Friday, December 28, 2012

Tense and Christmas

"I will say to God, 'Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.'" -- Job 10:2
"Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet are unstable." -- Job 12:5
On Christmas day, or boxing day, if you read this then, we are in peculiar straits, at least insofar as the usual Christian message goes. The Dean of the National Cathedral sent out his Christmas remarks this morning, and he said that Christmas reminds us that "peace will overcome strife."

Despite Afghan police shooting their allies, felons shooting EMS workers, young men shooting children, movie goers, politicians, and each other, what he said is true -- as is the papal call for peace and the angelic host's call for joy -- but is is a multivocal truth that it inhabits. There is an obvious truth, such as was seen in World War I's Christmas Truce, but there is another truth that is hermeneutic and only read through tears.

Let us recall what many would have us forget: the passion and incarnation are linked, just as the teaching is, and the freedom Christians lay a claim upon is at a savage cost. The ministry of Jesus isolated from the incarnation and passion is ethics, as the passion without the ministry is narcissism or masochism. The incarnation without the baffling message and bitter humiliation is tinsel.

Last Sunday night, Turner Classic Movies aired "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Like Mel Gibson's agit-prop movie, this film delivers exactly what the title promises: Joan in extremis. We watch the mocking and martyrdom of a girl, and Melle Falconetti's performance is so graphically real that it is hard both not to deplore the director for sacrificing so much for art and oneself for the implication of enjoying, on some level, the performance. However, the movie put forward again the Christian mystery of suffering, which makes it an odd choice for December 23.

If you will abide me, I will try to discuss suffering to the degree that any of us might, and explain how it can be that we can believe that peace, like the wings of a brooding God, can prevail.

2012 has not ended the political states of the world, although it has seen more theocratic states rise than there were, and it has not seen the sky rent in twain, although we have all felt some death this year. The greatest watchword for the year may be "divided," and that does not pertain merely to political parties. Poverty is interspersed with wealth, and slow disease hides amid happy populations. As the year ends in a wail of sirens that drowns out the carolers, there are not generalities but confusion.

Newtown is probably the most emotionally revolting moment since 9/11/01. It has driven observers to the customary human reactions: a desire to know why, a desire to isolate it, a desire to ensure that the "world" present in one's horizon has certainty. With 9/11, we got "al Qaeda and Iraq did this" leading to "the muslims hate us because freedom" and then "revenge, wanted dead or alive." Those three steps gave a contour to experience that kept it from the realm of suffering -- at least the way that I'm using the term.

Narratives make sense of untamed experience. When we can fit explosions into "attack; agents of evil; reason for evil is evil without rehabilitation," then we have them in magnified version of a playground shoving match. We understand it. We can have pain from it, and we are prepared to accept more pain in the process of finishing the narrative ("hit them back"). Suffering is Job's country.

In the eighteenth century, two approaches to theodicy relied on Job. Leibniz's Theodicy of 1710 "turns directly to Job as a type of the man who makes a partial complaint about unjustified evil," and Leibniz "distinguishes between local malice -- the brigands who make off with his goods -- and the divine purposes served by the loss" (Jonathan Lamb Rhetoric of Suffering 64). On the other hand, Immanuel Kant wrote "On the Failure of all the Philosophical Essays in the Theodicee" in 1796 and argued, very much like a Romantic, that Leibniz's justification of evil in the plenitude of creation is not a consolation for suffering at all, but only a sentence. For Kant, what made Job acceptable to God is that Job never wavered in proclaiming himself innocent. Job's singleness of character and intensity of feeling of pain kept him from ever giving in to the temptations of the Accuser and ultimately granted him the direct encounter with God in the theophany (Lamb 66-7).

If I lost you in the Latinate terms, let me try it again. Leibniz said that God's plans are too big for us to judge, and what we have done to us may be "bad" and yet "good" within a larger scope of time or place or person. In the simplest scenario, imagine a batter in a baseball game. When he strikes out, he may wonder why his prayer's weren't answered, but the pitcher who gets a strikeout may praise God for hearing him. Good, Leibniz argued, is ultimately up to God. Kant said that that is no comfort for man and no guide, either. On the other hand, he felt that Job's purity of soul and determination were such that he was rewarded with God's declaration of mystery, but the answer to why evil exists is not given. Soren Kierkegaard, who saw Kant as usually sterile, said, "Job’s significance consists not in his having said it ('The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord') but in his having acted upon it."

It may not surprise you to know that I agree with Kierkegaard "Only the person who has been tried and who tested the saying in being tested himself, only he rightly interprets the saying; Job desires only that kind of pupil." From the earliest moments of the Jewish tradition and the Christian faith, suffering has been present. It is not mandatory, but it is there, always.

(The great) Charlie Pierce had the most graceful little essay I have seen in a long time last Friday. His "out on the weekend" for last weekend contrasted the original and altered lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The altered lyric puts "We'll hang a shining star upon the highest bough" in place of "Until then, we'll have to muddle on somehow." The original lyric, he argued, is the true spirit of optimism, that we are all muddlers -- believing that we will go on, that we will make headway. (Additionally, the song has an aura of loss and poverty about it, as the singer is having a little Christmas rather than an "li'l ole" Christmas.) As he put it, the people who demand smiles are the betrayers, for
"They want us to stop and stare at the artificial gleam of their private stars high up on the boughs they have designed forever to be out of our reach."

Whether it is a divorce or the cold hand gripping your heart when you get news of a disease, whether it is an eternal fight to gain a basic right or a particularly arbitrary visitation of violence, suffering exposes us to its tempering heat.

Suffering does not, so far as I can tell, "build character." It may impart wisdom, but, by itself, it does not do anything. It does not arise out of a message nor resolve into a lesson. It is not for something. It cannot be weighed or measured, denied or affirmed.

Job is not informed that his suffering has been for someone or something. Only by living and maintaining his integrity (Job 27:5), by becoming a new man, does the suffering lead to an epiphany. Job can bless the name of the Lord when he has a different understanding. Similarly, Joan of Arc testified that God might well allow her to be imprisoned and killed, because His ways are not our ways. She had to admit that God's horizon is not ours. Both of them have gotten "wisdom," in that suffering is leading them to stand in a new place and have thus a new parallax on life.

I suspect that a person who suffers passively emerges with scar tissue and little more. A person who denies suffering to turn it toward injury will well up with rage and spread the contagion of suffering -- sending missiles into the ground a continent away to do to hundreds of places what was done here and to inflict on scores of places the same horror of empty places and unknown losses as we went through at 9/11. A person who commands suffering to mean, too, announces ahead of time that it cannot teach, for he has already laid out the options for the suffering to fit into.

We come to tense, to verbs, and this is where we are bound by dark magic.  The preterite has us at "am" and "is." Ours is experiencing, not life. We have memory and history, and remembering makes up most of the mountain and tide of intellect, but we only see a segment of a line.

You are the car in "Tron," or a water bug skittering across the surface of the water, or a snail going over the smooth cement. No matter what metaphor you use, you are a line segment.
The burning tip of the segment is the present, and it is larger than the rest.

The other end of the line segment is "living memory," and it is both small and diffuse.

From your vantage point in the onion bulb of the present, you and I form lessons and hypotheses. This is what we are afforded and commanded by the to-be verb. However, a clear beginning-to-end set of experiences is always beyond our reckoning. I cannot say, "Ask her out, because all she can do is say 'no,' and 'no' is no worse than what you get for not asking," but I have only my context, my rays of experience.

Suffering is otherwise, else ways. Suffering, distinguished from injury, appears with paradox or enigma around it, and it comes always with powerlessness. It suspends time's regulation and the preterite's control, because it defies cause and effect. Hurricanes have causes in warm oceans, but the hurricane that sends a storm surge up your river and over your house, while your neighbor is dry might as well be random. The building that falls, or the overpass that fails, or the violence of the mad, all render cause and test time because, more importantly than how fearfully "random" they are is the fact that they never end.

I have already written about how 9/11 wasn't a day for those of us who were in Manhattan. It was more than a month of fire and smoke, and longer than that of the dead. The BP beaches are not done, and they will never be done, burning through the soil, water, and people of the Gulf. The childless parents will suffer on a scale that has no contact with pace or time.

