The Heart of a Poppy Flower

The larks are playing extravagantly - and loudly - in the invisibility of the air, but despite the scraps of blue in the sky tinged with shy pink clouds at this golden hour, it has just begun to thunder and a new grey mood has cast itself like a shadow that "falls": I could not have set the scene more dramatically had I invented it. So much time has passed since I last wrote here that I feel this post deserves a personal note. But just like the weather is doing my writing for me, I think a lot that I could write will actually speak for itself in coming weeks as the circumstance of this time in history continues to unfold. As much as the Self-Made Man narrative still continues to dominate so much of public discourse, I think that environment at large is now going to have its say. Or maybe I am just getting older and deaf.
Hearing only the xylophone of rain. Electricity in the sky. Still trying to figure out the meaning of life: how horrifying it would be to reach the end of one's days without having figured out what is worth the devotion of time. The time that is being alive.
It would be easy but there is so much that is deceptive. So much escape that is passive: sedentary in a figurative sense. I read somewhere that the internet is often abused as a faux safety blanket: whenever one wants to escape, one can tune into it. It could be said that there is a mechanical response to mechanical environments where no one is responsible but responsibility is assigned to a few workers who by default will be burried in work. It is hard not to be burried alive.


I wrote to a friend this evening how much I currently shirk from being asked that question beginning with how, centering on the verb to be and the pronoun you. Like the snapshot of the weather that suddenly moved in as I began this blog post: who has time to read all those signs and then to articulate them into some kind of sense - and for this sense to be true, one would also need to know something of both the future and the past: who can do that? Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Unemployment? (Again the concern for those of us working in higher education.) A new job? Promotion? Inclement weather? Unhappy mobs? Sudden inspiration? Peace?
My friend brought me some flowers yesterday: if I continue to blog, there will be pictures. They wilted as we talked - to begin with, they had obviously been picked much earlier in the day and were merely wrapped in damp pieces of dissolving scrap paper (nothing goes to waste in poverty). My friend had bought them from a granny her heart went out to, sitting in the heat. I thought the flowers would be beyond revivification, but I was wrong. It seems that flowers are not so frail, and hope that I am not, either.
What happens to us when the environment does not cultivate us, when reserves are spent merely to live conscientiously despite what looks like (in the hall of mirrors of appearance) others' compromises, left and right, I don't know. I wonder how much of appearance is spiritual. Cavafy writes: "Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you."


I recently heard a story of a man who had lost his estate after a recent war and moved into what was essentially a holiday cottage. He was known for saying: "What need do I have for all the chores I used to have tending to that huge property and the surrounding land - only now do I finally have a house in the country!" There is a language of the soul that refuses to be defeated.
And from such a vantage point, it seems to me that minutiae are a ballast: thence the victory of flowers. Or even of larks, that continue to play despite the tragedy of human folly. For one can look to the stars (levavi oculos, but also so many models of men once taught in school). One can tune into the moody or flitting clouds instead of endless chatter. Ultimately, shapes happen in the sky out of nothing. That is what I will be sailing on, not what I may or may not know, not the tiresome rant of media, not the circumstance some would like to use as a cage to trap others.
In this day and age, that - say - a sycamore can afford shade centuries after it was planted is no short of a miracle that touches the heart strings. There is song amidst the danger! There are games in the stormy sky!


Brush: Misprinted Type.

Good Sport

It was a terrible day a few days ago, the regular stew of workplace injustice and instability, and also, it was hot. And also, I was walking home in that heat, not dressed for it. Suddenly, a lanky long-haired stick person came just in front of me on a bicycle. I noted the acid-wash jean shorts to the knees, the faded paisley button down, but mostly the hair that hung like a limp cat, overpowering any other aesthetic.
Later, as I was crossing the road, I noticed that the bicycle this person was riding was candyfloss pink - which only caught my eye because this person had scooped the bicycle up in his arms and carried it across the street! As if it were his beloved, in a saccharine flick.
That was amusing, but soon afterwards I returned to the grey cartoon cloud above my head. Except just a few yards later, I saw the bicycle man again, clumsily purchasing a fluorescent ice lolly that had been quickly derobed of its paper, now pop-artily in his hand.
Despite his flaccid pony tail, I found myself smiling at this apparation of a man-person. That is, until I again drowned myself in the rain of depressing thoughts I was cultivating. Until again, the man-person reappeared beside me, the unusually long spider legs inconceivably able to peddle the bike - until he finally disappeared, almost into the sunset (which was really disappearing behind the square he dissolved into).
I decided that the man-person was my omen: that there is really no reason to give in to depressing thoughts, whether or not they are "real", but which are becoming unwieldly because I had registered for a marathon a few months ago, and am now tapering, which is really as horrible as everyone says it is. Without all those miles to bring a physical perspective to pettiness, it is hard to find balance. It is an ambient favoured by doubt - and doubt does not ride a pink bicycle, but is more like a garbage truck intercrossed with the sirens of several emergency vehicles.


