Friday, October 30, 2020
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
“Knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson--“Montaigne; or, the Skeptic”
Ralph Waldo Emerson would have made a great Zen poet. He lived through the Civil War, a time when America’s future was anything but certain. He also survived the early deaths of his father and his first wife.
As a student, he showed little promise and graduated near the bottom of his class at Harvard Divinity School. He was described at the time as “tubercular, restless, and already questioning the religion” he was studying. It was after his wife’s death that he quit the ministry and pursued his life of the mind.
The rest, as they say, is history. His collected writings run to forty volumes, and he is considered the father of Transcendentalism and American philosophy.
Sometimes, the smartest thing to do is admit your own ignorance. Begin in humility to learn, to study, to be open to the world. As Emerson can attest, it is a beautiful life in all its sadness and joy.
“When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself…A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next…But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure. It is also what makes us afraid.”
Pema Chodron--Comfortable With Uncertainty (Shambhala, 2003)
Chodron is a rarity: an American Buddhist nun. She lives and teaches in the cold and beautiful isolation of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Our journey in life is always fraught with uncertainty. Push on and persevere; since not knowing is our constant companion, let go of fear and trepidation. It is in the midst of uncertainty that the interesting stuff happens. See this period of change as an opportunity to grow and find wisdom. Never fear the better you to come.
“We fear many things. We fear illness and death. We fear losing our job or falling into poverty. We fear change—a new career, a new home, a new marriage. We may fear being alone, or we may fear other people. And then there is the fear of not being accepted by others—by our families and friends, our colleagues and neighbors, by society at large…fear is a tremendous and complicated power. It is silent yet devastating, leading to anxiety and ultimately, depression. When you are consumed by fear, your judgment is distorted; you become frozen by doubt, unable to make the simplest decision.”
Simon Jacobson--Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Harper Perennial, 2004)
Jacobson’s writing comes from the wisdom of a revered figure, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. His work resonates far beyond the constructs of Judaism.
Cast your fate to the wind. Let it go, let it fly. The engine of your intellect is fired by imagination in the face of fear and uncertainty.
There is a quote, attributed to multiple thinkers and passed around social media and into at least one film: “Things will be all right in the end, and if they are not all right, it is not the end.”
Monday, October 26, 2020
“If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.”
The Book of Exhortations as quoted by Jose Saramago
“Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone.”
“Fortunately, as human history has shown, it is not unusual for good to come of evil, less is said about the evil that can come out of good, such are the contradictions of this world of ours…”
I just finished reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness (Mariner Books, 1995). I am tired of the destruction-of-society-and-culture narratives. Real life is terrifying enough; human behavior is too violent in reality. Fictional narratives can only heighten the trepidation and fear we are now experiencing every day.
In Saramago’s novel, a pandemic of blindness grips the world. The white haze comes on with devastating suddenness, and as the plague spreads, chaos ensues. There are no answers as to what this is or why it is spreading so fast. The military funnels victims into an abandoned mental hospital in a vain attempt to prevent the spread. The soldiers guard them from a distance and are not afraid to gun down the sightless as they approach the fence to demand food and water. The imprisonment is a colossal failure, the virus spreads, even to the soldiers, and the result is mass hysteria and human destruction. Inside the hell of the mental hospital, the patients brutalize each other—rapes, food hoarding, outright murder—and this violence becomes commonplace. Excrement accumulates in the halls and bathrooms; the people track it around the complex on their feet and clothes until every person is shit-smeared and defiled. Human degradation is the rule, not the exception. Of course, none of the victims are fully aware of what they are subjected to because of their blindness, but they are aware enough to know the dire jeopardy in which they find themselves. Only one character has sight, the wife of a doctor, a former ophthalmologist no less, who claims to be blind so she can stay with her husband in the asylum. It is through her eyes that we see the terrible conditions and dire circumstances within the various wings of the hospital.
Saramago writes in blocks of text without paragraphing of new ideas. The dialogue among the characters is linked together in single sentences and paragraphs with only commas separating the speakers, resulting in long passages of voices where it is sometimes uncertain who is speaking. No characters are given names. Instead, Saramago uses their occupations or roles in the story: “the doctor,” “the girl with dark glasses,” “the doctor’s wife,” and “the boy with a squint.”
