Pages

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Amphibology & Treason

A quibble [a pun or a riddle] is to Shakespeare what luminous vapors are to the traveler; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents or enchaining it in suspense...a quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career to stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it. - Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ambiguity = pleasant surprise = happiness?

The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so. Ambiguity seems to be the same thing as happiness or pleasant surprise. I am assuming that from the moment life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible, and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions. The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel cheerful. - John Ashbery

Monday, December 20, 2010

Borrow a soul (trade up) & write something needed

There is something about writing I haven’t told you, in part because it smacks of the sentimental and abstract—two of the monsters I’ve hoped to drive from your work...For your writing to be great—I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful—it must be useful to the world...you must love the world as it is...Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart...The world is not a focus group...The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself...The writers whom we agree are the great ones...are great because their subjects and themes are great, and thus their usefulness is great as well. Their souls are great, and they have had the good sense and the courage to consult their souls before their pens touched paper...

It is your soul I am talking about, I’ll say it again. And if, upon examination, you find your soul inadequate to the task of great writing, then improve it, or borrow someone else’s. Commencement speakers are forever telling you to be yourself. I say, be someone else, if that other self is superior to yours. Borrow a soul. I am not in the least being facetious. In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov says that the soul “is but a manner of being,” not a constant entity. Dissatisfied with the makeup of your old soul? Trade it in. But always trade up...

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately...You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age. You must believe in heroism and nobility, just as strongly as you believe in pettiness and cowardice. You must learn to praise. Of course, you need to touch the sources of your viciousness and treachery before you rise above them. But rise you must. For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy...Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But...you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing...

- Roger Rosenblatt

(Yet there's also the flip side via the avant-gardists and others that some of the most exciting, sublime, whatever, writing and art is anything but useful, or perhaps, directly useful.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The lucky Russian poet?

In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:


JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.

The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”


Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad. - David Remnick

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Religious experience as cure for inhibition

Religious experiences are so powerful and positive a moral force, [William] James argues, because they have an ability to overcome the inhibitions that prevent most from behaving in morally exemplary ways. "Few people who have not expressly reflected on the matter realise how constantly this factor of inhibition is upon us, how it contains and molds us by its restrictive pressure almost as if we were fluids pent within the cavity of a jar." Moreover, inhibition is typically a subconscious force. So counterbalancing subconscious forces, such as those that are religious, are required to release the individual from their withholding impulses.

Religious experiences are not alone in being able to do this. A soldier will perform extraordinary acts of bravery on account of the training that leaves them closely identified with comrades. However, religious experiences are different. They release subconscious forces that are involuntary. A soldier decides to join the army and submit to the training. James' study of religious conversion has led him to conclude that they are experiences that radically change someone. "The man who lives in his religious center of energy, and is actuated by spiritual enthusiasms, differs from his previous carnal self in perfectly definite ways." - Mark Vernon

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Trying on other selves to help transcend oneself

The point is, we were in a situation [prison] where narratives and story were far more compelling than when we were free. It sounds like a stereotype, but I think a lot of us were locked in poverty and cycles of violence. Most of the black men around me had children, a lot of the young dudes who were my age had fathers who were in prison. When we were in the world, we were locked in a space where we didn’t believe other narratives existed. Coming to prison and reading books was a way for many of us to try on different narratives.
- Dwayne Betts, former inmate who now teaches poetry at the University of Maryland

Monday, December 6, 2010

Surviving crisis: "I will not let you go until you bless me."

These words of Jacob to [whom he wrestled with] lie at the very core of surviving crisis. Each of us knows from personal experience that events that seemed disappointing, painful, even humiliating at the time, can be the most important in our lives. Through them we learned how to try harder next time; or they taught us a truth about ourselves; or they shifted our life into a new and more fruitful direction. We learn, not from our successes but from our failures. We mature and grow strong and become more understanding and forgiving through the mistakes we make. A protected life is a fragile and superficial life. Strength comes from knowing the worst and refusing to give in. Jacob has bequeathed us many gifts, but few more valuable than the obstinacy and resilience that can face hard times and say of them: "I will not let you go until you bless me." I will not give up or move on until I have extracted something positive from this pain and turned it into blessing.
- Jonathan Sachs

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Freedom by giving stuff up

The freelance philosopher Ivan Illich had an idea. He was a great inverter of ideas. Perhaps his most well known book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, argued that modern education risks not actually educating people. It might rather produce individuals equipped with skills to service the great economic machine that has wrapped itself around world. Today, in an age of education cuts, it’s a diagnosis that clearly has currency.

When it comes to freedom and choice, he notes that our problem, in the West at least, is not having no choice, but is having too much choice. He realised that true freedom comes not from making choices, but from making commitments.

Think of the business of falling in love. In a city like London, the choice of potential lovers is almost infinite. And yet, the proliferation of online dating sites suggests that anxiety about finding a partner is booming. Why is there this contradiction? Illich would diagnose that we’re trapped in a cultural confusion: we’re encouraged to think relationships are about making the right choice, when actually they’re about making a commitment.

More broadly, he came to think that there’s more freedom to be found in giving up some of this excess of choice. He called it renunciation: discovering what you can do without. That’s liberating in a consumer society because to discover you don’t need what you’re being told you do need, is to be freer of the tyranny of choice.

Clearly, a certain amount of choice is good. But perhaps a contented life is one that requires far less choice than we might be disposed to imagine. - Mark Vernon

Monday, November 29, 2010

How Shakespeare changes us

I have a specific intuition about Shakespeare: that the very shapes of Shakespeare's lines and sentences somehow have a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind. For example, Macbeth at the end of his tether:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

I'll say no more than this: it simply would not be the same, would it, if Shakespeare had written it out more straightforwardly: I must not look to have the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends which should accompany old age. Nor would it be the same if he had not suddenly coined that disgusted phrase "mouth-honour" (now a cliche as "lip-service").

Shakespeare will often use one part of speech - a noun or an adjective, say - to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida," "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello," "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare's lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift is semantically integrated with ease, it triggers a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole.

Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence, at the neural level, of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them - away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences. It could be that Shakespeare's use of language gets so far into our brains that he shifts and creates new pathways, not unlike the establishment of new biological networks using novel combinations of existing elements (genes/proteins in biology: units of phonology, semantics, syntax, and morphology in language). Then indeed we might be able to see something of the ways literature can cause affect or create change, without resorting to being assertively gushy.

