Blog in Review: “Not just a Bludgeoning Instrument,” 10/4/2016

Slowly reading a book on ancient Greek philosophy and architectural development. There’s a lot of speculation: ancient sources are taken far too literally at the very same time they are treated metaphorically. This leads to a problem like the following. Anaximander was said to have created a globe, a map, and a time-telling device. So far, fine. Some scholars speculate that they are all the same thing based on the phrasing of one source, but the scholar I’m reading tries hard to think through what they could have literally been. If there was a globe, it must have been made in the fashion of bronze tripods and basins of the time; the map must have been a brilliant artifact like a shield, as Herodotus tells us of a map that was a “thing of wonder” despite the fact it could not describe distances; the time-telling device is described by a word that in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon means the same as an interpreter of omens. Even though my details sound a bit scattered, you can see that the literary character of the works from which the speculation comes is not being addressed. A source makes mention of a particular thing, and that mention is treated as if it were in an encyclopedia. If Herodotus or Aeschylus has a specific use for that thing in their narrative, that may be neglected in favor of advancing an archaeological record, one which is not exactly the concern of all ancient writers.

All that having been said: the read is introducing me to historical detail I sorely need, and the speculation is interesting and challenging. The author forces you to really think through about what you’re getting from ancient sources and how they add up. That she forces them to “add up” may be a problem, but it is also helpful for having the most thorough discussion possible. For myself, I’m realizing that I’m far more thorough in making arguments than I thought I was. It’s not just about collecting lots of data on a thing: one must be able to weigh and consider what constitutes evidence before even trying out an argument.

I hope the last few entries have had a clarity you’ve found useful and pleasurable. Fanny Howe’s “Yellow Goblins” was a joy to read and think about, and while I feel like I gave a muddled appreciation of her imagery from “The Garden,” the artifact is plainly visible for you to consider. Walt Whitman’s “The Runner” was a nice excuse for me to talk about how democracy itself has previously been discussed in more sophisticated terms. Democracy is not just a bludgeoning instrument where majorities assert their will how they like. It involves a set of norms and practices that point at a species of democratic man.

My reading of Xenophon’s “Apology” stems from the work I’ve been doing on my dissertation. I’m happy with it, and it speaks for itself. Incidentally, Bill Kristol recently retweeted Robert Howse, resulting in some short remarks by Leo Strauss and an accompanying commentary getting a lot more traffic than I would otherwise anticipate. There’s so much on this blog to fix, but it wasn’t hard to fix up that commentary, and I think most of you would enjoy it: “Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson.”

Kay Ryan’s “Fatal Flaw” is a challenging poem: Why exactly are things fatal flaws? I start from the assumption that we’re flawed not because of what we don’t want, but precisely because there are things we want, and we encourage ourselves to keep pursuing them. My commentary moves fast, but I think you can see the issues clearly enough.

Seamus Heaney’s “A Hagging Match” and Yehuda Amichai’s “Water Cannot Return” are lovely short poems that recommend themselves.

Even if you don’t like photography, I hope you will take a look at my reflections on a visit to an exhibition of Irving Penn’s work. The portrait of Simone de Beauvoir he took is remarkable. The way it works with darkness provides a peculiar clarity. Not an attempt to spell out every last detail, but a powerful wholeness where you can read her legacy simply by glimpsing her strength.

Yehuda Amichai, “Water Cannot Return”

Thanks to Juliana de A.K. for tweeting this poem.

Water Cannot Return (tr. Rabbi Steven Sager, from here)
Yehuda Amichai

Water cannot return in repentance.
To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots,
to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?
Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.


In her autobiography, Ivanka Trump recalls a time when she was much younger, in her father’s personal aircraft. Her father’s second wife was running late and the plane was due to take off. Ivanka saw Ms. Maples on the ground, rushing toward the plane, and brought this to the attention of her father, hoping he would stop the plane and let her board. Mr. Trump had the plane take off anyway, explaining that running five minutes late was unacceptable. “You have to be on time.”

