Tag Archives: life

Existential Mathematics

recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.
—Milan Kundera, Slowness (135)

 

In researching my final film studies paper, I got happily (some might say, stupidly) sidetracked by an essay discussing the libertine novel genre. Through that essay I came to Kundera’s book Slowness which interpolates a modern day story with the story from the 1777 novella by Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow. The modern story relates a weekend spent at a French château in which some sort of political/scientific meeting is taking place. The narrator relates Denon’s tale of sexual ecstasy in a similar setting, to the pathetic tale of political “dancers” and their scurrying ilk.

If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously…” (19-20)

Kundera has a gift for describing the cynicism of the world in all of its painful reality. The hypocrisy of it all is what is at the heart of our desire to forget ourselves and others—it’s too painful. Written in 1995, one can see—not much changes. Which is why the juxtaposition of the two stories is lovely and brilliant. In the modern story people are cruel to one another, thoughtlessly hurting each other and simple racing to get through it all and to forget it all as quickly as possible. Devon’s tale is one of shameless pleasure, of a night of slow love whose transience cannot touch the memory that lingers. Time to love, time to ponder the time spent loving, matters. And it is why slowness matters.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace (39).

Kundera has a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, with joy and sorrow, and the true humanity he suspects exists in his fellow citizens. His writing is poignant, elegiac, but always hopeful. He asks us to consider the speed at which we operate when the fleeting aspects of life rushing us towards death are the most painful to contemplate.

I finished reading this book while stuck in a massive traffic jam. This is how jammed it was—I literally read while I drove. The irony of being forced to a crawl, enabling me to finish Slowness, gave me almost enough delight to stave off the frustration of being stuck on a hot road breathing in the exhaust of all the other irritated cars and people. But what is the rush, really? what do have besides time? What should we do with that time? Race through, reach the finish line in record speed? Particularly in the environment I currently exist in which semesters come to a crushingly quick close, I know that this speed makes it impossible to retain all that is good in every day. I have a deep craving to slow things down. I have no time to read books that are not assigned to me, I haven’t time to get through all my work and do the laundry and feed my people—never mind feed my soul. And so, when I do it anyway—when I linger over dinner, chat with a friend,  read a book only because it gives me pleasure and makes me consider the fact that maybe we should slow down and love the people who will let us love them, or even write this blog while my three final papers still loom—I set aside the feeling of vulnerability and fear that my rushed life otherwise pretends to avoid: somehow thinking that to run away and bury ourselves in an all-consuming forgetfulness will be easier.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope (156).

Kundera’s book, most of all, is about love, the kind of love that dearly departed Prince celebrates in his beautiful song (apologizes for the poor quality of the video, but as all Prince fans know getting ahold of internet videos of his music has always been like sighting a unicorn—and this brief interlude of access will most likely not last so enjoy what you can while you can). It is kind of love we all deserve in whatever form: slow love.

 

 

Advertisements

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)

IMG_4065

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).

Blast Their Eyes!

Love must justify itself by its results in intimacy of mind and body, in warmth, in tender contact, in pleasure. If it has to be justified from the outside, it is thereby proved a thing without justification (27).
—Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

IMG_3759

Published in 1928, Point Counter Point is a highly amusing society drama which seems to be a pointed but harmless tale of the social foibles of the English upper classes. But, in truth, there is a poison at the center and the story produces a feeling by the end that is akin to a cold hard blade of a steel knife in one’s gut. That people are consistently awful is something we all know but usually try hard to forget. Huxley’s genius is his clever mode of describing the heartbreaking disillusionment of life. I read this book from a found copy of a 1960’s cheap paperback. It more or less fell apart as I read it: the browned acidic paper crumbling, the leaves falling away as I turned the pages….seemed appropriate.

“It’s the disease of modern man. I call it Jesus’s disease on the analogy of Bright’s disease. Or rather Jesus’s and Newton’s disease; for the scientists are as much responsible as the Christians. So are business men, for that matter. It’s Jesus’s and Newton’s and Henry Ford’s disease. Between them, the three have pretty well killed us. Ripped the life out of our bodies and stuffed us with hatred” (124-25).

