Caesar III (Impressions Software, 1998)

“Have to make the people go where they must,” I keep telling myself. 

Playing Caesar 3, which some call “SimRome.” Efficient city-building means getting everyone access to goods and services. Except, say, when you set a Library down, it doesn’t cover a specific portion of the map unless you know exactly what you’re doing. The Library produces a Librarian, who walks on the paths built. Build the paths badly and he may wander over to the industrial section of town, never past any homes: there might as well not be a library. Some of the more complicated problems, in terms of the game itself, involve getting adequate information. Feeding people requires a seller from the Market to walk around the neighborhood, but that same seller has to make a trip to the Granary to get food. If the Granary is running short, it is quite likely she’ll attempt the trip and bring back nothing. Your city will look good, the workers will be busy, but the houses won’t evolve into better units consistently. You won’t realize your own citizens are starving.

Currently, I hold the title of Quaestor. My service to Caesar has resulted in some of the world’s ugliest cities. A solid strategy is to make simple paths: create a large 9×9 block, housing around the perimeter two rows deep, with gardens and a fountain in the center. Gardens increase property value; fountains are the water supply. The road around the houses lends itself to surrounding the 9X9 block with every service imaginable. The providers will walk around, their path obvious, and every home will receive in due time.

The trouble is that the resulting cities aren’t merely ugly, they’re untrue to life. The second book of Aristotle’s Politics tends to be a boring read for most. Aristotle spends considerable time there talking about this city planner who was overly devoted to the number three. Everything would be divided in accordance with his mystical number. It’s easy to laugh at him, but the problem cuts deeper than childish, utopian visions. In order to build a city, you have to impose from the very beginning. That initial imposition, as people better than me have noted for centuries, is pretty much nothing less than pure tyranny. Yet to so overwhelmingly lack any actual knowledge of how people behave or what they need and desire isn’t just inhumane. It leads to a potential knower’s own craziness: why not just divide everything up into threes? Your vision might be beautiful, and your “threes” will correspond with something pertaining to human life. If you actually know better, you should guess rightly.

There’s something about how cities organize themselves I’d like to observe better. The Librarian isn’t wandering to the industrial section because of his thirst for knowledge, but because the path was built badly. The busy work of those in the market, unfortunately, is too true to life. We don’t really know how many people in America live on $2 a day; the number is invisible and of the utmost significance. In game, I try to put buildings near each other you wouldn’t normally consider together to see what happens. What if a school is next to the blacksmith, a warehouse near the baths? What about a library adjacent to a barracks? My virtual citizens go about their daily business like nothing’s happening. Real cities, in their refusal of orthodoxy, reflect deeper needs. I think I read once that right across from Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, there used to be the city jail, and the prisoners had no qualms about begging from people like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington for food and alms as they passed by.

Kay Ryan, “Blandeur”

Blandeur (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

Comment:

Let less happen. Lord, cancel beauty and majesty, flatten Eiger, rid the Grand Canyon of colors and depth. Replace these with a perfectly spherical Earth, predictable, conforming to equations.

Give me a measure of control, perfection of a sort. Let the Earth be simply useful. Slightly higher valleys don’t hide fertility. Clearly mark where we can grow food, where we ought not tread. Above all, do not allow nature any independence, revoke its command over terror, change, beauty:

remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.

Unlean against our hearts. Let the world be ours, without question.

Paul Celan, “Vinegrowers”

Vinegrowers (from Poetry)
Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth,

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds,

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I made a podcast about this poem. Titus has been working on an extended commentary on how the original German works. I’ve been fortunate to read part of it, and I can safely tell you it’s beautiful and thoughtful (but then again, who would expect any less?). When it is finished, I will be sure to share the link. For now, here’s the podcast and a brief discussion of the above translation. Credit to Titus for most of the observations which follow:

“Vinegrowers” is Celan’s last poem. Celan killed himself, and one might expect to find darkness attendant upon this lyric. Instead, we encounter a cryptic comment on Creation. First, a garden:

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth

Vinegrowers dig in the dark; both starlight and the clock attest to their earliness. They’re doing, but no matter what, they’re starting, unclear on what is actually being done. “Dig up dig” and “depth for depth” indicate the only accomplishment is an ever-increasing pile of dirt.

