Robert Creeley, “Oh”

Yesterday I wrote about quiet graces.

Today has been… more difficult, let’s just say that. 

Some days the good can’t be visible. If you saw it, you’d be trivializing your own experience.

Creeley, with quiet shock and horror: “Oh like a bird / falls down / out of air.”

“Oh.” You’re stunned, so you don’t scream. You don’t even think you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Something beautiful—something that indulged the miracle of flying—didn’t just disappear or pass out of life. 

Its body failed. It stopped doing what it had been doing. It died, a result of processes not quite instantaneous. First one critical set of functions fails, then all of them. A moment’s reflection and the mind is drawn to a number of horrors. How frail life is—how little time we have to secure what matters.

Oh
Robert Creeley
 
Oh like a bird
falls down
 
out of air,
oh like a disparate
 
small snowflake
melts momentarily.

There’s a lot of people I know who think anything different is “arrogant” or “ambitious.” They’re usually people who are scared to read. They must hear what to think. The voice needs to be immediate, imaginable.

The way Creeley depicts “oh,” I can almost sympathize with them. How could one possibly understand what’s being said unless it is said? How dare I ever try to take dry words from a page and give them life? I’m just telling myself what I want to hear, no? I’ve certainly met lots of people who read but are incapable of changing their horrible views.

The work of imagining a voice itself drowned in horror is strange. This hasn’t been a fun day. I must weigh my limitations and complaints, not to compare, but to understand. This is perhaps the most alien part of the process for those scared to read. That judgments aren’t “yes” or “no,” “black” or “white.” It’s all gray and some things are decidedly better because we make commitments.

Creeley’s commitment, I gather: “oh like a disparate / small snowflake / melts momentarily.” “Disparate:” don’t let what’s unique slip away. If it does, you have to mourn. You have to have regrets and doubts, because you want to embrace what’s lovely when it appears again.

Denise Levertov, “Witness”

Yesterday, I did not know how I wanted to feel.

I started with wanting to be sad. Wanting anger towards myself.

And I couldn’t indulge it. Some amazing conversations. Met someone new. Did research and discovered something new to me.

Attentiveness dragged me to brightness. I’m still not sure if I should be happier.

I wonder if a similar process occurs in “Witness:”

Witness
Denise Levertov

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain 
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

“Sometimes the mountain / is hidden from me in veils / of cloud.” I’m looking out. A clear sky would be loved. With any clarity, I could bear witness to the mountain.

This initially leans ridiculous. Too much poetry at the opening of the poem. But some of us have dear memories of mountains. Donald Hall speaks of Mt. Kearsarge, which was there for him and generations of his family. His exclamation: “I look at you / from the porch of the farmhouse / where I watched you all summer / as a boy.”

What if you’re like me, raised in the suburbs, addicted to city life? Could a mountain have meaning then? Here is Li Po, in two justly famous lines:

“We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.”

These lines do not allow words like “immensity” and “permanence” to be cliche. Rather, they put what is human into perspective. We are small and frail, and this resonates. The meditative act, “we sit together,” stands in for our busy lives in addition to being life itself. 

That conception of “the mountain,” I believe, is what’s ultimately at stake in Levertov’s “Witness.” Something, on this earth with us, always reaching higher. Going beyond clouds. And then there’s us, limited by the day. Sometimes forgetful. 

As she states: “sometimes / I am hidden from the mountain / in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue.” This was me yesterday. “Veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue” wherein anger and sadness wanted to monopolize my mind. I don’t have much more to add other than to say I felt the illusion of thinking through real issues. For example, I might have started thinking through a bad relationship from years ago, but whatever I wanted to conclude remained fragmented and incomplete as I prioritized the feeling, unaware. It’s sneaky how regrets and doubts work. They’re out for themselves; they’re eager to splice memories how they wish.

