I don’t like to go Negative

*

Not in my blog. Not elsewhere. But sometimes, like a suppressed scream, it just bursts out.

I found Michael Cohen, columnist for the Boston Globe, screaming words just for me this morning.  I borow them. Here he is:  

My overriding emotion was less happiness and more relief. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the past five-and-a-half years, Donald Trump lived in my head. I conservatively estimate that I’ve written more than half a million words about Trump since 2015 – probably more.

I would look at my Twitter feed obsessively to see the latest thing that he had said and usually shake my head in revulsion. Even Tuesday night, with the end of his presidency in sight, I was still checking to see who he had pardoned in his last grubby, corrupt act as president.

I grew to not just dislike Trump, but to actively loathe him in a way that often made me uncomfortable. For the last two months, since he was defeated for reelection I wanted nothing more than to simply ignore him. Above all, what I wanted is to never think of the man again.

——-

I’ll take a deep breath.

I’ll shift to the wonderful image and voice of our new 22 year old Poet Laureate.

*

Presence

*

I received an invitation a couple of months ago to be on a panel at the American Philosophical Association Meetings.  The topic was both daunting and exciting: Real Presences: Philosophy, Literature, and Poetry. Real presences rule out disposable ghosts in the dark. But what did the conveners really have in mind?

The invitation, which I accepted, brought to mind a passage from the neglected philosopher-poet Henry Bugbee. It goes like this:

I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified in the racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, solidified in the presence of rocks, spelled syllable by syllable by waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of tacking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality. What this all meant, I could not say, kept trying to say, kept trying to harmonize with the suggestions arising from the things I read.  But I do remember that this walking in the presence of things came to a definitive stage.

He continues in this lyrical mode:

 It was in the fall of ’41, October and November, while late autumn prevailed throughout the northern Canadian Rockies, restoring everything in that vast region to a native wildness. Some part of each day or night, for forty days, flurries of snow were flying.  The aspens and larches took on a yellow so vivid, so pure, so trembling in the air, as to fairly cry out that they were as they were, limitlessly.  And it was there in attending to this wilderness, with unremitting alertness and attentiveness, yes, even as I slept, that I knew myself to have been instructed for life, though I was at a loss to say what instruction I had received.       

Surely this is both philosophy and poetry. It is both evoking presence and celebrating the power of presence to transform a life – instruct it for life, even while the instruction defies palpable articulation.

Here is another poetic evocation of presence from William Stafford.:

Spirit of Place: Great Blue Heron

Out of their loneliness for each other
two reeds, or maybe two shadows, lurch
forward and become suddenly a life
lifted from dawn or the rain. It is
the wilderness come back again, a lagoon
with our city reflected in its eye.
We live by faith in such presences.

Fact/value, subjective/objective, are supervened by presence.

Teaching literature or absorbing its power and delicacy depends of evoking presence – not just facts about a piece of music or literature ready to cough up in a test.  Pulling dead facts about this novel or poem or sonata toward presence means finding a place for dialogue with this companionable figure, this striking line, this image or chord sequence.

Sticking to facts about (this or that) refuses to leave space for sites for imagining futures that might blow in as dark or lifting winds, for imagining souls taking their next tremulous step into unknowns where questions are so much more than answers and even silence has a place. There is no space for this Van Gogh crow, this line from Rilke or the Psalms, this Socratic exchange; no room for Emersonian invocation or Hepburn moment; no space for the felt texture of King Lear’s rage, Bonhoeffer’s courage, or Kierkegaard’s plea for knowledge that will “come alive in me.”

Whatever comes alive through the humanities arrives through intimacy and openness to texts, dance, and cities as these carry the arts of conversation, gesture, or praise, the habits of attentiveness, gratitude, or compassion, the contours of grieving or outrage; and as these carry the arts of seeing and coping with affliction, injustice, and estrangement (religious, existential, or otherwise).

As these arts of coping and conversation and habits of attention gradually disappear from the University they do not take up residence elsewhere (at least not in a healthy elsewhere). The lives and imaginations and hearts of its students are less for their disappearance. If departments in the humanities husband these varied sensibilities, proto-religious or not, sensibilities at least in search of a heart (and mourning its absence),

T. S. Eliot knew it was presence, not knowledge, that gives us poetry and the deepest communions with our worlds:

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise.

