Thursday, December 26, 2013


            Yes, it's official:  I am leaving Facebook.  The reasons are most likely obvious.  Everyone I talk to about it sighs, nods their head knowingly, and says something like, "That's great.  Good for you.  I wish I would do that."  Note that there is never even a smidgen of sarcasm.
            We are tired of Facebook.  Granted.  But Facebook is certainly not the entire internet.  Why, for example, do I not feel a comparable need to leave any of the other online time-sucks, which include...
  • Google+
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Instagram/6tag
  • Tumblr (mostly for following other people; I don't blog there)
  • Anthropologie website (shopping; by which I mean lusting)
  • J. Crew website (ditto)
  • Kate Spade Saturday website (*sigh*)
  • Blogger (reading other people's blogs)
  • And bouncing around the internet, trying to stay roughly appraised of the happenings (and discussions) in pop-culture-land.
            So, first off, I should totally stop going to websites like Anthropologie and Boden and tormenting myself with all the shit 1) I can't afford, and 2) I don't need.  This one will never, ever be good for my sanity.  On the plus side, I just threw away years' worth of fashion magazines and catalogues because it finally felt like an organic, "I'm ready to be done with this now" kind of moment. On the down side...well, Anthropologie just keeps making gorgeous stuff!
            But there is something different about all the other social forums.  This may be just me, but for some reason, I feel  the distance in the other formats much more clearly.  In other words, no part of my brain (no part of which I'm conscious, at least) thinks I'm genuinely connecting with other human beings when I'm on Twitter or Instagram.  But every once in awhile I'll get a serious personal message from a friend on Facebook, and most of the people on there started out as friends.  Friends.  Not "Friends."  Remember those?  Friends were people I saw, on a regular basis, and formed genuine connections with.  People I may even hug when I see them.  I realize I may be in the minority on this, but I still follow a basic rule on Facebook:  I do not "friend" someone unless they are someone I would want to have coffee with.  I think my stand-offishness is weird to a lot of people, but "a lot of people" also insist that smiling pleasantly is a reasonable response to strangers asking me how I am.  (Hint:  They're wrong!)
            My point is, when I'm on Google+, Instagram, Twitter, etc., I am there thinking, "I am incredibly smart and talented.  I have a blog. I love my blog.  I think people should read my blog.  I want to read other blogs, and participate in their conversations.  How do I keep my readers, join in the discussion, and find more people who would enjoy my writing?"  I've even started just creating usernames like @leighandharriet, because frankly, Terra Leigh Bell — the human being, who goes by that name, reads lots of books, and agonizes over her hair color — that person is not on the internet.  Because — and I really don't mean to sound bitchy, just pointing out something that seems to get lost — the internet isn't exactly something I or any other material being can be on.  It's not a material object.  I can't stand on it.  Or in it.  I am a physical being with mass.  The internet, not so much.  It's a gigantic, almost spiritual entity created only by connections.  It exists in connections.  One could argue that, as humans are relational, we also exist in connections.  But throw a person in solitary confinement, and while you will certainly break them, you will still have a body in front of you.  Cut all the computers of the world off from each other...well, then I guess I could stand on a computer?
            Facebook, for me, elides these distinctions in a very uncomfortable way.  Sometimes I'm on Facebook as Terra Leigh Bell, Friend.  Here's how that looks:  I bop around, see if any friends have changed their relationship status (because I'm clearly SO connected to them if I find out they've gone through a breakup that way, right?), look at my funny friends' status updates, marvel at how little of anyone's humor I understand, click on friends' links to read several articles written by left-wingers ranting about how incredibly stupid everyone on the right is (and in the terribly-written, politically-simplified, ideologically-bent, gramatically-butchered process, convincing me that the authors are just as bad), get angry at the world, bounce back to a friend's page, say something friendly, and finally turn on some Beyoncé and go to to calm myself down and fantasize about the life I will never have (and would find fault with if ever I did).
            Then, sometimes I go to Facebook as Terra Leigh Bell, the Pseudo-Activist.  This is when I get on my high horse about the things I genuinely care about — animal rights, statism, religious bullshit, military bullshit, police bullshit, and women-specific issues — and go to Facebook just to post links and read other people's links, and "like" pages in the hopes that by clicking on my little laptop I will get all the captive sea mammals of the world miraculously released and left alone by our loathsome species.
            Tilikum is still in his nightmare, and probably will be until he dies.  I'm thinking more concrete action might be required.
            And then sometimes I go to Facebook as Terra Leigh Bell, the Writer's Agent.  It's a little hard to explain the difference here.  I think a lot of writers and artists have a hard time promoting themselves, and I do get that difficulty.  I guess the way I'd explain it is to say that I really stop being myself.  I start being my own agent.  Because I genuinely think I'm talented, and a good thinker and writer, and I REALLY want people to read my work, I'm pretty happy to post links to my blog, and talk about my forthcoming book from Babel/Salvage.  But I have to step out of myself a little bit to do this, and frankly, it feels icky to step out of myself in a forum where moments earlier I might have been pm-ing a friend about some serious parenting issues or arguing about the role of religion in feminism.  Those are personal matters with which I feel intimately and passionately connected.
            Promoting my blog requires me to step one or two paces away from myself, and for whatever reason, I am always one or two paces away on all other internet channels.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's a sign of something being wrong with me (though I doubt it).  Maybe I will hurt someone's feelings by saying this (though I also doubt that).  Whatever the reasons, I don't like the weird in-between space that is Facebook.  I don't like noticing that a friend has suddenly removed all photos of their (now former?) partner, and then looking at an ad for Amazon.  It makes me a little sick.
            For awhile, I thought I would stay on Facebook and just try to take those steps back there as well.  After all, it is a major mode of communication these days, for everything from a running group I recently joined, to doula and midwifery organizations.  And it's not that I don't want to be in touch with these people.  It's just that I want to actually be in touch with them.  As in, we see each other in the flesh occasionally.
            Recently, I had a bit of a realization:  the final evidence that Facebook is not functioning as a genuine social connection (for me at least).  I suddenly realized that I never talk about my boyfriend on Facebook.  Some of my friends that I don't see very often may not even realize I have a boyfriend.  And I suddenly noticed that I wasn't mentioning him on Facebook because it felt gross.  Like I was dragging this beautiful, precious thing in my life into some kind of advertising-mixed-with-aching-human-loneliness muck.  Which made me realize — Facebook is a muck of advertising-mixed-with-aching-human-loneliness.  Sometimes it's disguised as hipster irony, sometimes as intellectualized distance.  It's still aching, and it's still alienated as hell in the modern world, and why did I ever think Facebook didn't contribute to the alienation again?
            So for those of you who didn't know, yes, I have a boyfriend.  His name is Michael, and he's awesome.  He's also Jewish, and an Atheist, so Christmas was interesting.  And he is such a gorgeous gift in my life right now, I have no desire to drag him into that muck.
            And for those who follow my blog, thank you for reading, and I will continue to post links to new posts on Google+ and Twitter; feel free to follow me in either of those spots.  Also, you can subscribe right on the homepage (I think the link is in the right-hand margin).  It says "subscribe in a reader," but you can also just subscribe via e-mail.  The official Salvation from Facebook day is probably either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day.  I'll keep posting reminders until then.  I definitely don't want to lose readers (and so far, the vast majority of my traffic comes from Facebook, so this is something of a scary move for me), so I'll do whatever I can to take readers with me.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Socrates' Defense