Levertov accounts for “veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue” a different way. She speaks of them arising “when I forget or refuse to go / down to the shore or a few yards / up the road, on a clear day, / to reconfirm / that witnessing presence.” Her language evokes ritual. “To reconfirm / that witnessing presence” means “to go / down to the shore” or “a few yards up the road.” Ritual does not depend on dramatic or grave actions, but small ones which acknowledge the presence of something else. So small they may not be actions, but thoughts. She reprimands herself: “when I forget.”

The mountain bears witness to her. It can bring her to brightness through attentiveness. Some might say it is a moral failing—perhaps that of selfishness—which causes someone to forget. I did say I wanted to be angry and sad yesterday. But it’s remarkable that there’s no judgment in Levertov’s poem. No attempt to say that forgetting or refusing to walk a few feet is any different from not being able to see through clouds. A sense of the divine begins with recognition that human failings occur in a multitude of ways. Blame isn’t important, not compared to realizing devotion.

On the First Line of Nietzsche’s “On the Pathos of Truth”

Nietzsche begins “On the Pathos of Truth” with a sentence that merits an essay: “Is fame actually nothing but the tastiest morsel of our self-love?”

When I first read this question, years ago, I asked myself why it was so hard to understand. I refused to read the next sentence. I wanted to know who on earth says to themselves “I really love myself, so I want to know what aspects of myself are the most delicious. Oh look! There’s my fame [nom nom].”

It is a genuine contribution to explore how Nietzsche’s opening functions as writing. What might be meant by “fame,” what we associate with “self-love,” how the metaphor of eating works. What follows builds from the English translation in my possession and aims to be as expansive as possible. If one has more specific arguments about what is meant—ones taking into account the original German, or passages from Nietzsche’s other works—I hope they will eliminate what is inaccurate below.

FAME

One can straightaway argue that “fame” is not a problem in this first sentence, as Nietzsche’s very next lines make clear what he’s speaking about:

“Yet the eager desire for it [fame] has been linked to the rarest of men and to their rarest moments. These are moments of sudden illumination, moments in which the person stretches out his commanding arm as if to create a universe, draws up light from within himself and shines forth. At such a moment he is pierced by a certainty which fills him with happiness, the certainty that that which exalted him and carried him into the farthest regions—and thus the height of this unique feeling—should not be allowed to remain withheld from all posterity.”

I would say nothing is clear about this. A famous guy, doing something for which he will forever be famous, stretches out his arm “as if to create a universe?” A light “from within himself” shines forth? Because of these ridiculous happenings, he’s certain that what makes him feel great now should be a lesson to mankind evermore?

Nietzsche’s joking, but our temptation is to recognize the jokes and then conclude we know exactly what he’s talking about. I really don’t. Later, he will say this: “The boldest knights among these addicts of fame, those who believe that they will discover their coat of arms hanging on a constellation, must be sought among the philosophers.” I don’t know that this is true. If I am trying to be a philosopher, if I am trying to love wisdom, I’m seeking a public profile so survival is easier. I’m seeking one so people understand something of what I do and maybe even appreciate it or consider it relevant.

In this age, we assume we know what someone says because we think we’ve heard it all before. The television, the radio, and innumerable video and sound clips bait our minds into thinking the tone is the content. Lots of statements are pre-packaged for immediate consumption.

In order to get a sense of what Nietzsche’s aiming at, it’s helpful to list different notions of fame. What Nietzsche initially describes sounds that of a great leader. “Commanding arm;” “create a universe;” “shines forth [for generations].” One could turn to Hegel or Pericles’ Funeral Oration for more, but the classical critique that speaks for itself is from Xenophon’s Socrates. Here’s Socrates speaking to Plato’s brother, Glaucon:

“Glaucon,” he said, “do you intend to preside over our city?” 

“I do, Socrates,” he said. 

