Kobayashi Issa, “The snow is melting”

The snow is melting (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

The snow is melting
and the village is flooded
with children.

Comment:

Wryly, Issa takes in what is around him. “The snow is melting:” he feels the release of the cold, sees his village liberated. You would think this an occasion for joy. I recall writing not so long ago about another poem of Issa’s, where “New Year’s morning” meant the transformation from winter to spring.

Rebirth is strongly implicit despite Issa’s cynicism, but if there’s joy, it’s buried underneath snark and sarcasm. “The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children.” On the one hand, this can be seen as the ranting of a bitter old man. On the other, it concerns what is naturally good. It’s a good thing that snow melts, watering the ground and restoring rivers. It’s good that the village has children who emerge as if to flood it. But what is naturally good can be annoying to us, to say the least. It need not concern our short-term good, our perceived good. Maybe in the long-term, those children will remember a man wanting silence so as to write poems, and with that model, embrace a bit of discipline. That we ourselves live such a short time, though, can make us wonder if short-term goods are the only goods there are.

Blog in Review: “Careful thinking as a form of self-respect,” 2/12/17

Not only do I hope all of you find a space to reflect, but also that you get to see your reflections compiled, see what they’re building or heading toward. I know, that sounds like a whole other level of cornball, the kind of advice you get in newsletters with titles like “10 steps to becoming a more effective manager.” In my defense, note two things:

  1. I’m trying to do a favor by being this cheesy and trite, so it must mean something.
  2. Losing track of your own thought means you might as well have not thought anything at all.

It’s strange to talk of careful thinking as a form of self-respect. After all, that one does any thinking in the first place can be considered a minor miracle. But our preoccupation with being right is really the manifestation of the laziest form of thinking. Being right is about closing an inquiry, silencing another voice. Granted, thoughts have to start somewhere, questions have to come to an end. Still, that we want our ideas above all to be successful, to carry the day completely, to dominate others whom such ideas might not help – I mean, politics is not a contest of ideas in certain circumstances as much as a contest which uses ideas to advance dominance. A lot of petty, bruised egos hide behind grand, revolutionary claims or the assertion of so-called timeless principles. What matters to anyone with any seriousness is not just the coherence of one’s ideas, but their impact. What matters to anyone serious is that they act wisely and justly, doing no harm.

Of course, none of this is easy. It’s not easy to keep track of one’s thought, keep track of all the false pathways and convictions which revealed themselves more hype than heartfelt. Arrival has been on my mind for some time now: the higher thoughts about language and an afterlife are not simply brought to light by contrast with a warlike world. I do not want to speak glibly about irreducible necessities, because they allow some of the worst people to declare what is necessary in emergencies is necessary at this moment. Still, something about the awfulness of political life cannot be dismissed.

Amiri Baraka in “Like Rousseau,” on the other hand, explores the absurdity of eros with his peculiar tenderness. He builds what I think is a sly statement about the will to do politics. In “Snake Eyes,” he looks at guilt and loss and creativity. So many have given so much, but in trying to use them as a foundation, we may accidentally trample them.

Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” also prompts the question of justice. Why must rivers be spoken of? Because one who would trample your very dignity would do so by saying you have no civilization. You could not even build by the river, claims the bigot, and his ignorance is rightly and powerfully challenged.

James Baldwin’s “Untitled” is my lame attempt to introduce those of you who have not read him to his thought.  Baldwin enters a short dialogue with God in his poem, where he wonders if there is such a thing as too much love.

Questions of politics, justice, and love propelled me to write, but so did the idea of housecleaning, in this case rethinking older posts, rewriting them entirely. Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul should always stand ajar” and Hopkins’ “Heaven-Haven” attempt to see the limits of openness and the power of living by a principle, respectively. I know they’re better written than what I had before, but I still cringe at how messy and convoluted a writer I can be.

Finally, Issa’s haiku “New Year’s morning” left me with a thought about things cosmic, and I don’t really want to say too much about Bettelheim’s short book “Freud and Man’s Soul” here. You should read my post about it if you haven’t already. For those of you who are longtime readers, you’ll notice probably more than I have that things have changed, and not for trivial reasons. Keeping track of one’s own thought should be an important task, and I hope I will treat it as one.

Kobayashi Issa, “New Year’s morning”

New Year’s morning (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

New Year’s morning–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Comment:

I guess you could rejoice that “everything is in blossom” on “New Year’s morning,” that spring itself celebrates the emergence of light from darkness. For us nowadays, even in the midst of winter, the calendar year switches and resolutions are made, as the perception of time is shaped to fit a conception of self. We want to feel like we’re growing, like life is our journey, and so we have set dates as festivals and milestones. I guess if you set the new year in spring, or some point where things were absolutely in bloom, you’d reinforce this logic to an extreme degree. It would be like the universe itself, the natural world, was reaching its peak at a certain moment, and we were wise enough to mark that as our new year. If everything else is in bloom, we should be too: a natural law, no?

