Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, “Afraid Ancestral”

Panic is learned, I believe.

It could be natural. Maybe humanity has an instinct to fear the unfamiliar. —Still, there are babies radiating brightness, trying to say hi to every other person, animal, plant.— Maybe human reason creates a sense of familiarity over time, in order to naturally tell what to defend, what to avoid. —This is utter nonsense. It’s used informally nowadays to defend the most unnatural ideas, ideas such as “the homeland” or “the race.”—

Panic is more than likely learned. What is unfamiliar becomes familiar through learning, and perhaps panic would dissolve in all cases if we were fully resolved to ending our own ignorance and risking our prior commitments. Nothing is so simple, of course. There are things those we love have learned, and even if we don’t appreciate their knowledge immediately, we learn the same, wondering if we’ve become the exact same people as our parents. We learn a deep sense of fear. Mom is afraid / the sky will fall:

Afraid Ancestral (from The Many Names for Mother)
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Mom is afraid
the sky will fall
because it's fallen
before
and there
is no recovering
from the weight 
of clouds.

Mom is afraid / the sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before — this is the hard case, if not the hardest. If I knew anything about how to reassure my parents, I would be a literal angel. They saw something, were shaken, and had every right to be shaken. I can label that irrational all I want. I’m going to be shaken, too.

Yet, there are ways I know. Differently, if not better. If I move away from the hardest case, a case like the shattering of what you’ve built your life around, I can see difficult cases where fear operates, for better or worse. I may even be able to think through them, ever so slightly.

*

One of them involves fear being useful. The son of Pericles in Xenophon’s Memorabilia III.5 worries that Athenians lack pride, and as a result, are faltering on the battlefield. Socrates—yes, that Socrates—says confidence isn’t always best for good order—maybe the Athenians need to be scared. Maybe fear will get them to be disciplined, try harder, achieve things thought impossible.

I’ve wondered about this for a while now. Fear does help us learn when we’re kids: it gets us to see the value of rules. It gets us to respect others and be mindful of their concerns. For a citizenry or an army, it serves as powerful motivation. People can build the strongest sort of courage by being scared of failing the people fighting with them.

But no one would describe Socrates himself—a man who didn’t blink in the face of being executed—as fearful. One might say, as I do, that he’s pained by ignorance. But scared of it?

The possibility of a completely fearless life does not seem to be without cost. Socrates did not stay at home and attend to his wife and children. Xanthippe for her part holds Socrates’ baby, utterly shattered in the Phaedo.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen before is so much larger than mere utility. It’s a lesson which scars and stays. When we’re looking for someone to start a family with, we get scarred. We’re mistrusted, not fully sure of love, not able to communicate or be communicated with all within the span of successful relationships, let alone unsuccessful ones.

I’m not speaking here of the kind of trauma which causes brothers and sisters to never speak to each other again. This is something weirder, where one opens up one’s life to be shared and then feels like no one wants what you have to offer. It’s not insignificant, but it’s a fear and a hurt which accompany any attempt at a relationship.

Still, despite its “everydayness,” I feel like it might be justly described in somewhat cataclysmic language, as if the sky has fallen. No one should have to be so vulnerable just so others can reject them. It’s like the ages where people arranged marriages for the sake of property or status had something correct. This marrying for “love” thing would entail that a lot of people got hurt by making it an excuse for drama.

No one’s identity should depend on how desirable they are. Maybe this isn’t a big deal as regards a functional family or society, but it does seem right to fear losing oneself in a tangle of slights not meant to injure you personally, but reject your person all the same.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before… there / is no recovering / from the weight of clouds.

We bring the books we’ve read to these lines, and that doesn’t do “the weight of clouds” justice.

We bring our pains from our relationships—maybe even our own familial trials—and still, no.

How to grapple with this fear? How to grasp what must be learned?

One might say to watch Mom carefully, who knows the sky will fall and has survived. There is power and faith in that view. I’ve seen enough to know that not everyone who survives does it well.

Of course one who loves will watch Mom carefully. But maybe we should watch ourselves just as much when we deal with “the weight of clouds.” Perhaps, for us, it was less the sky falling, and more our assuming the sky was the ground itself. And perhaps we plummeted, right through the cloud itself.

