Sense and Sensibilities

Considering the shaking words.

Given certain habits, the act of writing seems so intuitive that we may forget the necessary combinations that work to move the pen, those complicated motions of transmission by volition. Any number of circumstances might impair the original purpose. Consider shaking the words as a method of execution. Keep in mind, some are better interpreters than others. The wily and cunning require caution, but those among them know there is no deception here. Some will put a certain constraint on words, but this is a difficult part to play. It is easier to write like a fool than a madman. The habit of division into camps of sane and in––is mischievous. A closer look at almost any certainty will reveal strong connecting links between the given state in question and its imagined opposite.

***

Inspired by, and with borrowed phrases from G. Mackenzie Bacon’s On the Writing of the Insane (1870).

A Word Beyond

Learning by signs.

Inspired by this morning’s reading, from Augustine’s The Trinity, as translated by Stephen McKenna.

All things are learned by signs, and every sign is also a thing. Each thing must be understood just as it is, but a sign may only be known by appreciating how it signifies something else.

Smoke needs no special will to signify fire, neither do the tracks of an animal to point to its presence. Same goes for naked expression of emotion on the face. Words, on the other hand. Also consider sounds of trumpet, flute, harp, and drum, each with its own layered invocations to nuanced representation.

A vibration in the ear passes quickly; hence, a need for letters. Here is where pride limits those who would build a tower to claim the heavens as their own. In retribution, voices and signs in the rubble of Babel are dissonant. We can neither hear nor read each other, fully.

Allegory, enigma, parable, irony. Recognition of these tropes may reveal what is hidden––and yet, never more than through a glass, darkly. Some thoughts are speeches of the heart. It is what leaves the mouth, not what enters it, that may defile or edify.

Speech is one thing, sight another. To reflect is to make these one. How will you understand those words that belong to no language?

Gathering

Consider what is cloaked in story.

My bread prepared, time calls. The ship is leaving port. Consider the surface like a poet’s fable.

Consider also what is cloaked in story: truth behind the ornament of fiction, Orpheus’s lyre taming nature as wisdom over the cruel heart.

Then consider discovery, the possibility that a reader might know transfiguration. Last, beyond the senses, what a soul may know when it leaves: no womb beyond the elements, no warmth without cold, nor word without silence of the beginning and the end.

No single sense, but senses. No goat song, foul at the end. Give me instead a tragic beginning, the known world all fire. Then, let me follow and welcome me home.

Inspired by (and borrowing phrases from) Dante’s Il Convivo, as translated by Richard H. Lansing.

An Elegant Intelligence

Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The following is a meditation culled from ideas and phrases emerging from time spent this morning with Plotinus, namely with his treatise “On the Intellectual Beauty” from his Fifth Ennead, written between the years 300-305 A.D. Plotinus was of the group of Neoplatonists that located reality “in a transcendental spiritual realm that gives meaning to the visible world” (from the Norton Anthology introduction).

***

Plato may have distrusted the storytellers, but I’d rather hear them than any new ideas.

Rather than pale imitation of more perfect forms, art is the access point for transcendence.

Nature is an emanation from a higher realm, its source the same as art. Here we are, between the worlds.

Let’s go to the realm of magnitudes. Suppose two blocks of stone, side by side: one untouched, another wrought by an artist’s hands into a fine statue, concentrating all loveliness of form. Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The form is not the material, but the design, held not by crude equipment, but participation. Revelation happens when the resistance of the materials is subdued. The resistance? Stone, yes, but also these hands, these eyes, this stubborn heart. Every prime cause, indwelling, more powerful than its effect. What is musical comes from music itself. You may call it God, although I won’t.

Also note how the elegance will not depend on magnitude. Where does it come from, if not an original power? All gods are august in grace beyond our speech, and why? All there is, is heaven. Truth, then, is mother and nurse. All transparent, light running through light, all only mirrors.

Eyes in the divine, no satiety to call for its ending: to see is to look at greater length. Wisdom is not built of reasonings, but primal, complete from the start.

Powers of fire and the like may be thought great, but it is through their failure in true power that we see them burning, destroying, wearing things away––slaving toward production, they destroy because they belong to the realm of the produced.

There is no beauty outside being. Only in self-ignorance are we ugly. Light upon light, shine.

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.

You Can Do This

Yes, you can. A tribute to the DIY gene of the species.

