Digging for Stars

I recently read through a series of posts on the NYC 1970's music scene, written by an author who has just passed away. One of the luminous tangents of the series deals with the question of why some dedicated musicians become stars and others do not. The series also takes as its refrain the concept of parallel lives in the Euclidean sense of parallel lines (from Debby Harry's album Parallel Lines): that which is parallel never meets; lives that are parallel never intersect (might we also invoke Plutarch at this point? But we cannot; here, we are speaking in Baudelairian correspondences of subjectivities and not universals). In this universe, these parallel lines seek visible constellations, not all of them constellating one. The claim is made that lesser-known artists create the backdrop or scene that makes it possible for others to shine.
The writer of the series in one digression suggests that Freud is one to be read as fiction, so in this way (and I went back to some Freud last week) Freud is a constellation that may be dug up just as Freud posits to Rat Man that Pompeii is to be dug up (although Pompeii had been preserved before it had been dug up, his argument, in response to his patient's misgivings, posits that it is better to be discovered than preserved). It is a fascinating passage, one can imagine Freud surrounded by this aesthetic plunder. He presents a star of dichotomy: preservation vs. discovery. An artist bringing the inner life to the fore.
The internal constellation is described by Marcus Aurelius in his first chapter in terms of how it becomes manifest through others' actions (who, for example, "could either enjoy or leave things which most find themselves too weak to abstain from, and too self-indulgent to enjoy"; have "an eye to the actual need, rather than to ... popularity"; possess "disinterestedness of purpose"); implied through his thanks for such examples is that he has internalised these lessons of self.
Parallels in that universe can be measured in terms of models. Today, there is less of a tendency to think in terms of models than "correspondences" of "colours" (to cite Baudelaire and Rimbaud). Like what Guy Davenport wrote about art, except it has to do with words: the modern is primitive. An archaeology of knowledge that also sources the unintelligible. We are permitted to write in symbols, like <<< or >. I learned from the music posts that rock and roll was initially about the energy of the end to segregation. Only the form of the star remains, we have no eyes for what is behind it.




I once learned from an appraiser, also departed, that just because an item is antique does not mean it is, which is to say was, not trash. A series of fine lines, visible through knowledge and insight, informs where things that look the same are actually different. For example, John O'Donohue suggests that biography is not the same as identity, which might be quite liberating particularly for architects of the cult of self seeking stardom.
In a NYT article by Oliver Sacks that has parallels with Aurelius' To Himself, Sacks departs from that similarity to become similar to the song of self of this age by appendaging a eulogy for his own generation, writing that its members will leave empty spaces behind them that cannot be filled. Philip Larkin also wrote of the "new absence" in the first day after a death - but he was not talking about his own. Perhaps those moments when one is less concerned with digging up one's inner Pompeii one thereby truly possesses it, finding an identity behind biography, wherein "each task [is performed] as though it were [one's] last, free from all waywardness, from passions averse to the dictates of reason, from insincerity, self-love, and discontent with destiny" as Aurelius wrote.
Larkin's poem indicates a star people might really be wanting to dig for. The empty space emerges because something was loved that is no longer there. While each life may be separate, that is what Sacks writes, one life can learn from another, which saves the trouble of some personal exhumation. There are other lines that may be grasped. To emulate selected aesthetics of the dead circumvents the necessity of the ugly spectacle we all know is there, attempting to garner our attention but wandering eyes are fated to be chastised: "There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!" (439e-440). Aurelius suggests that questions be asked of that which makes impressions on us: "of what is it compounded? how long has it to last? on what virtue does it make demand? gentleness, courage, truth, good faith, simplicity, self-help, or what?" What, indeed, lines and stars.



Magazine in background: Mairie Claire Idees. Brush: ~PStoGIMP at deviantART.

