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.