Saturday, December 28, 2013

How to Answer the Question

"What happened was … somewhere along the line I realized that this question had to be addressed on the fundamental level of consciousness." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Truth, Beauty, Justice

The Pangrammaticon divides experience into two broad domains, the epistemic (or scientific) and the ethical (or political), separated and connected by imagination, which can perhaps be considered a domain in its own right, namely, the aesthetic (equally philosophical and poetical).

Philosophy cultivates the aesthetic of knowledge and is, in that sense, the "love of wisdom". Poetry, meanwhile, cultivates the aesthetic of power and is, to that end, the wisdom of love.

Perhaps there is a "pure art", a cultivation of imagination for its own sake, separate from any epistemic or ethical interest. This is the modernist fantasy. A science that just and only knows. A politics that just and only masters. A philosophy that just and only thinks. A poetry that just and only feels. And an "art for art's sake" that just and only imagines. It can't ever be this way of course. The hope, ultimately, is that these professions could spare us the trouble of knowing, mastering, thinking, feeling, and imagining. But each of us must do these things for them to happen. All these things.

Art recovers the beauty that remains between the truth and the justice we have accomplished. Another way to put it: art seeks happiness in the space between our honesty and our decency. That is why art is always being accused of indecency and dishonesty.

It's always hard times for an honest man. A decent one. Happiness lies in overcoming the difficulty. Beauty is difficult.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Path Dependency

It's the notion that "history matters". That the story of how you got here tells you (more exactly) where you are.

A man may feel he has arrived at a truth about the world in which he lives by way of a decade of critical thinking and self-doubt. He may now find, however, that he shares a belief with people who have held it with perfect self-assurance, as doctrine, for just as long.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Cramp

"Belief is a cramp, a paralysis, an atrophy of the mind in certain positions." (E.P.)

Something of a fundamental insight this morning.

Composure is the conquest of distraction. But what is distraction, really? It is what pulls us away from experience, the presence of things and people in our lives. How does this pulling-away work? Well, it draws us out of doubt and pain (which is part of life) and into moments of certainty and pleasure. That's why we let it happen.

But here's what occurred to me. Why do we come back to experience? Why do we compose ourselves? And why is this so difficult?

It is because we are drawn out of experience and into fixations on "truth" and "justice". We make a discovery and believe its truth. Or we make a decision and desire its justice. And these beliefs and desires can be so strong that we don't want to expose them to corrections by experience.

Truth and justice should always be thought of as temporary situations. But we let them hold on to us for too long. The meaning of a fact, its relative "truth", should always be determined in a corresponding act. And the passage from fact to act must always be experienced. But the meaning of an act, its relative "justice", is always determined in a corresponding act. Again, the passage is experienced.

We see that something is the case and we think, "Okay, what are we going to do about it?" Or we do something and must "see what happens".

But sometimes we experience a fact, a truth, and think there is nothing to do about it. Or we do "the only thing we could do" regardless of the consequences. We don't feed the fact or the act back through experience. We let it stand, as such.

This is how science and politics were born. They are distractions from the experience of truth and justice. They are fixations on one side or the other of the pangrammatical divide. Composure teaches us to return to experience.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Essence and Emergence

I think the answer to my riddle is emergence. Emergence is to essence as inspiration is to existence . . . as poetry is to philosophy.

In testing the analogy, I've been toying with a related matter. Is there a supplement for "accident"? In philosophy, we like to distinguish between the essential and "accidental" properties of things. At one point, I had the intuition that "accidence" is on the power (i.e., poetry) side of the pangrammatical divide. But I kept it on the knowledge (philosophy) side because accidents strike me as a property of things and facts, not people and acts. What then is to emergence, as accidence is to essence?

The answer, I think is transience. People are transient as things are accidental. These are important moments in the relationship between becoming and emergence, being and essence.

P.S. Surfaces are to emergence as appearances are to essence.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Inspiration and Existence

I may as well just face it head on. Sometimes I lose track of my analogies, which leads to the pangrammatical equivalent of a contradiction. In the last post, I explained that "essence" is to knowledge what "existence" is to power. But I have elsewhere suggested that existence (Dasein) is to philosophy what inspiration (duende) is to poetry. Since philosophy is to knowledge what poetry is to power, I have, I think, put "existence" on both sides of the pangrammatical divide. This is not good.

I think I will be resolving this problem in favor of keeping existence in the domain of philosophy, with, perhaps, the important qualification that this moves a lot of Heidegger's "existentialism" into the domain of poetry. This will leave us with an understanding only of the being of things, their facticity, not the being of people, which is always an activity, and therefore never actually being, but always (virtually!) becoming. There's reason to think Heidegger wouldn't mind. But I'm sure the philosopher's vanity is stung by being confined to the merely "extant". The point is that the subjective component of being, upon which all beings depend for their "existence", is not being at all, and Heidegger was perhaps right, therefore, to suggest that philosophers are consigned to gesturing at the creative force of becoming with the less impressive, if somewhat ominous, name of Nothing.

At the level of experience, like I said in my last post, I want to maintain the idea that standing (L. stare) is to knowledge what breathing (L. spire) is to power. Hold your breath and stare at something. Imagine. Then you might see what I mean.

So the problem now to be solved is: what is to power and poetry as essence is to knowledge and philosophy? What (in the domain of poetry) is to inspiration as existence is to essence (in the domain of philosophy)? Essence is to being as ___________ is to becoming.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Essence and Existence

"His true Penelope was Flaubert."

Thomas Presskorn raises an important point in his comment to my last post. I had cited Flaubert's "power is essentially stupid" and constructed its pangrammatical analogy as "knowledge is essentially cruel". But "essence" also has a supplement, namely, "existence". So, for example, when Russell says that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts", we supplement this, not by challenging this narrow specification of the essence of language, but by adding an existential "business", namely, to enjoin and denounce acts. This is what Thomas is reminding us of.

Charitably, he attributes the oversight to an imprecision in Flaubert's formula, not my analogy. It's a plausible excuse, since essence is to knowledge what existence is to power, and power could therefore be said not to have an essential nature at all, only its inexorably existential culture. But he might also have said that my sense of the supplement was off. Simply by carrying out the substitutions, I could have come up with "knowledge is existentially cruel", and this would actually be a better solution than to censure Flaubert (whose precision is presumably absolute!).

Consider: stupidity is also "essentially" on the knowledge side, not the power side, of the pangrammatical divide. And there is, in fact, nothing wrong with constructing statements across the divide (which is wholly, indeed purely, imaginary). The trick is to construct the supplement symmetrically. To recap, then, we'd have:

power is essentially stupid
knowledge is existentially cruel

The mistake was mine, not Flaubert's. One way to interpret all this is to say that when power pretends to have an essence it is being stupid. This happens when the tyrant invokes God as the source of his power, for example. But knowledge is cruel when it makes existential assumptions, which, perhaps, happens when the genius denies God as the aim of his knowing.

Like I say, pangrammatical analogies are only as true as their originals, and these in turn only ever as true as aphorism can be. We're just following out the consequences. I'd like to take this moment, also, to remind us that existence is to essence as inspiration is to extance. This is because power is to breathing what knowledge is to standing.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Stupidity and Cruelty

"Power is essentially stupid," said Flaubert. Before artists and intellectuals assent too heartily to this remark (which is of course as true as an aphorism can be) let me note its pangrammatical supplement: knowledge is essentially cruel.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Theory of Mind

There is a theory about gulls.
When they dance on the grass, their
footfalls patter like rain drops,
and the worms come out.*

On this basis, the art of worm
charming—the expert simulation
of precipitation—has been developed.
There are competitions. In England.

With elaborate apparati, the charmers
endeavor to conjure an image of rain.
The theory says it is a trick, of course.
But are the gulls illusionists?

Do the worms think it is raining? And what
do the clouds make of all this foolishness?

*There is another theory that is worth noting. The worms may not be attracted to the surface but driven from the ground by vibrations that really sound like an approaching mole. This should not make a difference to the line of argument this poem proposes. But somehow it does, at least intuitively. To run away from a sound seems immediately less "theoretical" than to be attracted to it.

The question, in any case, is simply: What "thought" is it reasonable to attribute to the gulls? Do they think even that worms will be attracted by their dancing (or do they have "no idea" why they tap their feet when they are hungry)? Is it like the so-called rain dances of so-called primitives? That is, do they think their gods will favor them if they dance earnestly enough? Or do they know that what they are doing sounds like rain, and that worms appear when it rains? (And, if the alternative theory is right, are they, like the worm charmers, wrong about this in theory, despite their demonstrable success in practice?) Do the gulls go so far as to think they are fooling the worms? Do they take pride in this victory over the stupidity of their prey?