It’s near impossible to overstate the impact divorce has on children. Children initially don’t know except through their parents; when they accept other authority figures into their lives, they are making an incredible commitment. It’s probably safe to say, as the HuffPo article linked above says, that Ivanka – maybe even all the Trump children – are just scared to death their father will cut himself off from them in a fit of arbitrary rage. That the abusiveness on display, where he’ll shout at a woman for 90 minutes in a “debate,” is being thrust on us because this is a dysfunctional family’s attempt to remain whole. To be sure, it looks like many Americans can relate to this far too well. Donald Trump’s perceived authenticity speaks to the fact that we’ve allowed a lot of toxic people to define us. We think crude self-assertion strength, imposing one’s will the only salient aspect of argument. People that read books, are honest, treat their children and others with respect, model positivity, give willingly are simply “chumps” not just according to Trump, but the longer this goes on, the American people themselves.

Clearly, a sense of home, a sense of wholeness is needed to not go insane. But how far does “home” reach? Not all of life can be having a perfect family, can it? Before I comment on Amichai’s lovely poem, this thought: the Bible does seem to say, for better or worse, that life is inheritance. God created, Adam and Eve betrayed, Seth and Noah affirmed, the Mosaic law perfected, the land itself the provision of covenant. The am olam has everything through God, and they know this because it has been handed down through the generations. “Honor your father and mother” is why Naboth cannot give up his vineyard. The inheritance is complete. What is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God?

In this vein, it is easy to see t’shuvah cannot quite be repentance in the Christian sense. Turning back to God is merely a homecoming. A sense of transcendent justice, of sins that must be purged, is unnecessary. Ironically enough, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son speaks t’shuvah very well. The prodigal son returns home and is accepted. He’s back where he belongs, with his family.

Is what is true of us true of God, in whose image and likeness we are made? “Water cannot return in repentance.” Water is not simply water, nor primordial chaos. Because of God, it is the essence of life. It does not return, it does not repent.

Water goes. “To where would it return? To faucet, to sources, to earth, to roots, to cloud, to sea, to my mouth?” If it “returns” to the earth, it does so on its terms. Water courses, flowing through and defining life. “Roots” is the outstanding word, for water goes and life grows.

This seems a controversial position. If one identifies water with God, one might imply God entails progress, when the Biblical understanding entails God’s completeness. But Amichai understands that descendants as numerous as the stars are not the stars themselves, fixed and remote. “Home” must account for the dynamism of love; it is not enough for a family to be a barely functional family. That sense of primordial longing all of us have can only be addressed by the photographs that come with the frame for so long.

So Amichai, because he can do this, rewrites the cosmos:

Water cannot return in repentance.
Every place is seasons as of old, seas as of old,
every place is beginning and end, and beginning.

This sounds like Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the sun. That is true, but only true because everything is under the sun, in its change, growth, blossoming. There is no return, no repentance, but a going back and forth. Seasons as of old, seas as of old, only bear witness to the world we help create. Every place is a beginning and end, and beginning.

“Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty,” at the Dallas Museum of Art

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty
an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Tx. April 15, 2016 – August 14, 2016 (now closed)
Exhibition website

Irving Penn: Simone de Beauvoir (1957)
Irving Penn: Simone de Beauvoir (1957)

Lingering over Penn’s portrait of Simone de Beauvoir, I can’t imagine the word “second” ever appeared in her work, in any guise. She sits with her body pointed to the side, but her head turned toward the viewer, as if you have distracted her from some engagement of the utmost importance. The material of her seat looks plush, and a bright button on her jacket possesses the flicker of a meteor, but her upright, strong posture dominates the picture. I’m especially struck by the details of the dark. Thin wisps dangle in space, flowing into her hair, a jet-black mass ornamented by only a touch of light. A deep shadow falls along one side of her face and body, and at first it feels distorting. It doesn’t fit with the precision weave of her jacket, shimmering from every angle. Nor is there a resemblance to the soft, hazy play of light and dark in the backdrop, Penn’s deliberate studio choice, I assume. No, that sharp shadow makes her stern gaze fixing the viewer all the more authoritative. She’s known darkness, she’s endured it, her elegance is earned.

