Thursday, September 22, 2022

Aurelito

Martha being in Colorado a couple days makes me realize some things I ought to have realized long ago, but being me -- a substance considerably more dense than the marrow of a neutron star -- I had not actually realized: to wit, that none of my problems of concentration or of maintaining self or social ties have to do with Martha's presence: in fact I do substantially worse when she is not here than when she is. I am less likely to read carefully, to stay on task, to keep my diet, to stay in touch with people, to exercise, to maintain the house. I deteriorate by every measure I track, and by every one I can think of that I don't. It is only due to Martha's presence that I am not already a fat and aimless hermit. So there's that. 

Not that I actually blamed Martha for my deficiencies. That is not my way: dense though I am, I am not quite that dense. But I think from time to time I have refrained from blaming her, which is for some purposes the same thing. No, old friend, no: all these tendencies are my own, and all solutions will grow out of the only soil in which any of the goods of my life have grown. 

Throw the windows wide. Comfort poor Van, who is appalled by Martha's disappearance, and sleeps all day on her spot on the couch, not even rousing himself at the sound of a can of cat food being opened. (His consciousness is on strike: it refuses to return to work until she's back). Water the plants. Muse on the variations of cloud building and dissolving, north over the neighbor's gable. Count, if I must. One hundred and fifty breaths is one attempt at falling asleep. Fifteen long breaths, if I'm lying on my belly, opens the subway stops along the lumbar spine. How many before Martha is back? Too many to count. It's only a day, by the reckoning of the world.

---

--Esto es un disparate, Aurelito --exclamó.
--Ningún disparate --dijo Aureliano-- es la guerra. Y no me vuelva a decir Aurelito, que ya soy el coronel Aureliano Buendía.

---

Reading Schindler's Freedom from Reality. The first part is a close-reading of Locke, which is just so good and so telling, and illuminates so much about the American political predicament.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

A Twitch of Light

All the beasts 
come snuffling to your hand.
You pet the bears and the serpents
and pat the shy outstretched hand of the orangutan
ruff up the parrot's feathers the wrong way
at which he loudly complains
and comes back for more.

So. Breathe out, cough maybe.
It didn't 
matter so much after all, did it?
Pull out the dart, and the barb remains
at a blurred purple distance under the skin
pulsing, poisoned, pretty,
permanent.

Or at least as durable as the reddened skin
which for practical purposes 
is time everlasting.
I guess you really thought 
the ark wouldn't come, or the dart wouldn't strike:
that there was something you could do
a way to change
the order of operations. Not because you ever said as much,
I don't mean that, but because of how stricken you are
now that everything has come to pass
feared and desired. (An uncharitable guru might say,
what did you think fear and desire were for, anyway?
But that's not how we roll.)

Stroke every loving creature;
let the barb do its work. A numbness
and a rush of gratitude:
a twitch of light behind the hills.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Intimation

The thing about D.C. Schindler -- yeah, he's a Catholic, and yeah, my list of problems with Catholicism is as long as your arm -- but the thing about Schindler is that his philosophy places beauty right square at the center of life, as the dynamic heart of experience and intelligence.

I've grown up in a world that views beauty as an option, an ornament, something you can dabble in at the end of the day if your serious work is done: a matter of private taste, with no objective importance or reality. This view is so obviously and immediately wrong, to me, that all the philosophies undergirding it -- which includes all the ones I encountered in my youth -- struck me as obviously and immediately wrong. Or at least irrelevant. I don't know much, but I do know that beauty is the center of life, not its periphery. It's not an inert thing you titillate yourself with from time to time: it starts things, it precipitates thought and action. It is the fundamental experience of orientation. How can you tell if you're faced in the right direction? If you're perceiving beauty. Life is, in some ways, as simple as that.

