Friday, October 30, 2009

Is This It?

Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu

That would be waving and that would be crying,
Crying and shouting and meaning farewell,
Farewell in the eyes and farewell at the center,
Just to stand still without moving a hand.

In a world without heaven to follow, the stops
Would be endings, more poignant than partings, profounder,
And that would be saying farewell, repeating farewell,
Just to be there and just to behold.

To be one's singular self, to despise
The being that yielded so little, acquired
So little, too little to care, to turn
To the ever-jubilant weather, to sip

One's cup and never to say a word,
Or to sleep or just to lie there still,
Just to be there, just to be beheld,
That would be bidding farewell, be bidding farewell.

One likes to practice the thing. They practice,
Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,
What is there here but weather, what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens

For the time being I can no longer pretend that I have the time or the motivation to continue blogging here on a regular basis. The nearly 300 posts since last year (counting the longer predecessor of "Blue to Blue") have been a fascinating project, well worth doing. But I have said many of the things I had to say, in this format at least, and circumstances have changed; there are real-life matters that need to be taken care of.

I may occasionally return if I have a poem or other bee in my bonnet that I can't resist sharing, but it won't be on any regular basis, and it would be for myself more than for anyone else. After the first of the year things may have settled down enough that I'll want to undertake something new. I will continue to follow some of the folks on the Blogroll from time to time. But as for this site, thanks for reading up to now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Poetic Diagnosis

I wasn't familiar with this poem, which I happened upon this morning:


No one gives you a thought, as day by day
You drag your feet, clay-thick with misery.
None think how stalemate in you grinds away,
Holding your spinning wheels an inch too high
To bite on earth. The mind, it's said, is free:
But not your minds. They, rusted stiff, admit
Only what will accuse or horrify,
Like slot-machines only bent pennies fit.

So year by year your tense unfinished faces
Sink further from the light. No one pretends
To want to help you now. For interest passes
Always towards the young and more insistent,
And skirts locked rooms where a hired darkness ends
Your long defence against the non-existent.

Philip Larkin

In some ways this seems a harsh, unlovely, and ungenerous piece, but on the other hand it has its accuracies. When it was written, in 1949 according to my volume, "neurosis" of course was a commonplace term owing to the cultural prominence of psychoanalysis. Neurosis remains a widely recognizable term, of course, but one no longer finds it in mainstream psychiatric diagnosis, as it has been split into myriad anxiety, mood, and perhaps personality disorders.

However, the construct of "neuroticism," which is a general tendency to emotional negativity and instability and susceptibility to stress, still exists as one of five major components of personality as identified in psychological testing (the other four are openness vs. conventionality, conscientiousness vs. expediency, extroversion vs. introversion, and agreeability vs. its lack). Neuroticism is correlated with increased risk for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders among other things. To my mind, describing someone as broadly neurotic can be more helpful and convenient than listing the five DSM-IV diagnoses they may happen to meet criteria for.

As for Larkin's poem, it painfully depicts the disfiguring and ostracizing effects that neuroticism can have; no, it is not (quite) leprosy, but it can alienate almost as much. It conveys the sense of stasis and sluggishness ("clay-thick"), of emotional torpor that results not from repose, but from wasteful psychological exertion (the metaphor of wheels spinning but gaining no traction on earth is just right).

Larkin puts his finger on the core problem of neurosis, which is the lack of internal freedom; while philosophers forever debate freedom vs. determinism in the abstract, the neurotic battles fatalism on a daily basis. Cheer up; don't be afraid; eat less; exercise. How can these things seem so impossible? For one thing, the neurotic lives in a different perceptual world from the rest of us, with a mind that will "admit only what will accuse or horrify."

"Tense unfinished faces" is perfect, suggesting the way in which anxiety inhibits and blurs individuation. There is a sense in which neurosis is a disabled identity. I'm not sure that "hired darkness" works as well, but I assume Larkin means here the classic avoidance by which the neurotic seeks to fend off "non-existent" threats, although ironically the threats in question are in reality all-too-existent, merely within the neurotic's "locked rooms," and not without as he imagines.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In the Country of the Blind...

