To Be Heard

It’s no longer necessary to burn the books that the tyrant would silence.

On this day in 1644, John Milton published Aeropagitica, a pamphlet decrying censorship. The following is assembled from ideas and phrases in this text, with an eye toward connecting to the current moment, where a chief concern seems to be censorship through noise, manifesting in ways that that are perhaps beyond what many writers of previous centuries might have imagined.

Let this be a certain testimony. When complaints are freely heard and deeply considered, then is civil liberty attained. 

Deliver us from tyranny, from superstition, and from flattery of idols, including ourselves––and from condemnation of the others we are unprepared still to recognize as ourselves, and from fashionable thinking and unthinking, from those superficial modes of sorting that deny what lives in those depths that frighten so many.

To silence grievance is to smother liberty. No covenant of fidelity can be kept with blind praise. Those upright in judgement know that right judgement is fluid and shared by others, including the unexpected strangers to a given land. Those who honor truth will hear them. Those who honor wisdom will welcome recognition of how it is to be practiced, a daily exercise and never a trophy to fix against a wall like the preserved carcass of a felled animal. 

Books are not dead things. Each contains a potency as active as the soul that delivered it. They may raise armies, yet consider this: to kill a man is to kill a reasonable creature. To kill a book is to kill reason itself. Revolutions of ages do not often recover the loss of truth, rejected. Beware the persecution of living labors.

It is less often the bad books that are silenced. Consider what a scholar celebrates today, those writings that were censored in their time. Also consider the silence of scholars and contemplatives. One might assume, by extension, that the starkest wisdom of our moment is also suppressed. 

The tyrants of our moment don’t need to burn books when they have noise enough to extinguish their voices. They don’t need to take what offends them from public view when they have abundant means already to keep people from reading. They need only propagate the mantras of the moment: speed, efficiency, and the idea that the only truth that matters comes in bullet points, easy to digest. If you paralyze the listening capacities of potential hearers, whomever would you need to silence?

Present, Past

In memory of the work of Walker Evans, American photographer.

In honor of the birthday of Walker Evans, the American photographer credited as the “progenitor of the documentary tradition” with an “extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past,” today’s post is assembled from phrases from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the work of Evans’ collaboration with writer James Agee, chronicling the lives of Depression-era sharecropping families (quotes above come from The Met Museum’s page on his work).

These eyes, blank and watchful: neither forgiveness for unforgiveness, heat nor cool, or any sign of understanding, were not the first to look away.

The hallway in mud, and underwater, rain beating on rain beating on rain, out the brains of the earth. Steady rave and the breakage of thunder. The lamp is out, room breathing cool like a lung, ripe with the smell of rain on earth, and kerosene.

Where are the introductions now? Each mind disguised again in lack of fear, and busy.

The Escape Artist to the Magician

Harry Houdini confronts predecessors, past illusions, and posers of the moment.

On this day in 1926, Harry Houdini gave his final performance, at The Garrick Theatre in Detroit. To mark the occasion, I spent some time exploring what I could of several books he left behind. I was interested to learn that Houdini had suffered a period of deep disillusionment when he discovered that much of the appeal of the artist who inspired him, Robert Houdin, was artifice assembled from the work of countless unnamed others. Houdini set out to name these in The Unmasking of Robert Houdin. Later, he devoted much of his non-performance time to debunking the claims of many of the leading mentalists of his time, a process he describes in A Magician Among the Spirits. This is an imagined monologue in which the escape artist considers the toll of his lost belief, even as he remains steadfast in revealing the truth. It includes borrowed phrases from both texts.

Do you think I imagined nothing of soaring heights? My first act was the trapeze. I was nine, and my father had lost his job, and all we knew then was how to live on the edge. It should go without saying that not all edges are the same. Some you walk by necessity; others are brandished by the charmer, those swords and weapons not for protection or battle, but merely to catch the light, wow an audience, earn applause.

With some people, greater intimacy only yields greater discoveries, the rewards like that of earth itself: the closer you look, the more there is. With others, these sword-bearing magician illusionists, the effect is the opposite. The more you look, the less there is to see. Looking long enough, the familiar patterns and tired tricks reveal themselves. Finally, broken hearted, the once and future believer has no choice but to accept. The emperor wears no clothes.

