Euny Hong suggests keeping your big goals to yourself.
“… every time you talk about an unfinished project with someone, you are tricking your brain into thinking you’ve done some of the work. Talking about writing a book gives you the same mental fatigue and satisfaction that you’d get from actually writing for an hour.”
Captivated by this piece by Justin Hocking … it’s about authors who write with a great deal of restraint.
First, you slip your arms through the overlong sleeves of a brand new white jacket. That new clothing smell: bleached cotton, crisp canvas. The discovery of curious leather straps and metal buckles, the function of which are yet unclear.
The discovery—stranger still—that the sleeves are sewn shut.
For argument’s sake, let’s say this jacket has a particularly tight fit. Let’s say that, straps cinched and buckles fastened, the snug garment pretzels your arms across your chest, left arm over the right, pressing your thumb-knuckles into your ribs, a tight vertical belt running from your navel to your coccyx.
Imagine, if you will, that you’re literally tied in a knot.
Now, let’s say you’re hanging upside down on the stage of a vaudevillian theatre. Dim chandeliers sprout from the ceiling/floor like ornate stalagmites. Your head beats with blood-thrum; your hair hangs like single, limp wing. Stage lights hot as stove-tops…
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Judith Butler (posted on wordpond)
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to … but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.
~ Judith Butler
Baxter ambushed me again
today. (Yes, okay, I’ll explain.)
I’m in the New Zealand Reference Collection, Wellington City Library, and making my way to one of my habitual reading spots. Having already picked up the latest issue of Sculpture, and a Vidar Sundstøl novel, I have plenty to occupy my afternoon … but some library staff member has set up this book of Baxter’s poems on the end of a shelf.
Opening the slim volume at random, I smile my way through some familiar verses, but eventually turn back to the first in Millar’s selection – the iconic High Country Weather, which Baxter had penned in 1945 at 19 years of age:
Alone we are born
…… And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
…… Over snow mountain shine.
Along the upland road
…… Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
…… Your heart of anger.
The opening lines seem like a contrary echo of “Thee, God, I come from, to thee go” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–89). And the supercharged description, “red-gold cirrus”, takes me straight to the final cadence of The Windhover, in which the poet gazes not up at wind-winnowed clouds but into the glowing coals of a camp-fire:
… shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
From the first, I suspected I might be reading too much into Baxter’s lines – would the adolescent poet have (as I had) read Hopkins? At school, he had certainly read Auden, Spender, MacNeice, and Day-Lewis – and also, later, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, and Hart Crane (Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand). We know he had been turning out poems since the age of seven, “and completed six hundred between the ages of sixteen and twenty” (Paul Stanley Ward).
Whereas Hopkins revelled in the arcane, characteristically seeking out “All things counter, original, spare, strange” (from G M Hopkins, Pied Beauty), Baxter delighted in a beguiling simplicity, an almost facile fluidity. We do well to remember, though, that “Baxter was a compelling mix of high and low culture, sacred and profane” (Paul Stanley Ward).
Some see existentialism in High Country Weather – it certainly carries little trace of the Catholicism that was later to infuse the poet’s work. To me, it seems more Buddhist than existentialist. In Sexual Personae [p5], Camille Paglia asserts that “Buddhist meditation seeks the unity and harmony of reality,” but later on the same page adds that “Every time we say nature is beautiful, we are saying a prayer, fingering our worry beads.”
I cannot avoid pointing to another James: James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause – although, of course, High Country Weather predates the 1955 film by a decade. Baxter described his adolescence as “a testing time”, and his university experience as a “long, unsuccessful love affair with the Higher Learning” (Paul Stanley Ward).
Hopkins and Baxter, each with very different sensibilities, both tap into something of how the human mind makes sense of things. Camille Paglia argues that “Poetry is the connecting link between body and mind” (Paglia, 1990), elsewhere contending that “Poetry is the way into a spiritual vision of society and the universe.”
Perhaps I’d have been closer to the mark had I connected High Country Weather with words from Be Happy in Bed (1958-9, 1979, also included in Millar’s selection):
The self so persecuted by enigmas
prefers a mountain to a nagging mother.
The “today” in my opening couplet refers not to the date of publication, but to the day (a week or more ago) on which I started writing this piece.
