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.

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Not Images Alone

I received a card featuring a rather realistic painting of a pickle with a tiny cartoon party hat clumsily appendixed to it. This was my congratulations card for getting a PhD. Apparently, the giver thinks I am "in a pickle". I prefer to consider the card a humourous gesture, though the card's insistance on "a bigger salary" gets no laughs when one would prefer for pickles to be in the refrigerator as actual food. But it is hilarious! Imagine the T-shirt: I earned a PhD and all I got was this lousy pickle. Pfwee. (Requisite sound of party horn.)
And maybe it isn't much of a party when there are so many academic expectations some of us brine ourselves in, great narratives of achievement, like the cry of the PB (personal best) in the running world. So many sites recommend a perfect draft before the defense, others expect that what happens is not always what is wished for. Yet this fixation of bests does not trouble everyone: some are content #rehashing.
Anyway, so one wakes up one morning, next to a card of a pary-hat-wearing pickle, and wonders how one got into a relationship where food has left the pantry for the portrait! One can't live on images alone. Apparently, It's So Hard to Leave Academe: for example, years and years of teaching likely mean a network shrunk to within the academy, making it hard to network for jobs beyond it. The alma mater now leaves students only partly nourished - but if nourishment is nurtured, she is not at fault, she herself had not been cared for.
As I write this post, it is as if I am willing myself to know the end to this story. But it has taken this long for me to write a more concrete post introducing the debacle.
Luckily, as I sat down to write, I also opened up Susannah Conway's December Reflections blog prompts, and today's is also about bests, as in a "best day". In the photo below was a rainbow I thought I was going to be able to run beneath on a long run, but which turned out to be an optical illusion: I was running alongside it. The elusive rainbow following the arch of the sun transports an elusive messenger who says that the arche is the idea that underlies images. It was a pretty good day when I saw that rainbow, memorable, sometimes perhaps what evades is closer than one might think; maybe this is the test of eidos, where action proves essence needn't be idea alone.



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Chameleons with Feelings

Part of the problem being that we cannot step outside of ourselves and see where we are going in life, to avert mistakes, or to hold the course to where the weather is clement. What is the way, one may be wont to ask, particularly if one has been, as Horace advised writers, hurried into the middle of things (festinat et in media res). Thomas Carlyle has invoked Horace's counsel, writing, "rush forward and fear nothing" - which rather brings to mind the message Nike hides in some of its running clothes: "run fast, live fearless." Except Carlyle meant action, not speed. "Be not too careful for a subject; take the one you feel most interest in", he writes to an essayist. And if we are, to some extent, the authors of our lives, perhaps affinity, with its filmish Fin implying boundaries between here and there, is a good place to start.
In the Tao Te Ching (1), we are advised to not have desires if we are to see the Way, yet to have desires to see its manifestations - which Legge translates as "its outer fringe."
I understand this to mean that there is no formula for a life, because life itself is beyond definition. In (32) we learn, in both Legge's and Lau's translations: "Only when it is cut are there names. As soon as there are names one ought to know that it is time to stop" so that one might be "free from all risk of failure and error".
I was thinking about that when I listened to social psychologist Ellen Langer, talking about the impossibility of breaking free from the names or labels people construct for each other, and how freeing it is when a single person puts into practice the platitude that there is more than one way of looking at things (and thereby people) and realises that one way of defining a person ruins the definer's view of said person: for example, a rigid person can instead be seen as a stable person. In other words, (in John Conley's description of Madeleine de Scudéry's views), prejudice can be mistaken for knowledge. Names are like photographs: accurate for one second, but not necessarily in terms of the larger picture.
 

Today as I was running, I could no longer listen to contemporary music and had been overjoyed when I discovered that I could take the France Musique programme I was listening to on the road: rather aptly called "Le Passage de Midi". The four-part programme on the kiss is exquisitely curated, and possibly not coincidentally brings to mind the heightened sensibility of the précieuses. I found myself listening to a description of Scudéry's novelistic "Carte de Tendre" or, "Map of the Country of Tenderness" as the prolific Victorian French and English literary critic George Saintsbury translates it: a map of the territory suitors traverse to find their way to love: routes leading through the villages of letters and trinkets, or through villages of patience and faithfulness - hopefully never straying into the Lake of Indifference. A metaphysical map! One thinks of Dante's voyage.
Scudéry wrote of this map in her novel Clélie, a roman à clef in which important personages of the day were disguised in classical roles, not quite as long as her other novel Artamène, with over 2 million words.
Scudéry, like Giambattista Vico later, expressed philosophical differences with Descartes for his overestimation of reason. She even wrote The History of Two Chameleons to disprove his theory that animals were soulless machines. John Conley, in his SEP article on her notes that her interpretation of the world was not only empirical but also "sympathetic" and "aesthetic": she attributes emotions to her chameleons and notes the beauty of their motions and skin.
What does she say in response to the Delphic maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν? That the "noetic agent" can reach such knowledge only if it can reveal the need for moral conversion. One thinks back to the chameleon, and the changing names of the Way. Except this is no relativism: there is a map, and if not drawn exclusively according to Cartesian introspection, it does have borders delineated by virtue and vice.
To have desire and yet to relinquish it (as per Tao 1): rather like Scudéry's topography of the inclined suitor that can traverse villages, but is surrounded by the dangerous sea of passion, uncharted at the fringes, dipping off into the unknown. "The way is to the world as the River and Sea are to rivulets and streams." "Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger." (Tao 32)




