Proletarians of Pain, Unite!

“It came so unexpectedly that I virtually needed years in order to recognize what had happened. I was confronted with a radically new, completely unexpected event: love” Lars Gustafsson, The Death of a Beekeeper (52).

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Just as a person’s ears always perk up when they hear their name being spoken, my ears are always tuned to titles of books. In a passing conversation the writer John Hawkes was mentioned and highly praised. Intrigued, largely by my ignorance of him,  I read his book The Blood Oranges. Written in the seventies it is a startlingly beautiful read of an odd sort. Thinking about it now I am aware that the vivid visual aspects and dreamlike sensuality still pervades and clings to the pith of my skin. I mentioned the book to a friend in the hopes that I might have someone to talk to about the compelling read and he in turn mentioned what he was reading. For fun we decided to read each other’s books, “You read mine and I’ll read yours,” I said. This post is about his.

“What is it? The possibility of love in our bodies. The presence, the possible presence of another human being.

   The humiliating, constant reminder that loneliness is not possible, that such a thing as a lonely human being cannot be.

   That word “I” is the most meaningless word of the language. The dead point in the language.

   (Just as a center always must be empty.)” (116).

Written in 1978 and translated from the Swedish by Janet K. Swaffar and Guntram H. Weber, The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson is an extraordinary book. A man’s life is reviewed, in a subtle way, through the various notebooks that he left behind after his excruciating death by cancer. A cancer that he refused (by burning the letter from the doctors) to confirm with certain knowledge. The possibility of hope combined with the extremities of his increasing physical pain expose a clarity of his own understanding of himself and the life that he has led.

“The human being, this strange creature, hovering between animal existence and hope” (133).

Now, I should confess (as I have on other occasions) that I am of Swedish descent (among other strains). As I read the book, and as I fell in love with the book, I wondered if there was something in my DNA that caused me to respond so intensely. The protagonist (who says he is called Weasel) comes to terms with his cold remove through his quiet questioning of his conduct in his own life. The fear of wasted time: “perhaps I should have used the time better,” he muses—and I smile. I don’t know that I would love a man such as Weasel, but I know I understand him.

“Not far from here there is a young lady, almost a girl still, who is very pretty and has a good figure. I had never seen her from a distance of less than fifty meters and found her quite attractive. Her face had strikingly vivid color, and her large eyes were very dark, her neck long and white. For a long time I had been tempted by a delicious urge to fall in love with her” (29).

Gustafsson (according to the end notes), wrote five novels that were variations on what were, as he saw it,  narrow aspects of himself: each extrapolated and examined as an alternate life. What if I had been more like this or that, if I had done this or that? This version is told with a particularly appealing (to me) dry Scandinavian humor, a keen sensitivity to the natural world, and a tender longing to belong to one’s body and to one’s own life—the story is deeply moving.

“Not that the pain has gotten stronger, but rather the pills, e.g., my nervous system, have somehow lost their grip on it.

   It has given me a body again; not since puberty have I had such a strong awareness of my body. I am intensely present in it.

  Only: this body is the wrong one. It’s a body with burning coals in it.

   And then of course the hopes” (23).

Perhaps it is that reckoning, through pain, in which one’s physical corporal presence is an inescapable truth, where we must look for meaning. Where are we? Here. In our bodies. We think we are in our minds, and we are tempted to become masters of hiding all the pains disassociated with our bodies until we no longer even know how to look at one another—how to love one another. While assessing his marriage and subsequent divorce, Weasel realizes that he and his wife had an implicit understanding to never look at one another: “looking at one another was forbidden, I mean, really looking at one another.” This of course begs a question which Weasel’s series of notebooks answers frankly:

“Naturally one has to ask oneself what is behind such an agreement.

   I believe it is pain. A kind of primeval pain which one carries around with one from childhood on and which one dare not reveal at any price. Much more important than the presence of the pain is keeping it hidden” (43).

It is through this uncowardly examination of a somewhat cowardly life that the beauty of the tragedy is forged. It is interesting, or not—as Gustafson refrains: (a banal story, no, not a banal one at all.) that both The Blood Oranges and The Death of a Beekeeper are primarily concerned with love. The former is love lived for love’s sake: distilled and even abstracted or depersonalized in an oneiric haze, while the latter is love not lived, and yet both books foment a feeling of hope—there is always hope. And so, there is always love, here, in our bodies: in mine, in yours. Our human need to examine our lives, to understand and find meaning are deeply provoked by the stories—the books—that we share and read. They never provide the answers. There are no answers; there is an urge to hone in, to refine and define, but ultimately the living is all that really matters. And yet, as Clive Bell wrote, there are two kinds of art (and I will add—novels): good and bad. The good ones stay, they dwell in you and you dwell in them.