When we know, truly, that God considers death no punishment, that it is a thing neither good nor bad, but merely the way of all things, then suffering is a way of moving us to see beyond time, beyond the segment we occupy. There is no acceptance. There is, instead, an ability to weep, drink gall, and yet praise the name of the Lord. In a joyous birth may be a martyrdom, and in the darkest death may be redemption. The values of things do not come from our perspectives as a group, even less alone, but only from that which is past time and emanating all life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dropping the Button

"Now that highway's coming through,
So we all got to move.
This bottom rung ain't no fun at all." -- John Doe, X, "See How We Are"

In 2003, I made the same salary that I make now, until I was laid off. However, I did far better, because I was not in a "right to work" state that was eager to cooperate with any bill collector, no matter how shady, and garnish, pre-tax. That job lasted only three months, more or less, because the year before the head of the schools had written over one hundred million dollars in bad checks. The school system therefore laid off everyone who had been hired that year. However, I had money left over enough, after paying rent and power and the like, to keep paying rent and groceries and telephone for another six months. Today, a paycheck does not last a month.

We have insane inflation. If it's measured by indicators, then our inflation rate is flat or terrifically low, but it is about like the incessant hammering of a man's gaze on a woman's body. It looks for any slip, any weakness, to see the forbidden and then glories on "win." Ritz Crackers now come in half roll sizes for the same price. . . because you might buy them. Your "big" candy bar got smaller and flatter to get wider. The result of shopping anywhere but Mal*Wart is that irrationally selected items of grocery will be $1-$2 above that evil empire of land destruction.

Once, I went to a school that charged $7,000 a year for tuition, and that was the highest outside of the professionally expensive schools (Ivy League, Bard, Sister Cecilia's Special), and the retiring head of Coca-Cola gave the university $110,000,000.00. The school responded by raising tuition, and one VP was honest enough to say they were doing it because Vanderbilt and Duke were raising theirs, and, if we didn't raise ours, people would think we weren't as good.

Businesses seem to be run by the dicta that they have a duty to maximum profits. This is not true even in neo-classical economics. As Henry Ford said, their goal should be the highest quality possible for the lowest cost possible while paying the highest wages possible. Once you believe that your job is "maximize profits," then the job gets easier, and you believe perforce in every other organism as a resource to be mined.

The majestic pile

I was in church this morning, and the offeratory came around. I thought about how I had no cash to put in the plate, and how I was uncertain that I would have money even in two weeks to send off to help pay for the house I'm living in -- much less cover expenses.

I thought that I might put a pain pill in the plate.

(Prescription drugs do not go into the inflation index, I bet. Then again, they don't increase in cost. They all cost exactly the same thing, which is a metered price-per-dose, and that price depends on how far you can be pushed before you would rather die or suffer. These days, $2.00 and $3.00 seem to be popular dose prices.)

"Do you remember that fell evening,
When you heard the banshees howl?
Those lazy drunken bastards
Were singing 'Pity in the Vale.'
They took you up to midnight mass
And left you in the lurch,
So you dropped a button in the plate
And spewed up in the church." -- Shane McGowan of The Pogues, "The Sickbed of Cuchuliann"
Pogue mahoney and all that, but this is not a matter of shame or tradition. This is a matter of relief. Life is beautiful, when once want is gone, which is why want never seems to leave.

"What a jovial and merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!" -- Corporal Trim to Uncle Toby, Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy

Critically, functioning in any given context depends upon having the prerequisites. Even the widow's groat is not a prerequisite of church, but it is of being a church member. One always feels insufficient if one is insufficiently integrated. Going to the town commission meeting is free-ish, but one knows that voices carry best when carried by money. Old cars are charming, and then they are not.

When we wonder why the poor do not voice their opinions more or participate more in local politics, we show our own obliviousness. The inverted world we occupy, where a pocket sized computer that plays only games, the DS III or whatever it may be now, is easy to get, but where shelter is dear and food is a war between corporations that own all brands and want to test each buyer's attention to the limit, makes it quite, quite clear that only the wealthy have three dimensions to their social and political selves. The rest of us are fractions and shadows -- sources of revenue or labor or data alone.

I do not want to be a resource, human or otherwise, for the continuation of the lopsided wave that is American capitalism.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fly Larvae!

"He showed concernment for his soul. Some things
In his experience were hopeful. He
Would sit and watch the wind knocking a tree
And praise this countryside our Lord has made.
. . . though a thirst
For loving shook him like a snake, he durst
Not entertain much hope of his estate
In heaven. Once we saw him sitting late
Behind his attic window by a light
That guttered on his Bible; through that night
He meditated terror, and he seemed
Beyond advice or reason. . .
. . . In the latter part of May
He cut his throat. And though the coroner
Judged him delirious, soon a noisome stir
Palsied our village. At Jehovah's nod
Satan seemed more let loose amongst us." -- Robert Lowell, "After the Surprising Conversions" 1946
Robert Lowell is one of those poets with very few friends and very many enemies, and that's at least partly due to the fact that there are several editions of Robert Lowell. There is Robert Lowell the agrarian (above) of New England, Robert Lowell the diffident yankee, Robert Lowell the insane person, Robert Lowell the confessional, and Robert Lowell the noisome political actor. That's a lot for one poor madman to bear. It's even more for one bundle of poetic skill to have to voice. Me? I pick and choose. I kind of like his snarky poems about other poets, despite the poet, and I somewhat like the pretending stridency of the early stuff.

What I really like, though, is the madness that has an unchanging essence. It is a very American form that did not quite mature with our century.
I quoted a long stretch above because of it is a subtle butterfly net. It purports to be a poem written by one of Jonathan Edwards's deacons reporting after a visit from the great man. This deacon reports the score board: the saved soul of the dissipate or indifferent. However, it then goes on, like a physician discussing a disease of the soul, and notes how the patient was lost to hereditary and environmental conditions. It ends by noting that the entire village begins to have a rash of suicides, and the bass gorges itself on the spawn of the stream.

First, this is A-OK with me, because the evangelical movement continues along the path described here. A successful meeting results in X souls saved. I have seen a weekly service at a school populated by Christian students have an alter call as a regular feature. Further, the ministers exclaim at each meeting that the top priority for the students is to save their classmates by introducing them to the Gospel. Later, the speakers are ranked on how many were saved.

(I used to be upset that these folks assumed that anyone in the U.S. had not heard the Gospel. However, my students, who attend church every week, do not recognize Gospel quotations -- even ones I consider most famous, like "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last," or "Judge not, lest ye be judged," or "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Now, my complaint is that the ones who are supposed to "introduce" the others to the Gospel are unlikely to have read one of them still.)

However, the poem is only consciously about the underlying problems of evangelical preaching. By speaking of this figure powerless to stop his village from killing itself, completely unequipped to deal with his crisis, Lowell gets at despair itself and the call to repentance. When we convince people that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God, it gets pretty hard to convince them that forgiveness is available. Some people will never believe in their own guilt, but more will never believe in their forgiveness.

Each pleasure or admiration will call to mind some way of falling short. It took the exceptionally radical (and I think toxic) view of perseverance of the saints to get evangelical preaching past this point. Today's evangelicals preach a once-saved-evermore-saved to get people past even being bothered by their sinning, but this introduces its own poisons.

So it is, also, that the modern -- triumphant over disease, glorified by radio, triumphant over the atom and the atmosphere -- had a horror betraying each marvel. Every chemist could be a murderer, and every physicist a world killer. The Janus mask of the 20th century never came off, and being responsible was too much for anyone but the most glib, oblivious, or maniacal.

Finally, though, Lowell's own guilt is captured. The depressive will fall back to William Cowper's malady of feeling damned and need distraction or encouragement, but all of the latter will fail, as it does not penetrate the internal certainty -- the "Satan let loose." Lowell, who had his insanity possibly as an incubus, had his guilt, too.