In a culture of visual and information overload, does one close one's eyes and detach, or does one peer and squint all the more intently? It depends, of course, as a couple of recent Web tidbits remind me. At Salon, a letter writer asks Cary Tennis whether he is culpable as a "blog stalker" for anonymously following a family's apparently fairly intimate but not yet exclusive website. The writer's scruples are an example of increasingly unheard of discretion.

When I first became interested in blogs a couple of years ago I went through a period of browsing countless sites, often chosen at random, just to sample the astonishing diversity out there. It felt a bit as I imagine a bird might feel that is able to coast on updrafts, although this bird would possess supernatural sight and hearing, able to openly eavesdrop on passersby below.

As Cary Tennis noted in his answer, some websites are so open--or in some cases so shameless--that propriety suggests that one should avert one's gaze, as one would from a passionate couple in the park. But this is no ethical obligation, rather mere politeness. One can make a case that if people desire total privacy, they should stay in. In the open, gestures are observed and conversations are overheard, often with delectable curiosity. Similarly, anyone writing an open blog is asking for readers, some of them potentially randomly and scandalously inquisitive.

A quick dash to the dictionary reminds me that "voyeur" has an unsavory connotation, which is a bit surprising. Obviously general "curiosity" is widely commended (except among cats), but we really don't have a positive term for curiosity applying specifically to the interpersonal realm. After all, no one wants to be "nosy" or "prying" either. And yet much of what therapists do is a kind of well-intentioned voyeurism, sheer attention to the Other in ways that would seem inappropriate in many settings.

Some of the charm of personal blogs is owing to the mere sense of plenitude and excess. In an age of inane reality television, 24/7 news, and spam, who needs blogs anyway? It seems to me that blogs are one thing that make the Internet a massive metropolis, always a click away. Blogs afford an often unintentional and unaffectedly sincere look at passersby in the digital city; they are most informative when they don't know (whom) they are informing.

If the blog browser is the flaneur "taking it all in" on a busy city street, then there is the contrary tendency to filter out extraneous crap and control access to the answer, or at least an answer one cares about. In an Atlantic Monthly piece Jamais Cascio discusses the growing power and specificity of "augmented reality."

In a philosophical sense of course we never take in reality in an unprejudiced way; there is no escaping preconceptions altogether. And in some cases one doesn't want to--if a (formerly) Red State rube like me strolls through Manhattan, it is good to have access to a guide book of some kind that tells me what I'm looking at. But there is the danger of touring the guidebook and not the city.

"Augmented reality" is the increasing capacity of phones and other devices to superimpose upon one's real-world surroundings a kind of filter that both comments on those surroundings and screens out aspects deemed undesirable beforehand. It favors control over serendipity. And again, one can't see and hear everything; it is necessary to choose. However, it behooves one to choose the method-of-choosing (the reality filter(s)) most wisely. Maybe that's what wisdom is.

If information today is an open fire hydrant, does one retreat inside a poncho, or play in the shower, or slap a hose on, perhaps to spray someone? It depends on one's goals at the time and on how comfortable the surroundings are.

In environments of information scarcity, the challenges are education and opportunity, but in environments of information excess, the challenges are prioritization and motivation.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In the Beginning...

There may be no better instance of "high" art meeting "low" than R. Crumb's new version of the Book of Genesis (complete and unabridged, primarily using Robert Alter's translation)--an NPR review is here. Crumb, best known for his notoriously carnal and countercultural work in underground comics, explained that the warning on the book's cover--"Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors"--is needed because of the story, not his artwork. And indeed, his version is straight up, honestly depicting the extensive sex and violence of the original without gratuitous detail.

In his generally favorable review from The New Republic, Alter himself explores and questions the extent to which Crumb's illustrations add to the power of the original. However, is this really the primary criterion by which graphic work--whether drawn, staged, or filmed--should be judged? After all, as Alter implies, any one graphic interpretation, inasmuch as it favors one visual version, steers the reader away from imagined alternatives. Indeed, such is the power of primary text that any "strong interpretation" could potentially detract as much as add.

While graphic works can't be considered altogether in isolation from their source texts, I think they also can stand or fall based on their own visual impact. For instance, I love William Blake's illustrations, but I think they retain much of their power even if the words (prodigious in themselves) are blocked out. And some primary texts seem to me to be so profound and uncontainable in themselves that visual interpretations seem almost a distracting disservice. Shakespeare is like this--while I've enjoyed a fair number of staged and filmed versions, I would much prefer to reread the original.