Marble on Wood

John O'Donohue speaks of, "secret unattached places" beyond "'he does this, she says that'" where there is a "being together beyond professional banter". If it is so hard to get along, perhaps this place can be tendered through humour, because the whole point of this otherness is that it can only be offered and certainly not pushed, because (to interpret O'Donohue) fixed energy quickly becomes bland, "the bland intrusion of a thing which is fascist". Marble on wood: it's cool on warm, shiny on absorbent, a trick I learned from food meant for the imagination as much as for the blood stream (commentary on the phenomenon here deferred).This, in effect, is humour, a phenomenon upon which Edward de Bono is fascinatingly in agreement with Sufism. He writes (Mechanism of the Mind) that stories establish patterns of thought but that jokes, i.e. laughter, allow for new connections to be made in the brain, by taking a different route than normal. He also notes about jokes (I Am Right You Are Wrong) that while they rely on an established story to disrupt, once they have become as familiar as the story, they cease to be funny (I would add, unless the delivery is immaculate). What I am interested in here is in breaking a pattern - without just running away (patterns have a funny way of following a person, anyway).



There are a few lines I am not sure that I understand in Hamlet: "Tis danger when the baser nature comes Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposite". I have removed these lines from context, contemplating images of what they might mean (please do comment/send an email - above left if you might enlighten me). Without wanting to sound trite, I think that part of my job in life is to try to find metaphors to link disparate themes, uncouth clashing. And I suppose that the easiest way to do this is to abstract out, in the same way that many bridges rise up towards the sky: there is an incline. The Hamlet quote implies that other connections can be made that are not so noble, where 'opposite', instead of being seen as an invitation to the imagination, or to humour, is seen as a route to clash. Here I see Athena rise up: only warring when she really must. Otherwise, she uses wisdom. And I am beginning to surprise myself by thinking that an important dimension to wisdom (which I always imagined as curmudgeonly) is humour.
Because wisdom is not a popular attribute among contemporary thinkers, I will cite two thinkers from the past on this subject: John Chrysostom and Rumi. The former was known for "peppering" his sermons with humour, which does not mean that he thought it should be used unreservedly. He notes in Homily XV, On the Priesthood, that "laughter often gives birth to foul discourse" and that humour as "those things that are indifferent" can, if unchecked, lead to trouble, just like luxury, if immoderate, leads to all kinds of extremes. But as one not promoting extremities but Aristotle's golden mean, he sees a place for humour, and used it himself. In Homily XV, Hebrews ix, he writes, "There is no harm in laughter; the harm is when it is beyond measure, and out of season. ... Laughter has been implanted in our soul, that the soul may sometimes be refreshed, not that it may quite be relaxed."
This latter distinction is not something I have experience to write about; rather, I am interested in the point made about refreshment. Release from old patterns, making space for something new: creativity.




As for Rumi, his role in this discussion is made clear by the title of a book by Idries Shah, Special Illumination: The Sufi use of humour (wikipedia). In this book, which I read as far as the Google program would let me, Shah cites Plato, from Laws VII, where the Athenian says, "serious things cannot be understood without laughable things, nor opposites at all without opposites" (I am reminded of the Hamlet lines). Here, Shah speaks of the "humourless bully", which perhaps describes one's worst workplace nightmare, though, surely, few people are consistent extremes.
An example of one joke in Shah's book is as follows: "An oil-drilling millionaire went to a dentist who said, 'Which tooth do you want me to deal with?' 'Oh,' said the tycoon, 'drill away anywhere, I feel lucky today!'" This, Shah explains, is called putting the situation in another context (and corresponds with the definition of humour by de Bono at the incipit of this post).
What I found in Shah that I did not find elsewhere was the point that some people, who invest too much "capital" in their "exercises" fail to see humour in jokes like the one above. But people are seeking out food like marble on wood...
Tasteful humour ostensibly provides relief and is at the very least a personal offering for another route to be taken.


Brush: Ewansim at DeviantART.

