Thursday, September 23, 2021

Equinox

It's an effect that's easiest to see on a wet winter night, with a streetlight shining through a tangle of bare tree twigs: the surfaces that most directly reflect the streetlight to the observer form a circle around it, a halo of streaks. Each streak is itself more or less straight, but they're arranged in a circle, a sort of crown of thorns. It moves as you do, tracking with the light.

You don't usually see it with the sun, I think because the sun is just too bright: if you're looking that directly towards it you're too dazzled to see anything else.

The week of the fall equinox, though, the rising sun lines up with the east-west streets, and if you happen to be walking east on a tree-lined street at exactly sunrise, and the trees are wet from the recent rains, you can see the sun's version of it: a brilliant circle of golden fire. A doorway into a world of unbearable light.

You can't look at it for long, of course, and when you turn away and close your eyes, the negative image turns with you, in bruise purple and dark green. Within seconds, what you saw is replaced by what you wish you had seen; with fragments of Dante, with words for light. The golden apples of the sun. Mithraic altars built by homesick legionaries in godforsaken, rainswept Britain; Byzantine mosaics in candlelight. What did you really see? What door did you fail to open?

It's gauche, profane, even to talk about it. Is it better to leave it be, and maybe forget it; or to talk about it, and certainly distort it? Forgetting it seems like the larger disaster.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Between Showers

The wind bears me along, as water bears a fish.
There are eddies and volutes before me and behind;
thrash of leaves, the hiss and moan 
of a premature October: rain at last! And a sky
built like ancient masonry, clouds heaped, 
toppling, at one corner, while at the other 
a basket of fresh-washed sheets, not yet folded;
iron gray, tarnished silver, long streaks of yellow
Where the stain of the sun will not quite come out.
I walk, like the other old men of this neighborhood. The rest
are dead, I suppose, or housebound. One tiny wizened man
with a long white beard, I have heard is a geologist,
who can tell you exactly what the hill slope is going to do
when the Big One arrives: a useful man to know, 
quite apart from being immortal. We acknowledge 
each other gravely, peering out at each other
from under our white, bristled eyebrows: hunched old guys
who mean to give Death as good as we get. We walk:
we don't look back. Somewhere behind us 
is the piper of tinnitus, our attendant lord, 
that thin wail of quarter-tones 
like the surge against a jetty;
the sound is a delicate craft of bright steel 
glimpsed through the shifting cloud; its engine
is there and gone, there and gone. Flying on instruments now,
as the sky darkens, and lights appear in the windows.
Good night, dear loves: good night. It's time to scrape our shoes
and get in before the rain.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

In America, Where The War Is

 


Barnaby Rudge is the first of Dickens' books to be a real novel. It's wildly uneven in quality, but it's a complete novel, conceived and executed as such. It's meant to cohere: everything is in its place.

There are things about it which are downright bad. The supposed resolutions of the plot are mechanical and silly: the King pardons Barnaby, Dolly Varden renounces coquetry, and Mrs Varden (least convincingly of all) surrenders her "uncertain temper." None of this particularly makes sense, but Dickens at least knows it all has to happen. There is none of that rambling off the tracks of the plot which makes the earlier novels such odd junk-drawers, jumbled troves of jewels and plastic cereal-box prizes. The result is an orderly drawer with everything in its place. It's been achieved mostly by throwing out the jewels: but if Dickens hadn't learned to do it, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend could never have happened.

The first time I read Barnaby Rudge it made almost no impression on me. I simply did not want to hear one of its messages -- that street rioters are mostly knaves leavened with a few fools. This time, I am  haunted by the image of Barnaby borne along by the mob, turned into a leader (and marked for execution) by his extraordinary innocence. It hits close to home, nowadays. 

The first time I read Barnaby, also, I had never had a corvid as a hearth companion -- as Dickens had. I was slower to credit how close these relationships can be, than I should have been. Dickens had a couple of pet ravens: Grip is a portrait from life.

Dickens' mythopoeic gifts never fail him. The image of the Fool and the Raven in the foam of the mob is indelible. Grip's meaningless slogans, picked up anywhere, taught to him for any reason or no reason, travel along with Barnaby and inspire him. The extremely slow John Willet likewise picks up a slogan for his son Joe's military career, and the loss of his arm in the British defense of Savannah (Georgia): 

'It's been took off!'

'By George!' said the Black Lion, striking the table with his hand, 'he's got it!'