The novel remains sickening and haunting, but it is a strange horror story that hits all too close to home right now. Exploring fictional sociological disintegration is not something to delve into during this time of real danger and crisis. Some may enjoy this, and certainly, Jose Saramago does cut down to the bone of human animalistic behavior. But he also fails to answer the fundamental question: what are we to learn from this novel? It is certainly not escapist fare, and philosophically, Saramago offers us the fragility of the human condition and Man’s inhumanity to Man, but he spares us no words of comfort or resolution—there is a sequel, Seeing (Harvest Books, 2007). Characters are simply trapped in this hellish landscape unable to regain their sight or equilibrium. It is a horrific world terrible in its scope and devastation.
Saturday, October 24, 2020
Here is another tragic heroine of modern poetry, our Sappho, Anne Sexton. She died October 4, 1974, a suicide.
I think of the great Peter Gabriel song, “Mercy Street,” based on her poem. It is a dreamscape of horror and melancholy.
Of what do we dream today? What follows across the blue-black night sky? Owls and peacocks, and multi-lateral corruption of the soul. The night whispers the future, a story, one more to tell.
* * * * *This is the only thing that matters, this pen scratching across the page. Others have written about this across the years, the fear, the danger, the loneliness. Here, there is nothing new. It’s just the banality of evil. Why are we surprised that the world is corrupt and dark? The world mirrors the human soul. We are the things we build.
We dream of the goodness of human beings, but is that who we are? We are a selfish animal. How do we rise from this muck? How do we climb out of the fetid hole? It will take a man and woman to bear witness. It will take bonding in action to create a better world. Then this good virus has to spread; we must become infected with the divine spirit of Earth and sky, tree and bird. We must feel the surge of the Earth. Breathe.
There is a life mysticism, the coincidental confluence of divine light and air. Look back into the persistence of memory. There is the human story waiting for us to pick up words like autumn leaves. Tell us, the world says; tell us again.
We take nothing for granted because evil is nothing if not resilient. We are living through a reckoning of American life; we are poised on the precipice. Do we fall into the abyss or experience a renaissance?
There is so much to read, so much to experience, so many stories to tell.
* * * * *
Anton Chekhov stares out from a photograph taken of him by his brother, slightly colorized. Arresting. Mesmerizing. Note the world-weary eyes. He is such an astute observer of human life, human foibles, human misery. I cannot stop looking at those eyes. All the Russian 19th century novelists and playwrights offer stories that cut to the bone.
What is it about the 19th century? The world became aware of Man’s inhumanity, his propensity for violence, his bloody intentions, his avarice, and deceit. It is as if the sin of Eden finally came to its ultimate, evil fruition, and was followed by the descent into bloody desecration in the great wars of mammoth machines and bombs and waves of bloodshed in the 20th century. Welcome to hell on Earth.
As a traveler, I would like to make it a regular stop on the time-line railroad to see that 19th century world. The morale of America must have been at the same level, or lower, than it is now. The world must have been in just as much jeopardy. The human animal must have been just as much of a threat. Man has always been a threat. In the 19th century, he was redeemed, at least in part, by Emerson, Thoreau, the great poets and seers of an age. We need such an age again.
History should be taught that way: put on the virtual reality goggles and walk the streets of America; see Yosemite Valley as the Indigenous People did, before white men and industry tried to ransom it off into development hell. Walk the Civil War battlefields then and now. Compare. Never again.
So much history takes place in a single area. What if we could see it all at once, like some high-tech diorama. Questions: why is America such a violent place, and where does this violence originate? William Blake would argue human violence and cruelty originate not in nature, but in the human brain.
The 19th century feels like a watershed moment, a confluence of everything: philosophy, reason, religion, nature, human endeavor, art, literature, and culture. We cannot discount evil; human treachery is always with us.That is what makes him so compelling to read. He bore witness to an age, and his stories live.
Anne Sexton: “In my dream, / drilling into the marrow / of my entire bone, / my real dream, / I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill / searching for a street sign— / namely MERCY STREET. / Not there.”