The flies that fall to the water's edge are food to the trout.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Vile Antithesis: Amphibious Things

  Let Sporus tremble — "What? that thing of silk, [305]
, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?"
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings; [310]
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne'er tastes, and Beauty ne'er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray, [315]
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad, [320]
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis. [325]
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
's Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest, [330]
A Cherub's face, a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.  --Alexander Pope, Epistle to Arbuthont found best by every-hero-since-the-crack-of-time Jack Lynch here.
You think that's long? It isn't: it's great. Lord Hervey was effeminate, and perhaps more. Pope refers to him as Sporus, who was the pretty boy whom the Emperor Nero had 1) castrated, 2) freed, and then whom he 3) married. It looks at first glance to be the usual attack on homosexuality (assumed), except that it isn't. Pope implied that Hervey is homosexual, but also that he is an impotent homosexual. He never enjoys women nor men. Nor does Pope give Sporus a Nero -- there is no masculine to Hervey's feminine, no 'top' for him to play 'bottom' to. No, what Pope points at with disgust is that Hervey is a mix. He is a discordia discors. 

In the portrait of Sporus, Pope lambasts Hervey's wit as being "between that and this,/ Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss." By the theory of mind most operative in Pope's day, wit would come from the ability to show unexpected similarities in disparate things and unexpected distinctions in presumed like things. However, each bit of wit, to be true wit, had to be tempered by a knowledge of place (the infamous "decorum") and, most of all, serve a purpose. Pope did not merely believe in Horace's maxim of "utile et dulce," he saw it as a guide star. Hervey's wit had to be in the service of Nature.

When Pope ridiculed Ambrose Phillips, it was along the lines of truth and nature, and when he criticized other moderns, it was because they derived their practice from their rules or observations rather than from nature or what must be true. This Catonian streak can make Pope difficult at times, at least partly because he is not consistent. Three Hours After Marriage is for simple entertainment and a la mode, after all.

Hervey's crime, in Arbuthnot, is being an amphibian -- one who slips from male to female and back again. He is very much like Pope's view of woman when he says that "Most women have no character at all." Women can change their whole selves, and so the Theophrastan idea of character does not fit them. Similarly, a woman's freedom and art with clothing and cosmetics mean that she can blend into any environment she desires. This is the disability of women, in Pope's mind (in Epistle to a Lady):
 Nothing so true as what you once let fall,/ 'Most Women have no Characters at all.'/ Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,/ And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair."
It amazes me that people can think there is misogyny present. The "character" intended is obviously not the sweat-stained inner soul and integrity of the locker room motto. It is the germ within that cannot be crushed and which grow into a predestined form.

The amphiotic, including amphimixis, is disturbing. Medievals, who lived and thought the Great Chain of Being, saw mixed things as blasphemous or miscreant. The best one could hope for, if one looked mixed, is to be ruled a lussus naturae (freak of nature) and thus not personally in league with Satan. The reason for the revulsion is simple enough. If each creature fits into a niche of intellect and soul, and the niches run from God at an infinite height to nothingness at an infinite small, then something that is two places/positions is defying the order God set upon the cosmos. A person who willingly mixes is willingly creating discord.

Once more, though, idiots will be idiots. Folks given a metaphysical concept will almost instantly apply it to the flesh. Their deductive reasoning will run from, "God put each thing in its place, and you seem to be manly and female" and conclude with a beating. It may only take red hair, or a stubby thumb, or a club foot. Pope, you will notice, is not doing this.

Pope studiously avoids physical descriptions. When he provides them (Edmund Curll in Dunciad), it's notable, but his usual tactic is to talk about a person's character through a behavior. Lord Hervey is offering up the continuous wit without a purpose that devalues language, and he is girlish and a man; he is both empty and poisonous.

The disgust with the mixed would continue. Gay men today write about the "straight-acting" code and how gay men who are "straight acting" do not get the ill treatment that presumably gay acting men do. This discussion is at least slightly off the beam, as the vicious and illegal behavior gay men fall victim to is usually men reacting to an effeminate man, and effeminate men are routinely harassed even if heterosexual. (Gender codes are policed by the same sex, and so men force men to be 'manly' as women force women to be 'feminine.') Women who are masculine (as opposed to assertive) also get hostile reactions, whether they are lesbian or not.

You going to eat that pencil?

In the 1890's, Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed the issue of the God of Placements:

"Pied Beauty"
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;        5
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        10
                  Praise him.

Be sure, he tells his readers, that God does not need our version of consistency. Further, the very concept that God has to be homogenous is unnecessary. Plato may have needed a god that was internally consistent, like a giant ball of Silly Putty surrounded by an egg of Demiurge, but Plato's god is not alive. The Platonic god is affectless. 

All of the Middle Eastern religions have a God who is involved by emotion or impulse. A living God who loves can create out of love without having any lack. What's more, differences and mixes are all actualities and eventualities confined to time and space; for the eternal, there is only the glory, the exultation, the amazement, and the praise and love.

Lord Hervey was despicable, probably. However, what Pope lashes him for is being an artificial creature -- a man who is self-made without reference to nature (which does not mean hetersexuality, but productivity). Pope could not see that he, too, was amphibious, also antithetical. A man 4' tall who had to wear a corset simply to stand erect is an embodied paradox. A poet with a sensitive mind lived in physical pain for all of his adult life and wrote with placid ease. I wonder what the Confessional poets would have done if they could have claimed a quarter of Mr. Pope's pains. A man who never got consideration from women because of his condition, and yet he wrote lovingly of women. He was a Roman Catholic and despised for his religion, discriminated against, and yet he supported the conservative party.

What's more, and worse, is the amphibian life. Death does not hurt, I assume, but dying does. We spend a good portion of our lives neither born nor adult -- struggling between two characters, fighting between child and self. Even as our beauty forms and fades, we are in the crisis of sloughing off our births. Then we spend more time neither adult nor dead, but merely dying very slowly. We have our powers, and the supports and succors we long for have passed, but we have not death -- just an unresolving blur.

I can feel it these days, the tug of war. The white flag in the middle of the rope may jerk back to my side a foot or two, but more people keep joining the other side, and there was never any doubt about the outcome.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


"If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." -- Augustine, Confessions IX
I used to love Henri Bergson's philosophy. It was wacky in the way that only French and 18th century British philosophy can be, because it simply ignored the prior centuries and conversations and asserted a thing and then followed the implications. If the maestro is correct about time being a perception rather than a physical reality, then you're off and running, or at least trotting, beside him as he works out the myriad consequences.

I do not know if anyone ever exactly said why his philosophy was a door stop, why it shuttered the building and silenced the rest, but it did. There were few followers, because there was little to follow. It wasn't like Nietzsche, where the system sort of ends in a great, guttural growl, but once time is only perception, pretty much everything else gets idiosyncratic. You have to think about it a while, but you'll see that you can't reason on any subject, really, without time being something that we agree upon.

Even as Einstein would say that the physics property called time was relative, the human quality called time could never be more flexible than local. Oh, you -- you can say that time is a fiction, but I bet your computer clock is set. Like language and the myth of "slippage" that the deconstructionists wittered on about, it's true that absolute time is false and that we are all locked into a contract. Our time is nothing greater, in the end, than a network of contracts to go and do things, and between those actions we say time exists. The universe knows not "8:00 AM."

Our "8:00 AM" only means something between it comes between "7:00 AM" and "9:00 AM," not because there is any magic in the number or the time. Our "butterfly" only has meaning because of the contexts embedded in the signifier, not the magic of the sound. Yeah, yeah. The world is so, like, enslaving, man.

(I'd like to see the deconstructionist free herself from the paradigm of the clock.)

Time is not a fiction, if it's a shared delusion. If we share it, then it's not imaginary, because we've never been able to enforce universal fantasies. However, it's also not a reality, if none of us can talk about it rationally or even know how we keep speaking of it. It's this ongoing activity, but we can throw it into a pool, hurl it into futurity, and slice it into segments, and all without a definition or apprehension.

Do you feel time passing? I know. . . reading this would make anyone aware of time passing.

Anyway, the cruel lights of the sky, the poorly disguised commands of the economic machine, and the way the earth stumbles like a disoriented dancer through three hundred plus spins to get back to where it began all sound out a loud chomp of regularity and regulation. Things are regular, and we think they are timing.

Our souls wait for the Lord as surely as the watchman waits for the light of dawn. In that waiting, there is no time. Do you know why, all through the Psalms, the singer talks about waiting for the dawn in anxiety, why Jesus told two parables about people setting watch for the night? I doubt the least aware shepherd doubted the sunrise or was confused about the seasons, but waiting is a quality of time.

