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The ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function is not the test of intelligence, but the mark of maturity.

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In these years after the end of the Cold War, a time of the failure of old paradigms and systems of thought, perhaps hope lies less in the direction of grand theories than in the capacity to see, to look past old theories that may obscure understanding and even promise. To assume what the Buddhists call beginner’s mind. And to see what exists freshly and without prejudice clears the path for seeing what might exist in the future, or what is possible.

Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change. I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.

Because I am seized by the same despair as my contemporaries, for several days this story poses a question in my mind. Can the imagination save us?

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— Susan Griffin, “The Politics of Imagination”

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All these fragments.

1. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of the Sunday Five Things post, as this, and my last one will not be as poetic or anecdotal as mensahdemary's and smashfizzle's are, respectively. So, then, an excuse to say what’s on my mind, arbitrarily grouped into five headings. More to the point, it’s a device which forces me to write something even slightly substantive for whatever kind of audience, once a week.

2. Am I basically a vulgar person? Is everyone, interiorly, as vulgar as I am? Maybe I could be called earthy rather than vulgar. To be vulgar implies a lack of taste; I have taste. I probably have little else but taste, in fact. I went through a long period not using any kind of curse-word, but now I’ve arrived back at the other side. “Shit. Damn. Piss. Motherfuck.” being a kind of personal mantra at moments of distress, embarrassment, regret. But interiorly. I often think of coarse things I’d like to write or tweet, or say, and I hold myself back. Since I do, I must care what other people think of me. I’m always looking for and attempting to destroy any impulse in that direction, but earthiness is a point on which I get hung up. I continue to feel the tension there of not ever wanting to prevent myself from doing anything at the thought of other people’s opinions, and the rude facts of things I want to say being too rude. 

3. One of my oldest friends, from high school days in Alabama was in town. David. He was visiting as a stop on a long road trip and had his wife and newborn daughter with him. We went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to see an exhibition of David Lynch’s paintings and a few short films. I held the baby while we ate lunch, one of the first meals her parents have had together, uninterrupted, since her birth two months ago. I ate when the others were finished.

It’s a long time since I held an infant—my brother being eight years younger, I learned a lot through experience and asking my mother about things as he grew. When I held David’s daughter, I forgot and then remembered how when they butt their head against your chest it means they want to feed. It’s funny to think now how many times I wiped my brother’s ass, exclaimed over teaching him a new word, calmed him when he cried, warmed his bottle. The many kindnesses of an elder sister, which he doesn’t in the least know about now. And other kindnesses as he grew older: drying his tears when our father yelled at him, giving him Palahniuk novels and CDs of The Clash to heighten and encourage his teenage rebelliousness, helping him to find an internship. He’s 22 now and as silly as it seems, I remember at age 8 being scandalized, fascinated, and amused by his penis.

4. But we always are, anyway. Fascinated. I never had the ingenuity of so many other children to think of playing doctor. But there was Mateusz. Mateusz was the young grandson of the older couple who were my family’s cook and driver, Basia and Czeslaw, when we lived in Poland. Sometimes when they babysat my sister and I, Mateusz would come and stay as well, giving his parents a night off, too. This would have been when I was about 4 or 5. Any occasion he would stay, I would coyly contrive for him to have a bath with my sister and I. I was immensely curious as to how Mateusz might be anatomically different from myself. And just the once, when Basia ordered me and my sister to the tub—I can see clearly, the older couple in armchairs in our living room—I said, “Oh and Mateusz can have a bath with us.” Czeslaw, being a man, and being inclined to believe that tubbing three kids together gets the job done faster, assented, but Basia immediately cut in that this was out of the question. I saw a look pass between them, uninterpretable at that age, but so ingrained in my memory that I now make full sense of it. The look of a man saying, “Oh come on, it gets the bath for all of them done, what harm …” and the staunch and proper wife replying in her eyes, “Absolutely not!” 

5. I’ve been reading poems. I somewhere ran across a statement by an authority that love poems were the only kind of poetry worth anything. I can’t say that I disagree. Bracelet of bright hair about the bone. She moved in circles and those circles moved. When I am undone. Like a wet, red stain on the breast of a velvet gown. Yet still I love thee without art. All these fragments that reside here, in me. My interiors. 

