Blog in Review: “I’m happy I’m open to inspiration,” 8/28/17

About 2 weeks ago, I wanted to read a book on van Gogh, but got stuck on one painting, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles.” I wrote a post which I hope to expand into something much larger. Please do take a look at it, or at least the painting. I can’t really do justice to the depth of van Gogh’s vision. He understands how our very vision has no neutrality: it sees hope or terror almost immediately.

I also spent a lot of time with Jane Hirshfield’s poem guide, “Spiritual Poetry.” I don’t think I’m done with it yet. She not only picked excellent poems, but she commented on them in ways designed to get the reader thinking. From her short essay, I wrote on Izumi Shikibu’s description of a house battered by frightening sounds, Li Po’s famous “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” and, my most recent entry, Cavafy’s “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto.” I don’t know that I’ve written anything particularly good, but I’m happy I’m open to inspiration. Maybe these thoughts will become something good someday.

I covered two topics through Dickinson. First, erotic love — as one enthusiastic Twitter user said, a “thirsty” Dickinson. See: Emily Dickinson, “My River runs to thee” (162) & “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox” (1155). Then I moved to the problem of bad memories, which Dickinson treats through a description of sunlight granting darkness a variety of light and colors as it fades away. See: Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938).

Finally, I am trying to work on craft. I’d like every word, sentence, paragraph to be carefully chosen and meaningful. A prompt I encountered asked pretty bluntly “Why do you write?” and I realized I could give that question a lot more thought: Why I Write.

My thanks to all of you for your readership and support. More of you are sharing these posts and reaching out to me, and that feels really good.

C.P. Cavafy, “Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto”

Dante’s Inferno, Canto III.59-60, tells of “those ill spirits both to God displeasing and to His foes.” The internal torment of not feeling decisive tears even the best of us apart, but it is hard to conceive the paralysis of those neutral in a battle between no less than heaven and hell. Dante, for his part, describes their torture thus:

These wretches, who ne’er lived,
Went on in nakedness, and sorely stung
By wasps and hornets, which bedew’d their cheeks
With blood, that, mix’d with tears, dropp’d to their feet,
And by disgustful worms was gather’d there. (III.60-64)

Nearly all of this seems cartoonish. Humiliated, they are always stung, left to bleed and cry and make a disgusting mess wherever they go. However, Dante possesses full command of his art. He can certainly depict quiet regrets concerning lost friends and lovers or the pain of exile from a home for which one fought. Neutrality ultimately centers on self-doubt — “did I truly make a decision?”, “should I have made a decision?”, “can I decide anything?” — which is best conveyed by his statement that these wretches “never lived.” The worry that we’ve lost something essential to life, to living, drives the pain of constant self-questioning.

Dante does recognize one of the shades. I saw / And knew the shade of him, who to base fear / Yielding, abjured his high estate (III.55-57). Tradition holds this to be Celestine V, a Pope who abdicated the papal throne. I move we do not immediately accept “base fear” as an adequate descriptor of someone who willingly rejected being the vicar of Christ on Earth. As I’ve tried to show above, being “neutral” is all too relatable, and those of us who’ve made decisions which have brought forth bad fruit or no result at all wonder if it was better not to decide in the first place. For now, let’s move on to Cavafy’s poem, which focuses on what it means to make such a great decision without the distorting rhetoric of a pagan manliness underlying Christian leadership. The title of the poem is a direct reference to the shade Dante sees:

Che Fece… Il Gran Refiuto (from Poetry)
C.P. Cavafy (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.

For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great Yes or the great No — “for some people” stands awkward. “Great Yes” and “great No” parade not only majesty but universality. Their declaration carries eternal weight; they can permanently decide who one is; how could they possibly be the province of a few? I suspect their declaration does not only belong to saints, philosophers, or kings, but to all of us. The overarching question is why for some what is most sacred stays hidden, as if true belief, knowledge, or revelation cannot be shared, and for others it becomes public.