Shakespeare's art is no more and no less than the supreme example of a mobile, creative and adaptive human capacity, in deep relation between brain and language. It makes new combinations, creates new networks, with changed circuitry and added levels, layers and overlaps. And all the time it works like the cry of "action" on a film-set, by sudden peaks of activity and excitement dramatically breaking through into consciousness. It makes for what William James said of mind in his "Principles of Psychology," "a theatre of simultaneous possibilities." This could be a new beginning to thinking about reading and mental changes.

- Philip Davis

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We still crave authenticity (even in reality tv)

The average show takes members of the public and sends them on a journey. We love to follow that because it's a cracking story which engages our emotion. It's not unlike a soap opera, except that these are real people and you get to vote them out one by one. That simple premise dominates everything from Britain's Got Talent to Big Brother and The Apprentice. What it creates is an extraordinarily powerful story arc where we get involved in the characters. That's why we watch it.

Reality television is a completely constructed premise. None of the people would be in it if we were just showing their normal lives. But what it does do is take human flesh and blood and challenges it in situations that bring out a person's true personality. So what flows from this constructed premise is extremely real. That's why shows work, because the public is after authenticity… They want to support people with talent and for them to win, but they punish pretension and two-facedness. - Peter Bazalgette

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Spiritual Goods

Economics and politics are intrinsically conflictual. Much of life is a zero-sum competition for scarce goods in which some win, some lose. But spiritual goods - love, trust, friendship, the pursuit of knowledge - are not zero-sum. The more we share, the more we have. That I win does not mean that you lose, and vice versa. So my self-respect never needs to be purchased at the cost of yours. I can respect you without denigrating myself. I can make space for you without denying myself. So our deepest psychological and spiritual goods need never be bought at the cost of others. That knowledge alone...is enough to remove many, even most, of the conflicts by which people cause one another pain. - Jonathan Sachs

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kierkegaardian win-lose & lose-win

“A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” Despair occurs when there is an imbalance in this synthesis. From there Kierkegaard goes on to present a veritable portrait gallery of the forms that despair can take. Too much of the expansive factor, of infinitude, and you have the dreamer who cannot make anything concrete. Too much of the limiting element, and you have the narrow minded individual who cannot imagine anything more serious in life than bottom lines and spread sheets.

Though it will make the Bill Mahers of the world wince, despair according to Kierkegaard is a lack of awareness of being a self or spirit. A Freud with religious categories up his sleeves, the lyrical philosopher emphasized that the self is a slice of eternity. While depression involves heavy burdensome feelings, despair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else. Kierkegaard writes:

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it … precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he cannot bear to be himself.

In America, there is endless talk of the importance of having a dream — that is, a dreamed-up self that you will to become: a millionaire, a surgeon, or maybe the next Dylan or George Clooney. But master of suspicion that Kierkegaard was, he goes on to note that while the man who has failed to become Caesar would have been in seventh heaven if he had realized his dream, that state would have been just as despairing in another way — because in that giddy self-satisfied condition, he would never have come to grasp his true self.

- Gordon Marino

Monday, November 22, 2010

The aim is to recreate fluency

Good writing, like good conversation or interpretation in analysis, seems to free something in us. It is as though mobility has sprung from paralysis; but only once we start moving do we realize quite how stuck in we had been. The picture in our minds, in our language, is usually of blockage and release. We, or something in us, is felt to be trapped or constrained. Whether it is the repressed instincts proliferating in the dark, buried alive, or the poetry flowing through...the aim is to recreate fluency. - Adam Phillips

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Charlie Parker: humiliation as motivation

As a teenager, Charlie Parker embarrassed himself by sitting in at Kansas City jam sessions before he had fully mastered the alto saxophone, thereby acquiring a citywide reputation for incompetence. In 1937 the humiliation overwhelmed him, and he took a summer job at a Missouri resort and began practicing in earnest for the first time in his life. Eight years later, he had metamorphosed into the glittering virtuoso who teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to record "Ko-Ko," "Groovin' High" and "Salt Peanuts," thereby writing himself into the history of jazz. - Terry Teachout

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Literature: varieties of emotional response

Literary works offer their readers a range of experiences that philosophical prose cannot provide. Some of these experiences are varieties of emotional response. Some are experiences of dislocation and a loss of meaning. Some are of losing a sense of meaning and then finding it again. Some are of not being able to figure out who or what a certain person is. And some just follow the trajectory of a human relationship. So literature portrays and dissects a wide range of human experiences. - Martha Nussbaum

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When inspiration becomes creation

Although our cultural stereotype is that great ideas suddenly appear in the minds of creative people without effort, the creative process, in Rothenberg's view, actually results from "direct, intense, and intentional effort on the creator's part." In the process of creativity, people are constantly looking for new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Rothenberg found that inspiration only becomes creation after an enormous amount of work and preparation, and the artist or scientist must be motivated specifically to create. - Richard Berlin, MD

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The need for visceral literature

I spoke of literary culture shutting down. The standard explanations for this are the distractions of the Internet, poor rudimentary education, the vanquishing of seriousness in university literature departments owing to the intellectually shallow enticements of modish subjects, and the allure of the pervasive entertainments of popular culture. Although none of these things help, literary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind. - Joseph Epstein

"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?" This visceral, concrete, and highly personal definition of poetry is the most fitting way to view Dickinson's own work. Whether a poem is true "poetry" does not depend for Dickinson on its use of meter, rhyme, stanzas, or line length, but on the almost physical sensation created in the reader by the poem's words, the arctic chill in the marrow of the bones or the stunning blow to the mind that the reader experiences in the act of reading. - Wendy Martin

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Keys to Endurance & Meaning

Find someone who listens, who cares about you, who takes you seriously and you can live through anything. Find someone to help, who needs you, who’s grateful for your being there and life will mean something.
- Harold Kushner

Monday, November 8, 2010

Free-associating an internal democracy

That's what a symptom is; it's a repetition, an unconsciously motivated self-prediction (and by the same token, the 'patient' in psychoanalysis is cured when his past is no longer of particular interest to him). At best we flirt with our own unpredictability through our symptoms; at worst we are over-contained by them. Inhibition stages this as a drama. It is not always, or only, the inability to do something; it is also a cover-story, a protection against, not quite knowing what it is one wants to do. And what one might turn into, what one might feel, in the doing. The inhibited person, that is to say, has the most acute sense of the experimental nature of our acts. Of how doing something, doing anything, consigns one to the future, to the irreversible. To a future of unknown feeling; to the shock of the unprecedented.

