Monday, February 25, 2013

APHRODITE AND THE JOY OF THE BODY

Aphrodite of Rhodes, 3rd Century BCE
 

APHRODITE

Beauty is more profound than truth.   ~ Oscar Wilde

“All men will disappoint you,”
said a man I loved madly,
the way you can love only once.
“This will lead you to God.”

His words branded me like lightning.
I knew he was right. 

The Prince turns into a frog,
the dream house burns down.

But God also disappoints,
senile mumbler in the sky.

If only my prophet said:
to beauty. To Aphrodite –

quivering drops of light
startled with delay, delight.

Faith is the opposite of fate –
luxurious, lavish, arguably right.

But my lovers were as ruthless
as Zen masters. The youngest,


God’s severe critic,
the one who committed suicide,
shouted, “Why should we hide
our private parts? Let’s expose
 

ourselves every chance we get.
Confront him with the mess
he made! Asshole!”
He shook his impotent 


fist toward the sky. “At least
you’re on talking terms,”
I enviously sighed.

But not with Aphrodite, no. 

Kallipygos,
“of the beautiful behind.”



~ Oriana © 2013

*

I admit I was startled to hear my beloved call god an asshole (he actually did it multiple times that day, each time bringing up yet another problem with “intelligent design”). In retrospect I think it’s common to feel angry at god, and even to hate god (I imagine only too clearly how different childhood would have been if I were allowed to hate god . . . or at least not trying to force myself to love him.) 


It's easy to feel a burning anger at god, a bitter rage and resentment, especially if you still semi-believe in an omnipotent being who did a poor job creating the world, with all its built-in problems. He's either an actively evil Godzilla or a passive deity who couldn't care less, who remains silent and inactive, not lifting a finger to prevent tsunamis or genocide, much less help with one’s personal problems. Hence the Yiddish proverb: “If god lived on earth, people would break his windows.”

It’s only when atheism becomes complete that the anger (sometimes even vehement rage: asked to meditate on divine love, one woman cried out, “Where was divine love when I was raped?”) disappears. After all, non-existence is the perfect excuse. 



Another man not on good terms with Aphrodite

There has been much talk about the “culture wars.” Conservatives sense that they have lost: the nineteenth century really is over. But it’s the second half of the nineteenth century that introduced the idea that Western culture is a difficult fusion of the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek values (Hebraism and Hellenism, as Matthew Arnold put it in his famous essay). It was easy to guess that Hellenism -- beauty and intellectual freedom -- held more appeal to the educated.


Later a bolder formulation was born: the quarrel between Jerusalem (faith, obedience) and Athens (reason, beauty). At this point, hellenistic values seem to be winning. Can you imagine “Follow your bliss” as the motto of the Victorians, much less during the Middle Ages?

I am not sure about the Protestant churches (though it’s common knowledge that old-time Calvinism was extra-grim, with its doctrines of Total Depravity and Limited Election). Thanks in part to my grandmother, I do know that old-time Catholicism glorified suffering. Suffering was good for you: “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Suffering here on earth meant fewer centuries in the fires of Purgatory. Even minor suffering, a headache, say, was an occasion for NOT taking aspirin. Suffer now so you can suffer a bit less in the afterlife: what's a headache next to a century of purgatorial fire? Catholic chic was to suffer NOW.


Goya: A procession of flagellants, 1812

Getting back to “Jerusalem versus Athens,” I need to clarify that it means not so much ancient Jerusalem as Christianity, especially its Puritan or fundamentalist version, including what I call “old-time Catholicism.”

(Shameless digression: I always thought that Matthew Arnold was in love with Hellenism and its pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic delight, “seeing things in their beauty and essence.” Then he’d catch himself and assert that Hebraism gave us ethics -- as if morality existed only within Hebraism, and the ancient Stoics, for instance, did not have a stern ideal of conduct.)

But let us focus on the triumph of Hellenism. In what ways have the hellenistic values won? Here is the pronouncement of an eminent Polish historian of Ancient Greece:

I bring joyful news: the gods are back! Let me summarize it in four major points:

1. the joy of the body, games, sports.

2. the joy of sex between consenting adults. In the eyes of the immortal gods, sex is good; it’s not a sin.

