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.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Learning to Live

They proposed mapping out a perfect day, and I drew a really frightening blank. A perfect day? I didn't even know how to imagine a good day. 

"Well, there's your problem, right there."

All right. In my perfect day, there are three work sessions. In the first, I work directly on the Thing. In the second, I work indirectly on the Thing. And in the third I work on something deliberately far afield from the Thing, looking for the serendipitous finds that will eventually fertilize the first two sessions.

In between, I take care of business. Make my food and eat my food. exercise. Do laundry. Go to work. Do a massage every once in a while. Find the perfect sun hat. Dally. Things like that.

The alert reader will have noticed that all this depends on the Thing. On the Thing existing, and on knowing what it is.

Now, maybe there's my problem, right there, and maybe not. I am suspicious. Is that really the question? What is my mission? That's the "meaning of life" move, and I think it's usually a misdirection. "What's the meaning of life?" people ask, when what they really mean is "I'm tired of doing the dishes." Mark Manson avers that life is about having fun and solving problems: and that it's not really that hard to figure out what fun is available or what problems are pressing. It's only difficult when you're terrified by all the fun, or when you believe all the problems are insoluble. Then, and only then, do you go about, lugubriously and portentously, looking for life's meaning. (And at no time, I note in passing, could you be less qualified to establish what it is.)  Here could follow a whole disquisition on "the meaning of life" assuming a Creator who meant us to do this and not to do that, and how suspiciously that looks like the intellectual move of a child desperate to please an imaginary parent. But maybe not today.

The practice, maybe -- I'm speculating here -- the practice might be discovering more fun activities, and trading insoluble problems for soluble ones.


I walked, and said to myself, "the truth of the matter is that I don't know how to live," which is true enough. But that's hardly something new: I have never known how to live. What of that? The fact is that I've spent most of my life desperately evading authorities who wanted to coerce me into doing things I didn't want to do. I've outrun all authorities, now. I'm jogging along comfortably. No one's going to make me do anything. The fact that I haven't learned how to live -- how is that my fault? How is that surprising? I've been on the run. Of course I haven't learned how to live. What am I, Count Tolstoy, or Prince Siddhartha? Am I a man who started life with the resources to make it new? I hit the ground running with a pack of hounds after me. I should give myself some credit. 

People who know how to live work in groups, I mean really work, digging up roots or building weirs or hunting difficult prey. They dance, not because they are good at dancing (though they are) but because dancing is what you do. Their feet strike the ground in time with the drums, and the moon glistens on someone's shoulder and flashes on the curve of their cheek. So I hear. How would I know? That's not what I've been doing. I've been busy avoiding work details and team-building events. I've been learning to keep a low profile, and to live on very little. I've been designing priest holes and bomb cellars, in my spare time, for inclusion in prospective home designs. The art of life has not been an item on my daily agenda.


As so often, for me, my real problem here is not the task, but my conviction that the task ought to be easy, or even that it ought already to be done; and the way to get unstuck is simply to jettison the conviction. It isn't easy -- wiser and more learned people than I have found it impossible -- and whether it should already be done or not, it's not done, which only means that it needs doing. 


I have the enormous advantage, now, of being sixty-three, which is the precise age at which one discovers that one will never make oneself new. Whatever I make will be made with the materials at hand: I am a wary, slow-processing, obstinate man who requires a lot of transition time -- who likes to wake up before the sun, and to have a couple hours to get used to the idea that a new day is underway, before having to cope with broad daylight. I'm not going to magically turn into anything else. Turning myself into an ideal human being -- decisive, quick-witted, and flexible -- now that, that would be a task to inspire despair. But I don't have to do that. I only need to find more fun within my measure, and to take on problems of reasonable scope. Everything else, everything else I can let fall away. I can let it drift away in my slow, dark wake.


Which is not to say that I am not in need of redemption. Oh no, I am not saying that. Not to say that I don't need a visionary journey, which involves a substantial risk of never returning. I do need, as Paul Simon would say, a shot of redemption. But don't confuse that with learning to live. They're two different tasks: they accomplish two different things. Don't get muddled.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Rain in the Morning

The lash doesn't just describe a beautiful curve: it does come to the end of itself, and it does crack.

