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 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 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.


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.


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.


...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...


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.

Yeats on insight and rebirth

It is only when the intellect has wrought the whole of life to drama, to crisis, that we may live for contemplation and yet keep our intensity.

Michael Eigen on Boundaries

For certain individuals (and perhaps, to a degree, everyone), one's double sense of boundlessness-limits is too much to handle and is a source of unbearable pain. One may try to find a way out, through more loss of I-feeling. This may vary from mild self-anesthesia to a complete loss of self-feeling. In the case of hospitalized patients, we find individuals who could not successfully squeeze into an effective practical self. In the "hospital" of the world, we find others who have done so only too well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Falstaff vs Hamlet

I would rather be Falstaff or Sancho than a version of Hamlet or Don Quixote, because growing old and ill teaches me that being matters more than knowing. - Harold Bloom

Fast vs Slow Burning

From time to time we need a jolting new experience to ignite our spirits; but the key to success is always what happens the day after the inspiration: Can you maintain it? Hay may light quickly, but it also burns out quickly. Logs, good dry logs, take a while to ignite, but once they do, they can be depended upon to warm you for an extended time. - Simon Jacobson

Friday, July 9, 2010

Here's the scam—multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is not always time effective. It tends to diffuse my focus. Beneath the illusion of control and efficiency is my resistance to be fully present to the details of life. Perhaps it's a lack of appreciation for work in progress that breeds distraction and teases my mind with "more important" things to get to. It's easier to quantify the value of a final product. Can I value a work in progress? Can you think about what you really want out of life? (It should make you smile.) Now think about what it would take to get there. (Exhausting!) Yet if you can't be fully present in the preparatory stages, you won't be fully present even when you arrive. Value the means towards the end. - Rochel Holzkenner

Vincent’s Family (part I)

Vincent reaching out to his mother who’s looking down, continually looking down, mourning her son that died, Vincent I. She’s looking in little Vincent I's direction where the exalted, perfected Vincent I has a halo around his (or in this case, her) head. On the other side is Vincent’s stern, aloof father looking off in another direction as Vincent’s sister Wil, or perhaps one of Vincent’s girlfriends looks up towards him / feels rejected by him. These potato eaters don’t physically resemble Vincent and his family, but their core gestures do.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

George Steiner on lessons of the masters

To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one's own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one's inward present their future: this is a threefold adventure like no other.

The Age of Absurdity - Michael Foley

The good news is that the great thinkers from history have proposed the same strategies for happiness and fulfilment. The bad news is that these turn out to be the very things most discouraged by contemporary culture.

At one point in this book Michael Foley laments his own tendency to buy books and CDs in pursuit of some transcendental experience - the books are going to give him arcane knowledge and explain the meaning of it all. Of course, they stay on the shelf, eventually becoming a source of guilt and stress. This is ironic, because The Age of Absurdity comes as close as anyone ever will to giving you arcane knowledge and explaining the meaning of it all.

I'm simplifying a complex and detailed argument here. But, in brief, Foley argues (or at least I take him to be arguing) that the modern world has placed two major barriers in the path of happiness - the `culture of entitlement' and the worship of potential. (NB: Foley breaks down the analysis into more categories, but I think there's good reason for thinking that these are the main issues). The culture of entitlement is so much part of the zeitgeist that we can hardly see it anymore - it drives the talentless to obsessively seek fame, spawns a million `self esteem' workshops, and ensures that every thug knows his rights without considering that he even has responsibilities. (And if you think it's just thugs, ask yourself when you last concluded a whinge by observing that `someone' - some unnameable `they' - should do something about it). But it also means that when the world fails to notice our talents or respect our rights - which, let's face it, is most of the time - we feel hard done by. We are all poisoning our lives with a terminal feeling of injustice; all have a chip on our shoulder big enough to overbalance us.

The worship of potential is what causes dowdy frumps to face humiliation on TV for the sake of a swift makeover, hi-tech firms to lay off anyone who looks over 40, middle-aged dads to dress as their toddlers (all bright artificial fibres with toggles on), everyone to love travel even if they have no idea where they want to go, and society in general to become dumbed-down and infantalised (don't want to grow up? Don't bother! Why should you?). It also leaves people with a constant sense that they're missing something, that a better time is to be had elsewhere, so we're constantly on the look out for the next big thing - job, relationship, possession. And it discourages us from making the firm decisions which, in a way, define and develop our characters.

It's probably no coincidence that modern capitalism needs both these things - the worship of potential keeps us wanting the newest thing; the culture of entitlement (`because you're worth it!') makes us believe we deserve it, whether or not we have the money.

Many of our problems are the problems of abundance, so Foley draws extensively on the Stoics, (who were writing for a rich, decadent late-Roman audience with many of the same problems). He also makes considerable use of the existentialists, proto-existentialists like Schopenhauer, and Buddhist thought. Obviously it does no harm to have come across these thinkers already. But for anyone who hasn't he leads you in gently, so the lack of a philosophical background isn't too much of a handicap. Indeed, his prose throughout is clear and accessible (just as well for an age which eschews difficulty!)

Two things really make this book special. One is the incisiveness with which he analyses the modern condition. Time and time again, Foley hits the nail on the head - often to the point of being uncomfortable. I'd come to similar conclusions myself about some of the points he makes here, but I hadn't reasoned them through as thoroughly. So it was sobering to be continually confronted by descriptions of my own behaviour. There I was thinking that my problems were interesting and complex, and lo and behold they're everyone's problems. For a while it made me squirm, but actually it's quite reassuring.

