Missing the Nobel

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In 1967, Jocelyn Bell BurnelI made an astounding discovery in astronomy. I remember the story when it first broke. Her work was seized as their own by male colleagues.

They took credit and received the Nobel Prize for it.

What I didn’t realize was the extent of callous sexism she endured during graduate work in England.

As she entered her graduate classes — the only woman (or as they said “girl’) — she would be greeted by hoots, hollers, and stamping feet. It was as if a stripper had waltzed out on stage.

In time she gained enough local acclaim that the newspapers became interested. Photographers asked her to undo the top two buttons of her blouse.

Colleagues were relieved when she got married. They assumed she’d leave research and leave astronomy to them –that she’d retreat to her home and have kids.

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Uncanny Overdose

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George Will called death by overdose “a disease of despair.” He pointed out a year ago that there were more deaths by overdose in that single year than in 10 years of fatalities in the Vietnam War.

But is every overdose a “death from despair”?

After reading a subtle and captivating piece of prose-poetry in the July 12th New Yorker by Anthony Veasna So, I was shocked to read that the young author was dead.

He was off to a brilliant start as a writer. In his mid-twenties, he had just died of a cocaine overdose.

Reports left the addiction a mystery.

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He was upbeat, humorous, exempt from any recent tragedy or “trigger” that might have precipitated despair. He was not “down and out” or wrestling with dark news.

The addiction and overdose are massively unexpected and inexplicable.

They belong in the category of death from a hammer falling from a scaffold to strike a sidewalk pedestrian.

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Perhaps someone can explain !?!

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How can a youth with stupendous talent — and not a wisp of despair — become addicted and wipe out his promising life?

To those privileged to encounter his early accomplishments, it’s an incalculable loss.

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Brilliant Bombast?

The Case Against Harold Bloom

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I must say I’m always impressed by Harold Bloom’s erudition, his passion for poetry, his flawless memory of lines from Homer (and earlier) right down to Hart Crane and Wallace Stephens.

His new and last book is weighty (650 pages). It carries a title both hopeful and foreboding: Take Arms Against A Sea of Troubles.

The enemy is named as well as grounds for hope:The Power of the Reader’s mind over a Universe of Death.

But an hour or two into my reading, I found it hard to still believe in “The Power of the Reader’s Mind.”

I was becoming powerless.

I was bothered by an increasingly nagging question:

Where is the line between magnificent, matchless erudition . . . and irritating bombast?

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Perhaps I should attribute my sense of bombast to fatigue.

There’s just too much here!

(Or perhaps I’m just not patient enough.)

Every page has quotes that easily crowd out Bloom’s commentary.

The cumulative effect (for me) is not a sense that I’m gaining power over death.

It’s the sense that my mind is being beaten to death — first by an excess of difficult verse, and second, by an excess of rapid, non-stop comparison.

Like a clumsy bartender who overwhelms you with choices (there are craft beers old and new, foreign and domestic, bitter and sweet, by glass and by pitcher) — much more is happening here than the mind can take in.

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I’m very happy, more than happy, to hope that poetry has leverage against death.

On a small scale I see how this works. Poetry can lift us over adversity.

But 600 pages of heavy poetry and tiresome comment is not uplifting. It’s dead weight.

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What Promise in this Title!

I feel a rush of excitement!

I’m more than happy to buy. I’ve relied over the years on the impressive erudition of Professor Bloom; and I have a native faith in poetry.

But I’m sorry! Here he’s like a professor who assigns a 300 page paper responding to 300 hours of lectures.

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Alas!

Alas!

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Karen Blixen

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Out of Africa tells her story.

She left Denmark to manage a plantation alone in Africa and honed her skills as a writer.

Her portrait asks us to rethink woman’s aging beauty.

Doesn’t beauty take a multitude of forms? Hollywood is not the arbiter.

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Thank God she can sing out who she is without regard for what she should look like!

She gives us wonderful landscape to dwell in.

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woman at war

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Woman at War is a film set in Iceland. It gives us a “mellow” music teacher who leads meditation groups.

She’s also a dedicated environmentalist who sabotages the local power company, bringing down their wires and towers at great personal risk. Drones, helicopters, and the highway patrol try to trap her.

It’s staggeringly brilliant and original.

Shakespearean! Grand Opera !!  Dazzling !!   Unfinished !!

A strange motif is the presence/ disappearance/ reappearance of a small band (drums, tuba, keyboard) that shows up just anywhere — on city streets, in farm fields — inexplicably, now and again, with no apparent function in the high-drama plot. Its presence is not acknowledged by anyone on screen. Only we see this . . . “apparition.” What’s it doing there?

The film baffles — because it exceeds — our standard evaluative categories.

Watch it on Amazon!

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DEEP FRIENDSHIP

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He writes,

I also often think of you,

a dear friend for more than half a century.

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Fifty years! Longevity is indeed a mark of deep friendship.

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You may have an acquaintance you see on and off over time.

Dear friends share deeper roots.

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Mere passage of decades — seeing or hearing from each other on and off — is not enough.

