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.

Science and Writing

"The place scientific writing might claim among the corpus of imaginative writing zoned off as literature by unstable rules for admission and rejection is a strong one, allowing for inevitable airs of condescension from the protectors of letters," writes Guy Davenport in Geography of the Imagination. I was thinking about this last week as I read through writing by Einstein, Russell—even Edison's diaries. There is a practical side to their works, like Russell writing that he would disagree with philosophers who think that words should not be connected with facts but remain in a pure, autonomous world. This pragmatism is often reflected in some acknowledgement of the golden mean, as in Russell writing: “I am convinced that intelligence, patience, and eloquence can, sooner or later, lead the human race out of its self imposed tortures provided it does not exterminate itself meanwhile.” 
Davenport's interest in concrete scientific writing is in its verbal precision, which he says goes disregarded due to a current "delinquency" among teachers and students who dismiss this literary quality as "scientific jargon". 
Verbal precision means having seen something to begin with, and to see is to avoid generalisations and approach the specific; to look at something until its qualities become apparent. We learn from Davenport that some people call this being "scientific." Which is perhaps fair, because this was implied in much Victorian literature, including George Eliot's Middlemarch, in which seeing with precision is associated with science:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom. In this way, metaphorically speaking, a strong lens applied to Mrs. Cadwallader's match-making will show a play of minute causes...
This "microscopic" viewing has its precedent, say in Lucretius in The Nature of Things, who sees not through a microscope but through inference:  "Yet no one saw how sank the moisture in, / Nor how by heat off-driven. Thus we know, / That moisture is dispersed about in bits / Too small for eyes to see."
Interestingly, both Middlemarch and Nature point to mysterious things, too, the seeing penetrates through lives to death and returns in narrative.


But there is more to reading scientific prose: it also points to achievement. Both the achievement of seeing something through to a given result (the discovery of a new law or its application) and achievement on a more general level.
One excerpt I have returned to has made it to the wikipedia page of the scientist Jovan Cvijic, who many may know from his role in the Paris Peace Conference. He writes in The Forming of Science Workers:
You should get used to constant thinking about a problem, work, profession until you find a solution. There are bright moments, especially bright nights, which are rare; where you can find an answer to a question or come up with a research plan. That time of spiritual lucidity and creativity should be put to use, and not thinking about rest according to that ordinary human, oriental laziness. That does not hurt the body, and if does hurt, the body exists in order to be spent properly.
Writing teachers expend great effort trying to impart to students that seeing is a way of life if a writer is to have a store of original observation to draw from, but the excerpt above expresses this idea so tidily. Generally speaking, scientists value "simple language"—and there are many who write in this language.
One scientist very cleanly wrote about the similarities between science and poetry: both seeking the "essence" of things, the group of facts that despite disparities is shown to be similar to something else, and how this similarity informs the facts in that group, revealing a discovery. He writes that while poetry then proceeds to dress up this essence to make it more impressive, science pursues the truth. Yet poetry can also discover truth, he argues, citing Lucretius' work as a precursor to Einstein's discovery of the interdependency of time and space.
It may be that scientific writing and literature are more similar than dissimilar, and that by considering scientific writing even as a non scientist, one may learn a useful lesson in precision and how to see. But to end this post on a grain of salt form the sea, here's Edison applying his powers of observation: "Fish seem to be rather conservative around this bay, one seldom catches enough to form the fundamental basis for a lie.  ... Everybody lost patience at the stupidity of the fish in not coming forward promptly to be murdered." 




Brush: Pugly Pixel.

Words Resembling Ambrosia

It was like a dream, for who believes it when in the midst of work a person gets a fever and their computer conks out like a mythical tree from the Ramayana falling away from Hanuman, in Book V, Sundara Kanda. One of the first things one might do might be to seek this song, sung, among others, by Vishaka Hari, who had quit her day job because she wanted to devote herself to carrying the tradition forward. And her telling of Hanuman is to represent him as the epitome of service-and as a great orator; reflect on his speeches, she says, and you do not need to attend courses on communication. It is her telling of the story, though, that can lead us back to it, just as John O'Donohue speaking and reading his poems rekindles a faith in the possibility of making through words.
In Book IV of the Ramayana but in Vishaka Hari's Sundara Kanda is a scene of recognition, where Hanuman recognizes the divine qualities of Rama; recognition itself being a religious concept, I think, but also ancient where ancient means time, if we think of the time and attention given to guests, symbolised in the tesserae hospitalis, the tokens in ancient times that were broken in two, to be reunited as one when the same people or their kin reencountered. Tokens, the first encounter, suggest the importance of preparation for that threshold of recognition. O'Donohue speaks of the importance of how we cross thresholds, whether we are ready, or worthy. Perhaps to work too hard is unworthy, and not an example of what is the motto on his posthumous site: "Each of us is an artist of our days. The greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become."
There is a message about intent of purpose in Sundara Kanda, summarised incredibly by Vishaka Hari when she says that no one needs to enter the crooked, narrow streets at all, but just the highway of Dharma; that to take the crooked street is to get caught. As the soul is pregnant with meaning, we are to grow in order. This is illustrated in the book by Hanuman's "order" of supporting heavenly order: when he is unsure of how to speak to the captured Sita, he begins by praising the Rajarshis, which comply with this purpose. When he enters the palace of Sita's captor, and sees all his wives sleeping, wondering if he has transgressed, he realises that he has not lost sight of his single purpose and his passions had not been stirred by them: "The mind is the motive power of every movement of the senses, whether it be good or evil and mine remains untroubled".


