Sunday, July 8, 2018

Openness in Thought

Recently I was discussing with a friend—Hi, Becks—my failed aspirations to be a writer. I have a complex relationship with words. On the one hand they are an art form capable of extending, composing, and in some sense creating the world of our perceptions. On the other hand, they often tend to confine, reduce, limit, and damn us to live within a tinny parody of our fullest experience. In sharing some of my past writing I came across this old exercise which surprised me for having voiced exactly this concern.

Exercise: God can only hear you if you’re writing

Can you hear me now as I revert to word?

Why is it only in the intentionality of words

Made explicit, visible, naked in their black and whiteness,

When all shades of hope are rendered in striking contrast

When doubt is pared away with commas and end stops,

When all the pallid, wobbling fat of honest uncertainty

Is cut off, and the muscle sharpened like a blade of contemptuous

Certainty and conviction, all artificial in its exactness and precision,

Why is it only then that you can hear me?

When we “compose our thoughts” we sift through the raw material of our thoughts and feelings and shape them in an attempt to focus them into a form that is easier to convey and understand. And all too often, once we have finished this process and produced a few statements about something, our sense of perception changes to back this limited meaning as if it were complete and essential. It becomes a part of our personal canon of being. But what if when we filtered through that raw material we weren’t quite capable in that moment of being completely honest with ourselves? What if we filtered based on convention, or fear, or some real need for our words to be acceptable to our audience, even if in the sense of an acceptable argument against their own perspectives?

For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed…. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

—Epistle of James

I used to flog myself with this thought. We are taught and constantly encouraged to be absolute in our convictions. But what if these convictions are formed out of an experience of fear or subjugation or compulsion? What if doubt and uncertainty are our most honest offerings?

I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”

—Plato’s Socrates, from Apology of Socrates.

When learning something new, there’s often a lot of rote memorization. I’m getting back into learning the game of Go (Japan, or Baduk in Korea, or Weiqi in China). Similar to Chess’ voluminous documentation of openings, Go has what are called “joseki” which are a set of standard moves, the outcome of which are said to give both opponents more or less equal benefit. A lot of people begin learning these josekis through rote memorization without learning why these moves are the preferred moves, and so there is a long held axiom about them: “learn joseki, lose two stones”, which means that those who set out to learn joseki actually play weaker than they did without them. And yet every professional Go player will have an extensive vocabulary of josekis, and this is because they understand the moves. They understand the implications of the final positions, how the moves relate to overall board strategy, their strengths, and, more importantly what their weaknesses are—what other potential benefits they give up in trade for the final position. And how does one begin to understand such things? By more memorization? Hardly. Because there is a distinct difference between obtaining knowledge and developing understanding. We learn what works, what is true, by questioning, by pushing against what we know with what we wonder, suspect, doubt. It’s important that our questioning or our doubting be as authentic and honest as we can make it, but what other way is there to progress? If your entire life’s understandings are compiled from other authorities, we become merely anthologists, collecting a great quantity of other people’s understandings. What relationship do we have with truth until we’ve participated in it, conversed with it, been pushed and pushed back on it and allowed it to push back again on us?

…the accumulation of a great quantity of senselessness in a notebook will never arrive at any sense, that facts don’t exist until a man puts something of his own into them, some share of whimsical human genius, something of the fantastic.

—Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

If we are merely recipients and not engaged in understanding, we’ll lose more than two stones, we’ll have wasted a life to passive consumption, living only as consumers of whittled down and composed statements passing as wisdom.

Friday, July 8, 2016

A response to the writer of "Ghetto Homie"

A response to "Ghetto Homie."

“Ghetto culture”, is a pejorative term for a complex and diverse culture that grew out of subjugation and oppression. The cultural examples you provide are just a cursory listing of things that befuddle (and annoy) middle class white folks.

Do you know how the ghettos came to be? It’s an interesting and awful story. Read and talk to people about redlining, contract deeds, racial covenants. Insurers, banks, government and private citizens all played their parts in focusing the growth of impoverished black communities to specific areas within the cities. What happens to a disempowered community that is constantly taught that money is power and power is the only way to get ahead?

Bling? Exhibition of money that increases the perception of power. And we live in a society that worships consumption. You have doubts? Bling just takes it to an obvious extreme. Gangster rap? An exhibition of a different kind of power. In fact, most of the things you list should be understood within the context of a power struggle, or a struggle to find and assert power and “get ahead,” that quintessentially American dream. Milking the state? Welfare? Food Stamps? These are examples of zany delights? Do you know how many recipients of food stamps are employed and not paid a living wage? Is that zany? I realize you were employing ironic humor, but these are real lives we’re talking about here.

Our “ghetto” communities are filled with poverty, drugs, alcohol, violence, mental illness, disease. Okay. But they’re also filled with people that are doing their best to survive, struggling with chaos, figuring out how to live in a world where an astounding percentage of the men are incarcerated or dead. Out of American “ghettos” have come jazz, the blues, and hip-hop. You may abhor the stuff, but it’s everywhere, including in contemporary jazz and rock.

And we just love a good rags to riches story, don’t we? Did you hear the one about the scrappy fighter that overcame all odds to make a better life? Hence the politics of respectability. You know what happened to the scrappy fighter that never quite managed to break out of the obstacles in his life? The one that was gunned down, or tossed in prison rather than overcoming? Those stories are worth hearing, too.