“When reality confronts us with unusual situations (for example, when an anticipated rivalry doesn’t materialize and instead there is a love which excludes us), we first reach for these emotional stereotypes common to novels.

   They don’t give us much footing. They make is lonelier than before, and head over heels we fall out into reality” (59).

*Title from page 16

amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865--67)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons (1865–67)

And he said to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
—Dante Alighieri, Inferno (Canto III)

According to Signor Dante, there are many sins that will consign a soul to one ring of hell or another. Perhaps that is reason why, upon reading his Inferno, I was most fascinated by the Ante-Inferno.

These wretched ones, who never were alive”

Of course one assumes that the murderers, adulterers, avaristic, and blasphomous will suffer the Mintors’ exacting evaluation. But the merely meh? Those that simply lived without praise or disgrace? Seems a little harsh.

“Now you must cast aside you laziness,”
my master said, “for he who rests on down
or under covers cannot come to fame;
and he who spends his life without renown
leaves such a vestige of himself on earth
as smoke bequeaths to air or foam to water.
Therefore, get up; defeat your breathlessness”
—Canto XXIV

“Defeat your breathlessness.” Well, okay; that may have to be my new call to arms…. In a rare move I decided to purchase a copy of Dante’s Inferno rather than check it out of a library. But pecuniary considerations pushed me to a used bookstore where I spent some time comparing alternate translations. In the end I went with a cheap paperback version which had the Italian on the verso and English on the recto. The translator was Allen Mandelbaum. But what did I know? I simply compared various lines and made my purchase based on the version that moved me more.

O souls who are so cruel
that this last place has been assigned to you,
take off the hard veils from my face so that
I can release the suffering that fills
my heart before lament freezes again.”
(Canto XXXIII)

I began reading my purchase at my friends’ house in Brooklyn (a lovely, dear-to-me couple who have generously allowed me to sleep on their couch half the week during my summer internship at the Met where I walk by the incredibly life-like Ugolino sculpture every work day [Ugolino was in the ninth circle]). It wasn’t until I was asked who had done the cover art that I looked at the title page and became aware that the person who did the interior illustrations (not the cover art: that was Hans Mamling) was a professor of mine, Barry Moser.

In a kind of strange synchronicity, very soon after that discovery my relationship with the eminent Mr. Moser suddenly blossomed from a professor/student admiration into wonderful friendship. I mention that for two reasons: 1) I love the crazy coincidence of accidentally reading the book he illustrated and then at the very same time I am reading it being contacted by him. And 2) full disclosure. Although—I’d have high praise for the drawings regardless of knowing, or not, the artist.  When I saw his depiction of the Centaur from Canto XII my jaw dropped. My only thought was how could have anyone ever drawn a centaur any other way? It is truly menacing.

But back to Dante. By some powerful art of contradiction, Dante (through the exquisitely talented Mandelbaum) describes the utter despair and terror of hell with the most beautiful language.

“I’d utter words much heavier than these,
because your avarice afflicts the world:
it tramples on the good, lifts up the wicked.” ( Canto XIX)

I know a few corporations and politicians who should hear those words. It is quite a fun read. The book evokes so much thought about the nature of good and evil, heaven and hell, eternity and finality. But,  there is also a strange avarice for, or fetishizing of punishment. The excessive nature of the punitive measures are almost absurd. And many of the crimes are….well…My son Augie was confused how anyone doesn’t wind up in hell. He’s only twelve and can see no one he knows would not be headed there. But more than that, I began to wonder things like: what does it really mean to be cold, wet, and damp (as in the third circle meant for gluttons) forever? If there is never anything other? No means of comparison? No hope of comparison? What does that mean?

Perhaps it is just a failure of my imagination to imagine a constancy of that level of pain that does not incapacitate or cause death, but so then, if you are already dead…then what?  If you are already dead and suffering eternal pain what does pain or fear mean?  Fear of what? Not death, obviously. It’s all gruesome and terrifying but, as Augie put it, “After a while you’d get the routine. It’d just be boring.”

*title from Canto II: Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.

What Is It In Me?

Elizabeth_Sparhawk-Jones,_Shoe_Shop,_1911

Shoe Shop, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1911)

One of my favorite things about reading library books is the marginalia or annotations of previous readers. I love to consider the differences between what I might mark or underline and what a perfect stranger (albeit a similarly literarily-like-minded one) takes it upon themselves to mark. I found this written on the half title of Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples: 

If the author of the book were to ask, like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Mortmain” [sic?] ‘What is it in me that you like so much, And love so little?”,

It sent me on a quest to discover where that poignant line came from. The written title that was illegible, or just plain wrong, was no help. It took me a little bit of time but I found the the poem. It is called Avenel Gray.