Postscript: Saintsbury's commentary on Clélie is most charming. He writes in his History of the French Novel that he could expand the outline of that novel "(and the process would not be very painful to me) into an abstract as long as that of Cyrus; but 'It Cannot Be.'" He ends the section on the novel writing, "If I were sent to twelve months’ imprisonment of a mild description, and allowed to choose a library, I should include in it  … Clélie … By reading slowly and ‘savouring’ the process, I should imagine that, with one’s memories of other things, they might be able to last for a year. And it would be one of the best kind of fallows for the brain."
Affinities...
Scudéry herself writes, "We are born with the inclinations which heaven was pleased to give us, but we enter into the possession of praise or blame only at the moment we begin to act through reason. Up to this point, nothing is truly up to us; after that point, we are responsible for everything we do, whether good or evil. Therefore, it is up to us to see what inclinations we should follow and those we should change. Having known the true path of glory and virtue, we should walk in it despite all the repugnance we might find within ourselves."
Desire with detachment?

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Apples and Pupils

Counsel is sometimes given to people to not read or watch material that is too "dark"; perhaps the tragedy lived needs no further illustration for catharsis: the illustration must come from within (where illustration connotes illumination), and for this to take place, the mind seeks location elsewhere, on greener, so sun-grown, pastures, not quite believing circumstance, because who wants vision to be tainted by such? Once upon a time, Plato wrote of the meaning of the pupil, of vision, in the Alcibiades 1.133: one is to search for the diviner part of man (the mind, virtue, and soul) in our own image in another's eye: literally, seek the little doll's image of ourselves in that eye - the little doll's image, κόρη, translated into English as "the apple of my eye".
The marionette of masked Melpomene moves over for "something cherished above all others". The question is whether one looks for such.
There are literal places or figurative times in which the streets are not smooth but have huge holes that defy logic (how do such depressions emerge on the sidewalk?) Some of these holes may be circled with spray paint, bearing messages of political angst, like, "[x political party] will lead you into this". So many reasons for seasons of discontent. It is a special kind of situation or period when merely being able to arrive at work on time or being able to do it without hindrance ceases to be a given and becomes an act of faith.
I will write about that now, so turn away, like our embodiment of masked Melpomene turns from tragedy to something more worthy of celebration in the opening paragraph, if the word displeases you.


Mood may buoy faith, which is fine, but what about that moment when reasons begin to pile up, covering up the light, weighing one down. May this be compared to walking on water and suddenly looking down?
Malady, a holding of the ill-conditioned that is both taken and offered. To be better-conditioned requires no great act of the imagination, perhaps mere simplicity. Seneca writes, "All things were ready for us at our birth; it is we that have made everything difficult for ourselves", and Euripides, "The traditions which we have received from our fathers, old as time itself, no argument shall overthrow them, whatever subtleties have been invented by deep wits" (both excerpts I read this morning). One such tradition, if I may be forgiven for simplicity, is, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away". What of the apple for the non-physical body that holds courage?
An example of helpful nighttime reading to dissolve quotidian miseries accumulated and sow ideas of fortitude in dreams is Erasmus' Proverbs. Take for example cor ne edito, "Let not care corrode and gnaw your heart, lest you should fall into a state of despondency, and to avenge some disappointment or trouble, throw away all the blessings you enjoy, and with them your life."
Just like the chemical digestion involved with eating the apple, it is implied that thought carries its chemical repercussions too, in the word "corrode". It is implied, too, that normal processes can go wrong with thought, and instead of consuming, one will be consumed.
The apple of one's eye is not an apple by default; it is possible to see candy there, or X's, or a mask.

