Saturday, February 20, 2021

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What I did on my first 8 months of lockdown?

Oh, Dear Friends, Dear Readers, where have we been and what have we been doing and thinking and wishing and fearing and forgetting and reading and writing and eating and dreaming and neglecting and remembering and almost catching a glimpse or tail-end of all of these strange, quiet, special and dreadful, lovely, and strangely reflective months? Much of it seems to have passed in a sort of fog, our limbs weighed down by the miasmatic collective trauma, our brains slowed down by cognitive dissonance too static-riddled to disentangle.

I know I have read some books and written some scant words and there was once a garden, of flowers and also of vegetables and then came the leaves falling down and some early snow even that melted and revealed the leaves again, most of them un-raked. There have been walks (more or less safely distanced) from good neighbors and visits in the garden with friends, even a bacchanalian outdoor birthday party for Rachael in August, with a handful of people who camped on the lawn....She lined the paths with candles and some of us sat up very late philosophizing and the next day went swimming in the mysterious emerald green quarry.

But mostly, books were read. Of all the wonderful books I have been reading, here are a few that shimmer up to the surface:

Perseus in the Wind, by Freya Stark. She is a great writer, rich in surprising images, both metaphoric and concrete, blending experiences from her travels in the middle east with her life in Italy and England with her wide reading in literature and philosophy. I had bought the book a while ago, not rightly knowing who she was, but it was a lucky chance. 

Small Lives, by Pierre Michon (translated by Joy Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays). This was a little revelation of a book, that moved gradually from tender portraits of rural French peasants to dark, maudlin 1960's debauchery and then back again.  Filled with regret and gorgeous writing.

Malicroix, by Henri Bosco (translated masterfully by Joyce Zonana). The book that led me to Small Lives (as recommended by Greg Gerke), Bosco had been lauded by Bachelard in The Poetics of Space and it turned out that Bachelard was correct to lavish him with praise. A rich, mysterious, dream and nightmare landscape of the wild, desolate, and mythic set against an equally mythic picture of the unreal happy domesticity of French country life. 

The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe, by Robert J. Richards. This book explores the connection between the Romantic Naturphilosophen (Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Humboldt) and the beginnings of Darwinian Evolutionary theory, consciously blending the romantic histories of the philosophers with their related theorizing about self, other, nature, cosmos. Splendid!

Anne Carson's An Oresteia (translations of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles). I read these with my mother, to keep each other company during the lockdown. We were both enchanted by Carson's translations and her introductions to these savage and fate-ridden plays. We also read and loved her translations of other Greek plays (Grief Lessons). Pure, spare, shimmering, bloody, magic. 

(With mom, I also read a few delightful Murdoch novels, some Natalia Ginzburg, Olga Tokarczuk, Magda Szabo, and more).

The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson). Read this with mom, too. A lovely, lovely translation. 

Yeats' Reveries over Childhood and Youth & The Trembling of the Veil. This is one of the marvelous books that Stephen and I read/reread aloud to each other (along with the Stark, Max Beerbohm's essays, William Beckford's Dreams, Waking Thoughts, Incidents, parts of Plutarch's Lives; parts of Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. We are now reading Herodotus' Persian Wars--my first time and I am ravished). Yeats, as ever, is deep, wise, lyrical, sensitive to all the worldly and otherworldly nuances, fascinating and delightful ....

For those of us who like to be alone and who have a lovely place to be alone in, or even a lovely person to be alone in the lonely lovely place with, and who have correspondents who write letters and also virtual friends and interesting strangers, and who treasure the newfound silence of a shut-down world and the lack of obligation to go and be somewhere else, it has been a good time, despite all the bad and scary. We, many of us lucky ones, cannot help but note the dichotomy between the chaos of much of the world and our own relative peace and safety. Transmissions from the world send shocks through our bodies; seep into our nightmares; compel us to consider and reconsider our roles, our responsibility, our lives and their significance. But they also confirm our commitment to our quiet lives and our modest work. To the cultivation of our gardens and minds and communities.

Although I have not done very much writing in all these months (projects still in the works include an essay on the idea of the good and the dangers of moral certitude and another on morphologies, i.e., the relationship between the shapes and structures of things and their meanings, and, still, yes, that novel I have been struggling with all these years) these few bits and bobs (with most recent ones last) have surfaced in the virtual and physical publishing universes:

I participated in this plague year project:

With Greg Gerke, whose brainchild it was, I co-wrote an epistolary essay on Faulkner's novel, The Hamlet, published by 3 a.m. magazine:

I finished a long translation, of over 600 pages of Musil's plays and writings on theater, which was rather a labor of love and, by the end, after repetitive copy-editing with Rainer and Alessandro, rather a strain; and it will be out in the world in about a month: !