When Ferenczi said the patient is not cured by free-association, he is cured when he can free-associate, he was acknowledging the very real difficulty everyone finds in sustaining and making known an internal democracy. People literally shut themselves up in their speaking out; speech is riddled with no-go areas; internal and external exchange, as fantasy and as practicality, is fraught with resistance. Psychoanalysis reveals just how ambivalent we are, to put it mildly, about freer forms of association (from a psychoanalytic point of view there is no such thing as a free enterprise.). And this must surely be where the analyst comes in. If the so-called patient is deemed to be suffering from one form or another of association-anxiety, presumably the analyst has something up his sleeve, so to speak, for precisely this predicament. - Adam Phillips, on psychoanalysis‏

Friday, November 5, 2010

Frank Kermode on S/Othello

We need not suppose that Shakespeare was contemptuous; only that, as his language suggests, Othello was human, the victim of long habit, and wanting, as he ended his life, to enter a plea for merciful interpretation. That he did not get it in the play, and has not always had it subsequently, merely shows how variable interpretation must be when it has to work on language as complex as that of Othello. - Frank Kermode

Thursday, November 4, 2010

T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare

Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself...I do not believe that any writer has exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare. - T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dostoevskian Freedom

Man may consciously, purposely desire what is injurious to himself; what is stupid, very stupid - simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. - Dostoevsky

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One primary characteristic of all creative people

Only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is absolutely, across the board, present in all creative people: motivation. - Albert Rothenberg, MD, from 35 years of research as the principal investigator for the project, "Studies on the Creative Process."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Paradox of self and others

To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself. - Martin Buber

Friday, October 29, 2010

Yeats' strategy in old age

In 1938, the year before he died, he wrote "The Spur," whose speaker accuses the reader of thinking it "horrible" that an old man should be filled with "lust and rage" and retorts, "They were not such a plague when I was young. / What else have I to spur me into song?" The continuity Yeats asserts here is both genuine and false. If we turn from this poem to the early poetry expecting to see the young Yeats lusting and raging, we will be disappointed. The explicit embrace of lust and rage is a feature of Yeats's later years, when he cast himself as the wild, wicked old man to avoid settling into any of the more comfortable poses available to him: the venerable sage, the elder statesman, or the famous poet. All these roles appealed to him, and he adopted each of them at times, but he also drove himself beyond them, towards more risky personae. - Marjorie Howes

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The flow of life vs the poison of suppression

There is only one real deprivation...and that is not to be able to give one's gift to [others]...The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. - May Sarton

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Experiencing Othello is an act of self-creation

Othello is not an attack on love...It is, rather, a condensed focus on the violence inherent in the very idea of deep erotic attachments. This, on its own, does not mean that such bonds should be avoided, and so here the play is not read as a dismissal of love but as a mode of distancing from its idealization...Nussbaum and Diamond have urged that there are acts of thought that take place while reading literature that are themselves morally worthy and so constitute moral activity. They have said this regarding empathy to characters, but there are other acts of this kind. When in The Relevance of the Beautiful Gadamer identified art with symbol, he explained the phenomenology of symbolic thought through a process of participation and self-completion that the symbol offers to the temporally limited self. Choosing to relate to something as symbolic is thus choosing a completion of one's identity (which also explains why attacks on symbols can hurt as they do; selves, rather than objects, are being offended). Literary works can thereby turn into more than aesthetic objects to be comtemplated at one time or another: they become invitations for a completion of one's identity. Choosing to relate to Othello as a love-as-death spectacle, entering and reentering the closing scene where a direct act of violence reciprocates indirect violence, is thus not merely an operation of thought but an act of self-creating that is itself the taking of a moral stance in relation to erotic ideology, a stance in which the very idea of loving violence can meaninglully resonate. We thereby allow Othello to enter much more than a bedchamber with his light. - Tzachi Zamir

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Limits help us expand

Everything that we are in a positive sense is by virtue of some limitation. And this being limited, this being crippled, is what is called destiny, life. That which is missing in life, that which oppresses us, forms the fabric of life and maintains us within it. - Emily Dickinson

Monday, October 25, 2010

Awareness of death gives life

The confrontation with death - and the reprieve from it - makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful...Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we know we'd never die. - Abrahan Maslow, from a letter written as he was recuperating from a heart attack

Thursday, October 21, 2010

We need more Ghosts

"If you have ghosts, then you have everything." Those are the words of a tender and demented rock legend of Austin, and they have stood me in good stead for years. Ghosts are a solution for loneliness. One needs someone to talk to. I mean about the old themes, if one believes that they are still the right themes. Ghosts are the natural companions of anybody in estrangement; the invisible officers of tradition, of all the valuable things that have been declared obsolete but, in some stubborn hearts, are not obsolete. It is one of the fundamental properties of the human that the absent may be more significant than the present. I have the best ghosts. My revenants will never utter the words “Mark Zuckerberg.” In their company I may continue the conversation that was begun long before me and will last (since I will not shirk my own ghost-service!) long after me. And the ghosts have a public role to play, too. They possess a certain shaming force. They spoil the adoration of the new with the suggestion of a decline, or at least with an unflattering comparison. I do not mean to exaggerate their authority: in the recurring quarrels between the ancients (who, by our velocity, lived just the other day) and the moderns, there are no clear winners. But the triumphalism of our moment, and its e-millenialism; its idiotic belief in the complete transfiguration of human life in our time, in the final banishment of opacity and obscurity, by means of data and the quantification of inwardness, or by the expansion of genetic and evolutionary necessities—all this is not supportable. Is it conservatism to say so? Perhaps. I think of it more as a custodial feeling about the many attainments that made it, quite improbably, all the way across time to me, and for whose fate I am, whether I like it or not, responsible. (I like it.) Too much is slipping away too easily. - Leon Wieseltier

Monday, October 18, 2010

Three necessary qualities for poems (Yeats)

Expression...depends entirely on the adequacy of the poet's technique: about that Yeats was very clear. In addressing technique he emphasized, in his maturity, three necessary qualities: that the poet's sentences should sound like speech, that words must be put into their "natural order," and that an emotional unity should connect the parts of a work of art. "I always try for the most natural order possible, largely to make thought which being poetical always is difficult to modern people as plain as I can." The lack of one or more of these qualities was what he generally criticized in the work of others. "I cannot say" (he wrote to one would-be poet who had sent Yeats some of his verses) "that any of these poems have the perfection of form, the emotional unity, that is lasting poetry." - Helen Vendler