It’s that perspective which we resist. We more or less skip to “we’re becoming our parents,” treating the experience of how we established ourselves as an illusion. That, I think, is the mistake, the mistake which in some cases can break us in deep ways.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: you can’t possibly understand your own values enough. They will look like your parents’ values and draw you into some ironic situations, sometimes cruel and terrible ones. But the point where the sky fell for them is not quite the point where the sky falls for you. “The weight of clouds” is our weight, our individual weight, brought forth by the fact we love on our own terms, for our own reasons. Would that family understood that, instead of seeing all love as theirs.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “At Last the New Arriving”

“How was your birthday?” Well-meaning, polite people ask this, and I want to give a response better than “I had sushi” (I actually had Popeye’s) or “I read and made notes on Meno 75b-76a” (true, but for some strange reason, I don’t have the inclination to say this aloud).

I usually ask people if they made a wish on their birthday. You never know if you’ll get what you wished for, and if you don’t, you’ve still spoken your happiness as a priority to yourself. Maybe stating my own wish would be a “better” response when I’m asked about my birthday? I’d like anyone stuck listening to me about anything to be more engaged, happier, more curious, more thoughtful because of it—I’d rather not feel like I was boring them.

Maybe I should more closely consider the bliss of the new—for me, a new year, perhaps a new decade—arriving at last. Is it a bliss in which I can share immediately? Resolve myself to earn? The poem below seems to speak a combination of joy, hope, and wonder, and I wonder:

At Last the New Arriving
Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Like the horn you played in Catholic school
the city will open its mouth and cry

out. Don't worry 'bout nothing. Don't mean
no thing. It will leave you stunned

as a fighter with his eyes swelled shut
who's told he won the whole damn purse.

It will feel better than any floor
that's risen up to meet you. It will rise

like Easter bread, golden and familiar
in your grandmother's hands. She'll come back

heaven having been too far from home
to hold her. O it will be beautiful.

Every girl will ask you to dance and the boys
won't kill you for it. Shake your head.

Dance until your bones clatter. What a prize
you are. What a lucky sack of stars.

Birthdays call forth not only our past, but our very origin. Like the horn you played in Catholic school—I remember playing an instrument. I was terrified, frustrated, completely unsure how it was supposed to sound. And I might as well have been a newborn in that moment, newborn like the city [that] will open its mouth and cry out.

I assume the cry a loud noise, but confused and innocent. Thoroughly mediocre. Yet it begins to expand into something ever greater. As presented, it reassures itself. What little song there was in the noise generates lyrics: Don’t worry ’bout nothing. Don’t mean no thing. A tune does not magically find words, nor does a pain naturally find reassurance. So does a city truly cry with us in solidarity?

I wonder how “new” the “new” “arriving” is. For the past two months, I’ve only really wrestled with James Baldwin, trying to fully realize for myself how much would change if racism was properly confronted. The change in the moral order, in the way we conceive, teach, and hold moral sentiments ourselves, would be such that it would essentially be the Second Coming:

In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. (from “A Letter to My Nephew”)

In a similar vein, this poem asks me to believe my private pain can be expressed without shame and I can find reassurance through the public. This is not a small undertaking: this is the kingdom of heaven.

(And all I’m looking for, at the present moment, are some words to better describe my birthday.)

*

I guess I should expect more from myself, perhaps wish for more. The poem’s language may speak less to victory or joy, but rather to the intensity of suffering which completely blinds us to the possibility of either. It will leave you stunned as a fighter with his eyes swelled shut who’s told he won the whole damn prize. When suffering so much, one thinks everything else but victory. I might think “I want this to end,” “I hope some part of me is recoverable,” “wow I wish could be aware of more,” “holy I messed that up.” “The whole damn prize,” here, seems to be that the possible is now possible.