'Yes, sir,' said Mr Willet, with the look of a man who felt that he had earned a compliment, and deserved it. 'That's where it is. It's been took off.'

'Tell him where it was done,' said the Black Lion to Joe.

'At the defence of the Savannah, father.'

'At the defence of the Salwanners,' repeated Mr Willet, softly; again looking round the table.

'In America, where the war is,' said Joe.

'In America, where the war is,' repeated Mr Willet. 'It was took off in the defence of the Salwanners in America where the war is.' Continuing to repeat these words to himself in a low tone of voice (the same information had been conveyed to him in the same terms, at least fifty times before), Mr Willet arose from table, walked round to Joe, felt his empty sleeve all the way up, from the cuff, to where the stump of his arm remained; shook his hand; lighted his pipe at the fire, took a long whiff, walked to the door, turned round once when he had reached it, wiped his left eye with the back of his forefinger, and said, in a faltering voice: 'My son's arm-- was took off--at the defence of the--Salwanners--in America--where the war is'--with which words he withdrew, and returned no more that night.

I regret, this time around, that by the time Dickens was finishing Barnaby he was anxious to be done with it and go on to other things: I feel (as an at least occasionally bitter old man) that the story of Geoffrey Hareton, if Dickens had turned his full attention on it, could have been made something more than sketch; and I wish he could have thought of something better to do with him than pack him off to a monastery. I suppose in Dickens view it would have been unseemly to leave him walking about on English soil, after committing (technically) murder. But Dickens' inability to scrape up a penny's worth of religious awareness renders Hareton's ending even more perfunctory than the bright "pack them off to Australia!" finishes of Copperfield's lost lambs. Once cloistered in a monastery ("known throughout Europe for the rigour and severity of its discipline") he is officially no longer a person of interest: all good English protestants know that being in a monastery is essentially being dead, and that there can be nothing more to say of him.

But mind, Barnaby Rudge was born into a literary world we can hardly imagine nowadays, before the flowering of the English novel that was marked (and largely formed by) Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Sir Walter Scott was the man to beat, and I would say that Boz beat him, even with this novel. If you haven't read Barnaby Rudge, don't bother, unless you've already read the standards: David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations. But if you have read those, and are curious to see where they came from, give it a go. Slow John Willet and Grip the Raven are worth the price of admission.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Cry of Gulls

The American Civil War was, top-to-bottom and on both sides, a religious war. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about America.

When I was young we were taught to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in school. I imagine that's not done nowadays.

---

A faint yellow cast to the sky this morning, but it's been an extraordinarily easy smoke season here, this year, given that it's been weeks and weeks with no real rain. Everything is as dry as the shriveled sponge you might find on a high shelf in the laundry room. If the rains come soon we may get off lightly. They're still at least ten days away. I check the ten-day forecast every day. Nothing. It's been a lovely late summer: cool mornings and warm afternoons, and golden haze in the distance.

---

I used to wake every morning and spring out of bed: I'd be on my feet before I really knew I was awake, eager for the day, intent on my breakfast and my book and my brief ambitions. Now I wake slowly, even if my bladder is full and urgent. I look at my hands in the morning dark, open them wide and clench them curiously into fists, to see if they'll do it. Still alive: still strong. I'm still here, for some reason. Or for none. I hear the cry of gulls, in my mind's ear. They don't really come this far up from the river: it's some trick of my gimpy auditory processing. I turn on my side, throw off the covers, swing my legs forward into emptiness, freeze my core, and push myself upright with one arm. From there I can stand without any particular stress on my lower back. I sway slightly, reassuring it: see? I can move that much, and no sirens go off. A new day. Thus.

---

Glory, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Lonelier Thought

I remember the moment at a grad school party at Yale -- we had lovely parties! -- when I announced I wasn't finishing my dissertation: I wasn't going to teach: I didn't know what I was going to do. We were going home. 

I wasn't even sure, really. I was trying it on. I remember the gestalt of the counter with its varieties of cheap alcohol, and the cheap paneled cupboards above it, typical of the cheap apartments we all camped in, though I don't remember whose apartment it was or what the pretext for the party might have been. I remember David Mikics -- who surely became a distinguished academic somewhere -- tipping his head to one side and staring at me intently. Ben Slote -- who wrote wonderful short stories -- startled, his eyes going wide: "Really?" 