Friday, October 15, 2010

An imagined version of Love

Terrified and alone one turns to others, not out of love, just out of the desperate and self-centered need for comfort. Those are the shabby beginnings of our love. Yet gradually a transformation occurs. He who knows how to grant comfort becomes the guarantor of hope, the keeper of one's image of oneself...no ideals of self-scrifice or courage are now at work. Just the inner necessity to defend what has become too precious to be destroyed. - Ilona Karmel

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The most exciting movement

The most exciting movement in nature is not progress, advance, but expansion and contraction, the opening and shutting of the eye, the hand, the heart, the mind. We throw our arms wide with a gesture of religion to the universe; we close them around a person. We explore and adventure for a while and then we draw in to consolidate our gains. The breathless swing is between subject matter and form. - Robert Frost

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Art is the great stimulant to life

L’art pour l’art.— The fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralizing tendency in art, against its subordination to morality. L’art pour l’art means: “The devil take morality!”— But even this hostility still betrays the overpowering force of the prejudice. When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless—in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!”—that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations … Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability…? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?— Art is the great stimulant to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?— One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life,—does it not thereby spoil life for us?— And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.”— But this—as I have already suggested—is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye”: one must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing?— This state itself is a great desideratum [Wünschbarkeit]; whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it, he must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread—this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. - Nietzsche

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Prospero Poet by way of three epitaphs

Hardy, Yeats, and Frost have all written epitaphs for themselves.

Hardy
I never cared for life, life cared for me.
And hence I owed it some fidelity...

Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life and death
Horseman pass by.

Frost
I would have it written of me on my stone
I had a lover's quarrel with the world.

Of the three, Frost surely comes off the best. Hardy seems to be stating the Pessimist's Case rather than his real feelings. "I never cared..." Never? Now, Mr. Hardy, really. Yeats's horseman is a stage prop; the passer-by is much more likely to be a motorist. But Frost convinces me that he is telling neither more nor less than the truth about himself. And when it comes to wisdom, is not having a lover's quarrel with life more worthy of Prospero than not caring or looking coldly? - W.H. Auden

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Poetics of Cooperation

When Keats wrote poetry, he told Woodhouse, "thoughts come about him in troops," from which "he culls...the best"; his poems could seem even "to come by chance or magic - to be...something given to him." The result is a poetry that does not so much pre-resolve thematic issues as represent them in ways that invite resolution, and completion, by the reader. In Susan Wolfson's apt phrase, this is a "poetics of cooperation," which predicates its art on the reciprocal activity of an imagining, desiring reader, and which ideally embodies an ethic of openness and generosity toward both reader and subject. In the Great Odes, we see the paradoxical but fruitful encounter between a form that fostered self-display and a poet who frequently deplored it: "Poetry," Keats wrote to Reynolds early in 1818, "should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject." - Paul Sheats

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Poetry’s Uselessness

It’s poetry’s uselessness that excites me. Its hopelessness. All this talk of usefulness makes me feel I’ve suddenly been shanghaied into the helping professions. Prose is practical language. Conversation is practical language. Let them handle the usefulness jobs. But of course, poetry has its balms. It makes us less lonely by one. It makes us have more room inside ourselves. But it’s paralyzing to think of usefulness and poetry in the same breath. - Kay Ryan

Monday, October 4, 2010

The artistic life

The artistic life begins in instinct and moves toward calculation; or maybe, it begins in blind obsession and ends in self-possession. Or does it begin in play and end in ambition? Or, some say, it begins in inspiration and moves toward repetition. Whichever version you subscribe to, the loss of innocence is inevitable, and it is indeed a loss - but one that has its compensations. Some of the names for that compensation are skill, perspective, and choice. - Tony Hoagland

Friday, October 1, 2010

Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony

Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony. The ecstatic element is tied to an unconditional acceptance of the world, including even what is cruel and absurd. Irony, in contrast, is the artistic representation of thought, criticism, doubt. Ecstasy is ready to accept the entire world; irony, following in the steps of thought, questions everything, asks tendentious questions, doubts the meaning of poetry and even of itself. Irony knows that the world is tragic and sad. - Adam Zagajewski

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Art is a mixture of moral urgency and technical expertise

Poems are hypothetical sites of speculation, not position papers. They do not exist on the same plane as actual life; they are not votes, they are not uttered from a podium or a pulpit, they are not essays. They are products of reverie. They are expert experiments in imagining symbols for a state of affairs, and of arranging language to suit; they are not propositions to be agreed or disagreed with. Each poem is a new personal venture made functional by technical expertise; the poet's moral urgency in writing is as real, needless to say, as his technical skill, but moral urgency alone never made a poem. On the other hand, technical expertise alone does not suffice, either. Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet's moral urgency, the poet's method of self-revelation. - Helen Vendler

Monday, September 27, 2010

Judith Farr on Emily Dickinson

Her poetry is great in one way because it attempts to envision the most inchoate, unspeakable, structureless conceptions, such as immortality, in the practical, specific details of every day. Such a "convex-concave witness" to the miracle of poetic consciousness can be seen as evidence of her knowledge of and kinship to the metaphysical poets...her phrases evince not decadence...but her consistent effort to explain the enormity of the aesthetic experience as it was known by the artist.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Better duped through hope than through fear

Religious beliefs are the quintessential case for which there's not enough evidence to decide. The sceptical mind of [Bertrand] Russell looks at the evidence for belief in God and, while seeing it's not conclusive, decides that he does not want to believe in God for fear of believing in an error. [William] James, though, has a different thought. He looks at the evidence for belief in God and, while seeing it's not conclusive, feels the force of the duty to believe what's true as well as the duty to avoid error. The sceptic ignores the first part of that duty, which James also called the "will to believe". He noted that while both believer and nonbeliever run the risk of being duped, he thought it was better to be duped "through hope" than "through fear". - Mark Vernon

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Collage: the antirational and semi-intentional

Collage is really the practice of a theory of knowledge: antirational and semi-intentional, it takes coincidence and chance materials as part of its method and inspiration. By eliminating transition, it embraces ambiguity, improvisation, speed, and multiplicity of meaning. It is expressive, but not primarily self-expressive. It does not place priority on closure, nor on conventional notions of completeness. In the constant conversation between unity and disunity, juxtaposition plays with omission and collision. It loves the energy of disruption and dislocation. Apollinaire, his contemporaries and their aesthetic heirs were more interested in creating inventive disorientations than in delivering packaged unities. - Tony Hoagland