And another quote, from a much less serious poet, that I came across this week: “There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.”

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Le dernier poème

J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi,
J’ai tellement marché, tellement parlé,
Tellement aimé ton ombre,
Qu’il ne me reste plus rien de toi,
Il me reste d’être l’ombre parmi les ombres
D’être cent fois plus ombre que l’ombre
D’être l’ombre qui viendra et reviendra
dans ta vie ensoleillée.

Robert Desnos, found in his pocket, at his death from typhus in Terezin, a week after liberation.

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The Great Figure

BY WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS


Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

    Charles Demuth painted this after Williams’ poem. Demuth has always been a favorite. I saw a painting at PAFA yesterday by a guy named Sheeler, and it reminded me of Demuth. Come to find out Sheeler was a self-defined "Precisionist," and Demuth is considered a part of that school/style/tradition. 

The Great Figure

BY WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
    Charles Demuth painted this after Williams’ poem. Demuth has always been a favorite. I saw a painting at PAFA yesterday by a guy named Sheeler, and it reminded me of Demuth. Come to find out Sheeler was a self-defined "Precisionist," and Demuth is considered a part of that school/style/tradition. 
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lileks:

You didn’t see me dip the sugar cube in anything. Did you. No. You didn’t. This is just between us. Meet me in my study later. We can talk. I have interests in some Brazilian wood combines, and I’m looking for a partner. No, no money required. Do we understand each other? I’m glad. 

lileks:

You didn’t see me dip the sugar cube in anything. Did you. No. You didn’t. This is just between us. Meet me in my study later. We can talk. I have interests in some Brazilian wood combines, and I’m looking for a partner. No, no money required. Do we understand each other? I’m glad. 

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One of life’s small pleasures: not organizing books by the color of their spines, which is moronic, but being able to retrieve a book in the chaos of my shelves based on memory of the spine’s color.

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Without horse, bridle or boots

One of my minor obsessions: the Alan Lomax Archive. It’s not a catalog particularly well set up for browsing, but a year or two ago I stumble onto this gem. It’s Scottish children from one of those far-off islands or peninsulas in Scotland like where Breaking the Waves is set, and they’re singing a Scots-Gaelic waulking song. Waulking is vigorously rubbing woven wool to soften the fabric. It’s hard work. You sing songs to keep the time. Waulking songs.

This song is called You Are My Beautiful Brown-Haired Maiden, and diligent googling allowed me to come up with the set of lyrics these children sing and translation. The Lomax Archive actually has a variant title, but you can hear what the children are singing is “chruinneag” not “nighean” an alternate song title for the same tune. Folk song lyrics change from town to town, generation to generation. 

So here’s the recording

And the words:

I iu o ra hiu o Gur tu mo chruinneag bhòidheach. I iu o ra hiu o

[You are my beautiful brown haired maiden]

Rachainn dh’ile an ghealaich leat  
Nan gealladh tu mo phòsadh.

[I would go to the moon with you/If you promised to marry me.]

I iu o ra hiu o Gur tu mo chruinneag bhòidheach. I iu o ra hiu o

Rachainn leat an ear ‘san iar 
Gun each, gun srian, gun bhotainn.

[I would go with you to east and west/Without horse, or bridle, or boots.]

I iu o ra hiu o Gur tu mo chruinneag bhòidheach. I iu o ra hiu o

Rachainn leat a dh’Uibhist
Far am buidhicheadh an t-eòrna.

[I would go to Uist/Where the barley ripens to yellow.]

I iu o ra hiu o Gur tu mo chruinneag bhòidheach. I iu o ra hiu o

Rachainn leat a dh’Èirinn                                                                                          Gu fèill nam ban òga.

[I would go to Ireland with you/To the fair of young women.]

I iu o ra hiu o Gur tu mo chruinneag bhòidheach. I iu o ra hiu o

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At the doctor. Sometimes think about stealing all the tongue depressors from those big glass candy jars they store them in. What a weird object that is, the tongue depressor. Would like to see someone write a cultural history of those.

