Adam Zagajewski, “Moths”

Moths, gathering. Watching us, separated by a glass barrier. Attracted to the light.

There’s not a lot of things political philosophy can do, but it should speak to how a nation loses its ability to grieve. At this moment, 243,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19. 73,000,000 of us seem to think it’s a joke or hoax. A number of the 73 million use religion to dismiss the significance of the dead.

Moths watched us through / the window. I don’t have answers, but I can say how this feels. It feels like spirits gather outside our domain. They’re not violent or harmful. They’re never going to mass such that they choke the air. They are simply a potential reminder of absence. Of loss.

There’s a lot of them.

Seated at the table, we’re inside. Comfortable, dining. Our only focus on the meal, on those we’ve chosen and who have chosen us. We are skewered by… [the] lambent gazes of the moths. Each gives off a small glow, highlighting their individuality and strangeness.

I wonder if each tiny glow adds together. If a whole realm comes into being because of the radiance of moths.

Moths (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, C.K. Williams)

Moths watched us through
the window. Seated at the table,
we were skewered by their lambent gazes,
harder than their shattering wings.

You’ll always be outside,
past the pane. And we’ll be here within,
more and more in. Moths watched us
through the window, in August.

We won’t admit loss or accept pain. We skewer ourselves in our triviality. Their shattering wings, their floating and flying, confirms we’ve locked ourselves in place.

But how? There seems to be love in this room. Food, warmth, things to be grateful for and gratefulness.

It’s so strange to think of gratefulness as potentially evil. As denying the reality of others. Exiling the lost and loss itself. You’ll always be outside, past the pane.

When so many are dead and so few care, it is literally suicide to not question our fundamental moral ideas.

*

Machiavelli writes in a dark, comic vein. His tone may not be altogether appropriate for the horror he describes. It certainly isn’t appropriate for ours now.

Still, there’s a story he tells to which I often return. Following Livy, he speaks of the Samnites, a tribe which wants to fight Roman domination but does not have the capacity. Machiavelli quotes Livy in praising their ardor for liberty: “they could no longer stand either by their own or by external forces; nonetheless they did not abstain from war, so far they were from tiring even of freedom they had unsuccessfully defended; and they would rather be conquered than not attempt victory” (Discourses 1.15).

The Samnites employed a horrific ritual before assembling for one battle. They brought their men up to an altar, one by one, and made them swear they would not flee, kill anyone who did try to flee, and follow every order vigorously to the letter. If this was not done, they and their family would be killed. A number of Samnites decided to die on the altar rather than swear the oath.

The ones that remained were given a fearsome appearance. The Roman general who was to engage them scoffed. He pointed out that the Samnites were now scared of their fellow citizens in addition to the Romans. He also noted that the Romans were far better armed. The Romans completely routed the Samnites.

Machiavelli concludes this regarding the Samnites: “one sees that to them it did not appear they could have any other refuge, nor try any other remedy from which they could take hope of recovering lost virtue. This testifies in full how much confidence can be had through religion well used.”

I return to this story as if it is the defining story of the United States. Ironies abound in that assumption. Machiavellian logic would, of course, pronounce better armaments for a superior army to be “religion well used.” Virtue made effective. The Romans might be considered Americans on this reading.

But then there’s the spectacle of a fanatical people who love liberty so much they deny it to their most loyal. A people who want to go into battle without proper arms, who think belief is fear and that the strength of their belief, the strength of their fear, can reach their enemies. They’re engaged in mass projection. They’ve killed their own citizens and made themselves fearful, thus they will kill that many more Romans while instilling fear. It’s “religion well used” in the sense that religion has broken them. They don’t know what they’re fighting for, they just know they want to fight. This, too, is America: the never ending spectacle of violence against ourselves and others.

There’s no sense of loss. No ability to admit that pain, especially the pain of others, is too real to toy with.

*

You’ll always be outside, / past the pane. And we’ll be here within, / more and more in. Inside, the quiet but intense violence of neglect and abandonment. The freedom to say someone does not deserve a thought, let alone love. “We’ll be here within, more and more in.” It’s hard to conceive how a society could be formed from this sentiment. Something like society forms—we’re around the table, after all, dismissive of the ungrateful—but all the spirits are outside. Those we most need are missing.