Two essays of mine were re-published:

I drew a cover image for my father's first poetry chapbook! Congratulations, dad, on a remarkable achievement and a beautiful, moving collection of new poems! Here it is:

A little new essay, called "Fascination," has just come out in a lovely print anthology called Zahir: Desire and Eclipse, a collection of pieces inspired by Borges' story, "The Zahir," and edited by Christian Patracchini:

And today, this essay about Robert Musil and the challenge of the autonomous artist in times of totalitarianisms is out at On The Seawall:

One of the things that is giving me great pleasure and peace of mind is that I am studying Ancient Greek, with the help of a fantastic tutor, Abby, found via the marvelous Catherine Project, spearheaded by Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life:

Rusticating, we have books aplenty in the little farm house to get us through the approaching winter, and books to write, too; and letters coming and going, I hope. And we now have shutters on the windows, ones that open and shut for real, so if the winds blow too hard or the mobs and militias come marauding on our rural dirt road, demanding allegiance to some side or other, we can retreat even further into our quarantine island of ambiguity (only sneaking out for stacks of wood for the stove and an occasional trip to replenish the cupboards), in hopes of coming out in the spring, like the bears, hungry for a glimpse of our beloved friends, and for sweet little green buds and blades of bulbs; and, hopefully, with some pages covered with words, words that attempt to make some provisional sense of the world outside. 

Thursday, March 5, 2020

"Approaching New Consciousnesses" Interview by Greg Gerke on Musil, Translation, and My Writing

Greg Gerke, Essayist and Fiction Writer, interviewed me for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He asked wonderfully thought-provoking questions that helped me understand my work with Robert Musil and how it all connects to my writing and art practice. 
GREG GERKE: In a recently published essay in The Georgia Review, “Psyche’s Stolen Pleasure: Women Who Like to Look, Objectification and Animism of the Inanimate,” you write about the spiritual side of looking and living, by examining animism. You start by citing your own experience, looking at a fence outside a Berlin café: “The sun was shining on the cast iron ornamentation and the metal seemed infused with meaning; it was alive.” Then you discuss animism, by way of Kenneth Clark and a Yeats poem, before tying that in to the dangers and pleasures of objectification: “[O]ur desire for a particularly intriguing object or a particularly lovely person need not (it usually does not) turn violently predatory or inconsiderate of its object’s pleasure or sanctity.” Then you celebrate the senses, before writing: “Material, come alive, through our own vision of it, makes us feel alive too; things and parts of people seen as beautiful are portals to a world where everything is alive and filled with meaning.” This Bachelardian outlook is so refreshing against the world of commodification we now live in, where people get pleasure out of the data on their screens as they walk down the street, but bottle it and only share it electronically to others in the vast metadata web, not to those persons they are physically around. Does the world, as it is now in 2020, repel or impel (or both), charging you to keep shy in your ways of seeing, or to proclaim them more loudly?
GENESE GRILL: This essay, part of a collection exploring the tension between Spirit and Matter, was written in response to the deleterious contemporary moralistic trend toward devaluing the material — in this case, physical beauty and sexual pleasure. The material world is denigrated today in favor of the so-called spiritual, which may be exemplified by the virtual, on the one hand, or by a pious emphasis on allegedly more important internal beauty, on the other. In all cases, there is a denial of the meaningful connection between externalities and internalities. Like all of the essays, this one was searching out correspondences between surface and depth, beauty and truth, nature and culture, aesthetics and ethics.

Greg's moving and insightful essay collection, See What I See, celebrating the aliveness we can cultivate through literature and film, and his fresh, uniquely-seen, and vivid short story collection, Especially the Bad Things, can be acquired here: 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Some Musings in Defense of Beauty