In the eternal, there is no beginning or ending, for "eternity" means timelessness, and without time such terms have no sense to them. We wait for the Lord just like the watchman waits for dawn. In the period of endless extension (waiting, dark), the solution goes by its own schedule (dawn, God). At the moment of coming, it is no more waiting. Time kicks in.

Time is not a fiction. It is a narrative.

We take our strands of life, our yarns, and the card spins us together. We accept the narrative of work, the narrative of season, the narrative of paying bills, and even the narrative of death, but time isn't responsible for any of these things. Time is the result of them. Here, we can lose our memory, or just lose our control over memory, and we can lose the power to imagine, but that is not time. Time is when we comply, put stickers on the planner, adjust our gait to the dance floor, and have a thing to tell or be told.

There are tribes and groups that live without a future tense. There are some with low number counts (how many? hrair!), but they still have a sense of time because they tell stories and have history. My sparkle-brained puppy cannot tell anything, and she has no time: she carries in her skull memories and a blurry pocket of "now" that might be fairly long, but not time.

I have grown sick of the tale.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

So, Why Does Henry Drink?

"My house is made of wood, and it's made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that's fairly old.
If there were a middle    ground between things and the soul" -- John Berryman, "Dream Song 385"
Down here, the genius of the place is the water moccasin. No grizzly bears or elk, no trout or thatch, but the cotton mouth, which developed its poison out of accursedness rather than need, stands for our soil's natural produce. As fallen leaves turn the grass into a mosaic, and every glance at the ground presents us with the vertigo of endlessly repeated leaf shapes at shifting angles, the very soil is a 100,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The wind will shift the pieces, and people will rake them into bags, until the waters and acids break them to stickiness, and then that will be the new paving of the world for a season.

Left to their own devices, the people will be both kind and cruel, spring and autumn, and they will do all that is possible to deny the fall's spring, the false spring, and the failed spring. Fallen nature and fallen humanity try to avoid one another and keep their hostilities decorous. The kudzu will wait a while before trying to teach lessons in hegemony, and the honeysuckle will climb through all the shrubbery, then the screens and lattices, and the possums and raccoons will take what they can as quietly as they are able. The people, for their part, will rapture in five point bucks and the "hallowed" traditions of testing inescapable technology against herbivores. Ducks, doves, and a few quail will fall from the sky, but the people will claim that it was all in good sport, and all the sweeping and raking and cutting back will not be grudged.

Of course this is a land of the polite lie. The water moccasin is aggressive in a way that a snake need not be. It gets its broods shot because it is perpetually angry, perpetually certain that it is better to die in killing than to live in fear. Copperheads can cringe beside a sneaker and hope its owner goes away, but not a water moccasin.

When any one or any thing gives offense, the people, too, will welcome the useless martyrdom of rage over the life of compromise. No wonder, either.

What is it that we have gained, you and I, through peace? When the braying, kicking ass comes down the hall, and we duck into our offices, what did we get? When the "poll watcher" begins to harass a brown skinned person in line because a chauvinist told him he could, what did we get for ducking our shoulders?

Carl Jung talked about the shadow. As much as you want peace, your shadow wants war. As much as you want to pay the bill and leave, your shadow wants to slap the waitress, stab the cook, and set fire to the building. Carl Jung was writing in the golden era of the bourgeoisie, before "bro humor" and other crimes became entertainment.

It was an era that claimed a great many minds. The people who wanted to kick against it had very loud fits. Nietzsche wished he could punch it in its face.

Today, restraint is dead, seemingly, but people are as restricted as ever. Remember how Republican presidents said they were going to lower "our" taxes to "give our money back to us?" Did it go back to us? I seem to recall that "giving our money back" meant making states do Welfare and Medicare, and they didn't raise the money. If they did, the money didn't come back. I recall that we were going to get rid of company pensions because "unions" and because "government" would be insolvent, and yet everyone still kept having money deducted, but now it went to an IRA or 401, which meant that it went to Wall Street. No, I don't recall anyone getting more money except banks, but I have seen services decrease year on year.

The cell phone would solve the problems of high phone charges. Of course the contracts that can't be cancelled without $200-300 of fees are not making things better. The "overdraft protection" on our banking accounts became ways of generating profits for the banks. We have no say in whether our power bills go up or down or how the power is made.

No, we're not free. We're pretty damned bottled up, hemmed in, and compromised, but now we don't have a name to associate with our losses or a face that we can dream of slapping.

I find myself at present being widely praised by my family as the one who has looked after my mother in her illness, but not at all trusted by any of them to have a clear point of view or the best point of view. This has led me to think again about how Jung praised a good stiff drink and a solid bender every once in a while. The problem is that it's really, really expensive to be a drunk.

Being a druggie is even more expensive, variable in its results, and dangerous.

No, the sane thing to do is to be a pill popper. First, the excess production of the nation favors that. After all, the strong manufacturing base in the U.S. is of drugs. We don't always know what they do or how they do it (Lyrica, anyone? Abilify?), but we can make it very well and at great cost. Astonishingly, we can make any medicine cost $2.00 per dose.

The truth of such things is, I think, not what Jung had argued, though. He felt that societies and persons needed to blow up their societies and allow misrule so that they could reintegrate the hierarchy. Essentially, by allowing the bacchanal, they defused the Shadow. This was his way of understanding the world wide presence of carnival. Most folks still, I think, view these events as purgatives.

I avoided Mardi Gras when I lived in New Orleans, but I think I have nevertheless come to a realization. Why would a person drink to oblivion? It's not to forget the world, but to forgive it lest we go back to agreeing with our spirits that it is better to have the consuming flame than the bitter acids of the dirt again.

Monday, September 17, 2012

9/11/12, the hangover

What is wisdom? We speak of it as a product of age or experience or perception, and we should know it as an uneasy ally of intelligence. It can be, though, an entire enemy to knowledge.

The lectionary readings this last Sunday had us reading Proverbs 1:20-33, where Wisdom “cries out in the street: in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out: at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: 'How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you: I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, . . . and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity . . . For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.'” Wisdom, at least for the translators, denotes something different from simple accumulation of information.

The wise course is to avoid cigarettes. It is wise to use moderate language. Prudence is wise, but sensing an outcome by empathy and projection is wise. Wisdom is also reverence and obedience to God.

This year, I have had a 9/11 hangover rather than a 9/11 reaction. I was prepared to let the day slip into the oblivion of time's countless pile, where names and numbers are the follies of desires, but this year it was Tuesday, and it was Tuesday in 2001. I was low that day, mind you, but vaguely. Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday, were worse.

I have had no evolution in my thinking about the month of harrowing begun on the day, as thinking is merely a paddle for the stream. Instead, I have remained in the same position: there are moments of suffering, and suffering is different from pain. This is my position.

Suffering has no agent to blame or object to remove. Suffering does not achieve a thing. (If it does, then it's endurance.) Suffering can never, ever know or achieve a meaning or a lesson itself. The value of suffering comes entirely from grace. (Be very careful with reading that last sentence. When is wandering in the desert forging a nation and the grace of God, and when is conquest by a neighbor the hone of pain? The people involved do not get to decide.)

The lectionary paired this reading from Proverbs with Mark's description of the revealing of the messianic secret 8:27-38: … he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Mark's description is really interesting. When Peter names Jesus as the messiah, Jesus speaks openly of the divine, of the true messiah, of the suffering and humiliation and death and resurrection. Peter wanted to correct Jesus on the meaning of the messiah, for he had knowledge, and Jesus scolded him with a dual statement. First, he was scolding the temptation to conform to human expectations (human kings work like that), but then he was also explaining something that the Gnostics would exaggerate and get entirely wrong: there is God's kingdom, and man's, and the messiah is God's savior of men.

Suffering does not teach the sufferer anything. We who looked with fear, with dread, with sad stones in our throats, at the orange moon permanently crashed in lower Manhattan, where the pile burned night after night, could only pray, volunteer, cry, and cringe. We could not look for Superman to turn the globe around. When the salty smoke came our way, or when the people of Brooklyn endured weeks of the burning buildings and dead blowing a shroud upon them, we did not have faith that the EPA told the truth, nor that we could use duct tape or surgical masks or anything else. When we encountered the abandoned things. . . all those cheerful witnesses to an ordinary person's busy day's aspirations and graven expectations, and as each demanded an homage as much as it demanded back its owner, we could only feel it. Insulting apes, driven blind by instinct, reacted to the suffering and were themselves endured.