Seneca sat one Sunday afternoon
With Avenel in her garden. There was peace
And langor in the air, but in his mind
There was not either—there was Avenel;
And where she was, and she was everywhere,
There was no peace for Seneca.

The poem is very long. It is the story of a man who comes to the realization that the woman that he loves will never make room in her heart for him.

What is it in me that you like so much,
And love so little? I am not so much a monkey
As many who have had their heart’s desire,
And have it still. My perishable angel,
Since neither you nor I may live forever
Like this, I’ll say the folly that has fooled us
Out of our lives was never mine but yours.

It’s a lonely and devastating poem. I became curious about the author. I had never heard of the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Edwin Arlington Robinson, (he hated his name apparently and went by E.A. Robinson. One can speculate that his disdain for his name stemmed from the fact that his parents didn’t name him until about six months after he was born [disappointed by his sex] and then finally left it up to a sort of contest between strangers in Arlington, Maine while on vacation the summer of his birth.). He was in love with a woman that went on to marry his brother. Her poor choice in marriage did not cool his ardor and after the brother (who seems to have been something of a wastrel) died she rejected his hand both times he offered it.

My wonder is today that I have been
So long in finding what there was to find,
Or rather in recognizing what I found
Long since and hid with incredulities
That years have worn away, leaving white bones
Before me in a desert.

Robinson had another relationship with the troubled artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. She spent some years institutionalized and one of the unfortunate manifestations of her troubles was an inclination to destroy her own work. Looking at her beautifully energetic painting above, the loss is lamentable. It is unclear to me whether or not the love between Robinson and Sparhawk-Jones was one-sided (if so it would have been on her side) but I hope not. I always root for the love story, fighting against the folly that fools us out of our lives.

A Plenty

Snowdie grieved for him, but the decent way you’d grieve for the dead, more like, and nobody wanted to think, around her, that he treated her that way. But how long can you humor the humored? Well, always.
—Eudora Welty, “Showers of Gold” (1)

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Tuesday I was standing in a packed NYC subway in alarmingly close intimacy with my fellow passengers, amazed at how well bodies fit into one another, reading a story about being in the woods (where I had been on Monday). I wrote of it to a friend of mine and he re-set my words into verse:

Subway
I was pressed up so tight against his backside
I only had to whisper in his ear,
“I am sorry, I am being pushed.”
But still I held my book above the fray
So that I could continue the story.

And what was this story that had me so enthralled with poetic devotion? A book of short stories, Golden Apples by Eudora Welty. The first story “Shower of Gold” is told with disarming charm by Miss Katie. I loved her no-nonsense ingenuousness. She told the story of Snowdie MacLain, an albino woman, whose husband would come and go without so much as a by your leave. Sometimes when he would come he’d let her know:

“Meet me in the woods.” No, he more invited her than told her to come–“Suppose you meet me in the woods.” And it was night time he supposed to her.  And Snowdie met him without asking “What for?” (4)

I guess I admire Miss Katie–she wants to know why. When her husband tells her he thinks that he saw the absconder husband, King MacLain, at a county parade she can’t believe he didn’t confirm much less confront him:

Men! I said if I’d been Governor Vardaman and spied King Maclain from Morgana marching in my parade as big as I was and no call for it, I’d have had the whole thing brought to a halt and called him to accounts. “Well, what good would it have done you?” my husband said. “A plenty,” I said.

yet, I think I understand Snowdie better. Welty enchants words, she’ll have you laughing out loud in a hot crowded subway, and then leave you a little lost on the platform of her phrasing musing over the devastating disappointments we endure. Some, like Snowdie, just take them quietly. I thought, after discussing the title of the story with another friend, that perhaps Ms. Welty, as fun and sharp as she made Miss Katie, saw things Snowdie’s way. That shower of gold was Snowdie’s news that she was expecting twins. Maybe she didn’t think she deserved more than a shower. Her husband just disappeared with no word or explanation and maybe she just took that as proof that she was just going to get what precipitation she did.  What good would it have done her to complain?

Each story in the book stands alone, and yet they are all set in the same fictional town, the same characters, the same disturbing inability to “know how to do about” as is Welty’s refrain in the story “June Recital.”

That’s the frightening thing. We are all trying so hard, but what if we just plum don’t know how to do about? I don’t mean algebra, or gardening, or spelling. I mean to say, when we don’t connect to one another when we, like Miss Eckhart, flail and fail in something so essential as love. When one looks into their own heart and has to admit–I don’t know how to do about you at all.

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them–human beings, roaming like lost beasts (“June Recital” 85).

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

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It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

Soaking Wet: truth and meaning

“All thought arises out of experience, but no experience yields any meaning or even coherence without undergoing the operations of imagining and thinking.”
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (87)

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In part 1 of Hannah Arendt’s book The Life of the Mind she examines (with breathless thoroughness) the concept of “Thinking” (part 2 comprises “Willing” and the appendix takes on “Judging,neither of which I have read yet).  I suppose there are three types of people: those that actively (or willfully)  don’t think, those that think, and those that go the extra bend of the river and think about thinking.