So admonishes Mark Rampion—the one decent fellow in the cast of characters. He and his wife Mary represent the only healthy people in the book. Their love story is something of an oasis I kept wanting to get back to. It did not surprise me in the least to discover, after I had finished the book, that they are probably based on D.H. Lawrence and Catherine Mansfield. The sane people are justifiably disgusted:

“They’re just marching toward extinction. And a damned good thing too. Only the trouble is that they’re marching the rest of of the world along with them. Blast their eyes! I must say, I resent being condemned to extinction because these imbeciles and scientists and moralists and spiritualists and technicians and literary and political uplifters and all the rest of them haven’t the sense to see that man must live as a man, not as a monster of conscience braininess and soulfulness” (220).

Of course, the legacy of Huxley is his incredibly prophetic vision. although, when you think about it, I suppose it doesn’t take much talent for insight to realize that there is something very wrong with our ability to live naturally in the world. Most people are lucky if they can merely get by on the fumes of love as the real quenching experience eludes so many. And people are cruel to one another. Crueler, even, than they have to be.

“You don’t want to hurt my feelings. But it would really hurt them less if you did say so straight out, instead of just avoiding the whole question, as you do now. Because avoiding is really just as much of an admission as a bald statement. And it hurts more because it last longer, because there’s suspense and uncertainty and repetition of pain. So long as the words haven’t been definitely spoken, there’s always a chance that they mayn’t have been tacitly implied. Always a chance, even when one knows that they have been implied. There’s still room for hope. And when there is hope there’s disappointment. It isn’t really kinder to evade the question, Phil; it’s crueller” (81).

This sort of common way of dealing with things is so destructive. And painful. I see it extend out beyond the domain of romantic love— the question, do you love me or not? This tradition of evasion leads to the warping of all relationships including our relationship with the planet, which asks more and more plaintively each day, do you love me? Why are we poisoning our planet? Why do we poison each other? I saw a photograph this morning of a boatload of starving people who were turned away from countries that could at least help them simply not starve to death. Police killing our own citizens based on the color of their skin. Politicians taking food out of the poor’s mouths. Polluters with incomprehensible immunity. Why don’t you love me? As a society we are bound by norms that don’t allow an injustice to be called an injustice. We evade the reality that other people’s human dignity is trampled upon by an disinclination to let ourselves just be human. To show and prove our love of life—this life! my life! your life! — openly and unapologetically.

“It’s the substitution of simple intellectual schemata for the complexities of reality; of still and formal death for the bewildering movements of life. It’s incomparably easier to know a lot, say, about the history of art and to have profound ideas about metaphysics and sociology than to know personally and intuitively a lot about one’s fellows and to have satisfactory relations with one’s friends and lovers, one’s wife and children” (329).

Reality is hard. I always considered the hermit to be something of an evading weakling—just try to maintain kindness, consideration for others, and for the world here IN the world—that’s the true and good work. My daughter and I always like to remind each other, “if you’re not laughing, it’s just fucking depressing.” But the profound lack of kindness— including faux-kindness laced with ulterior motives, justifications, and self-aggrandizement— is just too depressing to laugh off some days.

The Bumpy Road

One of the reasons why I attend Smith College is a woman named Su Meck. It was at her side, as a guide, that I first toured Smith. It was by her words that I knew I should choose Smith. Last year we were the only Ada Comstock Scholars (Smith’s non-traditional students) that were in the Glee Club (she was president of the club), and my participation in Glee Club is due to her efforts (along with my daughter’s prodding) to hastily set up an audition while my daughter and I (in some very fun role reversal) were visiting for my admitted student reception weekend. It was terrifying. I only relate all of that personal information for three reasons—full disclosure, respectful admiration, and a shared love of doughnuts.

We made apple cider doughnuts together recently, but ate them all before I could take a photo, so this one will have to do of the jelly doughnuts I made a few months ago.

