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)