The moths almost seem to know collapse is a matter of time. Moths watched us / through the window, in August. Hedonism endures throughout its summer. Those we’ve abandoned can only look in, a ghostly justice. They can never partake in our ritual. Like the Samnites, we won. We exiled the memory of others, creating a fear no one would dare. We proved ourselves loyal to our liberty. A moth, smartly, only wants to be around the light. It may watch us, but it does not take our feasting seriously.

References

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H. C., & Tarcov, N. Discourses on Livy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Emily Dickinson, “I had no time to Hate” (478)

Right now in the United States, we worry. There was an election. One man won with millions more votes for him. The party opposing him did not fare terribly, gaining more seats in one legislative chamber. But recently the losing party has decided this is not enough. For a day or two after the election results became certain, they were quiet. Then, as if coordinated by a single mind, they began relentlessly accusing everyone else of fraud with the flimsiest evidence.

Shortly before the widespread, unsubstantiated claims of fraud, we were told to embrace those making the accusations. Embrace those who gleefully hurt their fellow Muslim citizens. Who dressed up as “walls” to celebrate the sadistic violence against those at the border. Who endorsed the separation of children from migrant parents with the baseless assertion this was done previously. Who dismissed a virus as a “hoax” as it killed 200,000 because it was inconvenient to admit their leader was a failure. It is strikingly clear why some would dismiss the election as a fraud. For once, it is being stated that some things are actually wrong. It is notable this message cannot be delivered by a number of churches.

Thus, when I stumbled upon Dickinson’s I had no time to Hate, I chuckled. Was a voice from another century telling me to calm down?

I had no time to Hate (478)
Emily Dickinson

I had no time to Hate —
Because
The Grave would hinder Me —
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish — Enmity —

Nor had I time to Love —
But since
Some Industry must be —
The little Toil of Love —
I thought
Be large enough for Me —

I had no time to Hate — / Because / The Grave would hinder Me. Can’t be hateful, can’t be angry, because death makes hate and anger worthless. After I’m gone, who will care for my cause? The injustices unique to me are truly unique, and therein lies the problem.

This does not convince at the moment. For many in the United States, politics is a game. Their taxes may go up or down, but their citizenship is never in danger, their rights are always assured. The feeling that politics is a game is their security. If one had to take the rights of others seriously, one would have to confront that one’s own rights are a delicate matter. For a few, this is a wake-up call. They look to help, to make common cause. Others radicalize. They’re not even clear why there are other voices in the first place.

Hate and anger are sometimes the only response to deadly complacency. We have to hate the status quo and understand our anger as a sign that we’re taken for granted. But hate and anger too easily get out of hand. And Life was not so / Ample I / Could finish — Enmity. Even held righteously, enmity presents too much to complete. It stands to reason there are better things to embrace.

*

For Dickinson, perhaps, the first and second stanzas have equal weight. Hate and enmity are awful things, but in the context of trying to get a relationship started, they aren’t always accompanied by the sense the world is collapsing. Nor had I time to Love—yeah, sometimes we’re not feeling it.

For those in the current situation, Nor had I time to Love is an invitation to a different world. Hate and enmity are bound up with the necessity of political change. But the world of the second stanza assumes a neutrality. Not much is happening, as Some Industry must be attests. I cannot say I have been on the front lines helping others in immediate distress. I donate to causes, look for opportunities where I can make a difference, try for an honest understanding of the world and convey that understanding. That doesn’t sound like much, but I don’t ever feel like Some Industry must be. Rather, I feel there’s so much more I could be doing, but what I’m doing now needs to be done well, too.