To be sure, this is one of the photographs I did not see at the exhibition. I only had an hour, and that was my fault, because I wanted to eat. I ate very well (tuna salad with organic greens upon a crepe), but it didn’t take long in the gallery to realize that I should have brought a notebook and planned to spend four or more hours making notes, sketches, trying out paragraphs. Fashion photography is purposely overdone, and Penn is certainly a fashion photographer. Yet he’s so much more. A quick way of placing him in a timeline might cite his influences as surrealism or modernism, but that’s underselling his dedication and achievement. It’s more like: whatever we know now as fashion photography came from whatever he forged from his various influences, his own imagination.

Irving Penn: Young Boy, Pause Pause (1941)
Irving Penn: Young Boy, Pause Pause (1941)

There were many outstanding photographs from his early work, but the other visitors and I found ourselves drawn easily to one vivid, charming picture. Young Boy, Pause Pause, taken on a road trip that passed through the South, features a personage who might have issue with Penn’s declaration that he photographed people in African-American neighborhoods “as chance composed them, lounging in front of barber shops and shoeshine parlors. The camera in my hands did not seem to intrude.” Uh-huh. The boy is dressed more finely than I’ll ever be, his glare and raised eyebrow asking “Who is this idiot taking photos of me?” He alone looms large, but the presence of two huge Coca-Cola advertisements behind him, each commanding “Pause,” puts one squarely in the awkwardness of being a photographer. It’s a fine line between observer and voyeur, and for the best artists, it probably takes a moment of confrontation to bring them to awareness. It’s funny how one can work to be more aware of one’s art, craft, surroundings, people, world and strangely lose sight of how an individual from out of town might react to your snapping a camera at him.

Still, that doesn’t mean you abandon your work, your mode of engaging the world. Mark and I both stared in wonder at his rich portraiture of indigenous people. I’m not sure what to share with you from the exhibition, as Young Berber Shepherdess, Morocco, 1971 has my full attention, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see this in person:

Irving Penn: Young Berber Shepherdess, Morocco (1971)
Irving Penn: Young Berber Shepherdess, Morocco (1971)

Her garments have weight, but they are not a burden. Dark, leaflike designs surround her head, and a shawl that is a study in lines wraps around her shoulders. On that shawl, the white lines glow, most especially the dotted stitching dividing the darker lines. The rest of her garment seems of rougher, worn material, and her hands, strongly gripping the sheep upon her shoulders, do not want of work.

All of this is prelude to her facial expression. I see her as confused, almost worried, yet strongly curious. Again: What’s behind the camera? Why does anyone want my picture? Not so much Penn being a foreigner, but the art itself is the curiosity. If the Berber shepherdess knew about runway fashion, she might be more puzzled. Her garments have obvious utility and are beautiful in regard to her function, her way of life. What kind of way of life only tries to dazzle? What kind only tries to document?

Penn brought a portable studio with him – it was a specialized tent – and let the technical prowess of fashion portraiture do the work. Perhaps these most of all speak to what is “beyond beauty,” as they are beautiful for reasons completely divorced from the beauty industry of the capitalized world. I speak of this like it’s Penn’s final accomplishment, but really, it’s the most accessible accomplishment for a casual observer like myself, who can’t fully appreciate the amount he put into his craft.

To take one, final example that I’m still wondering about: his series of nudes. There are no faces. He lets the body stand as a sculpted shape, evoking sculptures like Jean Arp’s “Human Concretion” or “Eater of the Rose.” Only, despite the abstraction from personality, the texture of the flesh still stands out, the lighting only frames the body. It doesn’t feel like he reduces the human body to an object. Rather, his fleshy forms are a pointing toward. I suspect that if one finds them real, if one finds them essential to the sensual, then a curiosity has been awakened toward things human.

Seamus Heaney, “A Hagging Match”

A Hagging Match (from The New Yorker)
Seamus Heaney

Axe-thumps outside
like wave-hits through
a night ferry:
whom I cleave to, hew to,
splitting firewood.


Picked up Heaney’s District and Circle Thursday, reading most of it the last few days. A number of the poems feature startling violence in the everyday: turnips shredded, pigs butchered, the landscape cultured. Everything an assault on being itself, arms and the man the most necessary meditation.