A "psychology" is rooted in a theory of mind. What does our psychology of birds tell us about the psychology we use to understand ourselves? And does our corresponding, if implicit, psychology of worms constitute a reductio ad absurdum of psychology as such? Is a theory of mind always, finally, a belief in magic?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Correct Method

Wittgenstein famously said that philosophers cannot explain, only describe. There should be nothing "theoretical" about it. Already in the Tractatus, he said that "the correct method in philosophy" would be just to articulate propositions of natural science (without actually asserting them), though presumably an illuminating selection of them. As I understand him, he meant that a philosophical presentation consists of series of descriptions that together (in sequence) reveal the concept or concepts under investigation. The "investigation" itself is the process by which the descriptions are made and their proper arrangement is determined.

He put it very simply in his remarks on Frazer: "We can only describe and say, human life is like that."

Now, if we were to say something similar about poetry we would have to say that poetry only prescribes, and does not evaluate. It arranges synopses of propositions of cultural politics (without actually enjoining them). And this made me think of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo", which ends, "here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life."

Philosophy consists of a series of descriptions that finally implies "That's life."
Poetry consists of a series of prescriptions that finally implies "Change your life!"

Friday, November 08, 2013

On Religion

In answer to Presskorn's question, I'm probably something of a fundamentalist about religion. The Pangrammaticon divides experience into two broad domains, the Real and the Ideal, which are addressed by particular crafts. We use science and philosophy to grapple with the Real and politics and poetry to grapple with the Ideal. Science is the theory of the real, Heidegger tells us, for example; the Pangrammaticon then teaches us to derive from this that politics is the practice of the ideal. Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down; poetry is the art of writing emotions down.

All crafts are about developing our receptivity (to the real) and our capacity (for the ideal). Philosophy makes us more receptive, through thought, to concepts. Poetry makes us more capable, through feeling, of emotions. Science makes us more receptive to things, as objects. Politics makes us more capable of people, as subjects.

Or to put it another way. Science brings us knowledge of what is, but philosophy tells what can be known. Politics brings us power over who becomes, but poetry tells us who can be mastered. In the end, philosophy must "know" the "it" and poetry must "master" the "self", the scare-quotes indicating the principled impossibility of the task and the principled non-existence of its focus. Or to put in another way. Science tells us what we are seeing. Politics tells us who is doing it. Philosophy tells us what it is. Poetry tells us who we are.

What's this got to do with religion? Well, religion assumes authority over all those functions. Pangrammaticism is not a religion but a deconstruction of religious experience into the discrete moments that, in the absence of a properly functioning religious authority, must be composed at any given time, in any given place, in lived experience. Given a properly functioning religious authority, what I'm doing here is a complete waste of time.

(Cf. my notes on the novel.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dispassionately Irrational

I think this is the epithet of the ideal philosopher-poet. One seeks truth through the dispassionate contemplation of the thing. One seeks justice through the irrational enjoyment of people. Or something like that. The trick is not just to be irrational. Not just to be dispassionate. But to temper your irrationality with dispassion, or, which amounts to the same thing (though in a better sense than commonly assumed), to situate your passion within reason.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Best Critique of Anti-militarism Ever

(Cf. Laura Helmuth)

It is in the nature of luxuries to eventually be taken for granted, and some of the greatest underappreciated luxuries are wealth and modern warfare. Thanks to aggressive imperial expansion, almost no children in the developed world die of missiles or land mines. And because these weapons are now so rare, peace activists have the luxury of indulging in conspiracy theories. Many of us would have died already if it weren’t for routine military interventions; we are on our second or third lives. And because war is so much more distant than in the past, some people have a romanticized notion of our place in the community of nations. We used to be more in harmony with our neighbors, the thinking goes, and local communities naturally know how to govern themselves. I have a hard time following the logic—something about respect and kindness and understanding? It’s utter nonsense, of course—what’s natural is to be a target: a vector for deadly terrorists and enemy states.

Monday, August 12, 2013

C. W. Eckersberg, ca. 1815
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Martinus Rørbye, 1835
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Giorgio de Chirico, 1911-1912

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Location and Temperature

Poetry is to time what philosophy is to space. The philosopher locates a concept and clarifies it. The poet tempers an emotion and intensifies it.

Many poets, of course, are sometimes philosophers, sometimes without quite knowing it. Poems are never purely poetic. Mutatis mutandis for philosophers.

[Update: It's actually worth spelling out. Many philosophers are sometimes poets, often without quite mastering it. Philosophical "pieces" are never purely philosophical.

Also, it should be noted that poetry sometimes shades off into politics, always pseudo- or crypto-politics. Likewise, philosophy sometimes veers, always an error, into science.]

Monday, August 05, 2013


A sort of trivial thought hit me today, but worth thinking about a little more, maybe. George Orwell clearly worried publicly about what Tocqueville called "the destiny of mankind". He also, I think, had some hope. 1984 was meant as a piece of rhetoric, not prophecy. He was trying to motivate people to work for a better world. He was a progressive.

So here's the thought. What did progressives hope for in 1948? If we described to them the world in which we live, would they think it dystopian (a nightmare)? Utopian (a mere dream)? Or would they think it's sort of just about what you might hope for, back in 1948.

Of course, a lot would depend on where this progressive was living, I imagine. Much of Europe has been rebuilt and "progressed" in a perhaps impressive way since 1948. But the promise of American post-war prosperity has, just as probably, been a bit disappointing. (Norman Mailer's hopes and fears in 1948, when he had just published The Naked and Dead) might be a good indicator. He had much to say about post-9/11 America, not much of which was flattering.)

Reading Richard Rorty, this afternoon, on "liberal hope" got me thinking about this. He quotes a passage from Nabokov's The Gift, in which a utopia "without equality and without authorities" is (vainly, indifferently) imagined. On that standard, Tocqueville's analysis of American democracy, and his worries about the sort of despotism that "the principle of equality" would bring, precisely because there would still be authority, was dystopian from the start. That is, what Tocqueville was describing was not something that could be perverted in dystopian directions, but which was dystopian in its core assumptions.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Is This Why I've not Yet Written a Book?

"I trace among our contemporaries two contrary notions which are equally injurious. One set of men can perceive nothing in the principle of equality but the anarchical tendencies that it engenders; they dread their own free agency, they fear themselves. Other thinkers, less numerous but more enlightened, take a different view: beside that track which starts from the principle of equality to terminate in anarchy, they have at last discovered the road that seems to lead men to inevitable servitude. They shape their souls beforehand to this necessary condition; and, despairing of remaining free, they already do obeisance in their hearts to the master who is soon to appear. The former abandon freedom because they think it dangerous; the latter, because they hold it to be impossible.

If I had entertained the latter conviction, I should not have written this book, but I should have confined myself to deploring in secret the destiny of mankind." (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dante's Foundations

From Stephen Botterill's introduction to Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia:

" the aftermath of the disappointment of all his most cherished hopes for earthly success [ca. 1303], Dante underwent at this time an experience of profound and searching self-examination, which led him to try to rebuild the moral and intellectual structure of his personality from the foundations." (xiv)

I have two immediate reactions to this claim. The first is epistemological. How can we know such things? (Botterill explains that we know that he did a lot of reading at this time, and infers the rest "from later developments".) The second is wonderment at the idea of responding to a total failure in public life by rebuilding one's personality from the ground up.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


"Data" means "that which is given". In science we can distinguish the data from the objects of inquiry. The data are the means by which the objects are given to us. In Kantian terms, we can say that the data are known to us intuitively, immediately, while the objects are known to us only indirectly, mediately. Objects are always "theoretical", we might say.

The distinction between object and data, i.e., its immediate givenness in experience, which is philosophical (conceptual), not scientific, establishes a limit to our knowledge, a space for thought.

In politics, we can distinguish the subjects of governance from its "capta". The capta are the means by which we are "taken", immediately, as subjects, before we are empowered to act. (Compare the "a priori" that precedes our knowledge of facts.) Or, of course, before we are disempowered. (Compare: the data may be "given" and yet mislead, bringing only ignorance of the object.) Subjects are always entirely practical.

The extrication of the subject from its immediate captivity, its takenness with the "capta" of experience, which is poetical (emotional), not political, liberates us from power, empowers us, gives us time to feel. Sometimes, of course, we are able to feel only our captivity in this moment. Sometimes we are able to discern an avenue of escape.

A Preface to Composure

This is my body.
These are my hands, writing.
These are my eyes, reading.

The difficulty is keeping it together
amid distraction.
Overcoming the difficulty is composure.