The little Toil of Love — / I thought / Be large enough for me. Since something must be done, despite the lack of time, might as well love. I marvel at the precision of Dickinson’s construction of space. “Time” could be devoted to hate or love, but the poem ends with “The little Toil of Love.” As if the “Toil of Love” were independent of time, or within it. I submit it is both. A space “large enough for me,” where Dickinson feels free to do as she will. And also subject to time, as her efforts exhaust what she can give. Ultimately, work devoted to love shapes time itself from within time. Weirdly enough, the hate of the first stanza finds a slant justification. It is tragic people would waste time by provoking negativity. It is tragic because love doesn’t cost time as much as makes it.

Descartes’ Insulting Language in the Preface to the Meditations on First Philosophy

“The Meditations will inevitably be read by weak minds who will believe and be consoled by the promise of immortality, but it is addressed to les plus forts esprits (4th Replies, to Arnauld).”

–Richard Kennington, The “Teaching of Nature” in Descartes’ Soul Doctrine

*

One criticism of Leo Strauss is that he pays far too much attention to trivial details. For example, Socrates swearing by the gods. Why do the times Socrates says “By Zeus!” warrant further consideration? In my own studies, he curses when especially frustrated with an interlocutor. This can mean a lot of things. Maybe the interlocutor cannot understand the proper explanation of a concept like “justice” or “rule,” and so Socrates must give a useful but incomplete teaching. Moreover, the scene in question could also have specifically comic purpose; Socrates featured prominently in one particular comedy. Or, in the case of Xenophon, Socrates’ frustration at a nameless young man elected commander recalls two other times he was frustrated with Xenophon himself. The text, in that last case, demonstrates a peculiarly literary quality. It goes beyond the validity of an argument or the specific drama of a scene. Rather, certain details suggest a certain route, allowing for speculation. And it looks like the author built this into the text so readers could be invited to see more.

One might argue that this sort of thing has no scholarly consequence. But I’ve found it to be important. Not so much for debates of the form “this thinker really means X, everyone else argues Y, they’re all wrong,” but for seeing how one theme implies a host of other themes which we have not even considered. In the above example, if there’s a hidden autobiography of Xenophon, then the question of growth is outstanding.

I am not an expert on Descartes. I have some thoughts on how to read him, but in the end I defer to everyone else who has covered this ground far better than I ever will. Nonetheless, I found it interesting that he spends time in his Preface to the Meditations calling others “feebler” minds. Or dismissing other arguments as merely “atheistic.” Or pronouncing his independence from the “vulgar.” A “Preface to the Reader” resides in the 1911 Haldane edition and I thought it was worth listing when in those seven paragraphs he does not strike an entirely positive note. In what follows, I hold he indirectly reveals some specific ideas about what constitutes a philosophic mind. He’s not merely shaping his audience for the rest of the work, but outlining intellectual commitments they must make.

God, the Soul, and “Feebler Minds”

Descartes begins his Preface by saying that in the Discourse on Method, he “slightly touched” on “these two questions of God and the human soul,” namely whether God exists or the soul is immortal (1-3). He says he did not want to treat them “thoroughly” at the time, that he wanted to hear the “judgment of the readers” for how he should proceed. So far, Descrates strikes a slightly defensive tone, but nothing sounds terribly out of the ordinary. Then, he launches into this:

“For these questions [God and the soul] have always appeared to me to be of such importance that I judged it suitable to speak of them more than once; and the road which I follow in the explanation of them is so little trodden, and so far removed from the ordinary path, that I did not judge it to be expedient to set it forth at length in French and in a Discourse which might be read by everyone, in case the feebler minds should believe that it was permitted to them to attempt to follow the same path.” (1-3)

Descartes says talking about God and the soul was so important, and his explanation so extraordinary, that he could not merely write it in French. What if “the feebler minds… believe… it was permitted to them to attempt to follow the same path?”

This probably strikes a 21st century reader as haughty in the extreme. I am inclined to agree with scholars who hold there is a strategy of esotericism at play here. Consider the implications beyond the Discourse. The Latin version of the Meditations, as it will be read by clergy, more than likely has to avoid phrases or ideas which might turn them against him. It is likely the French version of the Meditations has more openness about the scope of Descartes’ project.