I have been interested! I held seances, surprised clients. It was a lark! My ambition, my love was gratified. Moving forward, some hallowed reverence advanced with age, and I was chagrined.  I became more plastic, interested to discover if it was possible to return from beyond the veil.

What lengths I have gone to, by now. How many compacts I have made with the living: when you go, will you reach me? They agreed. I have waited, watched. No one can accuse me of being unwilling to receive a sign.

To be clear, I am a sceptic, not a scoffer. My heart softens still to remember the believer I once was, the unsuspecting heart of inexperience. I sometimes wish I could return. It is not so unusual, after all, for the senses to mislead. A little sign, appealing to the waiting imagination, the endless promises and guarantees of charlatans claiming special insight, heightened vision––becomes a menace to health and sanity.

No doubt some are sincere. Even my trained mind can be deceived, how much more susceptible the ordinary observer. Magician, you are lost to me since I have seen you. I thought knowing, as with all good things, would only enhance appreciation. I could blame you for pretending to be what you are not, but now who is the fool? I was told I had no finesse for illusion, not enough sleight in my hand. I lacked the guile that came naturally to you; it was your daily bread.  

I’d prefer not to look, but there are others at risk. My purpose is to warn them. After all, I was never the magician, only the escape artist. I have escaped the nailed box, the sealed coffin, the underwater milk jug, the chains, and now I fly from the illusion that you were ever anything like the promise you pretended to be. It hurts my sore wings, long cramped. I’d rather not do it, but there is an audience, after all, and their attendant faith. If my loyalty runs parallel to the seed of this faith, then my exodus is the sacrament at hand. Blame the moon for peeling back the veil; blame the intensity of my childhood will, to believe. Blame the failure of the blinders that you counted on, to hold. Blame the persistent posture of looking; I learned this as a matter of devotion early on. Try as I might, even in the early days of watching you perform, I could not unlearn it, not completely, until now. 

Art and Silence

Considering the subtle choreography of silence.

On this day in 1973, philosopher and political scientist Leo Strauss died at the age of seventy-four. Among his many works, Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing in 1941. In honor of the occasion, this will be the text for today’s found reflection––not quite a found poem, but a meditation constructed at least partially with phrases from a parent text.

Once there were public spaces of free public discussion, and now it may be worthwhile to consider certain compulsions: to coordinate speech with the accepted norms of a given group.

Hasn’t this always been true? Perhaps, and yet. The possibilities of voiding a name have never been more endless; it remains unclear yet if they run parallel to those for saving one. 

The issue is no longer so clear cut. People vs. government? Only sometimes. People vs. the ideas they have been conditioned to believe are their own? Frequently. People vs. machine? Often, and yet: few blanket statements are effective. People vs. the blanket statement, easily codified into an algorithm? Here is something. 

Who checks the rampant impulses that so many have been conditioned to believe themselves to own? Compulsion paves the way by silencing contradiction.

If freedom of thought is the ability to choose from among a variety of ideas, what happens when a choice is diminished from a vast number of possibilities to a simple either vs. or? What account can ever be made for censorship by noise?  

There is no need to silence the still, small voice when it may be easily overcome––on first listen, anyway––by an onslaught of noise. What does the average listener call a statement constantly repeated without contradiction, but true?

Supernova

Considering questions of size and scope.

On this day in 1604, Johannes Kepler observed Supernova SV 1604, which inspired him to write De Stella Nova. The following is inspired by Chapter Sixteen of this volume, as translated by C.M. Graney. It uses phrases from Graney’s translation.

If this passage through a thousand miles in one hour seems still incredible, 

consider the density of air against the density of ether. 

Consider Ptolemy, the ancient opinion, every idea more incredible 

than the last. Philosopher, weigh carefully 

the proportion of accident to subject, and the elegance of proportion

––not of size, as some want, but of beauty, of reasoning. Consider

motion: sun as mover, the planets movables, the place that holds them 

a vast sphere of stars. People may resist, ridicule: what? Fuss about

––what? To critique the mote in another’s eye is forget the log in

our own.  How small, each body here, compared to the globe of earth,

the womb that grows us. What internal faculty sparked this beginning,

her infinite architecture of bodies? 

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. 

Lens on the Littles

How do you discover something new? By looking where no one else is looking, with a new and better lens.

