Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The House my Stepfather Built

In that house I would learn all I know about being unhappy: which is a considerable amount, for such an improbably fortunate person. I learned to consume treats continually, while reading books about impossible elsewheres; such chores or duties assigned to me, I simply ignored. I was much alone, and awkward in company. I slipped away to roam the hills at night and watch the stars. I thought myself the smartest person in the world: nobody else read so much, nobody else thought so much. Someday, I would find my people and be happy and admired.

I thought myself very different from everybody, and I was actually, for the time, somewhat peculiar. But I just a generation ahead: pretty soon lots of people would be experiencing life as I did, and considering themselves very misused and maltreated, while living in luxury and performing not a single duty -- the generation that J.K. Rowling catered to so successfully. We were all just terribly special and misunderstood, and somewhere was the Hogwarts where everyone would realize our greatness. Certainly there was no point in adapting to or serving in this world. This was just a tedious waiting room.

And so much of my life was paltered away, kicking my heels in the waiting room, which was actually the real world and the only world I would ever know. The habits I learned in that house have poisoned me all my life. Nostalgia? No, none. I would not relive my childhood or youth on any inducement. It was a bad time, and it left me warped and enfeebled for life. 

It was actually a rather beautiful house, in a very beautiful setting, and I can at least say that I loved the hills and the sky. I knew the dirt roads and the trails intimately. I would like to live somewhere beautiful again, before I die, though it seems increasingly unlikely that I will. I'm glad I knew the night sky before it was littered with satellites, and glad that I learned black oaks by climbing them and griming my hands on their rugged pelts. That much of the lost world I do have in my blood.

Hush, now, and listen for the breeze that comes up at first light: watch for the bloody sun to spill over the hill crest and make the oaks into calligraphy against the pink sky. Not much longer now. There are not many threads to pick up, but I'll gather what I can.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Manifest Mistake

But that is not what I want to spend the little time left saying: there are plenty of justifiers of violence thronging the courts already: nothing I could say will be left unsaid. Turn; go back. Scuff the dust of these fifty years, and forget all foreign conflict. The wars are coming home soon enough.

My wife and my father both, last week, spontaneously, said "they're just evil!" 

Challenged, they would have walked it back, referred to media empires and information bubbles. I didn't challenge them. I don't even know that they're wrong. But true or not, it explains nothing. Half the country can't suddenly have achieved pure evil, while the rest of us walk in the ways of virtue. If they're evil, we must be too. And they perhaps perceive our evil just as clearly as we perceive theirs. We are all of us driving to perdition. Maybe we should stop.

A squirrel turns his white belly to the November sun: for a moment it dazzles. Then squirrel and sun are gone.

I am tired of being ill; more tired of being stupid. G.K. Chesterton:
The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Israel-Hamas War

Many of my (mostly Left and far-Left) friends are baffled by my finding this situation complex, and some of them are outraged by my heavily-qualified sympathy for the Israeli side. So -- to clear my head; I don't expect to convince anyone, or even to be heard by them -- this is how it appears to me. I distinguish two questions about justifying recourse to war:

1) Is the war just?

2) Is there a reasonable expectation of winning it?

These are to my mind entirely separate questions from a third question, which is, 

3) is this war being conducted ethically, insofar as such a thing is possible?

Let's take these in turn. My friends will be surprised, or maybe just baffled again, when I agree with them on issue number (1). Hamas had sufficient reason to go to war. Israeli encroachments, particularly under the Netanyahu government, have been intolerable. The viability of a Palestinian state has been deliberately (and also inadvertently) rendered impossible by the Israelis; their treatment of Palestinians as a helot class would be casus belli enough, even if you simply throw away all the various historical arguments (which I think for sanity's sake might be a wise choice, in this particular conflict.)

So far, I and my lefty friends are on the same page. It's when we come to question (2) that we begin to diverge. Most of them would flatly deny the premise; in fact I suspect most of them would not understand its relevance. But it is a traditionally accepted test: for it to be right to begin a war, you must have a reasonable expectation of winning it. Hamas has no such expectation. They were never going to win this war. They are going to lose horribly. To begin this war, with not the slightest prospect of victory, was wrong, even though the casus belli was sufficient. So this is the first place we diverge.

On question (3) there is an apparent agreement among everyone (except Hamas itself, and people who accept a drastically alternate set of facts) that the brutal massacres of Israelis in October were wrong, and constitute a war crime. But there is apparently a crime passionnel defense accepted by some of my friends: The Palestinians were so justly and repeatedly outraged that nothing they do can really be held against them. I understand this defense. I do not accept it.