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

A Few Binaries

Yesterday, I was looking through Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond looking for a passage where she writes, as far as I remember, about the tacit understanding instilled during childhood that one is to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. It seems now that many have forgotten about the old cultural mores, and expect one to become borderline hysterical when faced with chaos, if they are to believe one is having a rough time. But there may not be much point in that. I did not find the passage I was looking for in Macaulay, and instead found another topic of interest: that of good and bad, which also happens to be mapped out against a Greek-Turkey landscape - the same landscape that inspired the art of Jean Lurçat, an artist I came to know during my time at  l'Université catholique de l'Ouest, who was also concerned with the good and bad.
Reacting at every rupture or shaking of the earth, while not bad, is perhaps not wise. An analogy can be drawn to why Socrates stayed married to his wife despite her throwing pails of water on his head: through tolerating this abuse, he found it easier to face the criticism of him from people outside of his home. How easily, though, such a home situation could unleash evil from within another kind of person, not Socrates. This illustration of fortitude is thus closely related to an understanding of good and bad, even if not quite the same thing.
Macaulay writes of this binary: "Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, ... and it was all extremely interesting and exciting. And they went on talking about their conflicts all through the ... 19th centuries, and James Boswell ... wrote to his friends, 'My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!' and the baronet he wrote this to did not probably think it peculiar ... I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead. I do not remember that when I was at Cambridge we talked much about such things ... we talked about everything else, such as religion, love, people, psycho-analysis, books art, places, cooking, cars, food, sex, and all that."


Macaulay was of course alive during the end of the period of the Grand Tour, and Towers includes many funny quips about travel and travelogues. Is the openness to the East, and travel in that direction, a readiness for questions of morality? To think of the Renaissance is to also think of Greek questions, e.g. in how they were adapted in the Florentine Academy, or how Erasmus made philological translations: to visit Greek museums is to read about how the gradual demise of Constantinople lead to a brain drain to the West that led to this spread of thought. Geography may or may not be another binary, like that of good and bad.
Lurçat travelled that landscape, though after Macaulay. Here is a link to a painting he made during those travels. It is a painting of a burned city, one that becomes transformed in modern geography, through modern war. Lurçat is most known, at least to me, for the tapestries he made after the famous 14th century Apocalypse Tapestry housed in the Chateau D'Angers. Like the Renaissance man was once the miniature of the microcosm, man in Lurçat's tapestries is the one who can restore balance to the precariousness that is chaos (that also erupts through the wars he himself wages). To have faith in man, the exhibit says of his views, is to be optimistic, and to cultivate the wish to believe in harmony and a benevolent progress for mankind, while pessimism demarks discouragement.
While I don't feel qualified to make sweeping statements about mankind, I would say that on the individual level, it does nothing to gulp down information of nosediving trends but makes a world of difference to have faith in mankind and in the tiny difference a single person can make: in the benevolent progress of the individual.
To really look around, one can see people who seem to defy all odds through their mere existence, and hold up a lamp of hope for other people, or keep a certain message alive that needs to be heard, like the daughter to anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, Mary Catherin Bateson. She speaks, on the radio programme On Being, of social change by drawing parallels to endosymbiosis, the theory according to which a nucleus "came about by one single cell organism taking up residence inside the other in a way that was mutually beneficial. ... And it is now understood that they were originally like algae that took up residence inside these cells, because they needed a home that they didn’t have. And so for millions of years, every cell in every leaf is actually a cooperative enterprise." Developing this idea, she defines "homemaking" as "creating an environment where learning is possible."


M. C. Bateson is a lamp for keeping alive her mother's question about how to make a better world for posterity. Her mother's idea was about evolutionary clusters, which has to do with not doubting what a committed, thoughtful group of citizens can do to change the world. Rather like Lurçat's hope in man. But to bring this post full circle, M. C. Bateson is dissatisfied with the modern day division between the self-proclaimed "spiritual but not religious" who reject a belief in an abstract, higher good, while remaining confident in evil. Instead of their self-proclaimed one-sided binary, she suggests we speak instead in terms of wonder.
Also like Lurçat, she has a model for keeping the precariousness of impinging chaos in balance: she speaks of jazz improvisation, which is far from being chaotic and spontaneous, but is, rather, something practiced. Practice is the saving grace. So, what are people practicing today? Moaning a lot, one might say. What a contrast to the example set by Erasmus, who I am reading about in Jebb's account: Greek was hardly a subject of study when he taught it, and he himself picked it up in a way we might today call unconventional, but he complained not and went about his business, translating. Making use of what he knew.
But not all of us possess the intelligence to do groundbreaking work. Perhaps some of us can only hope to be torchbearers (λαμπάδια ἔχοντες διαδώσουσιν ἀλλήλοις ἁμιλλώμενοι τοῖς ἵπποις). In the modern Olympic Games tradition, to be a torchbearer has meant to also run with the flame, in a relay. Such sport, while through its demand on time and effort may seem counterproductive to the allegorical matter at hand, nonetheless has a return in not only yielding results in terms of physical strength but also in teaching one endurance and to take things one step at a time. This might not make one popular at this particular time in history, but it may help one be prepared to hold up the side of the binary one might prefer to be on, if one questions such things to begin with.


Brush: misprinted type.

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