3. the joy of knowledge, meaning freedom of inquiry and the true cult of science. We have finally dropped the idea that the ultimate truth comes from revelation. We use our limited mind, the faint lantern of our reason, to light up the surrounding darkness. For fifteen centuries Christianity managed to prevent the progress of science. Since truth is contained in revelation, what’s the point of seeking it? Religion is not just irrational; it's anti-rational. But slowly, slowly, since the Renaissance we’ve been returning to the idea that all we have is our reason. And we are discovering the magnificence of the Universe.

4. the joy of democracy. It was created in ancient Greece and grafted onto Rome, which remained a republic for several centuries. Now we claim that democracy is the best political system, and it should be adopted everywhere --  including the Catholic church. But it will be most difficult to democratize the church, since the church is anti-democratic; it stands for theocracy and feudalism, left over from the Middle Ages.


~ Aleksander Krawczuk, interview in Pantheleon, December 29, 2009; translated by Oriana

Yes, that’s the main the subversive idea of hellenistic values: that life should be a joy, that we should be happy here, on earth, rather than focused on suffering and doing penance for sins (e.g. the contemplation of the five wounds of Christ; see the Brigidine Sisters). Furthermore, the anti-rational and anti-democratic (hierarchal) attitudes of organized religion seem more and more out of touch with the reality of the modern world.

I wouldn’t go as far as agreeing that “the black is worse than the red,” the slogan of the Polish anti-clerical liberals, the black standing for Catholic clergy and the stranglehold of the Catholic church over the nation. True, the intrusive power of the church is the prime reason I could no longer live in Poland, but if by “the red” we mean communism rather than democratic socialism, then the crimes of Moscow-controlled dictatorships cannot be so easily forgotten. Nor can the crimes of the church.

The chief crime of the church, as I’ve come to see it, has been the manipulation of the believers through the fear of hell. If you make a child believe that s/he is a terrible sinner and needs redemption to avoid being punished in hell for eternity, you paint god as a cruel tyrant. When a Methodist told me, “I was taught that god loved me and would help me if I needed help,” I was totally envious. As a child I had some hope that Mary might help me -- only Mary seemed to be a true figure of mercy -- but Mary’s power was limited by the monstrous god of wrath, the Old Testament Godzilla.

True, the church has relaxed its doctrines so as to allow non-Catholics to enter heaven, for instance. There isn’t quite the old emphasis on sin and hell, and the radical idea, “God loves you,” can be heard from a priest. I don’t remember ever hearing it in my childhood, but I did hear it from one American priest (and no doubt many others say it too; I suspect it’s one way the church wants to become like the Protestant churches it would like to absorb). And the infallible new definition of hell stresses that it’s a state of mind rather than an actual place with fire and brimstone and devils with pitchforks pushing the damned deeper into the huge cauldrons. And yet, for all the progress, I just came across a long comment from a Christian who cited “fire insurance” as the main reason to believe.

(Shameless digression: in my brain, everything connects with everything else, so I suddenly remember St. Paul’s “It’s better to marry than to burn” -- a sad reason for getting married.)

On the whole, the church is still a reactionary institution, anti-life, anti-sex, anti-woman, pro-blind obedience and anti-free inquiry. It’s just that, as Milosz observed, it’s not really possible to tell a modern person that real life begins only after death. As in antiquity, we have come to value THIS life rather than a vague afterlife, “doing nothing for ever and ever.” We have also come to see the body and sexuality as good and natural (how did THAT happen? It’s silly to point to Freud, who himself was quite repressed and by no means in favor of a liberated libido), rather than as evil and sinful. Yes, the gods have returned.

**


SAINTS? OR ANOREXICS AND SELF-MUTILATORS?

It’s almost too much fun writing about sin, the concept which poisoned my childhood. What strikes me now is that sin was not defined as hurting someone, but as offending god. Thus, not going to church on Sunday was a sin; falling asleep during prayers was a sin. Not feeling love for god -- worse, doubting his existence -- was a sin so profound that it called up images of the desert hermits “mortifying the flesh” in the hope of attaining grace: beating their breasts with a rock, whipping themselves with very nasty “disciplines,” depriving themselves of sleep, wearing itchy hair-shirts and belts woven of thorns, fasting. They were the ultimate, I think, in their obsession with sin and self-punishment. 


Why the cruelty to the self? Aside from the church’s constant preaching about sin and the call to penance, what we see here is probably the phenomenon of internalization. The times were cruel, and child-rearing was harsh. A child who experiences a lot of punishment is likely to start punishing himself.

