Wednesday, December 13, 2023



My Chinese office-mate, back at Informix, when I asked her for a Chinese surname, gave me this: fei4, "fey" with a falling tone. It is a surname, and it sounds roughly like the first syllable of "Favier." It is also a word-element meaning "squander." It seemed uncannily appropriate.

The sense that I am squandering is heavy on me.

Immediately problematic to put it that way -- as wasting time: it is not possible to waste time. We all of us have all the time there is. To speak of "wasting time" is to take a ridiculous view, in which I possess a dwindling collection of packets of time that I can deal out to various enterprises. That is not what time is like, and only a rigorously trained stupidity can take it to be like that.

No, the problem is nothing like an improper allocation of time-resources. The problem is that I am facing into a corner, and wondering why the world is so small. The solution is not to try to push the walls out. The solution is to turn around.

The solution is to turn around.

I am old and tired and worried, but that's only to be expected of someone who stands in a corner gazing at the walls all day. What else would I be?

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

Friday, August 18, 2023

Notes on Kierkegaard's Either/Or, 1

"language is bounded by music on all sides" p 69

Even when K is blithering he comes up with such valuable things. (Why, why are we discussing language vs music at all? No clue so far.)

"Music always expresses the immediate in its immediacy. This is also the reason that in relation to language music appears first and last, but this also shows that it is a mistake to say that music is closer to perfection as a medium. Reflection is implicit in language, and therefore language cannot express the immediate." p 70

I have no idea, none at all, what K means by "spirit."

But, as often, I must have patience. This entire book, I suspect, is a sustained definition of "spirit," and looking for a simple definition is looking to skip the book. It's like asking 'what does Plato mean by "the good"?' Socrates said that "the good" was what life was for, but he also said he didn't really know what it was. He wasn't being coy, he was being honest. All Plato wrote were partial, fragmentary attempts to shadow forth "the good," especially in the person of Socrates: to ask for a simple definition of it is to totally misunderstand Plato's project. And so here. K's project is to shadow forth "spirit," and I'm just going to have to move in and out the tide of his thought and hope that the movement stirs something in me.

p 76 - 78: we're fairly embarked in actual discussion of Mozart's operas, here, and it may well be that reading the rest of this essay -- when I know nothing of Mozart, or of opera, or of music -- will be ridiculous and a waste of time. Certainly there's no point in reading this a second time without having at least some background. I'll persevere for now, but between having not the slightest notion of opera, and no idea what a phrase such as "desire is absolutely qualified as desire" may mean -- if anything -- I'm really not gleaning much here. Hopefully I'll do better with the upcoming essay on ancient tragedy.

Thursday, July 27, 2023


There's a course to be taken in between. The French existentialists -- I barely read them, but what a baneful influence they had on me! -- thought of life as a thing to be invented; made up, out of some primal creative fire, and then committed to, in an act of bold self-assertion. I don't think this conception stands up well under examination. Who, after all, does the creating? Where did *that* self come from, the one who makes the choices? Why, the self before the choices, of course, and you get a regress that's either infinite, or ends up in Mama and Papa and your kindergarten peers. This is noble independence? I don't think so. The thing  doesn't make any sense: and anyway it doesn't correspond to anything I know or remember about myself. I didn't invent myself. I've gradually and painfully discovered myself. There is self-shaping that goes on, choices, and practices; but Dale arrived on the scene already Dale, just as both my children, as far as I can tell, arrived already themselves. 

At the other extreme is Buddhist thought, as I met it in the Tibetan Kagyu lineage. There is no self, they insisted: it's an illusion, a narrative -- as Joan Didion would have said -- imposed on the phantasmagoria of experience. It's a useful and enormously generative idea, and it leads to all sorts of discoveries and undeceptions. I'm deeply grateful for it. But I don't after all think it's quite right either. I remember my teacher Michael Conklin saying that what was striking about meeting an old friend after many years was the fact that they were a now a different person; and it was one of the few times that I thought he was just plain wrong about something. No, that is not what happens. What's startling is how much they are the same person, how very recognizable they are: and how much, through all the changes, they recognize me. There is a generative pattern at work, spinning out fractal variations: infinite variations, but it's recognizably that same pattern playing out.

That self is not a thing, of course, like a lamp or chair: It's more like a song. "Diamonds and Rust" can be sung by Joan Baez or by Judas Priest. It's not the same song, but it is the same song. It's like that. 

