08 November 2018

A Carving is the Death of a Stone

Hakuin - The Monkey and the Moon

The phenomenon of getting lost inside of piece of music fascinates me. There is a timelessness within the duration of the song. There are works, songs, that I have listened to over and over, each new listening transforming into a sort of vision where the boards or bricks of the house seem to separate and open and another world is glimpsed from between the slats and rafters - Plato's realm of Ideal Forms, the ancient crystalline spheres of the Universe with crystalline gears and inner workings sounding celestial music. This, I reiterate, hidden away inside, in the "the dearest freshness deep down things," as the magical robe inside the wardrobe or through the looking-glass, passages through into a higher world.

And, for me, It doesn't have to be an acclaimed work of serious music. A recent example was Anais Mitchell's Young Man in America. When I was in the Chama Canyon last year, I lost myself in that song, dreaming between her words and the melody, following elusive memories as the hovered there just on the edge of my awareness. I played it over and over as i walked through the canyon, sat beside the Chama River, gazed into the fire, studied the stars. And while I heard her lyrics, I was listening to something else. It seemed as i lived weeks and months in between each word of the song. Every time I started over, I felt like I was in the Land of the Lotus Eaters; give me another "minute" in that timeless realm.

Like the wind I make my moan, howling in the canyon
There's a hollow in my bones, make me cry and carry on
Make the foam fly from my tongue, make me want what I want
Another wayward son waiting on oblivion

Waiting on the kingdom come to meet me in my sin
Waiting to be born again, mother, kiss me cheek and chin
Mmm, a little medicine, mmm, and then I shed my skin
Mmm, and lemme climb back into the bed you made me in

What it was within the song that brought me to such a state of mind would take years to explain. And this is ancillary to the actual meaning content of the song. Perhaps that is what I am now doing in one way or another. For every day I "spend more time" inside that "other world," my Memory Cathedral, this timeless place. This is the true value in solitude for me. The gift.

I am often asked if I am lonely. And my answer has often been that I am lone, but not lonely. I do not long for the company of others. At least, not in a physically present sense. I do desire presence. And I feel that in those friends and family whose active and living memories I maintain as vital flames within. But the occupations of my mind are demanding and with the limited number of years remaining to me, there is no time to indulge in anything resembling loneliness. I am busy building something blasphemous and strange in here. A monument to a dead man's bones and the ghost of a god that continues to haunt me. Otherwise, the memory practice, my "religion," requires the remains of the day.

Within the Memory Cathedral, I am occupied with the necessary rituals to sustain the Fire, the Pulse. I walk the familiar path up the front steps, acknowledging the statuary on the front facade, note the allegories carved into the bronze doors, stop at the Purifying Font to wash my hands and face, step into the nave, walk through the Stations of the Sephirot towards the High Altar. Along the transepts to either side - Intellectual to the right (Poetry, Prose, Biography, History, etc.); Emotional to the left (Lovers, Friends, Family, Society, etc.) - are radiating chapels, each with it's own furnishing, statues, painting, books and icons of memories. Beyond the musical mnemonics of the choir, is the apse with painted dome and stained glass, where the Spirit is memorialized, below the bones and skull of God contained within the Crypt.

My daily walk takes me down the Transept of the Intellect to the right, where I enter into the Poetry Chapel with its altar. There is a small doorway to the right of the altar what leads to an octagonal room for Shakespeare's Sonnets. In the center of this room is a stature of Shakespeare wearing a mask. You can remove the mask to study the skull beneath it. The 8 walls contain 20 small recessed compartments arranged with icons for each sonnet. There is a final wall, next to the door, also with 20 compartments, but with only 14 containing sonnets. The remaining 6 contain other poetry by Shakespeare. So all 154 sonnets have their place. If I go to say the compartment with Sonnet 43, fourth wall, third compartment, there is a small sign above it with a winking eye. Within is a diorama with a cave labeled Plato's Cave and Figure of Beauty visible as a luminous shadow amongst other shadows. You can see time pass from night to day and the Shadow of Beauty becomes increasingly radiant until it burns like a sun. These are all mnemonic elements of Sonnet 43 for me. Additionally, I can turn on a phosphorescent web of glowing gossamer threads that connects 43 to 46 and 47, but also to 113 and 27 and 28. There is a comfortable chair where I can sit and meditate upon the web of interconnections that weave and wind through the sonnets, the room dimmed down and the interconnected sonnets like constellations in the night sky.

How much time has passed out there? At the end of my time within my Memory Cathedral, I often feel like Rip Van Winkle. Days and weeks have less and less relevance when I am inside working. This tale of Jones I am telling... a times it feels as if I am Scheherazade and the tale unfolds and forks new paths the deeper I go within, my life somehow wagered on the continued telling. This Tale of Jones is the bodying forth of the most essential aspects of my Memory Cathedral. I think of Rethel's Death as a Friend. The Tale of Jones will be complete when the bell tolls.

One of the mnemonic icons upon the altar of my Cathedral is the original handwritten text of the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu. I reach out to pick it up...

Here we are, you and I, gathered around the fire at the Gate of Bones that leads out of this world. A place called Han Chou Pass.

Many years ago, Lao-Tzu lost faith in the world of human beings. He climbed up on the ox and made his way out of the world. At the Western frontier, Han Chou Pass, there was a Gatekeeper who stopped him. The Gatekeeper recognized Lao-Tzu as a wise and holy man. He said he would only allow Lao-Tzu to pass through the Gate of Bones if he wrote his wisdom down in a book. Lao-Tzu agreed. He wrote all night. The next morning, he presented the Gatekeeper with the Tao Te Ching. The Gate of Bones were opened and Lao-Tzu climbed atop his ox and rode out of this world. The Gatekeeper recounted to all who came to the Gate of Bones the story of Lao-Tzu and encouraged them to read the Tao Te Ching. All were impressed and soon the story of Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching became known all over the world.

I tell you this story here because it is a central part of the Jones tale. I may have told you all of this before. But it bears daily repetition. For the truth of the story of Lao-Tzu and the Gatekeeper - a truth that Jones understood - is that the tale is a lie. Lao-Tzu, riding his ox out of the world, reached this place, Han Chou Pass. There was no one here to prevent he and his ox from passing through. He remained here for a long time, meditating upon his duty to his self and his duty to others.

One day, he figured out a solution: he wrote down all of his wisdom in a small book and he left it here on a stone in the middle of the path. He climbed on his ox and was on the verge of crossing over when he considered that it might be many years before anyone would find his book. Part of him enjoyed the picturing the book of his wisdom soaked with rain, baked by the sun, pages blown out by the wind, lost in the leaves and covered with dust. But another part of him resisted the loss.

He turned the ox around and built a small hut and next to this he constructed the Gate of Bones. He assemble an altar in the corner of his hut to the memory of Lao-Tzu, set the Tao Te Ching within it. Then, he became the Gatekeeper, the teller of the tale of how he was the one who recognized Lao-Tzu as he was leaving the world and stopped him and would not allow him passage through the Gate of Bones until he had written down his wisdom. Lao-Tzu was now long gone and all the remained was the Tao Te Ching and the Gatekeeper's Tale.

