Friday, December 28, 2012


"Pacifists who refuse to examine all causes of war, from natural fitfulness on through the direct economic causes, are simple vermin, whatever their level of consciousness, their awareness or unawareness of their actions and motivations."
Ezra Pound (GK, p. 117)

In the prologue to Douglas Adams' So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, we are given a characteristically silly analysis of our predicament. Adams tells us that, here on Earth, "most of the people ...[are] unhappy for pretty much of the time." He goes on to explain that this problem persists because the proposed solutions "[are] largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper", i.e., money (for those who hardly see the stuff anymore or whose money isn't green). Adams does mention in passing that part of the problem is that "lots of the people [are] mean", which I'll get back to in a moment. In any case, it is clear that Adams believes that economic solutions to our problems entirely miss the point. After all, "on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."

Adams also tells us that "two thousand years [ago] one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change", and then proposes to tell the story of a woman who "suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time," and figured out how to fix it. "[S]he finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything." For my part, rereading this prologue, it suddenly became clear to me that Adams' analysis of "the problem" is as facile as his interpretation of Christ's message, which, whatever your faith in it may be, is neither as simple, nor as obviously true, nor as harmless to the state, as he makes it appear. Unhappily, fixing our problems may very well involve nailing somebody to something, certainly on having someone's head on a stick (bring it on Dr. Dooley!). It's highly unlikely that someone will not make a martyr of anyone who proposes a solution.

This post marks my New Year's resolution to stop ignoring money, whether in my personal, professional, or political life. (Such as all of these are.) Money has never really been a problem for me. I'm privileged that way. But I've also never really taken it seriously, except in the abstract and intellectual sense of having "gotten wise" to the scam that it obviously also is. I now believe that solving the problems of the human condition can not get around a plan for the careful management of money. It's not everything. But it is one medium of human activity in which both the "natural fitfulness" and general meanness of people can be be channelled towards, well, yes, more "profitable" ends. Taking it seriously will probably also make me less of a nuisance to my administrative surroundings.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wisdom, F/act, Love

Philosophy is the love of wisdom.
Poetry is the wisdom of love.

Wisdom is conceptual clarity.
Love is emotional intensity.

Concepts condition thought.
Emotions condition feeling.

You cannot touch a thought.
You cannot see a feeling.

In philosophy one brings the thought
into the realm of feeling, one gives it texture.
In poetry one brings the feeling
into the realm of thought, giving it structure.

Philosophy renders thought palpable.
Poetry renders feeling visible.

To love is to approach the act
with intensity in feeling.
To be wise is to approach the fact
with clarity in thought.

True wisdom, like true love, is wordless.
That is why philosophy is not wisdom
and poetry is not love. They are too wordy.

But the words can be arranged
more or less carefully
more or less daringly
To indicate the fact, the act.

Now, the act just happens.
The fact just obtains, here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hollow Mayan

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Image is Easy

It can be seen
without strain
and done
without effort.

You peel it
off the appearance
And stick it
onto the surface.

The image is light:
It is not hard.


See also: "Procedural Notes", "Sensation, Appearance, Image", and "Motivation, Surface, Image".

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beauty is Difficult

In poetry,
the difficulty is
The poem must extricate
its emotion
from the dominant practice,
achieving beauty.

In philosophy,
the difficulty is
The work of philosophy frees
the concept
from its domination by theory,
achieving beauty.

Clarity in thought.
Intensity in feeling.
It isn't easy.

Existence and Inspiration

I can't decide whether inspiration or ecstasy is the proper pangrammatical supplement of existence. (As a result, I can't decide whether they are merely different names for the same emotional complex.)

Either: The philosopher is trying to solve the problem of existence; the poet is trying to solve the problem of inspiration.

Or: The philosopher is trying to solve the problem of existence; the poet is trying to solve the problem of ecstasy.

The words "solve" and "problem" should probably be set off with scare quotes. Philosophers and poets engage with problems that are not quite problems because there is ultimately no solution. Sages and lovers, of course, merely suffer these problems perfectly, wholly accepting their insolubility.

Dasein is the form of existence that belongs to humans, it is "in each case mine". Duende is the form of inspiration that humans belong to, we are in each case his. Dasein is the being "we ourselves are". Duende is the becoming that is us. The philosopher and the poet pursue their being and becoming more doggedly than most.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Existence and Ecstasy

I'm returning to a theme from this post, though I'm no longer considering "presence" to be an even possible translation of "Dasein". What I do think is that there is some connection between existence and ecstasy, which corresponds to the connection between being and becoming, as well as caring and daring, and, importantly, Dasein and duende.

But my problem right now is whether any of this can be taken seriously. Is it a dignified activity to be deeply concerned about existence & ecstasy as such? Did Lorca take the duende as seriously as all that? Are we meant to suffer like St. Teresa? Is philosophy, and poetry for that matter, ultimately about that suffering. Or is that kind of suffering, that kind of pathos, simply a pathology?

Yes, it will always have a certain measure of dignity to talk about Heidegger and Lorca and, perhaps, their "existential" problems. Their pathologies, if you will. But to propose outright to solve the problem of existence?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Writing Under Surveillance

"The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act." (George Orwell)

The recently uncovered surveillance program at the National Counterterrorism Center reminded me of this passage in the first chapter of Orwell's 1984. It notes the guilt of writing down something for one's own personal use. Of writing down simply one's own ideas. Ever since I started blogging, I've been more or less consciously committed to the idea that if I write something, it may be read by others. I "know" that my gmail is in principle open to government investigation. In fact, I have no illusions about the privacy of any of my electronic correspondence. (I am only confident that no-one cares what I think and, in the worst case, that no one would dare to admit they've been snooping. So some agent, somewhere, may know what I'm up to, but it's our little secret.) On a bad day, I imagine that every keystroke is, under the right circumstance, visible to Big Brother. (Again, I imagine he leaves me alone because I'm not worth the bother.) Events like the recent Petraeus affair reminds one of one's vulnerability. It makes one think twice about seeking fame and influence. It makes one want to remain powerless.