I can’t quite say I feel that, as my sufferings are nowhere near the scale of that prize-fighter. I can say that I have some share in It will feel better than any floor that’s risen up to meet you. The feeling one wouldn’t even be able to take a step without punishment, that one was compelled to step into one’s own doom, countered by the fact there was a floor and I could navigate it and move forward. I think of how many have put up with me saying stupid or worthless things and didn’t make a big deal of it. They didn’t punish me for my awkwardness, but instead accepted me. A lot of places are looking for the least mistake in order to bully others and consolidate their power. Because I was given space, I strove to be better and became better. Birthday wishes are a recreation of that space—you’re celebrated merely for being—and I’d like to internalize that more. Extend it to others more.

Still, the imagery of the poem asks me to consider how much even that share in acceptance is eschatological thinking. The “stun” of a fighter who can’t even see, the feeling that a floor rises to give you ground—these are everyday miracles, but they are not minor. The resurrection of the dead is not far behind: It will rise like Easter bread, golden and familiar in your grandmother’s hands. She’ll come back, heaven having been too far from home to hold her. O it will be beautiful. There’s a lot to say about these lines—about being perpetually celebrated by those who once celebrated you—but I cannot do them justice fully at the moment. I can say that “heaven…too far from home to hold her” is the New Testament, the new dispensation. The only true justice is here, on this earth at this moment. That one can conceive of what is just serves to link mankind and God, but that leads to two radical states of affairs: 1) The bliss of the poem is real, tied to a world that could exist here and does exist here in part 2) Our experiences of suffering, necessity, and wrestling with ghosts are part of that bliss, that justice. I am not trying to repeat a medieval myth that still holds sway over many, that Providence or divine justice requires we suffer in this life. The truth is far too strange to articulate in a way useful for any theological-political project. One cannot dismiss someone as “utopian” because they think we should try to eradicate poverty or exercise tolerance. However, the enormity and complexity of justice seems to stand as a stricture on human reason.

When I worry about the unreality of the poem, I worry about something all too personal. What does it mean for me—just me—to have hope?

*

Back to middle school, back to high school, back to college—surrounded by a mass of humanity, we wonder what we’re doing there. And we wish everyone would reach out and love us and make our acceptance of ourselves so much easier: Every girl will ask you to dance and the boys won’t kill you for it. Shake your head. Dance until your bones clatter. This is the “new,” the state of affairs that never has been. The state of affairs all young people wish for and all of us adults wish we could give them. The state of affairs all old people ask for and all of us wish we could make real.

Part of it exists on this earth. I’ve been lucky enough that there have been dances where it felt like every girl asked me to dance. But I, like those of you reading, am thinking of those who have found ways of ignoring us, people who have dedicated themselves to not caring, not reaching out. People dedicated to hostility, consciously or unconsciously.

Hope isn’t really about objects or success. It’s fundamentally about other people. That might explain why people who seemed very loving can become very hateful—they turned others into embodiments of their expectations without quite realizing what they were doing. For myself, the task is to identify hopes in this vein: that what seems to be about me is not actually about me, and what’s about others is sometimes really only about me. What a prize you are. What a lucky sack of stars only means something if others are touched by its import, if others feel like they’re a prize, worthy and wanted and bright throughout the ages.

Emily Dickinson, “One and One – are One” (769)

One and One — are One, intones Dickinson.

You could say, as the kids do, that Dickinson is being “extra.” Two — be finished using is her very next line. She’s done with someone, there’s a breakup or heartbreak of some sort, and this leads her to discount mathematics? Logic? Not much later, she strongly implies Minor Choosing is about things like Life… Death… the Everlasting:

One and One - are One (769)
Emily Dickinson

One and One — are One —
Two — be finished using —
Well enough for Schools —
But for Minor Choosing —

Life — just — or Death —
Or the Everlasting —
More — would be too vast
For the Soul's Comprising — 

This is a poem with a lot of drama—those of us around volatile situations might think these words as likely to start drama—and it puts us into a peculiar situation as readers. How seriously do we take its rhetoric, its emotion? I vote for treating it with the utmost seriousness, despite its exaggerations. One and One — are One hints at a proposition with quite a story in the history of philosophy, one that touches on Life, Death, and the Everlasting. Further, Dickinson’s overblown statement about what is too vast / For the Soul’s Comprising can be turned into very necessary questions. What she terms “too vast” concerns knowledge relevant to love. How do we know love, how do we assess the value of love, how do we work within love? —If these questions sound irrelevant, think of those who rushed to be married and brought fresh hell upon each other.—