            For the first third of the movie, the parent ignores and turns away from their child because of a committment to work, high causes, etc.  For the latter part of the movie, said parent insists their child be kept away from them while they are in jail because (supposedly) it is too hard for the child to see them in such a place.  Though it is clear the adult in question is simply embarrassed and doesn't know how to deal with the nightmare of parenthood behind bars.
            Then, finally, the parent — a mother as it so happens — gets to have her big moment to put everyone who's judging her in their place:
            "A man leaves his family to go to jail to protect a principle, and they name a holiday after him.  A man leaves his children to go fight in a war, and they erect a monument to him.  A woman does the same thing, and she's a monster."
            Nothing but the Truth is by no means a great film, but it was overall an entertaining one.  The mother in question is a journalist named Rachel Armstrong, who goes to jail to protect a source.  The source, Armstrong says, was promised absolute confidentiality.  The federal government wants her source, as they revealed to Armstrong the identity of an undercover CIA agent.
            And Armstrong has a point when she uses the term "monster."  A woman is, strictly speaking, monstrous when she fails to conform to social definitions of femininity.  But I have to say that when I heard this speech, my first thought was, "Bullshit.  You're not a monster.  You're an asshole, just like the men you're describing."
            Which is all to say, I've never been impressed by the supposed overturning of norms that happens when women enact the more reprehensible traditionally masculine choices and behaviors.

            For clarity's sake, let me mention that the title of this dialogue, "Apology," is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek apologia.  Apologia means, in English, "defense," NOT "apology."  As Grube puts it, "There is certainly nothing apologetic about the speech."
            Socrates is defending himself against the accusations of various Athenians.  I have only just recently discovered, at ombhurbhuva, some of the political complexities behind Socrates' trial and execution.  I heartily suggest that anyone interested check out this article.  I'm just processing a lot of that information, so I'm not going to go into it too heavily here.
            What I am going to take issue with here is probably obvious from the above notes on Nothing but the Truth.  Incidentally, it is also something I seem to be alone on.  Namely, that I have issues with idealists.  Idealists, with kids.  Socrates, despite having numerous ways he could have gone about being acquitted, delivers a beligerent defense and, in the Meno, insists that he doesn't want to survive by running away anywhere else.  This, from man with a wife and children.
            On the one hand, I've been experimenting lately with trying to be an asshole.  Or, because I am nothing if not traditionally gendered, a bitch.  Being a bitch is super fun (all ex-boyfriends and pastors totally left that little detail out), and frankly, I'm just getting tired of being perfect.  So I've been pulling something of a Socrates/Lessing; risking, smashing, and/or abandoning human relationships, in an effort to be more radically true to the only compass I have some kind of direct access to.  Namely, my own.
            But there is a violence to idealism which I remain suspicious of.  An attitude which places the ideal human situation well over and above actual human beings.
            And I really start to squirm over this when kids are involved.  Children are just little humans — rather difficult ones, as it so happens, and not ones I'm prone to romanticize — but they are little humans brought into the world completely unvoluntarily.  Involuntary doesn't sound right, because it's not like we can say to a nonexistent being, "Would you like to exist?", get a negative, and drag them into the nightmare with us anyway.  The whole point is you can't ask a nonexistent being if it wants to exist.  And I absolutely do not accept the idea that existence is always obviously better than nonexistence.  We're into making lots more humans exist — we get all those nice warm fuzzies every time we look at a baby — because evolution doesn't give a shit about voluntariness and it is very good at rewarding us.  Nietzsche's abyss only makes sense when there is a something to worry about the abyss.  I'm pretty sure babies that haven't been born yet aren't hovering over some Germanic, post-Romantic, terror-filled pit, just hoping to be saved and brought into this charming pot of melting glaciers, surveillance cameras, and biological warfare.
            So you take a child — a creature which never wanted to be at all — call it into an existence of radical neediness and dependence...and then abandon it?  Are you kidding me?!
            Granted, I'm a nanny, studying to be a doula, hoping to become a midwife.  So, yeah, I'm prejudiced.  But the reason I'm prejudiced is that I spend time with kids.  In other words, I don't get the impression that Socrates has any fucking idea who or what his children are.  That's like, woman shit.
            Socrates spends his life insisting that he is trying to overturn old ways of thinking — questioning the status quo — and still maintains this gigantic blind spot.  It's a blind spot most humans share.  Few and far between are the parents who see their children as more than creatures that exist solely to adore and obey them.  And later, to be yelled at and punished when they fail to do so.
            Socrates has ideals.  He is committed to his ideals, and I can't blame him for that.  But he also has children.  And while he may have been able to rely on friends to raise and provide for his children for him — it seems in Meno and Phaedo that he is confident they will do so — I do not rest content.  Men bring children into this world.  It may feel more conceptual — their link to their offspring is, after all, at a remove — but someone who claims to respect and value concepts and ideas could and should know better.  He could and should have at least taken his children into account when he was having his moment of fame, his "big moment to put everyone who's judging him in their place."