There is a sorrow latent within all creation. During the process of creation, there is a unity and a one-ness with the artifact being made and carved out of the world. The language is evocative here. But after having finished, there is the inevitable withdrawal out of. The thing is done. There is the sorrow of having formed an artifact. Perhaps, abdicating the role of the creator and assuming the role of the one who has received the gift of creation is a manner of ameliorating this latent sorrow.

Steiner writes:

"At the heart of form lies a sadness, a trace of loss. A carving is the death of a stone."

There is a nostalgia for what Lao-Tzu called the "Uncarved Block." Steiner continues:

"More complexly: form has left a “rent” in the potential of non-being, it has diminished the reservoir of what might have been (truer, more exhaustive of its means). Concomitantly, in ways most difficult to articulate, major art and literature, music most readily, convey to us vestiges of the unformed, of the innocence of their source and raw material. The persistence of the abyss — French allows the epithet abyssal and it nominal use—is vitally ambiguous. There is the threat of deconstruction, but also the intimation of a great calm, of a tide whose return will cleanse matter of the separation, of the violence (I will come back to both these aspects) inherent in making. Michelangelo is almost obsessed by this nostalgia for the sleep in the marble prior to the chisel."


"Rousseau’s summation in La Nouvelle Héloīse is lapidary: 'such is the nothingness of things human that, except for the Being which exists self-created, there is nothing beautiful except that which does not exist' ('hors l’Etre existant par lui-même, il n’y a rien de beau que ce qui n’est pas')."

The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

It is hidden but always present.
I don't know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.


And so, time passes within me as I pass time. Out here in the woods, I can hear the silence and I strive to listen to the silence. Within my Memory Cathedral, I sit before the "rent," the tear, the wound of Being from which emanates a fiery vision. The Shiva Nataraja holding open this wound, dances before me. What can I say when the sounds in my mouth become stones and ash in the saying? What can I write when each word is a miserable thimble of the ocean of this experience? Nothing. The language, these sounds and these words, are only mnemonics - they only "stand for" and do not "stand in stead."

One night, I saw the moon, prurient, full and luminous in the water of a bucket. And I stole it. And though I carry the bucket with me everywhere and drink from it everyday, somewhere along the way, I lost the moon. I want to believe it spilled over the side or fell out when I wasn't looking. However, I know the truth is that it was never in the bucket to begin with. So it is with my language.

That "silence between the notes' that Debussy speaks of, is also there - to a much lesser degree - in the language. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein attempts to say everything that can be said but ends up saying only that that which is most meaningful can not be said and must be passed over in silence. But this is not surrender. (cf. Philosophical Investigations) The language does not fail. Only the imagination. The words adumbrate silence, hover around the unsaid and unsayable like Rilke's creatures emerging from the "unbound forest" to listen to the silence at the Temple.

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transendence!
Oh Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening. Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts. And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,

a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind-
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

(Stephen Mitchell listening to Lao Tzu)

18 April 2018

To trust the mockery of unquiet slumbers.


I had an unusual dream last night in which I was "selling my dreams" to a company for money. As a consequence of this transaction, I was no longer able to sleep restfully - in my dream. After I awoke, I lay on my pallet, reflecting on the dream about dreaming and of the feeling of not being able to sleep while I was actually dreaming, deeply asleep. I remembered the line from Novalis: 

We are near waking when we dream that we dream.

I wrote down the dream and published it on The Empty Forms Between The Ivory Gates, then opened my email. There was an pdf update from the authors to a book I had purchased, Shakespeare's Beehive.

Shakespeare's Beehive is an annotated Elizabethan Dictionary which the authors, rare book dealers, are suggesting was annotated by Shakespeare himself. The fact that it is an annotated Elizabethan Dictionary is interesting in itself. Of course, if it was indeed Shakespeare's personal dictionary, that would be remarkable. They have worked hard to make their case. This sort of obsession, especially in regards to Shakespeare, always attracts my attention.

When the book was first published a few years back, I bought an online copy - primarily to read what they had to say concerning the Sonnets. I signed up on their email list. I haven't received an email from them in a long time.

Upon opening the pdf update, I read this passage:

"The headword slumber is recorded in Shakespeare, in all variations, twenty-eight times. Among eleven of these occurrences, the word sleep, one element from the Baret definition, also appears in the speech. In a single occurrence, slumber combines with the other element of the definition, unquiet. This happens in Act III, scene 2, of Richard III. Lord Hastings is the speaker.
Tell him his fears are shallow, without instance; 
And for his dreams, I wonder he’s so simple,
To trust the mockery of unquiet slumbers.
Shortly after Hastings delivers these lines, Richard III emerges, announcing that he has had a long sleep (“I have been long a sleeper”), and, within moments, orders that Hastings’s head be chopped off. Some 250 years later, Emily Brontë wrote of “unquiet slumbers,” with these lines from Wuthering Heights:
I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth."
- From the update to Shakespeare's Beehive.

Of course, I was reminded of my dream about "selling my dreams" and the "unquiet slumbers" within. These sorts of synchronicities, co-incidences, echoes between dream and reality, have become much more common of late as I have been increasingly attuned to my creative energies. I believe it is important to make note of them. 

In his forward to the I-Ching by Richard Wilhelm, Jung writes (my emphasis):

Thus it happens that when one throws the three coins, or counts through the forty-nine yarrow stalks, these chance details enter into the picture of the moment of observation and form a part of it -- a part that is insignificant to us, yet most meaningful to the Chinese mind. With us it would be a banal and almost meaningless statement (at least on the face of it) to say that whatever happens in a given moment possesses inevitably the quality peculiar to that moment. This is not an abstract argument but a very practical one. There are certain connoisseurs who can tell you merely from the appearance, taste, and behavior of a wine the site of its vineyard and the year of its origin. There are antiquarians who with almost uncanny accuracy will name the time and place of origin and the maker of an objet d'art or piece of furniture on merely looking at it. And there are even astrologers who can tell you, without any previous knowledge of your nativity, what the position of sun and moon was and what zodiacal sign rose above the horizon in the moment of your birth. In the face of such facts, it must be admitted that moments can leave long-lasting traces. 
In other words, whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with the latter in quality no less than in time. To him the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast -- even more so than the hours of the clock or the divisions of the calendar could be -- inasmuch as the hexagram was understood to be an indicator of the essential situation prevailing in the moment of its origin. 
This assumption involves a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers. 
The ancient Chinese mind contemplates the cosmos in a way comparable to that of the modern physicist, who cannot deny that his model of the world is a decidedly psychophysical structure. The microphysical event includes the observer just as much as the reality underlying the I Ching comprises subjective, i.e., psychic conditions in the totality of the momentary situation. Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinese mind deals with the coincidence of events. 

What does it mean to the individual, to me, when his attention is arrested suddenly by the appearance of previously unknown co-incidences of meaning?