This is my body.
I mean that literally.
This is literature.

Sunday, July 07, 2013


To know. To understand. To exist.

To master. To obey. To inspire.

Juxtaposed, the first two terms in each sequence give me pause. They suggest that understanding is to knowledge as obedience is to power (mastery). I've been aware of that analogy for some time, of course. But there is an everyday sense in which obedience completes mastery that I think we do well to dwell on a little in the case of understanding and knowledge.

Consider the simple case in which another's obedience completes my power. My power simply is the other's obedience; I would have no power without it. Can a similar case be imagined when it comes to knowledge? Well, yes, it will always be the case that our knowledge depends ultimately on our understanding.

But it's also a question of degrees. We rarely, perhaps never, reach the ultimate completion of knowledge (or power) in understanding (or obedience). The actual development of knowledge in experience is conditioned by the understanding I have of it as I go along. Similarly, we can imagine a power that is continually conditioned by the specific manner of our obedience. In one sense, the power is there, but it may gather or erode depending on how it is obeyed. And this "how" is, crucially, not "within the power" of the master.

The progression from knowledge to existence (through understanding) is properly called "enlightenment", and the ultimate condition is that of the sage, who is able to "just be", i.e., exist as such. There is an analogous progression from power to inspiration. We can call it "attunement" (to avoid a barbarism like "attentionment").

In the case of one's own self (which is the important case), the goal is to reach a perfect understanding of one's own knowledge, and thereby pass beyond the state of knowing itself. Analogously, we seek perfect obedience to our own power. Just as the enlightened individual merely exists—s/he just is, if you will—so does the attuned individual merely inspire—

s/he just becomes.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Basic Bouncing Ball

A few weeks ago I downloaded Chipmunk BASIC for my Mac. I haven't programmed anything for probably 25 years now, but I'm already able to do things I only dreamt of doing on my TRS-80 MC-10 when I was a kid. I'm enormously proud of this game (code below), for example. Not the most elegant coding, perhaps, but I'm getting back into the swing of it. The point of this experiment is to relearn enough programming skills to teach my kids something useful about how computers work (their experience is way too confined to the apps they've downloaded for their iPad). If there's anyone out there who is as nostalgic about BASIC as I am and wants to comment on or critique what I've done here, feel free. But please keep in mind that we're still in the very early stages of my own own self-re-education.

10 home
20 graphics 0
30 x = 200 : y = 400 : r = 20
35 tt = timer+60
40 vc = -20
42 pp = -10
45 ac = 1
46 gosub 500
50 graphics color 100,100,100
60 gosub 400
150 y = y+vc
155 vc = vc+ac
170 if y > 400 then vc = vc*-1 : vc = vc+7 : y = 399
175 if y < 0 then vc = vc*-1 : y = 1 180 if x < 0 then mv = mv*-1 : x = 1 190 if x > 600 then mv = mv*-1 : x = 599
205 x = x+mv
206 if mv > 0 then mv = mv-1
207 if mv < 0 then mv = mv+1 220 graphics color 100,0,0 230 gosub 400 240 t = timer 250 s = timer 260 if s-t < 0.05 then goto 250 275 k$ = inkey$ 277 if k$ <> "" then mm = mm+1
280 if k$ = "a" then mv = mv-20
290 if k$ = "l" then mv = mv+20
300 if k$ = " " and vc < 0 then vc = vc*-1 310 if k$ = " " and vc > 0 then vc = vc+10
320 if k$ = "x" then end
340 goto 50
390 end
400 for v = 1 to 360
410 a = x+r*cos(v*3.14/180)
420 b = y+r*sin(v*3.14/180)
425 moveto x,y
430 lineto a,b
435 if tx < a and a < tx+20 and ty < b and b < ty+20 then gosub 500

440 next v
450 return
500 graphics color 0,0,0
502 pp = pp+10-mm
503 ss = int(tt-timer)
504 if ss < 0 then goto 700

505 score$ = "You made "+str$(mm)+" moves. Your score is "+str$(pp)+". You have "+str$(ss)+" seconds left. "
506 moveto 180,500 : graphics text score$
507 mm = 0
509 graphics color 100,100,100
510 gosub 600
520 tx = rnd(480)+80
530 ty = rnd(300)+50
540 graphics color 0,0,100
550 gosub 600
560 return
600 for vv = 0 to 19
610 moveto tx,ty+vv
620 lineto tx+19,ty+vv
630 next vv
640 return
700 rem GAME OVER
701 ss = 0
703 graphics color 0,0,0
705 score$ = "You made "+str$(mm)+" moves. Your score is "+str$(pp)+". You have "+str$(ss)+" seconds left. "
706 moveto 180,500 : graphics text score$
710 moveto 300,200
715 graphics color 100,0,0
720 game$ = "GAME OVER!"
730 graphics text game$
740 moveto 220,240
750 game$ = "Press Space to Play Again. Press X to quit"
755 graphics color 0,0,0
760 graphics text game$
770 get k$
780 if k$ = " " then run
790 if k$ = "x" then end
800 goto 770

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Privacy and Secrecy, a poem

for Glenn Greenwald

Secrets are as people keep them.
Privacy is as it is respected.

The State does not respect your privacy.
(Nor do its subservient journalists.*)

It says, "If you want your privacy,
you'd better keep it like a secret."

And when its secrets are exposed it acts
like its privacy has been violated.

Decency is the difference between secrecy
and privacy. The State now has none.

*"Flies carrying news, harpies dripping with sh-t through the air,

The slough of unamiable liars,
bog of stupidities,
malevolent stupidities, and stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live maggots," (E.P. Canto 14)

That means you, NY Daily News.

Privacy and Secrecy

This is my statement of support for Glenn Greenwald, who is now apparently under personal attack for his journalism about how the state spies on and lies to its citizens.

"The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold," sings Leonard Cohen in "The Future" ("it is murder"), "and it's overturned the order of the soul."

What he might have meant is that the soul requires privacy. The modern "security state", like the police states of old, does not give the soul a place to exist (does not give existence a place to be, we might say), because it dissolves the distinction between public and private matters. We have long lived in a society where the State's interest in your private life is proportional to the efficacy of your public criticism of it. (I've written about how ridiculous this is before.)

"There'll be a breaking of the ancient Western code.
Your private life will suddenly explode," sings Cohen.

He was predicting what is happening to Glenn Greenwald, as well as Edward Snowden, of course. And he was no doubt informed by what Nixon tried to do to Daniel Ellsberg. But I'm not sure Ellsberg is completely right that state power "uses those tactics against anyone who dissents from or challenges it simply to distract from the revelations and personally smear the person with whatever they can find to make people uncomfortable with the disclosures." That too, no doubt. But the main thing is to show everyone else what happens when you criticize power in a way that actually has some bite. You better make sure your private affairs are in order. It is intended to discourage future whistle-blowing, not effect damage control.

And this is the deeply sinister force of such personal attacks. The intelligence apparatus (having co-opted a good portion of the media), which does now seem to be an entirely soulless machine, is unable to distinguish between privacy and secrecy. It makes no distinction between keeping things to yourself and having something to hide. Greenwald's legal issues in the past were none of your business yesterday and are none of your business now, no matter what he did. The journalistic impulse to find out "what he's hiding" is one that, as in all matters of basic decency, one has an obligation to restrain. His past is a private matter, not a shameful secret. There's a difference. Only those who have no sense of decency do not understand this.

Greenwald was not hiding anything from us, like the NSA was hiding Prism from us. He just lived with what should have been a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is sad (but of course demonstrably true) to read that he was "fully expecting those kinds of attacks since [he] began [his] work on these NSA leaks." Note what it implies. Greenwald knew, going in, that to expose state secrets is to give up your personal privacy. That's because the State thinks that its counterattack is just two people playing at the same game. It probably thinks there is only one game.

The journalists who are attacking Greenwald (and Snowden and Assange and Manning and...) personally are napalming what Rosmarie Waldrop called "the lawn of the excluded middle". I'll unpack that notion & metaphor in a follow up post.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Collateral Damage

" assumption is underpinning the US analysis: The belief that China copied and read whatever documents he had in Hong Kong."

Intelligence officials (and their attendant journalists), it seems, are trying to get us to understand the damage that Edward Snowden, perhaps unintentionally (i.e., "not wittingly"), did to U.S. national security. My first reaction is to point out that every time people try to use the fact that, say, drone strikes do a lot of "collateral damage" as an argument against the drone strikes themselves they are told to keep the bigger picture in mind.

My second reaction is this: if you're really worried that leaked information will fall into the wrong hands you should treat leakers with greater respect. That is, you should offer credible whistle-blower protections.

