Wednesday, September 20, 2023
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
Friday, August 18, 2023
"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
left idle for the moment
stands in a flare of sunlight,
surrounded by reflection:
a white pool on the polished floor.
Thursday, July 06, 2023
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.
Saturday, May 13, 2023
Thursday, May 04, 2023
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.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
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 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
(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
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
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
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.
Tuesday, February 07, 2023
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,
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
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
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
Tuesday, January 03, 2023
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 :->)