What this means is that the impulse to make narrative sense of my life is not, necessarily, self-deception: though of course it's peculiarly prone to it. I can try to understand this pattern, try to cultivate it, try to put it in the corner of the garden where it will flourish. I can aspire to a flowering of myself, in the right place and in the right season. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023


On the kitchen floor, a chrome pail 
left idle for the moment
stands in a flare of sunlight,
surrounded by reflection:
a white pool on the polished floor.

an imposition of a narrative line
upon disparate images, she said,
and like a good obedient boy
I chanted and believed, chanted and believed,
but I am quite suddenly old and
(not as suddenly) wicked, and now

I don't believe it. No. It's the story
that's real, it's always been the story,
the story makes the images, not the other way around.
As if I could make such things! Old and wicked
as I am: I'm not so impious as that.

And so much time given to those
old gilt cruel gods; so much time given
trying to sew a rag doll of myself. When
I could have followed a single splash
spilled from the jar of the sun; a moment's
careless radiance; a story of its own.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Resistance to Plato; Predictions about the Russia-Ukraine War

So start here. Whence the resistance to starting this morning? I’m supposed to pick up Plato’s Republic and continue reading Book VI. Why am I not? Some faint impression that I deserve a treat that I have not received? That there’s too much to do, and somehow not doing any of it will fix that? A suspicioun that I’m embarked on the wrong task?

Some of all of those, I think. There are of course the enormous discomforts of Plato’s sexism, his authoritarian turns, his pluming on account of the superiority of philosophers over all other men. I don’t want to follow him into any of those; though the only one I’m really in danger of is the pluming. My political opinions are neither here nor there, since no one ever will (or should) pay attention to them. And my detestation of sexism finds nothing in Plato to challenge it. But thinking myself a better sort of person… ugh. I fall for that easily.

But no: it’s not that. Really it’s the question of whether I’m doing the right thing. I think I am, that this reading and thinking is necessary, but I must be careful not to follow that with the notion that I am a philosopher, in the modern sense: that I have any business composing arguments and trying to persuade people. I have neither the training nor the intelligence for that. Nor do I think more arguments are particularly needed: and even if they were, I don’t think anyone would read mine. So no. I am not going to write philosophy. That’s not the point.

No, the point is private and personal, and it is entirely negative: to clear away the false opinions and indefensible assumptions that are crowding my skull and making the place unfit to live in. I need to make room. That’s all; that’s enough.


I'll record some predictions about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to keep myself honest:

1) I think the war will last for many years, on the scale of the Iran-Iraq war (which in military terms it closely resembles, though no one ever seems to make that comparison.) My guess is seven or eight years. The Russian army has been incompetent, for sure, but much of their apparent incompetence just reflects how difficult it is to advance far against an evenly matched opponent in modern warfare. Deceiving an enemy about where your reserves are, or what your schwerpunkt is, has become almost impossible, unless (as in the initially-successful American campaigns in Iraq) you can disrupt enemy communications and blind their intelligence. Neither side can do that here. People who expect a 1940's style blitzkrieg from either army are living in la-la land.

2) Unless, of course, the Russian army collapses, or revolts. Possible, but two things to bear in mind there: one is, that any successful revolt in the next couple years would be not by pacific liberals, but by Zed radicals. What they want is total mobilization and escalation, not peace. In the case of a putsch or coup the war would intensify, not lessen. The other thing to bear in mind is that the Russian army does not need good morale to operate: it never has. They are not embarrassed by shooting their own recalcitrant soldiers. It's all in a day's work. Expecting them to collapse because their soldiers aren't excited about the war is absurd.

3) I rate the chances of tactical nuclear weapons being employed at some point at about 50%. I don't expect it to go to a global exchange -- I rate that possibility at about 10% -- but I do expect the Russians to use tactical nukes if the Ukrainians are moving into genuinely Russian territory. (The question of what is genuinely Russian territory, to Russia's increasingly demented government, is not of course clear. It may include the Crimean peninsula; it may not. I don't know.)

I like to record my predictions, largely because it's good for me to be reminded of how often I am totally wrong about things. It's a useful discipline.

Saturday, May 13, 2023


Under it all there is a low not-sound; a subtonic grinding of plates; while above are the netted lines of swallows too shrill to be heard, too quick to be traced; letters that  dissolve in the sky before they can be read. The book is there. Here, rather. Anywhere that a fool might reach. Did you really think you were the only exception? God may be merciful; I wouldn't know; but that would be bizarre.