In the Snowden case, it seems pretty straightforward. If Snowden had felt he could safely leak information to show that the Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about what his agencies were up to, i.e., if anyone working within the intelligence apparatus could be given a reasonable expectation that leaking information that informs citizens about something that officials are trying to conceal from those citizens will not ruin their life, then they would not, when conscience forces them to speak out, seek the protection of foreign governments, who might, of course, have their own interest in the information the whistleblower has access to.

In fact, coming down hard on whistleblowers has the effect of forcing whistleblowers to steal not just the secrets they want to expose "on purpose", but additional secrets that might be used to bargain with possible protectors.

My third (and last, for now) reaction is this: all the motives that have so far been attributed to Snowden are pretty ordinary. At best, he is a man of conscience, at worst he's looking for fame and adventure. I don't think anyone has suggested he actually wants to hurt America or expects to make a lot of money off this. But even this would be pretty ordinary stuff, given a population of, what, 1.4 million Americans with security clearance. To blame (and even be very interested in) Snowden's motives is to miss the fact that an intelligence must maintain discipline in ranks that can be expected to have such motives.

So, for example, if you're going to lie to the American people about how you're spying on them, you are simply going to have to lie also to the rank-and-file intelligence officers that, "unwittingly", spy on them. Otherwise the very patriotic sentiments you are counting on to keep them motivated will ultimately drive them to betray you. To not get this is simply to be unable to lead a nation.

Monday, June 24, 2013

There Are No Philosophies

There are philosophers, of course. And there is philosophy. But, precisely because there are as many philosophies, if there are any, as there are philosophers (in their various moods, moreover), to speak of them as bodies of thought, separate from the thoughts of the bodies of the philosophers themselves, is simply to add a needless complication, and much unnecessary grief.

I dare say the same goes for poetry.

Schools and movements serve a temporary purpose that ultimately has nothing to do with the art. It is the individual artist struggling with the materials present in experience, seeking his or her own particular satisfaction, that produces a work of art. It does not become more or less artful by association with the works of others traveling under a common banner.

(I know, I know ... how this sounds. But there are times when one feels the need to say it anyway.)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Prevention

When we lock our doors we are engaging in what may be called "crime prevention". It is, of course, a perfectly acceptable precaution. So, too, when the city chooses to install lights along a dark path in a park that has seen an increase in nighttime aggravated assaults. But when the state begins to track the private communications of its citizens, looking for signs that they are contemplating a criminal act as a way of expressing their political frustration, then we are getting into something sinister.

New York and Washington should not have been vulnerable to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the current argument, that these targets were unprotected by adequate surveillance of the world's electronic communications, is not only nonsensical but deeply irresponsible. Surely we can imagine a plan to hijack planes that is developed entirely on paper and in face-to-face meetings? Surely, it was the responsibility of those who made enemies of Al-Qaeda to protect America against the reality of attack, not the idea of it, the act of violence, not the thought of it.

On Privacy

"How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech." (Søren Kierkegaard)

Perhaps we should reject also the false choice between freedom and privacy, but lately I've been imagining a renegotiation of the state-citizen relationship. I might prefer giving the state the power to imprison or execute me for the views I express in public so long as it promised not to listen to what I say in private.

This has a quite radical consequence. It should not be illegal (because it should be entirely undiscoverable by the state) to plan an act of political (or even personal) violence. Such planning should be considered part of my private process of thinking the requirements and consequences of my actions through before reaching a decision about whether or not to do it. It is always in principle possible to decide, after carefully planning a murder, that one will not, finally, go through with it. Sometimes thinking the technical details of the act through is the only way to clarify its moral dimension. Thus, even while planning, one is exercising one's conscience.

When a group of political malcontents sits down under a low lamp to plan a subversive act of violence, they are not yet committed to carrying it out. They are really just thinking their political position through to its logical conclusion. By criminalizing their private conversation (as "planning an act of terror," for example) we are criminalizing the social dimension of thought.

To only grant me the privacy to think within the confines of my own skull is, quite literally, Orwellian. ("Nothing was your own," in the nightmare of 1984, "except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.") I would much prefer to be constrained in my freedom to speak publicly, than in my freedom to speak openly to my friends about what I've "got a good mind" to do.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Nausea

"The crux of the whole book seems to be the illumination that comes to Roquentin when he discovers that his 'nausea' is the result of the pressure of an absurd and amorphous but very tangible world. ... One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists. But the task to make the world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre's powers." (Vladimir Nabokov, SO, p. 229-30.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

On Angst

"It lurks in old loves and old letters or in our despair at the complexity of modern life" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, 1944, p.43, my emphasis).

Sunday, June 16, 2013


"Another tendency which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely dangerous is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights of private persons." (Alexis de Tocqueville)

There was a time when it could almost be accepted that the police might, every now and then, listen to your phone conversations without a warrant while investigating a crime. At least, we said to ourselves, it will be inadmissible in court a court of law. Now, of course, the evidence will not be used against you in a court of law. It will determine your location in the "disposition matrix", according to which you will be held, or just killed, without trial.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Abundance Lost

The North American continent is able to produce everything its population needs in superabundance at the cost of very little labour on the part of that population.

It would be entirely possible for that population to pour the greater part of its energies into the improvement of living conditions and the direct enjoyment of the conditions that exist.

Instead, its governments devote themselves to the surveillance, management and "security" of that population. And its population is consequently engaged in activities distressingly few of which are directly enjoyable in the moment or empowering over the long the term.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Respite Everything

"It's not that I want to be watched, it's just that I don't mind it.”
Jennifer Ringley

I'm not just saying this because it sounds like the right thing to say. This really is a good time time to read the early work of Ben Lerner and Tony Tost. They saw this coming. They knew what sort of mood we'd be in and what sort of poetry we'd need to make light our hearts.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Universal Imbecility

"There is today a new reality; it is its first appearance in terrestrial life—the fact of political world-control. Today this may be said to be in existence, and tomorrow it will be still more of a fact. Neither can it be hidden—short of destroying everybody's sense of reality altogether. People could no doubt be persuaded that they did not see the sun and the moon: but the effort to assimilate this gigantic lie would destroy their brains altogether, and universal imbecility would ensue." (Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 367)

The Vast Lie

"It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Schools and Prisons

School is to knowledge as prison is to power.

Freedom is to power as limits are to knowledge.

A prison, really, provides the extreme limits within which to decide upon your freedom.

A school, ideally, provides the extreme freedom within which you can discover your own limits.

Learning and...

What is to power as learning is to knowledge?

A hint:

Wikipedia tells us that 'The word mathematics comes from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma), which, in the ancient Greek language, means "that which is learnt", "what one gets to know," hence also "study" and "science", and in modern Greek just "lesson." The word máthēma is derived from μανθάνω (manthano), while the modern Greek equivalent is μαθαίνω (mathaino), both of which mean "to learn."'

The Online Etymology Dictionary, meanwhile, tells us that the verb "to learn" comes from 'Old English leornian "to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about," from Proto-Germanic *liznojan (cf. Old Frisian lernia, Middle Dutch leeren, Dutch leren, Old High German lernen, German lernen "to learn," Gothic lais "I know"), with a base sense of "to follow or find the track," from PIE *leis- "track." Related to German Gleis "track," and to Old English læst "sole of the foot" (see last (n.)).'

What, then, is to power as mathematics is to knowledge? The answer here must be a word with a Greek root. And this Greek root must give us the analogy for "learn" that we're looking for, which in turn must derive from Old English.

The idea of "following or finding the track" might be useful.

Lessons are to knowledge as _________ are to power. (Remember that schools are to knowledge as prisons are to power, for example.)

Friday, May 31, 2013


When this sort of thing happens I feel like a guy who's found a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk. I used to be a lazy speller. Reading a tweet by Teju Cole that used the word "impoverished", a series of old misspellings occurred to me: empoverished, empowerished...and then it hit me. Somebody's got to coin "empowerished" as a concept in its own right. So I googled it, and it seems pretty clear that only ever appears as a misspelling of "impoverished". It's mine!

(Now I'm looking around to make sure there's no one around who's obviously just lost a hundred bucks out of their pocket.)

empowerish 1 empower at. 2 exhaust through incessant appeals to cultural entitlement of.

empowerishment the state of having been empowerished, i.e., of having been exhausted by someone else's insistence that one has or ought to have powers one does not have and will not likely ever have or does not want.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Literary Sage?

