“Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”

Anne Lamott recorded these lines read by a friend to her, lines she claims were written by a Lakota Sioux: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.” According to Lamott, they helped her deal with vicious feelings of jealousy, ones which made her life miserable.

They’re exquisite lines. Often I worry about using language that’s too abstract. “Great winds across the sky” is at once both natural and mystical. It calls to mind the air at the tops of mountains, air which breathes through natural wonders. All the same, despite our ability to imagine the winds, the sensations, the sky, the imagery feels like it presents more form than substance. Winds are invisible; the sky is more a field for seeing than a thing itself seen. I can’t help but think of the firmaments from Genesis, the divisions which allow order to proceed from chaos, the divisions silently witnessed daily.

The great winds across the sky speak beings beyond jealousy. Can those beings be joined? Lamott’s honest enough: this is a world where we’re told to compete, told if we don’t work and strive that we deserve to starve. It’s near impossible not to be jealous in such a climate. Moreover, I know from experience that it can be great insensitivity which breeds jealousy. I had no choice but to be jealous when I felt shut out of everything—no friends, no attention, no accolades, no opportunity. For Lamott, the friend inspiring the most jealousy didn’t care about a precarious financial situation affecting her and her son. There might be a righteous anger underlying some jealousy.

Still, I’m thinking about these things because I’m wondering about my own motivation. Is it possible, in some small way, to be the “great winds across the sky” for another? I don’t know about that. I do know that dedication to one’s craft has to involve appreciation of those who also practice it as well as a healthy respect for your own talents. You can’t afford to feel a failure when you know enough to be jealous.

References

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor, 1994. 127-130.

Emily Dickinson, “So has a Daisy vanished” (28)

Reading could result in greater awareness of the world, but there are at least two potential pitfalls in that assertion. First, there have been many times I read a ton, thought myself the expert, and promptly embarrassed myself with a combination of nervous rambling AND a lack of understanding. The written word entails responsibility, but that responsibility is not simply preaching it. The second is a practiced oversensitivity. Read poetry, for example, and you start seeing things that weren’t there before. Trees aren’t just things you might accidentally hit with a car. Some of them call to mind ones climbed in childhood, or those near grandma’s house. Maybe they connect to places for making-out or breaking-up, or those long, shadowy creatures wading between life and non-life in a van Gogh painting. Too much association, it seems, also overwhelms. I wonder about Dickinson purposefully indulging that oversensitivity below—what, exactly, is her intent?

So has a Daisy vanished (28)
Emily Dickinson

So has a Daisy vanished
From the fields today —
So tiptoed many a slipper
To Paradise away —

Oozed so in crimson bubbles
Day's departing tide —
Blooming — tripping — flowing
Are ye then with God?

So has a Daisy vanished / From the fields today — / So tiptoed many a slipper / To Paradise away — there is a perfectly conventional reading of these lines. Just as many quietly die and pass unnoticed, so daisies vanish from the field. However—or better yet, duh—Dickinson doesn’t want us to go this route. She started with daisies vanishing, as if she went to the fields every day, kept a list accounting for every single daisy, and is now wrestling with what the loss of one flower means.

Dickinson’s narrator, emotionally overwhelmed, makes a grand and incontestable statement. The quiet loss of one is an every day occurrence. She lets this comprise the entire first stanza. There’s not much more to be said because there are too many emotions involved. Is this grief over the loss of a loved one? Worry that she herself won’t be remembered? A panic that she’s wasting the best of her life? If the dead are lost peacefully, perceived in bloom, are they in Paradise? “Tiptoed” and “slipper,” implying death is sleep, hint that what’s specifically on her mind is passing too quietly.

She becomes more emphatic, questioning the association of bliss and peace with quiet. What exactly is entailed in “Paradise?” Maybe it’s the end of a time, if not time. Oozed so in crimson bubbles / Day’s departing tide — time reveals itself an ocean, rich in purples and reds as it runs away. She looks at what most would render the loveliest of skies and only sees loss and pain. Pain, though, ends this dark vision. She has to leave it be, let it stay a morbid question. Blooming — tripping — flowing: the daisies and the darkening sky correspond to “blooming” and “flowing,” respectively. “Tripping” is almost comic, but one can imagine a person with tearful eyes not being able to walk steadily. What pulls us away from dwelling on life as essentially tragic is our everyday pain and inconvenience. In order to have grand thoughts about the whole, comic or tragic, we usually need a certain security. Dickinson’s speaker doesn’t completely have this and is exposed. Experiencing the truth, she can articulate a question that rings true: Are ye then with God? Is our individual pain, rendered universal and cosmic, unity with the divine?