Among the fooleries I see again, "where are all the aliens?" The supposed Fermi paradox. I don't think we will meet them face-to-face, or face-to-whatever: the distances are too great, the time is too long, for us to happen to meet at 5:45 at the corner of 3rd and Main Street. But we are probably in sight of the books they have left. We just don't know they are books. The first contact will be an archeology, and a Linear B to be deciphered. You can know there's a message without knowing what it is.

I woke worried at 3:00 a.m., and worried an hour before I got cautiously out of bed. I took my dad to get his catheter changed, two days ago, and his moan at the most painful moment of it is still in my ears. We drove through what seemed like all the streets of Eugene and Springfield, going there and coming back. The urology clinic is a block or two away from my old elementary school; to get there we drove past the University of Oregon whose campus I walked through daily as a young man; and coming back we swung through the old downtown of Springfield which was my haunt as a teenager. Some of the buildings were different, after fifty years, and all had changed their skins, so the recognition was pervasive but unconvincing. At every turn I thought, "oh, I know where I am!" and next I thought, "no, I don't know where I am at all." My dad remembered to tell me where to turn just a bit too late for me to turn, so we retraced our steps a couple times. A piece of my mind is still groping its way through those streets: the part that would not sleep this morning, I guess.

First light can't be too far off, now: twenty minutes at most. I'll take a walk, and look for the sky to change. I'm tired of the dark.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Making My Heart Beat

Sure. The whole project misconstrued or misconceived.
Thunderstorm at dawn: deep dark with lightning,
and now a morning pretending nothing ever happened,
but a gore of draggled blossom spread across the walk.

A wire threaded through the ribcage
might grow warm with each flash, and every kettledrum roll
could start something speaking, it seems, it seems
for a little while, it seems but it stops with the rain.

That Danish cockatoo decided, better not: and reading
his poisonous note, about the weak despair of women,
I can hardly not agree with him: better not. 
Still the nails drive deep, and the hands flex 

of their own accord. Another breath, and another: 
almost steady now, almost I could imagine that my breath
has caught its rhythm and could go on by itself: I am tired, so tired,
of making myself breathe; of making my heart beat.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Living Thing

Timaeus. The only piece of Plato's writing directly known to the early medieval world.

Plato is quite clear that the universe is “a single living thing that contains within itself all living things, mortal or immortal.” A living thing. How lovely that is, and how different from the dead universe of scientific materialism. In Plato, everything is against a living background.

Note that every human being has two souls, a mortal one based in the trunk and an immortal one based in the head, with further subdivisions and hierarchy within the mortal one. And it is part of the lower soul, seated in the liver, that dreams and practices divination. (Which must then be interpreted by the rational upper soul to make it useful knowledge.)

Then there’s the daft, immensely entertaining description of how and why the Demiurge created the human body: it’s extraordinary that seasoned veterans of of edged-weapon warfare could be so ignorant of human anatomy (no, Tim, there is one abdominal aorta in the center, not a matched pair on either side of the spine!), but there it is. Also – but this is more understandable, in a rabid patriarchy – total ignorance of embryology. The fact that every known human being starts little and grows up has apparently made no impression on these men at all. 

So yes, all the exasperation that Enlightenment science, not to mention feminism, finds in a text like this is well-earned. So much wasted intellectual effort! Start at step A and think up any old crude version of a falsifiable test, and you wouldn’t need to bother with any other steps. This is ridiculous.

And yet. And yet. Where it comes from: a deep conviction that the universe is intelligible, that satisfying explanations can be found, that everything in this living, intertwined universe has intention and desire; that our minds resonate with the world because we belong here, because everything we think shapes and is shaped by reality. Underneath my laughter and incredulity runs a current of regret: a conviction that under this heap of error there is one thing these men achieved that we cannot. They built a conceptual world that was worth living in. Can we say the same?

Monday, April 10, 2023


Well, Theaetetus is one that I certainly need to reread: extraordinarily rich. This is the one in which Socrates likens the task the god has given him to midwifery: delivering other people of their ideas. He's dead serious, both about the task and about the god. And this is the one that dallies with, (but does not accept) the idea that there are irreducible unknowns ("things of which we know only the names") that are the foundational elements of all the knowns.

On to Timaeus, and then I’m done with my first rapid read of Plato’s greatest hits. Man. I had no idea how rewarding this was going to be. Nor how illuminating of the whole tradition that I’ve been nibbling at the edges of all my life: these texts are central. Ridiculous of me to have neglected them because they are philosophy, and philosophy is not something I do: how puerile an attitude is that, to be frightened away from my birthright by some cataloger’s decision to put these books on one shelf instead of another?