At the time, it seemed like lunacy. I had invested so much in this career: the prime years of life. I had worked -- not as hard as other people, and not as hard as I thought I should -- but I had worked like a son of a bitch. I had written some really pretty brilliant papers. I was well regarded. Fellow students who were going to be academic superstars someday sidled up to me to ask how to pronounce this line of Chaucer or how to understand that line of Beowulf. I was good. Throw all that away? Self-indulgence. Ludicrously abandoning a distinguished career that I had paid dearly for, in time and effort and money. 

Now it feels like I dodged a bullet. The people I still know in American academia are mostly miserable. I became a computer programmer instead, and then picked up a third career as a massage therapist, and it all worked out fine. Was I prescient? Or just irresolute and lazy? We'll never know. I'm jogging along, seven years till retirement from my half-time work, uncertain about how much of a massage load I'll pick up again when the pandemic finally dwindles. It's all fine. I don't have to read a bunch of crappy articles about poems that I love. I don't have to manufacture trendy ideas about them. I can just read them. And that's all to the good. Did I dimly glimpse what was going to become of the humanities in American universities? Who knows. Maybe it's that I just didn't show up for myself. I still wonder.

---

I got my eighth pull up, this week.

---

Our main problem in approaching the Fermi paradox, we often say, is that we are working with a sample of one. We are the only intelligent species we know: so our guesses about what other intelligences will be like -- how recognizable they will be, how likely they are to recognize us -- are necessarily wild.

Now, I don't think this is quite true. We are the only technological species we know, but there are quite a few species out there who give us a run for our money in various ways. Elephants, dolphins, corvids, chimps, octopuses, orangutans. We haven't spent enough time thinking about what makes us peculiar in that company. We focus on language and tool-using as being what sets us apart. But I am more struck by our attitude toward strangers.

Human beings are fascinated by strangers, and willingly spend much of our time among them. This is profoundly weird, among animals. We not only seek out human strangers: we try to make pets of all sorts of other species, including really dangerous and improbable ones. We itch to know and make ourselves known to other creatures. And an assumption underlying the Fermi Paradox is that this weirdness is a property of intelligence: alien intelligences will have this quirk as well, and the first thing they'll do, upon achieving the technology for it, is to turn their radio telescopes on the sky and search for strangers, just as we do. But what if seeking out strangers is an odd human kink?

Intelligent animals do tend to be social animals. But that's not the same as being animals that seek out strangers. Most animals, including the intelligent ones, either avoid strangers or try to drive them off. If they didn't grow up with you, they don't want to know you. Some leave their homes at some stage of life to mate outside their family groups, and sometimes establish new ones, but that's as far as the stranger-seeking goes. They don't gather into villages, let alone cities. For the most part, if they don't recognize you, they want nothing to do with you.

So there's my first solution to the Fermi paradox. Why haven't aliens found us? Well, possibly because they're not looking for us. And if they are looking for us, it may be only out of curiosity about our technology. If they can find us, they can probably find species that do much more interesting things. We find ourselves utterly fascinating: that doesn't mean everyone else will.

Second: when we ask "where is everybody?" we assume that everyone will be interested in space travel. But here again, we are the odd man out among the intelligent species we know. We are colonists. Other intelligent animals, except possibly corvids, show no interest in moving into other ecological niches. They want to stay where they are. We have the odd notion of going outside our biome: to other creatures I'm guessing that this will be a very weird idea. Possible? Maybe. It might also be possible to take our brains and nervous systems, flay off everything else, put them into tanks, and take them to places our bodies couldn't go... but why would you want to do such a thing? To more sophisticated creatures, I suspect that's how leaving their ancestral biomes may strike them. We have no idea if we can create an off-world human biome, over the long term. Maybe we will be able to eventually. But maybe the idea is just plain nuts: biological nonsense. Maybe no one is visiting because no one wants to scrape the brains out of their bodies and fling them somewhere else. Maybe everyone else has a clear picture of how miserable a creature would be, outside its biome, and we haven't quite figured it out yet.