What is the project? Following Kennington: roughly, the replacement of Aristotlean notions of physics with those far more mathematical and mechanical. Again, I’m not an expert here. I’m sure some of you reading this have your hands on a manuscript from 1270 or something where someone creates a perfectly mathematical and Aristotlean physics which anticipates Newtonian forces and lends itself to teleological considerations. I’m just wondering about “feebler minds” myself. I’d like to know how to better insult people as I write and have them keep reading.

What is Descartes’ strategy in asserting that he could not write for fear of “feebler minds?” He draws attention to his being on the cusp of saying something controversial, while presenting himself as a genius who ought to be read and discussed. I believe two things can be asserted at this point. First, he wants to give his defenders his own words to work with. E.g. “See, he’s concerned with not leading people astray. He did not write on theological matters in the vernacular.” Second, he dares his readers to imagine what he might mean. “Feebler minds” is a taunt. He wants readers to imagine where his considerations about God and the soul might go if treated at length.

Beyond the “the ordinary atheistic sources”

Perhaps Descartes wants philosophic minds to be daring. “So what?” you might ask. “Shouldn’t a philosopher be daring no matter what?” It can be replied that a philosopher should be contemplative. Thoughtful, able to elaborate how and why for various objects. Pondering, quietly finding new relations and questions. Not desiring to overthrow an established order or challenge what is obviously false, but rather calm, devoted to their inner life, respectful of tradition and maybe even pious.

In the fifth paragraph, Descartes gives a hint as to what might constitute a daring mind. He confesses that he has been attacked “by arguments drawn from the ordinary atheistic sources” (1-4). He declares that he will not even state those arguments, because they may influence those who make “feeble and irrational” judgments (as opposed to those “who really understand… [his] reasonings”). Again, Descartes indulges insults, but it is clear he has a distinct notion of how his audience should think. Consider:

“I shall only say in general that all that is said by the atheist against the existence of God, always depends either on the fact that we ascribe to God affections which are human, or that we attribute so much strength and wisdom to our minds that we even have the presumption to desire to determine and understand that which God can and ought to do. In this way all that they allege will cause us no difficulty, provided only we remember that we must consider our minds as things which are finite and limited, and God as a Being who is incomprehensible and infinite.” (1-4)

The atheist, according to Descartes, always makes an argument that personifies God, making Him more human than divine. Or they assume our minds are strong enough that we can “determine and understand that which God can and ought to do.” The first of these accusations against atheists has philosophic value. People do ask questions about God’s justice or mercy or supposed interventions in human affairs by conceiving God as a human being. And atheists often respond to them not by discussing what a divine nature could be, but by challenging the specific concept of justice or mercy involved, or the wisdom of an intervention. Descartes implies that a strong mind, a daring mind, would not try to reason about what God is by thinking about what humans ought to be. God is not analogous to man, strictly speaking. Rather, one has to know one’s own mental limits. How does one, with a “finite and limited” mind, speak the “incomprehensible and infinite?”

One can say that Descartes veers into mystical rhetoric, and that is true. But the mystical rhetoric has another side. We do learn to speak of larger issues slowly, bit by bit. Issues with near infinite significance which can be explored for centuries, such as how galaxies form. I imagine he could therefore be speaking of how scientific progress is made. Sometimes we have to make assumptions—we have to trust the fundamentals we are taught, or trust another’s theory—to practically test an idea of our own and not be paralyzed with our lack of complete knowledge. Our finite minds have to be aware of what is not known in order to find something that can be known.

A daring mind has a discipline. It does not personify everything. It tries to understand the limits it has with regard to a field of inquiry.

The Discipline of Building

I am tempted to accuse myself of reading too much into any of one of Descartes’ sentences. What I am doing is looking to see if there’s a logic, a hidden story, to where he chooses to cast aspersions. It feels like overreading because it implicitly asks if Descartes did design the Meditations with an incredible level of care. I cannot answer that question, but I do suspect the following. Great authors write so that their ideas connect in various ways, ways which sometimes suggest unusual avenues into a text. My overreading is not fruitless, and it might even be backed by Descartes himself. Please note the sixth paragraph of the Preface, where Descartes bemoans that he expects no “praise from the vulgar” but does want 

