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.