That last question needs clarification, as the second stanza seems to clash with the first. Tiptoeing quietly into an afterlife hints at painlessness, not just silence. The second stanza’s “tripping,” though, does not just articulate the speaker’s voice but the truth of death. Only very few accepted death quietly, and we can assume that there were internal voices much louder than anything we witnessed. It’s safe to say everyone experiences pain, and that Dickinson doesn’t think quietism or stoicism is worthy to explicitly debunk. She sets her aim higher: if time is only comprised of our bruises and cuts and pains, if growth only exists to be torn down, what of divinity? It cannot be divine to have a superhuman reticence, to merely accept this state of affairs. The premises need to be rethought. “So has a Daisy vanished” brings us back to daisies, what we valued in bloom. Something is divine, earthly, and painful to let go. Something can speak itself in messy, human terms, and is appreciated on those terms alone.

George Prochnik, “The Philosopher in Dark Times”

George Prochnik has written an affecting and thoughtful review of a collection of essays by Hannah Arendt, Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975. He does not pull punches about the current situation. His first paragraph quotes Arendt to the effect of saying that totalitarianism takes hold when people are not “informed.” That in itself seems bland and uncontroversial, until Arendt is quoted again: “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” Taken to its full extent, this is not just an indictment of the President and his party, both overindulging delegitimization strategies to absurd extremes—don’t trust the former FBI director; don’t believe women; don’t trust people of other races; domestic politics is an extension of war; don’t trust the media, unless it’s the National Enquirer or Hannity. It’s an indictment of the way many in America engage politics, e.g. putting up Facebook posts with deliberately inflammatory commentary in order to get someone to respond and “own” them; attacking the documented, lived experience of others with innuendo, gossip, and anecdotes based only in bigotry. Forget the government—ours is a sick society with authoritarian desires, a complete lack of respect for the lives of fellow citizens for the sake of feeling empowered. Being “informed” has less to do with having a principle one always regards as true, and more to do with establishing and embracing credibility. Without a real desire to find trust, one can hardly call oneself educated, free, or a lover of freedom.

That’s how I believe this review starts. It continues operation on a plane of thoughtfulness few can appreciate. His second paragraph features Arendt weighing exile—expatriation—as possibly worse than being condemned to death by the state. Expatriation is the ultimate delegitimization strategy: the mere threat of it is prelude not just to violence against individuals, as it leads to sectarian hatred, mass deportation, and genocide. One has to wonder about a political climate where for years one party relentlessly accused the other of being treasonous without any consequence. One has to wonder when that same party commits itself to frequent and arbitrary deportations and building suspicion of anyone who might question that violence.

I don’t just want to lament. I do want to spend a little time outlining the conception of philosophy briefly put forth in “The Philosopher in Dark Times.” I feel it makes muted criticism of those of us who claim to be Straussians, who argue the history of ideas is more or less a debate about “natural right” (i.e. is there anything in the nature of things—perhaps in human nature—which advances a conception of justice?). To be sure, the criticism is thoughtful and worthwhile. The argument for “natural right” as a more or less universal concern entails two far more controversial propositions. First, since not every age had anything resembling our current climate where it seems freedom of expression is valued, some thinkers had to hide their more dangerous thoughts and practice esoteric writing. How one goes about “proving” authors wrote esoterically—if any proof can be had!—creates the second proposition. One typically has to treat an author’s corpus like a coherent, carefully designed whole, one meant to give one set of readers one impression, another a very different impression.

Arendt, in contrast to looking for coherent wholes, used a “technique of dismantling.” According to Prochnik, “she saw her task as plucking the precious bits from time’s waves and subjecting them to her critical thinking, without pretending they could be melded back into any grand, systemic whole.” This approach, this “pearl diving,” makes sense if one holds that the ideas philosophers advance are ultimately meant to impact history. Prochnik: “Arendt remained unabashedly enamored of Marx’s proposition that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. … The point, however, is to change it.” One has to judge ideas by what actually results from them; one seems to be paying philosophy the highest compliment by holding it accountable. Accountability, however, occurs piecemeal. A debate exclusively focused on what a philosopher really meant tends to make that philosopher an abstraction, a ghost who did not think about the world as much as create another world that resembles the one in which we live.