Regarding publicity, Cavafy makes a very strong claim: It’s clear at once who has the Yes ready within him; and saying it, he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. “The Yes ready within him” is yes to what, exactly? If I say that there are people who try their best to blindly follow what society says or inspires, and that such people are always rewarded, I’m lying. Conventionality often makes human sacrifices of those most dedicated to it. Then again, Cavafy does not say what finally happens to someone who pronounces “the great Yes.” Maybe he eventually does find ill repute and dies miserably. What is clear is that for some, “the great Yes” must be praiseworthy.

“The great No” is unusual. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no— drags him down all his life. “He who refuses does not repent” harshly judges — it implies a “not so great Yes or No” where someone eventually decides to lead a wholly conventional life, but with a few doubts. “The great Yes” isn’t truly a conviction, but “the great No,” while difficult to isolate, is the only conviction. It does not admit of repentance; it defines one’s whole life, with willingness given grudgingly at times. Yet something about it is essentially right.

Cavafy has brought us to a very strange place, where deeply held, life-defining belief grounds itself upon nothing except a refusal. “No to all of this,” so to speak. This seems to be some kind of profound nihilism, easily contrasted with the soft nihilism of “the great Yes” and its not so great incarnations. Does it justify neutrality? Only inasmuch neutrality is a deliberate attempt to overthrow the question posed by the world. It lends itself to intense, privately held belief coexisting with a fierce skepticism. One contains heaven and hell within oneself. On that note, it might be thought that the papacy would have to be rejected precisely because of the privacy of one’s conscience. Not that one would reject the papal throne because he didn’t believe, but because belief itself is the fundamental fact of his existence.

References

Dante, “The divine comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise,” tr. Henry F. Cary from The Harvard Classics, ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 20. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14. Accessed via http://www.bartleby.com/20/103

Emily Dickinson, “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938)

Bad memories such as regrets don’t strike in a flash of pain and go away. No, they linger, exhausting their holder, and not just because they’re labelled bad. They consistently tease with the notion they secretly hold some good; I twist and turn them over and over wondering if they’re actually beautiful. Dickinson starts her poem below as if someone close to her is dying — Fairer through Fading, she begins — but the second stanza seems to indicate an internal struggle, one that might concern loss in a more general sense:

Fairer through Fading — as the Day (938)
Emily Dickinson

Fairer through Fading — as the Day
Into the Darkness dips away —
Half Her Complexion of the Sun —
Hindering — Haunting — Perishing —

Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend —
Teasing with glittering Amend —
Only to aggravate the Dark
Through an expiring — perfect — look —

Fairer through Fading — as the Day / Into the Darkness dips away — she’s looking outside when the sun has almost completely gone down, but remnants of its light streak the sky. Her day looks more beautiful to her this way. At once, I think of someone dying, how we try to think of them in the best light possible. But I also can’t help think of something more everyday, e.g. those nightmare stories many of us have about our jobs. How many feel like a whole workplace works against them, or the customers always harass and abuse them, or nothing quite goes right because devotion to an institution and its standards means nothing compared to making a quick buck and going home. To say this stuff is “stress” makes it sound like its acceptable; to call it “trauma” feels like giving it too much credit, though it certainly is trauma in some cases. Still, we encounter stories of people literally shaken by their workplace daily.

Dickinson takes a dark time and wonders about what she sees, how light affects it. Half Her Complexion of the Sun — / Hindering — Haunting — Perishing — she does not speak of darkness causing hindering and haunting. Only the sun could perish with the onset of darkness, which provokes us to wonder how the sun hinders and haunts.

Right before “perishing,” the sun Rallies Her Glow, like a dying Friend — / Teasing with glittering Amend. It doesn’t just make the darkness seem beautiful, but gives “glittering Amend,” like as if all that was wrong before is truly right. That this rallying is “like a dying Friend” removes the reasoning about dealing with death directly from “Fairer through Fading.” This poem is not about the death of those closest to us, or tragedies which bring us closer to those we did not know. It’s about dealing with our more general sense of pain and loss, how we’re tempted to see a false beauty that can hinder and haunt us.