Another way of saying it is that graphic interpretations, while perhaps professing to complement or even enhance the textual original, cannot avoid competing with it and threatening to limit it as well. Perhaps this is why Islam forbids illustrations of the divine. But interpretation, just as criticism itself, can be appreciated as a parallel pursuit, just as I might enjoy Mozart's Mass in C Minor without counting myself a believer. As Santayana I think put it, "There is no God, and Mary is his mother."

When I first read Genesis as a teenager I was most struck, for whatever reason, by the story of Lot's family's flight from Sodom and Gomorrah and his wife turning into a pillar of salt when she turned to look behind her. Perhaps there was some adolescent avidity to know what exactly was going on in Sodom and Gomorrah, but as someone with a weakness for nostalgia to begin with, I also took it as a minatory tale. Descending from high to low culture, I would then proceed to play Boston's "Don't Look Back" at high volume.

So the Book of Genesis, a work of towering influence, doesn't need R. Crumb to augment its stature, but the graphic work is compelling in its own right, establishing its own imaginative region even if, in narrative terms, it does little more than flatter the original. But one definition of a classic--I forget where I read it--is a work that continually generates a buzzing cloud of interpretation.

Monday, October 19, 2009


An Everywhere of Silver
With Ropes of Sand
To keep it from effacing
The Track called Land.


The sea is a creature of opposites. And it has always seemed a creature, the female deity corresponding to the male sun. The sublime Russian version of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, in its depiction of a questionably sentient quasi-liquid world, brings this home.

Timeless and transient, absolutely monotonous yet infinitely various, caressing yet lethal. Above all, perhaps, solemn yet silly, a vast and inscrutable panoply contrasting with trivial sand and whimsically salty air.

The sea at night seems an affront, though, black-upon-black or death-within-death. Perhaps that is why sunrise and sunset are so much more striking at sea: rituals of redemption.

I have never allowed myself to live within two hours of the ocean. Some day perhaps.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Season

"Autumn Day"

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Higgs Boson, Fate, and the Future

A Times article, pondering the vicissitudes of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, suggests that the great machine may be "sabotaged by its own future." That is, the energies generated may be so prodigious, and the elusive Higgs boson may be "so abhorrent to nature," that its creation ripples back in time to nullify itself. This could be viewed as a protective reflex on the part of the universe, or for the theologically inclined, God's version of "What part of no do you not understand?"

Maybe the whole article is tongue-in-cheek (which makes it no less interesting for that), but with particle physics apparently it's hard to tell. Yet I can't help but wonder: how is the time-travelling theory any different from the proposed project simply being impossible or contrary to the laws of nature, even if we don't yet understand how? After all, if I jump off of a tall building, flapping my arms vigorously, I will fall to my death. Is the prospect of me flying unaided across the cityscape "so abhorrent to nature" that my hypothetically successful flight travels backward in time to insure that I plunge to my doom instead? This suggests that the universe must (retro)actively cut off all kinds of transitions to metaphysically unacceptable outcomes. But if we can never directly view such outcomes, how is this different from the more prosaic notion of the inviolable laws of nature?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama, Laureate

Those Scandinavians, as we know from Munch, Hamsun, and Sibelius, are known for their riotous humor. And this time of year, as northern Europe begins its dive into collective Seasonal Affective Disorder, the Nobel Prizes afford an irresistible opportunity for global titters. Nonetheless, President Obama must be muttering, "With friends like these..." What's next, an honorary doctorate from Harvard, or perhaps a lifetime achievement award from ACORN?

I'm a sucker for grand symbolic gestures, but I have to believe that the Peace Prize is less about Obama himself than about the ideal of the United States as inspiring and responsible superpower, which people in most parts of world appear to want to be back. Who does the world look to? Europe? With polite curiosity. China? With wariness. Russia? Please. If the 19th century lasted, politically, until 1914, it appears the the American century, while a bit dyspneic lately, hasn't yet breathed its last.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Affection and Affectation

"Some cynical Frenchman has said that there are two parties to a love-transaction: the one who loves and the other who condescends to be so treated."

Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Part of me--a brisk, imperious, tolerating-no-fools-gladly side of me--delights in this. This is deflationary fact, nothing in excess of what is the case. As Wallace Stevens icily wrote, "Let the lamp affix its beam."

