Meditation In the Sauna

The puzzle of asymmetry,

of surface depth,

of depth surfacely touched.

 

Stones that heat the air that then

heats your body;

Or rays that heat your body

that then heats the air?

 

A course of thought

rolling smooth in one direction, but not quite capable

of boomeranging back to complete a circle.

 

I think I’ve gone on living expecting circularities

of this kind.

Regardless of the mundane and mounting examples

counter to.

 

In moments alone and with others,

awake, drowsy.

Cold.

 

I’ve always sought the return to warmth,

despite rising evidence of no such symmetries

of return.

 

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Your Will Spilleth Over

In the shifting consolation of my own paranoia–
pardon the adriftness, but stay.

In a turn of phrase, wrapped up in the same sheets
of metal coil, matted clay.

Oh, it’s words, but never just:
when tendons jump at lip formations,
globular base to overreaching lust,
pictorial animations.

Tell me I am that thing again (acerbic probes undo the versed humility).
Cradle the rusted memory on my golden arm (pity it in its imperishability).
All directions now known as many limits (that present the possibility).

Accumulations of Present

semblance of order in anyone’s head
or chaos, elsewhere, instead.
a rising weightless dust,
burdened by tiers of earthen trust.

change assimilated, the shifting
of visible something, of sensible lifting.

but through what bundle of troubled mass
does the wave of terror make its pass?
to quake the organs just enough
to force a motion, breathless laugh?

Overmuch Study

 

Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is among the most entertaining of reads, hardly a psychological manual but perhaps more intuitively insightful than any modern psychological manual (what I share below, for example, is echoed in contemporary lingo by a recent New Yorker article revealing that over 50% of graduate students, compared to only 10% of the general population, report feeling so depressed that they cannot function).

The Anatomy of Melancholy is a medical compilation of ‘psychological’ texts from the early 17th century. I take the book to be making the overall claim that melancholy is the human condition, offering explanations of different types of melancholy generated by life’s various preoccupations–money, love, work, family, school, etc. Overmuch study generates the brand of melancholy specific to scholars. Better than I could, the following comes close to describing the condition of a graduate student during finals week.

Let’s start with two reasons as to why students are plagued by the melancholy of overmuch study:

The one is, they live a sedentary, solitary life, sibi et Musis, free from bodily exercise and those ordinary disports which other men use; and many times if discontent and idleness concur with it, which is too frequent, they are precipitated into this gulf on a sudden. But the common cause is overmuch study; too much learning, as Festus told Paul, hath made thee mad.”

The second is contemplation, ‘which dries the brain and extinguisheth natural heat; for whilst the spirits arc intent to meditation above in the head, the stomach and liver are left destitute, and thence come black blood and crudities by defect of concoction, and for want of exercise the superfluous vapors cannot exhale,’ etc.”

That second point explains why I’m always cold. And this one gives a clue as to why my looks are going:

And something more they add, that hard students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradiopepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions, and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-colored, spend their fortunes, lose their wits and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies. If you will not believe the truth of this, look upon great Tostatus’ and Thomas Aquinas’ works, and tell me whether those men took pains?”

And my lack of physical agility:

Because they cannot ride an horse, which every clown can do, salute and court a gentlewoman, carve at table, cringe, and make conges, which every common swasher can do, hos populusridet, etc., they are laughed to scorn and accounted silly fools by our gallants. Yea, many times, such is their misery, they deserve it. A mere scholar, a mere ass. . . . Thus they go commonly meditating unto themselves, thus they sit, such is their action and gesture.”

 And a prediction of my conceivable future with a philosophy degree:

But our patrons of learning are so far nowadays from respecting the Muses and giving that honor to scholars or reward which they deserve…that after all their pains taken in the universities, cost and charge, expenses, irksome hours, laborious tasks, wearisome days, dangers, hazards (barred interim from all pleasures which other men have, mewed up like hawks all their lives), if they chance to wade through them, they shall in the end be rejected, contemned, and, which is their greatest misery, driven to their shifts, exposed to want, poverty, and beggary. . .”

And if the overmuch study hasn’t yet led to melancholy, “the conceit of this alone [is] enough to make [us] all melancholy.”

 

 

 

 

Et Tu, Schop?