Some might identify seeing the night sky glitter with trying to resolve one’s day rationally. They might argue that if we just call a spade a spade and not bother with reflection, problems of overthinking can be avoided. However, to take one example, there’s not much overthinking involved when we turn on people close to us while letting others abuse us. This happens fairly regularly, and is a clear signal we let things get out of hand through “Fairer with Fading” — those whose memory doesn’t “fade” are taken for granted. Another example, possibly: the horrible customers at work getting more attention than one’s own mother. Etc. Ultimately, the sun’s dying light results in aggravation of the dark: Only to aggravate the Dark / Through an expiring — perfect — look. What good our day, our bad memories, our regrets, our loss, teased us with makes the dark more powerful, and in doing so, gives us an ever more beautiful, elusive image, “an expiring — perfect — look.”

What are we really looking at? We’re turning our bad experiences into no less than an idol. This is not psychologically healthy behavior, to say the least. I guess you could sum up Dickinson’s teaching this way: not only do the memories we want to keep become fairer through fading, but so do memories we want to go away. We want to hang on to whatever we get in this life, because fundamentally, we want our lives to be fairer through fading.

Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain”

Spirituality wraps itself in ridiculous guises. Gurus atop mountains; sayings paradoxical to the point of nonsense; otherworldly or overblown claims; practice seemingly contrived for practice’s sake. I want to jot down a few thoughts about that last manifestation, spiritual practice. Li Po’s poem seems to be an end for it; not quite a goal, but the limit of the thing, the limit being that which defines what something is in the world. But initially, the poem also looks too sparse to be anything, and one might be tempted to dismiss it as inflated, high-sounding language which could lead the audience astray.

If I didn’t have a specific problem on my mind, I probably wouldn’t even try to understand what’s below. As it stands, I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks wondering about how reading works or doesn’t work. (You can see some of those thoughts in the June post on Nietzsche.) I read far too much, and it’s hard for me to remember the sheer number of details which wash over my small brain. I don’t even know that I want to remember all of them — what I usually want is a better sense of what’s relevant, what takes priority, what I need to be sensitive to. That’s certainly not the height of enlightenment. At best, it’s an attempt at a refined wisdom. At worst, it devolves into claims of superiority over petty details.

I do believe there’s a vastly higher use for reading, not unconnected to grappling with what’s important. But a prerequisite or corequisite for that use might involve a most radical, unconventional simplification. The birds have vanished down the sky — no civilization, only one living thing, when these lines begin:

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain (from Poetry)
Li Po (tr. Sam Hamill)

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

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

The birds vanish. No heed is given them as they disappear entirely into the sky. The sky becomes something else, itself — now the last cloud drains away. Without birds, without clouds, it ceases to be something natural, and is perhaps removed even from the laws of physics. The sky simply stands a perceptual field, drained of all content. If it shows blue or is lighted, it is a field which is a predicate more than a being. It is like a color (“blue”) or a condition (“bright”) which can be used to build a perceived object.

Mind becomes aware of how it creates the world as the time of the poem progresses. The sky will turn black. Again, this is beyond civilization, beyond the natural. To go further, we sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains demonstrates a profound awareness of death. This is not quite Socrates’ joke toward the end of the Phaedo, where he says the afterlife could be a realm where red is really red, where there are only predicates and no beings. It isn’t a joke. What underlies the power of human reason is human finitude just as much as any so-called eternal truth.

To clear the mind and become aware of how much the world is a percept is itself a grand truth. Grand truths are overwhelming mysteries, nothing more. Before death, the mountain is felt. It too can be thought a perceptual field, but it won’t reduce as the sky did. It holds something which stands outside of our existence while supporting our existence. Yes, this sounds a lot like transcendental idealism, but transcendental idealism resolves something like this: geometry and physics can be known because, in a way, they’re built into our perceptions. The sciences are certain, general laws of ethics can be had, there are aesthetic claims which can be advanced.

This poem challenges your going back to the world and attempting to apply your rational powers to it. If you truly understand how contingent everything is, how do you deny the power of that mystery? Of course, you have to go back to the world — you will become a skeleton upon that mountain, or you will leave it sitting where it is. Not an ethical teaching, but a disposition is advanced. The attitude with the most potential simply undoes the most artificial, useless conventions, just as it can set aside those aspects of the natural world which are unnecessary. It is an attitude of great humility, appreciating that knowledge goes far because we can know so little.