The "Rokeby Venus" of Velasquez, slashed by an angry protester

I have suggested that there may—contrary to one very entrenched line of social construction—be some meaningful connection between outside and inside, that beauty might well mean something about a person who possesses it—something beyond or outside of reproductive fitness or good genes. I have felt it necessary to try to throw some counter weight against the prevailing prejudice against the surface, without irrationally insisting that external beauty cannot, sometimes, be a mask for internal ugliness. But whether or not there is spiritual beauty under a physically beautiful surface, that surface itself at least ought not to be maligned. It can be appreciated, with all due respect to its loveliness. And likewise, wise old age—beautiful in its own way, possessed of fascinating wrinkles and the loveliness of all fading things—should not stoop to disparage the fresh promise of youthful beauty. We hear much about how our culture fetishizes youth, and certainly, the ethos is different in Europe. On the streets of France or Italy, older women are appreciated and admired, whereas in the United States, everyone knows they are largely ignored—invisible. Again, perhaps this has something to do with our Puritan past—for older women in America, if they are not desperately trying to pretend that they are still young, have, all-too-often, relinquished their sexuality, covered it and hidden it away, thinking it is no longer seemly. Why, if sex is for making babies, would women past the age of reproduction be considered sexual beings?  If we keep moving in the same direction, young people –who nowadays seem to not want to be admired for their physical characteristics—will soon be invisible too. Better, some think, to be invisible than to be judged.
                There are many ways to be beautiful, and many types of beauty, and to celebrate the beautiful is not to suggest that ugliness should be banished –for that would only be another form of totalitarian dystopia. Beauty is not necessarily the opposite of ugly, at least not precisely. It should not be confused with anodyne falsity or saccharine deceit, which attempts to hide the real nature of the world—twisted and contorted as it sometimes can be; also graceful and harmonious.  A vision of beauty often includes pain, dissonance, darkness, strangeness. Only one who believes that the world as it is is ugly would think that the word beauty referred only to detached parts of life. To see beauty simply in what is real (Keats)—be it youth or old age or sickness or health—is to capture and conceptualize what is otherwise difficult to grasp. It is a way of finding meaning, giving form to what is otherwise sometimes hard to bear. Proust’s narrator, when he returns to Paris after being a long time away, thinks that everyone at the party he enters is wearing white wigs—but then he realizes that they have all gone grey. And he is moved intensely, because he knows what this physical reality means. The physical has become a symbol. And though it is a symbol of the approach of death, something difficult and painful, it is not a stretch to suggest that the encapsulation of the ungainly truth within this physical image –for metaphors are mainly physical, images drawn from the physical world to help us understand the abstract—is itself beautiful. Faded in soft colors, autumnal bursts of brightness, deep laugh lines, scars from falls and accidents, the look of experience, sad or joyful eyes—remembering, many winds, kissed by much sun, well-loved, having loved much— all might be admired in the complex beauty of an older face.  Again, in seeing the beauty in age, we need not disparage the beauty of youth because some young people are unwise or even shallow, or out of a perverse jealousy or envy.  Youth is indeed beautiful, in a way that old age can never more befilled with promise, perfect, gleaming, alive, like new sap running. Fresh beginning, like spring. Wonder. Its very fleetingness is its fatal charm. For although there is beauty in the complex and painful, particularly in artistic expressions, which help us to bear the unbearable through some comprehensive, all-embracing way of seeing, there is also beauty in those rare moments of consummate natural perfection—beauty as a relief and graceful pause, a heart-stopping, astonished gasp at a momentary exception to the usually much-flawed and imperfectly complex beauty of the world—a momentary escape from death, darkness, and certain suffering through the contemplation of some flash of human or eternal artistic perfection.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019