Anyway, the extreme situation in which it is a suspicious act to write something down that Big Brother can't see, i.e., on paper, in one's diary, is probably still a few years off. But it made me realize that I don't write things I don't imagine are for publication. I keep those things in my head. I feel guilty about the poems I've jotted down in notebooks here and there and not told anyone about. After all, I felt those things. Who am I to keep them to myself. I should stand to account, right?

I think that mindset is totalitarian. It says something about what the Internet has done to how we (or at least I) feel about writing. Having an unfinished novel in your files feels like participating in a bomb plot.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sublimation II

Embarrassed by my wondering mind
I pursued the high art of thinking.

Embarrassed by the depth of philosophy,
I learned the craft of history.

Embarrassed by a fruitless dialectic,
I sought election to the parliament.

Embarrassed, now, by the policy proposed
I lay in wonderment at your side.

Sublimation I

Ashamed of my lustful body
I sought to express myself in art.

Ashamed of the uselessness of poetry,
I learned the craft of scholarship.

Ashamed of my learned pretensions,
I took to day laboring at the mill.

Ashamed of the lies of journalism,
I lay my lustful body at your side.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Descending Phrygian Blowout

"And in terms of 'copying', I don't think Bran is copying Trane as much as doing/exploring a Trane thing in this song...but he is not helping his case by creating a descending Phrygian blowout tune...almost exactly like "Transition"! High quality jazz from master musicians, but not what I would call Branford at his best." (Puujisan, comment on "Jack Baker")

I don't know exactly what a descending phrygian blowout is, but I like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


"In my strange past," writes Borges in his "Utopia of a Tired Man", "the superstition prevailed that every day, between evening and morning, certain acts occur which it is a shame to be ignorant of."

All day I've been puzzled by my reaction to the news. I don't care. I really don't care at all. I would feel no shame to be ignorant of any of these acts.


Listening to Glenn Gould this morning (WTC), it occurred to me that I believe in the sort of utopia in which everyone is allowed to specialize. Why shouldn't someone be allowed to contribute just and only his interpretation of Bach to the culture? Why shouldn't that be enough? Given advances in technology, each of us needs to make only a very limited contribution in order for life to be highly enjoyable for all.

(The argument unravels a bit as I try to develop it, unfolding into platitudes about everyone contributing according to their talents and desires. But the basic intuition, that a society built around highly specialized contributions by each member to the enjoyment of all members would work, holds, I think.)

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Terms, Tears

Two definitions:

SADNESS The first powder to be abided upon waking. It may reside in tools or garments and can be eradicated with more of itself, in which case the face results as a placid system coursing with water, heaving.

EMOTION, n. A prostrating disease caused by a determination of the heart to the head. It is sometimes accompanied by a copious discharge of hydrated chloride of sodium from the eyes.

The first is from the "Terms" section of the "Sleep" chapter of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String (p. 13). The second is from Ambrose Bierce's Enlarged Devil's Dictionary (p. 79).

Friday, December 07, 2012

Getting Into Nothing University

I actually completely agree with Vendler. I just wish she had said straight out that Harvard needs to look for people it can teach how better to make nothing happen, rather than trying to prove that they might make something else happen. I think we give the game to the forces of reaction by trying to show that Homer, Dickinson, Picasso and Wittgenstein (of all people!) made "something" happen too. (Scare quotes very needed here.) No, they helped nothing survive their age. Without them we'd only have all this something, something, something.

Anyway, she says prospective students should be asked: "Who is the poet you have most enjoyed reading?” I paused for moment. It's the sort of question one thinks one has answered a hundred times already. But then a clear answer emerged.

There are really two* experiences that I've had with poetry that could be considered intense experiences of "enjoyment". The first was as an undergraduate in a comparative literature program (which I, somewhat regrettably, dropped for philosophy.) I read Keats' "Ode on Melancholy": "And if your mistress some rich anger shows, imprison her soft hand and let her rave..." The second was many years later, as a PhD student, suffering intense melancholy (as one does at that stage of intellectual development) and stumbling on Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot". The light here really was bright, blindin' and bewildering. I was high for days.

These are the two poets I would mention. If you're trying to get into Harvard feel free to steal those answers. I think loving those two poems really intensely accomplishes nothing, of course. And that accomplishment should get you into Harvard.

*Obviously my enjoyment of poetry is not limited to two occasions only. But these are the two occasions that pop to mind as the "most" enjoyable. They are certainly the moments during which my enjoyment of poetry formed itself into an appreciation also.

Grammar and Nothingness

From Helen Vendler's piece on university admissions in Harvard Magazine:

W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it doesn’t...

One feels Heidegger and Sartre have lived in vain. Why do we not say:

W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it does.

I think of Diogenes rolling his barrel on the parade ground, making "nothing happen" in preparation for war. Anyone can make something happen. (And they do...) Beauty is difficult.

[PS: Another example: "Music makes nothing happen, either...", where she could have said, "Music makes nothing happen, too."]

Monday, December 03, 2012

Positive Feedback Loops

Think clearly.
Write honestly.

Feel intensely.
Write decently.

See things accurately.
Believe them truly.

Do things precisely.
Desire them justly.


The idea here is simple. One who thinks clearly is able to write honestly and one who writes honestly is able to think clearly. Obscurity in thought fosters dishonesty in writing and dishonesty in writing fosters obscurity in thought. Mutatis mutandis for the three other loops.