Paul Stanley Ward’s story, James K Baxter: On the Razor’s Edge, appears on http://www.nzedge.com/james-keir-baxter/
Article on life and poetry of James K Baxter is found on Poet Seers, a web-site developed by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre.
Analysis of The Windhover: https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/deciphering-hopkins-the-windhover/
Profile of Camille Paglia: http://www.uarts.edu/users/cpaglia
The cover image for Selected Poems of James K Baxter, edited by Paul Millar shows Baxter outside “Canterbury University” in 1947. Image credit: Hocken Library.
James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” appears in a piece titled “100th Anniversary Of The T shirt” on the web-site, http://www.designbyhumans.com/forum/dbh-news/1153137/100th-anniversary-of-the-t-shirt/
Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true. (Jean Baudrillard)
In hand, a bunch of diverse quotations, most of them having at least some bearing on the nature of reality. The Baudrillard piece seems to have appointed itself chief amongst them, but Einstein can be heard muttering in the background.
Not unexpectedly – given the two words, ‘obvious’ and ‘enigmatic’ – Google Images quickly finds a picture/text version of the Baudrillard quote. But more interesting by far, I think, is this Banksy art piece with which it is teamed up on the Particulate Matters blog.
Clearly, both Banksy and “cosmicdebris” (proprietor of Particulate Matters) are saying something about the teachings of the Christian Church – particularly, it seems, in relation to the indoctrination of children. Look elsewhere on the Particulate Matters blog and you will find links to other ‘indoctrination’ stories: for example, Monsanto indoctrinating kids at the zoo.
Actually, I’m inclined to suspect that indoctrination is integral to every aspect of living – and that everyone is routinely doing it and/or having it done to them. And it wouldn’t necessarily qualify as either brainwashing or catechism. Let’s put it more simply: we’re all inclined to push our ideas on others – and we call it marketing, persuasion, instruction, education, or teaching.
Be that all as it may, it is not really the main point of my post.
A few months ago, on |cross-ties| – the blog of “The Other” – there was a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of reality. A piece titled Taking a cycle trip led one reader to discuss Derrida’s ideas, noting that in language there is a gap between words and things. I would take this further, asserting that there is a gap between what we perceive and what is actually the case.
A similar gap yawns between the words of every witness and the occurrences they describe – what we thought we saw, the way it seems to us, what we believe to be true, and everything that is ‘obvious’. (And, by the way, since it’s that obvious, why can’t everyone see it our way?)
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus begins with the proposition that “the world is everything that is the case” and ends by reminding us that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein isn’t saying there’s stuff we can choose not to talk about; he’s actually pointing out that there are some things nobody can put into words.
Albert Einstein asserts that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Elsewhere, he declares, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.” He is not saying that nothing is real; what he means is that everything we experience as real is invented. “The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.” (Albert Einstein Essays in Science (1934), p27)
The way science talks about reality and truth is sounding more and more like the words of the ancient religions. For example, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, a notable teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says: “The ultimate truth of all conventional truths is their being void of inherent existence. Conventional truths, ie empirical phenomena, exist dependently upon causal conditions, parts and imputation; they have absolutely no existence apart from these conditioning factors.”
But “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true,” wrote Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Called the creator of empiricism, “[Bacon] established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.” (GoodReads)
Ultimately, then, as Baudrillard says, whatever seems obvious is, in reality, the superficial manifestation of a profound mystery: the deeper you go into it, the less you are able to say about it.
In Poetry: This Death Is Incomplete (part one of an essay on poetry and death), Amy King talks about “spinning yarns to name things and claim power over them” – which, she reminds us, is not a new concept. In explication, King points us to Alice Notley’s The Book of Lies. The opening lines are especially apt: “Do you believe this stuff or is it a story? I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.”
An ever-changing draft of this piece has been in my editor for months. There’s so much more I want to say, but it is long past time I got something posted.
In between harsh words and disappointments, the pouring of tea.
It turns out that there’s a lot of important things you can’t say with flowers. Some of them can’t even be said with words.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, #4)
In 1903, Rilke replied in a series of 10 letters to a student who had submitted some verses to the well-known Austrian poet for an assessment. Written during an important stage in Rilke’s artistic development, these letters contain many of the themes that later appeared in his best works. Essential reading for scholars, poetry lovers (Book Depository).
