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.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 | Robinson Jeffers: De Rerum Virtute | Tom Clark

“… a cathedral of ancient ice …”

word pond

This magnificent blue iceberg was shot from a ship off the South Sandwich Islands in Antarctica. It’s a cathedral of ancient ice, with a little group of Adélie penguins and a prion perfectly positioned overhead. To catch the moment and frame it perfectly reveals skill, in this case, of a photographer in love with ice: photo by Cherry Alexander, 1995, from 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year: How Wildlife Photography Became Art, edited by Rosamund Kidman Cox (Natural History Museum, 2014) via The Guardian, 17 September 2014

TOM CLARK.

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On Good Friday

Stations of the Cross #5, "Simon of Cyrene carries the cross", Notre-Dame Basilica, Geneva.

Stations of the Cross #5, “Simon of Cyrene carries the cross”, Notre-Dame Basilica, Geneva.

On Good Friday I sat in church, watching and listening as most of the congregation followed the priest around the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The woman with the walking-frame, stoically devout, completed the circuit with the others, while her white-muzzled black dog hobbled back and forth up and down the nave, stopping to receive attention from some of those who, like me, had remained in their pews.

Meditations translated from the words of French poet Paul Claudel were spoken gently by a man known for his work as a broadcaster. Between the meditations, periods of silence were terminated by spells of difficult and discordant organ music – some strident, some morose – which I could have done without.

I had earlier told the woman who had welcomed me that my parents had been married in this church, and that I had been baptized here.

I will return to St Peter’s on Willis on Easter Day, looking forward to the Eucharistic ritual I have not shared in since Midnight Mass at Wellington Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

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The tradition of moving around the Stations to commemorate the Passion of Christ began with St. Francis of Assisi and extended throughout the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval period. It is also observed in Lutheranism and Anglo-Catholicism. It is most commonly done during Lent, especially on Good Friday (from Wikipedia: Stations of the Cross).

Wikimedia Commons includes a page with links to images of twelve of the fourteen Stations of the Cross by sculptor Jean-Bernard Duseigneur. (This page gives his name as Jean-Baptiste Du Seigneur, and he is elsewhere known as Jehan Duseigneur; eg, on Paris Sculptures.) Born in Paris in 1808, Duseigneur studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, and in 1831 achieved renown when he exhibited Roland Furieux, often regarded as the first romantic sculpture (now in the Louvre). Soon afterwards he turned almost exclusively to the production of religious works (adapted from a brief article in Wikipedia).

PS – Easter Day: The old black dog, Emma, was there again today; she, like the other “regulars”, was wearing her name-tag. 

 

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)

 

 

Killing our children

memorial for Joe and Jadin Bell

memorial for Joe and Jadin Bell : photo credit, Brendan McCampbell

Jadin Bell dreamed of being a cheerleader.

Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had all been high school cheer-leaders. In their day, cheer-leading had been an all-male activity. Until as late as the 1950s, in fact, female cheer-leaders were banned.

“The reputation of having been a valiant cheer-leader,” wrote the editors of The Nation in 1911, “is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.” But, like so many other things, cheer-leading in America has changed since those days.

During his sophomore year at high school in La Grande, Oregon, Jadin successfully tried out for the cheer-leading team – the only boy to do so in recent memory. Jadin had hoped that cheer-leading would be a path to some measure of social acceptance in his broader community. It wasn’t.

On the afternoon of Saturday 19 January 2013, carrying a length of rope, the fifteen-year-old climbed onto his school’s playground equipment and hanged himself. A passer-by found him nine minutes later, but in that time all brain activity had shut down, and Jadin never regained consciousness. After ten days, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, decided to take him off life support, and Jadin died on 3 February 2013.

Jadin Bell’s suicide, in the words of Pauls Toutonghi, “became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying,” (See Note 1/ below.)

In late April, Joe Bell set off on a walk across the country to share the story of his son’s death and raise awareness about bullying.