Huh.

What?

It’s Antonie Phillips van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday today.

Wait. Does this mean you’re inviting people over? I’m not up for it tonight. I have––

It’s not like I know him, know him. Besides, he died in 1723. It’s just, you know.

I don’t. Who is this guy?

He’s the father of microbiology. Dutch guy. He lived in the same town as Vermeer. Funny, he didn’t even think of himself as a scientist. He was a draper. He wanted to get a better look at the thread, so he worked on making better magnifying lenses. 

Is he that guy in Vermeer’s Astronomer?

Some say, even though the resemblance is questionable. What’s funny is he didn’t tell anybody about the lenses. Competition was fierce. But then he had a look at pond water, and he saw all these moving creatures.

Wonder of wonders. 

That’s exactly what he said!  So, he tells his friend, who is a scientist, and eventually word gets out and he captures the attention of The Royal Society of London. 

He published his findings?

Eventually, in letters. He had to be talked into this. He was like, I’m not a scientist, I’m a businessman! They’ll laugh at me! I don’t even know the terminology!  But his friend assured him that biologists used mostly made-up words, especially where discoveries were concerned.

Studying biology is like learning a new language.

Okay, he said. I’ll call these little guys animalcules!

That’s the spirit, his friend said.  The term is out of fashion now, but it encompassed lots of little creatures: unicellular algae, small protozoa, tiny invertebrates.

All in the pondwater?

At first. Later he turned his lenses on other findings. He found bacteria living in the human mouth and he the guts of animals. Spermatozoa, too, and the banded pattern of muscle fibers. 

Well, that’s something. 

Isn’t it?! That’s the point! Where everyone else saw nothing, he saw something. His followers called him the first with the power to see.

Well, here’s to you, APL.  I’m still not cooking, but I’ll raise a glass.

Something small, maybe?

Hah! Better get your microscope. With the right lens, it’ll be a feast.

To Beast and Man

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher whose timely impulses moved counter to reductionism, and toward life.

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher who was born on this day in 1919 (died October 2018).  Considering her legacy this morning, I am struck by an uncanny sense of the timeliness of her impulses against reductionism and toward a unifying understanding of human life as that which is intricately and intimately woven within and among all life on the planet.

I am refreshed by her unwillingness to separate humans or their institutions into types: “good” or “evil.” Rather, she saw evil as something that could easily take hold of individuals and their institutions when more virtuous impulses lapsed.  All that needs to happen for evil to flourish, as Midgeley saw it, was an absence of good. Where generosity falters, selfishness will fester. Where courage wavers, cowardice takes over. Where kindness stumbles, brutishness will reign. 

A supporter of the Gaia principle, Midgley recognized that inherent fallacy of attempting to separate the parts of our whole: land from creature, earth from its waters and air, human from nonhuman, nature from us. 

Disturbed by the trend of those who saw science as a solution to all problems, she warned against such foolhardy blanket optimism, and urged scientists not to neglect humanities.  Although she wasn’t religious, she saw no special evil in it, and noticed how the evils associated with religious institutions were akin to those that tend to emerge in any successful human institution.  She warned that doing away with it altogether seemed like a flip and rash response, and not necessarily beneficial. 

Regarding philosophy, she likened it to plumbing in that: Nobody notices it until it goes wrong. 

The greats, she said, noticed how badly things were going wrong, and offered suggestions about how to deal. 

Regarding the oppressive regime of optimism, she observed:

 “. . . Neither ecological nor social engineering will lead us to a conflict-free, simple path . . . utilitarians and others who simply advise us to be happy are unhelpful, because we almost always have to make a choice either between different kinds of happiness–different things to be happy about –or between these and other things we want, which nothing to do with happiness.” (from Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature2002).

Such a thoughtful, loving, and measured approach is most welcome now, in the age where the urge to grieve tends to run head-on into the urge to “Be Positive.” Hope can emerge from grief in ways that superficial “positivity” cannot do. The latter is too brittle to be of any use to the living, but the former is strengthened by recognition of the darkness of the moment, such that it may become the bright light in the dark room, a beacon to others, recognizing the darkness to be what writer Rebecca Solnit has called “a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave” (from Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities).

Here’s to you, Mary Midgley. Here’s to You.

