Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 6 of 180

Back and forth the last few weeks

It hangs by a thread. At first nervousness, followed by exhilaration. Maybe this is a moment to shine; maybe preparation is for the precarious. Not much later, a thud of failure. That thread swings, if it hasn’t broken.

Being abandoned pushes one to justify oneself too soon.

There should be a plan, otherwise one is a rat in a maze. Still, one continues by struggling with the maze. The immediate, what can be had, matters most. Everything else wouldn’t be there even if one trusted. Identifying an injustice is wallowing in self-pity, no? Rationality means hard truths, right?

To rediscover the trust of others is necessary, but it is nothing close to a rational process. As weird as it sounds, you have to feel sorry for yourself in order to not deny you’re feeling sorry for yourself. People are still driving me crazy nowadays, but instead of blaming myself or my circumstances, I can safely say I’ve been taken for granted, and what I have to offer will show itself soon, if it hasn’t already.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part I)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I’ve been disappointed in a number of people recently. Some have shown that they can absorb a lot of information, but could care less about treating others decently. Others are better on that score, but display an enormous amount of immaturity and irresponsibility despite the fact they know better. Still others are dogmatic and too comfortable with their conclusions, and quite a few cannot distinguish their petty complaints from what are serious character flaws. In a number of cases, they unjustly cast virtue as vice. I do feel we are consistently failing others, that we have declared ourselves a right to be trivial, cruel, and petty.

The best thing for me to do is not to continue ranting, but introduce something and see if anyone cares. What follows is a commentary on Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Truth.” To summarize Francis Bacon’s relevance: if one wonders how democracy and science emerged in the West, he is a crucial figure to study. Ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) was concerned with science and democracy, but careful not to endorse both blindly. Socrates was put to death by a democracy; the pre-Socratics advanced inquiry, but did not care about sounding insane. Christian thought overemphasized ancient philosophy’s concern with virtue and the soul. (I’ve written a little bit about this in my Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince.) Bacon, writing after Machiavelli, breaks with classical thought (virtue is not as important as utility) and certainly with Christianity (the goal of the sciences: “the relief of man’s estate,” or immortality).

Let’s start proving and exploring some of the claims I have made. “Of Truth” begins with Bacon asking a “What is?” question, the sort of question Socrates was said to ask, i.e. “What is justice?” or “What is virtue?” However, “What is truth?” is not put in Socrates’ mouth, but Pilate’s. Like Socrates, there is an element of jest, but Socrates would at least stick around:

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

The “what is” question is asked by one who put God to death, but it did not serve his interest to actually get an answer. Bacon, after his one sentence NaNoWriMo submission, continues by showing a classically-influenced skepticism undermining morality for the sake of freedom:

Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients.

Once there were ancient skeptics who dismissed the very concept of truth in order to emphasize that they were free thinkers and actors. Bacon sees in his time “discoursing wits” who play in a similar vein, but are much more trivial. Even though Bacon rejects both the modern and ancient skeptics, he has created a hierarchy in his writing, where the “discoursing wits” of his day do not matter. The want of freedom meant that once it was “bondage to fix a belief.” Once, people insisted on the freedom of thinking, even if they were mistaken about the cause of that freedom.

Abruptly, the subject matter of the essay changes, as it strays from the themes of truth and skepticism. In an instant, Bacon wishes to tell us about how awesome lies are. Truth is difficult and laborious to find; when found, it imposes on one’s thoughts. There is a “natural though corrupt love of the lie itself:”

But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love, of the lie itself.

One can say this is entirely continuous with what was before. The dilettantes of Bacon’s day are lazy, and the ancient skeptics were scared truth would impose on them. But skepticism is a far, far cry from loving lies.

Bacon really wants to focus on lying. “The lie itself,” instead of the truth itself, is loved. He sketches the position of a Greek philosopher who thought that there might be lies told only for “the lie’s sake,” not just for pleasure or advantage. Bacon expresses confusion himself about this position, equating “this same truth” with daylight and lies with candlelights:

One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.