Today these self-mortifying saints would be classified as suffering from a variety of mental disorders, but centuries ago they were considered holy men and women. It’s not clear what sins they were trying to atone for -- most likely the original sin of being human. Again, we see a terrific change in attitudes across the centuries, though it is only recent decades that made “follow your bliss,” “live in the moment” and “enjoy” into mottos that eclipsed skulls, whips, and rocks for mea-culpa breast beating (or, if you were a Protestant, enduring three-hour sermons on falling into the hands of an angry god).

Only in our times could this poem about Saint Jerome be written:

Jerome in Solitude

To see the lizard there,
I was amazed I did not have to beat
My breast with a stone.

If a lion lounged nearby,
He must have curled in a shadow of a cypress,
For nobody shook a snarled mane and stretched out
To lie at my feet.

And, for a moment,
I did not see Christ retching in pain, longing
To clutch his cold abdomen,
Sagging, unable to rise or fall, the human
Flesh torn between air and air.

I was not even
Praying, unless: no,
I was not praying.

A rust branch fell suddenly
Down from a dead cypress
And blazed gold. I leaned close.
The deep place in the lizard’s eye
Looked back into me.

Delicate green sheaths
Folded into one another.
The lizard was alive,
Happy to move.

But he did not move.
Neither did I.
I did not dare to.

~ James Wright

The most telling part of the poem is

I was not even
Praying, unless: no,
I was not praying.

~ it’s the “unless” that turns to a different definition of prayer: paying complete and non-judgmental attention to the moment. That is the modern definition of the state of grace and paradise: seeing the beauty of things right now, in this life; the “eternal moment” of looking into the lizard’s eye -- “delicate green sheaths / folded into one another.” 



Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome, 1480 (yes, that is a chest-beating rock that Jerome is holding in his right hand)

**

NOT ONLY SCIENCE, BUT ALSO ART

Most people assume the progress of science is the chief factor undermining religion. But since the Renaissance, there has been another force working in favor of the “joy of the body” and the joy of life: the visual arts.

Since its inception, the Catholic church correctly saw that art could be made to serve religion. What the church failed to foresee was the emergence of secular art that celebrated the human. It’s the kind of art that is an example of “practical atheism” -- it’s not “anti-theist,” but religion is simply absent. At this point we are so used to secular art that we need to go to a museum to be reminded how medieval art was pretty much exclusively religious, and how stiff and awkward the figures were before Leonardo’s and Raphael’s beautiful madonnas.

By banning from churches images other than the cross, Protestantism reinforced the secular trend in art. When Dutch painters painted the sky, they painted wonderful clouds without god or the angels. “Above us, only sky” -- John Lennon’s “Imagine” was prefigured by landscape painters.

As for the objection that those painters were believers, I am tempted to reply that a true artist worships only art, never mind how jealous god might be. But a more interesting issue here is “practical atheism.” Unlike militant atheism, practical atheism is not expressed through debunking the alleged proofs of god’s existence. Rather, it ignores religion. Practical atheism celebrates the world and the human. A milkmaid becomes a fit subject for a painting since she too is beautiful in the light. 


Vermeer: Milkmaid, 1657

But let us leave the most famous (if anonymous) milkmaid in the world to enjoy another such image: Girl Chopping Onions, by Gerrit Dou (1646). Yes, even servants and onions were to be celebrated. The secret was out: life was beautiful and to be enjoyed. 


*

FALSIFYING THE SECOND COMMANDMENT

How come the Catholic church allowed statues and paintings, in blatant violation of the Second Commandment?

You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them [i.e., the graven images]; for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, adapted from the NASV)

Thus, to make a graven image is to “hate” Yahweh. Punishment for doing so will be “visited” not only on the image makers, but also to their descendants, even the fourth generation. The Catholic church had to find a way out of this, so it moved away from the image-less god of Sinai and introduced the Trinity: the anthropomorphic Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit symbolized by the dove (a nice concession to the animal kingdom; never mind that the dove used to be sacred to Aphrodite).


But the text of the Second Commandment remained a problem, so the church simply changed it to “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The way the nun explained it to us in catechism classes, this was a prohibition of swearing and bad language in general, even if god’s name was not directly invoked.

We were amazed that using swear words was such a bad sin. Whose father didn’t swear multiple times a day? And what about us children, letting a “bad word” escape our lips when we happened to stub a toe, for instance? Were we doomed to hellfire for this? Today it seems silly, but at the age of eight and nine I agonized even over euphemisms. God would not be fooled by euphemisms, I knew that.