*

One and One — are One — / Two — be finished using directly invokes, intentionally or not, the problem of body and soul in Plato’s Phaedo. There, Socrates sits on his deathbed, about to drink the hemlock which will kill him, but first he has to deal with his own cult. One might be eager to know if Socrates acts so bravely because he knows the soul is immortal. You might put the rough idea this way: if body and soul are united, but two distinct things, then perhaps the soul preserves what it has learned through the body after the body dies. Two is comprised of one and one, but one of the ones holds two.

Socrates gives no less than an intellectual autobiography, i.e. answers the question of “How did Socrates come to be Socrates?”, while saying something similar to One and One — are One. Once, when he was young, he studied only natural philosophy. “I thought it was a glorious thing to know the causes of everything, why each thing comes into being and why it perishes and why it exists” (96a). But this led to a problem. While his knowledge certainly increased, was he receiving the knowledge of causality he sought? At first, he thought those who ate more would grow larger, as flesh added to flesh seemed simple enough, or that 10 was larger than 8 because 2 had been added to eight. However, “I am [now] far from thinking that I know the cause of any of these things, I who do not even dare to say, when one is added to one, whether the one to which the addition was made has become two, or the one which was added, or the one which was added and the one to which it was added became two by the addition of each to the other” (96e-97a).

This sounds idiotic. Of course one plus one equals two! What is Socrates babbling about? He speaks about how he has learned to understand cause. It would seem that a powerful, intuitive way of understanding causality is mathematics. When you add one to one, you get two, and if you divide two, you should get two ones. But nothing actually works like that when numbers cease to merely represent the actual things of this world. Socrates wonders which one, when another is added, becomes two, or whether one and one in some sense equally become two. An example, perhaps: when someone is very devoted to a relationship and another not so much, but both enter, only one of the ones has become two.

The beginning of truly understanding requires a “second sailing,” whereby mind does not assume itself all-powerful, able to divide a world which is otherwise undifferentiated unity, nor assume itself wholly passive, only impressed by objects. The “second sailing” begins with error, with an opinion that has gone far astray. Mind relates to the world and the world relates to mind, and as Seth Benardete notes, that entails a doubleness: how mind relates to the world is an entirely different proposition than how the world relates to one’s mind. 1 + 1 really does equal 1 in this sense: if you think you understand what you mean by two simply because two objects are present to you, you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Dickinson plays with this philosophical rhetoric which is, like “Two,” well enough for Schools. It does touch on Life, Death, and the Everlasting in a profound way. I believe Socrates feels that the relation between body and soul is ever so delicate. Body does generate a soul, and a soul generates changes in body, but if anything happens to one or the other, both are injured or perish. One plus one is one, if assumed to be a Socratic sentiment, reinforces our fallibility and mortality.

*

You could say this is quite the assumption I’m making. Why can’t this just be a poem lamenting love and pain? Why can’t I leave good things alone?

Going back to the Phaedo, there’s another question at stake. Mind is, in one way, a dividing power. It analyzes, and in this sense, philosophy is like practicing dying (again, stealing this from Seth Benardete). Things are not treated in full respect of their being alive or part of this world when questioned or conceptualized. But this leads to a further problem—what puts things together?

That may be philosophy as eros, the erotic longing for knowledge which hopes to comprehend a whole. In which case, Life — just — or Death — / or the Everlasting really are the smaller issues, strangely enough. “How should we live?” isn’t the final truth about Life or Death as cosmic phenomena. It’s a practical question with theoretical overtones, but those overtones become, if used properly, the only true theorizing, theorizing which seeks to understand rather than proclaim.

