Monday, May 09, 2022

After Winter

It took an unexpected bounce. I was following the thing to the end,
because I believe in following things to the end, and because I 
didn't want to, and I believe in doing things I don't want to do, too.

Eventually. So it seemed clear enough: I couldn't find any mistakes 
in the chain of reasoning. Elect one thorough nut-job per century
to the helm of a nuclear power, and sooner or later, the bombs fly. 

And then all the people are dead. At which point most things
are drained of what we usually call meaning, right? The kids 
you worked so hard to keep alive, their kids, everybody's kids --

Welp, there they all go. What was the point of that? I mean, you
can rhapsodize about eternity in an hour, and all that, but I find
the blackened corpses of my descendants discouraging. Maybe

it's just me. But to proceed: I read somewhere that someone 
thought eukaryotes anyway would make it through a nuclear winter. 
And from there the game could begin again. We've still

got billions of years: plenty of time. Though I'm sorry about the cats.
So then I think: do I care what happens to the creatures
who finally make the leap? Make it for real, I mean? And I thought

well, I do if they're good. And there I paused: a new scent
was on the wind. If they love what's beautiful and worry what's true:
well, sure I care. And I wonder how to leave them a message, and then

I wonder what message I would leave? "Be careful, dears, there's
a tricky part that comes when you industrialize"? "Put your house
in order before you learn how to burn it down"? Hard to know

what they'll need to know, and whether they could learn it from us anyway.
Maybe every teenager needs to wreck his own car. I don't know. But
True, and Beautiful, and Good: those are Plato's words, and

I would have sworn I'd left them long behind. But suppose, suppose
these things come down from the top as well as up from the bottom.
Suppose the god is imaginary to start with, but slowly becomes real

And begins to create his creators. Suppose the flow reverses, or rather
suppose it goes in both directions, both at once, all the time: the ideas 
rising from our snuffly snouts and dreams of fruit, but also seeping down

and making sense of us, make sense through us. How do we know
after all, that what we grope for is not a thing that is becoming real,
more real than the hand that seizes it? How do we know? That scent:

a new scent on the wind. And I, as old as Odysseus's dog,
lifting my head. Wine and wrestling oil and clothes 
damp with sea-rinse: surely I knew once what that meant? 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Freeway Practice

I find myself on the freeway, a few times a week, driving home from work, and I've changed the ceremony.

Here's how it used to work: I would get on the freeway, anxiously squinting ahead to see what the traffic would be like: how many people were blocking my way home. The freeway was a thing built by a stupid people, who were willing to destroy real walkable neighborhoods for a few minutes' commute time out to their achingly ugly and stupid suburbs; and I was falling into the trap too, pitching myself into a concrete cauldron to get out to my own ugly and stupid house. Ugly and stupid all round.

And all around me the ugly and stupid were driving foolishly and recklessly, ignoring the obvious plain facts of physics, following the cars in front of them so close that even a tap on the brakes would necessarily cause a pile-up. Idiots. Others checking their damned phones: their desperation for validation easily outweighing their mild interest in not dying, not to mention their total indifference to me dying. What a bunch of fucking clowns. And there I was. If we all drove attentively and reasonably, we could move along at the speed the road was designed for. But no, they bunch up, accordion-style, coming almost to a halt and then jerking forward. If they left enough fucking room for people to get over, then they could all just flow through: it's the stickiness of the particles, not the volume of flow, that's the problem. Jesus. Does no one ever think?

After twenty or thirty minutes of this spiritual practice, I pretty reliably get the results you might expect: I feel isolated and persecuted: I hate my fellow human beings passionately, and my contempt for them is limitless.

So here's the new practice. I begin by thinking of the building of these works, which were among the world's engineering marvels when they were first built. Built by the financial contributions of millions of people for the good of the nation, and having served for a couple generations. All those people working in the rain or in the sun; all that expertise marshalled to make these soaring, curving ramps. They really are kind of amazing things. They have downsides: of course they do. But they make possible the daily respiration of a great city that I  love.