But swearing as a sin is a minor issue next to the falsification of the Second Commandment. The church knew that it would be hard for the average Christian to “relate to” an image-less deity, what with the beauty of polytheistic art still around in the early centuries. And art, with its emotional power, could be used to serve the church. In addition, most of the faithful were illiterate, and art could teach them the stories of the Gospels.

What the church did not predict was the Renaissance and the art that followed. Once human beauty was re-discovered and rendered in painting and sculpture, it would become a good thing in itself. When the plate-like solid halos go and the Madonna is presented as a beautiful young woman, it’s not a big step not only to secular portraits of beautiful women, but to Aphrodite. I’ll skip Boticelli’s famous Birth of Venus and the plump fleshpots by Titian and Rubens in favor of the little known Venus by Cranach -- talk about a fashion plate! (1531; Cupid is holding a honeycomb)



My favorite is still the graceful Aphrodite of Rhodes. How could such beauty, once rediscovered, remain non-subversive? Would we not rather look at Aphrodite than contemplate the five wounds of Christ?

Like Krawczuk, I admire the ethical teachings of Christ. What I condemn is the old-time Catholic cult of suffering and rejection of the world and the human body. I’ve added “old-time” because I realize that I speak of the past. The culture wars are not over, but it’s already certain which side is going to win: the pagan joy of life is back. The joy of the body is back. The gods have returned. 


** 

Post-script:

Here is a quotation from an earlier blog post about Milosz's two souls (one Catholic, the other pagan):

In A Year of the Hunter, Milosz reminisces: “I had even published in Verbum [a liberal Catholic periodical, in contrast to “the hideous Catholicism of The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin”]. Jerzy Andrzejewski [the author of Ashes and Diamonds] and I used to go retreats there, without any good results, but at least we honestly confessed to each other that the ascetic, prayerful atmosphere produced in us a wild craving for vodka and steak.” (p. 197) This craving for sensory satisfaction, rejected by Catholicism as sinful, is part of the pagan love of life, of carpe diem rather than the hope for heaven, which another liberal Catholic described as “only another hell, a hell of boredom” (Karol KoniƄski, quoted on p. 193).

And I was reminded of what Mary Krane Derr (now sadly gone from us) said: the life-hating, body-hating theology grew out of historical trauma, e.g. the Great Famine in Ireland. I think it didn't take anything as extreme as the Great Famine or the Black Death, though such disasters certainly induced the most theological cruelty, since disasters were seen as divine punishment. But let’s face it, in the past, everyday life was full of suffering (frequent war, disease, children dying; a lot of dying all around). Life was “short and brutish,” especially (but not only) for the poor, that religion naturally focused on the afterlife, rejecting the earth and the body as evil.

It's interesting, though, that the Greco-Roman civilization gave us the alternative: love of this life. The pagan gods were happy; no deity was centered on suffering.  

Hyacinth:

Just finished a biography of Tolstoy, and in the photos he appeared tall and in this he appears short. I picture him as commanding.

I liked the faint "lantern of our reason." When we are so soaked in our respective religions the reason is indeed faint and discouraged. I strongly believe life should be full of joy and laughter (the best medicine) and the arts bring me joy even the works based on religions. They are still beautiful  and treasures.

Even as a child I had difficulty accepting a cruel and jealous god and hell. Self-torture and punishment are so distasteful to me. I think of Dimsdale and the Scarlet Letter. Sickening.
 


Oriana:

The photo I used shows Tolstoy in old age. He was pretty tall for his times, and certainly long-lived. But note how miserable he looks. Here is another photo of him in old age, scowling:

 
Tolstoy at 80, Yasnaya Polyana

Though my mother, intimidated by my iron-willed grandmother, let me be raised as a Catholic, when I was ten or so she said, out of nowhere (perhaps she was reacting to my obvious anxiety and brooding), “There is no hell. God wouldn’t be so cruel.” I realized this was a huge blasphemy, and not believing in hell would be enough to doom you to hell for eternity. The pious view was that god would indeed be so cruel, except that the word for it was “just.” Even now, I think, many people speak of “justice” when they mean “vengeance.”

Religion of course has a vested interest in putting down reason.
At first the church wasn't entirely against reason; during the Middle Ages it even encouraged learning, based on the naive idea that reason would provide proofs of god's existence (and medieval scholars did come up with some, easily refuted). And the church was a patron of the arts, which eventually blew up in its face.

I too love beautiful churches and beautiful religious art. Most religious art is awful, but the masterpieces are ours to enjoy forever.