Eugene Delacroix, Woman with a Parrot, a tiny painting.
New Year. On the way back from New York City, we stopped at many used bookstores and I came home with piles of books, books to study and books to revel in, books to teach me Greek, books to escape with, books to bring me back.  Of course the house is already filled with books (as is the milk shed and the barn), and I work in a used bookstore filled with at least 60,000. But this new pile of books, including an autobiography of Vico, the writings of Diderot, a book recommended me by my mentor, Burton Pike, called The Old and the New, about Don Quixote and Kafka's Castle, two books on Classical Greek religion (Jane Harrison and her mentor Murray), a book by Marjorie Garber, and more, thrill me with a presentiment for the new year, and the new life I am leading in the country, now one year in, but really now, finally, just beginning in earnest, after the wild times of renovations and acclimatizations, and the shedding of the political madness of the last few years. A time for scholarship and for literature and art.
     By the fire last night, over a small celebratory cocktail, tasting the hot cross buns I had made for New Year's Day, Stephen wondered, in that perennial awe, what is it all for, about, all this chaos of life, of thought, matter, and events? After decades of it, one can still be astonished and confused, maybe even more so, really. Yet I felt certain at the time that I knew the answer: all the chaos is there so that artists can make, again and again, provisional, temporary order of it, meaning of it, some harmony, some new dissonances, some selecting of the everythingness. Of course it is the other way around. It all just is, Spinoza's eternity, raging on, careless of us. But we do, we cannot help but make contact with it and respond to it in our little ways. We are called upon to express our awe, our pain, our confusion, our desire, our appreciation. And it is important that we do. The way that a Sappho fragment comes down to us over the ages as a precious oracle...a few broken lines from the stylus of some one person who saw in a particularly beautiful way, who happened to stop to write down what she saw for us. Truly amazing, what we have, what has been saved (just as amazing, and tragic, what has been lost). My friend, Adaline, just made an album. You should all listen. Just one lovely young woman, with a rich and complex soul, a beautiful voice, a musicality shared with the birds and the wind and the sounding boards of wood and ivory and metal.
     And I am honored that one of the songs is for me. I had written her a letter, after hearing her sing once, and she wrote me the song, in response. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson's "letter to the world". We all have letters to the world. I am so grateful for those who have had the courage to write them down. I am thinking of a medieval Japanese poem, written by a woman longing for her lover, a page from Leopardi's diary, documenting pain and loneliness and an attempt to understand mankind, of Goethe's Faust, not small at all, but just one work of his many, which he allowed to grow over decades, which he allowed to be born, and I am thinking of a tiny gem of a painting I got to see with my own eyes when in New York City, Delacroix's Woman with a Parrot, which sparkles with iridescence, small enough to slip into one's purse. Moments of seeing, feeling, moments of thought, captured for all eternity. Sometimes just barely saved from the fires of wars and inquisitions and iconoclastic mobs, sometimes just barely captured by the people who made them, so fleeting are the moments of vision, like dreams already slipping from the mind. These arrangements of shapes, words, ideas, attempts...all just barely existing, and so powerful nevertheless. 
      I want to live in such a way as to facilitate these capturings, to be ready when they come, to believe in their importance, to write them, to draw them down. That is why I have come here.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Book Portal is Real

Since I am having a show (opening at Green Tara Gallery in North Hero, Vermont on August 31st, 5-8), I have rallied to finish the Almandal Grimoire Book Portal. It really could be worked on for ever, each unsatisfactory page redone (I have redone a few), each letter gone over again and again, but long ago (I have been working on it for five years) I realized that if it was to be done at all, it needed to be done now, with whatever I happen to have in me. It would not be Ideal, but Real.

Here are some images from the continuing creation:

I am also working on a small version, which can be held in the hand and purchased. More later.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Enough of That

At a secret sacred summit over red tea in a corner of the special tea room, we established (once again) some ritual practices for approaching the almost impossible: for translating the vision in our heads and hearts into particular words in particular orders. My friend was waving his hands around in the air, describing the seemingly infinite arcs of the 7 different worlds he was carrying in his brain and the intense desire to recapture and pin down these visions before time ran out. There were books to read and languages to learn, histories to grapple with, science and metaphysics, not to mention sleep and care of the body and one's local surroundings. He sees practically no one, which would seem to help in cutting out distractions and concentrating the mind; I, on the other hand, am inundated with social distractions and excuses for not working (especially these last months when I sacrificed my writing almost altogether for local politics), but now I am trying to eliminate as many of these as possible, returning to my old standby of no appointments before 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The mornings entirely devoted to work. But that is easier said than done, because here I am, with my notes and my notebooks, my pens and my cup of coffee (tea sometimes, coffee today, because my lovely housemates left me some in a nice steaming pot on the counter), and I don't know how to begin.

So I am trying to remember what we said over tea the other day. I was telling him that I did not really think he could force himself to have the visions again, and I blurted out--rather rudely perhaps--that he was controlling. I only said it because I am too. I was remembering Proust's theory of involuntary memory. Proust insisted that you could not make the memories come. Correspondences between two separate things would spark memories and spark writing, but you could not artificially create such a moment. We talked about the proverbial need to be in "the flow" and I suggested that it had something to do with a sort of tight rope strung taut but loose at the same time...that the mind had to be loosely focused, to allow ideas to come from the subconscious, but also we had to be present and awake to capture them when they appeared. I know that when translating I can sometimes find the right word before I know why it is correct. It might also be akin to the way great musicians and athletes do their thing without thinking, after years of training, and a certain ability to be present without grasping too hard.

Then I remembered being hypnotized. It was not a deep trance, but enough to just disable a certain rational part of my brain. I was asked questions and images appeared to me. If I had been in my normal state, I would have dismissed them as irrelevant to the question. In fact, images and ideas flow through our minds all the time, but because we are looking for something else, because we have our conscious minds clamped firmly on something we are searching for or that we expect to appear, we ignore these seemingly extraneous gifts. Under hypnosis, instead of pushing the seemingly stray images away, I gave them credence, I let them rise. And when I looked at them, loosely but with a certain focus, they were immensely fruitful, bursting and bursting with significance and fascination.