            I feel it worth mentioning that the scene where Armstrong has her little speech fails because it is very hard for actors to convince me of nobilities I don't recognize in real life.  The actress concerned, Kate Beckinsale, is more convincing when she seems flustered and intimidated by the size and scope of the machine she has stepped into.  Her nervous gestures when talking to Pat Dubois, the federal prosecutor, layer on top of a frightened but determined attitude.  In those scenes, I absolutely believed her.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Two (Very Different) Poems

            As a poet, I consider it my god-given duty to bemoan how little Americans understand poetry.  So here:  "Bemoan!"  Next week, thoughts on Plato's Apology.  This week, I thought I'd post a couple of poems.
            Neither of the poems below is what I would call the finest of the respective poets — namely, Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou.  Nor are Oliver and Angelou my favorite poets.  They are, instead, poems that were very important for my development as a writer.
            The writer who first made me want to be a poet was William Shakespeare.  I say this not so much as a "Hey, aren't I classy?" but more to demonstrate just how out of step I was with contemporary writing and thought and...well, existence.  I read almost the complete works of Shakespeare sometime between the ages of 11 and 14, and understood little to none of it.  I just knew that every once in awhile I would stumble across a turn of phrase that sent my head spinning with its convoluted-yet-crystal-clear beauty.  Also, I knew that the main characters were largely sociopathic, fascinating, disturbed men, and I was already pretty clear on the fact that this was totally my type.
            Then, one day, for reasons I don't recall, I was at a bookstore and thought to myself, "Well, if I'm a poet, I should read some poetry."  I went over to the poetry section and chose one book — Maya Angelou's Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie — almost entirely because I recognized her name, though how I don't know.  The other was West Wind, by Mary Oliver, and I have absolutely no idea why I picked that one up.  I'd never heard of Oliver, and the phrase "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" printed on the front meant nothing to a kid as sheltered as I was.
            The two poems below are the first poems in each book.  They are the first poems that I read by these poets, and they may very well qualify as the first 20th century poetry I ever read.  (Sidenote:  I was eighteen or nineteen at the time.)  I'm putting them here because...well, because for many different reasons, poetry has a reputation for being difficult.  And it can be.  And while I may enjoy slogging through difficult poetry, I certainly don't enjoy difficult literary theory or scientific research papers, so I sympathize with people who think poetry is somehow "beyond them."  But it's not.  It's just not.  Poets like Oliver seem pretty intent on proving that.

Seven White Butterflies
by Mary Oliver

                                    Seven white butterflies
                                    delicate in a hurry look
                                    how they bang the pages
                                          of their wings as they fly

                                    to the fields of mustard yellow
                                    and orange and plain
                                    gold all eternity
                                          is in the moment this is what

                                    Blake said Whitman said such
                                    wisdom in the agitated
                                    motions of the mind seven
                                          dancers floating

                                    even as worms toward
                                    paradise see how they banter
                                    and riot and rise
                                          to the trees flutter

                                    lob their white bodies into
                                    the invisible wind weightless
                                    lacy willing
                                          to deliver themselves unto

                                    the universe now each settles
                                    down on a yellow thumb on a 
                                    brassy stem now
                                          all seven are rapidly sipping

                                    from the golden towers who
                                    would have thought it could be so easy?

            The poem was something of an epiphany to me.  The sensuality took my breath away, and while I understood the references to Blake and Whitman, the poem changed them for me.  Before, poets like Blake and Whitman were part of a different world, a world that seemed both better than this world, and ferociously unavailable to full comprehension.  Oliver, in twenty-six lines, wrote a gorgeous poem that had as its stars seven insects — no lovers, no sailors, no fairies or mermaids or goddesses or other-male-fantasies — while she effortlessly tugged Blake and Whitman into supporting roles.  I had had absolutely no idea that poetry could be beautiful, and comprehensible.
            Angelou is, of course, an entirely different writer.  I'm not sure if she is more famous as a poet, or as an autobiographer, but either way she is one of our Black Classic writers.  Angelou has very much played a role as a spokesperson for African Americans, and in particular black women.  And while I knew Angelou was black — while her race and the radical difference between our life experiences was, it felt, written in blood in her books — I appreciated the violent shock I got from reading her poetry.

They Went Home
by Maya Angelou

                                         They went home and told their wives,
                                               that never once in all their lives,
                                               had they known a girl like me,
                                         But . . . They went home.

                                         They said my house was licking clean,
                                               no word I spoke was ever mean,
                                               I had an air of mystery,
                                         But . . . They went home.