Look at our media. We celebrate the little Napoleons who dare, take great risks, and succeed, and then we preach sermons reflecting the old Protestant work ethic of yore to those who are closest to the edge of our society. We like to think we are the underdogs, which may explain why the concept of white privilege is so upsetting. And yet, do you truly see no disparity in the reality that is experienced by different races or classes of people in this country? The wealthy have always lived with a vastly different life experiences than the poor. We all get sick, but some have better access to health care. We all suffer the fates of natural disaster, but who is better situated to recover? If you’re white you stand less of a chance of getting convicted. If you’re white and convicted you stand a better chance of getting a lighter sentence. I’ve never feared for my life when I’ve been pulled over for speeding. I’ve never been afraid that I was going to be randomly, arbitrarily stopped and frisked. I’ve never had to work to convince people in America that my life, or that my kids’ lives matter.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Exercises from On Poetry, Chapter 1

It’s been quite a few years since I last spent time on poetry. For whatever reason I seem to go through cycles where I read and write none of it, and then it comes back like some kind of need. So, I’m re-reading Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry and doing some of the exercises this time. The exercises for the first chapter involve taking a number of blank pages and pretending certain things about them. What follows are my just-spit-it-out first draft attempts. Just getting the juices flowing again.

The page is physically hurt by your every word

This very thing. Being.

A razor’s edge. Slicing.

Biting. Tearing into you.

Words thrusting into flesh,

Your blood catching flame,

Burning, till hope gutters out.

Every mark makes you remember more

The memory that something had gone before

Something with meaning, subtle importance

Hides at the back of me, lost,

A mosquito bite, itching into memory.

And so, I pick up paper and pen

And scratch, writing to remember:

At first gently, wanting to ignore,

To cause no pain, to avoid it all.

But then the itching turns to burning,

And no subtle demand for release,

Every word ignites a flame

Of recollection, fear, and hope.

Every mark makes you remember less, like dementia

Every thought put down

Is a memory spent

And lost forever.

And what if this were true?

That we write to forget,

That every word on a page

Is a purging of something violent,

Painful. Claiming freedom

From our ghosts, our selves.

Returning us to empty naiveté,

Brimming full of possibility.

That God can only hear you if you’re writing

Can you hear me now as I revert to word?

Why is it only in the intentionality of words

Made explicit, visible, naked in their black and whiteness,

When all shades of hope are rendered in striking contrast

When doubt is pared away with commas and end stops,

When all the pallid, wobbling fat of honest uncertainty

Is cut off, and the muscle sharpened like a blade of contemptuous

Certainty and conviction, all artificial in its exactness and precision,

Why is it only then that you can hear me?

That only touching the page are you hidden from God

The belly of the whale:

A hiding place where silence

Is empty and nothing

Is just nothing and not some

Tolling bell

Calling all to worship.

And yet now

I find myself bending

Knee and head

To this—ghastly, stinking—floor

Unable to not

Worship you in the abyss.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Quote: Aquarium Face

…he had a great face half as long again as other faces, with a great nose (quite sharp on the end) stuck into it, two dark eyes like clever bits of coal and two little stubby eyebrows like very small fish swimming bravely in a great sea of face.

Susanna Clarke, from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Little Thoughts: Achievement, Hope, and Beauty

Achievement is the death of hope, the realization that the outcome hoped for is too small a thing to bear the weight of anticipation. No achievement is capable of transforming life into something continually beautiful.

Beauty is a moment lived with awareness.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Review: The Final Solution

The Final Solution is Michael Chabon’s homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a delightful short novel with a once-famous but never-named sleuth, now an elderly bee-keeper, drawn into a mystery involving a mute Jewish boy and his African Gray Parrot. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, almost the whole business is the powerful tidiness of rational deduction, as all the disparate pieces are put together with logic ribbon tied neatly in a bow. In Chabon’s take, the detective is old and diminished, and there is a touch of nostalgia to the story if not the person:

Oh, she thought, what a fine old man this is! Over his bearing, his speech, the tweed suit and tatterdemalion Inverness there hung, like the odor of Turkish shag, all the vanished vigor and rectitude of the empire.

Chabon has been criticized by reviewers for neglecting the tidy logical forms of the mystery, and he has been criticized for letting his prose run away with the story. It is clear, however, that this is a Chabon story and not a Doyle story. Chabon’s incredible talent is in his command of language, and the ineluctable rhythms of a long sentence. He gives us a Holmes finally aware of his limitations, and of the limitations of rationality and logic. He gives us a story with subtle allusions to heavier things yet unknown to England of the day. Only the boy and the bird knows, and it has turned the boy quiet. The bird sings of things it doesn’t understand. And so do we.

Review: The Penelopiad

In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood gives us a satirical view of the events of The Odyssey. Penelope and her twelve hanged maids speak to us from Hades in our own time, which allows the author to present her work with the convenience of modern perspectives on sex, class, and the gods. The tone remains light and unlabored throughout, even while implicating the patriarchal values of the Homeric world. Penelope speaks from her position as an elite woman, burdened beneath the role her society has forced upon her, while the hanged maids expose the raw inequality suffered by female servants.

That Atwood is a gifted writer is obvious, however The Penelopiad seems a rather short and fast work on these themes. I could imagine them drawn out and explored in much greater detail, though perhaps not while maintaining the lightness of tone. The chorus sections, those of the hanged maids, provide a verse burlesque complimenting and contrasting against the prose of Penelope. These chapters provide a welcome counterpoint, and often heighten the impact of the satire. But the verses, themselves, sometimes seem unpolished and dashed off.

The Penelopiad is an slight novel by a great writer, and perhaps re-reading will reveal the novel as something grander and richer than petite four that it appears to be.