Friday, August 31, 2012

A quiet month

Well, in "real world land," where I live in a body and a home and eat food and sleep, the past two months have been two very, very quiet months.  This has resulted in spending lots of time online, which isn't exactly quieting to the mind.

So in the next month (that's September) I'm going to be trying to avoid internet connectivity as much as possible.  So if you pop by during that time, I might just have one or two recent posts.  Otherwise, I'm planning on reading, writing, chatting with friends, and hoping very much for an Indian summer.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poems About Summer, and Alone

I hadn't planned on posting poems by other folks on here, but lately these have been holding on too tightly.

All Summer You Kept Trying to Answer
by Jane Hirshfield

All summer you kept trying to answer the knocking.

Down the hill,
the new houses composed themselves,
first story, second story, roof.

Your own story stayed unvisited, unfurnished.
What lived there
was smaller than mouse-sized.  Perhaps a cricket still moved.

The heart, wanting to waken,
drank its tiny cups of morning espresso.
One morning choosing a green cup,
the next morning yellow.  Red.  Blue.  Then once again green.

All summer the heart circled the wheel of its colors.

What does it matter if now a dog wakes you,
night after night, in the dark?
Comes to the bed and stares until you open the door,
then goes out to start up a racket that no neighbor hears.

When Tu Fu turned forty,
he drank rice wine, dipped his cup over and over,
barked like a dog into wind.
Perhaps this dog is Tu Fu, still going on,
howling at time, at friends gone to the Yellow Springs.

Does he hunt some impossible answer —
beauty?  or justice? — there in the outer dark of the world?
Or, more modern questioner,
hunt only the scented knock of a better question?

He is gone a long time.
Who stands in the doorway is you.
Still, waking is waking.  It is good to have a companion.

The late stars shine in the cold, some red, some blue.

And this isn't Tu Fu, but Hirshfield made me think of my Chinese poets.

Bamboo Retreat
Wang Wei

Sitting alone amid dense bamboo
strumming my lute and whistling
deep in the forest no one else knows
until the bright moon looks down

            -translated by Red Pine

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Manhattan and Woody Allen's Non-Neurosis

(Which Looks a Lot Like Neurosis When You're Surrounded by Nutcases)

            During the film Manhattan, Isaac (played by Woody Allen) walks down the street with his girlfriend Tracy, his friend Yale, and Yale's mistress Mary (played by Diane Keaton).  Mary is laughingly listing off her nominees for a special list of overrated artists which she and Yale are compiling, and when she mentions Ingmar Bergman, she hits a nerve.  Isaac has thus far tried to ignore/avoid this highly nervous and annoying woman, but Bergman, Bergman he has to stick up for.  He states unequivocally that Bergman is one of the only real geniuses in cinema.  Sounding exasperated and maybe even a little bored, Mary replies:
            "His view is so Scandinavian.  It's bleak.  My God, I mean all that Kierkegaard, right?  Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism.  I mean the silence, God's silence.  Okay, okay, okay.  I mean I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but I mean alright, you outgrow it... Don't you see, don't you guys see, that it is the dignifying of one's own psychological and sexual hangups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues.  That's what it is."
            So on the subject of psychological and sexual hangups...
            The funny thing about this movie to me was that I ended it feeling like Isaac (yes, that's Woody Allen's character) was the sanest person in the whole thing.  It made me realize how much I come to Allen's movies with expectations about how crazy/neurotic his characters are.
            Don't get me wrong: Allen is the perennial nebbish.  (Sidenote: learn this fun word!  Learn it, and use it!)  He mutters constantly, wanders physically and verbally, and while we might tend to find it funny, the truth is that little he says is very important or meaningful.  And he's sort of pathetic, with his novel writing, and his own terror at the one decisive action he takes during the movie, leaving his miserable job.
            But I couldn't help feeling some shared suffering with Isaac.  He is fixedly moral, but he is driven to being almost obsessively so by the lack of morality around him.  Everyone around him seems to think the solution to confused morality is to relax and not get so wound up.  Meanwhile, Yale is cheating on his wife, Mary announces that she and Yale are going to move in together, and when Isaac points out that Yale is going to destroy his marriage for something that can't make it past two weeks, Mary (all shock) says, "Two weeks!  I can't think that far into the future!"
            I should probably mention that Isaac is something like 42 years old, and his girlfriend is 17.  Okay, okay, okay.  I know this is frowned upon for a million reasons.  All I can say in my defense is that, like Isaac, I'm pretty committed to the idea of fidelity in marriage, and when I was 17, I was no fool about men.  If I'd had a relationship with a 42 year old man, I would probably just grow up to be vaguely embarrassed by how wrinkly he was.
            I wonder what it says about me that I think Isaac is the sane one in this movie.  He certainly seems to have the smallest number of psychological and sexual hangups.  He's just awkward, and I can confirm one bit of his experience: nothing will drive a slightly-more-morally-strict-than-average person to the deep end of self-righteous isolation and judgment faster than a bunch of loosey-goosey heathens who destroy themselves while insisting they're having a good time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Big Books and Creativity