And yet...this observation, while surely occasional fact, cannot be truth, or at least the whole truth. For as I reminded myself recently (it's not original), fact is immune to our needs and desires, while truth should not be.

And then there are the Avett Brothers, a (mostly) North Carolina trio whose new record, I and Love and You, I've been enjoying. The CD package includes a preposterous but nonetheless affecting "mission statement" that illuminates for me what I like about the band's music and overall ethos: their honesty, sincerity, and pathos, but also their naivete, painful earnestness, and bathos. Depending on the day, I have either the former virtues or the latter vices, either buoyantly bobbing on the waves or floating bombastically into the heavens. I am, at least, capable of self-puncturing (or is this merely a kind of meta-bombast?). The Avett Brothers' previous record, which was superb, was entitled Emotionalism; that says it all.

I know this "mission statement" for what it is, something I myself could have written, most likely a dozen or more years ago, perhaps after a couple of glasses of wine. Only the most desperately loyal readers of this blog will make it to the end of this Avett Brothers statement, which may belong in some twisted "Purple to Purple" site:

The words "I" and "Love" and "You" are the watermark of humanity. Strung together, they convey our deepest sense of humility, of power, of truth. It is our most common sentiment, even as the feeling of it is so infinitely uncommon: each to proclaim these three words with his or her very own heart and mindset of reason (or lack thereof); a proclamation completely and perfectly new each time it is offered. Uttered daily and nightly by millions, the words are said in an unending array of circumstances: whispered to the newborn in a new mother's arms; shared between best friends on the playground; in the form of sympathy--said by a girl to a boy as the respect continues but the relationship does not. It is said too loudly by parents to embarrassed children in the company of their friends, and by grown children--to their fading parents in hospital beds. The words are thought in the company of the photograph and said in the company of the gravestone. It is how we end our phone calls and our letters...the words at the bottom of the page that trump all those above it, a way to gracefully finish a message, however important or trivial, with the most meaningful gift of all: the communication of love. And yet the words themselves have been the victims of triviality, a ready replacement for lesser salutations among near strangers, burst forth casually as "love ya." Truly? To what degree? Why, how much, and for how long? These are questions befitting the stature of love, though not the everyday banter of vague acquaintance. The words have also been twisted by the dark nature of deceit: to say "I love you" with a dramatic measure of synthetic emotion; a snare set by those who prey upon fellow humanity, driven to whatever selfish end, to gain access to another's body, or their money, or their opportunity. In this realm, the proclamation is disgraced by one seeking to gain rather than to give. In any case, and by whatever inspiration, these words are woven deeply into the fibers of our existence. Our longing to hear them from the right place is maddeningly and simultaneously our finest strength and our most gentle weakness. The album "I and Love and You" is unashamedly defined by such a dynamic of duality. As living people, we are bound by this unavoidable parallel. We are powerful yet weak, capable yet temporary. Inevitably, an attempt to place honesty within an artistic avenue will follow suit. This is a piece which shows us as we are: products of love surrounded by struggle. The music herein is, in many ways, readable as both a milestone and an arrival. A chapter in the story of young men, it bridges the space between the uncertainty of youth and the reality of its release. The record is full with the quality of question and response. As far as questions go, there are plenty...

Oh my, I couldn't even finish transcribing it. Yes, there are plenty of questions here, like What are you thinking by putting this turgid mess into the liner notes? (Fortunately, the music is far better). Yes, some of what it expresses does capture a faint glimmer of truth, but only in the same way that, say, Bach's B Minor Mass played on solo tuba captures a faint glimmer of beauty. This is the kind of thing that might drive me back to the Beastie Boys and Licensed to Ill.

What the Avetts seemed to be after is that "love," like "war" or "God," is a word that is wholly inadequate to the phenomena it purports to describe; words fail, and they are susceptible to debasement. When someone quipped that "all is fair in love and war," why did he leave out "God?" The three words arguably express the most violent emotions we can feel toward our own species: toward, against, and...up, up, and away. In the cases of love and war, at least, we can be sure that there is a there there, that there is a someone we're engaged with.

This is why poetry exists, to save words like these from exsanguination.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Concept of Anxiety

There is no Hope without Fear, and no Fear without Hope.