Suddenly, Celan switches the scene:

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds

Everything shifts with “you read.” You just read that vinegrowers dig in the dark, randomly piling in the name of making an effort. Your reading resulted in you imagining a scene. With the author, you have created.

That strange thought leads to the next scene, where “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds.” Prior to the garden, the word was present at Creation, governing it. The invisible logos commands the invisible “to stay in bounds,” to accept restriction and allow for differentiation.

Things actually are; this is a real world we live in. But our access to it is curious. Images are created, images which present forms which, in turn, seem to generate or define the beings around us. “Seem” is the operative word. Just as the poet digs, looking for the right words, ones which never quite match his object, the vinegrowers are all of us, not quite knowing what we’re doing. Only God matches the act of creating with a specific object. There are, for the rest of us, degrees of not knowing exactly what one is doing.

Those degrees mean that “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds” has a special significance for the poet, the one thinking aloud through this problem. He’s a vinegrower too, but he knows what light can do. The last stanza:

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath

Once again, “you read.” The invisible power restricting the winds before? That was a myth you read, imagined, gave life to. It was not without consequence, though. “The Open Ones carry the stone behind the eye.” The invisible meanings from before led to a species of openness – you asked questions – and the very thing blocking your eye, forcing your reading to be a pipeline to your imagination only, has now moved behind the eye. It isn’t gone; it did not dissolve. When we truly learn, we remember how we learned. Understanding falsity is the path to knowledge. Yet we are not in control, not in the least: “it recognizes you.” True knowledge is a revelation of sorts, as we are remade and at rest in the world.

Miron Białoszewski, “Autoportrait as felt”

Autoportrait as felt (from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

They look at me
so probably I have a face.
Of all the faces known
I remember least my own.

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

I bear by myself
a place of my own.
When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

Comment:

Titus and I did another podcast, this time on a poem of Białoszewski’s. It’s a jokey, philosophic poem with a fun narrator, and you’ll love the discussion. We’ve really improved since the first one, but are still working on our banter:

A walk down the street feels a little bit creepy, if someone utters the first lines: “They look at me[,] so I probably have a face.” Talk about awkward!

Still, the skeptical reasoning serves a purpose. The narrative voice wants to construct his experience out of what he knows. This may seem backwards to us, but he gives a compelling reason for the project: “Of all the faces known / I remember least my own.” Proust mentions how what we think about people comes to define our visual image of them. If someone is seen as disloyal and ungrateful, then we will see them that way, no matter how beautiful or handsome they are to others. Weirdly, this process would be a benefit to our narrator in his quest. If he could associate a proposition defining himself with his face, it would be memorable.

Just as he wonders about his face, he wonders about his hands:

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Because the hands live in “absolute separation,” he does not know whether they are his or not. As hands are to possession, a face is to perception. He cannot know his hands are his because he cannot hold them; the typical criterion for possession is absent. Similarly, perception depends on having a face, but what to say when you can’t perceive yourself adequately?

The questions joke, but also convey a certain seriousness. The narrator is unclear on his humanity: “Where are my limits?” No face, no hands: is he human? An indistinguishable blob? More than himself? “I am overgrown by movement or half-life:” in movement, he has to step beyond something, always. “Half-life” I take to refer to the problem of his face. He cannot see himself, but can only see how others react to what he thinks is himself. In both cases of “movement” and “half-life,” he is too much.

Resolution of this problem involves a movement from human being to simply being:

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

“Always is crawling in me,” as no matter what, he is a being-in-time. Whether or not his existence is full, or felt “not full,” like the doubting stanzas above indicate, he is because he is in time. This is not an uncomplicated proposition. It does create a sort of solace, as it accepts vague boundaries for himself. His burden is a place of his own:

I bear by myself
a place of my own.

A statement of resolve, but immediately challenged by the consequence of placing oneself squarely as a temporal being:

When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

In trying to find solace in simply being, one has to accept what at first seems like a strength. No matter how much one changes, one bears a place of his own. You are, no matter how much you change. You are a space for transformation. Unfortunately, this exposes the difference between simply being and talking about simply being. The latter, the words or logos if you will, can never be the same thing as actually existing. The narrator is taking solace in the words, in what he associates with the realization “always is crawling in me / full or not full existence.” If he loses this association, he should die a metaphorical death, no? “When I lose it / it will mean I am not.”