            Creativity is strange.  Frequently humiliating, sometimes exhilarating, and always out of nowhere.
            Except that it's not.  The artist, writer, whoever, has a lot of power to create the appropriate circumstances.  This is absolutely crucial of course.  But then, it either comes or it doesn't.  So it sort of is out of nowhere.
            To make clear why I'm on about this, let me explain something about how I've engineered this blog and my brain to work together:
            First, there is a Big Book.  In my case, the last Big Book was Don Quixote.  The next two I'm currently reading are Five Dialogues, by Plato and translated by G.M.A. Grube, and The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan.  So I read the Big Book.  My brain gets really, really into it at first.  I'm so into this super-intellectual book, I'm sure I should have been a college professor.  No, no, wait, I'm way smarter than any and all college professors because I'm not working my tail off for five dollars an hour to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of student debt.
            But I digress.
            So my brain gets really into it.  Then it says it's done.  Long before the end.  We argue, I compel, and the brain completes its work grumbling and refusing to ever generate another light-hearted thought or genuine emotion ever again.  (This is a total lie, by the way.)  Usually just as my brain and I are nearing the finish line I throw it a couple of general interest books and murder mysteries, maybe some movies, just something to help it out.
            Second, there is the stare-at-the-wall phase.  I stare at walls, and stare at blank sheets of paper, go out for drinks with friends, and wonder why I didn't marry that nice guy who wanted to set me up in a house on the Mediterranean seven years ago.  (Oh, wait; he wasn't that nice, and I don't tan well.)
            Third, I write something.  It is actually more linked to the first phase than might seem obvious, but it's difficult to explain how non-linear things happen in linear time.  Anyway, I write something. But the something I write will most likely never see the light of day.  In fact, it will be bad.  It will be very, very bad.  Then I'll write something else.  Maybe I'll combine the first and second things.  Maybe I'll start over.  And then maybe I'll start over again.  Hey, why not start over again?
            All this time, I am writing things which I will most certainly not post on this blog, let alone dream of publishing.
            After awhile, I'll start to get something.  A poem, an essay:  a piece.  Then I'll tweak it.  Maybe I'll write another piece.  More revising.  More writing.  Honestly, probably more staring and drinking with friends.
            At some point I'll be able to look at what I've been working on, and I'll say, "Hey, look!  I had a thought!"
            And that thought, gentle reader, is what goes on this blog.
            Which is to say, it takes me a long time to form a thought.  Or at least to articulate it.  So I started the blog when I had pretty much wrapped up this whole process with the Quixote.  As I've been posting things about that Big Book, I've been somewhere in the middle of that process with Plato and Bunyan.  I just finished The Pilgrim's Progress and Apology, but I don't consider that to mean I'm ready to offer a thought on them.  And while I'm trying earnestly to put some effort into Bunyan, for some reason he's not prompting ideas like Plato is.  I would have expected the opposite.  The Pilgrim's Progress is far more beautiful than I'd remembered, and (yes, it's true) very spiritually inspiring.  But for whatever reason, nothing linguistic is happening.  And Plato/Socrates (more on that conundrum later) seemed so dry from far away that I never would have thought I would write an actual poem to, um,
            So consider the next few posts a small interim.  A time for me to share other, more-easily formed thoughts:  what I think about Jad Abumrad; how cute Jad Abumrad is; Jad Abumrad's recent and wonderful essay on creativity.  Okay, no, I won't only talk about Radiolab.  But in the next month or so you'll probably see some posts on philosophy in general, Agatha Christie, The Artist's Way, Woody Allen...whatever stuff I've been throwing my brain to get it across the finish line without completely rebelling against me.
            So for my next trick, maybe not exactly Plato.  Maybe...

