Friday, September 22, 2017

Snow Globe (Excerpt from Conjecture)

There are days I remember like scenes crystalized in a snow globe, really slices of many different days merged together and distilled into smaller capsules of time. I see myself and my sisters, Rose and Celia, sitting at one end of the long wooden table of the orphanage dining room, not too close to each other, each with ample room for our morning tea, toast, papers, inks, embroidery, what have you, but still leaving two-thirds of the long table empty. We are not sitting like ladies, but contort ourselves into all sorts of shapes for better access to our fascinations, myself with one foot flat on the chair and a knee up close to my chest to rest an open book against, and a plate of breakfast perched between thigh and belly. Rose is sitting cross-legged, drawing in a large folio upon her lap, with precision and soul. She dips her pen into her tea cup by mistake and brings an ink bottle to her mouth, thinking it is toast. Celia is perched on her knees, chair with its back toward the table, presiding over a wide circle of accoutrements and instruction manuals, preparing for some experiment, hardly taking a sip or nibble at all in her rapture. The pages turning, the pens scratching, the rustling of papers and clanking of tools mix with the sound of knives on butter dishes and cups on saucers, an occasional exclamation of discovery or consternation. These morning hours, seen from the distance of decades, seem impossibly free. Athans will be working until the early afternoon, and we are certain not to be called upon to know or prove anything until he emerges from his study. If it be summer, the casement windows are flung open and birds alight on the sill, singing their morning songs. The flowering trees shake themselves awake and cast yesterday’s new blossoms into the air, delivering their soft-sweet petals onto the table. If it be winter, we have lighted the old stove, and the sound of crackling and shifting wood mingles with the woosh of icy wind and the scurrying of small industrious animals inside the walls. I have not combed my hair, but I let my fingers work through some knots when a hand is free from page turning or teacup lifting, unconcerned about bits of jam or buttery crumbs on my fingercomb; Celia has her hair pulled back, out of the way of her work, bound with a scarf that looks a bit like a sorcerer’s turban; and pretty Rose is already miraculously coiffed, with lovely braids and twists and chignons, flowers tucked amid her golden hair, wearing a neat and fetching dress, newly tailored by her deft hand.  We let the tea go cold and forget to feed the stove until almost too late, just catching the last embers to start a new log a’ blazing.

If I shake the snow globe, the settling flakes show a table left uncleared, as we three go tearing across the vast yard, past marble statues and the splashing fountain, some dogs running at our feet, our skirts flying, birds scattering, either together all of us, or two and one, or each alone, to seek out a special spot where we cannot be spied by Athans from his tower studiolo (not that he is likely to look up from his work, but still, who knows?), to reach some perch for lake gazing or a bed of pine needles under a tall fir tree, or to find the rare lady slipper; or, if winter, to listen, on snowy days, to the silence of the brown and white world syncopated by our tromping over unshoveled paths, wrapped in capes and woolen scarves and wearing furry hats and boots, filling with icy snow. We walk sometimes for hours, not uttering a word, or singing madrigals or maybe telling secrets, returning, finally, hungry and thirsty and tired, in time to await Athans who emerges like clockwork from his study, to find us at the dining room table again, this time slightly more decorous than at breakfast, ready for our lessons. We no longer exist like this, except in this my vision. At the time, of course, I had no idea how happy we were. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Lola Writes to Athans


I have been hypnotized. My brain—my famous brain—would not turn off completely. When has it ever except under the influence of passion? But it softened its dense weave, and opened some, like continents separating, or braids loosening. So that images could slip through, images normally…No. I was going to write, images that are normally suppressed. But it isn’t that. All the images are always rising, always present, floating, as it were, before the mind’s eye. But usually the conscious mind pays them no heed if they do not seem rationally connected to what it already has determined as the subject at hand. The conscious mind rejects everything that does not fit clearly into the already-arrived at concept-construct-narrative. It stubbornly sticks to its story, despite the constant presence of other facts, truths, despite new information that would change its mind. Despite even feelings that don’t seem to fit. It thinks it is so reasonable. And, insofar as reason is the creation of abstract constructs, it certainly is. Reason, thus, is different (not quite opposite, not quite enemy) from experience, which is an everything. Experience contains the all and Reason partitions it up into meaning. Experience is unfiltered, but the brain-machine can only digest phenomena by arranging it according to its own structure and capabilities, also, its own past experiences and the already-formed categories. To make new categories and combinatory arrangements is much more difficult than using the old ones. But, in any case, if we may move on without having fully solved these fundamental problems (excuse us, Kant), I want to tell you about being hypnotized.