Today's Times, drawing on now famous research by Jerome Kagan, features a long review article on anxiety and it's relation to temperament. This is a great example of science confirming ancient intuition, in this case the fact that persons really are wired differently from conception. As the article states, any emotion has three components: physiology, subjectivity, and behavior--the question for life is how far the latter two can be unyoked from the first.

I don't have a great deal to say about anxiety except that as compared to the other major mental disorders--mood, psychosis, and substance abuse--it may be the one most likely to hide in plain sight. Anxiety can generate profound misery and grave impairment but does not, in itself, advertise by means of catatonia, craziness, or intoxication. And while all psychological symptoms exist on gray continua, the point at which anxiety becomes pathological may be the hardest of all to pinpoint. Anxiety, after all, is adaptive.

Anxiety and depression often travel together, but arguably they present differing core experiences. If the sine qua non of depression is loss (of a good, of an attachment), that of anxiety is dissatisfaction, the feeling that something is wrong that cannot be set right. In obsessive-compulsive disorder it is the immediate environment that is defective, while post-traumatic stress disorder entails a deep flaw in (social) reality itself--the world itself becomes antagonistic. For the socially anxious, it is the self that is unacceptable. And perhaps generalized and panic anxiety are the most closely aligned to fear, such that the future itself cannot be trusted.

If psychosis is metaphysical, and if the phenomenology of depression is somehow religious--the suspicion that there is not, in the end, enough good in the universe to make up for the bad--then the experience of anxiety is fundamentally moral and/or aesthetic--it is desperately important that something be made right. The other day D. G. Myers at A Commonplace Blog proposed a list of the "most depressing novels of all time" (I agreed with the choices with the notable exception of Miss Lonelyhearts, which is darkly hilarious, and not at all depressing). What are some of the most anxiogenic writings of all time? Hamlet, surely, inasuch as his uncle's perfidy and his mother's frailty constitute the rotten taint at the root of the prince's world. "Notes from the Underground." "The Waste Land." The Trial. Others?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Saving Face

A friend's fondness for Facebook--which I summarily sniffed at in a post a week ago--prompts me to reflect again. If the modality were good for nothing else at all, it is a superb email directory, and I've enjoyed hearing from all kinds of people I hadn't seen in years (in terms of getting looked up, it doesn't hurt to have a first/last name combination that is unique in the world so far as I've been able to discover--thanks Mom and Dad).

The weakness of Facebook as I see it comprises the Friend system and the way it complicates, despite controls, natural impulses to compartmentalize and modulate contact. If a delight of Facebook is hearing from old acquaintances, a downside is...hearing from old acquaintances; after all, there will always be some one is pleased to hear from, whereas in the case of others...not so much. After all, high school reunions happen only every five to ten years for a reason.

Obviously countless people have noted the way in which the Friend system encourages lame popularity contests, such that one would hardly turn down an offer of "Friendship" if the name were recognizable and not a subject of frank enmity. But in my case, it seems that the frequency and interest of posts by "Friends" is inversely proportional to the actual quality of real-life friendship. With an exception or two, the people I'm close to rarely post (if they have something to say, they'll call or email), whereas a relative by marriage (for now) posts countless quasi-delusional anti-Obama posts daily, and people I haven't seen in a quarter century keep me up-to-date on their momentary experiences.

And once someone is a "Friend," it seems a bit over-the-top to Unfriend him unless some specific or alienating incident has occurred. I haven't tried the Blocking feature yet--is this really distinct from Unfriending, and is it really unknown to the "victim?" Only a consummate snob, I'm sure, would amass vast numbers of "Friends" only to block all but those he really wanted to keep in touch with.

In a great Seinfeld episode George becomes distraught when his "worlds collide," that is, the parallel realities of friends and girlfriend commingle, blowing his mind. Facebook is like assembling all your friends and family over a lifetime in one great room, which sounds charming, except that it would be dreadful. Most of these people would have nothing in common apart from having known you, and would have nothing to say to one another (and in many cases, not so much to say to you either).

I think Facebook is great for keeping up with family pictures and major life events (some of which I won't be publicizing there however), and for my purposes, it would be enjoyable if there were a critical mass of actual friends who used Facebook enough to have stimulating discussions about politics or whatever. But beyond that it remains a curiosity.