lifted, and kissed.
He pressed his nose with it, pressed hard,
though not hard enough to hurt— even days from death
he couldn’t break the thing he’d loved. “My face,”
he said to the dark room. Then, in a deeper voice,
the voice of movies, “Faaacce,” laughing into the dark.
My face,” he said, then toward his chest, “my death.”
No one disagreed, and he squinted his eyes at the dark,
pretending not to see anything, to not be anywhere.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Twenty Ten

I was told last night, post celebration, that this is how one says it, now: Twenty. And "twenty ten," I agreed, sounds so good. Our corporate power to name the new year.

News from an older year: On November 28th 1582, 18 year-old William Shakespeare and 26 year-old Anne Hathaway paid a 40-pound bond for their marriage license.

That same year, just a month and a half earlier, ten days had gone missing from the Calendar. Pope Gregory and his entourage had decided that 10 days would be dropped from 1582, in order to correct a 13th century drift away from the vernal equinox, which had served as anchor. They decided to drop those naughty days from October, since that was when the Julian calendar ended-- that is, the calendar Julius Caesar had instituted in 45 BC. Apparently, Caesar's calendar, designed around solar cycles, had been screwed up by politicians and popes, and by mathematical lag, and no longer allowed for important feasts to fall at the right seasonal times.

Who kept calendars back then? I'm imagining a 16th century wall calendar, in England, the October page. Queen Elizabeth's face? Maybe Henry 8th's? A fuzzy kitten? Either way, the truncated month would have read Thursday October 4th, and the next day would have read, weirdly, Friday October 15th.

I can imagine a lovelorn Shakespeare, pondering the weirdness of waking up that Friday, ten days having evaporated over night. The jokes he might have made to Anne.

I wonder if he, or any of the other great English poets of the time, wrote any poems about the dropped days. Maybe not, as it wasn't exactly the sort of thing one wrote about in that day.

But St. Teresa of Avila, mystic and writer of the counter-reformation, died on that October 4th, and was buried the next day, on the 15th.

And as I consider now, in my thirtieth year, how I should live these moments of mine, there is a little poem of St. Teresa's that is bothering me:

God alone is enough.

Let nothing upset you,
let nothing startle you.
All things pass;
God does not change.
Patience wins
all it seeks.
Whoever has God
lacks nothing:
God alone is enough

If only this mantra gave me satisfaction-- it is so much like the many mantras of my heart from the last ten years. Yet I don't know what it means-- or I think I do, but the way I make it mean for me is difficult.

We have the world. How does one possess God? Either through words, or through having, as a way of being. One is representation, and I suppose the other must be spiritual-- since God is spirit.

But the seal of the holy spirit is demonstrated one way: by the fruits of the spirit. We know, the bible tells us, that the Holy Spirit is being with us because we get really good. Really righteous.

Righteousness I've never possessed. A Spirit, therefore, who has remained a word.

Not that I think St. Teresa wrong. I don't. But I don't know how to translate into my heart's language what she is saying.

And somehow this seems a profound admission, for a hesitant man like myself, on the first day of the new year.

I wonder what Will thought of St. Teresa, and her death. Will, who would marry the older Anne in just over a month, who wouldn't publish his first play for 8 years, who would later say through the mouth of Macbeth, famously:

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

Which I find myself believing less than St. Teresa's mystical words, no matter how ambiguous they are. Oh, I think life is a "brief candle," and I would this morning agree that life doesn't signify anything-- that it, existence, is the meaning for our lives. But the pessimism, the sound and fury, the idiot: no, I can't agree.

But then, I am in a privileged nation, in a coffee shop, typing on a lap-top computer which I own, in good-health, from a good family, and full of caffeine. I feel good.

A poor-player, strutting on my little coffee-shop stage, bewildered by time, 20 centuries after Caesar, and 400 years since Shakespeare found his first wife willing. "What a piece of work is a man!," he says. A piece of working. Of being.

No piece, really, but all in being. No peace in seeing yourself as a "piece," because when you think of yourself as a symbol, you are forgetting about what you are: a being. And that is where meaning is: right now. Right now.

Does St. Teresa have a right now, right now? Macbeth at least didn't think so. I'll be thinking about it, as she lives through words, in the way of God's spirit, in my mind today.