Gutter Prayer

You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

Let’s touch them, you said. Of the disposable––the lonely, too.

Never eat a single mouthful, your mother told you, unless you share it.

When asked for beliefs, you disappointed. Only here, only this.

It’s not that you hadn’t sought more. It’s not that you hadn’t gazed into the heavens with an aching heart, waiting for some response. Finding nothing only made the ache worse, so you turned what you had of longing to those who mirrored it, to offer the comfort you would seek.

I remember the time. It was a year of massacre, mass suicide, mass extinction. The machine won the chess game. I was finding Joan Didion, the epigraph from Yeats framing her chronicle of the end of an era of wild hope. For? The promise of a new age, Turning and turning, some human achievement promised, but the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

It wasn’t going to work, was it? Meaning, any of the ideas.

You were done with ideas, too. Only love, you offered. Only this.

Unbreak my heart, we sang, our fragile candles in the wind. We were building a mystery, but it seemed to be swallowing us whole, like Jonah’s whale, the secret gardens of our imagined inheritance forever a million miles away.

No, you insisted. Only here. You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

And wasn’t this the ultimate hope, some finite relief to our dreams of immortality? That there was something we could do, really do––not dream, not imagine, not vision our way into or out of–– with all its messy, mundane details, its fluid and its stink, its inevitable decay, and the inevitable rejuvenation of this endless, wanting need? We could meet it just as endlessly until we couldn’t anymore, until we could be relieved of the pressure of our promise, swallowed back into the great void you saw everywhere, especially when you sought an answer or a cosmic face toward which to offer your prayers. Only here, you said. Only these outstretched hands. 

We could meet them, again and again. This you can do, you showed us. This you can do until you are done.

This morning, I am reminded that on this day, in 1997, Mother Teresa died, so I am considering the legacy of her life.

The Last Man

There is a story that the fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world.

After his brothers and his father, his father’s fathers, and his mother’s mother; after her sisters and their daughters and granddaughters were erased, he remained with his mother and his sisters until they died.

Then he was hungry. He took a calf. He was captured by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and a self-proclaimed cowboy. He smiled as they handcuffed him. He did not resist. 

What is your name? Now they wanted to know.  I have none, he told them. They called him the last wild Indian, took him to the sheriff.  He sat peacefully. Many came to look. The Last Stone-Age man, one paper proclaimed, of this quiet survivor. His people, all gone now, had been egalitarian, reclusive, resistant to central authority. They once protected the canyons, but these canyons were near the fields of gold, and the newcomers, wild with fever, were armed for bear. They surrounded the peacemakers, hunted the gatherers, cornered them in a cave, in a ravine, and fired. A few had fled the fire, to hide on higher grounds.

Tradition, all but erased, lived in him. Tradition had been clear about his name. Tradition demanded: Never reveal your name to an enemy. Never reveal your name until you are introduced by a friend

Soon after he emerged from the mountains outside of the city of gold, soon after he was taken into custody, members of the anthropology department at Berkeley took note. They came to collect him from jail. They brought him on campus, made him a custodian, then a research assistant. He learned English.

But what is your name? They asked him. I have none, he insisted, because there are no people to name me. Among the Yana, now extinct, the word for man was Ishi. They called him Mr. Ishi. He was often ill. Over time, until he died of tuberculosis, he taught the white doctor who treated him to make arrows and bows, how to hunt. This white doctor became known as the father of modern bow hunting.  The original fathers were gone.

There is a story that these fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world. When Coyote dropped the fire that Fox stole, it burned the land, burned the people, burned everything. The eyes of Bear looked in all directions into fire, and finally popped off in the flames. Only Spider remained in the sky, weaving her invisible web. 

*On this day in 1911, the man known as Ishi, considered the last of the Yana to make contact with European Americans, emerged from the mountains near Oroville after the death of his mother and sister. He was handcuffed by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and taken into custody. He became a public curiosity. Members of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley collected him from the sheriff’s office and brought him to the University. They gave him the title of custodian, then research assistant. Details of his life were documented by various members of the Kroeber family of UC Berkeley, and also by Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, who was concerned about the tendency of the so-called faithful to miss the divine light in the “others” that the self-proclaimed righteous are so often eager to erase or reform.