Comparative Excellence

When I look back at my earlier writing, which emerged "from a school", I see how little I was aware of how much it was stamped by time. But is the truly liberated person, one with a degree in the liberal arts, not meant to rise above fickle trends, selecting, as consciously as is possible, the very best? It is a platitude today that the educated man knows how to find and eat the best food, go to the best places... Yet not necessarily to cultivate the best of thoughts.
To my mind, the best of thoughts is a sort of creative coordination, in line with the classical model now disparagingly referred to as the great chain of being. To speak of the classical model, one must say as the Victorians did: we do not mean all ancient thought but that which we consider not "corrupted" - out of excess, greed, etc. We choose it for our model only when it is at its best.
Zolla writes that it is no use to resurrect forms from the past without having first descended into the inferno. His model of one who did this is Pasternak: "Enriched after having traversed the road with no exit, he returns to literary form at the point where Chekhov and Tolstoy had left it." Pasternak "freed himself" from his absorption of "the trauma of the industrial city" in order to return to tradition. "Today he who wishes to talk like St. Francis with the birds must go down into the watermains ... among the electric cables."
This leads to the awareness of "the presence of the surrounding inferno in both its objective genesis and historical necessity". We could explain this, though, also in terms of gnothi seauton: at all times, we are surrounded by the easier path of life that is less beautiful: when we stop trying, when we feel tired because to live a life means establishing a non-preexisting path. It is easy to be afraid, easy to get angry with the little people, easy to want to return to the womb, so to speak. So many questions, so much doubt.
But it is said that to live creatively, we must lose our fear of being wrong. We will be wrong, and the inferno is right there, waiting to burn us. Yet the advice was to lose our fear of being wrong, not that gut instinct that is the moral compass: when we burn ourselves, if we are healthy, we pull our hand away and learn to watch out around fires, or the new fire that is the electric stovetop.

So many times when I look back, I wish there wasn't such a scribble of indeterminacy. Things have become clearer to me. I feel sorry for speaking so openly and wonder at the range of my wanderings. I wish I were like J.C. Maxwell whose life honestly warms my heart every time I think of him. He felt the passions, but held the reigns like the famous Delphic statue of the charioteer.
But if Zolla was right, then to speak to this age, to oneself, requires first exploring it, because then one has more authority when one "returns to tradition". And tradition was never meant to be idolised: to be alive, it is to be adapted. And it cannot be adapted if one does not know what one is adapting it to: to make a bridge, one must have stood on both sides.
I've written before about a girl I met in one of those "only in New York" stories who saved the life of a friend by saying she would cut above her own palm if he wouldn't cut into his as hard. There is a peculiar relationship between compassion and travelling to no man's land: to be in the right place at all times is tyranny. "Back to nature and sink self to its proper level," Abbot writes. We are small and imperfect! But our imperfection makes sense if we lift up our eyes in attendance of the better transformation.
This weekend I redesigned the blog. I thought so much about it that last night I dreamed of fonts, scales, and order. A friend's words rang through my head: there is a reason why certain fonts are so popular: they are so clean. Order returns of its own accord: exchange requires clarity.
But maybe the exchange of life also asks for something to work on. Rumi writes: "Every craftsman searches for what's not there to practice his craft." The carpenter looks for holes to cover. And Charles Abbot writes: "Better than this, the wrong tree must often be climbed over. Our efforts must gain us only bitter fruit at first. How else can we know of that which is sweeter? The world is an aggregation of comparative excellence."


  1. Looks good! I hope that the clarity of new layout aides in the cultivation of many more beautiful strands of your thoughts here.
    (And a very belated wish of a happy lunar new year to you!)

  2. Dear Jodi, thank you so much for your lovely words and wishes!