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.