So now, flipping to the Israeli side. Their casus belli is simple and to me, beyond reproach: their people were brutally and deliberately massacred. They have not just a right, but a duty, to protect their citizens. To me their right to fight back against Hamas, and to destroy it, is clear, and I don't fully understand how anyone can dispute it. It's question (2) that troubles me. Is there a reasonable expectation of winning this war? At once we're faced with what the definitions of winning could look like. The expressed war aim, of freeing the hostages and eliminating Hamas, seems trivially achievable: that is to say. they can, at huge cost to themselves and a huger cost to the civilians of Gaza, kill or capture nearly everyone who at the outbreak of was identified as a member of Hamas, and possibly rescue a few of the hostages. Can they avoid creating, in the process of doing so, another generation of "Hamas," whether it goes by the same name or not? I doubt it. Israel desperately needs clarity on their war aims, for the sake of their own souls. There are some -- a minority at present -- whose war aim actually is genocide. To be unclear will be to drift that way. That's how the American genocide of its indigenous peoples mostly played out: haphazard, half-intentioned, half blundered-into. Without blazing clarity and resolution, Israel will wander down that path, and the "genocide" accusation -- which I presently think unjustified -- will gradually become true.

And I suppose I must turn to question (3), since I don't seem to be able to convince myself to just be silent. For the most part, I think that the Israelis are conducting this war ethically. Siege is legitimate when an enemy fortifies a civilian habitation. As far as I can tell the IDF is not trying to kill civilians. They are trying to defeat Hamas. Our own War on Slavery hinged on the siege of Vicksburg, which was every bit as much of a deliberate humanitarian crisis. If you mean to win a war, and your enemy fortifies and defends a town, you conduct a siege. (And if you don't intend to win a war -- see question (2) above -- you have no business fighting it). So -- yes. I find the siege of Gaza horrifying too. But it doesn't look to me like a war crime. It looks to me like the war that Hamas has insisted upon. 

Whether it's wise for Israel to let Hamas set the terms and chose the terrain is another question. I don't know whether a cease-fire is the right thing or not: without a clear alternate path it seems as likely to be just prolonging the misery. And I do not know if there is some alternate path. The Israelis are possibly the most creative people on earth, and I passionately wish for them to get the hell out of this and come to clarity, and national unity, about what the end of the road is to look like. The road of unclarity leads to exactly one place, and they don't want to go there.  

I've been very ill for the past few days, which may have given me some insight, or may have made me especially stupid -- probably the latter, since no one sensible would comment on this conflict, if they didn't have to.  But I'm posting this mostly to get the damn ruminations out of my head. Thank you, to such friends as I still may have. Lots of love.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

I Am Rebuked For Silence

I am rebuked for silence, while a carrier group 
worth the assessed value of a midsize nation
sails into the Eastern Med, and fabulous sums are handed over
on my behalf. If you really can't tell: my silence is consent. 

I understand that the game must be played out:
but there are certain roles I do not care to play.

I am rebuked for silence: hear then my words, O Israel!
I love you beyond reason and beyond sense,
and the wheeling track of the stars knows 
the darkest thoughts we've shared. I will not

repudiate my love. And this also is a silence, for which
I also will be blamed. So be it. If the shoe were on the other foot
would a Jew be left alive, between the river and the sea?
I've heard their words. I listen. Silence is good for that.

Do I therefore forgive your sins? I don't. I am not much
in the business anyway, of blaming or forgiving. My
business is grief, which I get on with, day by day.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

"Everything is cut away but the Present"

Kierkegaard suggests that we're depressed, in modern times, precisely because we're trying to live in the present moment: we have emptied the past and the future of all meaning. "Everything is cut away but the present; no wonder, then, that one loses it in the constant anxiety about losing it." In these conditions McMindfulness is more likely to exacerbate depression than to relieve it. Relying on the present moment to supply all our meaning was already overloading it: piling more on is not likely to help.

I still think most people will need mindfulness practices (very broadly construed) to have a life worth living. But I've joined the rebellion against locating the present moment as the place where reality lives. There's a lot of reality. Some ways of reaching out to touch it are historical, and some are soteriological. The fact that "we look before and after" is a feature, not a bug. Sure, it can get us in trouble. What can't? Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.

A quiet Fall day.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023


Interregnum. Summer has lost its grip, but Fall has not yet taken hold: cloudy, quiet, rainless days appear one by one and vanish. In the evening, Vega or Arcturus appear, dim and inarticulate, in the pools between the clouds, and vanish again, their messages undelivered. I am waiting, I suppose, for my two granddaughters to arrive -- one in Colorado, and one here. A pause, while Fall considers its approach; a long indrawing of the tide.

It's California weather, of course, not Oregon weather. My parents' generation of Oregonians tended to move to California when they retired, and their bones got tired of the damp and chill: climate change has accomplished this move for my generation without the trouble of packing. At the moment -- why not gathers such crumbs as fall? -- I'm content to live in a dryer, warmer state. The September slant of the sun has always pleased me, and we get to see more of it, now. 


(Notes on Kierkegaard's Either/Or, continued.) 

p 154. "As a passionately erotic glance craves its object, so anxiety looks cravingly upon sorrow." 

I'm nonplussed by this business of "the modern Antigone." Why? He must want to say something about the modern condition that just pointing out the ancient condition would not convey: but I'm not clear what that is. The sheer effrontery is impressive, of course, but effrontery is Kierkegaard's stock-in-trade.

Side note: K's sexism is the smarmiest, ugliest kind. I applaud any woman who has the fortitude to wade through this sewer. Thank God he never married: what a mess he would have made of it!

p 180. the fiction of the narrator in "Silhouettes" is that he knows all about love. Since K is obviously an awkward inexperienced young man, this falls on its face from time to time. K knows almost nothing about love, except what he's read in books. The farthest my generosity can stretch is to take all this as a species of literary criticism. 

p 198. It takes some doing to keep reading. My dislike of K is profound: I find him deeply, deeply antipathetic. All this analysis of seduction and its aftermath, which is all adolescent fantasy: and yet never the slightest twinge of what drove Shelley to imagine, "this could be otherwise: eros could be in service to agape."

Maybe K is right, and it can't be: but for God's sake, you want him to at least be tempted by the idea. Instead he goes on and on and on, clearly relishing the betrayals, lingering on them lovingly. No, I do not like this man: I find him repellent. For all his supposed sympathy with these Maries and Elviras and Susannas, he would not lift a finger to help them.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Either/Or, 2

There is an important metaphysical point being made in this apparently trivial issue of Don Juan, as archetypical "medieval" seducer, being only expressible in music. K is asserting that there is one single correct way to express the archetype, and that Mozart has done it. What this means is that Don Juan is in fact real, and that the expression of him must conform to his reality. It echoes K's assertion that Homer is the right treatment of the Matter of Troy, not just a treatment of it -- that the Matter of Troy demanded a particular expression. This is anti-modern, anti-Romantic, in the extreme, though to (say) Dryden or Pope it would have been a matter of course.

It is in other words a refutation of the "flat ontology" of the Romantic/Modern, which says that there is matter, stuff, which is inert, and then there is shaping spirit: there is nothing else. To speak of matter "demanding" a certain form is, to a Modern, a fallacy. But that's precisely what K is insisting on.

p 129: "Don Giovanni's life is not despair; it is, however, the full force of the sensuous, which is born in anxiety; and Don Giovanni himself is this anxiety, but this anxiety is precisely the demonic zest for life."

... what the actual fuck? The weirdest use of "anxiety" that I have ever seen.

Despite not knowing the opera, and not understanding the German philosophical turns of phrase ("qualified as spirit" probably means something, but damned if I know what) I think I have a sense for what K is talking about in this section: the manic phase of bipolar, when the force of one's desire seems (and sometimes is) irresistible. It's true that this is only really expressible in music.

p 145: "... this age... automatically makes the individual responsible for his life... One would think that the generation in which I have the honor of living must be a kingdom of gods."

p 151: "Since it is at variance with the aims of our association [ the symparanekromenoi, the fellowship of the dead ] to provide coherent works or larger unities, since it is not our intention to labor on a tower of Babel that God in his righteousness can descend and destroy, since we, in our consciousness that such confusion justly occurred, acknowledge as characteristic of all human endeavor in its truth that it is fragmentary, that it is precisely this which distinguishes it from nature's infinite coherence, that an individual's wealth consists specifically in his capacity for fragmentary prodigality..."

This page-long sentence/paragraph is a tour-de-force -- pure Kierkegaard. The intellectual pressure is enormous