Third: maybe it's no use. Maybe even when you discover another intelligent species, it's impossible to learn to speak with them. This seems to me more likely than not. There is a moment in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet -- charming in its idiocy -- when the linguist Ransom astutely notes that the Martian he has just encountered forms his plurals with a particular suffix. It's a step above aliens who magically speak English, but not a very high one. It's not going to be that easy, if it's doable at all. Maybe no one is trying to communicate, because everyone has given up. Beneath all the silly assumptions of commonality is a profound one, and one which I suspect is profoundly wrong: that the higher intelligence goes, the more it converges. The more intelligent species are, the more likely they are to be interested in the same things in the same ways. My guess is, that's backwards. The more intelligent, the more divergent. People who are anxious to talk with aliens imagine them eager to supply us with a proof of the Collatz conjecture, or with the trick to generating power by nuclear fusion. But suppose they're more interested in swapping recipes for compositions in sense-experiences that we can't imagine? Supposing we can figure out how they talk, how would we even discover what they're talking about? When what they're hoping we can supply them with is the solution to an awkward problem in the stanzaic forms of infrared umami versification?

"Maybe we are alone," people say, and they are distressed at the thought. They mean, "maybe there is no other intelligent life in the universe." But maybe we are alone in a more profound way: maybe there is intelligent life, maybe there's lots of it, but we just can't understand it or get it interested in us. That is a lonelier thought.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Time to go Shopping

The sticky part is that these direct perceptions of God are both perceptions of reality as it is, and symptoms of a mental illness. The navigation becomes a bit tricky. Does one want to be well and do good to one's fellow creatures, or does one want to see God? Of course we would all like to be able to do both at once, and some authorities say we can do both at once. Or they go so far as to say that the two projects are identical. Which would be nice, of course. Very tidy.

I had an epileptic friend who was crushed by realizing that his visions of God were "just" symptoms of his illness. We had a running argument about this: I held the position that the fact that these visions were symptoms of his illness had no bearing whatsoever on whether they were true perceptions. I never convinced him of that, though. And he never convinced me of the contrary. (They were his visions, not mine, so it was none of my business anyway.)

There are times when you hear the mutter of the weight of Earth shifting on its aching bones, a low groan below the bottom range of human hearing. Or other times when you see the Sun come to rest inside some young person's chest, irradiating everything from their heart-center, every gesture drenched in light, till the brightness makes you close your eyes and turn away to recover yourself. Or there's another music, beyond another range of hearing, neither Earth nor Sun. It has something to do with those places where the outlines of hill and mountain become shapes of blue and gray tiled against each other. Overlapped edges. 

It's all horribly easy to trivialize. Vide ten million picture postcards. The sun through a wave just before it breaks; the gulls against the sunset; the line of the sea cliffs. Pay down your dollar and you can hold it in your hands, and send it to your Aunt Catherine with a line or two about the weather. Sure. That too.

But now I've lost the thread, which is not surprising. Who cares about the postcards? Ruat Coelum. We were speaking of the sun.

Shadows of the unseen trees to the east shifting on the laurel and juniper, as the sun rises. The real one, I mean; the one that flares up in a billion years or so and catches the marshmallow on fire. I am very tired, and I have failed in more ways than I even knew I was trying. But you all know that: we're all tired. 

It's time to fetch a mask and go shopping. Lots of love, you. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Great Antony

[Re-enter Witenberg]

Witen. Forgive me for using the door marked "gentlemen":

my need was great. There was none marked for knaves.

---

The trouble with reading Shakespeare is that pretty soon everything comes in pentameter, and you are liable to come down with the dread Middlemarch Epigraph Disease.

First Gentleman. Nay, 

but this wording of our great original

o'erflows the measure: 'a speaks of antic turns and japes,

and abuseth the hist'ry of this his mother tongue.

Second Gentleman. And affecteth the grammar of a bygone time:

'a useth 'thou' and 'ye' consistently,

as never yet the Bard did in his life.

---

But I am besotted with Antony and Cleopatra. As always, I begin reading it with great dislike: for the first two acts there's no one on stage who is not detestable, in one way or another; the "haw haw aren't women stupid, and aren't we stupid for liking them!" jokes don't land with me as they're aimed; all the "great Antony" this and "great Antony" that is annoying when the only Antony we've seen is a vacillating nincompoop. Antony and Cleopatra when they're riding high are thoroughly unattractive.

But then they start to lose, and gradually they acquire a weird grandeur. They actually are, in their way, thoroughly devoted to each other and thoroughly devoted to their love: and they're quite willing to pay the price of it. Antony sends on Enobarbus's baggage, and we finally glimpse the great Antony of hearsay. The grief and nostalgia is particularly poignant for us, maybe, equally belated, equally overripe Americans, mourning the democracy-in-arms of Eisenhower. 

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.