Does this mean the reflection was worthless? It did start from jokey premises and perhaps found courage too quickly. But I don’t think it was at all; as Titus and I discuss on the podcast, there are people with half their faces blown off, people who quite literally aren’t sure their hands are theirs. Anxiety and trauma make you question your place in the world, and you are forced into radical lines of inquiry in order to remember that you are still alive and can find purpose.

In that light, the final Cartesian joke makes perfect sense:

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

“I am not [a particular thing],” I am indeterminate – the emphasis is on the crawling of the always. Hence no doubt in the direction of the logos, no doubt until the burden is lost, simultaneously with the speaker himself.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Love at First Sight”

Love at First Sight (from mission.net)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Walter Whipple)

Both are convinced
that a sudden surge of emotion bound them together.
Beautiful is such a certainty,
but uncertainty is more beautiful.

Because they didn’t know each other earlier, they suppose that
nothing was happening between them.
What of the streets, stairways and corridors
where they could have passed each other long ago?

I’d like to ask them
whether they remember– perhaps in a revolving door
ever being face to face?
an “excuse me” in a crowd
or a voice “wrong number” in the receiver.
But I know their answer:
no, they don’t remember.

They’d be greatly astonished
to learn that for a long time
chance had been playing with them.

Not yet wholly ready
to transform into fate for them
it approached them, then backed off,
stood in their way
and, suppressing a giggle,
jumped to the side.

There were signs, signals:
but what of it if they were illegible.
Perhaps three years ago,
or last Tuesday
did a certain leaflet fly
from shoulder to shoulder?
There was something lost and picked up.
Who knows but what it was a ball
in the bushes of childhood.

There were doorknobs and bells
on which earlier
touch piled on touch.
Bags beside each other in the luggage room.
Perhaps they had the same dream on a certain night,
suddenly erased after waking.

Every beginning
is but a continuation,
and the book of events
is never more than half open.

Comment:

Titus and I made another podcast. I think you’ll notice substantial improvement over the last one, even though the poem is longer and more unwieldy. Definitely encourage you to listen and give feedback – more will be coming:

A very complicated poem, which introduces itself like a romantic comedy. “Both are convinced that a sudden surge of emotion bound them together.” A sudden surge of emotion! Blood rushes into the head and heart and there’s love love love everywhere and everyone is convinced of it and it amazes all the time.

Well, not everyone stands convinced. The poem employs a peculiar narrator, one who sounds an awful lot like the couple’s worst delusions while trying to analyze the situation. To wit: who exactly says the following?

Beautiful is such a certainty,
but uncertainty is more beautiful.

This could be the musing of the narrator or the couple. Maybe uncertainty is always more beautiful. Or maybe we’re talking about how we didn’t know each other before, we were so uncertain, but that leads to being certain about each other in an uncertain world.

The narrator wants to know what constitutes “love at first sight.” To this end, she tries to get a grip on what the couple knew or experienced beforehand and what that means for love:

Because they didn’t know each other earlier, they suppose that
nothing was happening between them.
What of the streets, stairways and corridors
where they could have passed each other long ago?

An obstacle appears: how the couple regards their experience of love now turns out to be central (“they suppose that nothing was happening between them [before]”). This initially provokes all the more the question of whether they were led anywhere (Titus rightly emphasizes the word “corridors”) when they were walking around. “What of the streets, stairways and corridors where they could have passed each other long ago?”

“Love at first sight” must be answerable! “I’d like to ask them whether they remember– perhaps in a revolving door ever being face to face? [A]n “excuse me” in a crowd or a voice “wrong number” in the receiver.” And just like that, our speaker has to back off: “But I know their answer: no, they don’t remember.” Perhaps they will construct epic stories about near-miss encounters for the wedding album. Still, there are two reasons why they don’t remember now. First, “love at first sight,” strictly speaking, doesn’t allow it. Second, we have to treat them as if they’re acting in good faith for the purposes of the inquiry. They legitimately don’t remember; they will not admit their muddled memories as evidence.

