The Art of Perplexity

On the virtue of resisting the easy answer.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1131-1205), is a good person to meet if you’re looking for some antidote to the excesses of a mode of thought (typically Greek in origin) that tends to value “the universal, the general, and the unequivocal” over modes more typical of Hebraic scholarship, namely an openness toward “ambiguity, contradiction, and plurality of meaning” (from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). The title of Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” was enough to pull me into his orbit. The following is inspired by this treatise, as translated by Shlomo Pines

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Consider this: the meaning of a sacred text can only be glimpsed. It is best accessed by those prone to being perplexed. Consider also how contradictions, so often maligned, may be embraced instead of being shunned as flaws.

I am moved toward those terms that may sometimes have one meaning, and sometimes many.

When it comes to some subjects, a sensible reader will know better than to demand a complete exposition and will not expect any given meaning to be exhaustive. A sensible reader would never consider the possibility of removing all difficulties, ever, from the interpretive challenge. The most valuable truths may at best be glimpsed, and then concealed again.

Sometimes, in a long, dark night, a flash of lightning will illuminate the landscape. It’s like that, and yet––

Many a fool has so hungered for certainty that he refers to pretend the flash continual, pretending night is day,

––hence the parable, the riddle, the poem, the allegory. Let me show you a deep well. Would you drink? No, you cannot reach it, except by attaching the pail to one, and the next, and the next of each of these, in succession and with humility of mind. You will find no rope long enough, but the vulgar won’t bear this truth. They’ll keep insisting, tell it straight and in a single breath, and when you can’t they will call you a liar and when you won’t you are nothing.

My goal: to guide a single, virtuous reader to rest. Most will be highly displeased. Here is no answer, no show. What may be told to mortals of their own beginnings, except obscurely?

Salt, Light, and the Living

To honor the dead and the living, against despair.

Considering the permafrost, one doctor observes: we have melted back to the stone age, we are speeding back in time. He is speaking about the iceman that revealed himself recently in the melt: body the color of tea, his was probably a case of bleeding to death from a shoulder wound.

Another speaks of other findings: sights of the ancient massacres of whole villages; instruments of killing among the oldest known artifacts. There’s a puppy carcass too, believed to represent a link between dog and wolf, friend and killer. The Lena horse, the cave lion. Like a library on fire, says the doctor, regarding the impermanence of the freeze, how fast it melts. The point, he says, is to save what you can.

One gets so exhausted: the constant fire, the latest extinctions. There’s a question in this moment: how to resist despair without giving in to vapid, empty optimism? The doctor is silent, considering. Another speaks, slowly and deliberately–– of the stoics, how necessary their discipline is now: to meditate deeply on negative possibilities, to sit with the anxiety, the grief, the sense of relative powerlessness, and after sitting, resolve to act anyway on behalf of the living. It’s the only way, the doctor insists, to cope with the trial of the moment.

I am sitting with this today, and meanwhile, I am also aware that it is All Souls Day, and after dinner an old friend reminds me how the grandmothers would light a candle so that those who have died can return for a brief visit. They knew that in order for the dead to return with their animating force, they needed the strength of love and intention as a guide. One would also set out two small vessels: one of salt, one of water, to represent life and the meal we would make for them if they could join us at the table. On this day, they would come, leaving their love and blessings, and taking many of our troubles with them. They are also able to have some communion with us, when the veil between the worlds is thin. 

While nothing like the stoicism that the doctor shared, this reminder rings harmonious to my weary ears, relieved to be called back to the quiet, steadfast patience of these grandmothers. The responsibility to the living requires us to keep going, and our responsibility to the dead demands that we tend a tiny flame and these small vessels, because what is nourished will grow, and this, even now, is still a meaningful choice.  

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Inspirations

I was reading about the permafrost melt this morning (In The New York TimesAs Earth Warms, Old Mayhem and Secrets Emerge from The Ice, and As Earth Warms, the Diseases that May Lie Within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry. Later, I came across this article (from Columbia Climate School) about the need for Climate Stoicism, and hours after that a friend returned me to certain Irish traditions for celebrating All Souls Day.

Seen and Unseen

When the saints come marching in.

The Lives of the Saints is a book that captured my childhood imagination, perhaps because it reads like a catalogue of horrific challenges and mystical superpowers. Opening the illustrated version felt somewhat transgressive, like indulging in an arcane comic book. I first found it in the rectory waiting room while I waited for my grandparents, and again in the home of the sisters, where we brought ice cream and visited and sometimes attended midday mass in the chapel. It was the 1980s, and I was ignorant of most of what the adults of my parents’ generation seemed to discuss. What was it? I don’t remember, only that their conversations and general absorptions seemed tied to being in the world in ways that didn’t make much sense to me, and the inscrutability of adult life tended to make me anxious when I considered that one day I would have to become one. 

I was aware that I was a hopeless sinner, guilty of fighting with my sisters and of gluttony around Halloween candy and holiday desserts, and of wondering, during the high point of a Mass, whether my grandparents would be moved to make a stop at the deli on Post Road after church, visions of poppyseed buns dancing in my head when it should have been the mystery of transubstantiation of the body and blood.  It was doubtful I had any of the merits of a saint, and yet their strangeness made more sense to me than what passed for normalcy.

The saints, as I read them, tended toward singular obsessions: Francis with his poverty and love of creatures, Bernadette with her daily visits to the water at Lourdes, Eustachius who became transfixed by a vision of the savior in the antlers of a deer. I was awed by, and felt oddly familiar with, their various intensities, and with how they tended to give themselves over to visions that ran parallel to this world while being apart from what was generally taken to be real. These were my people, I thought, even though, given my accumulation of sin, I knew I had no right. But I didn’t get the impression that any of these saints spent much time worrying about sins. They were too busy with their visions and singular obsessions, so it seemed possible that if we met, they would welcome me into their community of oddball misfits. 

To mark the occasion, I opened my old copy this morning. I made the grave mistake, when I found it used on amazon a few years ago, of neglecting to specify the illustrated version, so my stodgy copy bears little resemblance to the book of wonders I remember. My point, as it often is when I am looking for these Breadcrumbs, was to gather what phrases seemed useful, regarding the celebrations that mark All Saints and All Souls Day. Here’s what I found:

For the martyrs whose names are not recorded, and the children lost in innocence, for those who died in a state of grace known only to them and the angels who carried them home, who remembered and held us in their intercessions, and for all the souls, that they may be loosed. Let us bear in mind the dead, holding them in our earnest intentions. Remember.

Desert Walk

A desert walk, and considerations of the pilgrim in borrowed space.

Forever with your help, reads the desert park slogan. Regarding longevity, consider Pliocene beds of oyster shells and the ancient remains of a coral reef.

Remember the saber-toothed cats, camels, giant turtles, and the condor-sized vultures. Remember the vertical faults, pushing up ridges with each quake. Remember when the river shifted course, filling the basin with two-thousand square miles of now-ancient lake, fringed with tule, arrow weed, willow, mesquite, palm.

Keep walking, keep looking, the names alone like an invocation of what was once understood: creosote, burrow weed, agave, mesquite, cat’s claw, jumping cholla, indigo bush, smoke tree, desert willow, ironwood. 

Watch for scorpions, watch for snakes, watch for ghost lights and the ghost rider, lantern in his chest; watch for bones, holding the wind.

Watch for it: every creature out here arranging itself in creative response to thirst. Watch for hidden water but beware the interior gorge. The ancients knew this as the home of the dead. Of course, it is also the most likely to be wet so there are those that take their chances, hiking down and further until every sound revolves into an echo of its origin, and the only place left to move is back up, or farther along the path you’ve been warned to avoid.

Etymology of Gravity

Considering the force that holds a body here.

If time is spinning earth on axis in rotation around the sun, it should send us flying away, except that we are held by force of attraction, to the planet that insists by its incessant motion on our aging, recording all the while: lives, deaths, mutations, development of fins where once there were limbs, trading original fur for original sin and taking it like penance in the furs of those that warmed us, fed us, watched us. We knew them. But a body bent on survival will induce forgetting when it needs to––for a time, anyway.

Then we watched the sun. Rising, setting, it seemed about to retreat from our waiting, and we sang to pull it back. It shaped our voices, our habits, our sleep, birthdays, solstice, winter.

We lived in one dome, and some said that there were other domes beneath us, in layers, through which certain ancestors had passed, struggling up and up; and now it seems obvious, the tension that holds us: on the one hand up and out, and on the other, here––as in, Here is your hand, and because it holds mine, I do not fly away. These are the first words, I like to think, that we might have said to one another when we first lost our furs, grasping for a language better than any of our words.

The first shelter we found when we knew we were naked was nothing but translucent blue, infinitely distant, and it was endlessly spinning, and everywhere you looked, there you were, at the center of the turning skies, shattered. How does a body ask to be held when the words for the safety it suddenly needs are not yet invented? Cruel irony, to place a set of eyes in the center of a universe just to remind them of the possibility of being tossed by the sheer velocity of a relentlessly spinning planet––into nothing.

Why language, when words feel so feeble, most of the time? Here is why: a body on the verge of certain annihilation cannot help but cry out, and there is no use for words except as some version or another of the open hand, pleading in mute and sudden exposure: Hold.

Gift of the Skies

Considering the vast wisdom of ancient dreamers against the small spectacle of contemporary foils.

October skies prompt certain recollections. Consider the ghosts of sky watchers, for example,  how they once stood among the old ruins, unruined among the old stars.

Those beautiful dreamers, for whom knowing was learning the way back to the original vision, before words.  It must have been something to be among them within the stories they must have told, and the tellers of them: rooted and sturdy as trees to sleep in, and who ever does that now? In contrast, I’m recalling the parable of the dreamer, a much more contemporary tale, apropos to the moment, overheard when I was out somewhere, wide-eyed with possibility. I had listened with rapt attention, waiting for a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t that sort of story, but I couldn’t know this at the time. 

The parable I am remembering was not about one of these dreamers, but a self professed “dreamer” in the popular sense. The sort that loves to confess, “I am a dreamer,” as if doing so might lend a certain je ne sais quois to a cultivated artifice, aside from being an excellent excuse from the terrible burden of being tethered to anything of heaven or earth beyond his own needs. How unlike the real dreamers he was, whose original visions would never let them forget that they were nothing if not obligations to be more than mere selves, those notorious tricksters, those endless constellations of illusions and untamed wants who thrived on mischief-making, knowing nothing else.

The wise ones before him would chant with the rising sun, and for it, an act of worship borne of humility. Our latecomer arrives, knowing nothing but himself since he’s been so steadfast about resisting ties to anything else, right down to being unable to believe that anything could be nearly as real. Coming down to absorb the energy of the moment, he asks one of the reverent about their purpose. Upon learning that the object of worship is the sun, he cannot help but arrive at a singular and fateful conclusion: not that he is the sun exactly, not as a matter of fact (he isn’t much interested in facts, which too much resemble the proverbial ropes and chains from which is he is ever-wanting to free himself), but that he could be.

“I am here!” he declares, “And behold, a great light!” and raises his hands to absorb the energy of his adoring crowd. Proud of himself for remaining unsullied, he imagines the warmth he is feeling to be the pure radiance of his own miraculous self. 

Oh, the cheering! He thinks, how magnificent! When he deigns to remove himself from this heightened state, he must tell them!  He must tell the people. He is not selfish, after all! Truly, he had sometimes wondered. But if he were, how do you explain this impulse to let the common assembly, infinitely less complex than the smallest finger of his two outstretched hands, partake in this radiant heat?

The old ones shake their heads, chuckling at a misreading so far-fetched that they could never have dreamed it up. They’d love to see what else this one comes up with, but they can’t stay for the rest of the show. Dreaming, as they know it, is the hard, daily work of a lifetime, and they share a common agreement to get back to it.

“Should we say something?” One says, as they are walking away.

They pause, look back. But in the looking it becomes clear that saying anything to someone in such a state is about the same as saying nothing, and possibly much worse, given the likelihood of misunderstandings like the one that led our infant dreamer to claim the altar as his own.

They go, a procession of ancients in unison, under an ancient sky, pulled by an ancient purpose, older and more vast than any one among them.

Descent

Into the ocean world.

Mondays tend to offer numerous reminders of the need for an underwater excursion. With this in mind, today’s found poem is an assembly of phrases found in Jacques Cousteau’s introduction to The Ocean World, a stunning volume that featured prominently in my childhood imagination. 

The act of life,

an eye permanently open––

immense, teeming; plankton like haze,

barely visible, monotonous. Now what?

The diving years reveal a thin layer

of sea, fragile––at our mercy, somehow,

this organized crystal of three-dimensional 

nothingness: ocean intelligence buried

under waste. Consider the precariousness

of this third infinity, in the grabbing hands 

of someone unable to think beyond what he

might take: salvation, discovery, the next ride.

Even the next image, and yet, listen at

the edges: what third infinity continues

in constant chorus, inaudible to those

above, still held by laws of degradation

before the threshold of this ancient beyond?

Secondary Questions on the Nature of First Aid

One has reason to wonder about the validity of the preeminence of aid associated with certain hierarchical naming conventions.

There are books you can acquire, on fundamentals of for survival. The idea being, that if you know enough, you can respond effectively in any crisis. The idea being, that this is the point, like a raised sword into battle, a popular image among anyone primed to think of themselves as the hero about to happen.

In a typical lifesaving manual, you can find sections on dressing for survival; on hyperthermia and muscle cramping; heatstroke, hypothermia, frostbite. 

Then comes the chapter on tending wounds: what to do before and after. How to stop the bleeding, assess the damage, clean the wound, decide on treatment, close it up. 

––Burns, too: first steps, the signs in order of degree: first, second, third, a hierarchy of singed flesh. And notes on life-threatening complications, as if to reassure the reader that such matters––the complications, that is–– were secondary.

Next come the mammal bites, rabies, snakes; foreign objects in the skin; bark scorpions, fleas, chiggers, gunshot wounds; stinging nettles, poisonous plants. 

Rib injuries, lacerations at the neck, collapsed lungs, flail chest, broken feet; what to do when someone collapses. For these things there are specific treatments because what led to the breaking of bones and vessels for bleeding are matters of an entirely different order, as with the fire of the gun, the long exposure to cold, the vulnerability of certain skins to certain forms of abrasions and lacerations, the moments preceding collapse.

The matter of saving a life goes beyond the moment of crisis, but here is the proverbial tough pill, too wide even for many a gallant knight’s earnest and proclamatory throat. To the dismay of many a less-attractive object of need than the damsel-in-distress or child at the edge of a hot cauldron, the crisis is always more glamorous than the slow attention it takes to watch someone and understand precisely which cries are consistently muted, and to recognize that the capacity for burning cannot be measured any better by degrees than its aftermath can be easily sorted into a neat ranking of first, second, third.

There’s a silence to watching honestly, and it’s repellent to the seekers of valor. There is nothing glamorous about slow attention, no reason to raise a white horse on its hind legs in show of strength. There is only patience, and watching, the slow action of growth below ground, and everywhere above it, the attention it takes to count the lines in a knuckle, the veins in a hand, the rhythm and meter of rising and falling ribs before they are broken.

I would die for this, the would-be hero wants to always proclaim, of the death he imagines as clean as the light gleaming from a sword before it’s tested. The living is such a mess. How uncomfortable it is, to recognize the courage of surviving the contamination and doing so consistently, in the name of nothing more glamorous than the next waiting moment. 

Here is the birth of the courage that few are willing to look at directly. It hurts like looking at the sun: to see what it takes to survive––not the crisis, but the slow and patient tending to what may yet grow––and then again, maybe not. The waiting can kill you, and here’s the rub: when it does, it will sound like absolutely nothing.

Here’s what I think of the valor of the knights I was raised to revere. I think showing up in a crisis is an easy victory, fruit plucked heavy from a tree limb by a sword not so different in intention from that which would give pause to the waiting lady. It’s as easy as being celebrated with hearty open hands of congratulations, against the solid-seeming back, the only one visible when the back on which it leans is buried underground, tending to the merciless details required of everything with a fraction of a chance to live, and unable to give up for the length of time it would take to stand and shake off something that someone with the privilege of pretensions to ideals like Truth and Belief would never imagine had any weight at all.  