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Freedom is a process

Freedom is not a given of the human situation. Like the other distinctive achievements of the spirit - art, literature, music, poetry - it needs training, discipline, apprenticeship, the most demanding routines and the most painstaking attention to detail. No one composed a great novel or symphony without years of preparation. That is why most theories of human behavior are simply false. They claim that we are either free or not; either we have choice or our behavior is causally determined. Freedom is not an either/or. It is a process. It begins with dependence and only slowly, gradually, does it become liberty, the ability to stand back from the pressures and influences upon us and act in response to educated conscience, judgment, wisdom, moral literacy. It is, in short, a journey: Abraham's journey...leave behind all external influences that turn into a victim of circumstances beyond your control, and travel inward to the self. It is there - only there - that freedom is born, practiced and sustained. - Jonathan Sachs

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meaning and form in poetry

The communication of meaning is, along with the manipulation of form, one of the natural bounds of poetry. It is in the negotiation of these two demands, meaning and form, sense and rhythm, that poetic beauty is created. The need to communicate, the pressure of urgent speech, is what drives a poem forward into the open region of art, even when the difficulty of communication makes it dilate and digress. Without that forward pressure, poetry becomes merely a private language. - Adam Kirsch

Monday, September 20, 2010

Boxing provides practice with fear

Boxing provides practice with fear and with the right, attentive supervision, in quite manageable increments. In their first sparring session, boxers usually erupt in “fight or flight” mode. When the bell rings, novices forget everything they have learned and simply flail away. If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his [or her] way. - Gordon Marino

Friday, September 17, 2010

The task of art

The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. Your are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward. - Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Auden on the philosophers of particular force, but...

Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality . . . and by the sharpness of their insights. . . . But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn to an equally exaggerated aversion. Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life; . . . it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The poet is a perpetual amateur

Though a skilled craftsperson can create a facsimile of a real poem, a skilled reader can spot the counterfeit in a minute, and the word that reader might use to describe the counterfeit might be "professional." The making of poems is so mysteriously tied up with not-knowing that in some sense the poet is a perpetual amateur, a stranger to the art, subject to ineptitude, failure, falsity, mediocrity, and repetitiveness. Even to remember what a poem IS seems impossible for a poet - one suspects that professors, or professionals, rarely have that problem. - Tony Hoagland

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Writers, artists...you want a social life with friends, a passionate love life as well?

You Want a Social Life, with Friends

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What's true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn't time enough, my friends--
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends--
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day's end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

- Kenneth Koch

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rothko on the need for silence

When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing, no galleries no collectors, no critics, no money, yet it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose, and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large, I will not venture to discuss. But I do know that many of those that are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them. - Mark Rothko

Friday, September 10, 2010

Only those who forgive can be free - Hannah Arendt

"...he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes 'guilty' of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous the consequences of his deed, he can never undo it...all this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom." - Hannah Arendt

But the possibility of forgiveness transforms the situation from tragedy to hope:

"Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover...forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven." - Hannah Arendt

So atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expressions of freedom, the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happiness is the by-product of a life

John Stuart Mill wrote: happiness is the by-product of a life, not something that can be pursued head on. ‘The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.’ He advised giving up the habit of scrutinising your life to see whether your enjoyment of it is rising or falling, for only then might you have the chance to ‘inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.’ ...happiness becomes a primarily concern in a society that can't cope with being frustrated, though frustration should be a right prior to the right to pursue happiness, since without frustration there is no passion, and passion is beyond mere happiness. - Mark Vernon

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where tragedy resides in Shakespeare

"That it should come to this." (Hamlet 1.2.137) That, in other words, a young idealistic student should become, even against his will, an intriguer and killer, as Hamlet does. Or that a great king should be reduced to beggary and madness, and by his own daughters, as Lear is. Or that a man gifted with a moral imagination so intense that even the anticipation of murder can make his hair stand on end should reach a condition so benumbed, so supped full with horrors, that to go back is as tedious as "go o'er," as happens to Macbeth. Or that the greatest soldier of the ancient world, once the king of courtesy, should be reduced to having his rival's emissary whipped, as in the case of Antony. Or that an earlier famous soldier should be so mastered by self-will and pride as to defect to the national enemy and war against his kin - the story of Coriolanus. Here is where tragedy normally resides in Shakespeare's mature work. - Maynard Mack

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shame vs Guilt Cultures

Today’s secular environment is a shame culture. It involves trial by the media, or public opinion, or the courts, or economic necessity, all of which are unforgiving. When shame is involved, it’s us, not just our actions, that are found wanting. That’s why in a shame culture you don’t hear people saying, “I was wrong. It was my fault. I’m sorry. Forgive me.” Instead, people try to brazen it out. The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down we know that there’s something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility.

Ultimately, guilt cultures produce strong individuals precisely because they force us to accept responsibility. When things go wrong we don’t waste time blaming others. We don’t luxuriate in the most addictive, destructive drug known to humankind, namely victimhood. We say, honestly and seriously, “I’m sorry. Forgive me. Now let me do what I can to put it right.” That way we and the people we offend can move on. Through our mistakes we discover the strength to heal, learn and grow. Shame cultures produce people who conform. Guilt cultures produces people with the courage to be free. - Jonathan Sachs

Thursday, September 2, 2010

William Logan on Billy Collins

Collins has been called a philistine…he’s something much worse, a poet who doesn’t respect his art enough to take it seriously…yet readers adore Billy Collins, and it feels almost un-American not to like him. Try to explain to his readers what ‘The Steeple-Jack’ or ‘The River Merchant’s Wife’ or ‘The Snow Man’ is up to, and they’ll look at you as if you’d asked them to hand-pump a ship through the locks of the Panama Canal. Most contemporary poetry isn’t any more difficult to understand than Collins—it’s written in prose, good oaken American prose, and then chopped into lines...so secure in his tendencies he can’t remember when he didn’t have tendencies at all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Van Gogh & God

"To follow what Jesus taught mankind will be the purpose of my life." - Vincent

"When Sunday came, Van Gogh would go to church three times, either to the Roman Catholic Church, or to the Protestant or Old Episcopal Church, which was commonly called the Jansenist Church. When once we made the remark, 'But my dear Van Gogh, how is it possible that you can go to three different churches of such divergent creeds?' He said, 'Well, in every church I see God, and it's all the same to me whether a Protestant pastor or a Roman Catholic priest preaches; it is not a matter of dogma, but of the spirit of the Gospel, and I find this spirit in all churches.'"