Well, Issa’s like “meh.” “I feel about average.” Maybe he’s an unnatural being, or naturally a grouch. Or this is just another day, another day where he feels average while everything blooms. It’s funny how he points to his freedom in merely approaching the situation the way he does. His attitude points to his perception of time, and that in turn points to the fact that our perception of time doesn’t really follow any natural order we truly understand. Maybe we’re entirely determined, but we don’t know enough to really know that. Normalcy, averageness, is a strange condition in a universe that seems on edge, teetering between chaos and magnificence.

Bruno Bettelheim, “Freud and Man’s Soul”

“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love,” claims Freud in a letter to Jung, and Bettelheim devotes his short book to this proposition (1). Bettelheim focuses on mistranslations of Freud, mistranslations which make his work sound more scientific when its purpose is far more ordinary (2). The word “soul” (Seele), with its attendant notions of a spiritual life and all-too-human struggle, seems to have been written out of his work in translation, often replaced with “mind” (Geist) (3). “Mind” advances the idea that the rational has priority, that the conscious can simply conquer the unconscious. This badly botches the rationale underlying psychoanalysis, pushing it as a medical technique, rather than an intense process of self-reflection which ultimately creates more sensitivity to the human condition (4). Freud’s “greatest hope was that with the spreading of psychoanalytic knowledge, and the insights gained through it, the rearing of children would be reformed. Freud considered this ‘perhaps the most important of all activities of analysis,’ because it could free the largest number of people – not merely the few who underwent analysis personally – from unnecessary repressions, unrealistic anxieties, and destructive hatreds” (5).

Complete liberation from the unconscious is not possible, even though “uncover[ing] the unconscious was intended to give us some degree of rational control over it” (6). Rather, the psychoanalyst herself should make a reflective, perhaps therapeutic journey and more fully realize from where her thoughts and emotions come (7). Freud’s classical allusions only make sense in this context. For him, the classical underworld, a combination of memory and fantasy, reflects one’s grappling with the unconscious. To experience the underworld and leave it we suppose a necessary journey, one which can forge, within limits, a better guide to the underworld in general. On this note, the famous Oedipal complex does not simply reduce to “boys have sexual desires for their mother.” Rather, it is the process of discovering where one’s feelings for one’s parents come from and how they make themselves manifest in our lives. Oedipus’ great love for his adopted parents results in self-imposed exile. His preoccupation with killing them, his enormous anger at himself, culminates in the fury he unleashes on Laius and the near-suicidal confrontation with the Sphinx (8). Oedipus, of course, is not the only person with a problem in his story. Laius and Jocasta did the unthinkable in letting their fear of the future govern them. The Oedipus story is about the unrealistic expectations both parents and children have and their tragic consequences. “We all are projected into deep conflicts by our infantile desires, but also the need to resolve these conflicts through the difficult struggle for, and the achievement of, self-discovery. This is why, as Freud always insisted, the Oedipus complex is central to psychoanalysis” (9).

Perhaps Bettelheim’s best critique of Freudian mistranslation concerns the structure of consciousness: id, ego, and superego are not the terms Freud himself uses, as the German is it (Es), I (Ich), and above-I (Über-Ich) (10). Usually, when we speak of id, ego, and superego, we’ll say the id is the pleasure principle, an unconscious set of drives, the ego is rational, trying to master those drives, and the superego is the seat of moral reasoning and the norms we’ve internalized. We’ll make it sound like all the ego has to do is side with the superego and all human problems are solved. “Es,” “Ich,” and “Über-Ich” go a different direction. They are not stylized, medical-sounding terms, but everyday German, meant to prompt a layman to further examine his own life. The it, yes, is unconscious and concerns pleasure and relief. It is the underworld, a past we carry with us which we haven’t fully come to terms with. One is not simply going to master that past, for any insight into that past is a great achievement, one which can be considered most rational. The above-I, then, can be seen as an obstacle to self-understanding in some cases. We try to internalize normative standards which do not appreciate the justice of our situation, we place heavy moral burdens on ourselves. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to lead more normal lives, nor to say that man will always be discontent with civilization. The whole point of psychoanalysis is to show that our deepest concerns about the world we live in are warranted, and we need to learn to mature with the depth of our own thought and experience. The “I,” then, isn’t really rationality itself, or a rational self. It is the synthesis of the “it” and “above-I,” respectful of the unconscious, wisely critical of society, moving toward rationality. The “I” is simply that, an “I,” a self working toward self-realization.

I could say more about the book, but for those of you who also grapple with the question of the character of political philosophy, you can see how psychoanalysis, or something like it, begins to open a most necessary inquiry. Something about way political philosophy inspired by Leo Strauss is conducted nowadays stays deliberately blind to the educative process. It’s strange how one can detail a number of techniques used by the greatest authors, gain a number of insights, and have nothing to say about who people actually are.