Schopenhauer considers tragedy to be the highest form of poetic art because it captures the essence of human life better than any genre. He also has reverence for the tragic hero who, after much struggle, does what Schopenahuer’s prescription is to any individual, and that is to renounce the will. “In tragedy,” he writes, “we see that, after a long struggle and much suffering, the noblest people eventually renounce forever the goals they had, up to that point, pursued so intensely, as well as renouncing all the pleasures of life, or even willfully and joyfully giving them up.”

“By contrast,” he continues, “the demand for so-called poetic justice rests on a complete failure to recognize the essense of tragedy and in fact the essense of the world.”

At first blink, the part of me that is an advocate for social justice does not like to read this, and it may become clearer below as to why that is; the so-called poet in me cannot help but agree that it is the angst and the suffering of simple living, not the cozy biscuit-like moments of contentment, that scream to become poetic material.

The only thing essential to tragedy is the portrayal of a great misfortune, proclaims Schopenhauer, and the poet can accomplish this by organizing it in the three following categories: by portrayal of extraordinary evil (Iago in Othelo, for example), misfortune due to blind fate, i. e. chance and error (such as it occurs in Romeo and Juliet), and the third simply by people’s positioning to each other through their normal life relationships (Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; my example). In this third category of tragic portrayal, “morally ordinary characters in everyday circumstances are positioned with respect to each other in such a way that their situation forces them unknowingly and clear-sightedly to cause each other the greatest harm without the injustice falling on one side or the other.” This last type of tragedy is preferred by Schopenhauer because “it shows us the greatest misfortune not as exception, not as something brought about by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but rather as something that develops effortlessly and spontaneously out of people’s deeds and characters, almost as if it were essential, thereby bringing it terrifyingly close to us.”

The terrifying truth about the third kind of tragedy–the tragedy of merely existing with others–is a hard one to swallow for the ethicist, and brings into question the entire pursuit of systems of human rights. Or is it possible that it gives salience to such systems, that the social justice activist can very well understand the poet–maybe even be the poet–and from this fundamental understanding of suffering aim to reduce it as much as possible? If the source of most suffering is, indeed, not caused by great evils or rare circumstances, but arises from the quotidian relationships of average individuals, then these relationships should be the loci of justice, as what can be made better (and there seems to be much room for improvement).

Schopenhauer would not make this prescription, pessimist that he was, but it would also not be inconsistent with his philosophy to argue for systems of justice that address the suffering we are essentially pervious to due to ordinary life. He might consider it fruitless, though, if we were to take his point seriously that suffering seems to be not only pervasive, but essential (as in, ineradicable). Anyway, we won’t give the task to the poet–she can brood–but the social activist who will not resign, as the tragic hero will, can take the optimistic interest of eliminating, as much as possible, this standard hardship. Best of luck to her.

Don’t Try

Reading Schopenhauer—Hegel-hater, poodle-lover, inventor of pessimism—puts me in the best mood. Really. Here’s why: he has decided that suffering is all there is, and that suffering will never be eliminated. Of course, we don’t believe this right off. What about all the beauty and pleasure and enchantment that life has to offer? We wouldn’t experience such positive things if suffering was the only thing. We wouldn’t eat cupcakes, listen to music, make love, drink wine, read poetry, or fill-in-the-positive-blank if we didn’t find joy or derive pleasure from these things. This is true and Schopenhauer would not even challenge it. But if we were to really think hard about why we do any of these things, he would say, it is to escape the quiet suffering that we are all fundamentally subject to (and if we deny this to be the case, he would say we are deluded). We listen to music to fill a void or because it stimulates and arouses positive emotions, and we eat cupcakes because they’re sweet, pretty and easy sources of pleasure.

Schopenhauer claims that we seek pleasure blindly due to the striving of the will to live, which is the force governing all existence and that aims to preserve life and keep the species going. Our two most basic inclinations—consuming and copulating—are the strongest examples of the the will to live operating in us. Organic matter is constantly striving to consume and devour other organic or inorganic matter, to get the most that it can, to plant its DNA, to persist—it is always struggling to keep itself afloat. But why? Well, there is no reason, and that’s Schopenhauer’s breakthrough point—that the world is a fundamentally irrational place.