[4 quartets]

**

Or Ross Gay, “A Wedding”

Friends I am here to modestly report

seeing in an orchard

in my town

a goldfinch kissing

a sunflower

again and again

dangling upside down

by its tiny claw

steadying itself by snapping open

like an old-timey fan

its wings

again and again,

until, swooning, it tumbled off

and swooped back to the very same perch,

where the sunflower curled its giant

swirling of seeds

around the bird and leaned back

to admire the soft wind

nudging the bird’s plumage,

and friends I could see

the points on the flower’s stately crown

soften and curl inward

as it almost indiscernibly lifted

the food of its body

to the bird’s nuzzling mouth

whose fervor

I could hear from

oh, 20 or 30 feet away

and see from the tiny hulls

that sailed from their

good racket,

which good racket, I have to say,

was making me blush,

and rock up on my tippy-toes,

and just barely purse my lips

with what I realize now

was being, simply, glad,

which such love,

if we let it,

makes us feel.

*

Presence is the deepest communion.

*

Attention Deficit Disorder

A local columnist hits the nail on the head

*

Oh, sorry, just a minute, I need to doom-scroll through Twitter and flip over to CNN and study the 14th Amendment and watch the Arnold Schwarzenegger video and read 27 news alerts and e-mail a divorced friend about the ex-wife who contacted the FBI to rat out her Capitol-storming former husband

and what was I saying? Oh yeah, is anyone else having trouble … Ivanka and Jared weren’t letting the Secret Service use any of their half-dozen bathrooms??? … focusing … far-right groups are making plans for assaults?

An informal poll conducted after the mob attacked the Capitol but before the QAnon congresswoman vowed to impeach Joe Biden, found that

 the only thing people can concentrate on right now is their inability to concentrate. We’re the United States of ADD.

“I’m worried I’m slipping,” said Amanda Ambrose, a Newburyport photographer. “I wander from room to room and don’t really get anything done.”

“I have to work out and meditate twice a day in order to get my dopamine levels high enough just to go through e-mails,” said local writer G.G. Garth.

*

Heather Cox Richardson: A National Treasure

For the past six months I have become an avid reader of Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” <heathercoxrichardson@substack.com>, written in the wee hours and delivered by email for breakfast-coffee reading. In her daily missives she has followed the January 6th invasion of the US Senate, its repercussions, and its exemplification of Trumpian autocracy. Today, January 17, she provides a mesmerizing account of instances in America in the past two centuries of violent, often lethal, rebellious standoffs against established national, state, or local government and their anti-government rationales. I found her account breathtaking in its scope and detail. In the space she sets out for comments, I typed the following short response.

*

I can’t thank you enough, Heather, for putting the ideological clashes of our past weeks in an historical context. These clashes still have an aura of singular, unprecedented violence and dangerous ideological fervor. But then, given your historical review of events from past decades reaching back more than a century, we see that there were such upsurges of violence repeatedly in our history, a history that is more vexed than we might have remembered.

History is both the emergence of striking, singular events that shake us to the core — Senators cowering in fear for their lives under seats in their ‘sacred chamber’ — and then your invaluable contribution, that history is also the emergence of understanding how these singular-seeming events follow a pattern that can be sung as a repeated theme-and-variation.

The past for you is not singular relics arraigned chronologically in a museum. Rather it is preludes to and vital roots of the present. As in hearing the story of relatives we only partially knew, we become family members mesmerized by our personal roots — finding some limbs of the family tree strong, valiant and to-be-praised, and finding others crooked, rotten, and to be regretted. Perhaps some family limbs turn out to belong to the tree genetically, but are spiritually, morally, disowned — deemed unworthy of praise.

*

Trump Rallies: Eliciting Self-Love

As he slips into dusk we anticipate a lull, a dialing down of that insecure man’s ubiquitous presence, his craving for the spotlight. The focus, rightly, has been on his disastrous policies.  We welcome the silence now that he’s lost his presidential platform.

We no longer have to hear about building a wall, banning Muslims, calling immigrants rapists. And good riddance to his lying. Yet there’s another feature of his now-waning presence worth noting: his irrepressible self-applause.

He craved attention, craved the spotlight. Beyond that, he had a strange, slightly ridiculous idiosyncrasy. As he walked in to greet his adoring crowds, he clapped for himself.  He clapped to energize his crowd. Of course, deep insecurity leads the Donald to clap for himself. But why do his followers applaud his self-applause?

Well, he brings good news. He brings the good news of self-love — an extravagantly ridiculous self-love.

His followers are the forgotten; the forgotten are unloved and lack self-love. T’s buffoonish love of himself-loving-them gives his audience permission to applaud and love themselves – against their deep sense of abandonment. 

This is energy transfer. He energizes an otherwise slack, inert, inconsequential audience in need of a sense of importance.  He must be a winner if he applauds himself. The crowd soaks this up. He communicates a self-importance that when absorbed, counteracts their fear that they are losers.

T wouldn’t clap for himself as he approached the mike at the Senate or the UN.  Politicians, executives, heads of state and other successful folk might offer proforma recognition, but they’d deny him the wild applause of a rally. There the forlorn, forgotten and unimportant welcome applause from the Trump. They hide their own insecurity as they answer his prompt for increasing applause. How needy he must be? *

*He is the only president in the history of Gallup’s polling who never earned the support of a majority of Americans for even one day of his term. He is on track to leave office with the lowest approval rating of any modern-day president.