I do not doubt the value of “pearl diving.” Anyone who has followed my thought over the years knows I eschew terms such as “Aristotleanism” in favor of taking one idea at a time and thinking through it as fully as possible. I hold those with grand, systemic theories are more interested in triumphing against others than seeing the truth, or more precisely, seeing what is most like the truth and understanding it on its own terms. However, there is value in trying to see a philosopher as a lover of wisdom, as someone trying to understand his time and explain himself to us. The imperative of changing the world, invoked too soon, can do injustice to an individual trying to wrestle with what he thinks truth and communicate it. Arendt thinks otherwise. “She relished his [Marx’s] determination to wrest higher thought from the supine realm of the Greek symposium and thrust it into the ring of political activism, challenging, as she wrote, “the philosophers’ resignation to do no more than find a place for themselves in the world, instead of changing the world and making it ‘philosophical.’”

Finding a place in the world for yourself is not simply “resignation,” as every persecuted minority, including those in the United States currently, can attest. On my reading, the philosophers, by defending themselves and dedicating themselves to their thought, did change the world and make it more philosophical with or without active political engagement. Underlying philosophy is a great humanism. Not everyone can be a lover of wisdom, but that’s not because of ability. It’s because dedication to wisdom requires an unyielding skepticism about one’s own motives. How does one know one loves wisdom? The only way is to declare that the only thing I know is that I know nothing, and then try to not let my life fall apart doubting the knowledge I do have. The “ability” in question is the desire to love wisdom, a love of love that is perhaps best rendered by the Greek term eros. Anyone can be a philosopher, but few will realize it, and most will fall into dogmatic traps. A very elite few will be recognized for their accomplishment, but it is not clear that accomplishment is the same as trying to live the most fully human life. Still, if you believe, as I do, that in no small part because of Socrates we ask serious questions about science and justice, that because of Machiavelli and Hobbes we wonder about power and the logic of incentives, that because of Bacon and Descartes we are more eager to benefit from medicine, then it would seem the world has changed because of philosophy quite often.

The funny thing about giving an honest account of your own thought, though, is that your honesty needs something to prevent it from being misinterpreted or dismissed outright. It is not enough to be honest—it is only enough to be heard and understood on the grounds upon which one wishes to be understood. Enter esoteric practice, meant to convey a message and prepare its receipt. Arendt is too glib in what I assume to be a dismissal of it: “For Arendt, thinking that helped advance the cause of human freedom entailed a form of relentlessly critical examination that imperiled “all creeds, convictions and opinions.” There could be no dangerous thoughts simply because thinking itself constituted so dangerous an enterprise.” The last sentence is the problem, as there clearly are dangerous thoughts throughout the ages. Try talking about secularism or privacy of conscience as a fundamental human right in the Middle Ages, or democracy in 18th century Russia. Try talking seriously about white nationalism on Fox News—maybe highlight Atomwaffen or that 7 year old girl separated by US authorities for months from her mother. Try talking seriously about whether the concept of freedom has changed because of the dawn of all-too-powerful mass surveillance. The questions that animate esoteric practice are right here, right in front of us. There are powerful entities that cannot be directly spoken against at all times. There are plenty of people who are trying to think for themselves, but haven’t seen everything a potential philosopher sees. There are many who would laugh at one’s attempt to raise critical issues and generate concern. Of course thinking itself is a dangerous enterprise, but some thoughts are more worthwhile than others. Some thoughts advance human freedom, while others destroy it.

I am very grateful to Prochnik’s review for raising the issue of accountability with regard to philosophy. It’s still amazing to me that everything responsible for “The Flight 93 Election” does not receive consistent and persistent shaming. It’s not the essay itself so much, which is batshit. It’s the hysterics from someone we know now to be privileged, who got to taste considerable power because of his raving. There are so many, who have so much less, who are being persecuted at this very moment and are consistently exhorted to quietly bear unjust burdens. Privilege does not begin to describe how despicable misuse of one’s pulpit is in this case. It’s the fact it was published as if it were on par with an analysis inspired by Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime, and received by a considerable number who are in charge of educating the future of America. While I will defend inquiry into the practice of esoteric writing, and while I have sentiments that might be considered conservative, I will not stand for the consistent devaluing of human rights and human life in the name of shameless ideological screeching with the thinnest of scholarly veneers. Right now, I don’t write esoterically—I know what’s right, and I need your help to make things better.