No one promised us soft mornings with a white sky and a gentle rain. We just thought that because it happened when we were children, it would always happen. What else could we think? But when I became a man, childish things were taken away from me. Rain in the morning was only one of them.

But look: there is no time for chasing vanishments. We have real work to do, and real enemies to outwit.

Back then, I could hear a hectic music, sometimes: the skirl of pipe and tabor. Back then my heart would lift, even if the battles I imagined were the mock-battles staged by our masters, and not the real fights on our own behalf, which I would only understand late, late in my life, when my strength was already dwindling, and my teeth were broken and rotting from so much nibbling on lies. My heart would still lift, and it lifts now. 

They still go in terror of us. They have won every contest, and they clutch every prize, and still we give them the horrors. It's not much to work with, is it? But it's not nothing.

Rain in the morning. Just once, before I die. 


There is no enemy. There is no battle. And there will be rain in the morning, many times. The sky is altered but it's still the sky. And death is granted eventually to every one of us. So take comfort, you silly overwrought boy. Leave this posturing and really think. Really think.


One tiny fragile thing at a time.


It is possible to turn, turn in that very slight and graceful way, so that you're presented edgeways to the world, and infinitely narrow, so that for practical purposes you disappear. Then you step sideways, along that plane: and you're gone. Not in this world anymore. Then you have a little time to think. You can still hear the footsteps of busy, anxious, unseen people, but they can't see you or even imagine you. Have you forgotten this? I think you have. That's one of the real problems.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Eat and Reading

 The story is told of an American Buddhist teacher -- I can't remember which one -- that a student, finding him eating lunch with a book before him, asked if this multi-tasking didn't run counter to his mindfulness principles. Shouldn't he be doing just one thing at once, with all his attention?

The teacher fixed the student with a baleful stare. "When I eat and read," he replied, "I eat and read."


This story passed into the idiolect of my marriage, so that "eat and read" was understood, and sometimes conjugated, as a single verb: "I was eat and reading yesterday when the phone rang..." 

I was binge-eating the other day, after a visit with my father -- those visits reliably precipitate binges -- and I noted that suddenly that as I ate, I was reading as I used to read: cruising through a hundred or a couple hundred pages per day. The penny dropped: so that's why I got through so little reading these days! I've been reading The Old Curiosity Shop for nearly a month, and I'm only two thirds through it: time was I would have dispatched it easily in a week. The reason I do so little reading now is that I no longer eat and read. I just read when I read, and reading by itself is a different activity, one that doesn't keep me bound so tightly into its orbit.


Not sure what to do with that realization. Maybe I'm not a reader: maybe I was never a reader: maybe I was just an eat and reader. Being the sort of person who reads a Dickens novel in a week has been part of my identity for so long that I have difficulty even bringing the notion that I might not be that sort of reader into focus. It's taken me four years to notice that there has been a change.

My knee-jerk response is, well, I must simply make myself read more. Or take up gum, or something. I can't actually read less. That would mean I was no longer me.


Or I could just not read as much. I don't need to be me, after all. Often I wish I weren't me. Why defend this identity? What do I really stand to lose?


Meanwhile, I got Eric Foner's classic history of the Reconstruction out of the library. (I have a couple more recent books on the same topic on hold, but they're taking forever to come in.) I realized at some point that much of my history reading was undershooting the target. Long ago I decided since that wars change things, I should read about the wars. It's useful to understand these things -- I often wish lefties understood more about military matters -- but for understanding the changes, what you really want to know is what happened after the shooting stopped. So rather than reading yet another history of World War II last year, I read Tony Judt's Postwar Europe. And now I'm reading about the Reconstruction. I've always shied away from it, knowing it would be grim reading, and that it's largely (from my perspective) the story of how the bad guys won after all. But all the more reason to dig in.


But I think one thing I am doing wrong -- if I want to read as I did back in the old eat and read days -- is that I am reading too many books at once, and taking my books as medicine, rather than as psychedelics. The whole point is opening the doors of perception, nicht? Washing the windows. Instead I've been primly reading improving books. No wonder my attention flags. I should take my reading in heroic doses.


As I walked this morning, before dawn, there was actually a little rain, or a least a heavy dewfall. It felt miraculous. A post-apocalyptic blessing.