I’ll give an example of something I’ve been thinking about recently, something I suspect lies within the vastness Dickinson says she will not deal with at the moment. It may speak to the situation she’s depicted. I’ve been trying to differentiate the fact that one shouldn’t need respect—I should have enough self-respect to carry myself a certain way, do the things I need to do—from the fact that respect is incredibly useful on an everyday level. It’s led me to two different notions of “respect:” first, a self-esteem which must persist, especially in the face of my making mistakes and needing to admit them. Second, strategizing how to get the respect I need from others to make my job easier, but not taking their lack of attention to the matter personally. I suspect something like this thought applies to issues of romantic love, which begin with matters of status and expectations, but ultimately require partners to demonstrate trust, presence, acceptance, and self-control. Two—be finished using, indeed.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

1 The unexamined life is not worth living does not seem true. We can be very hurt in friendships and relationships; we can fall to pieces when goals, large or small, can’t be met. When we try to isolate our disappointment, we find it complex. There’s lots of self-blame, some of it warranted. Lots of indicators passed over because of hoping for and fighting for a greater good. Lots of things and events we couldn’t conceive, much less control.

The “examined” life asks us to find knowledge in moments where we have been especially ignorant. Even if this is not a superhuman task, does it make sense? Can’t wisdom be accumulated on a practical level, with painful memories put aside? Why do we have to face the prospect of tearing ourselves down to build ourselves back up?

2 There’s another complaint about the examined life I should outline. Julian Baggini in “Wisdom’s Folly” argues that it is hopelessly elitist: “though almost everyone questions the way they live at some point, it is probably only a minority who subject it to Socratic scrutiny.” He sees a great injustice in implying the labor required for survival does not have the value of seriously thinking through things: “The bulk of humankind, today and in history, has been far too busy struggling for survival to engage in lengthy philosophical analyses.”

This sounds like a fair complaint. I don’t really want my value to depend on how smart I am or the rigor of my thought. But it would be nice if the dignity of my life were evaluated relative to my efforts. The trouble with such a sentiment is that if life does demand some reflection, then one wants to have engaged in the best reflection possible. This is non-negotiable: plenty of people labor because they have made serious decisions about their lives, decisions made with a real appreciation for “Socratic scrutiny.” People who don’t do this—people who get their opinions from whatever is before the commercial break—we call “tools.” They play at reflection and get played; they have answers which break apart when the smallest question is asked; many have very strong opinions about what everyone else ought to do.

Baggini’s argument that self-examination leads to dismissive elitism has another component. He holds that the “examined life,” for Plato and Socrates, is “noble.” It is “an encouragement to be fully human, to use our highly developed faculty of thought to raise our existence above that of mere beasts.” However, this implies that there are “human beings who do not [think properly], and so have valueless, bestial lives. The noble ideal has a harsh implication: some in the herd of humankind may as well be animals, or dead.”

I have two arguments with Baggini on this point. First, you can argue that philosophy is a noble endeavor—I spent a dissertation doing that—but you must actually engage what “nobility” was in Socrates’ time. You can find ambitious young men, like Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias, saying that acquiring necessary and proper knowledge is noble, but too much knowledge and too many questions are only detrimental to individuals and society. People will praise the arts a sophist can teach, but they will still find association with a sophist disreputable. The safe argument is that philosophy itself is not generally considered noble. If one does argue that it is noble, this is in opposition to a notion of nobility which exists to generate a political elite, an elite which at times tries to rule people as if they were a herd.

Second, some people become worse than useless. Some people embrace evil. They have not engaged in serious reflection, they’ve allowed themselves to be swallowed up by a cult or their own anger. Calling them animals is an insult to animals, but the heart of the matter is this: instead of acting in, say, the service of the Reich, those people should have been doing anything else, including pouring over the books and learning how to question themselves and their own capacities. Baggini neglects the importance of “moderation” regarding the Socratic character, and I almost forgot it myself. Socrates is moderate to comical extremes. In Xenophon’s Apology, Socrates deals with the pain of an Athens cut off from its food supply better than most because he’s been starving himself his whole life. Moderation, though, is why a true philosopher would never demean the labor of another because it was manual labor. Moderation is why intellectual labors are necessary—a “mean” must be identified—and why tolerance, ironically enough, comes to an end. I can’t take credit for this quote—“first they came for the Nazis, and then the problem ended because the problem was the Nazis”—but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

3 So: the unexamined life is not worth living has a power not immediately obvious. Serious self-examination isn’t necessarily about our personal happiness or what is best for us. It’s really about avoiding our worst outcome: becoming a person we detest, becoming someone who harms others with no regard for the pain they cause. One might say this makes philosophy useless, as religion and most systems of laws can show one plenty of ways to not hurt others. I’ll just whistle as that’s being said and keep talking to the large number of people serious about religion and politics who desperately want to know more about philosophy because they want to know how best to challenge their own thinking.