On an immediate but non-trivial level, it can be accounted for as the byproduct of a widening of attention. For example, when you have a broken arm or are pregnant, you notice a greater number of others in a similar situation. Or when you are memorizing Shakespeare, you recognize his influence on the language every day. There is nothing statistically anomalous about this world. The conditions that brought about your current state of recognition have not suddenly become more mysterious, just the opposite: you are seeing more clearly. The difference in due to your heightened awareness.

But there is another level of synchronistic events: two entirely unrelated spheres of awareness suddenly, and for no apparent reason, have connection. The other morning a little sparrow flew in the house where I am staying. An hour later, with no mention of the event from me, a friend told me about a bird flying into her house. Once when traveling in Morocco, I had a dream about a scarab beetle. The next morning, I found a dead scarab beetle clinging to the curtain of our room. (Only later did I connect this to Jung's example of synchronicity with the golden scarab.) Or the dream of being unable to rest and the email about "unquiet slumbers." Sometimes they hit you over the head, other times they are muted and subtle.

Consider: we each see ourselves in a mirror several times a day. We examine our physical reflection, checking occasionally to make certain we still look all right: hair not messed up, teeth clean, eyes clear, etc. We notice any minute difference in our appearance, attending to the superficial. But there is a psychological component to our reflection. The reflection in the everyday mirror is resistant to this inner face - this more substantial aspect of our selves.

But there are other types of mirrors. These mirrors do offer reflection of our inner faces. When we listen to a piece of music that "speaks" to our inmost emotion and spirit. Or when a poem seems to have been written directly us. Art offers a mirror of this inner dimension. We can often see our selves more clearly as we are reflected or re-presented in works of art.

There are manifold difficulties in expressing precisely why this is so. What is there about a particular passage of music that pulls at our heartstrings? Language is unable to contain it, as a bowl of water cannot contain the river. There are no screws for the tools of logic to unscrew. Imagine logic as the Magician's Hat into which he can reach into it's false bottom and remove a rabbit. But what if the "rabbit" in this case is the Magician himself, the entire stage upon which he stands, the auditorium filled with audience? Here is the white rabbit that leads Alice through the looking glass.

These inner mirrors are not so much illogical as they are hyper-logical, surreal, fourth-dimensional shadows cast into a three-dimensional world. Cause and effect are often turned inside out. The greatest is found in the smallest. Heaven on earth. The fractal rich galaxial spirals of a drop of cream in a cup of coffee. Blake's infinity in a grain of sand. Time is just another trick of the mind. These are dream mirrors, reflecting archetypal figures risen up from the depths of not only our private unconsciousness but of that collective unconscious of human being. And like those monstrous beasts that inhabit the undersea trenches of the oceans, as we look into them, the tiny spark of our luminous inquiry attracts them towards us like a beacon. Nietzsche's Abyss looking back into us.

Plato and Socrates believed in Anamnesis, that we are all born with the memories of all who came before us. There are alignments between this and Jung's Collective Unconscious. Recent studies indicate that our brains remember far more than we are able to actively recall, an implicit memory. Forgetting is a vital survival strategy, a filtering or turning down of the volume on the sensory onslaught of the blooming, buzzing world. The problem is we become used to seeing the world in a particular way, we habituate even to these inner reflections of our deeper self. We cease being able to recognize our faces in the mirror. And, consequently, we stop looking inwards.

Taking notice of meaningful coincidences, remembering dreams, becoming aware of previously occult patterns in the world around us, opening up to the reflective fragments found in the unusual, weird, uncanny and strange are methods whereby we can reawaken our abilities to look inwards. Working with the tarot, I-Ching, astrology, crystal balls, chained spheres, charms and other forms of Questioning the Unconscious are methods to clean and polish those mirrors within us that have grown dark with time and dull with habit. As are the Technologies of Ecstasy used by Shaman and Medicine Men and Women. The intention is to see the world new again, with innocence, the child's mind, the beginner's mind.

“Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The great mis-direction of these arts is in assuming they will show you a specific future. What they show is who you are in that moment, your true face underneath the mask of your personality. And by knowing this, you will better know yourself - in the most profound way. And this knowledge will reveal previously hidden pathways into the future before you. It is precisely this knowledge that will open your eyes to make those changes that will shift you from the direction you are going.

These inner mirrors function in an analogous manner to the compass, aligning themselves to unseen magnetic forces that inhabit the planet. When consulted on a regular basis, they help us to re-orient our way through the world and insure that we will arrive at the destination we seek. There is nothing occult about it - any more mysterious than gazing into a mirror to compose our countenance before we venture out into the world. By checking these internal, deep reflections of self, by remarking the meaningful co-incidences of events in time, re-orienting ourselves to True North, we ensure that we stay on the right path.

Regarding these slightest events, what might be called the "death of a butterfly" moments in one's life that snowball down the mountain of time, gaining a momentum beyond what was ever imagined in the instant of their occurrence, Borges once wrote of the painter, James Whistler:
It is known that Whistler when asked how long it took him to paint one of his "nocturnes" answered: "All of my life." With the same rigor he could have said that all of the centuries that preceded the moment when he painted were necessary. From that correct application of the law of causality it follows that the slightest event presupposes the inconceivable universe and, conversely, that the universe needs even the slightest of events.
You, who now read this, most likely someone who knows me, must now wonder how this act of reading will have changed you, slightly shifted your direction or inclined you to pause. The dynamics of our relationship, of me imagining your reaction while reading, has also shaped the creation of the piece. (I also wonder how a future me will be changed by looking back on these words and be yet further changed.) There is a web of mutually interdependent "slightest events" that have brought us here together. A vast network, beyond human reckoning, of provable cause and effect, of hidden magnetic alignments, of intuitive leaps of faith, of seemingly irrational decisions, of unconscious impulses, of irrational responses to the most discrete gestures, a buzzing, blooming field of obstacle and bumper, within which we careen like a silver pinball, passively under what we believe are the implacable forces of fate and actively under the assumptions of free will.

I was driving with someone the other day and she neglected to tell me where to turn. As I took another turn further up the road, she said, "I just changed our entire life." I immediately pulled over to the side of the road. She asked what I was doing. I replied: "Fixing what you just messed up."

Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice 1879–80
James Abbott McNeill Whistler

09 February 2018

Living under the constant pressure of death.


Living under the constant pressure of death.

The tragedy of youth is to believe you are going to live forever
while that of old age is knowing you have run out of time.
And what time remains is saturated with a core-tiredness.
The energies contained within hope have been long depleted.

Words like empty shells,
no longer full of life,
quiet echoes of what they once were.

I am sick to death
of all these dead metaphors.
The sea shell is traded
for the dried carapace of the cicada,
clinging with a dead mother's grip
to the bark of the pecan tree,
this sepia skinned remnant
smelling like insect death
Van Gogh's boots
her jacket on the hook
that still holds the shape
and perfume of her days.

What is there left to do that hasn't been done already?

The bored artist idly carves
into the face of his muse,
desecrating her beauty,
heedless of her pain,
watching the blood fill
and fall from the wounds.