But I heard a great comment about doubt today along with other things I agreed with (such as the fact that there is no such thing as writer's block - I teach my class in such a way as to prove that to claim this is merely lazy thinking). The comment was that we all have self-doubt (a sweeping claim I would hesitate to make but one I found incredibly reassuring) and that there is no reason to believe doubt when it arises, which it will because there is always room for it.
The commenter was Adam Skolnick on the Rich Roll podcast (new to me): Skolnick spoke mostly about his book on freediving, which has a lot to do with the art of breathing but is also described as being a poetic encounter with the infinite. He also talked about his own far-range ocean swimming that brings him alongside large sea creatures. As he spoke, I thought of those Mycenean frescoes of flying fish and dolphins and that seeming communion with nature that runs across those walls. Out of the scheme of one frolicking monkey after another, there is a fresco (Akrotiri, Xeste 3?) where a singular monkey ascends stairs to a throne. At one point, the reflection of things takes on a new dimension, there is presence through one's looking, so one is there, but one's eyes are no longer glossing over "furniture", rather objects take on quests out out out, and suddenly one is seeing being.
I had that experience earlier this week: I was running by a huge surface of water at once so still that it seemed to capture the sky; I was looking into a huge mirror and instead of this mirror reflecting a banal face or human chatter, it was reflecting the expanse of sky, so astounding because it seemed like although I was looking, I could still not see the end of what I was looking at.


Except the podcast does not leave one in that infinitude, which is but momentary, rather the podcast concludes that such encounters are fleeting and, with respect to freediving, risky. 
So what of the pursuit? It contains the risk of dissolving in deception. Not all bicycles are pink and come with pocket money for cool treats; some bicycles are a tiring journey into penury.
But if the bicycle is the heart, it needs attention or it goes away. Not lavished, not spoiled, but listened to in the way it is said that one is to learn to listen to the body. Something can be learned, though never to the point of total mastery: injury can be sudden and is real and humbling. The pursuit gets harder that way, when it is not where it seems to be. Effort is made for the wrong reasons, invested in the wrong people - both friendly and not, and strength is lost. To trust, on the other hand, is not to strain overexhertion, to not consume what does not fuel during training, but to allow that one is holding a singular gift that will find its way because it didn't belong to one to begin with.
Maybe it was this gift that the man-person was carrying across the road, the bicycle gift that would never have caught my attention had it not been held in such a way as to stand out from what is otherwise just the furniture of the street.

Book in background: Boucher's 10,000 Years of Fashion; brush: Misprinted Type.

What About the Fox

This week, I read the Fables of Babrius in microfilm online, and wondered what it must have been like for students for centuries after the 4th to have begun their education in rhetoric by recreating fables. And how, too, certain tenets of those fables were revived in Erasmus' Adagia, also a popularised didactic tool. By tenets of fables, I of course mean maxims: illustrations of both good and bad character. Scampering throughout Babrius' Fables is the fox - a tricky character, reminiscent of the trickiness Chesterton gets at when he writes: " But if you are going to mend an innkeeper, you must do it tenderly, you must do it reverently. You must nail an extra arm or leg on his person, keeping always before you the Platonic image of the perfect innkeeper, to whose shape you seek to restore him." The wily fox has a place in the story of perfecting images.
Some of the fables depict the fox in situations reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, playing tricks on the Road Runner (which gives pause for thought: did fables inspire some Looney Tunes?)
But there is a curious one in which the fox, having (literally) fallen on hard times, is offered help from a hedgehog that it refuses: musing that to rid himself of his plight would be to expose himself to worse. The fable opens by being lauded for its ethos: Aesop used it to sway a crowd!
It was at that point that I could no longer refrain from wondering about Berlin's hedgehog/fox essay - specifcally, how he made the fox so one-dimensional as compared to how the fox appears in the fables: as immoral as cunning - and even wise. It turns out that Berlin said of the essay: "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something else, this one was very simple."
The idea from an Archilochus fragment that the essay opens with, about a fox knowing many things and a hedgehog one, also appears in Babrius - although with a twist: it is a hedgehog's boasting that prompts the fox (reynard) to say that it "possess[es] a mind of more variety than thy skin or mind". The fable ends with the maxim: "Each magnifies that which within his own possession lies."

