July 4th, 2016

Welcome to America, home of thinkpieces entitled “Are our best days behind us?” and “Is the republic doomed?” Here, everyone believes they know the identity of Belshazzar. Did Belshazzar soil the magnificent vessels of holy welfare reform? Or did he have the temerity to challenge Russian aggression? Either way, an ancient, sacred doctrine was violated, some kind of hubris was demonstrated, and the writing on the wall, following Daniel, is entirely in monetary terms, as if money is the only thing any of us can understand.

Doomsaying is a curious business. We readily understand it as a plea for moral reform. But we also recognize it as the domain of the blowhard, those who need to be right about everything, bad pundits and forecasters, the embittered, and the paranoid. Curiously enough, these are distinct groups of people. I know plenty who talk too much and need to assert their knowledge all the time. They’re not always blowhards: in a few cases, they’re trying their best to crack down on this tendency, as they genuinely don’t want to fill the room with their ego.

Still, the problem of “everyone’s a prophet” hits too close to home for many of us. I had two relatives that could never stop with the doomsaying. The economy was always going to collapse; no one knows any math, so we’re going to nuke ourselves and go broke simultaneously; there was a break-in ten years ago, so crime is skyrocketing. No one wanted to talk to them, and they utterly failed at making friends. Now that I’ve grown older and met thousands more people, I’ve been introduced to a whole new bunch of cranks. Take the hype of the news and increase the hysteria exponentially: this is our real domestic product.

The answer of the moment to this problem is asserting blather such as “America is already great.” You, dear reader, know the problem lies far deeper than our current situation. No less than Jefferson had to respond to this nut who argued that in the early 19th century – remember, back then there wasn’t any Social Security, no Medicare, no drones, no Federal Reserve, no welfare – the government of the US was too big. So instead of saying “we need more optimism,” I tend to say we Americans lack an appreciation of the value of things public. By that I mean we overvalue the private. Our house is our castle and we can do as we like. Since what we like “works,” why isn’t everyone like us? To value public things would mean being a bit more grateful for generic statements of value which can reach more people. Or emphasizing social and rhetorical skills. For Aristotle, friendliness was something to aim at, as opposed to being a grouch. Having some kind of social grace mattered too, because not having that grace risks boorishness. On a deeper level, we Americans really do lack class. It’s pretty clear we think we’d rather have some kind of emotional honesty.

I don’t know that we even have that, though. Doomsaying has a especial viciousness if done wrongly: it rejects everyone else’s claims as quickly as possible. I remember one relative in particular saying “that’s irrelevant” as soon as anyone gave anything other than “you are completely right” to him. We don’t have emotional honesty, we have emotional dishonesty. I’ve never seen angrier people accuse everyone else of not being happy or grateful. Yet here we are. As for myself, I’m well aware that pushing a reevaluation of the things held to be public or private is like putting a band-aid over where your arm used to be. I’ll be the first to admit my ideas are nowhere near a panacea, just something that might help in select situations.

Doomsaying can be so vicious because it attacks other people’s perspective, experience, knowledge, and questions. It works for bullies and infantile adults because it ties into some sense of received value. In short, it’s an attack on wisdom, but coming from where? One blowhard abusing everyone around him isn’t the real source of doom and gloom. Even with money and some kind of authority, he alone isn’t the source. No, his opinions have a credibility from leaning on something else. We all agree that the most practical thing would be best, and that this would set our minds at ease. We all agree that one crime is one crime too many, but that justice should be proportional, not cause for zealotry. We all hate war, yet we want freedom for all and protection from enemies. Our amateur prophets have their wisdom lent to them by our political order. Without realizing it, they’re articulating the expectations to which various political institutions cater. That the ends of those institutions don’t add up coherently (a mild example: that government gives subsidies to the tobacco farmer while running an anti-smoking campaign, that this is not a mistake in a way) doesn’t really sit well with us.

My wish is for a calmer America, one where we see and appreciate more Americans as life goes on. Years ago, Bush Sr. was widely mocked for wishing a “kindler, gentler” America. Maybe he was a hypocrite, given the Willie Horton ads he used against Dukakis. Maybe the wish has a value greater than any one of us, being the sum of all of us.

Kay Ryan, “Dry Things”

Dry Things (from VQR)
Kay Ryan

The water level
comes up when
you throw in
stones, bricks,
anything that
sinks. It’s a
miracle when
that works,
don’t you think?
Dry things
letting us
drink?

Comment:

Why read poetry? This short poem ends with a “miracle” we should consider, “dry things letting us drink.” I can hear the collective groans now. Some of us hold we know of greater miracles, and don’t want that word trivialized. Still others see a really lame joke: How can what is dry aid what is moist? That lame joke almost seems matter for pre-Socratic philosophers, ones employing opposing elements such as air, earth, fire, water. Thus, for a third group of people, poetry’s intellectual scope is limited to 3000 BC or something equally remote and backward.

This poem puts me in the awkward position of showing that “dry things letting us drink” can rightfully be considered a miracle. Alright then. “The water level comes up when you throw in stones, bricks, anything that sinks.” At the well needing water, this is close to a desperate situation. We want to drink. Hearing a splash, we know some water is down there. In fact, we’re very sure quite a lot is down there.

So should digging commence? There’s already a hole with water, found naturally. Thinking through it, finding the best solution, keeps as much as possible intact. Thought is rearrangement. It’s not easy truly thinking, to be sure. In order for the water level to rise, we have to throw things in such a way that the water is not simply covered up. We need the earth to rise evenly, without cracks that let it all slip away. And this needs to be done quickly, so we can actually drink.