Is this it?

He reloads his brush with her blood,
spreading the skin apart to dig deep,
has no idea what he might paint,
somehow the dripping brush
seems too much

The only thing interesting about her
was her skull.

27 September 2017

A Note on the Allegory of the Bear

The Calumny of Apelles by Boticelli - source

The allegory is certainly flexible enough to encompass several disparate interpretations.

I have been stimulated by the artist Shelton Walsmith's explorations of the Enigma, that down in the working engine of art, there is a fundamental mystery. One of the problems we face as a hyper-literate online society (culture here is in question) is how much we take for granted. What widening gyres of massive computing pulse underneath the simplest of searches - literally and metaphorically? What shaping forces are working behind the scenes, restricting our views of the world, channeling our thoughts? In the days before internet, the invention of books worked as the extension of our memory. In the days before books, poetry and myth, rhapsodic recitation of epic dramas, contained our cultural (the word here relevant) meaning, as a sacred vessel might contain intoxicating wine. Metaphor is naturally enigmatic. Looking back to those first recorded Western attempts to understand the world, metaphor was supreme: the Universe is made of earth, air, fire or water or some other enigmatic combination.

There, powering this engine of thought, is the metaphor, this bridge of understanding that takes two frames of reference and bridges them together.

His face is an open book.
Love is a bleeding wound in my heart.
Death is an endless night.

What amazes me is how often I, we, use this powerful tool to communicate with no thought to the essential enigma of how it works. Burroughs spoke of the "Third Mind" when referring to the mysterious presence that arises when two separate entities work together. Two artists collaborate and the resulting work will have a "life of it's own". Or, take two photos and montage them together and the resulting image has a resonance never dreamed of. Eisenstein wrote:

"The combination of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is regarded not as their sum total but as their product, i.e. as a value of another dimension, another degree: each taken separately corresponds to an object but their combination corresponds to a concept. The combination of two ‘representable’ object achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented."

To paraphrase and extend: something that cannot be graphically represented but which has a felt presence is an enigma.

Wittgenstein said of the poems of Georg Trakl:

“I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy,” he wrote to Ludwig von Ficker, Trakl’s patron. “It is the tone of true genius.”

I have thought the same. The best and most memorable poetry (much the same to me), through it's highly rarefied metaphorical  juxtaposition, gives rise to this "Third Mind" or "tone of genius".

I was first introduced to Trakl's poetry through Heidegger and his beautiful exploration of one line from Trakl's poem, Ein Winterabend / A Winter Evening (Hofstadter, trans.):

Window with falling snow is arrayed.
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth’s cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.

The line that haunted Heidegger and which in turn became a kind of mantra of endurance for me is:

Pain has turned the threshold to stone.

Standing in line at the DMV, stuck in traffic, hitting my thumb with a hammer, drinking alone at a bar, waking up from dream of deep sorrow, moved to tears by a sudden memory of someone dead, in each of these, I have recalled that Trakl line, not as an anodyne, but as an enigmatic prayer that offers no explanation, but renders a form of absolution.

It's been a long time since I have seriously involved myself in writing on a daily basis. There once were those days when it was the bread and butter and blood of my day. I have always had admiration and envy for Walsmith's daily practice of painting. I have questioned and doubted my commitment to writing and The Word and The Work. I have been haunted and hectored by the real possibility that it is too late for me. My ship set sail long ago. But you know, when the ship was at the dock so long ago I wasn't ready in many ways (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually) to get on it. I was always suspicious of my writing, that I was merely an idiot savant automatically filling page after page with pseudo-divinely inspired scribbles. I wanted control of the daemon moving my hand. I wanted an experience and maturity that could only be gained through time. And so now, on the other side of the ocean of time, I'm no longer worried about the ship coming in.

I am out here on the edge of the world digging up all the corpses I once buried in a madness of predatory preparation, knowing I would need them "some fair day" up here in the future. One of those corpses was Georg Trakl. Over the years, I had left piles of words and prayers on his grave. Re-collecting those words, I felt like a bear awakening from hibernation, knowing precisely where he needed to go first to find the honey he needed. According to my fascination with bones, I remembered that over 10 years after Trakl's unfortunate death, his remains were disinterred from a cemetery in Krakow and transported to a cemetery in Switzerland - where he was buried next to a friend. I often thought about this extraordinary event. The practical aspects of it. Wondering if anyone would ever be inclined to do that for me. And why would a friend want to do that. Anyway, these thoughts danced around with each other in my mind.

Also present was an image I have often had of myself as a dancing bear - sort of variation of Hesse's Steppenwolf. While I was in Bellingham, I often felt like a trained bear performing with my ball, this ball being an enigmatic symbol of inexpressible desire and also something ephemeral, maybe hope or a nostalgic longing for a home that was not home: expressed in the Portuguese word saudade or the Russian toska.

There is always an aura of the enigmatic to the allegory. That metaphorical bridge mysteriously constructed between two worlds to imply a third is never fully comprehended, graspable. It's amusing to me that often when I consider allegory, the image of Bottecelli's Calumny of Apelles comes to mind. Years ago, I stood in the Uffizi mesmerized before this painting. I read everything the museum had available concerning the subject matter, but it continued to perplex me. It was all radiantly beautiful but possessed with an opaqueness of meaning that I worried over like a man who believes he has a missing tooth, constantly probing around his mouth with his tongue, but never finding the empty place.  After all these years, the painting still fascinates me.

With all of this in mind, I figured to write an allegorical story of a dancing bear being abandoned in a forest as a sort of homage to Georg Trakl and as a "word mirror" wherein I might re-present something of my present condition. In the later drafts, I have tried to make this less enigmatic, if not more clear, by adding more information about Trakl: the date of his final burial, accenting the references to Krakow.

The Allegory of the Bear

26 September 2017

The Allegory of the Bear - Trakl




If you had been on the train that ran from Prague to Krakow on the 7th of October 1925, you perhaps would have wondered about the unscheduled stop close to the Polish Border. If you could have looked down at the train from on high, you would have observed two events that occurred almost simultaneously at this unscheduled stop, one certainly more curious than the other.

Near the front of the train on the Northern side of the tracks, a group of five men dressed in dull gray overcoats, two inspectors and three policeman, entered the train just behind the coal tender. On the southern side of the track, a few cars up from a yellow caboose, and quite a distance from the car where the five men had entered, a cargo door opened quickly, a ramp clumsily lowered and a woman led a bear wearing a top hat and a tuxedo jacket off the train. A young boy followed behind carrying a large red ball. A man stood in the train car, urging them to hurry as quietly as he could. The woman led the bear into the nearby woods and indicated in her manner for him to remain there. The young boy, who was crying now, pushed the large red ball into the woods near the bear. Then the woman and the boy ran back to the train. The man lifted them each into the car just as the train was pulling away. He closed the cargo door and, in the narrow space before it shut, whispered a quiet curse for the bear abandoned out there in the woods.