"God perhaps really begins when we say the word with which Multatuli finishes the 'Prayer of an Unbeliever: O god, there is no God!' For me, that God of the clergymen is dead as a doornail. But am I atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me so - so be it - but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live and others did not live; and then if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call it God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically, though it is very real, and see that as God, or as good as God." - Vincent

"I think that everything which is really good and beautiful - of inner moral, spiritual and sublime beauty in men and their works - comes from God, and that which is bad and wrong in men and in their works is not of God, and God does not approve of it. But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something - whatever you like - you will be on the way to knowing more about him." - Vincent

Monday, August 30, 2010

The power of Shakespeare's words

In Shakespeare's measures of the withdrawal of the world we are offered a picture of, let me say, the privatization of the world, a picture of the repudiation of assured significance, repudiation of the capacity to improvise common significance, of the capacity of individual human passion and encounter to bear cosmic insignia. The tragic and the pathetic beckon one another. "Is this the promised end? Or image of that horror?" (Is this? This play. No.) "To be or not to be." "A tale told by an idiot." "Are you fast married?" "Look down and see what death is doing." "Then must you find out new heaven, new earth." After such words, in their occasions, there is no standing ground of redemption. nothing but the ability to be spoken for by these words, to meet upon them, will weigh in the balance against these visions of groundlessness. Nothing without, perhaps nothing within, Shakespeare's words could discover the power to withstand the power Shakespeare's words release. Is this, since then, the demand we place, to greater or lesser extents, on all writing we care about seriously? - Stanley Cavell

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kafka on his writing

It is easy to recognize a concentration in me of all my forces on writing. When it became clear in my organism that writing was the most productive direction for my being to take, everything rushed in that direction and left empty all those abilities which were directed towards the joys of sex, eating, drinking, philosophical reflection, and above all music. I atrophied in all these directions. This was necessary because the totality of my strengths was so slight that only collectively could they even half-way serve the purpose of my writing. Naturally, I did not find this purpose independently and consciously, it found itself, and is now interfered with only by the office, but that interferes with it completely.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dante's expanse

...although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead - though that is what they are - but alive...We have left the earthly sphere behind; we are in an eternal place, and yet we encounter concrete appearance and concrete occurrence there. This differs from what appears and occurs on earth, yet is evidently connected with it in a necessary and strictly determined relation...there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth...we are given to see, in the realm of timeless being, the history of man's inner life and unfolding. - Erich Auerbach

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Age of the Moral Cop-Out Carries A High Price

David Selbourne has got it right. In a recent pamphlet, Moral Evasion, he lists the eleven arguments now regularly deployed to sabotage any attempt to make moral judgements. They are: There's nothing you can do about it. It's never been any different. There's no quick fix. It's the price of a free society. You must move with the tide. You can't turn back the clock. The problem is much more complex than you think. It's beyond the reach of the law. You are focussing on the wrong issue. Who are you to talk? Everyone's doing it, so how can you object?

The result is one of the strangest cultural moments in history. What other ages found offensive - crudity, incivility, obscenity, blasphemy - are today so commonplace as to be routine. Meanwhile, what other generations saw as essential to civilisation - moral judgement, the capacity to discriminate between right and wrong - has become not just controversial but taboo. Merely to suggest that there may be some ways of life more gracious, honourable, decent, benign or just plain good than others is to risk accusations of judgementalism and moral panic. Hell hath no fury like a relativist scorned.

So it's worth reminding ourselves why every other age than ours has cherished moral wisdom. It's not because people wished to interfere in what others do in private. That may sometimes have happened, but it's not what morality is about. It's because life is short, and the bill for our mistakes is long. A child may bear the scars of a broken family for a lifetime. Trust, once broken, is hard to repair. An impulsive word can destroy a friendship. A single act of folly may wreck a career. Not everything we want to do, ought we to do. Our own happiness - let alone civilisation itself - depends on our ability to hold desire in check, restrained by thoughts of long term consequences and consideration for other people. That is where the moral sense is born.

It doesn't come naturally. Morality is not genetically coded. It is not hard-wired into our brain. That is what gives us our unique evolutionary advantage. Homo sapiens is the animal that learns. And we learn cumulatively, by not having to start afresh in each generation. Instead, through families and schools, we pass on the wisdom of the past, experience often bought at a high price. What makes humanity different from other life forms is our ability to think beyond the present. We remember what worked and what failed. We are capable of envisaging a different and better world. We can tell the difference between what is and what ought to be. We also know that, whatever world we seek, we can't make it alone. Therefore we need to create a shared language of the imagination together with relationships of trust.

So, at most times most societies have invested vast energies in the institutions through which children learn how best to behave - families, schools, public codes of behaviour, together with the stories, songs and canonical texts through which a culture conveys its memories and ideals.


Reducing morality to private choice is as absurd as the idea that we can each invent our own treatments to cure disease and that the existence of doctors is a threat to our autonomy. So ignore the critics. David Selbourne is right. Moral wisdom is never certain or complete, any more than medicine is certain or complete. But it is something we inherit and learn and share. Above all it is something we are right to teach our children. - Jonathan Sachs

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The well-lived life like participating in a jazz band

What benefit for our daily lives can we gain from a consideration of what life means? It’s been suggested that we consider the meaning of life to be happiness, but happiness not as the pursuit of pleasure, but as a state of our being that maximizes use of our full human capacities. However, we should go beyond Aristotle in emphasizing that one of the key human capacities that must be developed is the capacity for love and compassion for others. The metaphor is that the well-lived life is like participating in a well-functioning jazz band, that balances individuality and cooperation. Here everyone has individual free expression within the structure of the piece. We're free within physically determined bounds and we can decide what happens within those bounds. - Timothy Bartik (via Terry Eagleton)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On capitalism and Kierkegaard - Michael Foley

One of capitalism's greatest strengths has been its ability to co-opt everyone into its project by encouraging them to become property owners, shareholders and entrepreneurs. And to its promise that anyone can be a millionaire has recently been added the promise that anyone can be a celebrity. Its other great strength is the ability to neutralize dissent by absorbing it...Kierkegaard argued that the self needs a balance of necessity and possibility - it will suffocate in too much necessity but vaporize in too much possibility. Throughout history, crushing necessity has been the usual problem, but the contemporary self is being driven mad by infinite possibility. Rejection of necessity is the contemporary sickness.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Van Gogh on Socrates (or on himself)

Socrates was born as a true satyr, but by devotion, work and renouncing frivolous things he changed so completely that on the last day before his judges and in the face of death, there was in him something, I do not know what, of a god, a ray of light from heaven that illuminated the Parthenon.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Van Gogh on Adversities