Our speaker has to change course. “Love at first sight” refuses to give us a causal chain of events. It refuses even to acknowledge a more charitable explanation of itself: perhaps we build our lives a certain way, we learn to love a certain way, and then we actually see what we love. In the face of this obstinance, she proposes a story both she and the starry-eyed lovers can agree on. Maybe “chance” played with the lovers instead, the whole time. And maybe “chance” was a child, waiting to turn into fate:

They’d be greatly astonished
to learn that for a long time
chance had been playing with them.

Not yet wholly ready
to transform into fate for them
it approached them, then backed off,
stood in their way
and, suppressing a giggle,
jumped to the side.

I’m not entirely sure why the couple would be “greatly astonished” that chance played with them. In a way, it is “love at first sight:” isn’t it a chance encounter that brought them together? I guess that in another way, it cuts against “love at first sight.” If one actually sees and loves now, then what does the past matter, whether it is explainable or not?

What stands out most from these stanzas is the childishness of chance: “approached them, then backed off, stood in their way and, suppressing a giggle, jumped to the side.” An inquiry into “love at first sight” cannot yield a rational explanation. But it does not find pure chance at work, either. It finds something primal, first, developing, playful. It finds something that’s us, but is difficult, if not impossible, to explain. The poem begins to illustrate this more:

There were signs, signals:
but what of it if they were illegible.
Perhaps three years ago,
or last Tuesday
did a certain leaflet fly
from shoulder to shoulder?
There was something lost and picked up.
Who knows but what it was a ball
in the bushes of childhood.

Illegible signs and signals; a floating leaflet; something lost and picked up. The world is intelligible for an observer. The couple is in the midst of the world, though, experiencing love now and before that, simply experiencing. Even if everything about them is written down, it’s all around them, but only all around them. Only the speaker sees something lost and picked up. They can’t – they can only see “love” and “not in love.” Their love will rewrite history, but for now, it is obvious that “love at first sight,” in a strange way, is not questionable. This doesn’t mean it actually exists or is the most amazing thing and couples that proclaim they loved each other instantly aren’t immature and awful. It means that an air of nostalgia, the “ball in the bushes of childhood,” is more indicative of what can be known about the situation than any attempt at a “reasonable” account.

What “love at first sight” ultimately concerns is growth and belief. Our speaker has discovered, in her probing, this to be more a declaration than an explanation. And maybe declarations are all the more necessary, given how parallel our lives can be in this world, never intersecting for the sake of friendship or community, much less love:

There were doorknobs and bells
on which earlier
touch piled on touch.
Bags beside each other in the luggage room.
Perhaps they had the same dream on a certain night,
suddenly erased after waking.

The corridors from before, as Titus noted, lead to doorknobs and bells. Houses stand separate, individual, all the “touch piled on touch” going nowhere. “Bags beside each other in the luggage room” stands out to me as the heart of the poem. We’re constantly with other people, “with” them while being completely absent from their lives. Everyone could be dreaming about everyone else, and it’s utterly meaningless. “Love at first sight,” as awful and stupid and cliched as it is, might be a start:

Every beginning
is but a continuation,
and the book of events
is never more than half open.

The only thing I want to add to this discussion is that Szymborska relentlessly asks “What is X?” questions. This particular poem is driven by “What is love at first sight?” On the audio recording, you can hear criticism of the conduct of philosophy nowadays. Many seem to dismiss things that actually matter to people as pseudoscience, rendering it nonsense. I think there’s a value, though, to knowing that the way we perceive the world, ourselves, and others is pretty much pseudoscience no matter what we do. That to appreciate the hard and wonderful truths of the natural sciences all the more, maybe we should learn how to ask questions, and understand the limits of the questions we raise. I still do think couples proclaiming “love at first sight” is pretty much narcissistic gibberish. But I see its value in a whole new light, thanks to a poem.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Metaphysics”

Metaphysics
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak)

It’s been and gone.
It’s been, so it’s gone.
In the same irreversible order,
for such is the rule of this foregone game.
A trite conclusion, not worth writing
if it weren’t an unquestionable fact,
a fact for ever and ever,
for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be,
that something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I discuss this poem at length. Sometimes we get off track, but we decided that we get into enough themes and ideas that it’s worth having this on in the background at least. I do apologize for talking way too much during this, speculating wildly and stupidly many a time:

For those who prefer a written comment: Titus began discussion with an eye to the repetition which opens the poem. “It’s been and gone. / It’s been, so it’s gone.” “It’s been and gone” joins the past to our experience of the past, still holding each separately. “It’s been, so it’s gone” treats the past more like a cause of our experience.