There is an interesting thread about where Berlin got the Archilochus reference from at languagehat, which came up as I was doing topical reading to make sure this post I wanted to write was at least somewhat original. One of the commenters links to Bowra's paper on how Archilochus used the reference, postulating that he was comparing himself to the fox when he did.
The difference between the Arhilochus fragment and the Babrius fable illustrates that knowledge of a corpus of references does not stifle creativity, as some contemporaries seem to argue - lacking a shared vocabulary of possibilities for thought voiced through the safe remove of the animal.
What about the fox is partly explained by the Chesterton essay cited above. It questions whether the original nature of things is good or whether it is bad or "lost all power of being good". What the fox is about is the quest for what makes good or bad, how hard it is to pin this down, how the definition can change in an instant, in a different retelling, in a different context.
Building thought on the fox seems useful, not just paper dreams.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idées; brush: misprinted type.

Flits from theme to theme


What is this post, after so much silence here? It is in part about the changing weather I saw this morning because I ran for almost four hours, watching flood waters reflect moss greens and pastel blues that were nowhere else, the fog lift into heavily etched clouds shadowing the swans all gathered at water's edge, promiscuously revealing their stalky legs - only one flying high above like a Concorde.
Weaving in and out of "distance": the word ceases to have a fixed meaning  because some miles pass undiscernably while others are a test of faith. And all for what? Any running metaphors end in the face of the "have not" that understands not the expenditure of time and effort, not to mention cost of shoes, on "superfluity".
But I need that Concorde.
Just to see it, as if the landscape remembers to remind the looker. A mirror of greens and blues that otherwise and mysteriously are seen nowhere else but in that mirror.
A friend of mine died this week. I was not there to share those final moments because he is in Nueva York and I am not. When I got the news, I looked for old photos of him, and found one where we were making dramatic faces outside of a church gate with a sign affixed: PARTY SITE CHANGED, and I wondered at how strange it was that this was one of the photos that has survived so many moves and the one that I found; his party may have changed location, but I hope to be a reflection of him here.


"Gold shows its nature when it is tried by the touchstone, and so does a right-thinking mind," Pindar writes in Pythian 10. To this day, we call some people "good as gold". But unlike today, Pindar in his tale includes a cautionary warning that people's minds are easily tricked: he hopes to win them over to remember the miraculousness. Great things happen through good people, but life can also change: "It is impossible to foresee what will happen a year from now", so it is wisdom to use good memories as ballast for harder times. Amazing occurrences are not precluded by difficulty but are to be held onto and developed. "It is not mine to wonder; when the gods appoint it, nothing is too strange. Hold the oar! Quick, let the anchor down from the prow to touch the bottom, to protect us from the rocky reef. The choicest hymn of praise flits from theme to theme, like a bee." (trans. Lattimore and Svarlian)


In so many of his odes, including Pythian 10, he writes of friends. "Reverent gratitude is a recompense for friendly deeds," he sings in Pythian 2, and I would like to record some gratitude here of my own. Some friends bring wisdom but some friends bring humour, style, family, a roof, economic support in hard times. And never revealing the burden of help. What rocks some people are - not necessarily obvious ones, in any stereotypical sense, but hidden rocks, like that mysterious face in Munch's painting, "The Mystery of a Summer Night".


The most obvious and important things can perhaps escape notice. "I have a good friend in [his friend] because of him" read an email about my friend who passed away that just arrived. Pindar writes: "If one man has any benefit from another, we would say that a neighbor, if he loves his neighbor with an earnest mind, is a joy worth any price." Imagine that doubled - as it is through the example of my friend. Also in Nemean 7, Pindar writes that were it not for song, even the greatest deeds would remain hidden: the eyes for good deeds should be praise. "If someone is successful in his deeds, he casts a cause for sweet thoughts into the streams of the Muses. For those great acts of prowess dwell in deep darkness, if they lack songs, and we know of only one way to hold a mirror up to fine deeds: if, by the grace of Mnemosyne with her splendid headdress, one finds a recompense for toils in glorious song."


This is the ode in which he writes that death meets everyone: the wise are those who are not preturbed by want. My departed friend used to joke about his "ship's" kitchen and having an east and west wing in a tiny apartment. "Yet we do not all draw our first breath for equal ends. Under the yoke of destiny, different men are held by different restraints. ... Skillful men know the wind that will come on the day after tomorrow, and they do not suffer loss through the love of gain. The rich man and the poor man alike travel together to the boundary of death." Pindar also writes, surprisingly - to my mind at least, that Homer exaggerated his praise of Odysseus - as comparison to his own, just praise. I will attempt no such feats here.