The above poem is no exception to the rule. “Hagging” is exactly what it sounds like, and “a hagging match” might be thought a more refined version of what so-called pickup artists pursue. A much more refined version, to be sure. The poem does not seem to be about getting anyone to sleep with one, as male empowerment is not at stake. Rather, the poem concerns how erotic desires continually become devotion and vice versa.

The home, the hearth, starts with axe-thumps. Not just the building of the everyday, not only an expense of effort, but a destructive force that requires anger. You can’t really love someone without standing up for yourself; a hagging match starts with two individuals. The “axe-thumps outside” are “like wave-hits through a night ferry;” the violence of our ends is replaced by the violence of the unknown. The very structures we hope will keep us safe trap us. The night ferry could very well be a tomb.

Yet the imagery has softened, and one gets the sense that the speaker is being conveyed. Anger and force have given way to fear and wonder; the wine-dark sea is dark and deep. Did the speaker have second thoughts after an argument? In the very center of the poem, “you,” the beloved. As I cut apart this wood to make a fire, as I know that any structure is a trap, I cleave to you, I hew to you, loving the distinctly human. I love that we’re lost together. The very language of unity is that of disunity, our natural togetherness a forced split. One might go further and say there is only imperfect love, for to insist on perfect love is to ask for no love at all.

Kay Ryan, “Fatal Flaw”

Fatal Flaw (from Erratic Facts)
Kay Ryan

The fatal flaw
works through
the body like
a needle, just
a stitch now
and then, again
and again missing
the heart. Most
people never bend
in the fatal way
at the fatal instant,
although they
harbor a needle
they shouldn’t,
or, conversely,
some critical little
lifesaving sliver
is absent.


What we use for repair also destroys us. It sounds a most natural law, this fatal flaw. “The fatal flaw works through the body like a needle, just a stitch now and then, again and again missing the heart.” The heart aches, yearning; the body and spirit suffer; the fatal flaw delivers relief in the service of desire, giving stitches where need be. Yeah, it can break us, but it is who we are. It “works through the body like a needle,” carrying out a mission, evoking our narrowness, pointedness.

“Most people never bend in the fatal way at the fatal instant.” I disagree. The more I get to know people, the more hurt and broken I realize many of us are. One might say that’s not what Ryan’s talking about. She’s talking more or less about an instant where people are completely undone, where we realize we’re living a lie and have to remake our entire lives. But I’d say that’s happening more often than one might think; some of us are remaking ourselves on a weekly if not daily basis. Ah, but those people are still living in some sort of denial, one might say, continuing with inconsistent, but nonetheless real, sense of purpose. They have not completely given up. Again, I’m not so sure. That these issues of self-esteem can be broached with such broad language, I suspect, bolsters my point. We’re hurting, we’re broken, we’re searching for some sense of serious expectation. Something has not treated us well, and the result is that we’re not sure how to treat ourselves well.

A third objection: my reading of “fatal flaw” is too narrow, as I’m implicitly blaming a sense of expectation, something that may even be societal, for its existence. I’m claiming, in a way, that it is possible to be healthier. The trouble with this objection is that Ryan agrees with me. “Most people never bend in the fatal way at the fatal instant, although they harbor a needle they shouldn’t, or conversely, some critical lifesaving sliver is absent.” In two ways, the poem overtly claims, things could be better. The needle could be absent entirely, or a “critical lifesaving sliver” could be present.

Oh, but the irony is so delicious: you want another fatal flaw to replace the one you have already? Fatal flaws are a most natural law! You can never escape the fact that what you desire can undo you. The needle must always be there, the needle is the “critical lifesaving sliver,” both present and absent. I’ll say this: it isn’t too hard to imagine ourselves healthy and productive, working for larger purposes. I do think that what we use to repair ourselves destroys us, but that’s ultimately a separate issue from the fatal flaw of a given heart, as strange as that sounds. That’s the conclusion I have to reach, given that a “critical lifesaving sliver” isn’t really a needle in the body, but a thought. Just the mere thought that we can serve a variety of ways – they also serve who only stand and wait – that we can be destroyed but not come undone.