                                         My praises were on all men's lips,
                                               they like my smile, my wit, my hips,
                                               they'd spend one night, or two or three.
                                         But . . .

            In retrospect it feels almost charmingly naïve, the way I took Angelou's poetry in.  I had read nothing like it before, and I was repeatedly flabbergasted at how frankly she wrote about sex and racism and violence and drugs and the beauty of black people's bodies.  But it registered as something like, "Wow!  I had no idea you could do that.  Huh.  I guess you can do that."

            As a final note, I, like every other vaguely-guilt-ridden upper class white person in the world, feel uncomfortable talking about, oh, what shall we call it?  Blackness?  Race?  Not-me-ness?  I'm not sure.  I feel uncomfortable drawing attention to a writer's race, because it is "rude" to do so.  It has only recently dawned on me, however, that this is due to the fact that I am white and, therefore, the somehow "neutral" race.  It's like, I'm normal, and it's rude of me to call attention to a black person's lack of normalcy.  I haven't found what feels like an organic, graceful way to address my own privilege and racism, but until I do I'm just going to start hammering at it, probably, ungracefully.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Did you know your brain is a part of your body??!!!

            Thoughts on Chapter 11 of The Artist's Way.  Part eleven of twelve on creativity.

            I hadn't planned on lining this up with Thanksgiving weekend, but on reviewing Chapter 11 of The Artist's Way, I was reminded of the fact that Cameron took on the subject of exercise specifically, and the body more generally.
            Artists and intellectuals seem to almost make it a point of pride that they don't give a shit about their bodies.  We drink a lot, eat out constantly, and then get all high-horsey about popular culture's worship of sports celebrities and skinniness and six-pack abs.  Though I quit, smoking (both cigarettes and marijuana) is still a big thing for lots of my artsy friends.  And here we live, in the sickeningly privileged U.S.A., where we apparently still think it's okay to binge on tons of meat, dairy, white flour, processed sugar, and beer to celebrate...uh, "Thanks."
            Artists and intellectuals never seem to mind aligning their own values with popular culture when it would make them feel deprived to do otherwise.  Overeat when that's fun and convenient, and then mock the women and moms going for jogs around Green Lake in their Lululemon gear.*  'Cause nothing would suck more than using all those excess calories.
            On the one hand, I get it.  I have made very intentional commitments to myself in terms of what practices and causes I feel it is worth investing myself in.  I put money towards them, I spend time and energy on the things I'm passionate about, I oppose the evils I can in those specific areas, and then I, like 99% of the people I know, get on with my life and effectively put blinders on to the stuff that falls outside of the scope I've chosen for myself.  But I chose that scope for a reason:  I can only be effective in so many spheres of life.  I only have so much me to go around.  I cannot work a job, hang out with friends, have a boyfriend, read a ton, participate in the dialogues I care about online and in life, participate in food/animal rights protests, political action, and fundraising, write poems, write blog posts, sing in a choir, be a vestry member at my church, go to the freaking church, schedule introvert-escape time with my cat and Monty Python, AND exercise regularly and eat well and occasionally sleep, and do any of it particularly well.  Even writing that out is sort of terrifying, because as of right now I am trying to do all of those things.
            So maybe artists and intellectuals would claim they are trying to pick their foci.  They want to ensure they can do things, and do them well, and many of us didn't participate in sports when we were younger, so maybe getting outside and going for a run, or deciding to eat something more vegetable-based than meat-based, just feels foreign and like a lot of extra time and effort.  And don't get me wrong:  it is a lot of extra effort.  If anyone ever cheerily says something like "it's just so easy to eat really healthy and you can totally just squeeze in a little brisk walk here and there and that's plenty!", they're lying.  For dinner tonight, I'd like a burger, please.  The kale and sweet potato will take infinitely longer to prepare.  Also, when my writing time gets squeezed, the idea of going to a yoga class or swimming sounds counterproductive.  I've got limited time, so I should spend it doing the most important stuff, right?
            Which brings me to the title of the blog post.  Did you know your brain is a part of your body?  Of course you did.  I won't insult your intellect by suggesting otherwise.  I will, however, risk insulting your attitude.  Most humans behave as though they were in fact two different things.  We could say soul and body, or spirit and body, but these days, people mostly talk about their "self" in what I think is a similar way to how we used to talk about souls.   It's gotten a little pop-psychologized, but I think the gist (in this context) is the same:  I think and behave as though I, the person I talk about in my professional and social and emotional lives, am a different entity from my body.  Only I'm not.  I'm totally fucking not.  I don't know nearly enough about neuro-philosophy and -psychology to go into detail on this, but suffice to say your body is precisely the you you are always talking about.  Your body is precisely the you that makes art, and raises babies, and tries to love your partner(s), and listens to music and gets all choked up about it.  That is you.  That is your body.  If there is a spiritual element, which I believe there is, it's so deep and so essential I don't think we can hardly talk about it.  We might be able to sing or pray about it, and religious ceremonies can be great for connecting to it.  But if it's there at all, I'm pretty sure it's not the part of you that nearly cries over every sweet photo of a puppy on the internet.  (Okay, okay.  That specific issue might be more about me.)
            My point is, when you take care of your body, you are taking care of the very same thing that generates art and thought and insight and stories and plays and loving, well-reasoned responses to your horrible children/partner/family.  Taking care of your body is not a time-suck that keeps you away from your creativity; your job might be, and certainly some relationships can be, and without doubt the entire nightmare that is the modern nation-state-capitalism-entertainment-industry-death-knell is one gigantic time-suck.  Unfortunately, that mess isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and whenever it does, it will probably take us all with it.  So in the meantime, you can either a) abuse the body that makes all that joyous art and thought, or b) get rid of it as quickly as possible, in as slow and painful of a way as possible.
            Ham with a side of sedentary, anyone?