We made apple cider doughnuts together recently, but ate them all before I could take a photo, so this will have to do:  jelly doughnuts I made a few months ago.

Last year Su published her memoir, I Forgot to Remember. Yesterday I belatedly got around to reading it. I knew the story, of course. I knew it from the first day I met Su when she mentioned she was writing it. And as far as stories go—it’s a doozy. At age twenty-two, Su was hit in the head with a ceiling fan and suffered complete “Hollywood” amnesia (so-called because of its rarity in real life and preponderance in Hollywood plot lines). The first fifty pages of the book, as she relates the story,  is absolutely riveting. Through a random incident that could have resulted in a hundred different sorts of injuries, worse or better, Su was literally re-born into an adult’s body she knew nothing of, and an adult world she was clueless about. She didn’t just snap into it either, it took years, in the same way that an infant has years of development before consciousness, for her to begin to make sense of things. The extraordinary backwardness of living as an adult: caring for children, driving a MOVING vehicle, handling knives, matches, gas switches, and laundry while re-learning language, writing, reading, cooking, contending with frequent blackouts and continuing memory loss AND being told by an ignorant medical community that she was “fine,” with no visible damage to her brain, is tragic and harrowing. But it is what comes after that is truly moving.

We all have our story of ourselves and our lives. Among my peers at Smith, the “Adas” (as we are called and call ourselves), being “non-traditional” as we are, the stories are more often than not hard, long, and twisted. And while Su’s story obviously has an incredible plot twist of epic proportions, she never lets the reader forget that…well— life’s like that. Rather than lean on the tried and true theme of inspiration-porn, you can do it! memoir genre, in her typical forthright and bracingly honest way, she acknowledges the struggles. The frustration and collateral damage of a medical community that abandoned her, and a family, her lovely family, left to deal, in real time, with the disaster. The familial (cultural or sociological) proclivity to hide and repress problems rather than expose…what? Embarrassment? Weakness? We are all weak, and, yes, we all have things to be embarrassed about. That very fact is what makes empathy and true succor between each other— all of us flawed humans, possible. It is the very source of our love and sympathy for one another. So why do we do it? Why do we hide ourselves?

Compounding a medical tragedy is a sociological tragedy, which many of us are victims of as well in our own lives. What is truly inspiring about Su’s memoir is not that she’s an amazing survivor, or an incredible “success” story, it is that she is brave. She has learned the very hard and painful way that suppression and repression hurt a lot more than the plain old fucking truth. Like most people’s lives, in Su’s life no one has come out unscathed. In fact no one has come out! This is life. It goes on. Su has a remarkable ability to tell a complete story that is in no way complete. While she wishes to bring attention to traumatic brain injuries, she also makes a beautiful example of her very human self in calling bullshit on the societal norms that imprison us all. Going up or going down we are still going forward and I am honored to have bumped paths with such a woman.

 

Orpiment Glow

They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked round her (111).
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill

orpiment rocks and lilac

How to break a heart in under five pages. Katherine Mansfield’s story Miss Brill from the Penguin Classic collection, Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and Other Stories, is the perfect example of the art and power of the short story. A common mood of repressed loneliness runs through all of her stories but it was Miss Brill that drew my breath away with the final period.

Mansfield’s stories are terribly English: wit, eccentricities, repressions, all interlaced with lusciously  wrought bucolic glory.

How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody ever followed Constantina and her (69). – The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Just in case one was ever curious as to how the phenomenon of the quintessentially Anglo eccentric-sister-team of spinsters came to be, read no further than The Daughters of the Late Colonel. Somewhat poignant, the story is an amusing exploration of the insular and skewing effects of duty induced repression and pathologically refined manners.

‘I had an extraordinary dream last night!’ he shouted.
What was the matter with the man? This mania for conversation irritated Stanley beyond words. And it was always the same – always some piffle about a dream he’d had, or some cranky idea he’d got hold of, or some rot he’d been reading (8). The Garden Party

Taken a more indepth view, The Garden Party is fascinating in the way that whole groups of people orbit separately in the same family sphere. Where a repressive spirit reigns, it is engrossing to see how individuals adapt and cope.