What Picture

One is not allowed to be a curmudgeon; life says to such an one, you are looking in all the wrong places. So it is that colour returns to life like to a face after initially blanching, there comes a blush. Though not that on a face in a little party dress but of one balking at the many inoculations one gets to this earthly life, perhaps one turned pale at the idea of drinking snake's blood, but then turned red again understanding that it was the only way to participate in that moment that was ultimately a gesture of good will made towards one's health.
 "If you suppose that only to be your own which is your own ... you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. ... say to every harsh appearance: 'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.'"
It is funny to read Epictetus after papers on "learner autonomy" (wherein students are to take responsibility for their "learning experience"). It is funny because the essence of those early philosophical schools acknowledged this responsibility, hence the popularity of the maxims that were to help students remember and apply the philosophical tenets.
Learner autonomy, in its accountability, seems to move towards the Tao, wherein the sage merely demonstrates by example: while it is up to others to follow this example, it is posited that this is the only way to teach effectively because to impose ideals or morals, these can quickly become their opposite (Tao Te Ching 58). "The method of correction shall by a turn become a distortion, and the good in it shall by a turn become evil".
What is really at issue here is contained in the idiom (which is not the same thing as a cliché because of its economic, clear expression of a larger idea), practice what you preach. Epictetus would say, as does Lao Tzu, that one is to fulfill only one's part of the bargain and not worry about what other people owe, even if to do so means a loss, because this is how one is freed from grudges, which are not beneficial (80).




The practice of the better picture is stepping back to disengage from nets or nooses. Victory goes to the one who deplores war (69). "With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a vessel of the highest honour. Now-a-days they give up gentleness and are all for being bold; economy, and are all for being liberal; the hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost;--(of all which the end is) death. Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle" (67).
Which reminds me of a short film I watched about Sister Corita Kent, of serigraphed Wonderbread and US Love stamp design fame, who said on leaving academia that the second part of one's life does not have to be the same as the first: and at that time she began to paint in lighter colours, in pastels. The film is a beautiful and colourful tribute of testimonies of that personality. We see a person who followed her gifts, even when this must have brought discomfort and existential questions; it is hard not to see the art as the answer that everything does turn out right if one follows one's path, it is perhaps the colour that does the convincing. "The groundwork doesn't show 'till one day" reads one of her serigraphs.
There is space for an ellipses, space formed by stepping back, a Socratic gap, like where he says in the Theaetetus that the beginning of learning is wonder or in Apology that wisdom is in knowing that one knows nothing, just like Lao Tzu writes "To know and yet think we do not know is one of the highest attainments". The opposite is a painful disease (71).
I think we create in the face of this disease, and death. Just like poet Kenneth Patchen wrote about how his injury, which kept him bedridden, spurred him to write, "for the sake of being able to show my sick part that it can never become all powerful".
In "What is the Beautiful?", Patchen writes, "Will the power of man flame as a sun? Will the power of man turn against death? Who is right? Is war? Pause. And begin again. A narrow line. Walking on the beautiful ground. A ledge of fire. It would take little to be free."
In one of Sister Kent's serigraphs, the Patchen line echoes, "Pause and begin again. It would take little to be free." Epictetus defines the free as that which is in our control. The picture is in learning where the canvas is, the aperture.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees; bokeh brush by ~stock7000 at DeviantART.

Ghosts Abroad

This post has been revised. 
A word possibly derived from a Medieval toponym, of the place where horses were raised that were hired out for work, hack, I think, is a word that could be applied to many people who travel today and seek to make money from their "observations" sold to any genre of publication. These people do not see the irony of living at enclave addresses or gathering at places approved by Facebook: even offbeat venues play to some tune of conformity, just like the average traveller of Victorian times would follow in the footsteps of those who wrote travelogues. Perhaps those journals are more transparent than ours that claim everything: we can ask ourselves how much of the local was experienced in the 18th century when ladies were travelling with their own baths (portable amenities today are tiny by comparison). I write as one whose childhood travels involved my mother learning and teaching us native languages and one who learned to keep balance on two planks over deep pits. The family shunned tours, once almost driving off a cliff in a rented jeep in Thailand because the map did not account for recent landslides.
We are 鬼佬; "ghost geezers" (white people), but my father joked at one of the 西貢 restaurants that his wife was the only white woman in the room. Maybe we became ghosts too well, not even seeing ourselves, silent cultural observers always looking to pass through barriers (to thought).
But sometimes it is we who block out all the wrong things: we composite narratives, like stereotype blocks, and it takes courage to discard it, so hard to give up ideas or furniture one has become comfortable with, and begin again. For example, one might feel as if the foreigner is often the target of a kind of hellish treatment and feel isolated, or resentful. Then one fine day, one might discover that even locals are exposed to this same hell, Dorothy Parker's "fresh hell."
Rather than travel in the ruts, it is necessary to be exposed, like the teeth of yesteryear. While I doubt ghosts have a need to laugh, already relieved of terrestrial gravities, the "west ocean ghost" seeks endearment through deprecatory humour.