The bear's name was Trakl. During that time just after the Great War, he was famous for his graceful dancing and ability to balance on a red ball. The drawing of Trakl the Bear with his top hat and tuxedo coat was a beloved image on many posters and handbills all over Europe. The shows where he performed were always sold out.

One of the accidental effects of the formation of the new state of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918 was that it was now forbidden to capture and train wild bears. This was seen by many as just one more excuse by the government to harass the Romani people who often kept bears in their camps as pets and performers. They often taught them to dance and perform various tricks. They were also known to get the bears drunk and beat them unmercifully. Regardless, owning a dancing bear was now a violation of the law. And as famous as Trakl the bear was, transporting him through Czecho-Slovakia was still a crime. A crime the police inspectors would not allow to be flaunted with such public impunity.

Trakl was just the sort of bear that had been captured as a young cub, torn away from his mother, and taken into a Traveler camp where he was trained to gracefully dance and balance on a red ball. He was also regularly given alcohol and laughed at in his drunkenness. He was also beaten unmercifully. And now he sat in woods beside the railroad tracks with his top hat, tuxedo coat and red ball with no understanding of why he was there or what he was to do. So he did what he always did when confronted with the great unknown and no whip or goad to compel him otherwise: he ambled over to the his red ball, curled around it and fell asleep.

For the first time in his life, Trakl dreamed. He saw himself performing in front of a large crowd of happy faces. He danced around as he had been taught but not because he was being forced to. He danced because he wanted to. Then he climbed on the red ball and walked it easily around the stage, taking delight in the amazed silence of the audience. And then he danced upon the red ball in a manner he had never done before. His heart filled with a joy had never known. He felt as if he could dance upon the red ball forever.

When Trakl awoke the next morning, he didn’t remember where he was or why he was there. He sat up next to the red ball. At first he was scared. But as he thought back over the day before and his dream during the night, his fear turned to loneliness and sorrow. He was also hungry. Trakl had no idea how or where to find any food. But he could smell the faintest of odor of something wonderful in the air. So with the top hat affixed to his head and still wearing the dusty tuxedo jacket, Trakl set off through the woods, pushing the red ball before him.

He walked on, stopping every now and then to raise his nose to the sky and reassure himself the fine threads of air that indicated food were still there. Indeed they were. And as he got closer to the source, his head was filled with a fragrance he had never known. It filled him with a great hunger and desire. He pushed his red ball onwards, ever faster.

He stepped out of the woods of a sudden into a clearing. In the center of this clearing was a dead tree. And in the hollow of this dead tree, was the source of the fragrance. It was honey. Trakl was overcome with his hunger and rushed to plunge his face into the honey.

He was almost to the tree when a great roar stopped him in his tracks. Charging at him from the other side of the clearing was another bear. Trakl had known other bears and had no fear of this one. In the past, when other bears came towards him, they were always controlled by their trainer. Nothing bad had ever come from another bear. However, something bad came from this one. For this was a wild bear.

The angry wild bear slammed into Trakl, knocking him off his feet and sent him sprawling into the brush. The top hat fell from his head. The wild bear then leaped on him and began to tear and rip at Trakl’s face and exposed belly, ripping the tuxedo jacket off. But even though Trakl had never been in a fight before, he was much more agile and graceful than the wild bear. He quickly slipped from underneath the beast and ran to his red ball.

The wild bear was furious with anger and roared a terrifying roar. Trakl by this time had made it to the red ball. He quickly jumped on top and began to dance around the clearing. What he hoped to accomplish by doing this, even he did not know. But the wild bear instantly stopped his roaring and watched Trakl dance around clearing atop the red ball. The wild bear seemed to not understand or believe what it was seeing. After a moment, the wild bear sat down and began to watch, reminding Trakl of one the many humans he had performed for in his life.

As Trakl danced around atop the red ball, he could not stop thinking about the honey. He watched the wild bear carefully as he slowly walked the ball closer to the honey tree. If he could just get one taste, he thought. Just one lick of that fragrance that was driving him to do what he knew in his heart was a foolish thing to do.

He had now positioned himself between the bemused audience of the wild bear and the honey. All he had to do was to move slowly back and he would be close enough to jump off the ball and sink his head into the tree. He danced with greater exuberance, hoping to distract the wild bear from his plan. And when he was almost upon the tree, the honey filling his head with such desire, the wild bear suddenly saw what Trakl was up to and, with a great roar, charged right at him. Trakl swiftly adjusted and maneuvered the red ball to the far side of the clearing as quickly as he could dance.

He made it to the edge of the woods before he looked back to see the wild bear was not pursuing him. Instead, the beast was standing at the honey tree guarding it and watching Trakl with unveiled threat.

Trakl climbed down from the red ball which made the wild bear growl louder but remain where he was. Trakl breathed the fragrance of the honey as deeply as he could, wishing he could eat the air. Then, with a huff of resignation, Trakl turned his back on the wild bear and the honey tree and walked back into the woods.

He had not traveled far when his nose picked up another smell. This faint odor was nothing like that of the honey, but it did smell like it might be food. And Trakl was hungrier than he had ever been. So he walked steadily in the its direction, pushing his red ball ever onward before him.

As he moved closer, the odor became stronger. He also recognized another smell along with the new smell. He smelled dogs. He had been raised around dogs and was excited to find them. He and the dogs had always been friendly to each other. And he knew that if the dogs had food, they would gladly share it with him.

However, these were not dogs that Trakl found. They were wolves. Trakl had never seen a wolf. There were three of them, gaunt and mangy, ripping away at the carcass of a dead deer. Trakl has also never seen a deer. But he could smell the blood and the meat and his mouth watered.

The wolves, in their ferocious feasting, did not notice Trakl until he was quite close. Trakl nudged the red ball ahead of him and it rolled from behind a tree and continued on ahead of him until it bumped to a stop against the dead deer. The wolves were startled and lept back in surprise from the red balloon. Then Trakl ambled into view. The wolves snarled at him viciously, quickly positioning themselves between him and the deer. The muzzles were red from their feeding and as they snapped their teeth, foam flecked blood flew into the air. This made Trakl acutely aware of his hunger.

He considered that perhaps the wolves were like dogs often were: more bark than bite. He stepped gingerly towards the dead deer. If he could only have a small bite, he would be on his way, troubling the wolves no longer. But this was not to be. The largest of the rangy wolves charged at him and snapped his teeth on to Trakl's front paw. Trakl, who had suffered many cruel beatings and whippings at the hands of his trainers, had never felt as sharp a pain as the wolf's teeth.

He instinctively let out a terrible roar, jerked his paw away from the wolf, then, surprising even himself, swung his mighty paw against the wolf's body, sending it flying over the deer into nearby brush. He turned to the other two wolves, opened his mouth wide and let out an even more terrible roar. The two wolves shrank bank from this display of awful ferocity. The one that he had thrown into the brush, turned tail and slunk away into the trees. In a moment, his two companions followed. Trakl was left alone, his red ball still resting against the half-eaten carcass of the deer.