That, to set the stage. Now: my project for the next twenty or thirty minutes. It's not to get home as quickly as possible. Who cares about clipping off a minute here or ten seconds there? Will I be an ounce happier? will I treasure the few minutes I've snatched away from others? 

No, the project is to read the traffic so as to detect the knots forming, and do what I can to stop them. Notice when someone wants to get over, and make it possible. Speed up or slow down, so as to mitigate the bunching-up. We're all trying to get somewhere: home to see loved ones, to the store to pick up a prescription for a grandparent, home to prepare for a date. This is a project we're all in together: and my mission is to help us all achieve it. Maybe I understand the physics of this problem a little better than most people, and I can put that understanding to use.

It's a totally different twenty or thirty minutes, if I spend it that way, and I if I arrive a minute or two later than I did when I was struggling against the idiots, it's well worth it: I live in a  nicer world.

Monday, April 18, 2022

No Path Back

At sixteen -- seventeen, maybe -- I first read Plato, and decided he was wrong. No further action required. Around the same time, I acquired a copy of Being and Nothingness. Maybe I even read it: I don't remember. But I decided all philosophy was wrong, or at least inapplicable. I remember thinking "what I need to learn I am not going to learn from these people," which was fair enough, at the time. There were more pressing things I had to learn: for example, "how do I stop being a repulsive jerk?" and "how do I make a living?" And also, I had Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Blake to read. I wasn't wasting time.

But that was fifty years ago, and now I meet a neo-Platonist for realz, and suddenly the summary judgements of a teenager no longer do for me. What if Plato was right? What if he was even kind of right? What if I'm not such a clever lad, after all, that I'm smarter than thousands of years of people trying to understand what we are doing?

It's too late to become a philosopher. I don't have the stamina now to do mountains of difficult reading. I'll have to accept -- as I never did, as a reader of literature -- secondary sources and summaries, watered-down versions adapted to the meanest understandings. Well, bring it, then. I'm not reading the complete works of Kant and Heidegger at this time of my life. But I may need to know something, at least, about what they meant. I don't aspire to be a figure of any sort, literary or philosophical -- which is all to the good -- but I still aspire to understand: I still aspire to live a life that might mean something. I still aspire to take a bit of the edge off my own suffering, and other people's, in whatever way I can.

It's not just reading, of course. It's practicing. It's meditation, contemplation, prayer, visualization. Mushrooms. Being a damned fool, or even a blessed one. And it's writing poetry, and possibly even making art.

I don't see what else I can do, honestly. It's not just that there's no other path forward. There's also no path back. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Moon

The Easter moon recedes behind
an impasto of cloud. The first Sunday
after the first full moon
after the vernal equinox. Christ.

The booing of the geese, the jeering of the crows.
What else? What did you expect? 
The echoes fade, the light goes. The palette knife
lays down diamonds of silver, squares of slate,

banked snow mounds of white, and the moon
(remember the crescent? That was Ramadan)
is extinguished. You said
there was another life, on the far side:

you said to think of it. What life?
What side? I think of the side
running, running till it runs clear. Maybe
that's not what you meant. 

Done on this side, said 
St Lawrence: also not what you meant.
But the moon? The walk by moonlight?
The cloud runs from rim to rim,

the sky is painted over; no hint
of light behind. God's 
theater make up: can't smile 
or it will crack. Christ.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Before Morning

Begin when all the rest had left behind them 
Headlong death in battle or at sea  
I had thought it was morning. I lay in bed awake, having counted my breaths in a desultory manner, losing track always somewhere in the sixties, but not proceeding on to sleep; tugged at by worry and a growing sense of failure. The window seemed lightening, as if dawn was outside, so I finally maneuvered myself awkwardly out of bed. (The bed is shoved up against the wall for now, so Martha can get her rebuilt knee in and out, on her side; which means that I have to crabwalk carefully to the foot of the bed to get out of it.) But now the windows of my breakfast nook are dead black, and there's nothing to be seen in them but the reflection of my lamp. Well. There's no sleep in me anyway. Get my breakfast underway. The advantage of getting up this early is that my back hasn't had a chance to stiffen up with a night's immobility, so I can skip my stretches and breathing exercises. It's after 4:30, and by the laws of the realm that counts as morning. The sun will be along presently.