And it is precisely the haughtiness of so many of today's travellers that is irksome. They think they can live in a place for a few months or years and know it. Stereotypes are set. This is not a new complaint, and is its own stereotype: in Innocents Abroad, Twain criticises the tourism industry that manufactured and sold history.
Still, there was a period a few decades ago marked by the eccentric traveller who never promised objective accounts but the symbiosis of whatever their extreme personalities, or specific context and character, would bring out of a place (Gore Vidal, Jan Morris' geographies-some invented, Marguerite Duras), rather like the travelogues of Montaigne, who brought descriptions of his bodily functions to a place, always him in it, no claims of mind over map, but him moving through scenes.
If "abroad" means away from home, the hearth, then perhaps this is why the ghost gets nearest to new destinations. Some aspects of a place will always remain invisible, and this is what the ghost knows, this is why the ghost is suspicious of the stereotype, preferring instead the furniture that blocks out empty spaces. A place, like a person, is always only just coming into itself, to that clearing where something can be defined, before it shifts. So the stereotype block, which looks like a means to save time, to make things easier, is only confusing things.
A passage by Antonio Rosmini reads: "Knowing where the problem lies represents an important stage on the way to the attainment of truth, which cannot be assailed in its hidden stronghold unless the fortress defending it has been inspected from all sides." The ghost can pass through these sides, but the person, stuck in the dimensions of the body, can not always maneuver that well. As Gadamer pointed out in Truth and Method, man can never attain entire objectivity precisely because he can never leave his body.
To travel receptively is to be at home with ghosts, to be one. It is only scary insofar as it is sometimes less words than white spaces.



Brushes: Pfefferminzchen at DeviantART; Lauren Harrison.

"Hardy"

I return to Thomas Hardy like the a sea that has roamed returns to shore, thinned out. How well he has described the abstract source of where one feels misunderstood, an outcast. He writes of clouds that "echo back the shouts of the many and the strong ... Till I think I am one born out of due time, who has no calling here." One specific illustration I could give of this is: in the face of the new rhetoric in education, according to which students are to develop skills in "confidence," standing up instead for skills like using appropriate vocabulary, making arguments that are well supported, knowing how to make concessions - which build real confidence, though difficult to achieve, and also requiring that miracle of communication: good will.
But there is not always good will, many are the charlatans that wander the square with magic teaching ointments. But "magic" comes from the Persian word for power, and indeed, the ointment works in indoctrinating into a certain form of power that bullies alternative paths to learning as "difficult" in its secondary sense, and so it is that such paths are obscured.
"Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed by the clash of the First, / Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst, / Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear, / Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here."
Hardy's name gives away, I think, part of how this should be read. He writes it himself: to hold "that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst". The glance at darkness is not the final destination.
The excerpts are from "In Tenebris II", meaning "in darkness" and in the third part to this trinitating poem, he begins with an excerpt from Psalm 120, in which the phrase, "woe is me" originated; in fact, he quotes that very line, "woe is me, that my sojourn is prolongued". It is a Psalm about finding oneself amidst the treachery and falsehood of barbaric strangers.
But there are unsaid implications of the Psalm cited, like its notion that justice will find a way. We know from the title of Hardy's poem, "In Tenebris" that it is part of a longer phrase, "lux in tenebris" (John 1:5). This does not assuage the pain of problems, but can bring relief on some level: one was initially castigated precisely because one held that better can be attained through worst.



Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees; brush: Ewansim at DeviantART.
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