It took cruel men to invent a cruel god. The idea of compassion took a long time to evolve -- and even now cruelty is a heavy problem (Islam, Christian fundamentalists who do not “spare the rod” and carry posters threatening hell). Nietzsche: “Religions are, at bottom, systems of cruelty.”

Hyacinth:

I had problems with the threats in the Bible. Sounded too much like bullying. As for swearing I'm the worst though I did it silently when my children were little but that is what I heard growing up and even though my mother washed my mouth out with soap the words were there. Now I voice my frustration with the inability to do the most normal things such as opening a can or peeling an apple.  I do it a lot. Dropping thing brings on a swathe of bad language. I'm not proud of it but it's a fact, especially if it makes a mess to clean up, as in knocking over a pitcher of OJ.

 
Oriana:

The threats: let’s face it, religion works through intimidation more than anything else. Keep them scared, and you don't really need to invent an attractive heaven. Just make sure that hell is vivid. Monotheism in particular is fear-based, hell-based. As that Christian correspondent put it, he believes because faith is “fire insurance.” How pathetic!


In a matter of half a century, we have indeed moved a long way toward the joy of life, toward tenderness. As for swearing, what's so terrible about that? Is this a sin for which you’d send anyone to hell for eternity? It’s just so ridiculous, the things that got called a sin. I hope the word eventually disappears from the language.

But I used to worry for real. After communion you're supposed to be in the state of grace, and in old-time Catholicism, you went to communion only if you were in the state of grace, and not in the state of sin. But within a few days I might slip and fall, use a bad word, and oh, no! Sin! I'm back to being a wretched sinner! A child doesn't have a clear understanding of what constitutes "sin." I assumed that pretty much everything was sin. I was reluctant to get out of bed because I thought oh, no! soon I'll be sinning again! Funny now, but it was truly distressing back then.

Luckily for us, the gods have returned.



Scott:

Enjoyed your blog as usual, always thought provoking. Especially enjoyed the pictures and commentaries on Tolstoy. I have a book of his writings that has the picture you have of him, seated, on the cover. He is a source of endless fascination to me; rich, titled, talented, long life, loving wife, large family, fame in his own lifetime.....and utterly miserable! His many attempts at piety; no sex, no meat,  no smokes, making his own shoes, his strict code of ethics all failed to satisfy and reduced him to fleeing the safety and love of family to die in a train station...horribly tragic. As much as I admire Melville, he too was always running from wife and family; several sea voyages, a romp through Virginia during the Civil War and his latter years spent in a morose solitude...though he did write his best poetry in that period.


Oriana:

Both Melville and Tolstoy had not only discordant marriages, at least in later years, but also what I’d call “unresolved metaphysical obsessions.” Dostoyevski was blessed with a wonderfully supportive second wife with whom he remained passionately in love; he adored his children also, and they him. True, he admitted to being a doubter, but because of his personal attachment to Christ he managed to have a lot of positive emotions. And he freely expressed his doubt through some of his most memorable characters, so there was the joy of constant inspiration.

Running away from his wife and dying at a train station as a closure to a great writer’s life -- I know what you mean. I want to produce that blog I’ve been thinking about since my e-apocalyptic summer: The Day Dostoyevski Died. It’s an amazing story, filled with love.


Charles:

The quarrel between (faith, obedience) and (reason, beauty) is more complicated than what it appears on the surface.

"One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist" is not a Judeo-Christian value but that is what is taught in public schools today. Is that reason?

This concept of not knowing the difference between good and evil is winning in this world we live in. That can't be a good thing.

On the other hand, putting the fear of God in the mind of a child is child abuse.

After reading this blog it would be very difficult for an open-minded person to still be a believer in the doctrines of the church.

Looks like St. Jerome pounded a stone in his own chest.

My favorite section in the blog is NOT ONLY SCIENCE, BUT ALSO ART.

"Practical Atheism" is an entire book.

This is one of my favorite blogs. Congratulations.


Oriana:

I especially agree that indoctrinating a child with “the fear of God” is child abuse.

I also agree that Jerusalem versus Athens oversimplifies the conflict, and we most definitely need clear ethics. I am not a moral relativist. There is absolute evil, and we must not be silent about it.