*  The interwebs in particular like to complain about hot moms and their jogger/strollers and Lululemon, though I've heard it in real-time as well.  
    I know.  It's just so obnoxious to see women (WOMEN!!) getting exercise, and they take up tons of room when they have those annoying "kid" things, and they get together in these groups and "chat" with each other about their feelings and their lives AND THEN THEY GO TO STARBUCKS AND CAN'T THEY TELL HOW OBNOXIOUS THEIR SKINNY LATTES ARE??!!
    But seriously, I'm sick of it.  Next time you feel like criticizing an upper-class woman with a nice ass, know that you are just jealous.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Inner and Outer Ethics, and Plato's Euthyphro

            The stones are struck, and fire is made.  The prayers are said, and the rains come.
            If I had to guess at what draws us toward ritual, it would be the combination of our love of cause and effect, and our relentlessly pattern-making brain.  Always, our brains look for the repeated — and repeatable — patterns.  If the rains do not come, considering the general reliability of the weather, it seems not only understandable, but necessary, that humans would look for what went wrong; some practice left unfinished, some link in the chain of cause-and-effect that was left out.
            But this gets into very complicated territory, very quickly.  Because somewhere along the path of human history, we also came up with the idea of "pollution."  I will refrain from using the term sin, only because it often has very Christian overtones in this country, and the idea of pollution is much, much older than Christianity.  Whenever it came along, pollution meant that something went wrong in that chain of cause and effect, but internally, and perhaps invisibly.

            Some terminology, and a bit of background:
            Euthyphro is one of Plato's earlier dialogues.  Pronounce it like "You-Thi (as in 'thimble')-Fro.*  The earlier (and blessedly shorter) pieces are often called the Socratic dialogues, in part because scholars generally believe them to fairly well reflect the views of Socrates himself, as opposed to Plato, who is of course writing the dialogues and could put any idea he wanted into Socrates' mouth.  Euthyphro ends, like most of the Socratic dialogues, in what is called aporia, which could be translated as "puzzlement," or something like "impasse."  The Socratic dialogues, in other words, end without resolution.  These dialogues demonstrate that no one knows what they thought they knew.  The Socratic dialogues end with bewildered looks on their faces, and Socrates indicates that perhaps a conversation in the future might be beneficial to everyone concerned.
            The titular character, Euthyphro himself, is a priest.  As a priest, Euthyphro knows the rituals that were central to ancient Athenian life.  He knows the appropriate sacrifices, and the gestures, and the prayers, and all of the various benefits of fulfillment, and consequences for a failure of fulfillment.  Euthyphro is an expert on the topic of the dialogue:  ὅσιον.  According to G.M.A. Grube, the translator of my copy of Euthyphro, ὅσιον or hosion means, 
in the first instance, the knowledge of the proper ritual in prayer and sacrifice and of course its performance...But obviously Euthyphro uses it in the much wider sense of pious conduct generally (e.g., his own), and in that sense the word is practically equivalent to righteousness...the transition being by way of conduct pleasing to the gods.  (Grube, G.M.A.  Five Dialogues.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.  Print.)
            The story behind the dialogue is that Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for the death of a slave, who was himself a murderer.  Euthyphro is defying his entire family by doing so, and insists that it doesn't matter what one's family or even community think of one; the important thing, in modern parlance, is to "do the right thing."
            This is kind of a crazy thing to think in an ancient and/or traditional society.  For practical purposes, what matters is what your community thinks of you, not some abstract vision of morality.  Euthyphro himself seems slightly less interested in the abstract and more interested in, for him, the reality of the gods.  If the gods disapproved of something, it would be duly punished.  In that sense, Euthyphro is being just as practical as anyone performing prayers for their neighbors' eyes' benefit.  But in another sense, it seems to me that we are getting a window into a particular kind of phenomenon:  Jesus of Nazareth was trying to counter this exact issue when he said "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27).  When exactly did human religion and ritual become less about serving the purposes it so clearly evolved to serve, and more about appeasement of either an abstracted Law or fickle Gods?  Because while appeasing the gods goes way back, it would seem to me that any god whose service leads to the sundering of familial ties is a very modern, and very peculiar, kind of god.  Don't get me wrong; Euthyphro's dad sounds like an asshole (so does Euthyphro for that matter), but religious ritual is intended to keep human society running along as smoothly as possible, to give humans a sense of control over uncontrollable circumstances, to glue us together so we'll be there for each other when it's needed.
            If we keep hosion tethered to its primary meaning — as Grube puts it, "the knowledge of the proper ritual in prayer and sacrifice," — it feels distinctly external.  This, in contrast to what I will call righteousness, or internal justification.  (I am trying very hard to keep my Christianity out of this, so bear with me.)  The internal justification seems to be a product of maintaining a harmony within one's self; keeping one's ducks in a line, so to speak, where the ducks are the disparate parts of one's psyche.  There is a link between the internal and external, but I'm not sure that Grube's description of that link as "by way of conduct pleasing to the gods" captures it very well.  Does one fulfill the proper rituals, and thereby gain some kind of inner concord?  Or is the other way around, that one must have the inner concord in order to be able to fulfill the rituals properly?
            And now we are back to cause and effect.