Trakl had, of course, never eaten a freshly killed animal. Mostly, what he had been fed all his life was offal and refuse, half spoiled meat and other unwanted leavings. This meat was steaming with hot blood. And while it didn't intoxicate him in the same way as the honey he had smelled earlier, it did give rise to a kind of frenzy in him. The wolves had torn a ragged opening above the deer's foreleg. Trakl shoved his snout in to the bloody hole and tore at the rich hot flesh.

The freshly killed deer meat in his mouth was like nothing Trakl had ever experienced before. He sensed a current of energy welling up from deep within him, surging through his body. He plunged his great mouth deeper into the deer, again and again, ripping the red meat from the bone, until he could not help himself from rising up onto his back legs and sounding forth with an enormous roar. It hushed the forest with its inscrutable joy.

Not far away, the two inspectors stood silent, listening, rifles ready in their hands, smoking cigarettes.

What Trakl knew of rifles was only a frightening noise. He knew nothing of bullets and killing and death. But after the first rifle's cracking report broke apart the air of the forest, he was instantly alert. He sat motionless for a moment in the electric stillness. Then he caught wind of the sharp odor of men and the tobacco in their hair. A second rifle reported. Trakl heard the ripping through the air next to his head, saw the bark of a tree explode. He knew this was not good.

Trakl quickly ran back in the direction of the clearing. He ran for several minutes. Then he stopped. He was perplexed. He wondered what was wrong. Then, he turned and lumbered back to the deer carcass. The men were close by. He could hear their breathing and smell their musky fear. He tenderly nudged the red ball with this nose and crept away into the woods, the ball rolling carefree in front of him.

Not far down the path, the delicious intoxicating fragrance wove through the air. And once again, Trakl was at the clearing where the wild bear was guarding the honey.

 As soon as the wild bear saw the red ball bounce out of the woods, he charged. Trakl, however, did not follow, keeping behind the trees. The red ball bounced along towards the wild bear. The wild bear slapped his great paws against it causing it to bounce high into the air. He chased after and again slammed it down upon the earth making it bounce even higher. Trakl moved quietly through the trees to the other side of the clearing. He watched as the wild bear's anger careened the red ball around the clearing, bouncing off rock and tree.

Then Trakl felt something akin to happiness at the moment he saw this anger dissolve. The wild bear no longer fought against the red ball, running amok this way and that. The wild bear now gently batted the red ball about, learning how to control it, play with it. After a few moments, the exhausted bear sat huffing air with both of his front paws resting possessively on the red ball. Trakl, his head full of honey scent, waited.

The two inspectors saw the bear sitting near the center of the clearing, resting against a red ball. They each fired their rifles at the same time. One of the bullets hit the wild bear, sinking deep into his heart. The other bullet hit the red ball. The stricken bear fell heavily upon the ball. A pathetic whistling cry filled the clearing as the bulk of the bear pushed the air out of the red ball until they were both flat upon the ground.

Trakl watched from the shadows at the two men cautiously approached the dead bear. They fired two more shots into his head. One of them tugged the remnants of the red ball from underneath the bulk of the bear. The other collected the torn tuxedo jacket and broken top hat. They walked back into the woods.

Trakl felt no sorrow over the loss of the red ball. He licked his teeth with great anticipation as he emerged from the shadows of the forest and headed to the dead tree full of honey.

If you had looked down upon that clearing in a Czecho-Slovakian forest close to the Polish border on the last night of October 1925, you perhaps would have seen a great bear asleep beside a dead tree under the light of a full moon. You might notice as you moved closer that the bear's great head and paws were covered in an iridescent glaze of golden honey.

And then, if you could've looked into that bear's dream, you would've seen him dancing, gracefully and perfectly balanced, upon the moon itself as he rolled it around the great stage of heaven, weaving without care or any human concern between the stars.


Note: Trakl was named after the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl, who died of a cocaine overdose in 1914, exhausted from holding open the wound of his heart to the world, from caring for all the soldiers that were dying, from the guilt over the love he had for his sister and the tragic impossibility of living up to Wittgenstein's hopes for him. Although he was buried on November 6, 1914 in  Kraków's Rakowicki Cemetery, his remains were disinterred and transferred to Mühlau near Innsbruck on October 7th, 1925.

De Profundis

It is a stubble field, where a black rain is falling.
It is a brown tree, that stands alone.
It is a hissing wind, that encircles empty houses.
How melancholy the evening is.

A while later,
The soft orphan garners the sparse ears of corn.
Her eyes graze, round and golden, in the twilight
And her womb awaits the heavenly bridegroom.

On the way home
The shepherd found the sweet body
Decayed in a bush of thorns.

I am a shadow far from darkening villages.
I drank the silence of God
Out of the stream in the trees.

Cold metal walks on my forehead.
Spiders search for my heart.
It is a light that goes out in my mouth.

At night, I found myself on a pasture,
Covered with rubbish and the dust of stars.
In a hazel thicket
Angels of crystal rang out once more

For some explanation, see A Note on the Allegory of the Bear

26 March 2017

Waterfall and Monkeys by Shibata Zeshin

April 20 - The Light
Rialto Beach, WA

In 1872, Shibata Zeshin painted the sublime and subtle Waterfall and Monkeys. Just over a hundred years later, my mother and I stood before this hanging scroll at the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. 

After a while, my mother said,
- I know just how that Mother Monkey feels. 
- What makes you think the Monkey is a mother? I asked. 
- Because you can see that although she was being pushed to the limits of her patience, she still cared for all those little monkeys of hers. 
- And a father wouldn't care? 
My mother laughed. 
- A father would be long gone by now.
We both stood silent before the painting. 
- I like how the waterfall is nothing, I said. 
- What do you mean nothing? she asked.
- It's not painted. It's just the blank canvas coming through.
- But it's not nothing, she said. It's light. That what you see. 

23 February 2016

The History of X

Source: The Victorian Web

How time passes by with ever increasing speed. I wish someone had told me about his. This asymptotic increasing arc, moving from a gentle uphill to a steep upward ascent so quickly. Quickly... the word takes too long to even conceive There is no other element of my days more persistent and haunting.

I often wake up and think: today I'm going to get around to X. Then the day is gone. A week goes by. And I think about X. In my thoughts, I work a little on this unrealized idea. Ok, tomorrow, fresh start, plenty of time to get to X. Then, time happens, as it always does, and X is pushed to the back of the room. Gotta clear out this area for the dance, roll up the rug, put the animals out back, place X up on the shelf so it won't be messed with. Weeks. Months. Always with X in mind. Adding a little there. Making a clever addition here. That's nice. Can't wait to get to X. Months. Years. The interruptions of life.

X is as familiar to me as an old dog. Curled up next to me on the sofa. My hand casually shaping over the ribs and spine of sweet old X. You know, someday boy, everyone is going to know about you and see what a beautiful creature you are.

Years and years pass by like hours now. I've thought about X for so long, cared for and nurtured X past death. Watched the fur and flesh rot away. Placed X's bones in a shrine.