So we determined we must show up, be present, without trying too hard to control what happened. We must be open and loose, but also focused. It sounds simple enough, but then my friend said, "But I can always sabotage myself". Ah, yes, of course. And so can I. I took a sip of tea, the last dregs, chewing on a loose tea leaf, and said to us both, "Well, sure, you can, we are experts at self sabotage. But enough of that".

Yes, we laughed. We have sabotaged ourselves for years and years. It is getting boring by now, isn't it? Let's get out of our own way and let the work happen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pleasure and Power of Back Yard Politics

My November editorial for 05401PLUS

Following the recent Public Hearing on Burlington’s downtown zoning change, after various factions had gone off to compare notes, nurse wounds, and celebrate what each was claiming as victory, I ran into a City Councilor and another vociferous “multi-use-mall-housing-office-parking garage-structure” supporter, who suggested that all sides should keep partying. I demurred, saying I had too much work to do, fighting city hall. The Councilor surprised me by quoting Emma Goldman’s line, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution”. It was not that I couldn’t imagine him dancing (I am sure he can cut a good rug), but that I found it incongruous that a man who had recently called some community organizers in Burlington “N.I.M.B.Y.” (Not in My Back Yard) “attack dogs” chose to quote the words of a notorious anarchist agitator―with apparent approbation.  What would he be calling Emma if she were a contemporary concerned citizen of Burlington?! It also made me wonder about the tensions between pleasure and politics and the terrible tendency politics has of being no fun. Abbie Hoffman, the great yippy agent provocateurwho endeavored to levitate the Pentagon and ran a pig for president, knew well how to transcend partisan dogmatism and make politics a party. Most of the time, however, politicians and activists vie with each other to present the worst possible sour faces, squeezing out a well-orchestrated sob for the poor and disenfranchised when necessary, and deploring, castigating, warning, threatening, doomsday-saying, till the cows come home―as if she who is most morally outraged on behalf of others, most piously selfless, is by right the one whose cause is most just. As if she who would willingly have a mote in her own eye or an eyesore in her own backyard were the finest shining example of citizenship.
It occurred to me further, after hearing the Burlington Mayor stigmatize those who were against creating a completely out-of-character zoning in the town center as people who were against equality and affordable housing, how easy it is, in Hamlet’s words, to “smile, and smile, and be a villain”—just as long as you claim you are helping to feed the hungry and house the homeless by doing so.  Building high-rise luxury multi-use mall-office tower-monstrosities with three floors of above-ground parking garages and 80 units of expensive student housing and a very small percentage of affordable housing is, apparently, now a campaign to help “the poor and disenfranchised”. I really might respect Mayor Weinberger more if he would just admit that it gives him pleasure to help developers like himself make money and cleanse the town of riff-raff and impecunious artists and hardly-working troublemakers. Instead, he plays pious. Those against the project also—with greater validity—have used the minimalaffordable housing as a justification for not wanting the zoning to go through. Presumably, if we only talked about the views that would be lost, or the ugliness of the structure, or the added traffic that would make our lives less enjoyable, we would be considered N.I.M.B.Y’.s, and our concerns would not be respected as much. But the dichotomy, as the dichotomy between beauty and justice, is a false one.  We don’t have to choose between acting in an ethical manner and fostering lives of pleasure and happiness—for ourselves and others.
The environment can also be manipulated as a free ticket to do atrocious things.  Worrying about the ozone layer gets you more sympathy than complaining about the inconvenience and stress of traffic. In this case, the Mayor has made the disingenuous claim that a huge development, which would put excessive strain on the lake and increase carbon emissions, is the only way we could now require LEED certification, a new storm water runoff system, and to use the McNeil Power Plant for a district energy system that has been clamoring for attention for years—until he suddenly realized that opportunistically promoting it seemed like a good opportunity to sell an unpopular project to the people. Of course we can do all of these ecologically smart things without approving this new zoning change. Those against the project have counted—again, more rightly—their environmental concerns as points for their side, citing the threats to an already-ailing lake, the need for urban green spaces, and a need for a reduction of cars in the city. But if we were to defend the environment only because it is beautiful and pleasurable to experience, we would surely be called selfish N.I.M.B.Y’.s concerned with our lake views. And yet the whole city is the back yard of everyone who lives here.
The environment can be used as a moral cause because it is suffering greatly from human selfishness, because it is fundamental to our physical health, and because it is fundamentally useful (we need it to breathe, for medicines, for food). But what if it were not necessary for our continued existence on the planet?  Would a call to save the endangered redwoods or the monarch butterflies be considered merely frivolous?  Probably. It seems that our administration really does have a hard time letting beauty just be beauty without putting it toward some practical or personal use. Recently, a lovely patch of the bike path which used to be wild and weedy has been transformed into a paved-over work-out center with contraptions for joggers to stretch and tone themselves along the trail. How convenient. How useful. How utterly ugly.