"When a situation gets so bad that no solution seems possible there is left only murder or suicide. Or both. These failing, one becomes a buffoon." (Henry Miller, Nexus, p. 36)

Over a number of posts this month (which I'm going to have to try to bring together in an essay of sorts) I've been trying to compare the mystical and the literary approach to "the encounter with nothingness". It is, of course, in precisely this encounter that existence is presented to us as a "problem". There are different ways of dealing with it.

Ramana Maharshi faced his fear of death in a single moment as a teenager and became a sage, perhaps the most sincere and most believable guru that ever lived. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, appears to have spent his whole life trying to find the requisite courage, becoming arguably the greatest writer that ever lived in the process. That's not just hyperbole, though it's that too, of course. In his person (not just his books) Hemingway was more specifically a writer than perhaps anyone else, before or since.

But neither man is finally exemplary, at least from practical point of view. Ramana lived for twenty-three years in a cave before emerging as the resident sage in an ashram that catered for his every (albeit admittedly humble) need. This way is not very likely open to us; the meaning of his life clearly depends on our admiration, on what we project onto him. Hemingway, meanwhile, dealt our admiration of him a great blow by, as Mailer put it, "depriving us of his head". His hypothesis is that Hemingway "set out to grow into Jake Barnes and locked himself for better and worse, for enormous fame and eventual destruction, into that character who embodied the spirit of an age" (PP, p. 91). He believed that mood was everything and that it depended on "the excellence of your gravity, courage, and diction, that is to say, your manners." (92)

You might say there was a certain discipline in that. Indeed, he shared one of the core ambitions of the Pangrammaticon. He wanted the encounter (in his case with nothingness) to be articulate. This decidedly literary ambition is not shared by the mystic.

I think Mailer was on to something in tying Hemingway's fate to this reliance on style (a mood supported by "the excellence of your manners") to face down the emptiness of the cosmos. "[His] dreams must have looked down the long vista of his future suicide. ... Hemingway's world was doomed to collapse so soon as the forces of the century pushed life into the technological tunnel; with Hemingway, mood could not survive the grinding gears, surrealist manners ... static" (92). (Note: as far as I can tell, Mailer is writing this without knowledge of the electroshock therapy that Hemingway underwent in the last year of his life. I think this aspect of the "technological tunnel" prevents quite so clear a "vista" on the connection between Hemingway's existential and literary projects.)

Miller, by contrast, "did not wish to be a character but a soul," Mailer suggests (PP, p. 91). When he met him in Edinburgh in 1962, he noted that his personality was "all of a piece", "no neurotic push-pull", "extraordinarliy gentle without being the least bit soft":

Then you wonder at the gulf which forever exists between an artist's personality and his work — here particularly the violent smashing, fuck-you gusto of Tropic of Cancer and the strong, benign, kindly mood of the man today — and decide that writing is also the purge of what is good and bad in yourself, and the writers who write sweet books, pastorales, idylls, and hymns to the human condition, end up snarling old beasts in their senility, whereas Henry, after years of saying out every black thought he had in his head (and some silver ones too), is now forced to defend himself against the allegation that he is angel or saint. (EE, p. 263)

Miller himself was not above invoking the Dhammapada: "If you give up both victory and defeat, you sleep at night without fear" (Nexus, p. 38) "He is a force," Mailer tells us, "a value, a literary sage" (PP, p. 89); "Miller may have had a message that gave more life than Hemingway." (93)

* * *

Update (14/02/14): The symbolism of Hemingway's suicide—that "he deprived of us his head"—has a been a running theme in these posts. So it's worth noting this reflection of Miller's in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Most of the young men of talent whom I have met in this country give one the impression of being somewhat demented. Why shouldn't they? They are living amidst spiritual gorillas, living with food and drink maniacs, success-mongers, gadget innovators, publicity hounds. God, if I were a young man today, if I were faced with a world such as we have created, I would blow my brains out.

Though not perhaps a young man when he finally did it, Mailer's argument is that more or less that these were Hemingway's reasons. It can be argued that Ramana Maharshi and Douglas Harding were reacting in a similar but, of course, more spiritually constructive, way.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Rebirth of Douglas Harding

"I think Ernest hated us by the end. He deprived us of his head." (Norman Mailer)

This post will be in somewhat poor taste, I'm afraid. On July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway killed himself by putting a shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. That same year, the London Buddhist Society published a book by Douglas Harding called On Having No Head. It opens as follows:

The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

Over a series of posts earlier this month, I've been trying to argue that literature and mysticism are attempts to deal with the same problem, call it "existence", by different means. One natural way to think of the problem of existence is in terms of our mortality, i.e., the inevitability of our death. And here I've been comparing specifically the life projects of Ernest Hemingway and Sri Ramana Maharshi, who, I've suggested, have said strikingly similar things about death, even as they faced that condition in radically different ways.

We might say that Harding and Hemingway likewise dealt with existence in very different ways. Before he discovered that he had no head, Harding had "for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?" Then he "suddenly stopped thinking":

Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head. (Extract at

Compare this to the "encounter with nothingness" that William Barrett drew attention to in Hemingway's "Clean Well-lighted Place":

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name... [etc.]

Harding's "rebirthday" occured in 1942, when he was thirty-three. "A Clean Well-lighted Place" was published in 1933, when Hemingway was about the same age. But while Harding understood intuitively already then that he had no head, Hemingway had only just begun a longer journey, towards a much more tragic interpretation of the same idea.*

Like I say, I'm aware that all this is in terribly bad taste when just stated baldly like this. But I do think there's an important point, even a shred of wisdom, in the juxtaposition. When I get my mind all the way around it, I'll write something more sensitive.

*Update 23.09.13: I just added a footnote to a previous post on this subject. In the note I criticize Mailer's reaction to Hemingway's death as an example of our desire to interpret it as the end of the "tragedy" of his life. For good order Orson Welles definitive dismissal of this in his 1974 an interview with Michael Parkinson should be noted here too: "He was a sick man ... He was was not well mentally ... In other words, the Hemingway we are talking about did not choose his death."

Friday, May 24, 2013


To see,
always with understanding,
and to do,
always in obedience.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hamletesque Analogy

Poetry isolates the
the pith*
and moment
of experience, i.e.
its emotion

[just as]

philosophy finds the
the candor*
and the place[mass] [frame]**
of experience, i.e.,
its concepts.

*Pith is to power as candor is to knowledge. This is because brightness is to knowledge as strength is to power. "Pith" derives etymologically from strength (to be "pithy" was to be "strong and vigorous"). "Candor" derives, like "candle", from the "Proto-Indo-European root *kand- to glow, to shine, to shoot out light".

**I want to keep the analogy between way and place, so something else had to serve as contrast here. I like the Latin roots of "mass", in massa: "kneaded dough, lump, that which adheres together like dough". And I like the way mass and moment suggest things like momentum and inertia, the susceptibility to change.
[Update 12/11/22: I've changed it again, from "mass" to "frame", which lets us imagine a structure to absorb an impulse, also it resonates nicely with "concpetual frame".


The tensile strength
of the string in the bow
limits the power available
to the arrow's impact.

The strength of the string
in the lyre, determines
the quality its sound.

The quality of the light
in the lantern depends upon
the brightness of the candle.

The knowledge available
in the pictured scene
depends on the luminosity of
of the filament in the bulb.

brightness is to knowledge
as strength is to power.

and the chains are so strong and so bindin'
in this circle of hell
that the heart of man is broken.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Wisdom is the stillness of the mind
in which things are what they are,

[just as]

love is the movement of the heart
through which people become themselves.

Pound's Moksha

"First must thou go the road to hell.
...sail after knowledge." (Canto 47)

In March of 1963, when Ezra Pound was 77 years old, the Italian magazine Epoca published an interview with him in which he described a "realization" that, were it not for the despair in his tone, an Eastern sage might interpret as a moment of enlightenment.

I have lived all my life believing that I knew something. And then a strange day came and I realised that I knew nothing, that I knew nothing at all. And so words have become empty of meaning. . . .

It is something I have come to through suffering. Yes, through an experience of suffering. . . .

I have come too late to a state of total uncertainty, where I am conscious only of doubt. . . .

I do not work any more. I do nothing. I fall into lethargy, and I contemplate. . . .

Everything that I touch, I spoil. I have blundered always. (Quoted in Heymann 1976, p. 276)

It would take only a very small gestalt shift to align this description with the experience of "moksha", in which the sage attains a free relation to social life by overcoming the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Sri Ramana Maharshi, who was six years older than Pound (but died already in 1950), reached this insight "spontaneously" at the age of 16, overcome by a fear of death that "drove [his] mind inwards". Peter Holleran puts it this way: "He was unable to do anything to avoid this fear, the fear of death, and he surrendered himself and passed through it to realize the deathless Self, prior to the ego-I." We might say he suffered in a single moment what Pound spent a lifetime coming to terms with. But it should be noted that in another sense that single moment lasted twenty-three years (when he lived in a cave).