Why I Write

I have labored to be more attentive to craft recently, most especially this summer. The last few days, I’ve wanted to sign up for a creative nonfiction course — learn more about the nuts and bolts of essays, memoir, criticism, even interviews — and use that knowledge to overhaul the blog entirely, turning scattered, not quite coherent thoughts into miniature essays.

However, I don’t have $400 to spare, and I’m not sure my time should be spent entirely on coursework. My mediocre scribblings do serve a general purpose even now, as they advance attempts at being thoughtful in a world dominated by reality TV and celebrity trash. Still, I need to get a wider array of tools, and that depends on recognizing the tropes I’m apt to use; comparing my prose with how other writers handle similar situations; making sure I’m conveying not only information, but building the correct tone, setting, mood; better understanding rhetoric, organization, and audience. Quite frankly, that off-the-cuff list intimidates me. There’s a lot to improve, and I really feel like everyone else is a better writer, and I missed some 3 year boot camp in which the rest of the world wrote poems and plays and essays and academic papers and became professional while I struggled to beat the computer on normal in Madden.

So I went to Half Price Books, browsed for hours, and bought a book on writing. With a pastel cover, it looks like it came out of a painting by Fragonard, and I don’t know that it discusses a single male writer. It’s on memoir and features an author whose whole family kept diaries. What’s striking is how different members of her family kept journals for starkly different purposes: one recorded history while serving, another fought with a difficult relationship, yet another unleashed repressed creativity. I don’t know that my own notion of keeping a journal has progressed much beyond 6th grade. Every time I start a diary it just turns into ranting about how I suck, life sucks, people suck, everything sucks. I’m already planning on ransacking the book to copy the format of other people’s diary entries and writing from them. I’d call myself pathetic, but I’m too busy trying to start fights on Twitter.

The book I didn’t buy presents a number of writing teachers talking about how they teach their classes. I didn’t get it because the prose wasn’t sharp enough. Don’t get me wrong, everyone there could write clearly, but it felt like they were trying a bit too hard to write clearly, like they were scared to make a mistake. I want to be taught by people who know how to let their voice be natural; I want my prose to have an economy specific to it. However, that book began with a gem of a selection, “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams. Right after that short essay, there’s an exercise: “Why do you write?” Much of what I’ve accomplished this summer involves editing and getting more personal. My quest for a larger toolkit concerns aesthetics, efficiency, and creating memorable sentences and paragraphs.

It never even occurred to me to ask myself why I write, except maybe for that Reintroduction post. But I primarily put that forth out of a sense of hey, I’ve got new followers, gotta say hi. That post grounds the blog as a whole, but what does it do for specific entries?

I have not been writing consistently from an understanding that whatever I write, it serves a purpose, and whatever tools I use have to serve that purpose. I have not bothered to develop a habit of better identifying why I’m writing something and building from there.

It’s amazing that something so essential can be neglected for so long. It’s amazing that one can devote substantial resources to get better and forget about fundamental questions. To be sure, part of this is that I take Rilke’s exhortation from Letters to a Young Poet pretty seriously:

…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (from the 1st letter)

I’d like to say I am completely devoted to this craft, but that’s like saying I’m in a position to achieve sainthood. I think the other part of why I haven’t tried to say why I write is a vain hope that my work will justify itself. This does not stem from any assumed brilliance on my part, but my own insecurity. This is not me crying “waaaaaah everyone give me compliments and confidence” (ok maybe it is), but something more like this: I got into habits defined once by insecurity, a lack of confidence, a lack of being taken seriously, and those habits and certain feelings linger to this day. I still struggle to put academic papers together despite making batches of notes, outlining the material I want to cover, talking about the thesis and its relevance out loud. There’s always disorganization and sloppiness and a general lack of assertiveness in what I do.

So: why do I write? That’s the exercise I’m going to conduct with myself whenever I decide to put words down. I don’t know that I should answer it unequivocally here. I do know I need to be asking it on a regular basis. I hope it’ll result in something good for all of us.