“Every thought is an after-thought. By repeating in imagination, we de-sense whatever had been given to our senses” (87)

The senses concern themselves with truth. Verifiable information. This sort of thinking is procedural and factual. But we are endowed with the ability to internalize, generalize, and “de-sense” those facts and therefore search for meaning. The meaning can never exist in ‘the truth’ of experiences. Meaning only comes from the second part of the dual-mind—the searching, pondering mode of thinking.  I exist is a different mode of thinking than why do I exist?  Truth is irrelevant to the latter question.

“The business of thinking is like Penelope’s web; it undoes every morning what it finished the night before. For the need to think can never be satisfied only through thinking, and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew” (88).

Thinking that occurs through the interaction of our senses is primary of course, as Arendt wonderfully sums up “The famous first sentence of Aristotle’s metaphysics. ‘Pantes anthrõpoi tou eidenai oregontai physei”—”All men by nature desire to know”—literally translated reads: “All men by nature desire to see and to have seen [that is, to know] (58). But, the sort of thinking that Arendt tells us Kant called the ‘intellect,’ the sort of reasoning that has no objective truth associated with it, nor does it have an end game, is a separate and separated life. It is like death in that it is abstract and utterly solitary, creating a break between mind and soul, but— it is life too—it is the wonder and the mystery: it is how we know beauty.

Thinking beings have an urge to speak, speaking beings have an urge to think” (99).

Common sense thinking (cognition) does not require language. But the intellect does: “It is not our soul but our minds that demand speech.” Languages in many forms, animal languages I think included, are useful, even necessary  for communication, but this is different from the internal discursive reasoning that humans engage in and which can not be considered possible without true speech. We talk to ourselves—how bizarre and yet how essential. Arendt examines, historically, two of the major philosophical strands considering the origin of this “speculative reason” (103):

“I have dealt with two sources from which thinking as we know it historically has sprung, the one Greek, the other Roman, and they are different to the point of being opposites. On the one hand, admiring wonder at the spectacle into which man is born and for whose appreciation he is so well equipped in mind and body; on the the other, the awful extremity of having been thrown into a world whose hostility is overwhelming, where fear is predominant and from which an tries his utmost to escape” (162).

Thinking about thinking framed within those two opposing world views is quite profound. It seems to me the Roman view-point is currently in vogue, but I personally feel split unevenly between the two. Life is a wonder, and the force of the beauty insists that we speculate. It is the cause of the thinking. I can’t go a day without feeling that—hardly an hour, really. And yet I have my own pains to bear. The unfairnesses and unkindnesses that are suffered and witnessed are irrepressible.  Whywhywhy?

However, non-thinking, which seems so recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its perils. By shielding people from the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society. What people then get used to is less the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always led to perplexity, than the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars” (177).

Yes. The possession of rules is the true opium of the masses. The refusal to think creates a veneer of well-run, quasi-peaceful societies, religions and political parties, but it is truly the death of progress and hope. The death of our human-ness—our ability, gift, and need to reason.

Like the photo above of my son moments after falling into the river after having climbed out farther than any common-sense thinking would have allowed—our hopes and dreams take a pounding. Maybe we weren’t strong enough, maybe the bark underneath was rotting away, maybe it was a good risk, maybe it was a dangerously bad one. But, still, to feel the air between our fingers, the cold water, and sand in our hair and to then think of the moving water, of my sweet boy’s unflappable enthusiasm even in the face of being thrown into this river of life—I think I’d rather be alive to it all. We may be all wet, but at least we are awake.

Inability to think is not a failing of the many who lack brain power, but an ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded. Everybody may come to shun that intercoarse with oneself […]. thinking accompanies life and is itself the de-materialized quintessence of being alive; and since life is a process, its quintessence can only lie in the actual thinking process and not in any solid results or specific thoughts. A life without thinking is quite possible; it then fails to develop its own essence—it is not merely meaningless; it is not fully alive. Unthinking men are like sleepwalkers” (191).

If I loved

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Me in the reflection.
Looking at the proof.
Duane Michals’ print of “This Photograph is my Proof!”
sent me searching for my own thoughts about lost love.
I am not a big user of exclamation points,
but I like it here.
That’s the mark that exclaims sweet relief—
I didn’t imagine it. I didn’t make it up.
You loved me and here is the proof.
But where does it go when it dies?
That’s what I thought about.
I have only had one love die.
It was murdered—then strangled.
All my other loves live on.
They alter,
flatten into two dimensions,
but they are still there.
If I loved, I love.