Will this make me more wary or prudent? It cannot.

Wisdom shouts at the gate and at the traffic lights. The mentally ill endure suffering for lifetimes, and they neither chose nor were chosen for their lot. The hungry cast shadows around the fed, and they keep their dignity by suffering through insult after insult. The laid off worker was no failure in any way, but the company's failure condemns him in the eyes of others, and so she suffers.

Suffering changes those who go through its course. They know what others do not. They know what a world without a horizon is, and they are less likely to see missiles that appear and destroy as just, less likely to see the support of the weak as a burden for the strong. There is wisdom in that.

However, we have only this as consolation: ours is not to know, even, what purpose suffering serves. We think as humans and see as our eyes allow. Our knowledge forbids our awareness, and there is a scale of justice and a motive of value that is God's alone, and we can have faith in its rightness by honoring those who suffer and judging them not.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

I Wanna Be Normal People

Meet the new writing companion.
Photo taken Sept. 7, 2012
She had a name at the animal shelter. She was called "Erin." Since my first dog was "Bounce" (same name as Alexander Pope's dogs), and my second was "Uncle Toby," and my third was "Macheath," it's pretty clear that "Erin" could not stand. However, the name that my heart had decided upon for my next American Eskimo Dog was Garm, and the dog in the photo above is not Garm. For one thing, this one might howl well before Ragnarok or Judgment Day. Also, Garm is supposed to be male, Hel female, so I was going to give the name to a female, just for symmetry's sake.

The dog above (and at my right ankle now) is female. She is spayed, although she went through her first estrus at the time of the spaying. (Oops, as they say.) (That must have been a relief to her, albeit a confusing one.) So, I thought of other names. "Glumdalklitch" was top spot (just called "Glum"), but I finally settled on "Stella."

So, meet Stella:

"Stella" is a stealthy dog, and the name is deceptive as well. I'm sure that you are thinking "Astrophel to Stella," and that's a fine thing, but "Stella" is also the generic 'beloved' name in every bad poem of 1680-1780, so there's that. However, for the really geeky 18th century theme park consistency, there is Esther Johnson. Jonathan Swift's teasing, flirting, but never abused female friend, whom he called Stella in his writings, has left her mark on the public through him, but she obviously left a deep furrow in his life. (If you want more information on Stella, there isn't much. Do NOT go to the Wikipedia page, which uses a fiction as its source.)

Stella was rescued from the needle, for she had been at the animal shelter since May with "zero public interest." The shelter in question tries to ensure that no dog gets euthanized, so she was not in imminent peril, but the choices were stark. As for what she is. . . I don't know.

I know she's at least half a Pointer. The other half could be anything from Border Collie to Labrador. She likes water and sociks. She is a sock collector of the first order. She does not chew them, eat them, or do anything else except own them. Similarly, she wishes to have one shoe of every pair, simply for ownership. (You can't leave without your shoes, I think.)

This is the first dog I have had that is part or whole Working Dog. In short, it is the first "normal" dog I've had. For once, I'm normal. I'm like the average person, and my dog has a normal name. I will do all that I can, of course, to be as subversive as possible so that, like the name, the dog is only a strange critter abiding in a normal wrapper, and she certainly seems inclined that way.

For a decade of my life, my greatest desire was to be one of them -- the normal people. What on earth possessed me, I don't know.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

It's a Trap!

I watched "The Hunger Games" movie. I thought it was astonishing that they went to all that trouble to make an actress who isn't Shelley Duvall look exactly like Shelley Duvall, and the star was an amazing simulacrum of Ellen Paige, although more likeable. The film constructors had to create both effects, too, so these shouldn't have been accidents. Woody Harrelson's scalp wig, on the other hand, freaked me out.

I haven't been able to stop thinking back on the movie, and I think my subconscious is worrying over it. There was something down there that bothered me -- something I'm not ready to articulate. On a superficial level, there is the political recall.

In 1948, George Orwell wrote 1984 about how a nation can use war as an excuse for constant privation and a cover for the misdirection of funds. That same year, London was the host of the Olympics, and they referred to the events as the Austerity Games. This year, the E.U. is facing "the New Austerity." It's not a repeat for any but the British -- for the other nations it is a reminder of desolation and conquest, not victory -- and they held Austerity New Games, where professional athletes and sponsorships changed the appearance of everything and the context of nothing.

Because today's Olympian is professional, she can have a logo on her fanny at the beach volleyball. There can be wealth on the tributes. However, the wretchedness of the austerity games was that a nation that had to ration cheese was asked to celebrate the perfected form of man and the amity of nations.

That's superficial, though. I don't think The Hunger Games is aware of the connection, although it has benefited from it. No, what had me going this time was another parallel. The books and movie concern an evil central power and hard scrabble provinces upholding their independence. In fact, the political structure could as easily come from George Lucas as reality, because "district twelve" could be Dantoine. For that matter, it's not far from Josh Whedon's "Firefly." Nor is it much off from some of Heinlein's corrupt central powers.

Let's face it, rebels are sexy.

If I drew political parallels with today, then what parallels would others feel? "Corrupt state that takes all our work and lives in high fashion and makes fun of us, while we do all the work" is a summary not only of The Hunger Games attitude toward the capital but the TEA Party's attitude toward the I-95 megalopolis. That got me down. Yet another way for the ill informed to feel ill treated and go on ill advised, I thought.

So, is it possible to write a story with a central power as a hero? Is it possible to write a pro-Union story? One can write an anti-rebel story (there are such), but one that proposes the use and joys of unity and stability? It's not very likely, is it?

 This is the problem that Milton ran into, isn't it? From a narrative point of view, the center of establishment or power is a lousy her. The only way to tell the story is by making the speaker for power a rebel him or herself. Bedford Forrest the slave trading rich Memphis man was hardly a figure of romance, but Nathan Bedford Forrest the Ku Klux Klan founder who would never give up against the repression of the state warmed hearts.

Are we going to be doomed to sagas about how great it is to resent the government? Is the best we can hope for a William Gibson novel, where corporations take the place of the Empire? Is that as near to reality we can hope for?

1. What does the novel do?
Ian Watt famously argued that novels are separate from other genres in their development of "psychological realism." By this he meant that the novel features interior experience, growth of character and mind, and an individual. There are other definitions, and Watt's is not the gospel account it once was, but this is at least a critical observation of a thing novels do and have done as they have grown.

I would point to the fact that the genres that fathered the novel are a) biography, b) stage drama, c) satire, d) hagiography, e) history, f) travelogues. Think of the earlier novels and their lines, and you'll quickly recognize that most of the early ones offered a frame tale of biography -- the life of David Copperfield, or David Simple. When the Licensing Act of 1737 made the English stage an entirely Ministry affair, the playwrights turned to writing up their plays as stories. This gives us Henry Fielding, but theater strikes had earlier given us Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. The structures inside the drama-derived novels therefore had long established histories. What did Defoe do but bring the criminal biography to great glory? All that remained was for the satirists to get into the game and for Walter Scott to create the historical novel.

Novels, in short, worked around following an individual. Whether they were bildungsromans or not, they had an interest in showing revelations and realizations and interactions that would grow.

2. No one with the answers can ask a question.
A person with power has a hard time with a dramatic agon. When your hero is Superman, it gets ridiculous the amount of Kryptonite you have to invent so that there's an interesting fight. When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" has hyper-warp phasers and teleporters that don't malfunction, they have to go play 19th century on the holodeck to have any conflict.

A novel needs a weak or bewildered or imperiled protagonist. It doesn't have to be an underdog, but we're bored if the Invulnerable Man faces the Average Robber.

3. You break the world, you bought it.

Rebellions give any author an opportunity to present a monster that is omnipresent and monolithic. Furthermore, it allows a motivation for the monster to do almost any wickedness against the heroine. The hero of such a saga serves to embody the political principle that the author wishes to promote, and yet the author is never forced to answer all the nagging details that would show up if he had to have that heroine win and become queen.