"As for [a] justly earned good name, a few words will suffice: ... for respite is sweet in every deed. Even honey may cloy, and the delightful flowers of Aphrodite." While happiness is never allotted fully to man, he defends his right to sing one man's praise. "Each of us differs in nature, for we were each allotted a different life. One man has this, others have something else; but for one man to win the prize of complete happiness is impossible. I cannot say to whom Fate has handed this consummation as a lasting possession. ... I am your friend; averting the dark shadow of abuse, and bringing genuine glory, like streams of water, to the man who is dear to me, I shall praise him. ... I have not overshot the mark". A fine line between abundance and superfluity...


Nemean 7 is also interesting for the rising and subduing of tone and voice: "Strike up the song!", "but", then, in remembrance of Zeus at that spot, he sings softly, and "with a gentle voice". And at this part of silence, which is perhaps what the busy life craves, that the "have not" lacks contextual idea of - having superfluity of it as "happiness is never fully allotted to man", I would like to be grateful for anchors and the stability of that "worth any price". I miss my friend and send him a Concorde of thought: of thanks, of the prismic colours I saw this morning, the freedom to flit at will, on what is valuable, fruitful, abundant; what smiles, what endures the mysteries of distance.
P.S. As a gesture of links forged through friends of friends, a link to a blog of one such link: on traces of the rock scene in NYC. 

What do you expect?

It is fascinating how one can pore over a text attempting to be prescient of as many layers of meaning and contextual references as possible, and remain impervious to this same level of attention to complexity in life: for example, failing to double-check whether one has correctly understood the context, different to one's own. We could say that in life there are three coordinates to consider: the relationship of one culture to another, the relationship of culture to the individual, and the individual's relationship to another individual. There are no exams to test this comprehension, though it seems to me these were Humanistic concerns, still implied in the word "university."
Sometimes I think that there is such a thing as willful mis-comprehension, perpetuated - and isn't this interesting - by volumes of prose.
The concern about the truthfulness of writing, and whether the ability to read volume after volume produces wisdom, is addressed in the Phaedrus. Plato's Socrates is as concerned with good speaking as with good writing, which is to say that in Plato's Socratic dialogues, there is an emphasis on truth in all contexts, not just the truths uncovered by close reading.
Similarly, I imagine that in the Humanist architectural mnemonics (some call the method of loci), alongside rooms of facts about various subject matter, there were also rooms devoted to ethics and how this informs action and the pursuit of truth. This is implied in Vico's speech to university students, entitled "The Heroic Mind", whereine heroic echoes back to the Greek concepts of paideia or kalos kagathos.
But writing in this way implies that knowledge, truth, or wisdom is something that can be had or held: a territory to be appropriated by the palace in the mind. Plato's Socrates, on the other hand, is always reluctant to claim any final understanding. A more quality knowing then is - a not knowing? An approximation?
There are some who are trenchant that their work is flawless, whereas another view would be to consider work as more or less studied. Some work may be more accurate, but other work may provide inspired solutions. What is "flawless" work?


If we are talking about comprehension, I would argue that better work will involve an openness to the possibility of being wrong (hence the importance of double checking).
Perhaps openness is rare because it involves that "uncanniness" that I first thought about when reading a passage in de Chirico's Hebdomeros (that passage with the furniture in the street: something familiar in an unfamiliar context). Heraclitus writes of "expecting the unexpected" - which, the more I think about it, is a rather uncomfortable state of mind: indeterminate, yet not chaotic, because of the implied reception. 
To try to better understand what Heraclitus meant (my associations aside), yet without having spent time with the Greek - so this is an unfinished post, an unfinished idea, I have been reading various translations of fragment 18 where that phrase appears. One translation reads: "If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail."
Another translation reads: "Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find [truth], for it is hard to discover and attain." There is also this: "If you do not hope, you will not win that which is hoped for, since it is unattainable and inaccessible."
On the basis of these sentences, and as a good-enough conclusion to this post, part of the difficulty in understanding life may be in where it fails to conform to our expectations - considering, too, that in our bid to understand, even our understanding of the unexpected may still be influenced by the limits of what we conceive possible.
Some of the work I did over the holidays involved reading about Lacan's definition of psychoses, which is also connected to expectations because psychoses involve projection. So, there's also that. Lots of films being shown, but the possibility, too, of there being something far more behind that screen.

Brush: Misprinted Type.
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