After Mauberley (1920), Pound seems to have spent 25 years "in error", "wrong from the start". (See Kenner's, The Pound Era, p. 556). In May 1945, he entered a cage.

The realization that Pound almost seemed to have arrived at, but could never quite accept (although who knows how he felt at the end?), was that the knowledge he sought, the ideas he wanted to get in order "for his poem", was not possible. I have been at the edge of this realization for years now, too, never quite willing to give in, never quite able to let go (the muc of mukti?) of an understanding of the world that makes of it a kind of hell. The sociology of a society that lacks all justification (in so far as authority comes from right reason).

And yet, that society persists. I am complicit in it.

Already in 1948 in the Pisan Cantos, Pound knew what was in the way, namely, vanity. "Tear down thy vanity," he roared (though there is some question about whether he meant this to apply to himself). "Master thyself," he says, "then others shall thee bear." This I think is the essential point. There can be no knowledge of social relations, only an empowerment with respect to them. The goal is not self-knowledge but self-mastery. Or, to put it in terms of pangrammatical analogy, there can be no understanding of these matters only precision in our obedience to the socius.

I, too, obey. Whatever I may think. Which shows that my thoughts are errors. My "refusals" of "most things", as Williams put it, are imprecise.

I understand this. Or, I understand that I can't understand it—and must finally find a way to obey. But I share Pound's vanity. "Too late," Irving Layton has Whitman reply to Pound, "you learned humility and love." I indulge in the hope that it is not too late for me. I want to learn not just that I don't know what I thought I knew but that this knowledge was never possible, nor necessary.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Dimension of Stillness

I stumbled on Rob Braynton's work this morning. It's thought-provoking stuff. I was especially moved by his suggestion that "time" is not a dimension but a direction. The relevant dimension, he says, is duration. I like that basic idea because duration is much more like the experience of length, width, and breadth. Though I must say I've always thought those names for three dimensions to be a bit arbitrary, a bit "seen from nowhere".

Shouldn't we start with a central "here" and then construct the dimensions by way of a proximal "there". (Not quite sure how to do that. Haven't thought it through yet.)

Anyway, it of course reminded me of Ezra Pound's "fourth dimension" in Canto 49, i.e., "stillness".

My preference is not to think of "dimensions" at all but modalities.

In the center. As ever. The image.

Then, the stilled image,
and the moving image.

From there we can observe the modalities of perception, five in all.
And the modalities of action, five in all.

Pound proposed to map experience "in periplum", not from some privileged point.

I think stillness and motion provide good starting points. The basis of the "here" and the "now".

Perhaps dimensionality is a coordination of modalities. "Space" is the stillness through which I can move (a place). "Time" is the movement in which I remain still (a moment). The so-called "higher" dimensions are merely the experience of thought and feeling. If there are "possible worlds", we travel to them all the time in imagining what could have been. If there are "interdimensional beings" we communicate with them all the time, in imagination.

I don't like the idea of dimensions we have not yet experienced. As Braynton says (without quite getting the same point out of it that I do), we experience the "back" of objects all the time, we just do it after we've seen the "front" of them. Likewise, if there is a dimension of "probability", we don't need to build a machine to get there. We already have access to it; we're "in it" as much as we are in the dimension of length. I.e., we have length. We have thoughts. Maybe the fifth dimension just is thought.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Guilt, Debt and War

"Why should the poor be flattered?"

It's conventional wisdom that the national debt should be distributed equally among the national population. This also seems to be the opinion of those who run the U.S. National Debt Clock. Perhaps most striking is the calculation on the Times Square clock which tells you what "your family share" of the national debt is.

But shouldn't such a calculation be measured off against your share of the national dividend? What is THAT, you might ask? Well, if a nation can go into debt, and if that debt can be distributed through its population, then surely the nation can work its debt off, and the fruit of that labour, once the debt is payed off, can be distributed on the same principle. Right?

I.e, when your warmongering elite decides to squander your labor on a foreign adventure, it is investing [what would have been] your peace dividend in the pursuit, presumably, of some future profit. If they can saddle you with debt to that end, they can, presumably, also lavish you with the spoils of that war when it is won. Right?

Or if they are really only protecting your property with the war, it's not doing a lot of good if your already-mortgaged $100,000 home now also owes "your family share" of $115,000 more. Right? Surely at some point the same government will start paying your mortgage out of the spoils (keeping it simple, the oil revenue) of the same war effort. Right? If you're going to be footing the bill by sharing the debt, in other words, shouldn't you also have a share in the profit?

It's a bit too simple to think about this only in terms of war, I know. And it's a distasteful way to make money, I think most of us agree. The problem is that we don't feel quite as bad going into debt for it. That's how we allow ourselves to be exploited.

The truth, however, is that underwriting the war effort by accepting our moral share—say, $53,000—of the warring state's national debt is no better than earning $53,000 on the occupation of Iraq.

Fortunately, you're probably not as guilty as you think.

I've done a bit of math. First, keep in mind that the U.S. is nowhere near going bankrupt. Its national wealth is at around 50 trillion. The national debt is only around 17 trillion.

Much more importantly, the national debt should obviously be distributed according to wealth, which is a measure of how profits (i.e., the national dividend extracted by preferred means under capitalism) have been distributed over time. So the top 20% owes 85% of it. The bottom 60% owes only 4.2. On overage, the personal share of a member of the bottom 80% is not 53,000 dollars as the clock says, but around 10,000. If you're in the bottom 60% you'll owe on average under $4000.

But these averages are actually still deceptive because they lump far too much variation into big population segments. It's much easier to work out in your own case simply by figuring out your net worth.

Suppose you're an American who is worth 100,000 dollars (what you own minus what you owe). That's one 500 millionth of the nation's total wealth. Properly speaking, then, you owe 34,000* dollars (one 500 millionth of the debt). If you are a multibillionaire, by contrast, you're a bit more implicated in the nation's financial situation. Suppose you are worth 50 billion, or one 1000th of the nation's total wealth. I put it to you that you are responsible for 17 billion worth of the national debt.

The national debt clock is a backhanded attempt to flatter the poor by giving them responsibility for the state of the nation's finances. It's a guilt trip, pure and simple. Don't fall for it. If you own nothing, you owe no part of the national debt. If you are already personally in debt (say, because you hold a student loan), don't add "your family share" of the national debt to your sense of guilt. Just keep at it and pay off the debts that are actually yours.

Then, when your ship comes in, just remember that it also contains a fair share of the nation's debt, which is, remember, still easily covered by the nation's wealth. The rich are doing their job better than you think. They're protecting their assets.

We that no revenue have but our good spirits to feed and clothe us, on the other hand...

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Death of Ernest Hemingway

"Now sleeps he with that old whore death ... Do thee take this old whore death for thy lawful wedded wife?" (Ernest Hemingway, as used by Norman Mailer for the epigraph the first chapter of A Fire on the Moon, entitled "A Loss of Ego")

"Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies." (Sri Ramana Maharshi, recollecting the sensation when "the shock of the fear of death drove [his] mind inwards.")

On July 2, 1961, 38 years after he had gone to Pamplona for the first time to witness the "definite action" of "violent death", and 65 years after Ramana Maharshi overcame his fear of death "once and for all", Ernest Hemingway put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself. Norman Mailer was in Mexico:

He was sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver an the soul. Hemingway's suicide left him wedded to horror. It is possible that in the eight years since, he never had a day which was completely free of thoughts of death.

In fact, he was not ready to accept that it was suicide.* Officially (and to secure a Catholic funeral) the death was treated as an accident, and Mailer was willing to provide an account of how that might have been true. Writing in Esquire in December of 1962 (Pres. Papers, p. 104-5), he "wonder[ed] if the deed were not more like a reconnaissance from which he did not come back". His argument depended on the possibility that the act of putting the barrel in his mouth and pushing the trigger into the "no-man's-land" of the first quarter of an inch where the gun will not go off and then towards that "division of a millimeter" to "the point where gun can go off" was a kind of existential experiment.

Hemingway, Mailer speculated, could "move the trigger up to that point and yet not fire the gun", and doing so would allow him to "come close to death without dying". His duende, then, would no doubt be circling close by. This was the core of Mailer's hypothesis—that "morning after morning, Hemingway [went] downstairs secretly in the dawn", his soul and liver sick with drink and pills and electrotherapy, and by exploring what Heidegger called his "ownmost possibility", i.e., the possibility of his own death, he "felt the touch of health return ninety times" out of a hundred, "ninety respectable times when he dared to press the trigger far into the zone where the shot could go." Then, on July 2, 1961, Mailer proposed, Hemingway said to himself

Look, we can go in further. It's going to be tricky and we may not get out, but it will be good for us if go in just a little further, so we have to try, and now we will ... gung ho, a little more, let's go in a little gung ho more ho. No! Oh no! Goddamn it to Hell.