“By Zeus,” he [Socrates] said, “if indeed anything else among human beings is noble, this is. For it is clear that, should you accomplish this, you will be able to obtain for yourself whatever you desire and be competent to benefit your friends; you will raise up your paternal household; you will enlarge your fatherland; you will be famous, first in the city, then in Greece, and perhaps, like Themistocles, even among the barbarians. And wherever you are, you will be gazed at from all sides.” (Xenophon, Memorabilia III.6.2, translation Amy Bonnette)

You don’t even need the rest of the encounter between Glaucon and Socrates to see the parody. You want to govern? That’s amazing! You’ll get whatever you want (um), you’ll get stuff for your friends (okay), your family will be honored (sometimes), you’ll expand the borders (uhhhh), and the whole world will know you (um, no). It’s not at all like governance could be about, say, making sure people pay taxes or keeping walkways clean.

The notion of fame that goes hand-in-hand with governance is loaded. It implicitly holds there are superior beings who ought to rule the rest of us. Who know and act better.

This “classical” notion of fame—who ought to rule?—is one an audience into classical philosophy will have some familiarity with. Some of them will take it quite seriously, perhaps lamenting what has become of “real men,” etc.

There’s another notion of fame I’d like us to consider, though. One that I suspect a 19th century audience would, in general, find intuitive. Here’s Emily Dickinson:

“Fame is a bee.

It has a song—

It has a sting—

Ah, too, it has a wing.”

What’s at stake here is, for lack of a better term, a writer’s conception of fame. You could say “poetic” in order to contrast with the “political/philosophic” notion illustrated above, but I don’t want to assume that a strict contrast is necessarily helpful.

What’s more useful is identifying what’s important to the writer. So for someone who does something grand politically, what matters is that a virtue was demonstrated and acted upon. That people can see ennobling actions happen and respect who made them come about.

Here, the situation is entirely different. Writing always has a public aspect to it, even when done privately. Someone else could access one’s journal. That public aspect has to be addressed. Accordingly, Dickinson speaks of the prospect of fame tempting her, injuring her, and then flying away. Whatever publicity the craft of poetry entails may not directly relate to fame. In which case, fame may not be the “tastiest morsel” of “self-love.” Maybe self-love engenders poetic reflection, and that reflection becomes something else entirely.

SELF-LOVE

“Our self-love,” Nietzsche says, and immediately I correct him: “you mean your self-love.”

A contemporary audience beyond myself won’t be comfortable with the concept. Yes, we talk about self-esteem. Yes, a few people have far too much confidence and not enough competence. But most confront new insecurities every waking moment. People do look at photoshopped photographs of models in advertisements and compare their skin. They worry night and day if they’re providing enough for their children, especially after hearing what other parents do.

Does self-love even exist? I haven’t begun to list how inadequate I feel at this moment.

I find it strange to think about what self-love looks like. It isn’t that of Narcissus, where his attitude itself is suicidal. And considerations of “greatness” obscure what it actually is. If someone thinks they’re great, they’re in love with what they think others ought to perceive. What does it mean to love the self, obscure, small, and misshapen as it might be?

I can imagine it looking like Emily Dickinson. Here’s Daniel Gleason:

“But Dickinson’s solitude seems to be the most resonate aspect of her work.  She is America’s most famous recluse who became known for wearing a white dress and refusing to allow even her own doctor to see her face to face for treatments.  Dickinson knew her poems were of the highest caliber, but she often indicated that she wished to receive her laurels after death rather than experience the intrusion of readers seeing into her soul while she was still alive.”

I’m thinking now of the times I’ve been, as the kids say, “dramatic.” Did I want to show that I could be independent of a world of expectations? Did I want to show that I loved myself enough to not care how others responded? And do I trust that I can leave a legacy that matters?

Self-love hinges on answers to those questions, I feel. But hers must be only one path to self-love, no? There are many of us with different ideas about what life means.

Every so often I find myself reading this one story, “I Have No Choice But To Keep Looking,” about two Japanese men who learned to dive regularly. One lost a wife, another a daughter in a tsunami. The bodies were never recovered. So they dedicated themselves to diving as often as possible until they found them. This went on for years.