This is where things get interesting. Bacon said a sentence ago that there was a “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” He brought up a Greek philosopher who said much the same thing. Then he expressed his confusion, as if the philosopher and he himself were wrong. Note that the Greek philosopher sorted lies by pleasure, advantage, its own sake. The unnamed Greek philosopher is not Aristotle, but in Aristotle’s Ethics, there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. What lies could stand in place of is virtue. (Virtue – arete in Greek – is simply “excellence.”) No wonder Bacon affirms that lies loved for their own sake matter, then sounds like he wants to back away from it.

Bacon argues that “this same truth” is “naked,” “open day-light.” He may mean by the “truth” the specific proposition that the lie in itself is loved, not just that truth in general is daylight, opposed to lies that are lesser lights. Those lesser, artificial lights – you know, ones that help create shadow puppets on cave walls – “show the masks, mummeries, and triumphs of the world” in a “stately” and “daintily” fashion. Honor and love are merged in lies. One can say pleasure and advantage come from this, but Bacon leads us to a much larger, harsher truth: conventionality is the lie in-and-of itself.

Again, he only leads us there. His very next passage seems to show lies pleasurable and advantageous in such a way that loving lies for their own sake could not exist. Truth has value, like a pearl. But diamonds and carbuncles do better with artificial light, so they are more useful. And lies mixed in with truth give pleasure. See? There is no such thing as lies loved for their own sake. There are only lies for pleasure and advantage, both lesser goals than the beatific vision. Truth is by implication amazing, and Francis Bacon by implication totally believes in God and truth and virtue and all that good stuff:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

Bacon’s surface falls apart when one carefully considers the link between honor and pleasure. The pleasure of mixing in a lie affects opinions, hopes, valuations, imaginations. The consequence is not simply a small ego boost or even self-delusion, for without lies, there is “melancholy,” “indisposition,” a complete crisis of self-confidence. One could say Bacon appeals to humility before God as the highest virtue, but if his audience has any kind of ambition, they’re wondering what notion of truth they need in order to be properly confident. Bacon’s notion of lying is so strong that it wrecks any attempt to feel honored.

To summarize: Bacon shows skepticism about the truth not only to be linked to impiety, but freedom. He goes further and links lying not just to obtaining pleasure and advantage, but the larger issue of the good life. One can question every convention, sure, but then one is going to be miserable. All the same, by discussing the value of skepticism and lying, he is positioning himself for discussion of the value of truth. “What is truth?” is still the outstanding question, and whether reason or revelation will help illuminate it has yet to be seen.

Ninth Reflection: William Carlos Williams, “Fragment”

William Carlos Williams

as for him who
finds fault
may silliness

and sorrow
overtake him
when you wrote

you did not
the power of

your words


Perused Williams, thought I recognized this. A fragment of Sappho’s features, as it is the first part of the poem. Mary Barnard’s translation, which I used in the Second Reflection:

We shall enjoy it

As for him who finds
fault, may silliness
and sorrow take him!

So it looks like all Williams did was add on “when you wrote you did not know the power of your words” with some fancy line breaks. Truth is that a much greater mind than mine has reflected on Sappho, and he’s up to something.

Any sense of “we shall enjoy it” is absent from Williams’ “Fragment.” He starts with a dramatic opening, in the middle of things, with no imperative. A speaker is talking with mind resolved. Silliness and sorrow will “overtake” one who finds this speaker faulty.

We might think “when you wrote” introduces a separable part of the poem, but Williams’ attention to form prevents that line of interpretation. “When you wrote” brings us back to the opening of the poem, framing it, but also sits as the conclusion of “and sorrow / overtake him.” The tenses are mixed if one wants to say “and sorrow overtake him when you wrote,” but the import is clear. The initial speaker has uttered a curse of sorts. “You,” starkly distinct from “him,” makes us wonder if the second speaker, addressing the first, has been cursed.

Sappho has been excised from her fragment, for a moment. Williams is using it as another kind of drama. Perhaps Sappho is making a call to unity, half in jest: “we will all love what I do, but there’s one or two who must be punished for seriousness and lack of joy.” Williams has tightened the scene to two actors. It feels like to “find fault” is to take another, maybe a beloved, too seriously. That beloved curses one with “silliness” and “sorrow,” but wait: shouldn’t we take love as seriously as we can?