The great discovery was this:
When we are in a state to access the subconscious imagery, we allow ourselves to dwell on things we normally would deem irrelevant. It is just these things, that seem to come from nowhere, but maybe come from the subconscious or the collective unconscious or are, perhaps, merely random, it is these things alone that can open the usually locked doors between our conscious minds and an infinity of rich and self-generating revelation. The state is a  loosening of the mind so that these images can rise and be observed. They float before us. Instead of suppressing them, we regard them with curiosity. What might they “mean”? What might they tell us about ourselves?

The hypnotist asked me about love. What was in the way?

And I saw a vast storehouse of skeletons, of corpses, lying one atop the other, blanched and moldering. It was, I knew of an instant, that old holocaust theme. I thought, Oh, Lola, really, how unoriginal. Is this the best you can do? But there it was, and, well, without my normal filter, I let them command my attention, as answer to the question: What is in the way of love? And even cheaper, even more cliché, there rose a rose, alternating with the field of the dead, the moistest, most red, the juiciest of roses. And I spoke: I cannot have happy love because all these people are dead. The rose spoke: Live, enjoy, love. The corpses said, remember us.
Then I saw an ice queen, rising up out of the cold tundra. And knew she was I. Small children clutched at the hem of her gown. Children in black and white with large frightened eyes like those of my mother in those old photographs. My job forever was to take care of the children and protect them from evil. To take care of my mother, and my father too. And I could not let up, not to live my own life, not to love.

The hypnotist said: But what if the danger has passed? Can you relinquish your vigilance? What if the children are grown? Can they not take care of themselves?

And what about the child that was you, she asked, do you see her? And there I found myself sitting on the floor of a parqueted apartment, bereft and alone, for there was no one to care for me when the parents were the children and there was need of someone to protect them and who but me?

So she asked me was I ready to take myself in my arms and lift myself up, to carry myself up the stairs which she had me imagine as she counted, one step at a time, up and up, and up and up, to leave them to their own troubles and traumas, to rise, 1, 2, 3, 4….one more, another, another, another, 9, 10, 11, up to the surface of life, leaving the dead to bury the dead, and to be free to love and live and devour and be devoured in the great feast of life, rolling in a bed of flowers, thorns and silken petals and all. And when my mind was loose, unattached to all that I had learned about bad poetry and maudlin self-pity, moist-eyed and grateful, I did as she bid me, and did not devastate my subconscious with any super-sophisticated critique. For a moment, I was at peace, and glad.

Your Mad Lola

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.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing is So Hard

Writing is so hard.
Writing is so hard.
Writing is so hard.
Writing is so hard.

Writing is so easy, if you only can begin. If you only can begin. If you only can break through the barrier.

Go for a walk.

Make (another) cup of  tea.

Remember why you care.

Forget why you care.

Just write anything.

Write the smallest little scene.

Write a letter to a friend.

Read a book.

Remember that time is running out.

Remember that there is no more time to waste. 

Just write anything. 

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.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Correspondence and Difference

In the Egyptian Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had an instinct for symmetry, for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame, for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space, for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonate with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them.  Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more approximate comprehension of the objects, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension.  What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total correspondence. 

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand.  Sometimes we communicate better with someone who does not speak our language or who lived in another era or lives in another continent than we do with a coeval compatriot. But a good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another struggling to approximate a shared vision. Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and conceal our meanings from each other. Yes, conceal also. Indeed, as Steiner explained in After Babel, the differences between languages may be a result of a human need to differentiate a group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality.  There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses, and to insist on differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.  While Steiner acknowledges that much of communication is miscommunication, and that translation appropriates and distorts the original language or meaning, he concludes that the misprision ultimately adds something to the original and that without the admittedly imperfect mechanism of language (which itself is a translation from inner to outer), we would have no culture, no community at all.  Translation or solipsism. Most of the people who deny language its ability to communicate are still talking and writing. They have failed to follow up their assertions with their ultimate conclusions, and have therefore led us astray. The same can be said about the way we are told we should operate when it comes to differences and correspondences. We are to ignore differences and deny correspondences. Leaving us precisely where?

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, we insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond superficial and erroneous external, physical differences). On the other hand, we insist that it is impossible to understand the other, that there are no universals and there is no shared sense of value, and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be actually treacherous.  Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the reality or the importance of the physical world, on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it, the human brain and its sensory apparatus, and, finally, between one human brain and another.  At once we are trying to strip away differences that might cause conflict, justify hierarchies or discriminations (resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity) and to deny that these  newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, differences) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no resentment or hate against the “other” anymore—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatsoever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness.