The Alumni News

Reading the honorable dispatch.

See this tree-lined walk, snow framed beneath the red brick. Notice the tower, the arch. Hear this presidential address: honor society, an array of diversity, equity, inclusion. Notice the right words in appropriate places. 

Want evidence? See this picture! Don’t miss our greens, our greenhouse, and We Are Going Green. Dedication! Concert! Debut! 

We cut the ribbon. A trio of new sculptures in the courtyard. The renovated center. Award, fellowship, title, win! Our success rates. Recognition, honor, inaugural event! Homecoming.

Last, in memoriam. Here are the latest dead. See their photos, all smiling. Notice their honors, connections, advanced degrees. They are survived. We remember. Dates. Pay no attention to the missing. We look forward to an exciting year ahead!

I remember the tower bell, how it would sound on the hour, the expansive flood of its knell. Impossible, even if you kept talking through it, not to notice the suggestion, at least, of what was infinitely more vast and ancient than the oldest historic building––in the air we gushed, the land we rushed over, the silences between each proclamation.

*

Inspired by the pile of mail I’ve been meaning to go through, in which I found my alumni magazine. It’s a beautiful publication for a wonderful school, but I always feel a little funny about opening it, probably for reasons similar to the trepidation one feels around reunions. One’s life never quite fits into an update. One never quite feels quite “arrived” enough. Sensing that I must not be alone in this discomfort, I decided to read it here.

Beings

Seeking foundational truths.

is          not

fact      fiction

reality  /

––falsehood?

Only in agreement

at the level of language,

Berkeley observed, can

we have any firm system

of sound and real knowledge.

Until some common understanding

of some common words is breached,

disputes will be in vain.  One response,

however temporary, is to lay these 

words aside, let them rest like sore

legs after a long race, like a hot pan

before you get to washing, like the

need to prove anything beyond the

texture of the silence as it breathes 

here, in the space before we speak

again.

Fish Talk Over Coffee

Considering our aqueous ancestors.

Huh.

What?

Well, apparently, some species of sea slug take off their heads when the body gets infested with parasites.

Where do they put it?

They just crawl around on it until they grow a new body.

That’s convenient. What happens to the old one?

The parasites have at it. By the way, did you remember to call the dentist?

They’re still closed. You know, I read that the Pacific lingcod lose about twenty teeth a day and they grow them all back.

How many do they start with?

About five hundred, I think.

Well, you don’t have that many. So don’t forget the dentist.

You ever had that fish?

The lingcod? 

They’re supposed to be delicious. Sustainable, too.

Are those the ones with the fluorescent green meat?

Sometimes. It can be blue, too.

I’ll pass. But speaking of fish, look at this guy. Do you think he’s depressed?

He looks a little low, yeah. I told you when we were at the store you should get him some new leaves or something, make him his own little stocking, but you had tunnel vision about the cat food.

Well, that’s because she didn’t like the new kind and I wanted––

Apparently, you can tell the mental health of a zebra fish by how low it sits in a new tank. If it just hangs out by the bottom, it’s depressed.

Why?

They’re curious creatures. They like novelty. Plus, they’re apparently the closest to humans in terms of how brain chemicals function. 

I met this paleontology guy at the checkout. He said fish were the first to invent heads with brains. That and the whole phenomenon of having senses in sets: two eyes, two nostrils, two ears ––

Fish have ears?

On the inside. They have these little ear stones that detect vibrations. They help with balance, too.

Do you think he’s listening?

***

These two started talking when I was reading a number of articles from or linked to a feature in the New York Times about the sea slug and other discoveries. I started with 2021’s Most Fascinating Animals, and from there went on to lingcod teethfish depression, and some articles inspired by the work of paleontologist Neil H. Shubin, including What People Owe Fish: A Lot. Considering the debt, this morning’s post is admittedly a meager offering.

What Inspires Awe?

From Joseph Addison’s “On the Sublime.”

I want to consider what is great, uncommon, or beautiful––frightening, too; how some phenomena have a rude kind of magnificence which flings us so urgently into astonishment that the sensibilities are temporarily and utterly stilled. The mind naturally hates what looks like a denial of this capacity of expansion, hence our revulsion at tight, cramped spaces. The eye, like the mind, is fond of losing itself in space. What is new can refresh, sharpening the appetite which grows dull in satiety with the familiar. A meadow is one thing, but the river, the fountain, and the falls are something else because the perpetual motion affords no place to rest except by absorbing the motion itself, denying the viewer a habitual vantage of setting. What is ever in motion is ever sliding away from the eye of the beholder.

***

As idea which strongly motivated the English poet, dramatist, and essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), was (as described in Norton’s) to bring philosophy out of the closet of libraries and into coffeehouses and taverns.  To this end, Addison wrote numerous essays for The Tatler and The Spectator. The above is inspired by one from The Spectator, No. 412 [On the Sublime]. It includes phrases from Addison’s essay.

Related PostName it Anyway, a sampling of Loginus’ first-century treatise “On Sublimity.”

Bodies of Mystery

Witness to wonder

An imagined monologue in the voice of Johannes Kepler, born this day in 1571.

Okay, so my starting point was not data in the sterile manner so often preferred, but faith in harmony, the trinity’s perfection: here center, here a spherical surface, here the intermediary space, but who can separate one from the other without immersion in the deadly lie of separation? I took its unity for granted as a starting point. Poor method, some would argue, but you have to start somewhere, and I think too many scientists underestimate the value of our natural inheritance. I challenge anyone to notice the rhythm of these forms and tell me they aren’t true. There is symmetry through a quantity established at the start, first in Creation and then in the mind’s capacity to bear witness to its vast shape, these shapes our elements, these elements our incarnation, just beyond what we can fully know, and yet. Look, I say. Look!

Inspirations:

A contemporary of Galileo, Kepler was among the first to publicly validate Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric model of the universe. What strikes me about Kepler is the strong aesthetic and theological bent of his interests, which seem inseparable from his science. 

Kepler’s A Priori Copernicanism in his Mysterium Cosmographicum in: M. A. Granada / E. Mehl (eds.), Nouveau ciel, Nouvelle terre. L’astronomie copernicienne dans l’Allemagne de la Réforme (1530–1630), Paris, Belles Lettres, 2009 [collection l’Âne d’Or], pp. 283–317.

“We will Laugh at The Extraordinary Stupidity: Galileo to Kepler” in Science Backyard.

“An Astronomer’s Astronomer: Kepler’s Revolutionary Achievements. . .” in Scientific American.

Celebration of Emptiness

Ad Reinhardt on art as its own end.

Any friend of Thomas Merton is a friend of mine, and when I learned that artist Ad Reinhardt was one (they studied together and became close friends at Colombia College of Colombia University), I paid attention. This morning, I learned that it was Reinhardt’s birthday (1913-1967). I spent my coffee hour over Reinhardt’s Art as Art, and today’s post is a collection of notes from reading. It includes many phrases from Reinhardt’s text.

Art as art is nothing but art, and art is not what is not art.

More and more, what is becomes more pure, more empty, more absolute.

More exclusive? Yes, that too, but not in the way art people imagine. Think

camel through the eye of a needle, the way. This “anything goes”

degradation is contemptible, trifling, a suicide-vaudeville. 

The point is to reveal, to make the one thing no secret. This one thing

changes everything. They want to separate fine from intellectual, manual

from craft, but all that matters is art as art. The fine art museum is the

place for this, so long as it doesn’t imagine itself a church or a museum

of history or geology, ethnology, or archaeology. It can’t be a club or

a success school, either; it can’t be a rest home or “foster love of life.”

It can’t “promote understanding . . . among men” or any such thing.

This is crazy talk. Art is art; life is life. Art is not life, nor is life art. No

one should burden one with the other, and above all, don’t make 

it a means to some other end, some so-called higher value. There is

none. There is one fight only, between art and non-art, true and false.

Art is free, but it is not a free-for-all.

The one struggle in art is the struggle of artists against artists. Save

your “mirrors of the soul,” your “reflections of condition,” your “new 

image of man” delusions, your diatribes about being a “creature of

circumstance.” No one ever forces an artist to be pure. Art comes from

art working, and the more an artist works, the more there is to do. It’s

a long, lonely routine: preparation, attention, repetition.

The end? No end but this. From a variety of ideas, to one. From many

styles, to none. Pure evanescence. From hot air to breathlessness, 

neither life nor death; outside content, outside form; outside space, 

beyond time. Nothing to grasp, nothing to use, and nothing to sell.

Advice From the Silver Mollies

In honor of Robert Bly’s birthday.

Keep an eye out. You never know when the next mortal blow is coming. Look around. Notice your numbers, and don’t let them go to waste. When they come for you, don’t just lie there in stunned silence. Spin, turn, shout! Get those around you to move. You’ll never command the whole group, but there’s no one who isn’t touching some of the others and everyone is connected. Move the ones you are touching. I don’t want to frighten you, but they are coming for you. There will always be another attack and you’re never going to prevent that. All your movement will only prolong the time between attacks. We can cut their success in half, maybe. So do it. They will keep attacking. Keep moving.

The silver mollies will tell you, it’s not a matter of escape, but of letting the enemy know, after they pick off a target, that they’re going to have to work for the next one.

You have a friend who studies bees. A hornet is much bigger than any bee and can easily get away with whatever prey it can pick off. Except when the bees move quickly enough to surround the attacker, vibrating their wings to cook it to death. It’s important to act quickly here, before reinforcements are signaled.

Please don’t expect that you’re going to solve the problem of ongoing attacks, or that they’ll stop on their own at some magical hour, or when some critical mass of those wearied by plundering is finally reached. You’re not going to get that, and it’s no good waiting for the next flight on a magical dragon in the sky.

Listen earthling, you’ve always been too prone to watching clouds, and you miss the enemies in the trees, poised to eat you. 

I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy won’t live as long as the others. I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy are also more likely to be involved in subsequent attacks, each of which takes its toll, but if you dwell on this, you’ll be missing the point.

Four o’clock in the morning is the best time to see the moon

Soon, you’re going to be without a choice. You need to know this. So much suffering goes on in prison, and in the prisons of self-isolation, every hour a reminder of who and what may not be touched. 

You too will not be spared if you refuse to notice.

***

Inspirations:

I noticed it was Robert Bly’s birthday this morning, and so I decided to do a post inspired by his “Advice from the Geese.” Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article about the synchronized defensive behavior of silver mollies (Why these Mexican Fish Do the Wave), so I decided to begin with them. Thoughts of animal synchronization reminded me of something I had read earlier this year about the behavior of honeybees when attacked by hornets. I also consulted Frontiers: Functional Synchronization: The Emergence of Coordinated Activity in Human Systems.

Reading and the Ark

From contemplation to reason, against the storm.

A lesson in the voice of Hugh of St. Victor, adapted from his writings on education in the art of reading, and his interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark.

When it comes to knowing, logic is the last to be discovered. For learning, it is a good place to start. Just remember, real things do not always conform to the conclusions of reasoning. One needs to learn for certain, what forms of reasoning to trust, and which to hold suspect. Without such discernment, reasoning may mislead as often as it may lead. The ancients offer plenty of examples. Take Epicurus, for example, equating pleasure and virtue. Yikes, but he meant well.

Better to start with the true and whole nature of argument. Consider this: exposition includes the letter and the sense–– beyond both, the inner meaning. No study of a worthy text is complete until the last of these is reached, but most stop short. The great depths resound beyond the words, like strings resound toward music. And yet, the music is not the strings.  The pleasure of honey is enhanced by its enclosure in the comb.