Bill Knott, “Painting vs. Poetry”

How do fantasy and reality relate? I know I leap from fantasy to fantasy without having the slightest clue about what I wanted in the first place.

Knott’s little poem brings us back to the older discussion. Whereas our subordination to fantasy might involve discussing addiction to love or anger at the smallest things, an older line of thinking wondered about the power of imagination itself. Our minds have an image-making faculty, and from that faculty, we don’t just feel or act, we create.

Knott starts with a bold claim: Painting is a person placed between the light and a canvas so that their shadow is cast on the canvas. There’s something like the shape of you on the canvas when a painting is made. Not merely fragments of you, but a semblance of a whole. He extends this claim into one about poetry:

Painting vs. Poetry (from poets.org)
Bill Knott

Painting is a person placed
between the light and a
canvas so that their shadow
is cast on the canvas and
then the person signs their
name on it whereas poetry
is the shadow writing its
name upon the person.

You might argue that his notion of painting is too strong. I don’t know how possible it is for me to see something representing the whole artist when I view art. I don’t know that any productive discussion can result from my saying, say, that Mondrian “is” Composition with Red Blue and Yellow.

However, Knott focuses less on the product and more on making itself. The painting is made by the painter being between the light and the canvas. A shadow, then, holds within it the efforts constituting craft and the result of craft. Saying a painter signs this makes more sense upon this consideration. Efforts are joined to create a result, an identity emerges, but the actual interaction of effort and craft remains shadowy. Fine art is a process which should maximize difference, mirror the difficulty of human being in the world.

So what is poetry? Somewhat surprisingly, for a poem titled “Painting vs. Poetry,” painting is presented as prerequisite for poetry. Poetry is the shadow writing its name on the person. There’s still a canvas with a shadow upon it. Effort and result and their complex togetherness all sign their name upon you. A poem or painting taken as a poem are the shadow speaking, a part resembling a whole, reaching, wondering how it relates to the whole of an individual.

John Ashbery, “Pleasure Boats”

What does it mean to understand “Pleasure Boats?” Typically, the words of a poem allow reconstruction of a speaker and scenario, I derive a meaning from their interaction, and then I posit an interpretation.

Ashbery leaves me grasping at a scenario, so much so that I’m forming primitive theories of interpretation while digging through my own experience, all to simply understand what the words could mean. Assigning a voice to the speaker feels nearly pointless, at first. But what if we’re dealing with multiple experiences in a poem? Amy King in “And the Occasion Changed” writes the following about Ashbery’s corpus:

John wasn’t trying to show us “reality,” what is; he was showing us how to discover what else is beyond that shared social overlay. Ashbery pluralizes what is: the plurality of reality. The realities right under our noses. This is the spiritual for me…

I can’t help but feel that “the plurality of reality” is very much on display in “Pleasure Boats:”

Pleasure Boats
John Ashbery

Wash it again
and yet again.
The equation drifts.

Wallowing in penguins,
she was wallowing in penguins.

With fiendish cleverness
the foreground closes in.

The four-leaf clover loses.

“Wash it again / and yet again,” “penguins,” and “four-leaf clover” could conjure a child’s bathtime in a suburban home. Toy boats and toy penguins and no responsibility. Just drifting until bathtime’s over. However, one could also imagine oneself on a cruise, one of those heading, say, near Antarctica, washing oneself over and over in an anxious moment, aimless and out of luck. There are an infinite number of scenarios worth discussing, but strangely, they cohere based on the thinnest of threads: the unfocused and repetitive action, the wallowing with what almost seems absurd, the end of the time doing the action, and the sense that this involves being “out of luck” or beyond luck. Nostalgia and our supposedly refined, adult desires both meet on these grounds. I can say one thing for myself—I’ve never particularly wanted to be on a boat, though if the food is spectacular, sign me up. Still, maybe I should take a closer look at those times I’ve lingered at home too long, doing nothing before work. Why did my feeling of freedom depend so much on what I didn’t want to do?