It doesn’t earn the greeting “dear friend.”

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There’s a specificity to deep friendship, many nodal points of contact worthy of singular celebration:

As I have told you more than once, I still have the old Collier paperback edition of

The Inward Morning that you gave me way back in June ’69.

You inscribed it: “To xxx, for a good spring of writing and wonder.”

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And my friend then adds:

Whenever I ask myself if such a season of awakening ever really occurred,

this precious old artifact

floods my memory with all the assurance

I need.

Those were formative years,

for which I owe you countless thanks.

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I owe my friend . . .

countless thanks,

deep gratitude.

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Death’s Dominion?

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I must confess I’m no expert on the Christian Science perspective on death. I may be way off base here. But there are murmurs to the effect that for Mary Baker Eddy, death shall have no dominion.

I suspect the thought is far from Dylan Thomas’s steely defiance:

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

Thomas gives death enormous power, and voices his rebellion.

But what if our spiritual vocation is not to rebel against our inevitable demise in this way.

What if we refuse death its vaunted power to deny our aspiration to to live each moment fully — but not under threat of sure extinction? What if “death has no dominion” because our spiritual trajectory is ever-upward — not at all to be denied by rumors of extinction?

The sense of the Dylan Thomas line — “And death shall have dominion” — is defiance in the face of, or despite, certain death. But if I am spirit rather than body, if I am spirit through and through, who’s to say spirit goes under when “my” body returns to dust?

My body may be buried when it ceases to breath, but spirit may be more, or other than, breath.

Spirit may ascend supreme despite cessation of breath and physical burial.

Put another way, burying “my body” is not burying me anymore than burying my wig and scarf is burying me.

If I am spirit, my spirit is — let’s say, ‘by nature’ — always in upward ascent. My depression, for example, is not my essence anymore than my blue shirt is my essence. Why should my spirit be linked to a passing dark?

Burying my blue shirt is not burying me. I live on despite burial — burial of body or blue shirt.

I am neither my shirt nor my flesh, spiritually speaking. I am undying, inviolate spirit.

In that sense, “death shall have no dominion.”

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Burnout

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The New Yorker for May 24 has a long article on burnout by the historian Jill Lepore.

She links burnout to declining church membership. Leaving time for religious quiet, worship or prayer, has apparently become an optional luxury.

In 1985, 71% of Americans — at least nominally — attended a house of worship, a figure had been constant since the 1940’s. In 2020 the number had dropped nearly 25%. Less than 50% of Americans identify themselves as churchgoers.

The question is not whether a secular society is inferior to a religious one. It’s whether mental health suffers when there is less and less “time off.”

Burnout is endemic. We’re victimized by obsessive work routines.

I remember being impressed with Loren Bacall’s memory of a childhood in the ’30s when her father, a Physician, met her in the yard every afternoon for play at 3:00 p.m. No Physician — or other professional — today could get off work by mid-afternoon.

If long hours cause burnout, is that just an unhappy fact of life? The Puritan Ethic valorizes unremitting work. Is there a leisure class anymore? Little leisure is allowed to creep in from weekends. It’s not unusual for bread-winners to work 6 or even 7 days a week.

How find relief?

Meditation brings quiet. Yoga is calming.

Quiet evening walks temper a work alcoholic’s affliction.

But once burnout invades, it blocks access to relaxation, and worse, shuts down a capacity to imagine alternatives.

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Covid

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I’ve been asked by my alumni magazine to reflect on the impact of covid. Here’s my response.

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Covid has been a time of languishing — not as bad as either depression or anxiety. Something a bit different. A sense of time in slow motion.

I’m 80 and a retired philosophy professor who’s had an active musical and social life interrupted — stalled, put on hold.

For years, my life has been paced by evening gatherings — chorus, choir, dinner dates, orchestra. When that suddenly disappeared, I fumbled for a sense of pace and passing time.

There have been partial ameliorations: zooms for poetry discussions and music sharing. But music doesn’t really work over zoom. A live audience makes all the difference. It’s like singing in the shower.

Philosophy taught me to mull over questions, to contemplate, and to write — that’s continued. I have a blog, Mists on the Rivers, where I reflect on all sorts of things.

I don’t have any plans for the future other than staying healthy and, as covid retreats, becoming socially and musically engaged again.

I look back with pride on publishing a dozen books — many on Kierkegaard, one on Thoreau, and one (prize-winning) of poetic-autobiographical reflections. I look forward as covid recedes, to a resurgence of energy for personal reflection. I suspect it may coalesce in another book, most likely a memoir.

I anticipate a burst of energy — energy that’s been forced into hiding over the past months.

Conversation

Here’s an extended quote, broken up into fragments, from Michael Oakeshott. I pass it on from my friend,

Rev. Andrew Brown.

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The participants (in worthy conversation) . . . are not engaged in an inquiry or debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought.

They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing.

Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . .

In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another.

Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.

Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part.

There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials.

Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation.

And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy.

Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.

It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering.

Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another

(‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 489-490).

Is this a fitting portrait of our substantive conversations with others — those that migrate beyond chit chat?