Friday, August 10, 2012

Adios, Signor Quixote

            I believe I read somewhere that there are two different kinds of fairy tales.  I'm sure there are far more than that, but the two types serve my purpose well here.
            Often people flippantly say that all fairy tales are morality tales, but that is patently not true.  The only moral to be gained from Jack and the Beanstalk is that it's a good idea to break into the houses of people who are infinitely stronger than you are.  The only moral to the Frog Prince is that you will be rewarded for being a little bitch.  You could sarcastically argue that these morals are actually true, but these stories were not told to children to make them good.  Like religious stories, fairy tales are told from a certain perspective from which you will read certain characters as protagonists; this does not make them good in the sense that most parents wish their children might occasionally be.
            So there are morality tales ("Steal and God will strike you dead"), and there are the more complicated stories, which I might call metaphorical tales.  The kinds of stories where we give the listening child a character to identify with, and then guide them through a story which will, we hope, help equip them to deal with the complexities of childhood and adolescence and adulthood.
            I swear this relates to the ending of Don Quixote.  Just give me a minute.
            Don Quixote is defeated.  He is defeated in a fair fight, and the consequence of his defeat is that he is sworn to return to La Mancha to spend a year in retreat from the life of a knight-errant.  Defeat, and its subsequent enforced sedentary life, breaks Don Quixote.  What's more, he begins to see things are they really are: pigs are not an army, but simple pigs; an inn is no longer a castle, but a humble inn.
            However, on their way home, he begins a new scheme.  He plans for Sancho and himself, and hopefully also the barber and the curate, to embark upon a life pastoral.  In other words, he has decided to take up another literary-allusion-as-guiding-life-principle.  They will be shepherds, roaming the fields and woods, and pining after their assorted lady loves.  Quixote will become Quixotiz, and Sancho will become Pancino, lover of "Teresona, which will fit her fatness to an hair, as well as be agreeable to her own name Teresa," (Ibid., p. 1047).  Quixote tells his friends the curate and the batchelor (student) Sampson Carrasco of his plans, and they, lost in the face of this new species of madness, go along with it.  Thus far, though he is sad, and though he is seeing things as they are, we still clearly have an imaginative man before us.
            But then suddenly, Don Quixote develops a fever.  He remains in bed for six days.  A physician is called, and he foresees the worst.  Quixote falls asleep shortly after the doctor has come.  Waking, he announces, "I now enjoy my judgment undisturbed, and cleared from those dark shadows of ignorance, in which my understanding hath been involved, by the pernicious and incessant reading of those detestable books of chivalry.  I am now sensible of the falsity and folly they contain," (Ibid., p. 1085).
            To be clear, I'm sort of belligerently devoted to reality, so Quixote is no hero of mine.  I don't doubt that Quixote was insane.  I also think he was a bit of a jerk sometimes, and it often felt as though he consciously knew what he was doing, and how ill-suited his actions were to reality.
            What bothers me here is that it feels like a placation of the audience.  Like a movie or an opera where the bad guy has been so well-developed, and so intelligent, and pointed out so many flaws in, oh, I don't know, maybe a political/economic system, that his or her death in the end feels like the wrong kind of fairy tale.
            Up until the end, I feel like I've been reading the weird, wobbly-ethical-lines kind of fairy tale: how can the Sleeping Beauty fulfill fate only by disobeying those she is supposed to submit to, those who are sworn to protect her from, um, fulfilling her fate?  How can it be right for Don Quixote to wreak havoc at Juan Palomeque's inn, destroying his property and ruining his wine in an effort to vanquish a monster?  And more pointedly, how can it be right for it to be necessary to the story for him to do this?  For it is necessary.  Necessary for many reasons, not the least of which is bringing one Don Fernando to his senses enough that he chooses to honor his marriage to Dorothea (long story).
            And now Cervantes has decided to wrap things up into a different kind of fairy tale.  Now Don Quixote is dying, and he willingly denounces all the weirdness, all the insanity, all the interest.  Suddenly, he denounces the very reason we are reading his story and declares his books to be detestable.  Does that make this book detestable, at least in his eyes?
            I suppose the complicating factor here is the question of which comes first: the immanence of the knight's death, or his return to sanity?  Does one cause the other?  Or do they arise simultaneously, necessarily part of the same event: the transformation of Don Quixote back into Alonso Quixano?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

overtaken by the morning

In the longer Quixote piece, there were several of these smaller bits, which I thought of as something like "those messed up abstract night sections." Messed up because, unlike the following one, most had copious quantities of footnotes. I chose this one because for whatever reason Copy/Cut/Paste doesn't seem to work with footnotes, and the task was too daunting to recreate them for one of the weirder sections.

overtaken by the morning*

at twilight night begins at twilight.
such beautiful terror all this

day’s dust settles in a thicket not far
not far from a great and shadowy building looms
not far from twilight
such beautiful twilight.

not there yet in a thicket
of oaks not far from the gate in a thicket
night is pulled on its course by the old
alonso quixano
resting in some thicket
of oaks listening to barking dogs cats mewing of
resting in some thicket of oaks young,
plump man, eyes exhausted by day’s light, on a donkey
stars and day’s dust.

from the gates, not far from shadowy thickets of
thickets of oak trees a moon a man
a moon, exhausted by the day’s light
the building that casts the shadow
where where is it?
the palace dogs, dogs barking

that great shadowy tree.

where is the palace of dulcinea?

that great shadowy ¿where? toboso, yes!  but
toboso, silent, and lying
with outstretched legs
eyes , exhausted by the day’s light watch.

where is the palace of dulcinea? 
far far from the gate far
from the thicket that great and shadowy building
that great embowery building casts the shadow.
and sancho
the plump
ventures forth on his donkey
passes oak trees
and gates
hears the barking of dogs and grunting of hogs
sancho pulls the moon across the sky
    draws the moon along its course
  while the night’s dust
cools, and settles.

* Ibid., p. 614.