Does this work-out pavement help the poor and disenfranchised? No. Does it decrease the permeable surface which soaks up toxins on their way to the lake? Yes. Not good for the poor, and not good for the eco-system. And not even pleasurable! A paved exercise area may be theoretically in service to personal physical attractiveness or fitness (which others may enjoy by looking), but at what cost to the beauty of the surrounding environment? To human enjoyment of undeveloped, wild nature? But pain trumps pleasure. A sweating jogger can claim that he is aching from all those self-flagellating miles. If a poet misses the field of flowers, well, that’s merely something more for her to lament about in the next ode.  But neither can claim that their suffering in response to this new paved fitness area will help the poor and disenfranchised, those who are unable to run due to old age or infirmity, or those who do not understand poemsThe moral posture of helping others by suffering some personal sacrifice is reserved for the hypocritical apologist for bad development who is happy to have an ugly building with a 24-hour fluorescently-lit garage built right next door to his lakefront home. He piously pretends that the presence of these “lofts” lowers rent prices (which it doesn’t). This fortress of “wealthy living” is neither healthy nor socially beneficial to the underprivileged. Perhaps he just gets a perverse pleasure out of making the world uglier because beauty somehow discomforts him.
But why is hypocritical, self-sacrificing suffering such a popular position in political debates? Why should it bear more weight than the tastes and preferences of a self-interested individual who gathers together with other neighbors to protect their view or to limit traffic on their street, or to define, in any way, the boundaries of their small community according to their own interests—aesthetic, practical,  or otherwise? Nietzsche and Wilde, following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, questioned the concept of “disinterested” criticism in the 19thcentury, arguing that humans are always interested, always subjective; our judgments are always colored by our tastes and our lives. This interestedness, however, was not seen as a bad thing, but as a meaningful force, a source from which pleasure fountains forth.  Of course, if we considered only ourselves we would not experience much pleasure in either personal or political life. All of our considerations of self-interest must needs consider that we live in the world with others whom we affect and whose lives and interests concern us greatly.  We can assuredly be both other-directed and self-interested at once, just as long as we don’t insist on our “right” to do just any old reckless thing without acknowledging that our own happiness is contingent on the harmony of the neighborhood.
Kant defined ethics as other-directed action, while insisting upon the basic subjective lens of the individual agent. And this is the seeming paradox of existential action: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will it to be a general rule” (the categorical imperative) is not that different from “Do unto others…”. That is, an existentialist who is a N.I.M.B.Y. not only doesn’t want a bad development in his own back yard, but doesn’t want that bad development anywhere else either.
 N.I. A. B.Y.Not in Anyone’s Backyard. But the Nay-Saying must begin wherever we live.  If we don’t say no to bad things in our own back yard, where will we say no to them? And we hope that others, elsewhere, will also say no to things in their back yards that we would deem harmful here. Their success in determining their own communities will inspire us to better cultivate our own gardens at home.
And even though Kant probably did not dance, and may have had precious little pleasure in his highly regimented scholarly life, somehow there is a connection—through Nietzsche and Wilde—to Emma Goldman’s dancing revolution.  True revolutions begin and prosper from a source of personal pleasure (not just against the pain of others), within small communities of people who love and argue with each other, who care about both their built and natural environments, their neighborhoods and traditions; and who work together to protect these things from powerful external forces which impinge on their own home-grown interests, tastes, and sense of ethical community-building. Community groups (“N.I.M.B.Y. attack dogs”) fight outside interests off so that they can win the time and freedom to envision and manifest new ways of living and interacting with each other from back yard to back yard, as existential models of universal resistance and creativity. If we forget what it is we are fighting to preserve—something we might well define as a beautiful, meaningful life—we have already lost.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Back to WORK soon

Well, Just in case anyone wonders.....
I have been doing different kinds of work over the last six months. It is creative in its own way, and frustrating like creative work, exhilarating like creative work, exhausting like creative work...but doesn't feed me in the same way. Local politics has taken me over, as I battle with a growing group of Burlington residents to fight the incursions of the real estate industrial complex and a collusive city government engaged in selling off our city, destroying our community-driven zoning and planning, deregulating development, and undermining democratic processes. You can see some of this activity on this other blog: It is the same thing that is happening everywhere, but we are fighting back hard here, with some good old fashioned Vermont grass roots tactics and chaotic non-partisan energy. And we appear to be winning for now, having gotten a nasty zoning change on the November ballot. If we can muster the populace to vote in their own interests, we will vote down the zoning change and show the City and their developer friends who is boss! Shaping one's city and world is a creative, collaborative process, but very difficult, since there are powerful, monied forces working to shape it in opposite ways at the same time. It is a shame that so much of our creative, world-shaping energy is defensive rather than truly generative!