“those [to read him] who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense, and deliver themselves entirely from every sort of prejudice. I know too well that such men exist in a very small number. But for those who, without caring to comprehend the order and connections of my reasonings, form their criticisms on detached portions arbitrarily selected, as is the custom with many, these, I say, will not obtain much profit from reading this Treatise. And although they perhaps in several parts find occasion of cavilling, they can for all their pains make no objection which is urgent or deserving of reply.” (1-4)

Descartes desires his readers to “detach their minds from affairs of sense,” to cancel their prejudice. The Meditations depicts his effort to doubt the external world and his own body. But one should consider that reading a text closely and trying to articulate how it works can be entirely an exercise in logos and form. One brings a certain set of assumptions to close reading, but a working assumption is far from prejudice. If Descartes said that the incomprehensible nature of God resulted in the study of Creation being fruitless, I would have to revise how I approach his words.

As it stands, a disciplined mind with a specific daring has to not only know its own limits, but be willing to build. Descartes outlines how that building should be effected. One must not make “criticisms on detached portions arbitrarily selected,” but rather care to “comprehend the order and connections of my reasonings.” It is the order and connections one can establish, the ones you can demonstrate to yourself, that make the mind Descartes wants.

Conclusion

One can object that by picking the passages where Descartes lobs insults, I have advanced an argument via “detached portions arbitrarily selected.” I’ll live with that criticism. Of more interest to me is how “the order and connections of…[his] reasonings” are understood. I do not believe this is entirely a matter of textual fidelity. Rather, it seems to be a matter of mimicking his mind as he puts it on display through his Meditations. That imitation can lend itself to absorbing an entire scientific system, one such as what Descartes published in The World. But it can also speak to individual possibilities, for example, the existential and self-creative possibilities of the cogito. I cannot say for sure this is what Descartes intended. A reader provoked, however, determines to find their voice no matter what.

Wislawa Szymborska, “The Three Oddest Words”

Szymborska’s “The Three Oddest Words” haunts me. She speaks of three words—“Future,” “Silence,” and “Nothing”—which have a philosophical, world-historical grandeur about them. I live in a country which has given the capacity of destroying all life on Earth to a madman. In a few days, we shall find out whether it will let him steal an election so his flunkies can steal more from the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously trying to repeal the 14th Amendment. (N.B. The number of those I know who are white supremacists eager to march others off a cliff are far too many. I need multiple hands to count those who have been radicalized by the mere prospect of voting for a racist.) 

So right now, with a brief moment to spare, I’d just like to reflect with Szymborska on what makes these words odd, seeing if there’s anything to be carried into these uncertain days ahead. Perhaps unfortunately for me, her poem challenges the thought of contemplating it. When I pronounce the word Future, the first syllable already belongs to the past.

The Three Oddest Words (from The Nobel Prize)
Wislawa Szymborska (translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.

Why say the word future? Why even speak of what might be? Whatever I imagine is good in the future stems from some idea of the past. Every moment of the future itself is constantly becoming the past. The most practical solution would be to live in the illusion of the present. Plenty of people do this. I believe our constant desire to say “I have more money than you” or “I’m more useful than you” is beholden to that illusion. Present utility and wealth assume themselves to be effective later, and as good capitalists, we’ve allowed ourselves to indulge that assumption. Making money means markets will flourish; flourishing markets automatically meet human needs, we say. Those programming skills now envied build algorithms which anticipate what people want. There’s no need to study “political science,” we claim, as facial recognition technology deploys in nation-states eager to crush dissent the world over.

The irony of pronouncing “Future” and having the first syllable sink into the past does not matter. It’s an oddity we’ll live with. The future must be spoken because we must outline the ones we do not want.

Szymborska’s next word, “Silence,” speaks to the possibility of spirituality. When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it. This is a peculiar stanza, as the whole poem destroys Silence, but if silence could truly be said, then the oddities she points out with “Future” or “Nothing” would not exist. She seems to suggest two things. First, whatever Silence speaks to is beyond our world. It is a realm of no contradiction. It truly is. Second, in some way, silence can be said. She herself uses the word. The poem, as seen in the discussion of the first stanza, points.