It’s possible all this can happen. “It’s a miracle when that works.” Thought led to an ideal plan, one which could be executed well, and one which was executed well. The oppositions of language governing all this – the heavy sinks, the light rises, water is wet, containers dry – are oppositions of our own mind. They’re useful for grasping parts of the situation and can give us control. But they can be traps unto themselves. It’s only as a whole that they come to define, establish, initiate optimism.

Rae Armantrout, “Anti-Short Story”

Anti-Short Story (from Poetry)
Rae Armantrout

A girl is running. Don’t tell me
“She’s running for her bus.”

All that aside!

Comment:

Minimalism can be off-putting, sure. I stared at this for a while and had a few thoughts which felt like they couldn’t be further developed. And then I had what seemed to me an epiphany, but what good is an epiphany if there is barely any text to walk through?

My request to you is to withhold judgment for a second, if you’re inclined to think this poem too slight, too clever by half. Let’s focus on how much happens, as there’s a lot. The image that sets the scene: “A girl is running.” This our speaker and audience can presumably agree on. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we’re snapped at. “Don’t tell me she’s running for her bus.” The anger toward the girl is directed at us; it’s a maternal anger, an authoritative anger. We’re not allowed to treat the scene as innocent. That girl should be doing better for herself, as her being late to the bus is a show of half-hearted effort about her own life.

“All that aside!” The girl could be throwing away her education, or not showing enough concern for work, or running away from home. Given the anger of the speaker, we know exactly what the girl wants to run away from.

“Anti-Short Story,” then, really is too clever by half, a powerful drama and a mischievous title. The title might mislead a bit, as at first, I was tempted to think the girl was running late to school, that she was genuinely anti-education, literally anti-short story. That’s not a wrong reading, but an incomplete one, and a reading that has a tendency to stay incomplete. Armantrout, by making us reconstruct the circumstances of the anger we see in our parents, cuts right to the heart of the delusion, the stories our parents want to tell. Sometimes, they want us to fit into their narrative all too easily. In presumably knowing better, they can make their child’s life a short story of sorts. The complexities of growing up and becoming aware and responsible are treated like something that magically happens because a set of rules are followed. If you want real growth, real perspective, you need to cultivate an attitude that is anti-short story. This minimalism holds a certain promise: that we can take on our own bad opinions, one at a time.

Sappho, “In the spring twilight”

In the spring twilight
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

In the spring twilight

The full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar

Comment:

Outside, the moon brightened everyone with its silver; the whole town became a park of sorts. It felt the most sacred of moments. Couples outlined with its gentle light, girlfriends and wives in porches making idle chatter. Even children past their bedtime were quiet and busy, treading carefully lest they gain the notice of their parents.

The self-discipline of the children almost entirely enraptured me as I took my walk. Only one thing stood out more: the other women my age, walking about, murmuring to themselves.

N.B. My fan-fiction above is what it is. Obviously, Sappho likely describes the intensity of a cultic ritual, but I felt this fragment opened itself another way. More relevant to any discussion of the above: people claim that in antiquity, this was an especially prized verse. From sacred-texts.org: One Hephaestion cited it as an “example of the metre known as the Ionic a majore trimeter brachycatalectic.” I really like the translation of Edwin Marion Cox, again from sacred-texts.org:

The moon rose full, and as around an altar, stood the women.

Now rose the moon, full and argentine,
While round stood the maidens, as at a shrine.

Clunky, Clumsy, Upfront: Blog in Review, 6/29/16

1. What is the value of blogging? Three times I’ve had to think about this question the past few weeks. The first time was when a friend launched a blog. For him, the value lies in creating a portfolio of his writing, showing that he can use social media professionally and skillfully, building an audience and a network. – Not too shabby, all things considered. – The second time another friend, experienced in developing web properties, wondered what to do with an old blog not getting much traffic despite holding thousands of articles. The answers there are tougher: they center around monetization, building a community around a niche, crafting a brand.

The third time I asked this question, I was wondering how this blog can be more useful for all of you. Other blogs show how to do things, i.e. taking good photographs, writing marketable content. Still others give expert perspective or present the results of research. I don’t want to waste your time. For right now, I want poems or quotes or art in your hands because I know your days are busy. You deserve thoughtful conversation about a variety of topics, not just the news. In the not too distant future, I hope to be blogging about philosophy in more detail, trying to get at better questions, not saying the same thing over and over.

A few housekeeping notes: I’ve been pretty active on twitter and you can feel free to add me there. If you’re new here, welcome – I’m Ashok, I’m trying to blog daily, and I’d appreciate if you subscribed to this blog via e-mail. There’s a facebook page for the blog, and I will start updating it soon. At the moment, I just want to feel like I’m updating the blog itself often enough.

2. Alright, it’s ICYMI time. I’m not a good writer, much less a good sportswriter, and sportswriting is a demanding craft with incredible practitioners nowadays. Please do take a look at my two cents on J.R. Smith breaking down after the Finals, though. It’s clunky and clumsy and — I hope — upfront.

I wrote on poems of Kay Ryan, Eugene Ostashevsky, & Rae Armantrout. If you’re really pressed for time and can only pick one thing to read, make sure you read Ostashevsky’s “The Proof of the Axiom” in full. It’s a very charming poem: I discovered it while browsing books, laughed out loud, then spent the next hour absorbed in the rest of his work.

Two short commentaries on Sappho have convinced me, for now, that “fan-fiction” is the way to go when talking about extant fragments. See: “We put the urn aboard ship” & “Cyprian, in my dream.” Finally, I don’t really need to introduce Juan Ramón Jiménez to all of you. Some poets can cast a spell with the fewest words.