I wrote to a friend:
I am just marveling at Mr Plato these days. I can’t believe I never read him, in all these decades of reading. More and more resentful (irrationally, I know) of The Republic for giving me such a skewed and squinted view of him. Imagine if you were introduced to Dostoevsky by some lengthy antisemitic Russian triumphalist tract (didn’t he write such a thing?) and everyone went about saying it was his best work… so after slogging through it you just skipped Brothers K and Crime and Punishment. Like that. I’m reading Theaetetus right now. So good. (So totally unpronounceable as an English name. That’s probably really why people go around recommending The Republic: they know how to pronounce it.)

Thursday, March 30, 2023


The problem of the One and the Many has never troubled me -- undoubtedly because I have never risen to it -- so I'm finding the Parmenides rough going. Plato, however, is at his most artful: here is your chance to see young Socrates, at the moment he first got to run with the big dogs!

(Zeno murmuring, "the force is strong in this one...")


Yikes. The brilliant, painstaking idiocy of the Parmenides. Can he really believe he’s still meaning anything when he gets that far in to the labyrinth? I can’t tell. That this is the Zeno of Zeno’s paradox is obvious enough, though. Fascinating that Parmenides' obedient interlocutor should be young Aristotle. (Holy crap, how did I not know any of this before? A lifetime at my books, and I’m still ignorant as hell.)


It’s fitting that the final sentence of Parmenides, in my translation at least, is not even a sentence: if there is a main clause there, I can’t detect it.

Thursday, March 23, 2023


Finishing the Phaedrus. Finally, I have a definition of dialectic, a word that has bedeviled me since college. (Probably because I first met it in Marx and Hegel, who both put it to strenuous and unaccustomed work.) For Plato, it’s the art of collection and division: “seeing together things that are scattered about everywhere and collecting them into one kind,” on the one hand, and being “able to cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do,” on the other. Note that this is not seen as imposing categories or distinctions, but as recognizing them. (Phaedrus 265d)

274c & following, is Socrates’ denunciation of depending on the written word: reading encourages you to think you know things, when you don’t; relying on texts leads to a feeble memory; writing fails to fit the message to its audience; texts are frozen and can’t answer questions. Writing is an amusement and an aide-memoire – not serious philosophy.

And now, on to the Parmenides.

If it didn’t mean wishing away the parable of the cave, I might wish Plato had never written The Republic: such an ugly book, full of Socrates at his worst: it put me off Plato, and in fact philosophy, for decades. I’m glad that I have lived long enough to meet this Socrates who prays to Pan by the riverside: asking for his daily bread, and to be made beautiful inside. A different man entirely.

Monday, March 06, 2023

Bad Algebra (or, Why I'm Reading Plato)

When I went back to school to get my Computer Science degree, I took a Calculus course. It was sort of a spiritual awakening for me: but never mind that for the moment. Sometimes the instructor would put a problem we'd had trouble with up on the blackboard. He'd work through it, get through the parts we already understood, and then, right at the most confusing moment, he would stop. 

"And the rest is just algebra," he'd say, toss the chalk back into the tray, and move on to another topic.

This happened a couple times. When the students began to ask him to work out the algebra, too, you could see a light going on for him. It was the algebra we were having trouble with?

"Look," he told us, very earnestly. "You've got to get your algebra nailed down. Your bad algebra is going to kill you."


He was right. There's nothing particularly difficult about calculus: its reputation for difficulty comes of the fact that you have to be comfortable with algebra in order to do it, and not many of us learned our algebra all that well. 


Today, I think, "my bad philosophy is going to kill me."


When I was young and impressionable, growing up in hick town in a backwater state, I decided that philosophy was useless. I actually had pretty good reasons for deciding so. I wanted to know how to live: and the only philosophers I encountered assured me that they could not help me. Each individual created his own meaning, they said, and he committed himself to it: reason could help him neither to find meaning nor to clarify it. (I don't even know who these philosophers were: I got their ideas mostly second-hand, and I was a young innocent. People pontificated about Sartre and Camus a lot in those days: it probably had something to do with them.)

So. If philosophy and reason were useless in figuring out how to live, it seemed to be that the next best thing was case studies. Novels offered case studies: what sort of life do you have if you set your heart on this, or cultivate that? Philosophy had no answers, maybe, but fiction had lots of local, provisional ones. So I read fiction, and wandered into literature, and basically made a life of it. Not a bad choice. I don't regret it.