Once that is over, November 9th, I will be returning to my other Work. The work of writing and painting and thinking.  There has been some of that, but precious little, over the last six months.
Here are two photos of me and my giant book, taken by April Patterson at the Art Hop in early September (last time I was in my studio! Ah).

Also, in the meantime, my essay on conceptual art and re-materialization has been published in The Georgia Review, Fall issue, and my Almandal Grimoire essay was a runner up for the Best American Essays 2016 volume, edited by Jonathan Franzen. Another essay, Making Meaning II: Italian Journeys, will be in Numero Cinq this month. While I was fallow, the seeds were sprouting?  In any case, I promise myself I will put aside worldly things come November 9th, and I hope to be sharing some more words and images here soon.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

May Issue of Numero Cinq: The Afterlife of Modernism

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

The May issue of Numero Cinq will include a new essay of mine, entitled "Making Meaning I: The Categorical Imp of the Perverse," along with fresh work by Gabriel Josipovici (Whatever Happened to Modernism), and other luminaries. Here is a link to the line-up.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Last Essay of My Book

Here at the glorious MacDowell Colony, I have finished the final two essays of my book, now called Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter. Here is a small excerpt from the last one.

Making Meaning II: Italian Journeys
My real delight is in the fruit, in figs, also pears, which must surely be choice in a place where even lemons grow. –Goethe, Italian Journey
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo

In Torino, Italy, once called Augusta Taurinorum in honor of the bull sacred to Isis, goddess of fertility, where Nietzsche went mad, embracing a beaten horse and weeping, dancing naked in his room, and practicing Dionysian rites of auto-eroticism; where, before his collapse, he enjoyed the air, the piazzas, the cobblestones, and the gelato; where the ladies chose the sweetest grapes for this reluctantly German philosopher, it is easy to feel the sensual, life-affirming, Pagan roots of myth-making, to understand those humanistic allegories that sing of life, love, pleasure, and appetite.  At the opera, I heard Tosca sing, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” (I lived for art, I lived for love). I indulged in long wine-drenched lunches on unseasonably-sunny piazzas, and gazed at gleaming artifacts from ancient times in dark museums. There was a secret restaurant where a small fierce woman named Brunilde roughly took my order, displayed magical cakes with her wide toothy smile, briskly removed the empty plates that once held the most delicious food I’d ever eaten, brought me a shot glass with grapes soaked in absinthe with dessert if I pleased her by ordering it, but growled me out the door if I was too full or too stupid to partake of her pride and joy. I was in residence at the Fusion Art Gallery on Piazza Amedeo Peyron, presided over by the wise and warm painter, Barbara Fragnogna, who told me about the market across the way which sold beautiful mushrooms, wild strawberries, and bread sticks with huge, juicy olives. When I wasn’t eating, or wandering in museums, I was building an elaborate book which folds and unfolds, and is painted and glued and stitched, and “gold-leafed” with foil wrappers from the many gianduji chocolates I enjoyed. I threw off the layers of the Vermont winter to feel the wind and sun on my body, and was reminded of how much our conclusions about what life means are influenced by the relationship between our own physicality and the material world which surrounds us.
       Meaning is not something that we need to artificially superimpose on the objects and events of the world through some transcendental narrative or morality. It is not something we need to be taught or coerced into seeing by external social construction or manipulative indoctrination. If one is healthy, has an appetite, and senses for seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching, beauty will be everywhere, as “the promise of happiness” or, indeed, in the knowledge of happiness’s fleetingness or absence. We are given the gift of colors and sounds, of textures and of temperatures.  And if all else fails, this should be enough reason to be grateful for life. In addition to this inherent meaning, this meaning without thought and evaluation, our intellectual response to the physical facts of the world makes us dream, imagine, and invent ever new celebrations and laments. These expressions will survive and proliferate insofar as other humans resonate with them.  And what resonates will be made manifest in real made things, in built places, in enacted experiments. This is a discourse and manifestation over millennia, from the ancient cave paintings to today: humans trying to make sense of the terror and tenderness of the world. We do not despair, we artists and “creative subjects”. Nor do we invent meanings that attempt to twist the facts of nature: Gravity and Mortality are real.  Instead, we work with what there is, and endeavor to embrace it in all its fractured glory. Thus, also, the things that we  make with our hands, out of paper, pigments, wax, string, fire, earth, water and air, will fade, crumble, dissolve in good time. They are already fragile, already very imperfect, already mostly forgotten.  And yet, their fleeting presence is of the utmost importance.
I am sitting on a bench in a church entranceway. A gray, cool, dreamy late morning. Some high school students, girls and boys, gather at the other end of the stone courtyard, gossiping, talking, laughing. Old people, alone, walk in and out of the church. It is a Monday, and most shops here are closed, their metal gratings pulled down. Dirty pigeons coo. In the back streets, a gentle squalor; clothing hanging from lines; abandoned bicycles resting against elaborate gates. On the walls, scraps of political agitation, left and right, shreds of old posters, graffiti scrawls. People talk, but I don’t understand. Markets everywhere, with abundance: artichokes and more artichokes, wheels of cheese, sausages, chickens, lamb shanks, lemons. People smoke and joke, are grim or warm. On my walk here I passed a waitress carrying a tray of espresso down the street from a café out of sight, and a silver piece of paper blew to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to her. Grazie, Signora. An elegant lady walks up the church steps now, in perfectly matching brown and gold, soft brimmed hat with gold trim, a brown cane, brown coat with fur collar, a purse of gold and brown plaid, little brown shoes, dark sunglasses. All her belongings and all her faith perfectly intact from another era. Trucks rumble by; otherwise it is quiet, peaceful. Balconies preserve foliage from the summer, not quite dead, but not quite blooming, vines dangling; a single bruised yellow rose lilts; while back in Vermont everything is covered in snow and ice. This is a life. Anywhere is a life. How different, how similar is it to and from mine, from or to yours? And how does it happen that it evolved to be like this here and some other way somewhere else?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