Decades now like days. X's bones covered in dust. It's been some time since I have been tended to this memorial. Under the dust of long dead roses, in a starlight corner, the bones of X still shine. I reach in a remove a particularly beautiful bone. The archetype of all bones. As I contemplate it and watch my memories flutter around it like moths to a fire, one after another immolating in its being, I think: this is what I have been waiting for. And I comfort myself with a relief that I never let X out into the world in a form that would only taken away from the glory of this immaculate bone now before me; this singular totem of being stripped away of all pretense and folly, immune to fiction. I clear everything off the table and set the bone down before me.

Now, finally, with everything before me, with such clear vision and in complete control of all of my talent, I know with no doubt that the most essential thing within me that I must somehow express before I die - as I am hurting down like a meteor towards this finality - the most essential expression is absolutely unsayable. There is only this bone of pure starlike being before me. And while there was, at one time, so much language to spin up and weave around the story of X, there is no language now that can contain this bone that remains. And as for me, I know now I am merely a sign pointing to it.

A flashing instant of laughter, a gasp of surprise and a rattling sigh whose duration is, for all intents and purposes, already ended. Time passes by so fast that I cannot even perceive it. Somewhere back there, five or so decades past, I heard a distant explosion and the echo cracking the world like thunder and the bullet fired was already through my brain before any of this ever happened.

28 December 2015

Dust is the sign of forgetting

Some thoughts I have been collecting, ideas as images radiant in relation to memory and memorization, the language like white hot filaments, illuminating.

I remember the Monk at the Monastery quoting Pascal:

"You can only search for what you have already found within your own heart."

This resonating with Watts:

"The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced." 

Coming to halt at Nietzsche:

“That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

The task at hand is to breathe new life into the dead words as in Ezekiel:

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. 
Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 
Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: 
And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord. 
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. 
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. 
Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. 
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

That which we fail to remember is that which becomes absent from our heart, no longer has any dwelling within us, no life, no breath and is soon a sad souvenir covered in dust. Dust is the sign of forgetting. This "signature of lost time."


The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience by Celeste Olalquiaga

"Dust brings a little of the world into the enclosed quarters of objects. Belonging to the outside, the exterior, the street, dust constantly creeps into the sacred arena of private spaces as a reminder that there are no impermeable boundaries between life and death. It is a transparent veil that seduces with the promise of what lies behind it, which is never as good as the titillating offer. Dust makes palpable the elusive passing of time, the infinite pulverized particles that constitute its volatile matter catching their prey in a surprise embrace whose clingy hands, like an invisible net, leave no other mark than a delicate sheen of faint glitter. As it sticks to our fingertips, dust propels a vague state of retrospection, carrying us on its supple wings. A messenger of death, dust is the signature of lost time.

The Museum of Dust:

"Dust is what connects the dreams of yesteryear with the touch of nowadays. It is the aftermath of the collapse of illusions, a powdery cloud that rises abruptly and then begins falling on things, gently covering their bright, polished surfaces. Dust is like a soft carpet of snow that gradually coats the city, quieting its noise until we feel like we are inside a snow globe, the urban exterior transmuted into a magical interior where all time is suspended and space contained. Dust makes the outside inside by calling attention to the surface of things, a surface formerly deemed untouchable or simply ignored as a conduit to what was considered real: that essence which supposedly lies inside people and things, waiting to be discovered. Dust turns things inside out by exposing their bodies as more than mere shells or carriers, for only after dust settles on an object do we begin to long for its lost splendor, realizing how much of this forgotten object's beauty lay in the more external, concrete aspect of its existence, rather than in its hidden, attributed meaning.""

Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible by Joseph A. Amato

"In this work Joseph A. Amato undertakes the Herculean task of tracing from the Middle Ages to the present Western Society's evolving sensibility about all things small. The title character, dust, appears during the preindustrial period as the smallest and most lowly of all things. It is omnipresent both physically and metaphorically, reminding humans of their mortality and their inability to control the most fundamental matters in their world. Amato asserts that with the advent of the industrial revolution and our improved ability to detect and perceive on the microscopic level, dust was supplanted by atoms, germs and so on, in both its claim to smallness and its metaphoric power. Dust retains for counterculture "purists" a positive association with the natural order, but for the most part Amato claims our fascination with and loathing of dust has been superseded by awe of other small things -- microwaves, viruses, prions, and quarks."

The History of Dust by GinaRae LaCerva

"A particle of dust holds many histories. There is the history of its own becoming. Everything in matter exists in a form waiting to be broken. Dust begets dust. The world has twice as much today as it did in the 19th century. 
"Wind takes advantage of what it entrains. Red dust from India caught in the gales of a tropical cyclone, once bore down upon Australia in an umber hedge so thick it obscured the horizon. A wave of rosy particles reduced, dwarfed, engulfed the ships at sea. In a particularly intense kind of dust storm, a haboob, the particles are carried on an atmospheric gravity current, a massive downdraft generated in the center of a thunderstorm, which often evaporates more moisture than it deposits. 
"What the wind may carry aloft has profound and mysterious influences far afield. Desert dust is so intimately tied to climate that one does not exist without the other. A dusty period in Asia increases snowfall in California. Dust trapped deep in the Antarctic ice sheets can help us to reconstruct past climates. Over the past 80,000 years, dirt from the windy plains of Patagonia was periodically blown south and deposited onto this icy enclave. The ebb and flow of Chilean and Argentinean glaciers corresponds to dirty lines in the ice cores—the very coldest periods also resulted in the dustiest. 
"A particle reveals a world much beyond its boundaries. Dust tells the story of the Mayan decline."

18 December 2015

The Riddle of the Dancing Bear


Recently, Kazoo Ishiguro wrote an article revealing that he had written The Remains of the Day, his most successful book, in a 4 week "Crash."

Until that point, since giving up the day job five years earlier, I’d managed reasonably well to maintain a steady rhythm of work and productivity. But my first flurry of public success following my second novel had brought with it many distractions. Potentially career-enhancing proposals, dinner and party invitations, alluring foreign trips and mountains of mail had all but put an end to my “proper” work. I’d written an opening chapter to a new novel the previous summer, but now, almost a year later, I was no further forward. - Kazuo Ishiguro: how I wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks

The title of Ishiguro's book, The Remains of the Day, has always resonated with me. One of those phrases that prompted an entire world in my mind as to what the book might be about. While I read the book, there was a consistent tension between what I imagined the book was about and what it actually was. My initial response to the text was not so much disappointment as a realignment of expectation. Because what the title had seeded within me was a world in which the "remains of the day" were the most vital and charged. The day being spent in series of distractions and tasks oriented around that odd phrase, "making a living." It was what remained of the day after all of this storm and fury was decanted away that made a difference - as it seemed to me. And I struggled here to adjust my sympathies to the butler, Stevens.