But I had made a large mistake. I had thought that I could just leave philosophy alone, and as it turns out, that's not the way it works. Ignoring philosophy doesn't mean that you don't have ideas about who you are, what the world is, and what you should do in it. It just means your ideas are bits and pieces absorbed from anywhere, unexamined and contradictory. You build your life on these notions: you can't help it. And you find yourself then at age 64 asking once again, "how should I live?" and realizing that this is a problem that you don't have even the minimal tools for addressing.

Your bad algebra is going to kill you.

So: start over. Learn the basics. "What good is Plato going to do you?" someone said to me. "He's wrong about everything important." Maybe so: but you have to start somewhere.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Spring Slash

I am silent when called upon to witness:
I bow my head and mutter, "let each planet
take its course, let every life end where it will; why,
with no writ for life, should I open my palm for death?

Who is calling? You get no more of me
with your mighty obscurities. Say it plain
or get out of the road." My long patience
has run out. The Spring slash is burning, but no voice

comes from it. A beetle makes its slow desperate way
over the moss, while the shadows of birds and clouds
fill him with distress: O brother! We understand as much.
Our call is important to them. Yah. Fuck them.

A wind in the throat of the Gorge: a keening
and a death wail, and whitecaps on the river. It was snow
not long ago, and there'll be snow again before the year turns.
If that's a call I am not home.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Winter Afternoon

The pigeon's toes as he carefully
steps over his own feet: the cock
of his head at the swish of a car:
the night-echo of 4 p.m.
when the light has (mostly) drained from the sky
and rinsed away the day's greed,
(the day's greed for now) to make
room for the evening's: oh
my dear friend I miss you:
you were always undismayed
even when terrified, and 4 p.m. 
was a trifle to you. Now I am expected
to find my own courage, 
and I have none, and no one now
wears silks of outlandish colors,
turquoise: apricot:
chartreuse: plum:
how anyone faces this hour of the day
without a visitor in motley
who carries summer in her fists
I do not know.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Annual Report for 2022, part 2

First, the grand overview, using the most familiar measure. Here's my weight in pounds, measured daily since May 2017. My discipline was very good for the first year and a half. I got down near 150 lbs, and decided I was skinnier than I liked, so I deliberately gained back 10 lbs or so. I stayed around 160 lbs for a couple of years. Then, in Spring 2021, I started experimenting with fasting. That brought my weight down rapidly, but my discipline deteriorated. Other things were going on: I was worried about my father's health. So I can't be sure, but it's hard to look at this graph and not to suspect that in Spring 2021 I disturbed my hormonal equilibrium. A pattern emerges of losing control for a few months, getting it back for a few months, and losing it again. With an overall trendline going steadily up. I didn't like the looks of this chart at all.

There were other ways to view the data that were more encouraging. I was putting on a lot of muscle through these ups and downs: I was training consistently, and I had inadvertently taken up the bodybuilder's typical bulk-and-cut method. I don't, unfortunately, have hip measurements clear back to the start of the project, but you can see that the graph of my waist/hip ratio, over those last ups and downs, makes the situation look a lot better. I was veering wildly from 90% to 95% and back again, but the overall trendline didn't look so bad. So I was alarmed, and determined to do something, but I wasn't panicked.

I had started tracking binge behavior a couple years ago -- just marking every day as "binge" or "no binge," where "binge" simply means "didn't eat exactly what I planned to." The graph of that looked, towards the end of 2022, like this:

That trendline was very alarming indeed. he whole project was threatened, if that went on. I would simply lose control entirely. I realized I needed to change my focus. A dozen pounds of weight, an inch or two around the waist, was not nearly so important as getting on top of the binge behavior. That trendline really needed to be reversed. 

So. I am back at at 90% waist/hip ratio now, and my project is to keep it there -- to hold that line horizontal -- for at least four months, and to do it without any bingeing at all. At that point I may try to steer down a little bit more; I would really rather have a slightly smaller waist; but getting the upper hand of the bingeing is obviously much more important. The binge graph now looks like this:

A better trendline, but not the one I want, yet. I'm not out of the woods.

So the 2023 project is to end the binges once and for all, and to have nice steady, stable, horizontal lines.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

After Socrates

I've been watching John Vervaeke's new series, After Socrates. I appreciate Vervaeke very much, and I'm finding the series very worth watching.