It’s crazy that the very same thing which includes us can exclude us. There is no easy way, and it doesn’t look like there is a right way. Williams leaves “know” on a line of its own, abandoned by the rest of the poem. In a way, it accuses Sappho. To declare one’s non-seriousness to be without fault is to say “take me seriously but don’t take me seriously.” That there are people who actually use this as a standard, rather than fighting through all the problems of miscommunication and misunderstanding that occur daily, well.

Eighth Reflection: Sappho, “Although they are / Only breath…”

“Although they are / Only breath…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal


At first, duh. Words are immortal as they certainly outlive us. We “command” them through our short-lived, not terribly articulate breathing. Words not only signify a reality outside ourselves that we struggle to grasp, but they also point to inner struggles and confusions. We need words piled upon words to make sense of words.

So our “command” can be considered suspect. And yet this fragment is defiant. “Only breath” is a seeming concession. It allows command of no less than immortality. How can one be so sure?

There are plenty of poems that promise a beloved immortality. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” might be the most famous. It ends thus:

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I’ve never really known what to do with the promise of “hey, I can give you immortality through a poem.” It sort of makes sense for a literary culture, one where epic poetry and things like “Macbeth” are mass media. But then again, people in that culture know plenty of poets who are terrible or will be ignored – either way, they fall by the wayside. And whether the audience being flattered will be remembered in any specific way apart from being loved is an obvious problem. I usually treat the promises of immortality in verse cynically, as a way for clever authors to seduce a not-so-bright audience. Or I talk about how we humans, through the honors we give and the traditions we hold, in a way have created immortality, one that we ironically need to be very lucky to have.

But is Sappho promising someone else immortality? This is just a fragment, but there is a sense in how words which are only breath are immortal. It has less to do with “command” and more to do with “I.” Inasmuch one can present oneself as a person of interest, one might be considered worthy to remember. The words commanded present a problem, and one has put oneself inside them.

Links, 4/24/14

A few things I won’t be able to offer extended comment on, but are definitely worthwhile:

Fourth Shot

"Fourth Shot," by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

“Fourth Shot,” by Joel Peck. Intaglio, 2007. Photo credit: Tom Farris

How a speck disgusts.
A watery, grid-like beauty,
housing playful creatures.
They race, and maybe the blur
they make blurs us,
or maybe we didn’t want to look
from the start.

Ranjit Hoskote, “Poste Restante”

Poste Restante (from Vanishing Acts, 2006; via George Szirtes)
Ranjit Hoskote

Instead of addresses the postman finds
a child pumping a thirsty hydrant,
and a barber’s throne twisted by fire,
marooned in a side-street;
to the north, a dented milk churn
sits across the road from an upset pannier,
buns scattered; past the traffic island,
a leather suitcase, handle wrenched off;
to the south, a public library,
stack on stack of carbon ghosts.
The letters fall from his hands
like homeless prayers.


A mailman walks around a ruined city, or a ruined part of a city. He is in what remains after (“poste restante”). The walk feels like it takes a circular path; he initially moves north before ending up in the south. George Szirtes has an excellent comment on the setting:

There has been a great fire, and maybe more judging by that dented milk churn. And it is not so long ago either. There are buns spilled from an upset pannier. Perhaps it was a military attack or a riot. The library has been burned out. There is just a child with a useless hydrant.

“Homeless,” the lack of addresses, the postman’s route: these conspire to make me wonder about the motion of the poem, where we are being led. A child desperate for water and a burned barber’s chair show a desperation for necessities. Wasted bread and a dented milk churn indicate that perhaps poverty does not stay still, but makes itself manifest in some sort of violence. A suitcase with a “handle wrenched off” is almost a dark joke. Some matters remain closed, as violence in a way scratches the surface. But that is no comfort whatsoever. The shock of seeing “stack on stack of carbon ghosts” hits the postman hard. A mass grave of books, burned beyond recognition. Why even bother with the mail, with the possibility of written communication?

The higher possibilities for us only exist in a burned library, a wrecked suitcase, and some letters. Poverty truly is violence, complete with a motion that leads where it will. The side-street brings together the hydrant and the barber’s chair, but the road divides the milk churn and the bread. Things are united or divided however, everything is thrown. The traffic island speaks not to where things are but to the enormity of human traffic. That suitcase was attacked and neglected by many. The motion concludes with burned books. The possibility of being known is absent.