“What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” - Remains of the Day

The sad problem here is "the likes of you and I" don't come up with much to speak of when the "making a living" portion of the day is taken away. (And here is the sorrow that haunts the figure of Stevens.) What remains of the day are a few hours within which to relax and forget the tedium and the thousand little compromises that emptied the soul. Not much "cause for pride and contentment." I think of the Eliot line from Prufrock: "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." I see that spoon removing a little bit more of the soul each day. And I think, I've got plenty. No need to worry about what the small spoon takes away. But that spoon is a voracious and predatory creature whose innocuous appearance is its camouflage. It feeds on the remains of my day.

The notion often expressed is we should work to live and not live to work. Defining work here as a being paid to do a task you would not normally do, most typically for someone else. And, if most of our lives are spent working in this way, then what remains after work should be our most beautiful and meaningful experiences, "our time." These moment of quiet beauty and charged meaning, when set upon the balance, should easily outweigh in quality the benumbing quantity of days filled with work. But the reality is they often do not. Work empties us out, exhausts us, quietly and steadily fills us with despair. And when we are not working, all we seem to want is mindless distraction. Another world to mindlessly escape to for a few hours: television programs, movies, a bottle of wine, a drink at the bar. And all of those great projects born out of our dreams languish under the increasing weight of dust - first on the desk, then in the drawer, into the box, stored away in the closet to one day be rediscovered with a sad smile and a slight shake of the head: oh yeah, there's that novel I was going to write.

It is clear that even novelists working for themselves suffer variations of this problem, as evidenced by the Ishiguro quote. And his solution: to detach from the distractions and obligations of the world and focus on his work the the exclusion of all else paid off. Of course, most of us do not have this sort of freedom or privilege. Most of us are happily tied down to jobs, bills, mortgages, car payments, etc.. There is a clear cut path for us to follow. Just keep walking, following, head down, help anyone that stumbles in front, encourage those that follow behind by your stalwart example. But what if we could step off the clear cut path? What if we took another path, as the famous poem suggests? And what if we understood these lines of the poem also:

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

And one day, we did come back? And we got back in line? What then? What then will we do with the remains of our day?

The rhetorical corollary of The Riddle of the Dancing Bear:

What happens to a bear that has been trained to dance on a ball and perform for crowds at the circus who one day is released, perhaps escapes, back into The Wild?

16 April 2014

The Mirror of Sancho Panza and a Wandering Ghostly Error


The critic is the Sancho Panza to his master, our Lord Don Quixote, the artist. 

Sancho is no bread, butter and beer realist. He too sees and knows with the magical folly of the heart that there is knowledge before reason and science, a secret wisdom that is prior to logic - the vibrant god-telling PULSE. 

“There are reasons of the heart of which Reason knows nothing,” said Pascal.

There are no abstract truths - no Mass Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. 

When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error.

Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza, kneeling at the deathbed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs for the rebirth of the Pulse.
- Can These Bones Live? Edward Dahlberg

Every day the pressure of the end of things. There is no time. Plato. Aristotle. Brave old worlds whose shores I have yet to even see from a distance. Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper. Ecclesiastes 12:12 - "And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh." The interior structure of discipline has been built over many years. And yet... and yet... the flesh is weak and wanders. 

Perhaps I only notice it more now that I am on the watch for it, perhaps it is a harbinger of decline, either way fuels an increasing paranoia, but my mind seems increasingly detached. I notice this most in the mornings, coming out of the dream, before any agenda of the day kicks in, my thoughts are without focus, aimless. Often - and this has been going on for many years - I hear an inane jingle or virus-like pop song repeating over and over in my mind. It is as if my mind is an "idling mode" and on this wavelength, these songs play like waiting room or elevator music. I used to not mind it as much. But now I hear the mindless music as an alarm: wake up. 

My discipline these days is to work on memorizing Shakespeare's sonnets as I drive over to my step-father's to care give. It takes about 15 minutes and during that time I can typically refresh five or six sonnets through quick recitation and begin to familiarize myself with three newer sonnets. A morning not too long ago, I did not immediately start in on memory work. And about a half a mile down the road, an old top 40 song just started going in my thoughts. I laughed because the effect was similar to that of a screen saver on a computer. I was not doing any work and my brain went into a screen saver mode. When I engaged my thoughts in memory work, the music immediately went away.

It is not always music. Not always something as tell-tale as that. The more I have reflected upon my own thoughts, watching for these "screen saver moments," these mindless "holding patterns," the more I realize that they compose the majority of what most people consider life. It is a passive, receptive state. A consciousness that is blissfully unaware, ready to be easily entertained. There is no intentionality or will to this state of consciousness. It is close to a state of waking sleep.

But this is not daydreaming. It is far less. It is a victimized consciousness where the catch phrases and jingles and ad tropes of the mediated world prey upon self image and desire in a calculated and manipulative manner. This is not the consciousness that gives birth to Archimedes in the tub or Alice in Wonderland or Kubla Khan or Kekulé's Ring. This is the realm of Circe, a land of bewitchment. This is the Field of Poppies. To remain here is to die. 

And yet, I see so many of those whom I once had great respect and admiration surrendered in this place, lost in a dream of self and social fantasies. I remember great minds of such imagination and promise who now post banal affirmations and trite visual memes in the social media they are so obsessed with. Their reading habits are superficial. They are addicted to programs, shows and the latest blockbuster movie. Their taste in music is predicated upon an attention span of less than five minutes. They participate in the arts only to the extent that it enhances their social standing. It is disheartening and discouraging. I fear that fate of my former friends for myself. I watch for signs of it like a vulture watching for death in the slowly dying shape beneath it. 

An old man and I were talking recently. He said he once could remember the joy of the sweetest hours of his life, a first kiss by the oak tree in the school yard, scoring a touchdown on a Friday night, the sunlight in the hour of his marriage, that he was fortunate to have had many days that were crowded with such hours. But that these faded into those self-same days, the hours now blurred and passing by so quickly, that it wasn't long before he could remember only days, a child born on Monday, a promotion on a Friday, a death on Sunday. Then these too blurred in the accumulation of time. Now, he told me, from one Sunday to the next is like the passing of a day itself. He will say to me, it seems like we just did this yesterday, but I know it was last week. And, he adds, when I try to remember those memories that have defined my life, they seem as a series of distant mountains, a few simple triangles on the horizon of the past that I know hold thousands and thousands of other memories but that I am too far away from now. 

I imagine the old man sitting in his rocking chair on the porch, watching the world go by like a speeding train, the hours like seconds, days like minutes, weeks, months and years passing by as quickly as a summer evening so long ago when he first met the woman he married. These last years of his life passing before him in the opening and closing of his eyes. He, with bright mind and biting wit, champion of card games and avid collector of stamps, coins and hundreds of pads of hotel stationary and pens. All the years of world travel. Somewhere back there, the screen saver mind just became more interesting and easier to watch than anything else. 

Open Don Quixote and read only the first few chapters. Here is a man who has lost his mind. But who has not surrendered. This is the beauty of the Quixote. And Sancho Panza riding along beside him, who cannot see what Quixote sees, but still perseveres, still remains and stands loyal to Quixote, here is the mirror in which I look within to see what is missing from my own life, here is where I peer deep into my own eyes searching for the Pulse.