Frank Herbert's Dune series has the same "corrupt central world sucking dry the lives of the provinces" that is familiar to "Star Wars" and "Hunger Games" and TEA Party, but he was working from sociology and history, and so his fantasy world was literally feudal. The others are much more vaguely gestural. The impossibility of governance with virtue was Herbert's theme, in the end, and so he had his hero rebel (who was also an aristocrat) win. For four books, the message gets clear: one may be good or powerful, and one may serve one's people or be good, but goodness itself changes with a time frame.

The audience reads into the rebel, but most authors cheat and make their heroes, like Paul Atreides, blue bloods who convert or royalty in disguise ("Luke, I am your father" is not much different from "That... that birthmark! My own child, the heir to the throne had just such a mark!"), so readers get to feel clever, refined, cultured, and able to lead the rebellion.

4. Leading a rebellion is like winning a peace.
The "rebel leader?" Actual rebellions tend to be disorganized because they're rebellions and filled with rebels. I invite any and all to review the glorious Civil War career of Joe Brown, even if you look at a Bowdlerized version of it.

In romance and saga, being the leader of a rebellion allows one to be a reformer, warrior, and guide and to not merely overcome overwhelming odds, but to establish the glorious reign.


We are doomed, I think, to these narratives. For us, our fictional governments will always be the enemy, and all our fictional rebels will be wide eyed innocents driven to extremity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


We are strange animals. We can imagine things that we are unable to actually comprehend. Until life shows us what death is, absence is, we can imagine it, but we cannot comprehend it.

Macheath died at 4:25 PM on August 28th, 2012.

Until then, I did not know I was alone. Until then, I had not been alone. She and I were living one life together, and so her disappearance is the ripping out of part of my self, my ongoing life. I look for her at my feet, and she is gone forever.

I will never be as blindly lucky as I was when I found her. I cannot hope for it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Gamble of Death

Macheath in December of 2004

In 1998, Uncle Toby, the .75 Pomeranian, .25 long haired chihuahua, had his third bladder tumor blockage. When he had it the first time, we got the tumors removed, and he was fine, but they returned. After the second surgery, he was not himself for a long time, and I told myself that, when they came back again, it would be time to let go. Therefore, in April, as enormous storms came up, I took some pictures of him, and then we went to the vet. I held him as they administered the injection. My friend Mary had gone with me.

I was coldly rational about the thing. Toby was happy, perky, and feeling great, and when the vet gave him the needle stick, he licked the air in mercy, looking for me to help him. The death was instant. I shattered. Mary had to drive me home, because I was crying too hard.

Only three days later, I found an ad in the paper for American Eskimo Dog puppies, with papers. I set out for the middle of nowhere -- the exact center of the state of North Carolina on an East-West line but against the Virginia border. There is nothing up there. The woman selling the dogs had the same name as the street and the town, and so there was a familiar story embedded there of major land holdings diminishing over time and family fortunes turning into dilapidated houses on muddy roads.

She introduced me to her disabled son, and she said she raised them dogs in the back there.

I did some puppy tests, and I picked out one, but a different one got scooped up and given to me. Never mind that. The puppy threw up on me on the way home a couple of times, and it was too scared to walk on the vinyl floor to get to its food and water. It also didn't look like an American Eskimo Dog at all. It looked like some kind of dirty poodle puppy.

However, I named her Macheath -- after the highwayman in John Gay's play whose beauty allows him to get away with murder -- and I washed her to get the fleas off. The puppies had been in a muddy pen, and Macheath was anemic from flea bites.

Last week, I took her to the vet, after she had diarrhea in the house for the first time in her life. They gave her an I.V. and sent her home, but she almost instantly began coughing and spitting up, and I thought they had given her kennel cough. After eight days, when I finally had time during the day, I took her to a different vet, and I received the news that she has a very, very large tumor in her chest.

This tumor is pressing against her windpipe, making it impossible for her to breathe or swallow. What's more, it seems to have grown to this size in only a week or so, so it's an extremely aggressive cancer. If nature does not take her this weekend, I will be back to that nightmarish position on Monday of holding my friend as she dies.

All that has changed in the fifteen years that Macheath has given me is that I now believe as well as think that death is no evil. Death is the same whether it occurs when we're young or old, with disease or with a shock. Death cannot be good or bad, by itself, because it is a judgment given to all animals alike. I cannot this time feel that I am hurting her or letting her down -- a feeling that, cleverness aside, I could never shake with Toby.

However, death hurts. It ends the pain of the suffering one, but it inflicts grievous wounds on the living.

Macheath has been all that anyone could ask for in a dog. She has silently, happily, politely, and with kindness woven her body and mind into my own, so that she is part of my thought, feeling, and living. She is buried deep in me, and when she is taken, it will shred a great hole in me. I don't know how I will react when this dog, who has kept me on the earth more than a couple of times, is gone, but I know that -- fair or not -- I will be hunting up a puppy starting right away.

No matter the devastation when death collects, the gamble always pays off for the player. Would anyone trade fifteen years of comfort for the pain of loss? It's not even close. As awful as it is now and will be, I know that a dog is a condition of life for me.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Well Tempered Clavicle

I had needed, I think, to say the things I said below, to throw the tiles of the mosaic out. The truth is that I have arrived at a position where I can take satisfaction that one life's work has been achieved, although its consummation has left me barren. Though I do not say it could have been otherwise even with effort and desire and luck, I have achieved the goal of ignominious anonymity. I have worked at not trying, worked harder at not getting, and can now, at the milestone of fifty, say that perhaps I made it, after all.

Before you reach for an air sickness bag, this is not about any talent I might have or lack. This is about the desires. I assume that hundreds with more genius and capacity have felt the same and achieved lack of note, and I do not doubt that some have even less capacity and genius than myself and feel the same call of the mild -- the unlined margin where there is no place to record a name.

" meet a traveling Englishman who is, as it were, the incarnation of this talent (for boredom) -- a heavy, immovable animal, whose entire language exhausts its riches in a single word of one syllable, an interjection by which he signifies his deepest admiration and his supreme indifference, admiration and indifference having been neutralized in the unity of boredom. No other nation produces such miracles of nature..." -- Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or ("The Rotation Method")
 There has been an innovation in theology of late. My reader may be familiar with the concept of total depravity. I stepped off the train right there, myself, even though we were between stations. (There was a service hut, but it had a sign over it saying, "Closed.") So, if we creatures are totally depraved by nature, then we need grace from God. Ok. The Catholics say that we need grace to get to a point where our free will operates and we, with God's help, will goodness. The Calvinists say that we can't do that, because we're just too depraved, and so God is at the helm all the way. (With me so far?) There's this bit of Paul where he talks about Christ and the spirit. The way I read it, Paul is trying to explain to the Romans how to understand eternal life when it's obvious that the bodies of Christians are easy to kill. He is speaking of metaphysics and explaining -- to my Classicist training -- essence. He is saying that our flesh, which is in existence and fallen, partakes of a sinful essence, but salvation rewrites that and gives us a new essence, a new "nature," and that is eternal and perfect. On the last judgment, we will be resurrected into bodies that reflect this new nature, too (it's the whole of Romans 7 and the earliest bit of Romans 8; if it reads like philosophy, then...).

Ok, back to the innovators. This line from Paul seems to mean, to many, that the conversion experience, which is mandatory (I could link to recent articles in internal publications, but I don't want to condemn or praise anyone), flushes the system of the believer. The believer gains the grace filled nature. At that point, grace is covering sins. Hence the bumper stickers that say, "Not perfect. Just forgiven." This is forgiveness as an ongoing condition, because it is bound in grace, and the new nature is like a new team jersey. What happens, as a practical matter, is that guilt, and especially contrition disappear. Because God forgives automatically, there is no real need for contrition. That scares me.

I have lived a life fitting invariably as unremarkably into a classic description of an under achiever, but I have extended that juvenile maladptation into a philosophy of life (the link I gave is really "blame the kid"). The under achiever does not try for fear of failing. The bright kid who won't study, because then the test will reflect his best and the best will be known, is an under achiever. They usually have a lack of support at home for their talents and a really serious fear of failure. I learned about this profile as a junior in high school, and it fit me to a T. That didn't stop anything, though.