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When I’m especially sleepless, as I was this past weekend, I sometimes try to remember all the words to ‘The Nightmare Song’ from Iolanthe. It’s a patter song, and I’ve always loved patter songs. Probably because I have a good memory and know quite a few of them and everyone needs a parlor trick. 

What’s great about this particular song is that it not only complains of insomnia in the first verses, but it’s about dreams, and includes a long account of one which is almost definitional to what dreaming and dream logic are, for me. I read a couple weeks ago what dream logic actually is.

It’s the problem of having a brain that is both asleep and awake; it can figure some things out, but must make logical leaps for other things. Say you dream of a dead person being alive. You have to make sense of this. You don’t explain it to yourself that you’re seeing a ghost. So you say to the person, “I thought you were dead,” and your brain has them reply, “Oh no, you’re mistaken, I’m alive.” And you accept that reality and dream on.

The Nightmare Song does this so well.

… You dream you are crossing the Channel, and tossing about in a steamer from Harwich –
Which is something between a large bathing machine and a very small second-class carriage –

And you’re giving a treat (penny ice and cold meat) to a party of friends and relations –
They’re a ravenous horde – and they all came on board at Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations.
And bound on that journey you find your attorney (who started that morning from Devon);
He’s a bit undersized, and you don’t feel surprised when he tells you he’s only eleven.

Well, you’re driving like mad with this singular lad (by the by, the ship’s now a four-wheeler),
And you’re playing round games, and he calls you bad names when you tell him that “ties pay the dealer”;
But this you can’t stand, so you throw up your hand, and you find you’re as cold as an icicle,
In your shirt and your socks (the black silk with gold clocks), crossing Salisbury Plain on a bicycle:

And he and the crew are on bicycles too – which they’ve somehow or other invested in –
And he’s telling the tars all the particulars of a company he’s interested in –
It’s a scheme of devices, to get at low prices all goods from cough mixtures to cables
(Which tickled the sailors), by treating retailers as though they were all vegetables –

You get a good spadesman to plant a small tradesman (first take off his boots with a boot-tree),
And his legs will take root, and his fingers will shoot, and they’ll blossom and bud like a fruit-tree –
From the greengrocer tree you get grapes and green pea, cauliflower, pineapple, and cranberries,
While the pastrycook plant cherry brandy will grant, apple puffs, and three corners, and Banburys –

The shares are a penny, and ever so many are taken by Rothschild and Baring,
And just as a few are allotted to you, you awake with a shudder despairing …

His dream increases in complexity as dreams do. Bits of this capture those logical leaps: how the ship turns into a carriage “by the by, the ship’s now a four-wheeler,” which turns into bicycles. “You don’t feel surprised when he tells you he’s eleven.” You dream your lawyer is tiny, and your brain makes him tell you he’s just a kid, and this information is not surprising.  And while it isn’t about dream logic, I also love the last verse, because waking up just as he’s about to get his satisfaction of a few shares in the tradesmen plant investment scheme is how so many dreams end. With what we want just out of reach. 

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But what do I know.

1. Reconnecting with any number of people at my college reunion has led to some pretty profound revelations for me, some that I probably need more time to think about before writing about here, but it’s Sunday, and I must needs write my Five Things.

[Ed. Once again, a shout out to smashfizzle and mensahdemary who both have turned me onto this practice, and they have posted for today, so please mosey over and read theirs. Mensah especially has some wonderful things to say about autumn as a time for love. And Love in general.]

While at this reunion, I attended a seminar on Plato’s Symposium, which is about Love. (I’m going to keep capitalizing or not capitalizing that word. Just go with it.) The crux of the discussion was whether Socrates has really fully experienced Love and the progression up a ladder (an image in the text that represents how we progress through Love to viewing Beauty and the Good), without himself engaging in erotic love. Socrates has kids with his wife, but he doesn’t have sex with the supplicants and young interrogators of his clique.