            Over to the left you may see I have a blog on my list called speculum criticum traditionis.  It's one of my favorites (though, full disclosure, the author is also a friend), and awhile back skholiast wrote a post that included the following Hasidic story:

When the Ba'al Shem Tov had to accomplish a difficult task, he retired to a certain spot in the forest.  By mystical means he would light a fire, and he meditated in prayer; and what he set out to perform was done. 
After a generation, his disciple the Maggid of Mezeritz too faced a challenge.  He went to the same place in the woods, and would say:  "We can no longer light the fire, but we can still say the prayers," and what he wanted done became real. 
Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moishe of Sassov had to perform a task.  And he too went to the forest saying:  "We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the prayer's secret meditations; but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs, and that must be sufficient."  And so it was. 
But when another generation had passed, and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his chair in his room and said:  "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place.  All we can do is to tell the story of how it was done."  And the story that he told had the same effect as the deeds of the other three.
            If you read the post on speculum criticum, you'll see that skholiast doesn't agree with the more common, feel-good interpretation of this story, which would seem to indicate that the answer to my question is that not only is the inner concord/morality/righteousness primary, it may be all  that is required.  I tend to disagree with him on this; I think the story is intended in this feel-good way.  I happen to think the good feelings are nonsense, but I'll save that for another time.
            The story does make an intriguing maneuver, though.  Going back to my earlier questions — Does one fulfill the proper external rituals, and thereby gain some kind of internal righteousness?  Or must one have the internal righteousness in order to be able to fulfill the external rituals properly? — the Hasidic story points up the cause and effect assumption of the questions.  Maybe the Hasidic story asks another question:  Is it possible that all we truly have observed is correlation?  And if so, is this observation a gesture towards freedom, or towards terror?

*You should pronounce it this way because this is how I pronounce it, which doesn't tell you much.  I looked at the phonetic pronunciation, but God only knows what those symbols mean.

Monday, November 11, 2013

φιλοσοφἰα, γυνἠ, part two

Continued from an earlier post, on October 18th.

I'm spending awhile explaining where I'm coming from (in case that wasn't obvious from the aforementioned post). All of this is a very long-winded way of announcing that I am planning on moving into more explicitly philosophical territory. Philosophical, as I define it. I'm explaining my interest on a more personal level, because on the surface the term "Philosophy" comes off as specialized and, frankly, elitist. But the term, and the action of the heart and mind are, I think, very different.

            Philosophy is a word for something I originally turned to out of alone-lonely.  But then I got distracted from it by sex, and found a new kind of lonely:  I call it "man-lonely."  Lots of women know this lonely.  It's not so much wanting men, as it is the discovery that you don't get to choose either to be with them, or to escape them.  It's men who refuse to leave you alone, and even being a bitch just gets you followed around and yelled at for being a bitch.  (Trust me; I experimented.)  Alas, in my desperation to make the alone-loneliness stop, I mostly failed to be a bitch and went for super-sugary-sweet-and-nice and I held onto those assholes, goddammit.

            Fast-forward several years, and several miserable relationships later.  I am in a bookstore.  There's a book with a lovely cover.  It's called Philosophy, and I think to myself, "I remember when I used to like philosophy.  Before I dated men who like philosophy.  I remember when I thought I was smart.  Before I dated men who corrected me."  And I buy the book.  Mostly because the cover is nice, the layout looks like it's meant for laypeople, and the editor's name is pretty:  David Papineau.  The number of books I've purchased for similar reasons, and then never read, is huge; so I figure this one will have friends.

            One week after said book purchase:  I got in an accident.  My beloved Vespa betrayed me, crushed my foot, and removed a noticeable portion of my epidermis.  I was unable to walk for three months.  Suddenly, I had a lot of free time on my hands.  I couldn't fill it with work or men or anything.  Mostly I alternated between crying over my broken heart (I had also just been through [what I sincerely hope will be] the breakup to end all time), and crying from the physical pain I was in.  So what was I going to do with all my time?  I mean, I'm a champ when it comes to sobbing, but even I was getting tired of it.  Hobbling around on crutches was excruciating for reasons I won't go into due to the ick factor, so I basically had a forced three-month-long reading break.
            So there was this book.  And it was pretty.
            And I felt sick.  Sick from trying to crawl away from myself — from my own intellect and creativity — in an effort to be less intimidating to the men I was sure wanted to make me happy.  After all, they kept saying so!  "All I want is to make you happy and take care of you."  I'm pretty sure I thought that if only I could crawl fast enough away from myself, some guy would finally be able to give me all the love and happiness they kept promising.
            Which leads me to the second Greek word in the title of this post.

            γυνἠ: gunē.
Because, finally, it is beginning to sink in: no human being can simply set aside their specificity in order to engage with the upper echelons of creative and intellectual achievement. I used to believe such non-specificity was possible. As a German-American who grew up surrounded by Jews, I was desperate for non-specificity. As a white girl who briefly lived in a part of California where I was one of the only white kids, I've been shocked to discover that most white Americans don't grow up with nearly the ethnic consciousness I always had. If you are one of those white Americans, I guess you're lucky. I guess that's what we mean when we talk about privilege.
When I was at university, and anti-feminists insisted that anyone was welcome to the philosophical tradition, that anyone could engage with the Western literary canon, everyone was welcome, it was an open book available to all, if only those women/blacks/Jews/gays/Latinos/whoever would stop whining about their differences for long enough to engage with the tradition, we could all realize how much we all had in common — I wanted to believe them so badly. I did believe them. I chimed right in.
But when I was finally angry enough at the way men had treated me, angry enough at the story of boy meets girl, boy loves girl, and they get married and he takes care of her for the rest of her life, when I was finally angry enough to have not only been lied to, but to have helped build the lie, when I was finally angry enough to push back, I can tell you specificity still mattered.