But if I make philosophy sound like another religion or regime, I’m not telling the truth. Love of wisdom is a way of life, and it’s a way of life which requires especial effort to achieve. It’s not even clear that Socrates himself always achieves it—when does he know, truly, that he loves wisdom? Speaking about intellectual labor versus manual labor, the few versus the many, is not the central issue. The central issue is the character of eros: if we are to love, how does love of wisdom work?

When one thinks about self-examination and love of wisdom, a number of complications arise. On the one hand, self-examination is a tough, frightful, painful process. On the other, it’s something that can be an addiction. It is possible to think too much and paralyze oneself, to pretend to pursue self-knowledge but not pursue anything at all. What Plato seems to hold as a rough anchor for philosophic eros is “the beautiful:” an object of beauty to be desired and questioned can help us communicate what we’re experiencing and trying to achieve. But this only brings us back to the beginning, when I wondered about tearing oneself down to build oneself up again. Must philosophy be pain?

I don’t know the answer. The unexamined life is not worth living is dark comedy—Socrates says it in a specific context, that of not accepting exile as a punishment. He says this expressly to the jury so they condemn him to death. “Not worth living” is not a throwaway phrase. For ourselves, on an everyday level, I’ll just add this: some things are hard to let go because they really were beautiful, and we’re still not sure how. Some ideas and ideals won’t go away because they can’t go away. Tearing oneself down and building oneself up again is the wrong metaphor, though it describes the feeling. The process is turning answers back into questions, but I don’t think any of us have ever been fully aware how much pain—how much history—that entails.

Suzanne Buffam, “On Antigone”

Law spoke, says the poem.

Law spoke, creating the world in which I live. A world where I enjoy Internet access and am sometimes of help to human beings.

Law spoke, and I constantly feel awkward, fearful, uncertain of boundaries. Not so much on account of specific laws or law enforcement. But the structure of the world in which I live has given some to believe themselves privileged, to believe themselves inherently lawful. What is left for the rest of us? For myself, I must always prove who I am.

On Antigone
Suzanne Buffam

Law spoke
And the land bit its lip.
Why spit in the wind?
Love too is a law.

Is my distance from my country also a distance from the text? It does not seem beyond the poem: Law spoke / And the land bit its lip. And, I would add—here I have to thank my students for their detailed, thorough close reading of Antigone—it fits with Creon’s obsessive insistence on loyalty. His prohibition, his penalty of death for burial of a traitor, means to make everyone loyal, ending the possibility of civil strife. He does not see friendship as possible without patriotism first; the private, in his vision, becomes completely beholden to what is public.

The law empowers him, beginning the creation of a class empowered by the law.

The defense of the private only begins with some recoiling in pain, then committing to disbelieving, angry protest. What is unnatural, a servitude where feelings are not permitted, extends to the land. It makes perfect sense Antigone would be shut in a cave and hang herself there, staining the land with Creon’s sin. But it also makes perfect sense she would appear in the midst of windstorms or leave nearly no trace of her work. All things beyond the polis mirror the protest of the private, for that is where the private has been exiled.

Until it returns, marching on all seven gates at once. Why spit in the wind? / Love too is a law. One cannot deny the private without denying oneself. Authoritarianism falls apart because of the very wildness it must let in. The “decadence” fascists most bemoan is the mere exercise of fundamental rights. Love too is a law, and would that it made sense. Unlike Creon, unlike those who desperately want to speak law to mask their insecurity, there is the acceptance of pain, of letting go. I think of some of the coldest things that I’ve seen done–people completely shutting out the humanity of another–and it’s so obvious that a will to violence is masked by a pretend stoicism. Love too is a law, where error and imperfection abound.