Secondly, there are no glib answers. Yes, Foley makes some suggestions for how we might be happier - consider learning to meditate, allow yourself to daydream more, develop the Stoics' mental habit of accepting whatever life throws at you and asking yourself how you might turn it to your advantage in one way or another. But the main answer is that there is no `answer' - we make our own deals with life. The best thing we can do is come to a clear understanding of just what the main issues are - and that's what philosophy (and this book) can help us with. - modern life is rubbish

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Beckett jolted out of his paralytic torpor

For things to change, perhaps a crisis had to occur, as it did on the night of January 6, 1938, when Beckett, having finally returned to Paris after a terrible scene with his mother, was the victim of an acte gratuit: On a dark Paris street, a drunken stranger accosted him with a knife, stabbing him close to the heart. “How lovely it is being here,” Beckett writes McGreevy from his convalescent bed, “even with a hole in the side. A sunlit surface yesterday brighter than the whole of Ireland’s summer.” The proximity to death, soon to be heightened by the war, jolted Beckett out of his paralytic torpor: He sent McGreevy a new poem, beginning “they come / different and the same”—a poem notably unclotted and intriguingly spare. A new chapter was about to begin.

- Marjorie Perloff

Ivan Illich out-Marx's Marx

It's not surprising that in the current environment the NY Times obituary would characterize Illich's critique as "watered-down Marxism." In fact, Illich's critique is actually considerably more radical. Marx believed that once the expropriators were expropriated and the state withered away a worker's paradise would ensue. He didn't want to arrest industrialization, he wanted the workers to have control over their destiny. Illich thought the whole project was monstrous, no matter who owned or ran it.

Illich believed that the penetration of systems logic into the lifeworld had to be opposed on an individual basis. One way to do this was to engage in deep compassionate friendships. Another was to be sensitive to and eschew the kind of infernal comparisons technocrats make between people and technologies, i.e., that humans are systems consisting of software and hardware, inputs and outputs. As part of this, he also attacked the technocratic reconceptualization of mankind through new definitions of old words and their former meanings, e.g., the new notion of "life" as some general entity that can be nurtured on some general level, presumably by a technocrat or politician, i.e., the "culture of life." Rather he insisted that life is embodied in and inseparable from biological entities -- that there is no life, only lives. Illich also suggested reading history, especially the writings of key monastics from the 12th century, as a way to defamiliarize oneself the hegemonic power of the current version of "common sense" and so understand that other ways of living and interacting with each other and with the world were possible, and necessary. He sought by such readings to demonstrate that beyond a certain level of institutionalized expertise, most experts and their expert systems are actually counterproductive.

Illich's critique cannot be countenanced these days when the ideology of technical progress has so permeated us that the notion of organ repair kits (from our clones) seems like a good idea. It seems clear now that the desacralization of the lifeworld cannot be stopped. The spark of hope that it might was extinguished by the counterrevolution of the bosses in the mid-70s. The NY Times meekly fell back into line along with just about everyone else. Illich was a conscientious objector to modernism to the last, preferring to let a cancer on his jaw take his life slowly and painfully rather than surrender himself and his dignity to the anti-human ethos of the medico-technologico community.

IVAN ILLICH IN CONVERSATION is an excellent introduction to Illich's radical humanist perspective.

- Panopticonman

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

William Logan on Wallace Stevens and Walt Whitman

In the restlessness of an American identity more familiar as lighting out for the territories, both men stayed put in a country founded on the idea of moving on...[both of their books] are of the most violently original, uncategorizable books ever published by an American poet.

On Modern Western Democracy - Roger Scruton & Mark Vernon

Providing meaning for its citizens is the thing Western democracy fails to do, because it is premised on forging a company of strangers, not brothers. Roger Scruton argues that it is our faint-heartedness in the face of questions of meaning that is the great contemporary failing: we laugh them off as if they are the questions of children.

The limitation of Western democracy, then, comes in 'only' managing to form a company of strangers, and that would be to do with its associated individualism. This finds it difficult to recognise that my own good is intimately caught up with the lives of others: we are prepared to live with others insofar as it's good for me; the test is how far we are prepared to live with others because it's good for others.

That, in turn, brings us back to the issue of meaning, for other-orientation - and the sacrificing of some self-sufficiency and autonomy it implies - is what makes for meaning: it takes the individual out of themselves and so situates their life in something that is bigger than themself.

That other-orientation is also what the terrorist so hideously perverts, since whilst their violent actions take them out of themselves, and so yield meaning, they necessitate the killing of others in the process. In truth, then, terrorism is not other-regarding but self-obsessed - a kind of extreme individualism, in fact, and in that sense thoroughly modern.

Adam Phillips on good writing

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 realise quite how stuck in we had been...the aim is to recreate fluency.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wallace Shawn on writing plays

I’m guided by a muse. I don’t choose a subject. I don’t have outlines or notecards. It’s more like a sentence comes to me and maybe a few months later I figure out who said it and why. I don’t pick the subjects. I don’t even know who’s talking. Eventually it’s something. After if it becomes something, I can sort of help it become the essence of what it is.