Wednesday, February 20, 2013

BREAKING UP: THE GHOST OF THE FIRST DAYS

O'Keefe: Narcissa's last orchid

THE LAST HOUR

Suddenly, the last hour
before he took me to the airport, he stood up,
bumping the table, and took a step
toward me, and like a figure in an early
science fiction movie he leaned
forward and down, and opened an arm,
knocking my breast, and he tried to take some
hold of me, I stood and we stumbled,
and then we stood, around our core, his
hoarse cry of awe, at the center,
at the end, of our life. Quickly, then,
the worst was over, I could comfort him,
holding his heart in place from the back
and smoothing it from the front, his own
life continuing, and what had
bound him, around his heart—and bound him
to me—now lying on and around us,
sea-water, rust, light, shards,
the little eternal curls of eros
beaten out straight.

~ Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap

This poem from the latest collection by Sharon Olds has been haunting me. I keep seeing the husband bumping the table as he stands up. Such a small, trivial thing, it happens thousands of times and means nothing, is quickly forgotten -- and yet, in the context of the last hour together, suddenly unforgettable. The whole description of the stumbling is excellent, though I’d gladly skip the simile --“like a figure in an early / science fiction movie he leaned” -- in order to keep the narrative fast-paced. But it could be argued that the simile creates distance and lessens the pain through a bit of humor that, like the attempt at an embrace, doesn’t quite work.

The way these two people who have been married for thirty years now suddenly can’t hug with habitual ease, without awkwardness and bumping and stumbling, says everything. And yet the speaker manages to assume the woman’s archetypal role of the comforter, the ever-supportive angel “holding his heart in place”:

                                Quickly, then,
the worst was over, I could comfort him,
holding his heart in place from the back
and smoothing it from the front


The wife’s steadying him conveys her understanding and forgiveness. I almost want to exclaim: Are you sure you want to break up? You are still so loving toward each other; you are a good team . . .

For me the poem could end right here: “holding his heart in place from the back / and smoothing it from the front” is brilliant writing, a fusion of metaphor and physical detail; it would make a perfect closure. Until the point the poem is achingly physical.  And we are made aware that these two were closely bound by the sexual bond: all the love-making that had gone on for thirty years, what the speaker considers to have been the core of their togetherness:

and then we stood around our core, his
hoarse cry of awe, at the center,
at the end, of our life.


It’s his come-cry that enters here like a ghost, that must be parted with now. And the erotic bond dissolves:

the little eternal curls of eros
beaten out straight.


“Beaten out” is a great choice of words. The couple is no longer in the realm of the winged god.

Still, for all the good moments in this poem, I can’t seem to forget the husband’s bumping the table as he gets up. For some reason that has registered more strongly for me than his bumping her breast in what I assume is a sideways embrace, or in any case an awkward half-embrace. The ghost of his come-cry and the departure of Eros are interwoven here, but the hardness of the table and the slight jabbing pain have a physical reality that engraves itself on memory.

This is meant to be an amicable parting, so there is no mention of the fact that he is leaving for another woman. Besides, and here I speak on the basis of interviews, Olds understands that they had grown unsuited to each other, and this was indeed for the best -- the letting go as the last act of caring, of true love that leaves behind erotic possessiveness. Yet parting is never easy -- not for the one being left, who can’t help feeling hurt, nor for the one doing the leaving, who feels bad about causing the hurt.


*

“The Last Hour” is a near-perfect example of “taking a narrow slice,” focusing on one specific incident. What defines the moment of  parting is the husband’s bumping the table as he rises. I hardly need the rest to tell me about his nervousness and awkwardness -- precisely when he means to be gracious and magnanimously affectionate. This one detail establishes the truthfulness of the poem.

*

Something as mundane as bumping the table selected by the speaker to convey emotional tension reminded me of Akhmatova’s famous lines about the glove from “The Song of the Last Meeting”:

My breast was so cold, so helpless,
But light was my step.
I put the left glove
On my right hand.

Hardly anything is so eloquent as the right detail.

“The Last Hour” also brought back to me Akhmatova’s “Parting.” That poem too has a very memorable opening -- memorable in a different way, not through detail but through a broad, panoramic statement that distills insight about the entire relationship. The poem offers both a “narrow slice” -- the whole extraordinary second section -- and a broader perspective about the years it took these two history-crossed lovers to part (Nikolay Punin, an eminent art critic and curator of the Hermitage museum, died in a gulag).

It is also a poem of irony. “The Last Hour” contains some irony, if that’s the way we choose to look at the awkwardness. But “Parting” delivers painful irony over and over.