I overcame the intellectual under achiever profile, but the heart of the matter still murmurs. Unlike some, guilt is a real presence for me. In fact, most of my emotions are variations on its motif. My desire for anonymity is not fear, but guilt. When I did overcome the fear of failing, and when I did finally see what I could do and be, I saw no reason to strive and every fault. If I could magnify myself through words or influence another through argument, then I would be responsible for a shadow cast on the landscape or an action taken. By what right should I presume?

Do not mistake this for humility, as I have tried to do in the past. This is flat out guilt. This is the guilt of ability and action. It is the guilt of harming another person. I already feel thick blankets of the stuff for what I say or fail to say to those who care for me, and finding that I give offense or add injury is too much. It is also the guilt of inability. There is a weighted door on most of us, as we have absurd, unjustified and unjustifiable demands placed on us by banks, merchants, advertisers, and the law. We can add to these nebulous forces particular injustices done to the poor -- the "overdraft protection" that is designed to harm the poor, the "buy here pay here" car lots that aim to repossess from the start, the banks that "write down losses" that are actually houses that people have been ejected from and that the bank will not sell or adjust a payment on. Either way, we fail. We fail our children, our parents, our peers, our employers.

Commercially, there is greater profit in indebted than solvent citizens, and so all businesses are seeking to ensure debt. There is more profit in unhappy people who buy out of body hatred, and so all forces seek to uphold irrational beauty. Nothing stands in the way of fear and guilt, and new accelerants come along every year.

Oh, and how's your life life, retirement planning, and hormone level?

Guilt is the wrapping of my life, the substance of my thought, and so it should be no wonder that my personal philosophy is to join the ranks of the invisible. I would love to be as unperceiving as unperceived, as painless as harmless, but that's too much to ask, and I feel bad for asking for such favors. Why do I have a good novel that I have written that I show no one? Why do I have a good novella that I show no one? I have no need to show them, and I want no responsibility. 

The people who go about without guilt do more than mystify me. They offend me. They seem a denial of reality, but, more to the point, they will charge ahead without consequence. 
[On grace: Imagine a coach in basketball. He says, 'When you take a jump shot, release at the high point of the jump, and get your elbow straight behind the stroke. Make sure the angle of the shot is high, and keep your knees bent.' He knows that the shooting guard won't do all of that every time, but it doesn't change the instruction. In a game, the guard goes to try to win the game, hogs the ball, jumps and throws the ball at the hoop, where it's blocked, leading to a turnover and a loss.
If the player comes to the bench and says, 'I'm sorry coach. I didn't do what you told me. I want to work on it,' then it's fine. If the player says, 'Hey, coach, I know you'll forgive me, so what's the big deal. It seemed like a good idea. The important thing is that I'm wearing the jersey that says "Christians" on it,' then the coach will kick him off the team.]

I can look back and forward, and the horizon's the same. I have achieved my philosophy. I wish I could be proud of that.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Chaos

"Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the deathbed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?" -- W. B. Yeats, "The Cold Heaven"

I remember that we grew very quiet, as a nation, the last time an ostensibly intelligent person turned killer, and we do so again today. As ever, we have to stipulate in advance that crazy people are crazy in mind as well as act, that murder is, by itself, proof of a disordered mind. And so, with our new H. H. Holmes, like our Unibomber, we have an insane person who gestures at a body of beliefs. We cannot blame the beliefs for the acts, nor can we think that the beliefs are more relevant or less because of the acts, but often these Crazy People show us silences that society should not have. They reveal repression.

Jonathan Nolan gave voice to the intellectual argument for anarchy in The Dark Knight, and our recent killer believes in it. Just as the Unabomber believed in the "Human Experience" Harvard class and what it taught about the lived life's degradation under the assault of technology and the sociological exchanges of modernism limiting our meaning, so this killer alledgedly believes in an intellectual core beneath chaos. What impressed critics about the argument that The Joker made in the movie was that it was somewhat coherent, if insane.

The Joker, you'll recall, argued that violence, by its nature, whether on the part of the state or against the state, was alike. Destruction was inherent, and all persons were guilty, and his job, he argued, was to make this guilt manifest at the same time that he encouraged the "joke" of destroying the toy-like rules of social control. Inside the new Batman fiction, it's a worthy idea, since the first film had been all about a group of social engineers who selectively reinforced or undermined cities and nations. 

There is no ready export of such a philosophy. In fact, it is itself an export of an older moral and philosophical realization. On the one hand, there is the psychological realization that all of us are sinful and guilty and that therefore the restraints carry only temporary force. We are animals held back by shock collars, and violence is all that prevents us from violence. The other offshoot of this is the idea that chaos, in the form of anarchy, is a method of freedom. In the movie, The Joker explores both possibilities. He puts two boats up, where the people are supposed to demonstrate their wickedness, but they fail to do so. This is in keeping, incidentally, with how people really are unless under duress. When his "game" fails, he simply shrugs, because he never really cared about making that point anyway, so long as there was chaos.

Suppose you believe in the social contract. In this, each person has the power to club the next but gives up the club in order to not be clubbed. Over time, some people think, more rules will creep in, and they will always favor the people who already have wealth or power. Eventually, all the clubs will be night sticks, and all the rules will apply to poor people. To "reset," there is a way only of getting back to the first state. From true chaos, private agreements and natural relationships of power might be formed.

Libertarians think this is swell, so long as there is money in gold and there are profits. Anarchists think that all the laws need to be smashed so that even a single law can be thought out without the prejudice of wealth or power.

Let's add in another group while we're here in the mob. Some people think that screaming, clawing, clubbing, sweating lawlessness is better than air conditioned apartment living because competition determines success and therefore virtue. They believe this is as true of people as bacteria, so we owe it to our children to ensure that they are only begotten by the "fit." Race you to the steroid stash.

If we do not talk about this, we leave people to think about it on their own, without input. They see The Joker, and they hear his side, and then they go on the Internet and read like-minded materials. They might fall in with "Black Bloc" Anarchists, or they might fall in with neo-Nazi's. In the end, it doesn't matter, because it is the failure to speak of chaos and law that has allowed for solitary voices to prevail. In the Batman movie, The Joker isn't proven right or entirely wrong, but the film is working from its own provocative, and intentionally discussion inducing, position of what a "super hero" is.

The old Reds recognized that they were hypocrites, at their best. Bertolt Brecht's "For Those Who Come After" points out that "We who wanted friendliness never could be friendly ourselves." They knew that they were not the workers they sought to liberate, and sometimes they even knew that they didn't especially like the workers. Their faith in the inevitability of a revolution drove them on because they thought it was right. Those who believe that chaos is either necessary or desirable, on the other hand, seem far less self-aware.

Knowing that the system we live in is corrupt and corrupting is not difficult. Knowing that the answer is violence is. Since these measures inevitably involve enforcing one's own philosophy upon others militarily and coercively, the "freeing" one is doing is often fatal and always unwanted. To believe that the laws need to be torn down is one thing, but to believe that they need to be torn down against the people within them is mad. It is fighting for peace. Similarly, concluding that laws diminish one's finances takes a mind of low wattage. Deciding that, because one's own finances have been diminished, the rest of the world must change to fit takes overweening pride.

Has the world run out of land or space for free communes and syndicates? If not, then Bo Gritz and the great Idaho anarchist experiment are always good ways of convincing the world of one's virtue. Deciding to fly a plane into the IRS building in Dallas is not.

In fact, these seem as if they are not intelligent or intellectual gestures at all. I would go so far as to say that such a person cannot be intellectually sound, because violence and the belief in violence in this case is an intensifier, a desire for redress and revenge. It has nothing to do with chaos as improvement. It has to do with being so upset with taxes or grades or dates that others must suffer. It is childish -- a tantrum with guns.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Joy of the Loveless

"I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end." -- T. S. Eliot, "Hysteria," 1920
Your life, like most lives, is a tale of inappropriate loves that swerved one way or the other in the chaos of time by the impact of mismatched forces. Appropriate love, all the sober gray heads would agree, is of a living object better and bettering than the self; this definition may be behind our stumbles, but, like the naked mole rats we resemble, we feel our way by warmth on our pelts, blindly going "Warmer, warmer... colder, colder," falling this side or that of apathy's zero state.

And you thought Art History wasn't a good major!