Life: it’s so unreasonable. But now … I find more nourishment in the questions than I ever managed to suck out of what passed for answers.
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Wallace Stevens (1954)
from Opus Posthumous
“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” I read on Facebook recently. And whose words were they? I wasn’t surprised to find they’d come from the Dalai Lama, who elsewhere goes so far as to assert that compassion provides the basis of human survival.
Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is a radical, too. He’s certainly saying some of the things espoused by that other high-profile radical, Jesus.
Occupying my thoughts lately: the relationship between justice and compassion; I’ve been trying to break through the innumerable cognitive impasses that loom up every time I try to come to some understanding of the chaos that is our world. But I find myself shaking my head and parroting Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
The myriad issues around crime and punishment, original sin, human nature – and whatever else might have just come to your mind – are all well beyond the scope of this post. Or are they?
In Plato’s Republic, the cynic Glaucon posits that justice is a social contract between people who are roughly equal in power. According to that theory, justice operates on the basis that “no one is able to oppress the others, since the pain of suffering injustice outweighs the benefit of committing it.” (Wikipedia: Glaucon) But there’s a hollow ring to all such claims. In matters of justice, the “roughly” far outweighs the “equal”.
Glaucon told Socrates that “people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched,” explains William Saletan, reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 title, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “No man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity,” says Glaucon, arguing that the just man would do the same as the unjust man if both had the power to get away with injustice exempt from punishment. (The story Glaucon tells to illustrate his reasoning has to do with an invisibility ring (see Wikipedia: Republic (Dialogue)).
In my view, justice is a creation of human societies and cultures, not the outworking of some universal harmony, divine command, or natural law. Furthermore, I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, not the creation of all humans (see Wikipedia: Justice). Thrasymachus, another of Plato’s characters, argues that “justice is the interest of the strong – merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people” (Wikipedia: Justice).
Jonathan Haidt’s book has, as Saletan says, made a significant effort to “[challenge] conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.” Amazon.com describes Haidt as the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org , adding that his research aims “to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.” Beyond understanding and respect, however, what can we do?
Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different intuitions about right and wrong, Haidt says. And he makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning debate by “[showing] how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings” (see Amazon blurb). And, cutting short another long story, our gut feelings have been trained by what another reviewer calls “brute evolution” (see Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013).
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells me that “Western philosophers generally regard justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.” But then, stirring a dash of Schopenhauer into the stew, I call to mind his assertion that “Compassion is the basis of morality.”
What I am interested in – and, to me, this is crucial – is not how to reason, argue, or persuade someone to vouchsafe “justice as a right” for this or that disadvantaged or disenfranchised group. That simply isn’t about to happen, as far as I can see. Rather, I’m seeing “justice as a possibility”, arising not out of gut feelings or sentiments, knowledge of right and wrong, or anything moral, but out of the same source from which Jesus pulled the Sermon on the Mount.
That is possibly what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “I say more, the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / …” (see “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame“, undated poem, c. March–April 1877)
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)
In the end only kindness matters.
A day or two ago, I saw something I’d never expected to see: a young man riding a skateboard … using his crutches to propel himself along. And it instantly put me back in touch with something I’d scribbled down the day before, whilst reading a novel called Ru:
“He had stopped time by continuing to enjoy himself, to live until the end in the lightness of a young man.” (Kim Thúy)
I am not a young man … and thus no longer immortal. Whenever the pain from the osteoarthritis gets bad, I have a mantra: “My feet kiss the earth.” It helps.
But I’ve taught myself something that helps even more: whenever I find myself bracing my knees and hobbling along stiff-legged, I have learned to relax my joints and saunter instead. I’m not saying every step is pain-free, but it sure feels better. And I whisper my mantra. And I smile.
Thúy, Kim. 2009 [Copyright © 2009 Éditions Libre Expression]. English translation Copyright © 2012 Sheila Fischman. Ru. New York: Bloomsbury.
The skateboard wallpaper image comes from: http://www.wallpaper4me.com/wallpaper/Royal/
My title is a parody of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a 1984 postmodern novel by Milan Kundera. The story takes place mainly in Prague in the late 1960s and 1970s. It explores the artistic and intellectual life of Czech society during the Communist period, from the Prague Spring to the Soviet Union’s August 1968 invasion and its aftermath.” (adapted from the Wikipedia article)