The struggle against silence

Z grand rouge

Z grand rouge

In her novel, The strange letter z, Debra Daley puts into the mouth of one of her characters an apt insight into what readers require from writers: “If you insist that the world is complicated you could at least offer an explanation or some dumb comfort.” Because it is, isn’t it? Complicated, I mean.

A precocious and mouthy boy, I quickly learned that the answer to certain questions was “Yes and no.” More perplexing, however, were those conundrums for which no meaningful explanation could be formulated. Memories of the prickling of childish truculence return to me now as I write.

Roland Barthes (see note below) asserts that language is neither an instrument nor a vehicle: it is a structure. “[Language] can never explain the world,” he writes, “or at least, when it claims to explain the world, it does so only the better to conceal its ambiguity” Does that perhaps count as “dumb comfort”? reassurance? inspiration? Or is it deception and treachery?

Susan Sontag, reminding us of Barthes’s assertion that the aim of literature is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’, also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric – often utopian – discourse.”

The rhetorician Quintilian (c 35–100 AD) famously asserted that we should not write so that it is possible for our readers to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us. That’s okay, as far as it goes; as Dada poet Tristan Tzara scornfully declares, “Any work of art that can be understood is the product of journalism.” Not all writing is intended as art, of course. But Tzara is pointing to something else: rather than telling readers what to think, literature must give them something to think about.

“Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” John Cage captures something of this when he writes: “There is nothing we need to do that isn’t dangerous.” Jesus, at his last supper with his disciples, said something similar: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:31, NRSV).

In the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies,

………. … For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.

Lankavatara Sutra

Lankavatara Sutra

So writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (ibid). One might ask, at this point, whether it’s the world itself that scares us, or our interpretations. For me, some of the most satisfactory answers to such questions come from Zen, which teaches that “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise” (from the Lankavatara Sutra). Alan Watts puts it another way: “Whose mouth could possibly be big enough to describe things as they are? (cited by Timothy Freke – see note below)

“Nothing but lies come out of my mouth,” said the master. “There – see! I’ve just done it again.” (ibid)

American writer, reporter, and political commentator, Walter Lippmann considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads. In his view, we’re all caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.” Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R  Powers, writing about what they dubbed “the global village”, braid threads from Lippmann’s thesis together with the ancient Buddhist teachings when they assert, “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality.” Which is a neat fit with words from the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

For Carlos Fuentes, “Writing is a struggle against silence.” But I think he’s referring to something other than the silence Ludwig Wittgenstein meant when he wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,  Proposition 7).  The struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (Sylvia Plath)


NOTES:

The image “Z grand rouge” comes from a web site calling itself New Z Testament. It’s a web-based game of some sort, but seems to be updating its server at present.

Daley, D. 1995 [“Copyright © 1995 by Debra Daley”]. The strange letter z. Auckland: Penguin Books. [p54]

Roland Barthes’s essay, ‘Authors and Writers’ dates from 1960. Published in Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil. In 1982, it was included in A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Susan Sontag’s words are cited from her Introduction to A Barthes Reader [pp x-xi].

Freke, Timothy. 1977. Zen wisdom : Daily teachings from the Zen Masters. New York: Sterling Publishing Company Inc.

McLuhan & Powers. 1992. The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers from Oxford University Press Canada.

Things are not what they appear to be …

untitled #098 (invisible city) 26 June 2014

untitled #098 (invisible city) 26 June 2014

“Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise.” (The Surangama Sutra)

The image is a detail of “Invisible City”, created in 2003 by Anton Parsons, and located on Lambton Quay, Wellington, at the intersection with Grey Street. But I have reoriented and cropped my image to emphasise the illusion of steel balls falling.

The Wellington Sculptures web-site notes that “The stainless steel of this sculpture seems to glow with an inner light. The magnified Braille text suggests a message, but the artist chooses to deny us access, raising issues of communication in the contemporary world, and the difficult interface between the disabled and the rest of the community.”

Anton Parsons explains: “Invisible City is an appropriate public work because it functions on several levels: Aesthetics – even without understanding that the dots on the two boxes are braille text, Invisible City is an aesthetically pleasing object – it doesn’t have to be read to be appreciated. Tactile – it is made to be touched. Surface – Invisible City is polished stainless steel, and reflects its surroundings. When looking at it you see a reflection of Wellington.”

 

Everything happens for a reason

Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics

graffiti on tile

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How many people do you know who – even though they don’t profess any sort of religious affiliation – are convinced that “everything happens for a reason”? Or else they say particular things are “meant to be” … or “not meant to be”.

An example: A customer comes into the store you work in and looks at a set of dinner bowls, or a beautiful French knife, a hand-crafted scarf, or a pair of gold earrings. You come out from behind the counter and spend time with the customer, attentive without being pushy. You know she really wants that lovely thing, and you intuit that she’s trying to convince herself it’s okay to make the purchase.

“If it’s here when I come in on pay-day,” she tells you, “I’ll know it was meant to be.” And you realise there’s a ‘back-story’ underlying her behaviour – one about which we know virtually nothing – like the string of silk handkerchiefs a magician might pull from his sleeve at a children’s birthday party. (Yes, it’s a trick, a deception, but very effective when expertly handled.)

“Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics.” I’m on Facebook, and this meme has been posted by a page calling itself Empty and Meaningless. One pedantic person has commented: “Except that it’s called a ’cause’ instead of a ‘reason’.” Yeah, yeah. Yadda yadda yadda.

The point is that the machinery of “life, the universe, and everything” operates on the basis of cause and effect. Chaos theory and quantum physics have tried to explain it, of course, with talk of things like the butterfly effect – but it’s still mindbogglingly complicated.

And what about when things go wrong? Do they really happen in threes? “The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy’s law are not hard to find” (Wikipedia: Murphy’s Law). But there’s nothing perverse about it. Everything that could possibly happen is waiting in the wings, eager for its opportunity, its big moment. And as soon as it gets a chance, it’ll happen. Don’t take it personally.

But of course we do tend to take everything personally. And rightly so, because each of us lives in a unique – and uniquely personalised – world that exists only in our mind. “Reality is not what it seems to be, nor is it otherwise” (Tibetan Buddhist teaching). Furthermore, “We don’t know what matter is any more than we know what mind is” (Christian de Quincy, in The Paradox of Consciousness).

So if most of what is happening within us and around us can be explained by (or at least attributed to) physics, what else is there which – albeit less frequently and/or less likely – might have something to do with driving what’s happening?

There’s a Talmudic tradition that “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’.” Alan Lurie explains that “everything yearns to grow; it is an inherent drive embedded in all creation”(Listening To The Call Of Growth). “According the Talmudic writer, one of the forces that angels carry is the urge to grow – to develop, improve, and evolve. By noting that even every blade of grass is imbued with this urge, the Talmudic saying teaches that, like light, gravity, and electromagnetism, growth is a ubiquitous force of nature.”

Life is opportunistic. Everything yearns to grow.

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NOTES:

1/ The origins of Yadda yadda yadda can be traced back with certainty to the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s (see The Straight Dope for further information).

2/ Recommended reading: Consciousness and Reality (Peter Russell).

3/ “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” (René Magritte)

 

 

This curious world

……………….“… to wake is to lift up
Again on one’s shoulders this curious world

Whose secret cannot be known by any of us
Until we enter Te Whiro’s kingdom.”

(from Autumn Testament by James K Baxter) 

Generally speaking, I’m a tolerant and compassionate person – it takes a lot to make me mad. But Thursday was an exception. My tolerance was decidedly out of order, and my compassion … who knows what happened to that?

Atlas sculpture on Collins Street, Melbourne

Atlas sculpture on Collins Street, Melbourne

Incipient civil war in Egypt, neurotoxins in Syria, anti-gay laws in Russia, gun-crazed killers in American schools, contaminated baby formula in China, beggars on our streets, cruelty to animals … a never-ending story of inhumanity and misery and fear. And the painkillers I’d taken seemed to be doing me no good.

“There is no mystery so great as misery,” Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince declares. And he’s pointing to a transcendent truth.

All the great religions attempt to tackle the problem of suffering – in a variety of ways. Humanists, rationalists, and atheists too, all find themselves facing the same sorts of questions – because, of course, we all live in the same world.

In the Buddha’s words: “Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering.” (See The Buddhist Society web-site)

In a blog calling itself Wild Mind, Sunada Takagi explains that “The Buddha’s teaching on suffering is that we need to accept the things we can’t control, such as loss, sickness, aging, and death. But for things we can affect, he advised that we change our conditions so that they’re more conducive to our happiness and spiritual growth.”

Islam exhorts the faithful to endure suffering with hope and faith. They are not expected to resist it, or to ask why. Instead, they are taught to accept it as God’s will and live through it with faith that God never asks more of them than they can endure. However, Islam also teaches the faithful to work actively to alleviate the suffering of others. Recognizing that they are the cause of their own suffering, individuals work to bring suffering to an end. (Patheos Library, adapted)

Jesus, according to St John, said: “I have spoken these things to you so that you shall have peace in me. You shall have suffering in the world, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33; Aramaic Bible in Plain English)

Baxter’s reference to “this curious world” calls to mind the words of Henry David Thoreau: “This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” And, like Thoreau, Baxter draws his reader’s attention to the inevitable and inescapable burden of human responsibility, human caring, human accountability: “to wake is to lift up / Again on one’s shoulders this curious world …”

I didn’t get swamped by my grumpiness. Neither did I grant it permission to assault anyone else. In the end, I simply had to lighten up and get over myself.

And (remember) when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am creating a mortal out of potter’s clay of black mud altered, (Qur’an 15:28, translated by M M Pickthall)

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NOTES:

1/ Baxter, James Keir; Millar, Paul (editor). 2001. James K Baxter : New Selected Poems. Auckland, New Zealand: Oxford University Press.
…….
— The passage from poem 7 in Autumn Testament is on page 141. 