There is a drumming in the distance, as always, nowadays; the natives are restless. And the silver song of my tinnitus. The distant roar of the refrigerator motor, to take the place of the sea that Sophocles would have heard. 

This life -- is not to my taste.

Still. What good to linger in some artificial preserve of nature? That's not where we're going. We're going forward with the roar of the refrigerator in our ears, for the foreseeable future, if we're going forward at all.

Supposing Vervaeke is right, that there is still a path to wisdom that would draw me to into closer contact with reality. A wisdom that would make me understand more, rather than less. Then what could I do but follow it? In fact, if there's even a chance that there's such a path, I would have to follow it. If there is any way in which I could find purchase, any ledge for my fingers or toes, I have to grope for it. 

I've read most of Graeber and Wengrow's book, The Dawn of Everything; I have only the conclusion left to read. It's as good a case for political hope as I can imagine, and I'm grateful for the attempt, but it doesn't sway me. Not really: not the way Vervaeke does. I can imagine -- barely -- becoming wiser. Usefully participating in revolution, as a shy, deaf, effete intellectual, is an absurdity I really can't imagine.

The conviction has grown on me, as the years dribble away, that only a religious "great awakening" can save us. Of course, it would more likely damn us finally and completely, but still. William Morris observed that "you can't build socialism without socialists," and I would fall back to an even more primitive starting point. You can't build humanity without human beings. If we have no way of being human, we're defeated before we begin.

Monday, March 28, 2022

The Death of Thomas Painte

Shakespeare collaborated, in this play, with an impecunious young playwright by the name of Thomas Painte: Shakespeare was to take a couple of the silliest romances of the age and write the poetic speeches for them, and Painte was to fill in some touches of continuity and plausibility. But poor Painte died of a sudden ague before the work had fairly begun, and -- King James having hinted that he wanted something new -- the play was rushed to the stage without Painte's work. "Never mind," said William. "The audience will never miss it. I've got some songs that will knock their socks off." And so we have Cymbeline.


A ghostly Spring comes: faint clouds of new green appear, in some lights, around the bare branches; fruit trees and tulip trees lay out enormous sums on gorgeous designer outfits, which will be ruined by the first good rain. None of it seems real to me. Here, too, we miss the work of young Thomas Painte. One thing was supposed to be connected to another. One Spring was supposed to promise another. Winter was supposed to yield, not to vanish. At any moment Summer is going to stumble onto the stage with his wig askew, blurt out a few lines, and exit, pursued by wildfire. 


But over the housetops, a young birch tree like a fountain, sketched in white, with greeny yellow lines smudged in here and there: so much that ought to be familiar and reassuring, but which only seems sinister. I am not thinking clearly. I may not ever think clearly again. Oh, Thomas: God took you too soon, poor friend.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Sweet and Low

 The wind comes down from the hills, bitter cold;
it's not spring yet. There's another war, and people
are surprised. A folded-up Russian at the end of a long table
struggles not to grow old. He's surprised too. We're all surprised.

At night, I walk, and the glare of lights 
makes the sky illegible. Is that Jupiter? A plane? Is that
the wink of a satellite? God knows: so much in orbit above,
so much light below. The clouds glow softly, like 
the radium dial of a watch. I remember

the deep black skies of my boyhood. 
Long time ago now. 

My dad sings "Sweet and Low":
his doctors advised him that singing 
would strengthen his voice. It's a song from a songbook
already old when he was a boy: we're drifting backwards,
as old men do.

His voice wanders back and forth across the notes,
hitting some by accident. We used to sing in the car, 
driving home at night from a day on the mountain,
and I'd watch the snowflakes in the headlights:
they'd fall sleepily into view, and speed up
suddenly into white streaks that flickered away:
somewhere in the dark behind us 
they must have settled softly to rest.