The last section is usually presented as a separate poem, and yet I feel it belongs to the sequence, as suggested by one of Akhmatova’s translators, A. S. Kline. In “The Last Toast” history asserts itself, the whole age, “cruel and coarse.” The thirties were a dreadful time in the Soviet Union. When we read Akhmatova, we cannot forget history. The speaker’s personal suffering is a small part of the great grief all around her. As Akhmatova wrote:

That was the time when only the dead
could smile, happy to be at rest.

*

PARTING

I

Not weeks, not months – years
We spent parting. Now at last
The chill of real freedom,
And the gray garland above the temples.

No more treasons, no more betrayals,
And you won’t be listening till dawn
As the stream of evidence
Of my perfect innocence flows on.

II

And as always happens in the last days,
The ghost of the first days knocked at our door,
And in burst the silver willow
In branching magnificence.

To us, frenzied, disdainful and bitter,
Not daring to raise our eyes from the ground,
A bird began to sing in a rapturous voice
About how we cherished each other.


III The Last Toast

I drink to our ruined house,
To all life’s evils too,
To the loneliness we shared,
And I, I drink to you –

To the eyes, dead and cold,
To the lips, lying and treacherous,
To the age, cruel and coarse,
To the fact that God has not saved us.

 ~ Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hemschemyer and A.S. Kline (modified)

The opening instantly refers to a theme so vast it seems infinite: time. Akhmatova takes in a panorama of time. Though she is “in the moment” in Section II, the emotional power of that section comes from the hold of the past on the present: the return, during the last days, of the “ghost of first days.” But the genius of Section I lies in precisely in distilling the workings of time: “Not weeks, not months -- years / We spent parting.” Anyone who’s been through a reasonably long marriage and a divorce understands this.

But let’s turn to irony. The first instance of irony we encounter lies in the fact that the couple spent years in parting. This goes counter to any romantic notion of marriage. Yet it’s only some couples who keep growing closer over the years, forming a deeper attachment that we honor more than the waning excitement of romantic love. It’s lasting love, the commitment of married love: patiently letting the marriage go through its various stages until a beautiful cooperation prevails. As someone put it, the husband and wife need to realize that they are both on the same side. Sometimes it can’t be done; the two people are too ill-matched, or perhaps the circumstances have changed and are against the marriage. Many couples “keep parting.”

And then comes the overtly ironic statement about what freedom means: now the partner will not have to “listen till dawn / As the stream of evidence / Of my perfect innocence flows on.” The hyperbole of “perfect innocence” makes it plain that the speaker knows that both parties are “guilty” but self-justifying.

In the superb second section, Akhmatova beautifully observes what many others confirmed: that as break-up becomes inevitable, something from the first days of love comes back to remind the couple how intensely they fell for each other. It’s the irony of circumstances: it takes the ending to remember the beginning. The intensity is back, if only temporarily. Some divorcing couples, suddenly again attractive to each other, even being dating again.

Another irony here is very simple: it’s springtime, the season of love. Hence the silver catkins of the willow and the birdsong. There’s freshness and joy in the air -- but these two lovers are parting. (By the way, it’s worth noting that here Akhmatova lets nature come into the poem -- the wider world -- something that we don’t see in Olds’s poem.)

And then the last toast -- surely the most bitter toast in all of poetry. The bitterness is so deep that “sarcasm” would be a better word than mere irony. Normally we raise toast to all the good things in life: health, happiness, prosperity, success. Akhmatova uses the custom of toasting to turn in its head: she raises a toast to dreadful things. Some of it is straightforward irony: instead of drinking to companionship, she drinks to “the loneliness we shared.” But history forces itself in. The lying lips are not just the lover’s lips; they are the lips of spies and others who seek gain in denouncing their neighbors. The lover’s cruelty is overwhelmed by the massive cruelty of the era. And the last illusion is shattered: the speaker knows that “God has not saved us.” This is desolate knowledge: God, to whom millions have been praying for salvation, has not stirred to save anyone -- not the whole country.

As for history, Akhmatova experienced an excess of it. To get the flavor of just how horrible the times were, let’s consider this passage from her biography by Elaine Feinstein:

With Lev [Akhmatova’s son] in the Kresty prison, Akhmatova stood outside in the long queues in the hope of learning something about him, or to beg the guard to take in a food parcel for him. Lydia Chukovskaya [Akhmatova’s close friend] often waited with her in the same queue, hoping to have news of her husband. Unknown to Chukovskaya, Bronstein’s sentence of “ten years’ exile without benefit of correspondence” was in reality a euphemism for execution and he had already been shot.” (p. 169)

The reason that Chukovskaya’s husband was arrested and executed was that his last name happened to be the same as Trotsky’s real last name: Bronstein. It didn’t matter that the husband, like many other Bronsteins in Russia, wasn’t related to the exiled leader of the October Revolution and the organizer of the Red Army, at one time second only after Lenin.