Personally I believe that the adversities one meets with in the ordinary course of life do us as much good as harm. The very complaint that makes one ill today, overwhelming one with discouragement, that same thing - once the disease has passed off - gives us the energy to get up and want to be completely recovered tomorrow. Diseases exist to remind us that we’re not made of wood, and it seems to me this is the bright side of it all. And after that one dreams of taking up one’s daily work again, being less afraid of obstacles, with a new stock of serenity...that it’s a “crown-of-thorns” life, yes, but fighting difficulties in which one finds oneself, an inner strength develops from within the heart, which improves in life’s fight.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shakespeare's humility

I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude toward his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously. - W.H. Auden

ex. "these are but shadows" & "the play did begin to write itself"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Something on high - Van Gogh

It seems to me it's a painters duty to try to put an idea into his work. In this print I have tried to express...what seems to me one of the strongest proofs of the existence of the "quelque chose la-haut" (something on high) in which Millet believed, namely the existence of God and eternity - certainly in the infinitely touching expression of a little old man, which he himself is unconscious of, when he is sitting quietly in the corner by the fire. At the same time, there is something noble, something great, which cannot be destined for the worms...This is far from all theology, simply the fact that the poorest little woodcutter or peasant on the hearth or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration that give him a feeling of an eternal home, and of being close to it. - Vincent Van Gogh

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Van Gogh on Shakespeare

Shakespeare was an artist who out of compassion sacrificed himself to fashion a new art of the spirit that would speak to ordinary people, bringing comfort and healing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Believing in the possible again

(Alternate version: replace "Moses" with your favorite poet or artist or spiritual mentor.)

The empirical fact is that even for the most G-d fearing person living a virtuous and spiritual life does not come easily. Life for most of us consists of a battle between good and evil, spirit and matter, self-indulgence and transcendence – between selfish cravings of material narcissism and commitment to a higher calling, with the former more often than not winning out.

Indeed, modern secular thought sees the human being as an evolved beast, a billion year old bacteria, whose primary drive is survival (“survival of the fittest”). From biology to psychology, from genetics to archeology – from Darwin to Freud – we have been taught that humans are driven by the irrational and emotional primitive “id,” which is all “want, want, want,” self-gratification driven by one rule – the “pleasure principle: “I want it and I want it all now”.

Moses however saw the human being in quite a different light. While its true that every person has a selfish inclination, we also have a Divine side, which is capable of the noblest behavior. Indeed, Torah sees that the deepest part of the human being is the “yid” rather than the “id.” The essence of the soul is like the letter “yud,” a dot, a spark of the Divine.

The easier route may be the narcissistic one. But a person always has the choice to overcome his/her primitive temptations and access the transcendent soul within.

The soul is a rich resource, with layers and layers of potential. And in the soul lies a dimension that is a “spark” of Moses. At this level it is as natural to connect to G-d as it is for a fish to be in water. The challenge is to recognize and draw forth this dimension, which can lay concealed beneath the outer shell of material survival.

It is critical that we believe in ourselves to be able to achieve anything in this world. But we must also know that our psyches are under a constant assault of many forces reminding us time and again about our limitations, feeding our insecurities and fears.

Comes Moses and says no! You have the power to be Divine, and with ease! You only need to believe that it is possible.

In essence, one can say, that this is the ultimate battle in life: How much we believe in ourselves; how much we believe in our possibilities.

When things sometimes seem impossible, think about Moses’ words. Think about the fact that by virtue of the “Moses” within” your soul you are within reach of achieving virtually anything you set your mind to.

So now that we know that the great Moses believes in us, the question we each much ask: Do I believe in myself?

With a leader like Moses the impossible may just be possible.

- Simon Jacobson

Friday, July 30, 2010

Emily Dickinson's depth

When we turn to her poems, we find that they, too, like her life, stop the narrative. Lyric outbursts, they tell no tales about who did what to whom in the habitable world. Rather, they whisper their wisdom from deep, very deep, within ourselves. And perhaps these poems plunge down so far - perhaps they unsettle us so - because Dickinson writes of experiences that we, who live in time, can barely name. - Brenda Wineapple

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Creativity embodies opposites

To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result). Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses...to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate...those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.

Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites...not because they’re dark, depressed, anxious, or neurotic. It’s a myth that creative people have these traits. (Those traits actually shut down creativity; they make people less open to experience and less interested in novelty.) Rather, creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world. - Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shakespeare's Sonnets - a virtual anthology of lyric possibility

A virtual anthology of lyric possibility - in the poet's choice of sub-genres, in arrangement of words, in tone, in dramatic modeling of the inner life, in speech acts...Shakespeare almost never repeats a strategy...no poet has ever found more linguistic forms by which to replicate human responses than Shakespeare in the sonnets. When lyric poems are boring, it is frequently because they possess only one organizing structure, which reveals itself unchanged each time the poem is read...the poem needs some other principle of interest to sustain rereading.

The fundamental structure of Shakespeare's sonnet is the evolving inner emotional dynamic, the fictive speaker is shown to see more, change his [or her] mind, pass from description to analysis, move from negative refutation to positive refutation, etc. The proffering and hierarching of several conceptual models at once is, as I see it, Shakespeare's main intellectual and poetic achievement in the sonnets...the successive emotional tonalities of the sonnets, from abjectness to solitary triumph, from perplexity to self-loathing, from comedy to pathos. The issue of a good poem must be urgent to the poet.

Most of the sonnets lend themselves to more than one schematic representation...the self-lacerating intelligence in the later sonnets produces a voice so undeceived about reality and himself (his perjured eye) that the reader admires the clarity of mind that can so anatomize sexual obsession while still in its grip, that can so acquiesce in humiliation while inspecting its own arousal, that can lie freely while acknowledging the truth. To represent such a voice in all its paradoxical incapacity and capacity is the victory of Shakespeare's technique. - Helen Vendler

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Samples of René Char

I saw you, the first and the only one, divine female in the greatly disturbed spheres. I tore your dress of infinity, brought you back naked onto my soil. The mobile humus of the earth was everywhere. We are flying, say your servants, in cruel space, to the song of my red trumpet.

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The poet gives life, then hastens to the outcome. In the evening, in spite of several apprentice dimples on his cheek, he is a courteous passerby cutting short the farewells to be there when the bread comes out of the oven.

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No more second self, or changing face, no more
A season for flame and a season for shadow!