Notes

(1) The quote is the epigraph to the book.
(2) Bettelheim, 1984, p. 5-7
(3) p. 70-71
(4) p. 7
(5) p. 33
(6) p. 16
(7) Some important qualifications on p. 33: “Freud… was concerned mostly with broadly conceived cultural and human problems and with matters of the soul.” Also on the same page: “He [Freud] admitted that he was never really enthusiastic about psychoanalysis as therapy.”
(8) p. 20-30
(9) p. 30
(10) p. 53-64

References

Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage, 1984.

James Baldwin, “Untitled”

Untitled (from Poetry)
James Baldwin

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?
    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.
     I
            am beneath that water.
            It falls with great force
            and the light
Blinds
            me to the light.

Comment:

In the last two posts, I began meditating on age and maturity. As it is only a beginning, we’re finding lots of things that could be wise or insightful, but we can’t be entirely sure yet how or when they apply to people or situations. Regarding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Heaven-Haven,” I wondered how dismissal can come dressed as admiration. Some people can express awe at someone else being a nun, and not even bother to think about the level of humility, commitment, and reflection involved. It takes a lot of guts to commit to a genuine reflection, a genuine thought, and there are many who don’t really appreciate the courage others have. In Amiri Baraka, “Snake Eyes,” I turned my attention to the immense guilt one can feel for letting one’s idols waste away. Those who shape us we invest with divine authority, and that very authority we use as an excuse for neglecting their humanity. This is about the young failing to reach out to the old (I’m definitely guilty of this), but it isn’t hard to notice a somewhat parallel issue, and turn one’s gaze to those who would rather watch television for 12 hours straight than reach out to someone.

If you’re not reading James Baldwin while browsing your timeline or newsfeed, you’re missing out. There are many voices that speak of the unspeakable, that bear witness to the transformation of people into tools of the damned. Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” does not simply speak as they do, but cries. As it cries, it reveals itself the product of wrestling not just with yourself, not only the world, but the very source of any judgement at all:

One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

You could summarize these lines as “man has been warlike, and since he is so warlike, innocence is not only impossible but hypocritical,” but you’d miss the whole point in doing so. Baldwin struggles, in these words, to articulate a moral value for his nephew: What should he become? Not simply hard, able to take pain, but “tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death,” able to not break down when seeing the lifeless, beaten, broken bodies which merely wanted equality. He must realize that “mankind has been best” at death, at killing. That to speak love is not only radical, but will result in humiliation and ostracism. In other words: you’ll be seen by those who deny you rights as weak, seen by those who have become brothers-in-arms as traitors. Moreover, those who deny rights especially have become comfortable in a notion of innocence. Innocence, then, is not merely hypocritical, but accepting of the violence of division and conquest, an approval of the maintenance of that conquest.

This is James Baldwin. Ignore him, fine, but don’t tell me later you weren’t warned. His prose breathes the fire of Pentecostal preachers who know the Day of the Lord is like a thief in the night.

In this short poem, Baldwin admonishes God Himself. There’s too much rain, too much life:

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?

Think about the rain you send. Think about what you’re doing. Are you a mother desperately stuffing her child full of food, hoping that will result in her being loved? Are you the child, playing gardener, throwing seeds and water everywhere, visiting hourly to see if anything’s grown? God as Creator is playful, manic – indeed, a line of commentary on the Book of Job holds that God was so in love with creating that, in essence, He just keeps creating. With so much love, he creates His adversary. Something similar is happening in this poem, I suspect:

    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.

God and Baldwin agree that the sound of falling water is glorious. It carries one away, carries even the Creator away. The light, even more so. It is “marvelous,” it speaks marvels. This poem holds a radical suggestion: maybe all God does is let water fall. All He can do, after Creation, is open the sluices of the firmament of Heaven, and let what was once everything out. All He can do, after the Flood, is not do that again. All God can do is love, and by extension, not overwhelm what He’s created with love:

     I
              am beneath that water.
              It falls with great force
              and the light
Blinds
              me to the light.

It sounds strange to complain about being loved, but our all-too-human experience understands exactly of what Baldwin speaks. “The light blinds me to the light” makes perfect sense. In continuing the theme of the last two posts, we know getting older can involve being dismissive of others’ choices, or having great guilt because we didn’t even regard when we could. Baldwin reminds us that too much love is sometimes no love, that being in love with love only goes so far. Parents who wonder what they can give children who are estranged think too much of giving and not listening. They only hear themselves, the echoes of their feeling of love. Obsessive lovers do the same, failing to set boundaries. There are no easy answers, of course: if you don’t try to show someone they’re loved, you’ve failed because you haven’t done anything. But we’re a bit prone to go to extremes in doing, as opposed to exercising moderation, exercising openness.