Love is an acquiring kind of activity, because desire is based on a lack or a need to keep what we like and already have. So one could say a continuing Love or relationship is fed, like a spring, by the desire to keep possession of the one we love. Also, that sex is the first rung of that ascension, and as one person put it, it’s a pretty shoddy ladder if it’s missing the first rung. Given that we see Socrates as immune to sexual desire though not immune to appreciating the company of sexually attractive young men, he’s not fully experiencing that ascension to contemplating Beauty. He has skipped a step. I argued that this step is not as base as the text or as Socrates makes it out. We (us, the students, people, in practice) don’t have sexual desire without that desire being also comprised of some desire for the object of desire’s soul, intellect, what you might call it.

The text sort of backs this assertion up. In Symposium, Alcibiades, who is attractive and young, wants to sleep with Socrates, who is physically unattractive and older, but brilliant. Alcibiades says when he looks at Socrates he can see these golden gods who reside in him. His Beauty. So by extension, even at the lowest rung of the ladder, even at what you might want to call lust, there’s no such thing as pure physical lust in Alcibiades. In this account in Symposium, and I think, in life, that is impossible. Lustful Love, or Love at the lowest rung, for Alcibiades stills derives from some perception of the object of desire beyond the mere outward appearances.

But what do I know. I guess people probably get their rocks off all the time without perceiving anything except the outward qualities of the desired. 

2. “But what do I know?” is the problem. Qualifying every opinion with “but what do I know,” “but I don’t know much about this,” “but I’m just talking out of my ass.”

I know, or I learned this weekend, that I’m not capable of saying anything nice about myself or defending my interests, or much good at accepting even positive factual statements about myself. This happened many times, with different people I spoke with, about different things. This is a problem I have to acknowledge.  My friend told me he thought I was better read than him. That I had a larger vocabulary. I flat out denied that those could be true. I contended that better read maybe in some areas only … except when I thought about it long enough, that’s precisely what it means to be better read. More is more.

I said many times, to many people who had specifically asked me what I was up to these days, that I was now conducting research and working on a book on X. And then I couldn’t stop qualifying that statement without a “Oh but I haven’t found a way to make it interesting to someone other than me.” Or “But it’s just not very interesting.” Finally, today I had lunch with a woman on the faculty who knew me well when I was a senior, and was glad to see me and wanted to talk at length about a number of issues on the educational experiences I had, and what I want to do with myself. We talked for several hours and by the end of it she told me I had lost confidence in myself. She isn’t the first person in my life to tell me that, but it struck home more hearing it from her. She asked me why I was so hard on myself. Why I didn’t just have the courage of my convictions that my interests are interesting because they are to me, and that as an intelligent person, I should pursue those interests with confidence?

I was reminded of a phrase I read in some novel from the ’50s, and then encountered again in an old movie: He’s not conceited; he’s convinced. I would like to be convinced.

3. I expected this weekend to be a walk down memory lane, and so actively worked against seeing the college and those years through a haze of nostalgia. In fact, I spent a couple conversations productively and constructively slagging the place. What I received was a series of conversations with former teachers and classmates who each reminded me, a reminder that was ultimately painful, of who I used to be. Or rather how I no longer embody the person all these people remembered. By the time my brother picked me up, I was in tears.

4. A classmate told me a story about the first seminar we ever had, on Homer. Early in the conversation he came out with an idea and after he finished talking, I replied (with an apparently characteristic vehemence he imitated, one I wasn’t aware I had) “Why do you say *that*?!” And he told me that he didn’t have an answer, or a good answer, and that right off the bat I had helped him learn that you don’t just open your trap or make a comment that doesn’t finish with a justification or at a minimum with a “but” + a question for everyone else. He thanked me. He had never forgotten this.

5. I can’t sleep this week. Whether the dislocation of travel, or a poor mattress where I stayed, or too many thoughts bubbling in my brain, or a side effect of my medication, I have had maybe 16 hours sleep in the last four days. One thing I spoke about with a lot of people this weekend was that since college, I’ve developed two chronic illnesses, and also mental health symptoms which are psychiatric consequences of these otherwise ostensively somatic diseases. Which is interesting because it looks at the mind and the body or the mindbody. I don’t know where the impulse to tell or almost confess this comes from, except that we all talked about the formative experiences, mostly professional or personal, jobs and marriage. Being sick has been formative for me, somehow. I was not particularly interested in sympathy or empathy, but understanding of that formative quality. I’m different now.