‘I suppose,’ she said vaguely, ‘one gets used to it. One gets used to anything.’
‘Does one? Hum!’ The ‘Hum’ was so deep it seemed to boom from underneath the ground. ‘I wonder how it’s done,’ brooded Jonathan; ‘I’ve never managed it’ (30).

Jonathan (the prolific dreamer and loquacious annoyance to Stanley) is the rare Mansfield character that can not fully adapt to societal expectations, his inability is really what’s at the heart of Stanley’s irritation. After all, it’s not as if Stanley enjoys the daily asphyxiation of ‘work.’ But of course Stanley has a wife that he adores, and Love is a detail that makes life worth living.

Even still, we all have access to the resplendence of life. Whether it be the exuberant beauty of nature, or a moment of profound reverence. Life affirms itself, and casts an orpiment glow in an instance of a brilliant sky, a sweet kiss, or the profound sumptuousness of a perfect peach.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said in his warm, loving voice. ‘Was it awful?’
‘No,’ sobbed Laura. ‘It was simply marvellous. But Laurie -‘ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life -‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie (51).

 

 

So there’s this woman…

“A hair perhaps divides the False from True;”
Or False of True thy Verses, we thus due
Of meed bestow on One so bitter-sweet;
We read and dream then dream and read anew.

– Charles P. Nettleton, from the forward of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

RoycroftRubaiyat1906-140-2-1

“We read and dream then dream and read anew,” the line jumped out at me as I perused a beautiful ruin of a copy of The Rubaiyat printed by the Roycrofters. Reading is something of a dream. Even the way the tone and rhythm of a given story clings to one’s day, disturbing the line between real and oneiric. There is that easy way in which we begin to think of characters as if we know them and miss them when we have had to put the book down in order to, say, make dinner, fold laundry, do homework, or show up for work- all the tasks that we like to think don’t actually make up the bulk of our lives.

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life” – Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (218).

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a lovely story in which many lives overlap and influence each other in this blizzard we call life – the cannibals eat each other while the emotionally starved find meaning in seemingly sacrificial acts that turn out to be the only thing that can’t really be bought or sold. It’s the hard-sell, the prostituting of our collective souls, that is the nightmare we can’t seem to wake up from.

To pitch is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. […]…It’s endless, the pitching – endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death (28-29).

But what is a dream if not something we always wake up from? Every morning our eyes open to our lives again. Our story can begin anew. And, of course,  it’s all a love story – that’s what life is.  In Beautiful Ruins Walter’s most craven character, the chemically petrified Michael Deane, self-appointed pimp of the pitch, insists it is. And – he’s not wrong. It is all a love story. It can either be pitched as one, or lived as one.

O threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain- This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest – is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

– The Rubaiyat

image from – roycroftbooks.org

Heart at my tongue, tirelessly sung

That most folks misunderstand one common state:
The flip side of love is indifference, not hate.

-David Rakoff, Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish A Novel (103)

DSC_4994

Clementines, lithograph by Victoria Accardi 2009

A friend of mine, so young and so dear
Lent me a book a little queer.
Written in rhyme, the two of us mused
Left us feeling somewhat bemused
With our minds caught in quite a mess
Of unruly and permanent rhyming redress.

David Rakoff on his deathbed wrote
A book of some considerable note.
Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish A Novel
Will leave one with kvetch or kvell.
Life’s bitterness is nothing new
But the rare lilt of a rhyme adds to what’s really an adieu.

Okay, like mine, the rhyme sometimes falls flat
But the author’s just dead- I can’t be that much of a twat.
Even still the rueful humor will ensue
And I feel duty bound to give it its due.
All that is true
And all we go through,
It’s our stories that remain
Whether told in fun or unbearable pain
The truth of our lives here on this earth
Is our shared saga, and an earnest desire for innocent mirth.

Except for instructions he’d underscored twice
Just two words in length, and those words were,
“Be nice!” (77)