In any case, both iterations of it’s been/it’s gone can be uttered truly, as the speaker sounds shaken by loss. If there are principles which underlie the universe, ones discoverable by human reason, they only point to the absurdity of it all: “[been and gone are] in the same irreversible order, for such is the rule of this foregone game.” What has passed, or more importantly who has passed, has become separate from her. The intelligibility of the whole only makes the tragedy that much greater; a rational animal has dissolved, as if it only existed to be subject to a law.

The mourning continues. “A trite conclusion” was reached, and it wasn’t worth writing about, except that it was an “unquestionable fact.” This sounds less an argument, and more an expression of grief. The poem exists, after all. “A fact for ever and ever, for the whole cosmos, as it is and will be.” A marked emphasis on the past in the first half of the poem has now given way to the present and the future. There is a glimmer of hope, even though the dead have dissolved into a number of propositions, never to be united again. That hope may be stated such. The permanence of the whole cosmos, of which the beloved was a part, has received them in such a way that they will be found, in some form or other. At some point, some important aspect of them will be recognized, will be present.

It’s small comfort. The title “Metaphysics” is a dark joke about metaphysical thinking itself. A focus on questions of being, rational principles underlying experience and the cosmos, what must exist and what must be true, gives way to something far more essential, far more blunt. “Metaphysics” is “after nature,” after this natural course has been run through. And so:

…something really was
until it was gone,
even the fact
that today you had a side of fries.

Titus and I spoke about how shocking and jokey the end seems to be. “Something really was” is the emotional climax of the poem, the reality of the past and the reality of experience impressing on one’s mind even more urgently than before. Then, all of a sudden, Szymborska ends with “even the fact that today you had a side of fries.” It’s not a hard truth, too harshly stated. It’s the first time the poem visibly gets personal, moving away from abstract concepts to an item someone liked to eat, maybe every day.

Miron Białoszewski, “Garwolin – a town for ever”

Happy Independence Day


Garwolin — a town for ever
(from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

garlic like a pearl… why? garlic is but garlic

tiny umptytown
its winter is peeling

over the town
the sky of garlic
thence for the town
days are like garlic braids
dont you feel by chance
in those peels
the pressure of Roman legions?
and on the garlic flesh
a Spain skidding?
and in the bitterness of juice
a sophist?

Comment:

Not only do heroes and empires make history, but so do tiny towns, even ones permeated thoroughly by garlic. The “tiny umptytown,” “a town for ever,” has a “sky of garlic” which peels as winter progresses. It is eternal, possessing “days like garlic braids.” Everydayness and endurance, manifest in those braids, don’t immediately alert us to a deeper meaning.

We therefore wonder about the garlic itself. Is it a pearl? “Dont you [Garwolin] feel by chance in those peels the pressure of Roman legions?” As time goes on, things repeat, and the past is found again. Do note that Garwolin lost 70% of the city in WWII, with at least 1000 occupants murdered by the Nazis and several thousand deported to camps.

Things repeat, but experience ends: “[dont you feel] on the garlic flesh a Spain skidding?” Winter will go, and it will feel like warmer times have fallen. Like a good has been achieved. “In the bitterness of juice[,] a sophist:” not the absurdity of experience, certainly not clever rhetoric or pseudoscience for power’s sake. I think Białoszewski is very precise here. The heart of the town’s experience is bitter. Strictly speaking, sophists deny justice as natural; it is something we make up. They leave the door open for those who might be more manipulative. A too honest Garwolin has a powerful rationale for embracing such a thesis.

Still, the town contains multitudes, but its garlicky everydayness, its persistence, stands all the more remarkable. Its dreary conventionality points to its belief.

Miron Białoszewski, “A ballad of going down to the store”

With thanks to K.