An Apology for Meaning

The social constructionists murdered Meaning long ago, but she persists to move us, naïve as we are.  And, lo, we understand each other, more or less, despite cultural crisis and alienation, despite the treachery of concepts and the mis-pris(i)on house of language! They warn us that our every impulse has been constructed randomly out of nothing, or, at best, out of the machinations of the people in power who have managed over centuries to control our minds, our behaviors, our hearts with the deceitful seductions of fairy tales, myths, art, religion, and philosophy.  In  exchange, then, for putting away these beloved artifacts of the “ages of ignorance,” they offer us their scoffing analysis, which uncovers the fact (which sages of all ages already knew) that concepts and words are inaccurate delimitations of the multifarious irreducible variety of reality, and that humans tend to form habits which keep them from re-evaluating their values. That humans can be lazy and conformist, and that words only approximate the things and experiences that they describe, are not good enough reasons to throw over all of the attempts made by our less than lazy fellow humans over the ages to understand and celebrate and lament and re-imagine our shared existence.  Only a theorist lacking in aesthetic sense, lacking in love, in human emotion could deny that human beings speak to each other across time and cultures through stories and symbols that carry meanings, albeit imperfectly understood. That the translation is imprecise is not a good reason to give up on the fraught but difficult  challenge of communication from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, past to present to future. Yes, much of what we believe, much of our behavior, has been socially constructed, but this construction has been and continues to be our own work as humans. Nietzsche called us “creative subjects,” and our role, should we awaken from our “wretched contentment” into agency and joyful wisdom, is to continually co-create new ways of being in the world out of the dirty and living roots of our shared human experience. The artist, as the “creative subject” par excellence, re-vivifies stale images and ossified words, dissolving the fixed relations and drawn boundaries around entities and forging new meaningful connections between materiality and imagination, individual particularity and archetypal abstraction. But we all must participate in this process of backward and forward and eastern and western-seeing, engaging in the concerns and delights of our ancestors and our neighbors and continually considering which still serve us and which would best be re-imagined.  We must take up the iconoclastic axes—not to smash the divine artifacts of the past, but —to chisel new forms out of old mountains.

 Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there, and enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, that the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric become, in time, established, sanctioned, and limiting, and new people may find that there are better ways to get from here to there.  If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. Consider how pilgrims in early Christianity resisted the Church’s injunctions against idol worship and the kissing and fondling of relics. Consider the Copernican revolution, Relativity, &c. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made because of beauty or utility or for sentimental reasons, for access to a view, because it is private, because there are no obstacles underneath or adjacent to it, because there are special features along the route, or because there are no other options left. But any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.