The story describes their efforts to the point they sound obsessed, almost maniacal. Nearly every other aspect of their lives has been put on hold. It isn’t clear how they communicate with other people meaningfully. And then there’s a passage which quietly accounts for the sheer amount the gentleman who lost his wife has learned and found. How much he knows about how to identify and find things under the ocean. How many other bodies he’s found. How his efforts have helped save lives.

Someone might say “that’s not self-love.” But what does it mean to invite someone into your life, letting them become a part of you which you can’t do without? What does it mean to worry about them in the afterlife? Self-love is many things, including the desire to sacrifice, to experience sadness. Some things are more precious than our immediate contentment.

EATING

Fame and self-love, as we have seen, can lead to some complicated discussions. But Nietzsche goes further. What if self-love is delicious? What if it is something we can indulge? And if so, then is fame the tastiest part of it?

The way he sets up the question narrows the scope of our reading. We can’t really speak of self-love in the way I did in the section before, where it concerns fierce independence or a love beyond death. Self-love almost seems cartoonish in Nietzsche’s rendering. It’s something vain people obsess over. They may be happy others obey them, that servants respect them, that their peers oblige them. If they had fame, though, they could not just be happy but ecstatic.

It’s interesting that fame is linked to tastiness, not nourishment, but one still gets the impression that someone thinks it essential to living. In truth, vain people seek expressions of their power, and their power is their security. One might be tempted to say that fame has nothing to do with security, but famous people nowadays dominate our lives and get nearly anything they want. When they go broke or become bogged down by hard circumstances, they confront things which would break even the strongest: drug addiction, being cheated by one’s own parents, surrounding oneself with liars and thieves. Even then, there are second and third acts for them. 

There’s a reason why people want to have a successful YouTube or Twitch channel, and it isn’t fame.

But the inadequacy of our neoliberal economy probably isn’t Nietzsche’s target. If Nietzsche means to speak of prideful politicians, imagining themselves givers of life to republics or saviors of the nation, then describing fame as delicious might have to do with rhetoric. This probably goes beyond politics, applying to those who think they can teach us morals. It isn’t just that a man thinks himself a great man of the age, deserving of fame then and evermore. It’s also that his words, and whatever words are used to remember him, are of the utmost importance. They secure him, and they are quite delicious.

What we can conclude: Nietzsche conceives a sort of person who is not simply vain, lusting for political power or philosophic accomplishment. That person wants “fame,” sure. And it does make them look ridiculous, as he demonstrates in the rest of the first paragraph of “On the Pathos of Truth.” There’s something else at work, though. In a way, they’re a point at which a number of assumptions meet. Someone who truly loves fame is someone who can genuinely love themselves. And what if they’re fully warranted in that love, in that they actually have something to give the ages that lasts?

CONCLUSION

So many take philosophy classes in order to win arguments or show how much more they know than everyone else. But some want to read one line of a text carefully and see what happens. How much is at stake in a carefully constructed work of philosophy? How closely does one have to read? I hope I’ve shown that “closeness” is a relative matter. It matters for the sake of a specific sort of scholarly argument what Nietzsche exactly means in “On the Pathos of Truth.” For those interested in philosophy simply—or, I daresay the truth—it makes perfect sense to think about what “fame” and “self-love” mean to us. Wisdom can’t possibly exist on the page alone.

Emily Dickinson, “I can wade Grief” (252)

Dickinson says “I can wade Grief… Whole Pools of it… I’m used to that.” I want to tell her “Teach me.” What grief destroys for me is consistency. I’ll do things that are helpful, but I’ll never do them enough to be fully effective. And my larger goals become lost even when I articulate them. My mind continually searches for what’s missing, not caring for premature declarations. 

Still, she claims joy brings troubles of its own. “The least push of Joy… Breaks up my feet… And I tip — drunken.” She loses control, stepping where and how she shouldn’t, filling herself with overconfidence. “Let no Pebble… smile…’Twas the New Liquor.” She’s already thinking, although obliquely and jokingly, about those we’d call “haters.”