So here we are. For the past year or so, I've been reading Plato. Almost nothing but Plato. And, um, why is this blog here? Oh, yeah. It was supposed to be a space for me to think out loud about what I was reading. But honestly, I haven't been thinking out loud about a lot of what I'm reading, because I keep having all these thoughts that seem — *ahem* — specific. They are specific to being a woman, and specific to a post-colonial historical moment. They are specific to being a German-Scottish-French-American, and therefore both supposedly part of the tradition by ethnic descent, and awkwardly insecure about where our rebellious, anti-aristocracy, money-obsessed colony fits in with that tradition. And maybe more than anything else, my thoughts are specific to being an uncomfortable-yet-still-devout Christian, which is so incredibly out of fashion in philosophical circles as to silence all but the most confident (or naïve) thinker and writer.
Nothing I'm saying here is exactly new. Feminists and queer theorists, at the very least, have been saying it for at least a hundred years. But after all the miserable relationships, and confused and confusing teachers, all the Hollywood movies I believed without knowing I believed them, something even better than the bookstore happened: I suddenly found several men in my life who are probably better feminists than I am. They seemed to believe in the value of my thoughts and creativity, and also (to my surprise) were pretty sure I should be pissed off at having been silenced in so many ways, some subtle, some not so much. Like, spitting venomous, fire-breathing unicorns kind of pissed off. Maybe I should have been able to get there on my own. Maybe I should have been inspired by a feminist or two. (Okay. Maybe one. Or two.) But however it happened, it happened. I got lucky. I found out that the issue with men and women in this world isn't that men are mean and women are pure and innocent victims. It's much more complicated and difficult and interesting than that.
So while it's true that nothing I'm saying here is entirely new, I think I got tired of not saying it, in my own words.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

golden age or churning of the waters

            It is late Pentecost, and approaching All Saints' and All Souls', and my church is doing a pop-up blog.  The following is a piece I originally wrote in response to something in the mass — though I can't recall what it was anymore — and so I thought it appropriate to contribute it when asked if I could offer something.  The following went up today, so I thought I'd share it here as well.

golden age or churning of the waters

the peach            sliced in half            fell open
gladiolas            stuck out their tiny            purple tongues
and strawberry blossoms            by magic            became strawberries

still your doubts hover            swoop in
and out             follow
an unknown will            behind me
behind me            behind me
where oh where
                                did the fruits with
their sugar and petals go?

it was that spring            the one people talk about
but it's gone            and somehow you know
you were never there for it

up under the mind            come floodwaters in the night
dark            and rotting what they touch

get behind me
i see it coming            and suspect
i am less necessary than you

behind me            where
shall we wait            for the boats that won't come
for the turtles            lumbering and snapping their mouths
to float us            towards a different death            one followed
by a spring            we may never see

            The concept of a “golden age,” from what I’ve read of world history, seems to be nearly universal.  There is always, “back then, when everything was great.”
            I am tired of this idea.  Not because I don’t believe in a golden age, but because I believe that almost by definition it must have been before human memory as we know it.  On some level we know deep, deep in our brain, the hunter-gatherer we are, and will never be again.  All of civilization — all the beautiful architecture, all the art, all the music and poetry and mercantilism and supposed glories of the intellect — seem to me a symptom of the degradation of our species.  A falling away from what we are, what we evolved to be.
            A bleak view for a Christian, I know.  We are such optimists!  Such unrelenting believers that all will turn out well.
            I present no solution to this.  Please don't take what I am about to say as a solution.  It is entirely possible there is none.
The churning of the waters comes from another mythology:  Indian/Vedic.*  So too the turtles.  They represent a moment when the muck that came out of Shiva’s destruction was churned, and lo!  There were good things hiding in that mud!
What the good things are, I don’t know.  I suspect they don’t include me as I know myself now; I suspect they are made from my recycled innards.  But I would like the turtles to have a chance to float a new world on their backs, even if they do it on the strength of fish they ate, who in their own turn gnawed on my bones.

*  I should mention that I do not understand Indian or Vedic philosophy well enough to expound on it/them (really there are Indian schools other than Vedic, but it's the best known).  I will say that I think that poetry is a different realm altogether, and I claim full license to do whatever the hell misunderstanding I please in poetic form.  I would work much harder — and probably write something much less useful — if I were composing an essay on soma and the samudra manthan.  Which I'm not.  Yet!

Friday, October 18, 2013

φιλοσοφἰα, γυνἠ, part one

            Philosophia.  The original meaning is "love of wisdom."  That's a lovely original meaning.
            I go back and forth on the term "philosophy."  For now, I am happiest with the phrase, "the life of the mind."  Philosophy has started to sound so cold, and what drew me to the life of the mind (originally) was much, much more personal.  It was an aching loneliness, that started sometime in grade school.
            So here, for the next two or three posts, I will stories centering around two different words.
            First, a chronology.

            Long time ago:  Somebody writes the fucking book of Genesis, which is one of the better pieces of literature.  But strange once you read the really old creation myths.  In which the reader discovers that most of humanity believed that the world was created by a goddess and a serpent, and the whole dude thing didn't show up until much later.

            Approximately 1933-1945:  Shoah, or the Holocaust.  Or the really brilliant PR concept, the Final Solution.  During Shoah, probably around 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi programs in and around Germany.  If we broaden to "the Holocaust," and include in that all of the religious dissenters, homosexuals, Romani, disabled, and other lives deemed unacceptable by Germany, the number rises to about 5 million more humans, for a total of approximately 11 million people dead.