Hannah Stephenson, “Weeding” & Emily Dickinson, “What I can do – I will” (361)

Weeding (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

The gardener shows the seeds
that they are embers

There is a flowerflame sleeping inside them

All things being equal
which they are not

All things which come from the same thing
and are also distinct

A large part of the gardener’s work
is also to discourage growing
without remorse


The gardener, in weeding, discourages growing without remorse. But before we are presented with that conclusion, we are shown growth a curious way. The flower that grows toward the sun is also a flame rising. That flame, which reaches upward and can be thought spiritual power, will by implication also consume the flower.

This description, which concerns how striving, beauty, and decay link, is then put aside to reconsider the problem from what seems to be the gardener’s vantage. Things are not equal. Unequal things are distinct, regardless of origin. We end on a note which strongly suggests that the fact of difference means some things must perish. “Difference,” then, is not an abstract logical category: it comes from directly from our changeable world.

Even before the gardener’s mind speaks about “all things,” the seeds are “embers” holding a sleeping “flowerflame.” The seeds are personified, as they are shown something by the gardener. Perhaps what is most important: seeds and flowers are completely independent of the gardener, free to live and die, be defective or perfect, on their own. Their spirit in asserting themselves mirrors his in cutting them down. This leads us to wonder how the spirit of both gardener and garden can be “the same thing” which is “also distinct.” Is our willfulness just another part of an overarching differentiation and decay?

One might think this line of questioning a bit overblown. It could be said to be kind of “reasoning” that is more a trap than anything else. I’ve certainly been moody recently and finding it difficult to weed out negative, despairing thoughts from ones that are genuine insights. I do ultimately think the problem which Stephenson presents serious. It has a precedent in Xenophon. Isn’t a horse’s spirit comparable to that of a man? (cf. “Art of Horsemanship”) To elaborate a bit more, Anthony Masterson and I revisited Dickinson’s poem 361 yesterday:

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

Dickinson, on our reading, was playing a game of the following sort. She does so little, so little as a daffodil, that she cannot be possibly said to fail. Growth looks like the only way of truly accounting for her doing, but growth contains a dark irony of its own. The more one commits to saying “I’m growing” as opposed to “I’m doing something of note,” the more “cannot” must be “unknown to possibility.” In other words, when we think we’re growing, we as a matter of course discount failure.

So there is some kind of link between a natural growth, a natural spirit, and our pretensions. And that link causes us to act in ironic ways and see less even as we’re doing more or less. The weird thing about wanting self-knowledge is that there has to be a self that is knowable. How exactly one gets that self may not be the most pleasant, insightful, or meaningful process.

Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —


I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

With thanks to Michael Tinawi. For Emory Rowland.

This Is Just To Say (from
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


At least twice people I’ve known have sat around making fun of this poem at length. This poem was their excuse for avoiding poetry entirely. Quite honestly, given some of the attitudes displayed, I think poetry won by not having their readership. I wasn’t a sharp enough reader myself to defend this poem, but knowing how capable Williams is – “Complete Destruction” stands out for me – I knew I’d be returning to this someday.

A good way of approaching any given poem is through reconstruction of the drama. “This Is Just To Say,” the title, implies that something more important hasn’t been said. The poem itself seems trivial, as the speaker apologizes for eating some plums in an icebox. A few details stand out, though. “I” in the first stanza is strictly separated from “you” in the second. The plums were eaten before breakfast, as if the speaker left before joining a breakfast he and the addressee should have had. The speaker pathetically begs forgiveness; “saving” and “Forgive me” give what is probably a goodbye note solemn, nearly religious overtones.

One can say all of this is a stretch. But like Jim Gordon says in TDKR, “You’re a detective – you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.” Good poems make every syllable count. Knowing that, we should not be afraid to explore themes and symbols. The plums are described sensually, and “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” might describe the progress and demise of an intense but superficial relationship. I wonder if Williams meant for us to see this poem as laughable. Tragedy doesn’t occur in obvious, easy to digest ways. Watching your life fall apart isn’t something anyone else sees but you.

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