 I was at the circus yesterday -- Mal-Wart, I mean -- and my absurd remnant of desire had me looking at women, girls, crones, and mothers, and then each would go from retina to a filter that may not be the same as other men's. I did not go to sexual attraction, but fitness of soul. A carriage, a posture of head, a relaxed face, would say that she was angry or worried or innocent, serious or vain. After that coarse speculation came nothing, really, but a reflected impulse, whereby I thought on time or life. Some women, more girls, did not inhabit their bodies, and others did not master them. Some were younger than their years, but more were older or matched.

I saw several who were in the last of their teens, but their world was older. They had become mothers or already learned to fear a ringing phone, and so their minds were not where their flesh was. Another was about twenty-five, but her eyes never held anything they touched, and her feet never reached the ground when she walked, and I realized, "She thinks seventeen." (There is not a word missing in that sentence.)

There may be more stages, more fixed points than the ones I know about, but it seems to me that there are ages we actually are. The "want to grow old" age is a mind that cannot have a number on it, because it is an age that, by its primary desire, tells itself that it is dependent, controlled, and inexperienced. Then, though, there is seventeen. Some thirteen year olds -- tough kid boys with older brothers who initiate them into beer and drugs early, girls who 'blossom' early and are stunned by the shockwave -- think seventeen, but it's usually the thinking of the triumph over puberty. It is having won against one's own body, feeling its contours as reliable and being relieved, at long last, of daily name calling, back stabbing, and fighting with same sex peers.

Some people are mistakenly under the impression that thinking seventeen is happiness. Ask someone who is seventeen, though. The next year is twenty-three. The graduating college person, the full of information person, the self-confident competent person who announces independence for the first time and competency for the first time and isn't awed by it -- this is the person who has the beer party, who goes to that strange restaurant with her friends, who organizes a potluck on her own. This is the person who writes the famously dense novel filled with every idea he or she ever had. (The genre of the novel of twenty-three could fill two graduate seminars.)

Then there's thinking thirty. Most of us past thirty think thirty. The thrills are gone. It's not neat to get mail in the mailbox. Parties are boring. Dating is dreaded. More money thought than creative thought goes on, and there is worry. One is at full power, but only to find that the world really has only a very, very small spot on the dance floor for each of us to move in.

I have just discovered that there is thinking fifty, too. This is the regretful and the "Oh, no" thinking, as well as the thinking of diminishment. It remains until the last thought -- being the person who is weak, and that, like the first, has no number associated with it. The first mind is one we flee as quickly as we are able, and the last is one we adopt only after we have no other choice.

The women I looked at fell into ages -- ages of mind. I also looked at their kindness, because to me that may be most needed. When I came back to the house, after that trip to the circus, I saw a man my age moving some heavy thing in a ditch. His wife was standing behind him with her arms crossed under her bra, her cropped hair a blond contrast to her red face. He placed the thing somewhere and looked eagerly under his arm behind him, and then bent back down. This is all I saw, but I was going 20 mph, so I saw that much. I also saw that she was a woman of a stunning figure at twenty, a heart of frustration lurking beneath it, and a mind of ways things must be done. (I have no praise for the man, but her stance was a cliche.)

Als das kind kind war
We think and are, at first, in love. Some people mistake this for joy. They are allowed to do so, because it can seem that way later, but it is, instead, trust. When one has no trust left, the thinking "when I grow up" seems idyllic, because it was a time of loving parents and teachers and police and aunts and uncles and the family dog. Even as it meant no self control, no power, it meant love. It was a false love, because it was a temporary one. All those things could be stronger, smarter, and wiser than the child, but not better -- as gummy eyed poets have said, and as Jesus made clear (it does occur to me, now, that, although Jesus in other places says that we must become children again and that the prophecy is fulfilled that the wise are made simple, the simple wise, the particular circumstance of this saying was of sick children and children suffering and having faith). After the completely thoughtless phases of grabbing whatever is wanted are gone, the aspiring young who think about their future are fine.

The next mind we inhabit is the one of self-aware division, where we fall victim to love's mating and lust's warfare, and we know it. I doubt there is a person who has gone through the mind and not been aware of some falseness to the driver. As for falling in love, I could point you at Shakespeare or other Elizabethans who have such precise words for it. ("This senior-junior, giant-dwarf, Dan Cupid; /Regent of love-rhymes,  lord of folded arms,/ The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans,/ Liege of all loiterers and malcontents." Marriage, the goal of earthly love, "’T is just like a summer bird-cage in a garden,—the birds that are without despair to get in, and the birds that are within despair and are in a consumption for fear they shall never get out.") Most of the Restoration wits saw love as a disease and lust as its fever, and they had elaborate metaphors for it -- what else but a disease could make a person behave in such a way, and what else but a fever could animate a person to such a degree?

Passing, or not passing, that, we join, or we join around the mind of twenty-three. I now advise teenagers to marry, and to do it quickly, because the false love of seventeen is negated by the false love of twenty-three. At seventeen's mind, it is union. The other person is better than you and has all the parts you lack, and two-in-one will solve the failure of isolation's deficits. Palm to palm and chest to chest, face to face, we have union -- a wonder enough to keep us forever and yet transient enough, mutable enough, to make us aware that it may be a shadow. She isn't better, and he isn't. She makes you a better person . . . somewhat, and he makes you stronger. . . when he isn't ruining everything. Union is so rarely complete, synchronized, and without tugging on the rope that we have a valid love, a good love, but still a misdirection.
Marry, children! Marry soon, or don't, because when you begin to live in the mind of twenty-three, you will fall in love with someone else. Around the age of nineteen, you will meet the most fascinating, compliant, coy, and agreeably cryptic and great person, ever: You.

From nineteen until thirty, you are the most interesting person you know. Why are you like ___? Why don't people like you more? Why aren't you wealthier? Why do you procrastinate? All these questions and more will come to you in time, and you'll answer them and others -- several times over. This is not a quality of the affluent only, either. The first flush of reflection, which occurs the moment the hormones take their claws off the gas pedal, leads to more.

The thirty mind can hit at twenty. It's just when you no longer think of yourself as a glorious subject, and instead think of yourself as a persecuted subject. The thirty year old mind is responsible, dutiful, over-stretched, under-appreciated, and busy. No one knows the beauty and sophistication of the great Self that the twenty-three year old was, and no one will see how wrong he is. Instead, whatever answers to the Big Mysteries of Me the person came up with, those stick, because now we are busy.

Imagine a man who marries at twenty-three -- a normal enough time. He might go into the wonder of self for a short time. That wonder lust wanderlust takes a person to blame first, then persecution, and then understanding, followed by repetition on a more accurate level. First up for most people is "Mom and Dad made me this way." That's the usual answer, but it doesn't usually last. However, if that man has his first child and is running his business the next year, he goes right from seventeen/nineteen to thirty, frozen at the introspective point until the next grand turn.

The love of the self's intricacies, its labyrinth of history and the pachinko game of the future, can better the self or worsen the self and probably does. However, it is not love of an object. The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, but the examined life is not lived at all. The love affair of nineteen to twenty-three is necessary refining, but it's a false love. It precedes another false love: the battering of the body and will against other men and women and against capital to secure against time some light -- a profit, a trust, land, a home, generations, traditions. I don't think I need to argue with anyone very hard that this effort is rarely successful on its own terms and never a proper love. Love of children is great, but it isn't the spur.

Being fifty in mind means a panic, sure. It means knowing that the clock is running down, really. It's not the knowing, though: it's the inescapable, daily pain. Unlike an injury, age picks surprising joints and muscles to fire. So, we look back. We look ahead. We evaluate. The thirty age mind gets disgraced, often when the children are old enough to not need a custodial parent. The seventeen year old mind gets shouted at, often when the marriage mate is doing the same. The nineteen year old seems more attractive than even the seventeen year old: it's time to once again discover the self, to find out where things went wrong, to tap into potential, to talk to people of the opposite sex who are engaged in those quests.

Most of us are sane. We just wish, think, and grunt. We don't go nuts. Furthermore, that foolishness washes off, eventually, but we're left with the self, and then memory as its grist.

As for love affairs, I have no advice. I was rejected by eHarmony. But that love? Well, the soul is big enough to fold and open, and I can't see any love but one as sovereign.