At times when the weary pilgrim wonders, about any of life’s endless challenges, Can I? ––it can be helpful to review the endless ingenuity of fellow humans. For those inclined to protest, No, but can I . . . myself? I am pleased to share this morning’s list of promising DIY possibilities.

You can, if you are so inclined, make an authentic cup of matcha tea while optimizing your computer’s RAM. You can regrow vegetables in water and remove cactus spines from your throat. 

Are there snakes in your home? Not to worry, you can remove these yourself, and then use this foil to fireproof your house. While you’re at it, why not turn your garden into a tortoise sanctuary? While you are observing the tortoises, why not preserve your stuffed animal collection in formaldehyde jars for a festive display on your living-room shelves? 

In case you were wondering, while doing your man’s laundry, you can make a crop top out of those way overdue BVD briefs. You can wear it while riding in your newly wood-paneled Prius, and if you prefer a bit more bling over your bumper, you can give your ride a custom exterior with pennies and superglue. 

Speaking of glue, while you’re at it, why not upcycle those old milk jugs and detergent containers into a DIY set of faux animal-head taxidermy wall hangings? Trust me, your visitors will be amazed by your chutzpah as they are wowed by the collection of googly eyes greeting them at the door.

Feeling like you’d like to work with your hands? You can make superhero finger puppets. Feeling dirty? Take last night’s Jack Daniel’s bottle out of the recycling and turn it into a nifty soap dispenser! Use liberally.

But make no mistake, earthling. You can’t wash away that creative spark, oh no. There ain’t no mountain high enough and there ain’t no project fine enough, that you can’t invent––with enough time, whiskey, moxie, and patience––some version of the ideal, blessed with your signature flair, and the beautiful, relentless confidence that keeps you from thinking it might do anything but work out perfectly, in the end. 

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This post was inspired by a culling of numerous DIY sites I visited this morning, including these:

And by all of the earthlings who have shown me ingenious uses for duct tape, superglue, humor, and a prayer. I love you.

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?

Signs and Symbols

A found poem introduction to the definitive introduction to literary theory.

The following is assembled from phrases found in the opening six pages of The Norton’s Anthology of Theory and Criticism, a text that some readers might find a touch dense, or perhaps conducive of a sprained wrist. I took the liberty of assembling this found poem from the text, to keep on hand for moments when something lighter is in order.

What does theory demonstrate? That there is no position free of it, 

not even common sense. The same is true of an author’s inner being, 

institutions, historical periods, and conflict.

What is interpretation? Consider dense and enigmatic 

explication, exegesis––versus intimate, casual appreciation.

In order to establish our bearings, 

along the way

we discuss.

True, there are problems 

with seemingly sensible methods

––ambiguities, paradoxes, the problem of no easy 

answers––and theorists, and well-known heuristic devices. 

The notion of mirroring necessarily contains 

distorting devices: signifiers, signified; 

the crisis of reference; the dizzying view. 

Significantly, it re-presents and refracts 

certain affinities.

The Paper Artist

Seeking insight on working with these unwieldy pages, I turn to an artist known for making sculptures of paper.

I was wondering what to do with these blank pages, the ones that need to be written to make these other ones make sense. Developing a manuscript sometimes feels like the messy middle of a construction project, with the piles of debris everywhere, and material under tarp, and the eyesore of scaffolding all you can see, one of those that inevitably leads to someone asking, what is going on here?

It seems like they haven’t been doing much.

Maybe the funding ran out. I forget what it was supposed to be.

Then I learned about the paper artist. He makes these vivid sculptures from the pages.

How does he do it?

Begin with a single fold, he says, and curiosity. The first action causes a transfer of energy. This leads to subsequent folds. I follow to understand, he says, about how the energy moves. If I knew where it would go, he says, I wouldn’t have to do this.

Where do you find it? They ask him.

Everywhere, he says. Music, architecture, Islamic tile patterns, protein misfolding. 

My favorite is this: I have this habit of misunderstanding, he says. It helps me see what is often overlooked. 

Thank you to My Modern Met for publishing the article, Paper Artist Crafts Incredible Three-Dimensional Relief Sculptures Entirely by Hand, featuring the work and words of artist Matt Shlian. I especially appreciate Shlian’s descrition of his process. Phrases from the interview are featured in this post.

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.