Idonea

I sample through a spread of jam jars on your table, because—it seems—I can’t sit so,
not even in the full cushioned surroundings of where you normally dwell,
not while you aren’t there,
not while it’s empty.

I’m at the brink of a leave and that’s why—perhaps—I’m allowing myself
the full relish of domestic sweetness, without reservation,
to carry over its peculiar comforts when I’m aloft,
in celestial sway.

Your voice remains constant through time: I hear it more distinctly in your letters now.
My voice: points of brilliance, points of intricacy, fallen into slackness and strain.

Couched in a drawer are more envelopes than I remember receiving,
but less revealed therein than you remember revealing.

Advertisements

Your Allegiances Lie

Settled on the wrong surface
Pulsating base, spiraling middle,
Where to rest?

To stop you with a contortion of face
With eyelids thinner, lower, more diaphanous.
A trace of capillary, twitching, asymmetrically weary.

Drift back and close up all the beginnings.
Against my interest in you, against.

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.

Just Listen

Today we discussed Iris Young’s “Five Faces of Oppression” in my Theories of Justice class. It’s groundbreaking work for many reasons, I think, primarily because it does such an expert job of systematizing the different facets of oppression while also revealing the complexity and intersectionality of identity. There’s a PDF of it online, if you are inclined to read it. I’m posting here not so much to sell you the essay, though, as to share a song by Built to Spill, titled “Out of Site”:

I have listened to this song for years and have always reacted to it with more emotional expenditure than is brave to admit, but it came up on shuffle today after my class and it was suddenly loaded with new intellectual connotations and social insights. My mind connected it directly with Young’s assertions about structural oppression. I’ll share both the article and the song here, to hopefully conjure a similar reaction in you:

Young: http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/young.pdf

B2S: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFFegMYbLRo

Dick Diver’s Vague Oppression

At the end of Chapter 4 of Book 2 of Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald packs into two paragraphs what seems to be the same eventuality that awaits two young psychologists of different outlooks and goals, Dick Diver (one of the main characters in the novel) and his friend/colleague Franz Gregorovius. Dick is having dinner with Franz, Franz’s wife and Franz’s dog, overlooking the horizon in Zurich. He sees Franz and in him sees the dullness of a learned man, the boundaries that his profession has put on his person, his life deliberately cut down “to the scale of an inherited suit,” as Fitzgerald puts it. Dick lies in bed and fears that this is what it means to be what he is becoming: to be like Franz and his wife, secure in an asceticism that “lacks grace and adventure.” Fitzgerald writes:

“‘God, am I like the rest after all?’–so [Dick] used to think staring awake at night–‘Am I like the rest?’ This was poor material for a socialist but good material for those who do much of the world’s rarest work. The truth was that for some months he had been going through that partitioning of the things of youth wherein it is decided whether or not to die for what one no longer believes. In the dead white hours in Zurich staring into a stranger’s pantry across the upshine of a streetlamp, he used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved, too, if he could fit it in.” End of chapter.

And so begins, I think (and will find out as I continue reading), Dick’s journey toward a life not his own.

Re-Reading Nadja

Days have been rejecting the meanings I have been trying to give them, and have been instead giving me their own.

I have been somewhat unreceptive, trying to choke schoolwork on top of schoolwork down their throats.

Two nights ago, they refused to swallow that stew.

Nightly, my vision floats over my books, a way of recognizing their presence, equally there, available if I need them. I rarely pick one out to actually read, unless it’s for school. But thin little Nadja, all the way on the bottom shelf with my stationary, stood out one night. I picked it up—remembered having read it four years ago in Paris. Having forgotten a lot of the details of the book, I remembered having changed as a person after reading it; I had forgotten why it had changed me because I had forgotten these details—and it was the details, not the totality of the work, that had changed me. I set it on my desk, to read later, with a strange understanding that I needed to read it again, soon, though unable to formulate why.

So, two nights ago, when the night would not swallow the school stew, I sat on a newly-furnished nook in my room and ingested Nadja from cover to cover. This is no great accomplishment: it’s a short book, 1/4 of it photos, and 1/3 of the prose background-setting.

I don’t want to bore you with too much information that you can just Wikipedia on your own, but just to contextualize Nadja: it was written by surrealist Andre Breton, and published in France in 1928. The work is the epitome of surrealist fiction, which some living humans cannot tolerate, but which some other humans live for.

Surrealist writing can be off-putting because it’s not very concerned with making sense, or telling you things you want to read in ways that you are comfortable assimilating. It can seem pretentious, or nonsensical, or just a waste of time to the contemporary appointment-keeping busy-bee. But to some (maybe to me) it’s a kind of diaphanous, beguiling poetic philosophy. Surrealist writing does not aim to needlessly manipulate words, but to free their use as much as possible, in ways that are authentic and progressive. By progressive I mean that it pushes the limits of language, as commonly used, to preserve its original purpose and help achieve its primary goals: communication, understanding, meaning. And all this without a rigid plan to find “truth.”

The surrealists developed a writing method called “automatic writing,” which exemplifies the contradiction of gaining the truest insight from the most nonsensical (and in this sense, stream-of-consciousness) musings. They were very fascinated with Freud and the developments of psychology at the time, claiming that automatic writing was a way of tapping into the subconscious. As far as I know, Freud wasn’t very taken by the surrealists, let alone give them any credibility in the field of psychology. But that’s besides the point: Nadja is certainly not meant to serve as therapy (quite the contrary, actually). It is supposed to be, as I think all surrealist writing is, a potentially unsettling experience. Don’t try to get anything out of it except for what it leaves you with. As a matter of fact, because it does not matter, I will not even give you the plot. What matters to me is the fact that I read this book now, and the details. The details matter.

The details I speak of are the perfectly lucid truths that are speckled throughout the work, the bulk of which is a basement of ponderings. The experience of reading Nadja can be like stumbling around blindfolded, and then hitting your knee upon something that is it! You aren’t looking for “it”s, you’re just trying to see, but you find the “it”s and, blindfolded, realize you can only find them as you are there, blindfolded. You become aware that the “it”s are not to be found in your old reliable ways: they wouldn’t strike you the same way if you could see and were looking for them. You would perhaps dodge them if you could see, walking where the path is clear and the exit in view.

I shouldn’t be plucking out the “it”s from the work as I am about to do, but they’re mine now and, at the risk of sloganizing Breton, maybe I can vaguely frame the “plot” through three poetic passages:

  1. “But that is the way of the world, isn’t it, the outer world, that is—a matter of sleep-walking. That is the kind of weather it is, I wouldn’t put a dog out in weather like this.”
  2. “I have seen her fern-colored eyes open mornings on a world where the beating of hope’s great wings is scarcely distinct from the other sounds which are those of terror and, upon such a world, I had as yet seen eyes do nothing but close.”
  3. “It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.” (This is the best one, and it’s in a footnote).