I can wade Grief (252)
Emily Dickinson

I can wade Grief —
Whole Pools of it —
I'm used to that —
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet —
And I tip — drunken —
Let no Pebble — smile —
'Twas the New Liquor —
That was all!

Power is only Pain —
Stranded, thro' Discipline,
Till Weights — will hang —
Give Balm — to Giants —
And they'll wilt, like Men —
Give Himmaleh —
They'll Carry — Him!

*

Before I turn to Dickinson’s second stanza, which opens with a Conan the Barbarian-esque aphorism—“Power is only Pain”—I think it’s prudent to talk about success as a social phenomenon. There are forms of success where one can meet a set of standards and be done with it. We tend to romanticize them precisely because they don’t invite the judgment of others. Students who want their homework done quickly can become addicted to this.

The thought of success as dependent on others invites dread. But success of the “meet the standard and its done” sort is either very trivial or very profound. In the latter case, few will understand you, and you will probably be fighting for acceptance within your own age.

Here’s Dickinson, with a little bit of joy. Something’s gone right or feels right. And almost immediately, she imagines a pebble laughing as she stumbles. 

There’s no way to avoid a stumbling block. You want to be able to explain to other people how you feel or what you did. And you’d like it to be convincing. The true standard for your success is if you can tell your own story. Trouble is, this takes more than figuring out a story and telling it insistently. What it takes is something more like this: you need to explain something you hold to be true, and account for how you got there. How you discovered what wasn’t true, how you realized that it was better to be mistaken than live a comfortable lie.

I’m not saying everyone has to be a philosopher, but at least the way Socrates is presented to us, he concerns himself with his own nature. Acts in the mode of a “rational animal,” if you will.

*

“Power is only Pain,” intones the first line of the last stanza, and we’re used to this dance. We’ve done it to ourselves numerous times. Vendler, in a brief comment on this poem, marks the disappearance of “Joy” entirely. “By now, the poet has learned the rarity of Joy, and is well acquainted with the habitual collapse back into Grief” (116).

“Power is only Pain,” and somehow, Vendler notes, the “Pain” is “Stranded.” Vendler doesn’t explicitly explain how to solve the puzzle—How could pain be stranded?—but I think her answer must be the identification of Dickinson and pain. That’s the reason why Dickinson stumbled in the first stanza, why “Joy” disappears in the second.

I think a different path is visible, though. Giants that wilt because of balms but eagerly accept the challenge of lifting the Himalayas speak to our sense of standards leaning upon the transcendent. There are some labors to which we can dedicate ourselves and receive the justification we need. We don’t need to panic about every detail of our story being acceptable. 

What’s weird about this is that it places a literal miracle at the end of action. In other words, we act, we have discipline and pain. But we are stranded, in the end, even if we bear weights properly as we walk (“Stranded, thro’ Discipline / Till Weights — will hang”). What we do doesn’t matter compared to a giant lifting Mt. Everest, even if the giant learned from our example.

What matters is that we did set an example, that we can be confident we did something right. “Stranded, thro’ Discipline” is my full reading—that’s the solution to a world looking to judge but only understanding when floods of Biblical scale occur. The discipline consists in understanding one’s smallness. And, contra Vendler, there can be joy. You can celebrate the giant lifting the mountain, knowing full well that if you were a giant, you would do the same. “Power is only Pain” because joy and accomplishment are real. You can relax if you know what you’ve done.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 115-117.

Natalie Eilbert, “Gunmetal Gray”

Let’s talk about weapons. 

Gunmetal Gray (from Overland)
Natalie Eilbert

Man's best weapon, how
we describe the dying ocean.

“I sing of arms and the man.” Of building empires, lordship. The power of dominion, the power to bequeath dominion.

Easy to believe it a natural fact. Kids turn nearly anything into a gun. Pew-pew. It takes a minute to realize not everyone wants to dominate others. At least, not explicitly.