           1991:  I started attending the public junior high in Mercer Island.  I lived on Mercer Island, but until then my mom had driven me to another nearby town to go to a small Christian school there.  Because I hadn't been going to the public schools where I lived, I hadn't known much about the demographics of my own neighborhood.  One of my first discoveries was Jewish kids.  Lots of Jewish kids.  I was initially thrilled to discover that the Hebrews of the Bible had survived in the modern era.  I had thus far believed them to be extinct because we always talked about them in the past tense in church and school.
            I was, however, quickly apprised of the events of the Holocaust.  Being raised in an Evangelical home and church, with a heavy emphasis on guilt, and being mostly German American, the results were fairly predictable.  Not least because — and this itself was probably due to the historical influences on Mercer Island's ethnic composition — everyone my age was obsessed with ethnicity.  When you were meeting a peer for the first time, you would exchange names, ages, and would immediately be asked something like, "Where is your family from originally?"
            If I'd had any sense, I would have said I was Scottish.  My last name is Scottish.  But I am predominantly German, and compulsively honest.  So when the inevitable, "What ethnicity are you?" came up, I couldn't stop myself from saying "German."  The responses were less than favorable.  Usually it was just a quiet "Oh," and they would suddenly be not interested in being my friend.  Once, I got a horrified, "You're a Nazi."  Luckily even then I saw some of the silliness of this.  (Some.)  But it didn't change the fact that my family's origins shaped my whole social experience of junior high.  And, perhaps most importantly, I knew it.

            What got me interested in philosophy — probably between the ages of thirteen and fourteen — was neither the supposed topics, nor any interest in a method of questioning.  It was weirdness.  My weirdness.  Weirdness, and its requisite alienation.  It was being an outsider, having no friends to eat lunch with at school, and every time I did try to talk to my peers I was terrified by how casually they seemed to take life, and how seriously I took it.  You could call it being uptight, on my part.  And also, loneliness.

            At the church I went to in high school, the pastors were fond of expounding on "the roots of words."  These were mostly botched attempts, which frequently conflated the history of the form of a word, with the history of its meaning.  The word "sin" is a great example of this.  Or the etymology of a word — say, "woman" — would be used the prove the accuracy of the same ideology which gave rise to the word in the first place.

            Eventually, in college, men discovered me.  The supposed consolation of human companionship was mostly supposed; still, I was distracted from philosophy, from my newly discovered smarter-than-thou status, and thought I had found a cure for my isolation:  sex!
            Still the loneliness continued, and I discovered many of the real reasons so many women are suspicious of men.  And being intellectual does not help.  Most intellectual men want a woman who will "Ooooh" and "Aaaahh" to their fascinating observations, and less intellectually oriented men seem to resent the idea of a female companion being smarter than them.

            Philosophia is a beautiful word, with an important original meaning.  These days, it feels like a word for something out of reach.  Every time I use the word "philosophy," I feel like I'm in a Monty Python skit and the skies should pop open with a booming voice:  PHILOSOPHY.  I dig Monty Python, but such antics make me feel awkward and unfunny.  Not so much inspired to join in the conversation.
            But this feeling isn't an accident.  It would appear that the only way to get called a "philosopher" is to go to a university and get a doctorate.  Now that is a very, very expensive way to read books, write papers, and sit around discussing them both.  But academicians keep encouraging us to view philosophy as a highly specialized field, because why else would anyone be willing to spend that kind of money or, more realistically, take out loans they'll be paying off for the next thirty years?
            It remains to be seen if this trend will change for the better anytime soon.  I am encouraged by a lot of what I hear/read going on outside of the academy; for example, at Partially Examined Life* and at Philosophy Bites**, whose own Nigel Warburton recently left the academy because he isn't so sure it's the best place to do philosophy anymore.  But I'm not convinced this exactly heralds a sea change.  Both Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life focus almost exclusively on responding to the same people and topics that are dealt with in the academy.  It's not that I think the academy has it wrong about the importance of the philosophical literary tradition and its foci.  It's just that I'm not sure when we can expect to see non-academicians coming up with original, well-articulated ideas that are taken seriously enough to make it to some kind of larger discourse.  Unless/until that happens, it seems we are stuck with the academic model, both in terms of what subjects are discussed, and which interlocutors are taken seriously.

*  Which is awesome, by the way.  Totally worth checking out.
**  Which is also awesome, and much more succinct.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

an experiment

The following was an experiment/mash-up using the very, very strange and wonderful poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, including some of the original German.  All of the words are Hölderlin's, or from the English translation by Michael Hamburger.

Fragments of the Fragments of the Later Version of Patmos, by Friedrich Hölderlin

Voll Güt' ist; keiner aber fasset
Allein Gott.

Most kind is; but no one by himself
Can grasp God.

In gloomy places dwell
The eagles, over
The chasm walk the sons
On bridges lightly built.
Give us innocent water,
O pinions give us, with minds
To cross over and to return.

So I spoke when
a Genius carried me
From my own house. There clothed themselves,
Like men,
The shadowy wood
So, fresh,
golden haze

Now, Asia burst into flower for me,
drowsy almost with flowers the garden,

O Insel des Lichts!
land of eyes,
More athletic
In ruin.
The hand of the Lord.
Rein aber bestand
Auf ungebundnem Boden Johannes.

von Cana.
A little while I shall stay, he said.
the Baptist's head,
Just picked, like script
on the platter. Like fire
Are voices of God. Yet it is hard
In great events to preserve what is great.

Johannes. Christus.
But that's
And now
I wish to sing.
Werden Träume. Fall on the heart
Like error, and killing, if one does not

Consider what they are and understand.
the Lord
Pronounced death, for never
He could find words enough
To say about kindness. Sein Licht war

Alles ist gut. Thereupon he died.
as when
A century bends, thoughtfully.

The evening had come. For to
Be pure is a skill.
But much is to be avoided. Too much
Of love
Is dangerous.
und der Heimath.
beside them
Walked, like a plague, the loved one's shadow.
mightily trembled
The house and God's thunder-storms rolled
Distantly rumbling,