A ballad of going down to the store (from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

First I went down to the store
by the stairs,
ah, imagine only,
by the stairs.

Then people known to people unknown
passed me by and I passed them by.
Regret
That you did not see
how people walk,
regret!!

I entered a complete store:
lamps of glass were burning.
I saw somebody — he sat down —
and what I heard? what I heard?
rustling of bags and human talk.

And indeed,
indeed,
I returned.

Comment:

Initially, this reads like the rantings of a crazy person (I should know. I’ve read my own writing plenty). An intense, lonely, mystical relationship with objects and motion develops over three stanzas. First, a celebration of going to the store by the stairs: “ah, imagine only, by the stairs.” Then, he rebukes himself, exclaiming “you [yourself] did not see how people walk, regret!!” The speaker, talking to himself the whole time throughout the poem, reaches a strange height when he enters “a complete store: lamps of glass[…] burning.”

The speaker’s ecstasy is far from inhuman. He defines the store as “by the stairs,” whether or not the store is actually close to his residence being irrelevant. The journey starts as a descent, and an imagined proximity to the store indicates a feeling of self-sufficiency. This carries over into his want to preserve every bit of the familiar and not-as-familiar. Memory is a privilege. I know it’s the little details – the brightness of a smile, a funny, peculiar walk, a certain turn of the head – that I need most to remember those who matter most. Our speaker needs these details to build upon his self-sufficiency, to make it worth that much more.

Yet, it is worth quite a bit already. His narration sees the everyday as miraculous; he effuses gratefulness. The store is no less than “complete,” and “lamps of glass” burn, giving light and warmth, bright orbs on earth. The descent has become an ascent, ironically enough, with touches of a divine vision.

What seems to break the spell: “rustling of bags and human talk.” Possessiveness and neediness may be suggested in the image of shopping bags, but they are not half the problem of other people talking. To see the world as miraculous requires an intense focus. People are appreciated as they simply are, no other words necessary. The amazing things people have made – stairs, stores, lamps – these too require no additional speech. Our speaker returns to his home, having given no indication of speaking to anyone, only listening. The repetitions in this poem, the descent, the other humans seeming so alien all make me feel like the speaker has depicted himself as a bird. In which case, a puzzle, connected to an almost distant image. Birds were once thought to be souls. Why is the purity of the soul both most humane and anti-social at the same time?

Plans, 6/22/15

Oh, so many.

Need to rewrite everything on the blog. This probably will take the rest of my life, so I’m more than happy to make gradual improvements when I can. I’ll start with a few tags and categories and let you know as they’ve been cleaned up. Only tag/category I’m feeling comfortable with right now concerns Charles Simic. Those commentaries aren’t perfect, but they’re clear enough. They follow the narrative of the poems closely and the poems, it goes without saying, are terrific.

Need to blog three times a week, and not like this. Real blogging, where I bring a poem, work of visual art, piece of music, essay, graphic novel – you know, something different – for consideration. The more I waste time online the more I’m convinced that what goes on here is unique. There’s lots of fancy prose everywhere. Lots of thoughts that are too clean and too sharp: they describe our more conventional ideas or our ideological positions. They don’t really grapple with others’ opinions, much less with reality. It goes without saying that I don’t, either. But there seems to be a virtue in not being polished enough to fool oneself with the beauty of one’s own sentences.

Things that I have lying around that I would like to write about:

  • a book on Picasso and Degas. Apparently Picasso saw a bunch of paintings by Degas depicting the same area of Paris in which he lived. Picasso responded to those paintings with paintings of his own.
  • Nietzsche, “Daybreak” – every time I go to it, it’s too dense, but I end up thinking about it all day.
  • Herodotus – up to book 6 now, have even read a few secondary sources (very few, to be sure).
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney, Dickinson, Buson, Czeslaw Milosz – this is the poetry lying around the apartment.
  • A video game called “Endless Legend” which is a lot like Civilization IV. I’m messing up each time I play it, though.

Writing this little update feels so pretentious. I spent most of the day looking stuff up on Wikipedia and browsing news feeds looking for something to write. I also drank a lot of coffee for some odd reason. I wish I could say I lived in this realm of ideas where Dickinson talked to Yeats and witnessing that I learned something about the nature of the universe if it is conceived in 358 dimensions.