2/ “Te Whiro’s kingdom” – According to Te Ara / The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Māori saw themselves as guardians of the earth, and the focus of their existence was to remain at one with the natural (and supernatural) world. Rather than a medical problem, sickness was often viewed as a symptom of disharmony with nature.” In a section dealing with the medicinal use of plants, Te Ara describes the god Whiro as  “a personified form of sickness, disease and death. Māori believed that sickness and disease often had spiritual roots.” 

3/ In Greek mythology, Atlas was the primordial Titan who held up the celestial sphere. He is also the titan of astronomy and navigation. (Wikipedia, adapted)

4/ The first publisher to associate the Titan Atlas with a group of maps was the print-seller Antonio Lafreri, on the engraved title-page he applied to his ad hoc assemblages of maps, Tavole Moderne Di Geografia De La Maggior Parte Del Mondo Di Diversi Autori (1572). (Wikipedia, adapted) 

5/ It has been suggested that Jesus was a Buddhist: see thezensite. But “Buddhism and Christianity have inherent and fundamental differences at the deepest levels.” (Wikipedia)

Counting syllables

cross light (09 Apr 2012)

cross light (09 Apr 2012)

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Counting syllables –
is this what makes a haiku?
Here’s mine! Now your turn.

(19 April 2013)

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Haiku follows very strict and complex rules (form and context). … In practice, everyone make his/her style that is more or less far from the classical haiku. (from “A few rules …” on a French site called temps libres : free times)

The list of rules is extensive, spiced with contradictions, and lightly seasoned with mistranslations and errata. Make of them what you will.

There’s one I like especially: “Respect the Buddhist attitude, to observe things far before criticize them, let your haiku express the wordless way of making images. No need of comment.”

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The photograph (first posted around a year ago): St Peter’s Apartments, opposite the Anglican Church, Wellington. It was this image, and not the green man, that persuaded me to cross Willis Street this morning.

Monday morning, Easter Weekend, zero traffic … who needs a green man?

We can’t all be right … or can we?

vast emptiness nothing holy

vast emptiness nothing holy

I have more than a few friends who all seem desperately to need to be right. Each and every one of them has a favourite topic – a hobby-horse – and an incontrovertible line of argument.

And well-thought-out opinions, in fact, on every subject, whether crucial or trivial.

But they don’t agree among themselves … and not one of them agrees with me.

There must be some over-arching or all-embracing truth somewhere, but the only thing I’m sure about is that I haven’t got it sussed.

It would appear that the “grumpy cat avatar” has become a sacred icon, an oracle, the mouthpiece of truth. Click on him and you’ll find he redirects to a painting by Seki Seisetsu (1877-1944), which features the same text.

And when you’re done with that, you might look at a piece about some famous words of Seng-ts’an: “Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.”

__________

“Do you ever doubt your own ideas? All the time. You should read what happens in linguistics. I keep changing what I said. Any person who is intellectually alive changes his ideas. If anyone at a university is teaching the same thing they were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead, or they haven’t been thinking.” (Noam Chomsky)

Everything goes … anything goes

everything goes

everything goes

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There is nothing that is permanent. There is nothing that stays. Everything goes. Which is an interesting fact about life. Everything goes. And when you understand this, everything goes. There are no restrictions anymore. You can do anything you wish, say anything you wish, think anything you wish, because you’re not trying to hold onto anything anymore. (Neale Donald Walsch

There’s a Bible meme that fits here: “And it came to pass …” More to the point, though, is an old proverb known to the medieval Sufi poets and with versions in Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish: “This too shall pass.”

Buddhist traditions also have a story in which this simple phrase is central.

So, given that there’s nothing to hold onto – and nothing to hold me back – what can I see myself getting up to next?

You are the sky

Sky over Washington Monument

Sky over Washington Monument

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You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather. (Pema Chödrön)

It’s the height of summer where I live – in Wellington, New Zealand. For some of my friends and loved ones, the summer sun is welcome; for others, the heat and humidity are enervating.

Meanwhile, in the northern hemisphere – in Turkey, in London, and in western Massachusetts – others are wrapped up and rugged up against the snow and the dark, cold nights.

Some of us “experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This condition is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.” (US National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health)

“Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common disorder, with its prevalence in the US ranging from 1.4 percent in Florida to 9.7 percent in New Hampshire. 

“The US National Library of Medicine notes that ‘some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and may also feel depressed. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up.’ The condition in the summer can include heightened anxiety.” (Wikipedia)

Someone very close to me seems to be under the mistaken impression that they have power to influence the weather: “If I hang my washing out, it’s sure to rain.”

As handy and versatile as the weather is as a topic of conversation, when all is said and done, it’s just the weather.

Wake up

John Cage. Portrait by Susan Schwartzenberg/ The Exploratorium

John Cage. Portrait by Susan Schwartzenberg/ The Exploratorium

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Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord. (John Cage)

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. (John Cage)

In spiritual practice all religions are connected


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If you examine the great religions of the world, you can discern philosophical and metaphysical views, on the one hand, and daily spiritual practice, on the other. Although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradict each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness, which will make us better, more devout people. (His Holiness The Dalai Lama)