The future and silence, politics and spirituality, are related but distinct. What matters is one’s consciousness of the past, she hints. What matters is what is not said. For decades I’ve dealt with those who insist all will be well politically if everyone finds religion, meaning their specific religion. I’m just amazed at how mystical they can wax while being too brutal to be practical and too practical to be mystical. It’s amazing how ignorance is everything and nothing, both at once.

Szymborska’s final oddity concerns “Nothing.” Say it, and you’ll create something no nonbeing can hold. There will always be being, and her first two stanzas point to Being in a near transcendent sense. The future can be spoken, and a reverent, beautiful silence can be observed. Why pronounce “Nothing?”

I think of the election in less than a week. There isn’t much to do besides volunteer, protest, and plan. I gave to a bail fund a few hours ago, but in a deep sense, there’s more waiting than action no matter what I do these next few days. Even with possibilities outlined, it isn’t quite clear what makes the possible real. Mandelstam’s “painwaking particular earth” strikes me as working in a similar vein. He speaks of a poem as a meteor, making the world come to life. Here, one can imagine “Nothing” said the way we might say “I’m fine.” One is in pain and everyone, including our own self, has to wait. Something good can emerge, but it almost seems to do so ex nihilo.

Jane Hirshfield, “I sat in the sun”

“Draw not nigh hither,” says the Lord to Moses; “put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus, 3, 5). There is, then, a sacred space [for religious man], and hence a strong, significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous.

— Eliade Mircea, “The Sacred and the Profane”

In Moses’ case, sacred space is not simply “significant.” God might destroy him for not showing reverence. Or worse yet, abandon him.

It almost sounds blasphemous to speak of creating sacred space. But such space is created every day. Hirshfield speaks of the slightest ritual in the poem below. I moved my chair into sun / I sat in the sun. She confirms it as ritual with her last line. [All of this was done] the way hunger is moved when called fasting.

Perhaps a look at a quiet ordering, a deliberate move into a natural light, can help us understand what is at stake.

I sat in the sun (from Poetry)
Jane Hirshfield

I moved my chair into sun
I sat in the sun
the way hunger is moved when called fasting.

The way hunger is moved when called fasting entails a powerful, mystical movement. “Hunger,” a natural need, is repositioned for the sake of something spiritual. What would ordinarily satisfy turned into a devotion. A weakness, a necessity, crafted into a strength, a greater will.

I am not good at fasting. This poem reminds me of when I need to calm myself or get self-control. Not the extremes of exploding with anger or breaking down in grief, but times I’m a bit anxious or having an allergic reaction. Bringing such experiences to bear on the poem can be considered a distortion. Disciplining the body through fast may involve a higher set of values than physical health. But at least for myself, a first calming breath, a willingness to attend to how each part of the body reacts, involves openness to more while silencing the chatter in my skull.

In that space for silence, in that way Hirshfield posits, the small ritual of the first two lines can be better understood. I moved my chair into sun becomes I sat in the sun. “Moved” becomes “sat;” motion terminates in rest. For a brief moment in this life, an end has been discovered and obtained. A human being places herself and resides. The poem tells nothing else. There’s no pool or radio or kids playing in the yard or magazines.

An indistinct sun, a space thought to be worth joining, becomes something more. “Chair,” an instrument, disappears in action. That she chooses to sit and does sit is of primary importance. “Sun” is revealed as “the sun.” Parts become whole and distinctions are made through experience. Hirshfield strongly implies that meditative actions, done correctly, yield a certain sort of knowledge.

I hope, as you’re reading with me, that you’re finding this less intellectual and more affecting. I hope you’ve taken a deep breath and are calmer. Maybe considering how paying attention to small details, as corny as that can sound, is a valid form of living. Hirshfield advances a specific contention in allowing that hunger is to fasting as moving into sun is to sitting in the sun. Roughly, fasting implies sacrifice, whereas taking in sun might be thought hedonism. For a moment, she grants that both are of equal dignity. All things pass. The simple state of being in the sun passes, too.