There will be some who say: Nice, but it still is suicide.

Not if it went down that way. When we do not wish to live, we execute ourselves. If we are ill and yet want to go on, we must put up the ante. If we lose, it does not mean we wished to die.

It is said that Swami Vivekandanda died while meditating. "According to his disciples, [he] attained mahasamadhi," "the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one's body at the time of enlightenment. ... [T]he yogi finally casts off their mortal frame and their karma is extinguished upon death... [The] duality of subject and object are resolved and the yogi becomes permanently established in the unity of full enlightenment." "Here come I, eternity," Mailer imagines Hemingway's final defiant cry. "I trust you no longer. You must try to find me now, eternity. I am in little pieces." UFO theories notwithstanding, Sri Ramana Maharshi, whose "absorption in the Self [had] continued unbroken" for almost six decades, appears to have passed into eternity by natural causes.

*Update 22.09.13: Mailer's reaction is, at least partly, I suspect, an example of our desire to interpret Hemingway's suicide as the end of the "tragedy" of his life. I think Orson Welles provides the definitive dismissal of this view already in 1974, in an interview with Michael Parkinson: "He was a sick man ... He was was not well mentally ... In other words, the Hemingway we are talking about did not choose his death."

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Danger, Difficulty, Death

Hemingway went to Pamplona in 1923 because, with no war going on, it was the only place he could observe violent death and he wanted his writing to proceed from such "simple things". In 1937 the situation was different. He could go to Spain now to observe death not in the bullring but in the field. "A writer's problem ... is always to write truly," he said, "and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it." For some reason, the truth was to be found in the vicinity of death. The "equipment for writing" had to be set up to "deal with" it.

You find a similar attitude about the importance of death in Lorca and Heidegger. "Death is Dasein's ownmost possibility," Heidegger explains (H. 263). "The Duende," says Lorca, "will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death."*

Hemingway described writing as difficult and, in wartime, dangerous. Echoing his 1937 remarks to the American Writers' Congress, he put it as follows in his 1958 Paris Review interview. The idea is to "[convey] experience to the reader so that after he or she has read something it will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened. This is very hard to do and I've worked at it very hard."

Part of the difficulty, of course, lies in discovering the truth, the "sequence of motion and fact", to convey. And this is where the danger comes in. "When a man goes to seek the truth in war," he said in 1937 (having just returned from Spain), "he may find death instead." During the 1958 interview, probably annoyed with the question—"What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?"—he said:

Let's say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Or perhaps, as he later almost suggests, it would be sufficient to get into an airplane accident:

Certainly it is valuable to a trained writer to crash in an aircraft which burns. He learns several important things very quickly. Whether they will be of use to him is conditioned by survival. Survival, with honor, that outmoded and all-important word, is as difficult as a ever and as all important to a writer.

I like this theme of training, difficulty, and survival. It goes back to that "equipment for writing" of his that was unable to "deal with" the "definite action" of death in the bullring. But it also bears comparison to Ramana's mukti, which was altogether non-violent, and lacked any recognizable danger. Still,

The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out stiff as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ or any other word could be uttered, ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burnt and reduced to ashes. But with the death of this body am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? It is silent and inert but I feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am Spirit transcending the body. The body dies but the Spirit that transcends it cannot be touched by death. This means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought-process.

Ramana "survived" a profound "experience" of death that "overtook" him. He learned a number of important things very quickly, we might say. Afterwards, it is said, he never feared death again.

*Perhaps in the twenties and thirties this seemed obvious. No serious writer, poet or philosopher, could deny the centrality of death. But why should this be so obvious? Arendt might have been onto something when she pushed back against Heidegger's insistence on our "ownmost" mortality with the simple observation that we were, just as certainly, once born too. Why should our future death be the basic fact of our existence? Why are we not, "proximally and for the most part", alive, not dying, having begun in birth, not heading towards our end in death?

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Where to Find It and How to Deal with It

Where does one go if one wants to study existence itself? Where does one look? What does one do there?

In July of 1896, when he was sixteen years old, Ramana Maharshi experienced a "sudden, violent fear of death", which occasioned what is normally considered his moment of enlightenment, a "sudden liberation". In July of 1923, Ernest Hemingway went to Pamplona to "study ... one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental", namely, "violent death" (Death in the Afternoon, p. 10).

"There was nothing in my state of health to account for it," Ramana explained, "and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt, ‘I am going to die,’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends. I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, then and there." Apparently, he succeeded. Afterwards, "‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centred on that ‘I’. From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on."

Hemingway tells a different story: "I went to Spain to see bullfights and to try to write about them for myself. I thought they would be simple and barbarous and cruel and that I would not like them, but that I would see certain definite action which would give me the feeling of life and death that I was working for. I found the definite action; but the bullfight was so far from simple and I liked it so much that it was much too complicated for my then equipment for writing to deal with and, aside from four very short sketches, I was not able to write anything about it for five years -- and I wish I would have waited ten." (p. 11)

I wonder if is too much of a stretch to suggest that the problem that Ramana felt he had to solve for himself "then and there" was the same problem that was "much too complicated" for Hemingway's "equipment for writing to deal with" in 1923. Certainly, it is one thing to experience one's own existence as something "very real", and another to write it down.

Existence, Existentialists and Existentialism

It took me a long time to realize that I was more interested in existence than existentialism or any particular existentialist. I was never able to get into the role of a Kierkegaard or Heidegger scholar, largely because I lacked the necessary discipline and curiosity to become knowledgeable about their lives and works.

This is much clearer in the case of my more recently discovered interest in the duende. It's clear that I will never be a Lorca scholar—it's way too late for that. Perhaps it's the difference between, to borrow Jonathan Mayhew's phrase, wanting to know what Lorca knew, and wanting to know what Lorca knew. That's probably not clear. Lorca seems to have understood something about the source of inspiration, something which is as important for a poet as the ground of existence is for a philosopher. That's what I want to know. I don't really care what was on Lorca's mind as such.

The scholar (a practitioner of a perfectly respectable occupation) does not seek the same insight as the poet or philosopher under study. I find that I do. I want to know what Kierkegaard and Heidegger knew, or just might have known, about existence. I don't want to know a whole bunch of things about them.

I am aware that this is a somewhat quaint affectation.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Science in Perspective (and Politics, Too)

We cannot limit our understanding of something to what is known about it. I sometimes get the sense that soi-disant rationalists and skeptics (of the Dawkins/Harris "new atheist" variety, for example) would want us to observe such a limit. If there's no "scientific evidence" for it, they'll say, we should not try to understand it. Sometimes I even think they would have us believe things we don't understand ("...this I know, for the science tells me so!")

(The political analogue: We cannot center our obedience in the power other people have over us.)

A Belated Answer to a Riddle

I don't know why I never followed up on this pangrammatical riddle: What is to hurt as light is to dark?

It's not as easy as I had thought, anyway. One might think it's "balm", but this gives pride of place to hurting. A balm is a "healing ointment" or, metaphorically, a "restorative agency". By contrast, light is not first and foremost an antidote to darkness, it does not just restore what darkness takes away. We run into the same problem with "heal", i.e., to ameliorate hurt, but here etymology gives us a clue. To heal is to "make whole".

So perhaps our answer is this: Whole is to hurt as light is to dark. The problem is that "whole" is already so dialectically (but not necessarily pangrammatically, I now think) wedded to "part". What about his: Weal is to hurt as light is to dark.

Another option is "wield", which evokes "strength". I'll think about it some more.

Monday, May 06, 2013

What We Have and What We Want

True science is the process by which we discover what we have. Just politics is the process by which decide what we want. Science, when it's done right, we might say, lets us see what we have, while politics, again when it's done right, lets us do what we want.

Neither is automatic. It's our struggle to know that brings what we have to presence, and it's our struggle for mastery that brings what we want to presence.

Sometimes we struggle against each other. We can't always all do what we want. We can't always all see what we have. In order for some of us to do what we want, others must do without. Likewise, for some of us to see what we have, others must remain in the dark.