My problem is that I roundly dislike Socrates, and have from the moment I met him. He is a humble-braggart and a busybody, minding everyone's business but his own: on his own showing he neglected his family and let them fall into poverty while he spent his time gadflying about town and picking quarrels with anyone reputed to be wise. What kind of conduct is that? 

And so often, such pettifogging, nitpicky arguments! Such sophomoric glee in mere triumphs of words! That sort of thing is forgivable in an undergraduate, but a man in his prime ought to have moved on. He should be listening to the heart by then, not to the words: and he should care more about the person he's speaking to than about scoring points in a debate. But Socrates just loves to win arguments, and to rub his opponents' noses in their defeats. I have been trying to read him fairly. Starting again, and making every assumption I can in his favor. Suppose he really does believe that God called him to this task. Suppose it wasn't particularly congenial to him. Suppose he really was trying to understand reality, with all the resources he had. Suppose he really thought he was supplying exactly what his city desperately needed, and what only he could supply. I'm trying. It's tough going.

At the same time that I find my antipathy intractable, my respect for Socrates (and the Platonic and Aristotelean tradition he begot) keeps increasing. The standpoints from which I used to despise them have proved even more fragile than theirs: the liberal, individualist ideology I was raised in has crumbled; the  projects of the Enlightenment have come to grief; the Buddhist philosophy that I once adopted now seems to me inadequate. We're back at square one. It doesn't matter whether I like him. What matters is what's true, and what it means for how we ought to live.

So I go on. I have my old college penguin paperback: I've read the Euthyphro and and the Apology; I'm making a good-faith attempt to actually understand what he means by "soul" and "God": I am taking into account -- as I couldn't, when I was an innocent undergraduate -- that translating arguments that turn on exact nuances of the source language is fiendishly difficult, and the points made almost always turn out looking either more obscure or more obvious than they do in the original. 

It's not hard to discover ways in which this Socratic argument or that are inadequate, after 2,400 years of l'esprit de l'escalier. But if I have demanded more of Socrates, I should demand more of myself: I should be listening to the heart.

Saturday, January 14, 2023


I awake to dread, and the cold winter light
walking its fingers down the wall. 
There is a little comfort in the thought:
maybe God has called you to this task
not because you can do it, but because you can't.

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Feast Days (annual report part 1)

I have four designated feast days during the year, days on which I deliberately go off my regimen and eat whatever I want: Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday in March, and (in theory, because my sense of symmetry demands it) some unspecified day in high summer. I suppose this is a variant of the "cheat days" advocated by some diet gurus: the idea being to take some of the pressure of constant self-regulation off, and deal with binge behavior by getting ahead of it a little. But the term "cheat day" seems excessively negative, and possibly self-defeating, to me. The whole point is that I'm not cheating. Also, "cheat days" seem to happen oftener, in some versions once per week: my discipline would go to pieces if I were going off regimen that often. But there are days of celebration when it feels mean and antisocial to measure my oatmeal and weigh my potatoes. They're typically days of stress, for those of us who are trying to self-regulate: so it seems better to just roll with the holiday, have fun, eat too much, and go on with life.

It sets me back. It takes a week or even two to lose the weight I can pack on effortlessly in a single day of unregulated eating. But on the larger scale that I now think and plan in -- who cares? I'm not looking forward to some utopian liberation day. I will always need to "watch what I eat."

2022 was a hard year for me. I don't have time yet for my annual report, but the summary version is that 2022 was the first year I felt like my achievements were seriously under threat: I gained about fifteen pounds, and then lost ten, and gained fifteen more pounds, and lost ten again. That isn't as bad as it sounds, because I was packing on muscle at the same time: bodybuilders are quite right when they observe that it's a lot easier to build muscle when you're in a large calorie surplus. But if I gain ten pounds every year, in a few years I'll end up fat again. Not what I want: not what I'm going to do. It's been 70 days since I last had to record a binge day, which is the longest period since I began recording them, two years ago. Trendlines on my binge graphs are already looking less ominous, and I have (in the stock-market parlance) "broken out of the box." 

The challenge for 2023 is not to lose weight -- though I do expect to drift very slowly down another five pounds or so, and to lose another inch off my waist, still -- but to hold my graph lines more horizontal than I ever have. I know how to lose weight now, and I'm confident that if, in times of stress, I overeat, I know exactly how to to undo the damage. But what I have still never done is really hold a steady body composition, without having periods of bingeing and binge-repair. That's my ambition now. I want a nice steady horizontal graph.

(I seem to have drifted into delivering the beginning of my annual report anyway. Oh well. Graphs, with commentary, to follow :->)