If we wonder how to cross our own seas, as Hanuman does to reach Sita, we learn of his model humility coupled with confidence. Just the former means inefficiency, the latter, conceitedness: this is how he gets things done.
When he loses his calm, at the very end, and sets the city on fire ("In anger one may even slay one's spiritual preceptor" and affront virtuous men), he still-going back to Vishaka Hari's retelling-has a chance to take the Dharmic path, for which it is never too late. Even Ravana, the captor, is given chances, first by Sita, then Hanuman, then Ravana's brother, then the city is burned...
This text brings a cure through colours, too, rather like the colours against the threat of disappearance in death in O'Donohue's Beannacht: "when the ghost of loss gets into you, May a flock of colours, Indigo, red, green, And azure blue Come to awaken in you". In Sundara Kanda the colours appear in the white, rose, purple, blue, yellow, black clouds that Hanuman disappears into and becomes visible out of as he flies to and fro to Sita's place of enslavement.
But it is not a place of enslavement. As Vishaka Hari puts it, and as we learn by reading, Sita could have destroyed the city, but was waiting patiently for Ravana to change. Ravana, who had deceived her by putting on a disguise. Ravanna, who everyone says is versed in the Veda, who is even chanting it when he comes to visit Sita in the Sundara Kanda, but who does not show himself to be intelligent, by committing acts prohibited by the laws of righteousness. It turns out in the end that it was he who was ultimately deceived and not Sita: "Beware of placing thy neck in the noose of death in the form of Sita" his brother counsels; and Hanuman later calls the flames that had been on his tail with which he destroyed the city, "Sita's wrath". How quickly the snare entraps he who sets it: this is worth being remembered, for later.
After Hanuman lost control as he flicked his fiery tail about in a rage, he repents, and as he repents, he "recollects certain auspicious signs". Recollection! He realises fire could not consume the fire of Sita and hears godly voices confirm this. "Such were the words, resembling ambrosia."


Dharma is regained, auspicious signs are recollected through the humility: through courage, intent remains a highway. As for the rhetoric of this singular message, it is like Hanuman in the clouds, at once implicit and hidden and explicit and visible.
It is in part manifest in Hanuman's singularity of purpose, his physical communication across the ocean, and an ever-mindfulness that for the message to be conveyed, he must be ready to adapt to those new circumstances. By association, we might note that in tranlsation, it is so mediocre to just throw words over the seas to their rough equivalents, so much more profitable to weigh them and convert them into their syn of kin, which admittedly requires knowing the local market fluctations as well as one's own. Hanuman notes twice in almost the exact same words: "Undertakings often fail through an incompetent messenger unable to take advantage of time and place, as darkness is overcome by the rising sun; in such cases, whether it concerns the accomplishment or avoidance of any matter, the most widely planned projects do not succeed." This is summed up by the question of intent behind his actions: "How shall the crossing of the ocean not prove to have been useless?" It is not enough to do, one is to do that which is fruitful.
Actions are complex, and clouded, because singularity of purpose requires the right interpretation of signs. After all, this is what ostensibly ensnares Sita, who is protected by her intentions and so also by Dharma, but truly ensnares Ravana.
Observe the difficulties even Hanuman had in recognising Sita, who he had come to save: "Entangled in a mighty web of sorrow, her beauty was veiled like ... a traditional text obscured by dubious interpretation ... Beholding Sita in that pitiable state, Hanuman was perplexed as one whose learning is lost for lack of sustained endeavour and, seeing her without ornaments, he recognised her with difficulty as a text that is wrongly construed. .... She resembled a great reputation that has been lost or a faith that has been disregarded or a mind that has become clouded or a hope destroyed, a future shattered, an order misinterpreted".
There may be such necessary beauty in the trials of what must ultimately fall away: a computer for a time, health through overstrain or oversorrow, even meaning, but what beauty is then gathered up again in the right intent, on the Dharma highway that leads across oceans, effortlessly. Even the fasting Sita who had been led astray is ultimately recognised and restored to be the exalted being that she is, and one with transformative powers.



Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees.
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