On 15 October, The New York Times published an item under the headline, Oregon Father’s Memorial Trek Across Country Ends in a Family’s Second Tragedy. On 9 October, Joe Bell’s life had “ended in an instant on a two-lane road in rural eastern Colorado. He was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer whose driver had apparently fallen asleep, the state police said.”

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in America, 4,600 young people take their own lives,” Pauls Toutonghi tells us. “This number is astonishing in its bigness. Yet the shocking truth – the idea that the way we live, as a society, is killing thousands of our children each year – produces little disturbance in our collective consciousness. Maybe this is because each suicide feels so individualized.”

On National Coming Out Day (11 October 2013), Brendon McCampbell wrote: “I am queer. With the loving acceptance of my family and friends, I can unabashedly admit this. As a child, however, I struggled greatly with my sexuality. I was poisoned by our society to believe that there was something wrong with me. The truth is this: there is something wrong with our society. We need to accept, support, and love people regardless of sex, gender, race, shape, ability, religion, or politics. Today is National Coming Out Day, and I hope you accept everyone in your life. We need to live in a world where Jadin was accepted by his peers and lived happily with his father and family.” (Facebook, 11 October 2013)

In his posthumously-published autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth), Goethe wrote that “suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew.”

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NOTES:

1/ Much of the information I have used in this post was adapted from Pauls Toutonghi’s heartfelt article – “They ripped him apart”: Searching for answers in the suicide of bullied teen Jadin Bell – published in Salon on 8 September 2013.

2/ Read about the passing of Joe Bell on Joe’s Walk for Change. Also see La Grande remembers Joe and Jadin Bell: ‘Stand up to a bully’ .

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)

Culture of encounter – the foundation of peace

Pope Francis with dove

Pope Francis

“Doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions, and creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace: this is what Pope Francis said at Mass this morning at the Domus Santae Martae …” (Vatican Radio, 22 May 2013)

“In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff distinguished himself with a call for tolerance and a message of support – and even admiration – toward nonbelievers.” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The pope spoke of the need to meet each other somewhere on our on common ground. “Pope Francis … stated that it doesn’t matter if people are non-believers as long as ‘we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.'” (Free Your Mind and Think (24 May 2013))

But doing good, according to Francis, is not a matter of faith. On 16 March this year, the new pontiff told journalists he was “inspired to take the 11th-century saint’s name because he was ‘the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,’ the same created world ‘with which we don’t have such a good relationship.'” (Catholic News Service) For Francis, doing good clearly means tackling the world’s problems.

“This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace,” Francis explains. The story in Salon calls the pope’s words “a deeper affirmation of his comments back in March, when he declared that the faithful and atheists can be ‘precious allies … to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.'” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The words of the Dalai Lama come to mind here: “Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”

Predictably, Pope Francis’ call to “do good” has met with a wide range of responses. One comment on Facebook was quick to remind us that “he still condemns same-sex marriage, last I heard.” Other comments accuse the Roman Catholic Church of “protecting pedophile priests”.

On and on it goes.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. (Rūmī)

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. (Rūmī)

Could it be? Yes, it could

West Side Story: The New Broadway Cast Recording (2009) – record cover

West Side Story: The New Broadway Cast Recording (2009) – cd cover

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Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known. (Carl Sagan)

Something fabulous is out there taking shape, emerging, peeking, and calling your name. (quoted in Seed of Fabulosity on Soulseeds)

My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method. (Carl Sagan, quoted in Carl Sagan: A Biography, by Ray Spangenburg and Diane Moser) .

Could be! Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye, Bright as a rose!

Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!

With a click, with a shock,
Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock,
Open the latch!
Something’s coming, don’t know when, but it’s soon;
Catch the moon,
One-handed catch!

Around the corner,
Or whistling down the river,
Come on, deliver
To me!
Will it be? Yes, it will.
Maybe just by holding still,
It’ll be there!

Come on, something, come on in, don’t be shy,
Meet a guy,
Pull up a chair!
The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Maybe tonight . . .

(Lyrics: Something’s Coming from West Side Story, Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

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Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Diane. 2004. Carl Sagan: A Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group. 

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?