Second Looks

The trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

Huh.

What?

There are faces.

I don’t see any. 

Look here. You can’t see them as a collective. Go one at a time. 

All I see is wallpaper.

Step back. There is a face.

I’m not––

It’s in the shadows.

The face is?

The shadows make the features. It only works at a distance.

Like memory?

Exactly.

I read something about mosaics recently, just like that. By someone who was learning the art. How the trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

There’s a little winged man in the garden sometimes. 

––The art of broken parts, she said.

In the clouds, a giraffe. The lights in the sky, like a bird in flight.

There’s a green haired man in the rocks.

Madonna in a gourd, toast Jesus, the grilled cheese miracle.

There’s a rabbit on the moon. Or a man.

A man, you think?

Well, a face anyway. Like this. Step back a little more. Right here. Relax your eyes, like a cat.

I ––oh. Wow.

Yes.

It’s there.

Right there.

I almost missed it.

Keep looking.

Notes:

This piece is inspired by an article about artist Lee Wagstaff’s recent work, in which “hidden faces” emerge from canvases of repeating geometric patterns, and also by an article about the human tendency to see patterns.

Margherita Cole’s September 29th article in My Modern Met: “Hypnotic Portrait Paintings are Based on AI Generated Faces.” 

Larry Sessions’s Earthsky article, “Seeing Things That Aren’t There? It’s Called Pareidolia,” (November 2020)

The reference to mosaics is inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World

Faith and Apple Seeds

John planted apples in nurseries. He headed west barefoot. He listened through lies and went on loving, gently.

Until this morning I considered Johnny Appleseed to be one of those figures I associated with made-up stories like George and the cherry tree or Casey at the bat, which are told to distract children from larger questions about what is really going on here. I remember a cartoon image: goofy-looking barefoot guy in a straw hat, Scandinavian features, strolling barefoot over hills, munching on an apple he held in his left hand while he tossed apple seeds from a satchel with his right. A folksy song played in the background, the lyrics no doubt including something along the lines of, Here comes Johnny Appleseed. . .  Something, something apple trees!  But this morning I learned that he had another name, and it was John Chapman, and that he was born on this day in 1774. In 1840, someone took a photograph of him (or was it a daguerreotype then? I don’t know). He has the face of a man who is kind and serious, who has seen through the ways of men and will not be easily fooled. How different he looks, from the cartoon fool they made him into.

He was eighteen when he left home. He took his half-brother Nate with him. Nate was eleven. They went West, as one does. For thirteen years they lived as nomads. John’s mother had died when he was two, while his father was away, fighting redcoats, so he was used to it. 

He wasn’t tossing seeds or even planting orchards. It was nurseries he planned and built, tended, and left in the care of someone he hired, with promise to return. 

He almost died in a tree while picking hops. He fell and his neck was caught in the fork. It was his eight-year-old help that cut the tree down to save him. 

Near the end, he was moved by a sermon, although not in the manner intended. The preacher went on and on, eager to make a point, asking again and again, where is the primitive Christian, barefoot in coarse raiment? ––Alluding, it seemed, to the original disciples, and some perceived spiritual distance between then and now.

The point had something to do with indulgences. Calico was one; tea was another.

Chapman grew weary of the obvious play for power by guilt and so he approached the podium, which at that moment was a tree stump. He put his bare foot on it, said Here is your primitive. Now what? The congregation was dismissed.

Later, he preached to anyone listening, not of a vengeful God, but of the one who came after. Killed for his simplicity, John suspected. His blessings on the merciful, the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the persecuted. After all of that, who would be left to save, but the rich, who wanted no salvation unless it came on their own gilded terms?

His leader was the one who washed the feet of his brothers, who was gentle with women; who saved harsh words for the moneylenders and thieves in the temple, and for the robed men who used religion like a sword. 

Where is it, anyway, someone asked John, with regards to the kingdom of God.

Right here, John told them. Right here, only look.

And they sat barefoot among the trees, and the wind moved them, and they knew.