I think Plato and the Neoplatonists could have helped me think through this, if I had met them in auspicious circumstances, but I met Plato early as The Man Who Is Wrong About Everything, and I never met the Neoplatonists at all. The closest I got to them was the C.S. Lewis of The Abolition of Man, or the G.K. Chesterton of Orthodoxy (and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, though I was slow in recognizing it.) Religious conservatives were to me simply the Enemy in those days: the people whose philosophy found its fullest expression in napalming little girls in faraway countries: the gulf was just too wide to cross. And in those days I believed in the redemptive power of Freedom and Socialism: let them work their magic, and beauty, as the natural state of things, would follow as a matter of course. (I suppose I still subscribe to Freedom and Socialism, in some of the stricter political senses of those words, but I no longer believe either one can save us, or make our world significantly more meaningful or beautiful. They're just political strategies to me, now.)

So while I found Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien weirdly attractive, and I thought their critique of modern habits of thought was in some ways persuasive, I still didn't really, finally, take them seriously. They were a side-street in my mind, a lane I found myself turning into over and over, even though I knew that it couldn't lead anywhere. 

But now, with Schindler -- by way of John Vervaeke -- it suddenly seems to me this street does lead somewhere. I kept turning here because it was, in fact, the direction in which I wanted to go. I don't need to become a Catholic to take truth and beauty seriously. Lots of people have taken truth and beauty seriously. More of them than haven't, actually.

I'm not saying that "beauty" can stand in for "goodness." Beauty is an intimation, and it can be a misleading one. It suggests that there is something to be understood, that there is a form and a structure and a logic to something, even though I can't immediately grasp it; but of course I can mistakenly think I have grasped it, and embrace things that are bad because I have misunderstood. This happens all the time: in fact it might be fair to call that mistaken grasp the stuff of daily life. Some traditions lay so much stress on the delusiveness of beauty that they reject it altogether. But I think that's ridiculous. A person who is blind to beauty is blind, period. There is no other place to start.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Dismantling

 I am occasionally asked if I believe in God. Making answers to that question can be a parlor game. The easiest move is to say: "you tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it." The people who are most likely to ask the question generally refer to a clotted tangle of nonsense by the word "God," and you can lead them into perplexities, if you like that sort of thing, by asking them a few questions about just what this "God" is. It's not a way to make friends.

In the past I have imagined saying, "if you mean a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good, who is also someone you can have a nice chat with and ask for favors, then, decidedly, the answer is no." They usually do mean that -- among other things -- and I usually would mean no. 

But the problem is that "no" is the wrong answer, in two ways, to two different questions, which are maybe what they're more urgently asking. The first question is: "do we have any common ground? Can we talk to each other about the important things?" And the answer to that is emphatically yes. Of course we can. 

And the other question is: "is reality like a person?" The answer to that is yes, too. That is, it's more like a person than it's like a rock or a toaster. I often have much more in common with the person who asks if I believe in God, however naive their conception, than I have with someone who believes that reality is like a great big rock, or a great big toaster. It's not that I think reality is very like any of these things: but it seems to me that it is immensely complex, inexhaustible, structured, self-organized, and self-transcending. And also, surprisingly intelligible. Which makes it far more like a person than like a rock or a toaster.

It's still not very much like a person. It leads you easily into absurdities to think of it as a person. It's a natural mistake, because, as social mammals, the most complex things we're designed to understand are persons, so when we try to understand something even more complex, we play to our strengths. We're groping. We can only use the tools we have. 

The most important question behind the question is: is reality something we can have a relationship with? Is it something that we can love? Is is something that can love us? And my answer to that, again emphatically -- passionately -- is yes. It's not only possible, it's necessary. We already do love it: it already loves us. To understand and unfold that is a work much larger than a lifetime, larger than all the lifetimes. But we did not step into reality from somewhere outside it. We are not strangers here, looking to strike up an acquaintance. To see the universe as alien and unintelligible -- that is a really extravagant philosophical position, a totally untenable one. That we, each of us, popped into existence ex nihilo, and must grope about looking for ways to make contact with an alien universe -- that is the default philosophical position of the modern world, and it makes even less sense than God as a patriarch of ancient Palestinian herdsmen. We are not foreigners here. We love, and are loved, from the very beginning to the very end. For better and for worse.

Such a sweeping statement prompts the question, "am I really saying anything? What is this love worth, if everyone has it all the time? This love isn't (necessarily) passion, or fondness, or esteem: it's only a philosophical assertion of connectedness. It's not what one hankers for on a lonely Saturday night by a silent phone.

In a way, no, it's not saying anything. But it flips figure and ground. It changes the question of loneliness from, "how do I connect in this alien, unintelligible universe?" to "what must I do to shake off this delusion of separation?" My loneliness is not something I have found: it is something that I make, moment by moment. The task is to not to start something, or build something; it's to stop something, dismantle something.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The House with the White Roses

I can hear the sugar, the sweet coffee, as a ripple or a purl in my tinnitus: the sugar makes it sing in a slightly more textured tone. 

Dear love, I tried to explain, but it falls off into hesitancies and silences. That we might think what we are doing, as Hannah Arendt said. Might we?

Or more simply that we might learn to breathe.

Beside the freeway, they are building something huge, and the sound of the pile driver echoes for miles. Every once in a while metal strikes metal: and instead of thudding, it rings like a bell.

I think of the Lewis River, or closer to home, the Washougal: I haven't seen either for years. I've developed a dread of returning to wild places I knew when I was younger. But sometimes you go to such places and they're still there. And meanwhile, the memories run, on bare feet, ahead of you. They will visit even if you don't. 

Oh, don't lecture me, Favier. I am not one of the fools that you call friends.

I am reading D.C. Schindler, and I am buried in a chapter called "Beauty and Love," which possibly makes all kinds of sense if you've spent ten years reading Thomas Aquinas. I however am bogging down a bit. But. His point early on is well-taken, that modern philosophy has had remarkably little to say about beauty and love. Which is why I've mostly ignored it. If you're not talking about beauty or love, what the hell are you talking about? And why would I listen?

The little house around the corner, the one with the white roses, is for sale. I think often and often, these days, about how neither I nor anyone I know expects their house to remain in their family. We're all just camping: none of us really dwells anywhere. These sprawling encampments of the homeless offend our eyes chiefly, I think, because they don't keep a decent veil drawn over how cheap and temporary all of our places are; not to mention how endlessly we produce garbage. Trip us up a bit economically, and it all becomes visible. Our pretensions to stately homes, with rolling lawns and graveled walks, are stripped away, and there we are: fat people living in tents, surrounded by trash.

But, as Marx said, the point is to change it.

And anyway, there is also a sneaking impudent joy nibbling at my toes. That too. And I can hope that whoever buys that house keeps the roses. Back to work: back to work, sir.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Closed for the Season

Now the wind and the weather and the whether come down
down from the hills, down from the down. Lift me up on the rocking roses
all rock-roses, 

false supposes;

lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea. 


The bank has crumbled, the cliff’s edge edges

air where the sea steps used to be; a moon’s bite out of the asphalt shows

the etiquette of gods at tea 

isn’t what it used to be. 

Lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea.


This year a dead zone out at sea: bronze fields like hammered shields

and each dint pried by the sea-sun yields

algae red as spattered blood

algae read as battered mud.

Lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea.


There was a restaurant in a little house, with surfboards dangling up above:

chowder and beer and cheese on toast, a waitress bronzed as this year’s sea

from years of summer waitressing,

years of wading in the surf,

years of surfing in the rain;

she used to admire 

the doting lovers we used to be.


Old now, we stop. The windows are boarded over;

the clay toppled down to the golden sea,

the steps fallen down all the way to the beach,

the roses tumbled out of reach.

Closed for the season. Leave off asking

Reasons for this or that or each

And carry me out to see the sea.


Saturday, July 16, 2022

Escape

That huge paper carapace
hung on a wicker frame, riding my neck,
painted with smiles or leers, wrinkled
with a prince's thoughts; only now
do I dare to shrug my narrow shoulders
and dart from under the screen. The paper prince 
remains, brooding on the fate of kingdoms
and weighing out which uncle first to kill;
but I am free to run, with a rat's love,
my tail whipping back and forth for balance:
my spine a fishing rod, each jump a cast,
my claws as light and sharp as needles
finding purchase where the huge
and clumsy paper of my royal fingers
clutched in vain. Soon to be within the wall,
safe in my native dark, free
to seek my kind.