It’s more like this: I’m just looking for anything that is relatable. That’s a feeling, and putting it into words and describing it fully is chancy. I don’t envy anyone with the task of explaining why something has relevance.

P.S. I’m using twitter more – you can feel free to add me there – and if you want to help, I could use subscribers to this blog’s feed. I’m trying to update twice a week, at least.

State of Denial, 6/20/15

Jeb Bush made headlines earlier today for saying he didn’t know what was in the heart and mind of the Charleston shooter. To future generations of this and other civilizations: the shooter went into a black church and killed 9 people at Bible study because, in his words, he wanted to start a race war.

It gets better, and by better, I mean a lot worse. Rand Paul, who in many ways has been powerful, progressive, and substantial on matters of race and policing, seems to have avoided race when discussing the same topic later. Paul: “There’s a sickness in our country… it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” The price of being too tactful, of not trying to alienate voters who think racism is just an excuse for people to get free stuff from the government (by “voters,” I mean racist assholes), is that idiots will speak more volubly on the matter. Rick Perry, of course, said the shooting was an accident. He meant “incident,” but the context doesn’t do him any favors, as the context was sniping at the President for even suggesting that maybe guns shouldn’t end up in the hands of insane people who want to commit mass murder. And Rudy Giuliani, race-baiter extraordinaire, hit a new moral low for the sake of pandering to racists who watch too much TV.

Amanda Terkel asked: “Why are people so unwilling just to admit that the shooter was racist, with racist motives? Not sure why it’s so hard.” I’ve outlined my answer above: an indirect pandering to paranoiacs and racists, who, whether or not they are a majority of GOP primary voters, are perceived by GOP politicians themselves to be too important to offend, means doing everything possible to foster doubt with the proposition that race is still a problem. If you can deny race is a problem in this country, or at least, say to anyone bringing up the topic that they don’t have solid evidence for bringing it up (or better yet, call them “the real racist”), you can allow people to focus on your other messages. For example, your fantasy flat tax proposal that virtually no one except ideologues can support. Or name-calling.  Unfortunately, what happens when you try to steer clear of race is, again, that the worst voices win out. We haven’t just borne witness to dehumanization, we’ve borne witness to people defending it (i.e. choking an unarmed nonviolent individual is fine if he’s technically resisting arrest). You can meet the most conservative youth in our country, as I have for years. If I begin to outline the racism and hatred I’ve witnessed from some (most certainly not all) firsthand, you’ll move to Canada. The stunning thing is how ingrained it is: there’s no need for any overt discrimination. You can make other people feel like second-class citizens a million different ways.

You might say I’m cheating in my argument, as I’m going to the anecdotal and personal precisely where I need the most concrete evidence. But I’d say just look around you: at some point, I can’t win this argument, I don’t want to win an argument. What I want to say is that I’ve had certain experiences that you’ve had, if you think about it. And the dots connect all too easily with leaders who can’t even say we have a problem with race, because to say that would be to admit that maybe electing the current President, for all his faults, for all the disagreements I have and you should have with him, was a significant moment in our nation’s history. That maybe the United States of America is better than partisanship. That maybe it stands for something greater, which we all work toward.

The more serious counterargument to me is this: maybe we don’t need to talk about race all the time. That is certainly true. We may need to talk about class. Unfortunately, to merely mention that term, one which the Founders and everyone who was serious about Constitutionalism throughout the ages could discuss at length, is to invite charges of being called a Marxist.

I do think there’s hope. That’s why I’m writing and being as blunt as I can about this. These aren’t just media “gaffes” you’ve witnessed the past couple of days. They’re stemming from something far darker and awful, and many in positions of leadership think it is prudent to avoid the topic altogether. What they forget is that prudence is ultimately the preservation of value. Anyone or anything can be useful; the question is whether you can stand for something when all is said and done. Because of their denial, the heroism of the victims stands so much greater. (I dare you to click that link and not cry.) Maybe they deserve better than to have a Confederate flag fly over their heads and walk streets named by Confederate generals. Maybe they deserve justice and equality, the very things we say we profess.