We are subject to ongoing internal discord, varied and opposing inclinations, as the vehicles that we are for the will’s aimless striving. And the will is dangerous because it deludes us into chasing pleasure and joy, thinking that we can in fact find these things and escape our suffering. In actuality, striving only leads to more suffering, and the more pleasure we seek the more suffering we set ourselves up for. What is the point of all the striving, then? There is no point. There is no answer. Except for to resign, to cheat the will and to not strive. If all there is is suffering, and no amount of striving can eliminate that, then the solution is to just not try.

If you are wondering why this puts me in a good mood, my inadequate answer would have to be that I spent the past week being a sleep-deprived, over-worked, striving graduate student (there was suffering, I tell you!) and am relishing the few free hours I have tonight to…write about Schopenhauer? I was going to write “to be lazy” and “to not try,” but I am instead writing about not trying. Give me a few years to get the hang of this resignation business.

Not Your Typical Intelligent Design

I am often enviously impressed by how much knowledge some people have of things I never even think to look into. I sometimes have no response to someone who makes evident their accumulation of facts on a given theme, such as movies (I have watched maybe fifty movies in my entire life?). I’m impressed by this because it puts my knowledge to the test, and it dreadfully reminds me that people are engaged and take pleasure in things that do not seem to feign my interest, for whatever reason. The time I spend doing yoga or translating neglected texts or drinking tea and looking out of the window is time these people spend catching up on the world’s happenings and participating in popular culture. And they are well-versed within a discourse that I have always considered myself to be in the margins of, and not necessarily against my will. So people who know facts and things and stuff impress me because these are facts and things and stuff that are absent from my field of existence.

What impresses me more, though, is how some rare individuals think: the manner in which they conceptualize any fact or situation, the directions their thoughts take that seem to hit right at the heart of whatever is under discussion, their ability to be witty and original, to draw out subtleties, to make accurate connections, to bring forth newness from the dogmatically over-explored sameness. In other words–Immanuel Kant’s words, to be exact–what impresses me most is an individual’s power of judgment.

According to Kant the power of judgment is part of the logic of truth as the way of arriving to principles. It is concerned with applying pure concepts to empirical objects, or moving from the abstract to the concrete. Using good judgment means knowing how to subsume concretes under general rules, and knowing when and how you are justified in doing so. It is a general way of behaving intelligently in the world. What makes the power of judgment authentic is that it cannot be measured or learned, only practiced. So unlike empirical facts or rules, which can be learned, the power of judgment is an innate faculty that is concerned with the application of rules: it displays a persons’a ability to take what is given and synthesize it, make out of it something original and draw accurate conclusions (if they are using it successfully). This, for Kant, is what intelligence is. Being “stupid” would therefore mean being incapable of applying the general to the concrete, or doing this application mechanically. So intelligence encompasses, for Kant, a particular mental ability (instead of knowledge of content, though we need content to be able to apply concepts) and a certain level of creative authenticity (generating truth in new ways by logically applying principles to your own unique particulars, so then this is where examples become necessary, but I won’t dwell on that).

This is an important realization, and not because it releases me from feeling stupid for not knowing a lot of “facts.” It is imperative for reasons such as questioning intelligence-measuring methods like standardly testing students or calculating IQs. It ultimately implies that if intelligence is the power of one’s judgment, it can’t be simply evaluated (though, granted, some standardized tests aim precisely to measure the effects of one’s power of judgment, but do so with data and facts the students don’t choose, and which many students do not have exposure to–and here I’m thinking of minority groups who statistically perform worse in such tests than their counterparts, and not because they’re “stupid”). Equating intelligence with the power of judgment, and saying as Kant does that it cannot be learned (only practiced) means that intelligence levels are innate and that some people are naturally sharper than others, and these can be people as varied as my doctor, my grandmother, my landlord, my professor, etc. Their positionally will inevitably affect what they apply their concepts to, but having good judgment for any one of them would mean that each is equipped with the general faculty of being able to apply principles to particulars, does this accurately, and practices this ability regardless of what the situation is.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so impressed by how many movies and events and whatnot a person talks about and more so with whether this person can make good judgments about the information she takes in. There’s another question to be asked: is it a good use of their judgment to take in the information they do, and is it a poor use of my judgment to abstain from watching a movie and do yoga instead? You can certainly call me out there, but remember that I never claimed to have good judgment.