With the slow snow descend the lepers.

Suddenly love, terror's equal,
With hand never seen checks the fire, restores
The sun, reconstructs the Beloved.

Nothing gave notice of a life so strong.

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...your face, as it is, may it always be, so free that at its touch air's infinite ring crumpled, half-opening as I met it, clothing me with the fine streets of your imagination. I remained there, entirely unknown to myself, in your sun mill...

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The First Moments

We were watching the water as it flowed, increasing before us. It effaced the mountain suddenly, expelling itself from her maternal side. Not a torrent submitting to its fate but an ineffable beast whose word and substance we became. It held us amorous on the all-powerful arch of its imagination. What intervention could have constrained us? Daily tameness had fled, blood cast aside was rendered to its heat. Adopted by the open, abraded to invisibility, we were a victory which would never end.


Friday, July 23, 2010

The Sistine Chapel

Vasari said of it, "The whole world came running when the vault was revealed, and the sight of it was enough to reduce them to stunned silence." Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall also by Michelangelo, wall paintings by a team of painters of the late 15th century including Botticelli and Perugino, a set of large tapestries by Raphael... Check out this stunning online tool for viewing every detail, without the crowds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

People are like teabags

You don’t know strong they are until you put them in hot water. How you deal with crisis, with rejection, with failure will determine how successful you will ultimately be. One can say that success is actually born out of failure. Some people are demoralized and crushed when they fail. Others allow the failure to educate them and to motivate them, to build in them a deeper fortitude, which gives them the power to succeed in the future.
- Simon Jacobson

When artists didn't wink at us - Max Beckmann




Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Integration vs the splits - Meister Eckhart 10, Hitler (-10)

“It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with it and from it in such a way that interiority turns into effective action and effective action leads back to interiority and we become used to acting without any compulsion.”
– Meister Eckhart

“It is highly significant that each of [Hitler’s mistresses] committed suicide or tried to do so, and more than a simple coincidence. He would ask them to shit on him you see. It might very possibly be that they could not stand the burden of his perversion in its shattering absurdity and massive incongruity with [his] public role. I would say that this discordance between private and public esthetics is possibly too much to bear, unless one can get some kind of commanding height or vantage point from which to mock it or otherwise dismiss it.”
– Ernst Becker

Against our excuse culture

Existentialists are nihilists because they recognize that life is ultimately absurd and full of terrible, inescapable truths. They are anti-nihilists because they recognize that life does in fact have a meaning: the meaning each person chooses to give his or her own existence. They recognize that each person is free to create themselves and make something worthwhile of themselves by striving against life's difficulties.

Existentialism holds that you can only truly change the way you think and feel about your life by behaving differently, by acting rather than simply reacting, by asserting your will rather than simply allowing yourself to be swept along by circumstances, by always taking responsibility for yourself and what you do. - Gary Cox

The need for solitude

Most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.” - William Deresiewicz

Monday, July 19, 2010

The anxiety of existence & daily existence


Some modern philosophers (Heidegger, Kierkegaard) have argued that existential anxiety proceeds from being unconscious of, or inadequately conscious of, death. True, I think, but I wonder if the emphasis might be placed differently, shifted from unconscious reaction to unrealized action: that is, our anxiety is less the mind shielding itself from death than the spirit’s need to be. It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music which, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things.


THERE IS A DISTINCTION to be made between the anxiety of daily existence, which we talk about endlessly, and the anxiety of existence, which we rarely mention at all. The former fritters us into dithering, distracted creatures. The latter attests to—and, if attended to, discloses—our souls. And yet it is a distinction without a difference, perhaps, and as crucial to eventually overcome as it is to initially understand, for to be truly alive means to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence, to feel one’s trivial, frittering anxieties acquiring a lightness, a rightness, a meaning. So long as anxiety is merely something to be alleviated, it is not life, or we are not alive enough to experience it as such.


AT FIRST, attending to the anxiety of existence can seem like a zero-sum game. Any attention turned toward the truth of the spirit is attention turned away from all we have come to think of as “life.” Thus we parcel out our moments of devotion—a church service here and there, a walk in the woods, a couple of hours of meditation a week—all the while maintaining the frenzy of our usual existence outside of those moments. This is inevitable, for the initial demands of the spirit are intense, but it is not sustainable, for the soul is not piecemeal. We are left with this paradox: only by hearing the furthest call of consciousness can we hear the call of ordinary life, but only by claiming the most mundane and jangling details of our lives can that rare and ulterior music of the soul merge with what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.” - Christian Wiman

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chekhov on writing

The artist should not be a judge of his [or her] characters or of what they say, but only an objective observer. I heard a confused, indecisive talk by two Russians on pessimism and so must convey this conversation in the same form in which I heard it, but it is up to the jury, i.e., the readers, to give it an evaluation. My job is only to be talented, i.e., to be able to throw light upon some figures and speak their language.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Camus on artistic creation

Artistic creation is a demand for unity and a rejection of the world. But it rejects the world on account of what it lacks and in the name of what it sometimes is.

Akiva Tatz on the creative and life cycle

During the process or journey the pleasure is anticipating the destination / end result that the work will create. At the destination, the pleasure is the journey it took / how hard you worked to build the thing / the knowledge that you did this. The more difficult it was, the more intense the pleasure. This is a remarkable cycle. It teaches you about life, which is the same cycle. The Kabbalists says that in the next world the tree and the fruit taste the same.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The poem occupies an invisible zone

between the subjective emotional utterance and the objective reporting of fact. It is relative and universal, false and true. Negotiating this contradiction with finesse is crucial to the poem's success. – Jennifer Moxley

The Rebbe on the artist

The primary talent of an artist is his or her ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he [or she] portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his [or her] prior perception was deficient.

And this is one of the foundations of man’s service of his [or her] Creator.

It is only that the divine power of tzimtzum (constriction) holds the divine life-force in a state of concealment and obscurity, and we perceive only its outer form (i.e., the physical reality).
Our mission in life is that we should approach everything in life from this perspective. That we should each strive to reveal, as much as possible, the divine essence in every thing, and minimize, to the extent that we are able, its concealment...

So one must take great care that secondary and external matters should not obscure the essentials of life and its ultimate purpose.

A person might experience difficulties, trials and challenges in separating the good from the bad. But these are but the means by which to achieve the purpose of life—that his [or her] soul should elevate itself through its positive deeds in this world... So one must never allow the difficulties in overcoming one’s trials, or even the fact that one might occasionally fail and stumble, to overwhelm the joy that one must feel.