It is one thing to understand words, another the meaning of phrases, passages. But what about the whole? That is another matter altogether. There is much confusion about the old texts, written in the idioms of an unfamiliar language. Many, professing with confidence, miss the point entirely. But the divine deeper meaning can never be absurd, and never false.

Now I want to tell you about the ark. It is the house of mystery within the heart, which each must protect against the world’s storms. You build a great ark, three stories, welcome inside all the creatures of the earth. Protect them, too. But we are not made to stay in contemplation. That’s why there’s a door and a window. The window offers a way out through thought, and the door a way out through action. But neither thought nor action will be right, unless it begins here, within the sacred ark. Let’s begin here.

***
Adapted and using borrowed phrases from Jerome Taylor’s translation of The Didascalicon, or On the Study of Reading (1125) and also The Mystic Ark as interpreted by Conrad Rudolph.

On Digging for Sources

The endeavor to examine the origins of art is fraught from the get-go, and yet.

Notes while reading Jung’s 1922 essay “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.” The following includes phrases borrowed from Jung’s text, assembled while reading with certain questions in mind. 

***

There are parallels in process, but a psychological approach when it comes to art or religion is permissible only with emotions and symbols. The essential nature of each is another matter and can’t be touched by psychology. Artistic, scientific, and religious propensities may yet slumber together in the small child, when the distinctions between fields of activity in the mind remain invisible. A work of art and a neurosis may swell from the same soil, but to link them causally would be a mistake. In tracing common lines, let’s not be like moles with our noses buried in the dirt. To be so reductive is to strip the gods of their robes and mock their naked forms, extinguishing the sheen of creation. 

The subterranean background is not to be conflated with the art. To study well demands ridding oneself of medical prejudice. Art is not disease, and it would be a mistake for a botanist to assume they know a plant just because they have studied its habitat. Art is a creation, not a personality; its special significance comes from having escaped the limitations of the personal. 

Is it like a tree in soil or a child in a womb? All comparisons, in the end, are lame.

Divine frenzy comes perilously close to pathological state, but the two are different. Speaking of which, consider the difference between a body of flesh and blood and any abstract frame.

Vanishing Points

How does a body emerge from a cave, except by studying the interplay of light over living forms?

These days, it’s easy and modern seeming for any semi-conscious person to feel alienated in a dark place, but fortunately it’s also possible to find relief. I’ve been reading odds and ends from those writing in the Dark Ages during a time when the greatest artistic and scientific achievements of Western civilization had been demolished in a misguided bout of religious fervor. Whole civilizations had regressed to illiteracy, and yet. Even from these dark ages came the stained glass of great cathedrals, promising that the light of another world was dominant, and once inside the nave, it was possible for the vulgar desolation to diminish, eyes drawn upward to the light filtering above, in tinted bands that called to mind images of a divine presence reaching in––not to mention the flourishing illuminations of non-Western civilizations of which the Western mind was largely still ignorant, whether by hubris or circumstance. I was reading about these times and the gradual and then sudden awakening that followed. Naturally, one arrives upon discussions of certain shifts in insight that marked the movement from one era to another, and among these are Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise, Della Pitura (On Painting) from the translation by John R. Spencer (revised, 1966).

The following is adapted in my usual manner of a hungry person looking for something to live on, and borrows phrases from the translated text. 

***

While the process of learning may fatigue, it is good to remember, art is not unworthy of consuming all our time. This because of its divine force, which makes absent men present and the dead seem to live. To paint a god beautiful is to strengthen the heart’s instinct to worship, and what is this painting, anyway? Consider it a matter of describing a space, organizing contents, and receiving light.

Consider also that a thin veil can be of use, to place between the eye and what is seen. May the lines be so fine they are invisible.

It is so difficult to imitate the movements of the soul. Doubters should try painting laughter on a face. Tell me that it doesn’t look like weeping. You can’t, can you? Thought so. Let’s begin.