In Texas at the moment, many have lost power and water. The resources weren’t put into building a stable power grid which could withstand a winter storm. A competent government, it is believed, is tyrannical. True liberty is complete self-sufficiency. No government should be allowed to save you. You must be armed—with knowledge, with supplies, with guns.

I sing of arms and the man, of imperialism turned inward.

*

Imperialism turned inward—this sounds absurd. There’s that episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns, always cartoonishly evil, loses his nuclear power plant business. Lisa, a second grader reaching out to him, tells him while doing odd jobs to cut six-pack can holders apart because they trap animals. So Mr. Burns gets the funding to sew a bunch of six-pack can holders together. He builds a massive net that dredges the ocean, destroying any hint of sustainability but catching all the fish.

The trouble with dismissing Mr. Burns’ behavior as a joke is that a lot of people at this moment made money from the power grid being a disaster. A lot of people are very rich because they created the conditions where others suffer and worse. Domination as habit—no, as something underlying habit, something more fundamental. Still utterly unnatural.

*

Unnatural and catastrophic. Cata-strophe, the down-turning, the over-turning, the flipping of events and fortune.

The Empire tries to deny chance. Again, this sounds absurd. I never thought people who seriously thought about politics or worked in public life could think this way. Then I realized how alone I was.

Once, there was a dispossessed people, a disaster, a cruel ruler. Some injustice which must be avenged and remedied. Now, there will be no such thing. There are laws that if followed, everyone prospers. There are orders which we maintain in spirit and action. We have warriors, armor gleaming, gunmetal gray. The only injustice is in thinking the laws, orders, and guardians aren’t the sum total of all there is.

Our militant gun worshippers in Texas—the ones training in private bands on weekends, buying AR-15’s for kids—see themselves in gunmetal gray, too. They think they serve the true cause. They bemoan the government because it serves those they believe do not deserve anything. They say they serve no government as they obsess over every detail of the present one, sometimes seeing coded messages in the most banal and innocuous words and actions.

When I spoke to someone about current events—e.g. the rise of fascism, an abundance of conspiracy theories, the inability of the Senate to condemn those who would try to kill Senators, half a million dead from COVID-19, a number of institutions in shambles—his mind wandered, briefly, to a devalued currency. To the so-called excess printing of money. As if people’s needs were this fundamental greed which no one should try to address. As if, if there were no government, there would be no debts, that we would all be self-sufficient.

In America, the assumption we are born free is itself a weapon, turned on ourselves. It creates horribly unrealistic expectations. It screams privilege in order to drown out basic expectations.

*

Expectations, of course, like having a planet that does not cook itself to death.

Industry isn’t really about money. Or a livelihood. Those who are “best at business” are often those who’ve inherited their wealth, those with powerful networks, and almost always acting like spoiled children who do not know how to serve others.

They can only be served. Industry is about pride. 

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In Madison and Montesquieu, you can see some of the original theorizing. Commerce and property protections would lead to a productive society over against the interests of landed aristocracy. Commerce was supposed to lead to peace—people would compete for markets, not conquest.

I realize, yet again, that this sounds absurd. Commerce and conquest always went together. As soon as you ruled another people, you could steal their resources and labor, force them to buy your products. But I would venture this: if you believed that self-interest could mitigate the problems of pride, then in a way commerce was forward-looking.

*

But industry, as we have seen it for some time, is all about pride. Proclaiming “I work, I deserve.” Insisting all others fall in line, as you are the standard.

The theorists missed that idle hands will use busy hands for their workshop. That self-interest isn’t a calculation. It’s a drive, and it will insist in spite of itself.

It would inevitably lead to the destruction of the planet, because it would admit no wrongdoing.

The sameness of gunmetal grey is the true product. We can’t even love different people. Everyone has to say the right things. Everyone has to look like they’re from a movie or advertisement. 

Glossy, colorful, and bright, you’ll notice the gleam most. You know it not to be light from a star, but you’re impressed. It was made to have an impression, that normalcy can be beautiful. No doubt it can, but perhaps not on a dying planet.