**

TV Scatters the Mind

*

I held out against having a TV for decades. Finally, I broke down and bought a tiny one. It’s been sitting for three days on a shelf six inches above the floor. 

I had resisted all those years because I hated the sense of a screen – often larger than life – dominating a space. It was usually the living room, and made conversations and pleasantries impossible, polluting it with mindless advertising.  I got my news online through the Times and the Post and through on-line day-after commentaries.

Testing my new TV, I found myself watching 4 news channels back and forth. It became clear why I have shunned the tube. More important, I gained insight into the malaise of post-truth politics.

TV News had become a hallway with five or six doors, each equally and easily accessible, each in conflict with its neighbors.  We’re in a post-truth age (only partially, I hope) because we can so easily open a cornucopia of alternative truths, alternative facts, alternative hierarchies of value.

There have always been alternative newsprint accounts of political and social life, each with its lineup of heroes and villains, noteworthy figures and figures worthy of neglect.  Before TV and continuing after, one could have reliable subscriptions to papers and weekly magazines. A daily reader of the NY Post would likely not be a daily reader of the Times.  But my TV immersion seemed different. It was disorienting to watch CNN, Fox, CBS, and MSNBC more or less simultaneously. After an hour of chaotic overlay of one reality on another, the brute reality of “alternative facts” – and a “post-truth” culture supervened.

It’s not that all news is fake news. Rather, it seems that competing accounts, each internally consistent, are free to be effortlessly sampled — all within the course of an hour or so.  It’s not like purchasing 3 newspapers and 4 news magazines, dipping into one after the other, sampling all. It’s impossible to read 3 or 4 print sources simultaneously, yet within a half-hour I effortlessly switched from one TV news station to another.

Within 30 minutes, 4 or 5 narratives became vividly accessible. Alternative realities became immediately palpable. However much they differed when recalled afterward in memory, in the moment each became viscerally beyond question. I floundered in the multiplicity. I was flooded in something like musical cacophony: sounds erratically switching from jazz to classical to pop to atonal to blues.  To save sanity, I turned the squawk box off.

I returned to my local sanities – the peace of writing, the scattered luxuries of poetry, the sweet serenity and flow of Mrs. Dalloway.

Moments

*

Self-knowledge is not only focusing a continuous unbroken narrative of my development through the decades. It also depends on moments of grip and release, those critical moments that fly free of any unbroken story line. These moments integral to self-knowledge start and stop. They escape any continuous story of my linear development.

There are big-screen historical moments. An assassination can mark the start of a world war. The arrival of a virus can change life around the globe. Then there are small-screen personal moments tied into self-knowledge. A chance meeting of two Kierkegaard scholars at a conference in Minnesota is a small-screen moment — even as it’s folded into a larger one. The large-screen moment is the 2013 peaking of academic interest in Kierkegaard around the globe on the anniversary of his birth.

In 2013, I happened to be President of the International Kierkegaard Society. In that capacity I read papers at conferences in Frankfurt, Reykjavik, Vilnia, and elsewhere. These were small-screen moments of celebration and commemoration set within large-screen international celebrations.

As it turned out, these several Kierkegaard celebrations became folded into more personal small-screen moments — the joining of my life-path with the life-path of an Israeli Kierkegaard scholar.

Within the trajectory of my personal life, this was large-screen moment. Within the trajectory of global interest in Kierkegaard, this convergence was not a moment at all.

Our lives, not to mention wider historical developments can be given a narrative structure. A narrative gives the sense of singular linear development. It flattens out the sense of a life having discrete moments, moments that start and stop and are defining moments. Rather than the smooth spread of a grassy plain our lives can be focused as discontinuous series of jagged peaks .

Whatever peaks as a memorable moment can slide into insignificance. FDR’s New Deal was a peak moment in American life before WWII and for a decade beyond. Today, except for historians, it is a faded remnant or shadow.

My reflection on things having their moments of glory and moments of recession is triggered here by a specific recognition. While Kierkegaard was surely the focus of my intellectual publishing life for 30 or so years of productivity, he no longer peaks my interest. He is not on my radar, neither small-screen nor big-screen.

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to weep and a time to laugh. But this does not quite capture the patterns that interest me. Laughing, dancing, and mourning, are general human possibilities. My engagement and disengagement from Kierkegaard is nothing general. Instead it’s something specific and first-personal. It’s tied concretely to my personal life. My personal life is not a template for focusing the generality of human laughing or dancing or mourning.

The stars can align so that I’m gripped by Kierkegaard. Then the heavens change. I’m released. Kierkegaard has his moment for me and then fades. It’s a pattern of capture and release.