[Update: as a reader has pointed out in the comments, that last paragraph is pretty "harsh". I don't really believe it. I think it is perfectly possible for everyone to do what they want and see what they have. In fact, it is entirely likely that they depend on each other. If we could all see what we have we'd all be able to do what we want. If we could all do what we wanted, we'd all be able to see what we have. That this is not how it is is a function of the imperfections of our political practices and scientific theories. Which violate and obscure our experience.]

Sunday, May 05, 2013

To Have and to Want Not

The pangrammatical analogue of doing what you want is seeing what you have. Sometimes one worries that it is the role of the State to keep people from doing what they want and seeing what they have. Thereafter "business" takes over. Managers get people to do things they don't want to do, while advertisers show them things they don't have.

Where did the presumption come from that it would be madness to let people do what they want? (The idea that if individuals did what they wanted the results would be undesirable for society.) And how does this relate to the practice of keeping people from seeing what they have?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Science and Scripture

(A "Devil's dictionary" entry of sorts, I guess.)

Secularization n. the process by which humanity deposes an external authority in matters of the spirit without achieving self-awareness once and for all, replacing instead the old authority with another "for a time" (to wit, the Latin root, saecularis). Most recently, God's law, as expressed in scripture, has been replaced with the laws of nature, as expressed by science. Thus, an incomplete understanding of the suffering of the soul has been replaced with an incomplete understanding of the workings of the brain. Our ignorance of our own damnable selves remains complete, of course.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Conformity Nient'altro

"The only reason this problem has not received the attention it deserves is because the scale of it is so enormous that ordinary people simply cannot see it. It's not just stealing by reaching a hand into your pocket and taking out money, but stealing in which banks can hit a few keystrokes and magically make whatever's in your pocket worth less. This is corruption at the molecular level of the economy, Space Age stealing – and it's only just coming into view." (Matt Taibbi)

"not of course that we advocate —
and yet petty larceny
in a regime based on grand larceny
might rank as conformity nient' altro" (Ezra Pound)

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Cleaner, Lighter Place

"You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music."

I read Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-lighted Place" for the first time after running into it in William Barrett's Irrational Man, where it is described as "a vision of Nothing that is perhaps as powerful as any in modern art". Here's a sample of Papa's vision:

What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was all nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who are in nada, nada be thy name... [etc.]

Barrett rightly says that this "encounter with Nothingness" defines modern art, and perhaps modern life. I, too, feel the pull of this urge towards something clean, something orderly. With nothing, Nothing, at the center.

It's interesting to note the similarity between this waiter who "lives in it", i.e., nothingness, with self-awareness, and the gurus of the East. Sectarian disputes to the side, it is in the discovery that there is finally nothing and that I am finally no one that moksha is achieved.

But I am committed to a different path, that of "immanence", in which the experience of nothingness, by way of which transcendence (it is said) can be achieved, is forever denied. (Perhaps I'm just not meditating hard enough, of course!) In my "metaphysics", there is no question of why there is something rather than nothing, only why not something else. In my "anthropology" there is no question of why I am someone rather than no one, only why not someone else.

That is, I am pulled towards the "nothing", but always find some-one there. I am pulled toward the "no one", and some thing blocks my way. I can escape existence but only by way of inspiration; I can cease to be only by becoming.

I don't believe it is nobler to suffer in the mind than to take up arms.

I think modern art forgot this. I think it assumed that there was nothing to do, only so much to see, and this seeing without doing (think of Hemingway's gang in Paris), ultimately produced that "vision of nothingness" that Barrett identified. Some of course accepted it, almost like sages, and found themselves a clean, well-lighted place, an orderly space around their emptiness. Others sought adventure (think now of Hemingway in Africa), nothing became anything, and they themselves became anyone.

We're still modern in that sense I suppose.

What is the pangrammatical supplement of cleanliness and light? Well, intensity is to poetry what clarity is to philosophy. Light is to the mind what tension is to the heart. [Note: shine and pulse, flicker and flutter, illumination and palpitation.]* Since time is to history what space is to the world, we need, not a place (in space), but a moment (in time), a now, not a here.

You want music now. Certainly you want music.

When you tighten the lyre's string, giving it tension, it becomes sharp. Sharpness is to poetry what cleanliness is to philosophy, let us say. A sharp, tense moment? How about this: a sharp, well-tempered instant? The duration of the "moment" is simply "tuned" into a "temper", leaving only its "edge", if you will.

It's the modernist fantasy of perceptions always enjoyed in good light in a clean space, and actions always cutting (cleanly, I suppose) with a sharp edge. It's all about precision. But it's all for naught, of course, for nothing and for no one.

The possibility I'm exploring, which is at once philosophical and poetic, is that the alternative to somethingness is not nothingness but always, for all practical purposes, someoneness. And vice versa. The mystic, the guru, achieves enlightenment by first seeking isolation, encountering nothing only when there's no one else around.
*Update: I originally promised to write another post on Beckett's "mess", but never really got there. Also, I'm no longer sure about the light/tension analogy. Adding the other pairs, I'm thinking light/rhythm might be better. The would mean that light is to seeing as rhythm is to doing.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fragments on Immanence

If the basic question of metaphysics is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" then the basic question of anthropology is "Why am I someone rather than no one?"

From the first question we can derive an ontological one: "What are all these things?" From the second we get an ethnographic one: "Who are all these people?"

In both cases, the answer to the first lies in the second. You are someone and not no one because of the culture of the people around you. There is something rather than nothing because of the nature of things.

There is the world of things and the history of peoples.

But the "nothing" and "no one" indicates a radical alternative to how things and people are, what and who they are: that they could be nothing and no one at all.

If the soul is "not" a thing, then it becomes something im-material. If animals are "not" people, they become anti-social.

There is no escape from the world of things except into the history of people. And vice versa. It is not possible that there could be nothing, nor no one.

There is no escape from existence except into inspiration. And vice versa.

We cannot transcend our existence. But we can be inspired.

This is immanence. Always partly learning what you are and who you should become.

Five Motives Revisited

"...the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time." (Lorca)

I just stumbled on Ramana Maharshi's method of "self-inquiry". Listening to Ram Dass's explanation of the method (which I found on You Tube), I was struck by what he calls "the five organs of motion". It reminded me of a question I asked (and tried to answer) last year. Are there five discrete motives just as there are five discrete senses?

Ramana appears* to have taught a method by which you gradually realize that you are not your body and not your mind either. You go through the "organs of perception" (the senses) and the organs of motion (what I call, perhaps a bit clumsily, "motives") one at a time. The senses are, of course, sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, and the relevant organs are, just as obviously, eyes, ears, tongue (sometimes this is "mouth"), nose, and skin.

Now, Ramana teaches that the organs of motion are the hands, feet, tongue (sometimes this is "throat"), sphincter and genitalia. My attempt to itemize the motives was speech, song, impulse (pushing/pulling), grasp (holding), and locomotion (moving around). I wasn't quite happy with it at the time (especially the idea of distinguishing song from speech at this level.) Ramana's organs give me another approach.

Feet: motion
Hands: grasp
(pushing can be understood as the combination of holding and moving)
Tongue: speech
Sphincter: waste
Genitals: sex

I like this way of analyzing the body. Remember that (in the Pangrammaticon) the senses are organized around the "mind", and the motives are organized around the "heart". Ramana's method moves on to the autonomic functions: "I am not the five internal organs: the organs of respiration, digestion, excretion, circulation, perspiration." It seems to me that before getting to the "thought" that must be denied at the end, one might say, "I am not this heart. I am not this mind." Or, perhaps that is precisely what I would deny.

I am not sure that I believe in the "I-I", the realization that I am nothing. I believe in a kind of samadhi that is perhaps worldless but nonetheless articulate. Parts joined together in a system.

*Appearances can be deceiving. It seems Dass was merely propagating a standard misconception about Ramana's method. (This is what happens when you try to glean an understanding of spirituality from the internet!). Apparently (!) what I'm talking about here is the "neti neti" method of self-inquiry, which Ramana rejected.

[Update: but much of it can be found in his Who Am I?:

'Who am I?' The physical body, composed of the seven dhatus, is not 'I'. The five sense organs… and the five types of perception known through the senses… are not 'I'. The five parts of the body which act… and their functions… are not 'I'. The five vital airs such as prana, which perform the five vital functions such as respiration, are not 'I'. Even the mind that thinks is not 'I'. In the state of deep sleep vishaya vasanas remain. Devoid of sensory knowledge and activity, even this [state] is not 'I'. After negating all of the above as 'not I, not I', the knowledge that alone remains is itself 'I'. The nature of knowledge is sat-chit-ananda [being-consciousness-bliss].

[Note: "The five parts of the body that act are the mouth, the legs, the hands, the anus, and the genitals and their functions are speaking, walking, giving, excreting and enjoying."]]