Rather than following a continuous development, this makes our biographies radically episodic. We are not always best seen as subjects in a linear unfolding. We are often caught up in discrete moments that dominate — moments that then fade.

Self-knowledge is not only continuous narrative. There are critical moments of catch and release that break free of unbroken story lines.

*

The Miracle of Hanukkah

*

The temple had been desecrated. It was destroyed as the Hebrews were forced out of their homeland.

When the temple was recaptured the menorah needed to be relit. This was a necessary act of resanctification. Yet the menorah could only be relit with holy oil.

The resanctification required enough holy oil for eight days — enough for a new candle to be lit each day. Yet when the temple was recaptured only one flask of holy oil remained — enough to burn for one day only.

A full eight days were required for the priests to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil.

Against all expectations the single candle burned on and on.

Discovering it still burning despite the passage of a complete week, the priests declared a miracle and inaugurated an eight-day festival of commemoration.

The lesson?

Against bleak despair, Hanukkah commemorates vibrant even miraculous hope.

*

Memory and Homelessness

I’ve lived happily in many towns and cities, in the states and abroad. I’ve sometimes felt lonely acclimating to a new surrounding. But overall I’ve managed with little regret leaving one home and settling into another. Perhaps I’ve seen myself as an outsider whose shifts of location — from coast to coast, from the states to abroad — were not radical displacements because I was not well-rooted from the start.

I’ve never had the sense that my true home was just around the corner. Perhaps this is because I was not raised in a true home — welcoming and nurturing.

I don’t bemoan my sense of being uprooted. But that sense came into radical focus as I read, for the first time just yesterday, an account of my mother’s life delivered a decade ago by my niece on the occasion of my mother’s funeral.

The words startled me. I have no memory of their being read aloud graveside or at a memorial service. The description startled because the maternal figure described differed so radically from my own sense of my mother. I realized there was no way to reconcile these disparate accounts. I was encountering a conceptual impasse.

Wittgenstein cited the figure of a “duck-rabbit” to capture the phenomena of interpreting reality in contradictory images, with no hope of reconciling the contradiction.

The fresh account of my mother’s life arrived by email written by my niece in a heartfelt memorial oration. (I believe we were both present at my mother’s memorial service held over a decade ago, though I confess I have no memory of my niece’s delivering them.)

The words raise for me the deep question: how do we construct — if we even can — a single account of a person’s life.

Say an outsider wished to chronicle the ups and downs of my mother’s life. Would he or she give credence to the often unflattering account given in my published memoir? Or would she give credence to the lyrically flattering account of my niece?

I think this is not a case of who’s right and who’s wrong but closer to the impasse one faces confronting a duck-rabbit. There are two irreconcilable accounts or images, each presented as authentic. No amount of negotiation, compromise, or new evidence will yield a single coherent picture.

Our lives are enigmas buried in enigmas.

Ariadne Daskalakis | Parita d-Moll BWV 1004 für Violine solo

*

Once again I find myself enveloped in wonder . . .

Where does music come from?

The heavens, of course.

But what if I lower a bit from the clouds. Is it a response to bird-song? A howl in answer to the wind? Is music rooted in a mother’s comforting hum — a response to a crying child?

Perhaps all of these. But I’d bank on its roots in vocalized rhythmic hum in tune with a warm rhythmic cradling.

If so, music is maternal.

It may develop a distinctive martial, masculine strain, over time. But its roots, surely, are cradling, humming, soothing.

The miracle, then, is its evolution toward sonatas, symphonies, fight-songs, and Bach’s Passions.

What sort of miracle occurs in the gradual transformation of humming, comforting maternal coos toward a climax in Beethoven, the Beatles, or a Bach Partita?

This morning, my immersion in miracle is Ariadne Daskalakis carrying me through a Bach Partita.

I can’t possibly trace paths from maternal coos to Daskalakis’ transcendent songs — no matter how confident I am that there is such a path.

In any case, if I got immersed in the hunt for the path, its evolutionary, historical twists and turns, I’d be distracted from the miracle.

Wonder can prompt exploration of genesis — prompt the sober search for cognitive explanation. I wonder why my car won’t start this morning. Yet wonder is also a fitting response to miracle.

Let miracles be! They’re not problems to solve.

If explanation were the be all and end all, what sort of world would we inhabit?

Instead of enjoying Bach, we’d read the program notes to get his dates — why bother listening? We’d do well on a quiz, but would we have truly encountered Bach?

We’d read the tiny identifying sentences next to the museum’s Van Gogh. But why not let Van Gogh speak directly?

Music and art are properly not data to interpret but prompts to an endlessly deeper indulgence, a deeper saturation, a deeper immersion.

The rewards are heavenly.

*

**Ariadne Daskalakis, https://vimeo.com/481493338