(A shameless digression: A Moscow rabbi said like a prophet, “Lev Trotsky signs the check, but Leyba Davidovich Bronstein will pay the price.”)



Propaganda poster of Trotsky, 1918
 

Why was Akhmatova seen as a threat to the Soviet state? No one denounced her for having written a poem in which Stalin’s mustache is compared to cockroach’s whiskers (that was Mandelstam’s doom). She was known as a poet of love; romantic love and the loss of it are her number one subject. As for later poems such as the Requiem sequence, they were memorized by Akhmatova and Chukovskaya, and the text was burned; the state had no evidence against her. And yet she was a threat precisely as a poet who wrote mainly about love. Or, to put it more broadly, about human connections.

In 1946 Akhmatova was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, her poetry denounced as “utterly individualistic.” A totalitarian regime or religion cannot tolerate individualism. Inner life is not even supposed to exist. Instead of giving oneself totally to the service of the state or the church, a true poet dares to write about such private matters as falling in love. It’s not propaganda. Romance is subversive. The family is subversive. Both insist that values other than those officially sanctioned come first. Akhmatova was accused of poisoning the minds of Soviet youth.

Nor is a poet ever going to agree that making a profit is the highest value, so poetry does not go well with unregulated capitalism either. The beloved -- can this word even be pronounced when blind obedience to the state, the church, or any system or institution is demanded?
 

Nikolay Gumilyov, Lev Gumilyov, Akhmatova, 1913

Lost Tram



It rushed like a dark, winged storm,


And was lost in the abyss of time . . . 

Tram-driver, stop,

Stop the tram now.  

~ Nikolay Gumilyov (executed in 1921)

(Shameless digression: in a dream I was riding a streetcar in Warsaw. I got off in front of the Polytechnic, where the tracks make a wide turn. A row of chestnut trees. But the street and the tracks suddenly break off into white blankness.)

*

I have long been interested in the question of what makes poem great as opposed to “minor.” I think it’s the largeness of vision that puts Akhmatova in a different rank and gives her work its emotional power. I think my own distinction works well of Olds vs Akhmatova: “poetry as higher journalism” (Olds) versus “poetry as underworld” (spare details presented with the knowledge of Time the Destroyer; death enters in some manner, or, if not death, then silence, sleep, absence).

One could also invoke the difference between information and knowledge.  Olds seems intent on exploring and saying everything she can. Akhmatova is careful to leave a lot unsaid, to create an atmosphere of mystery and hidden knowledge.

Finally, Akhmatova supremely musical; she uses the power of rhythm, which good translators try to imitate in English. Thus, even in translation, it becomes obvious why Akhmatova is praised for what’s been called the “epigrammatic beauty of her lines.” I immediately think of

Too sweet is earthly drink,
Too tight the nets of love


~ but many other lines also easily nestle in memory -- which is not true of Olds’s lines. Even after many years, I remember the content of some of her poems, but not specific lines, with one exception: in “Rites of Passage,” about her little boy’s birthday party, she quotes her son as saying, “We could easily kill a two-year-old.”

When it comes to Akhmatova, I remember a number of her striking lines (all in translation, except for one poem where I simply had to make my slow way through the Russian version). Let me share some of them -- remembering that there is no separating the music and the beauty from the underlying insight.

Like most great poets, Akhmatova also has a simplicity that contains a largeness, a complexity. She juxtaposes nature imagery with emotional and even metaphysical drama like no one else -- unless perhaps Emily Dickinson. If Dickinson went more the way of “wild nights,” perhaps she might sound something like this.

How many demands the beloved can make!
The woman discarded, none.
I am glad that the water today
Stands still under colorless ice.

And I stand -- Christ help me! --
On this shroud that is brittle and bright

*

Neither a rose nor a blade of grass
Will I be in my Father’s garden

*

My night nurse insomnia is visiting elsewhere,
I’m not brooding by a cold hearth.
The crooked hand of the tower clock
Doesn’t look like the arrow of death.

How the past loses power over the heart!
Freedom’s at hand. I forgive everything.
I’m watching a sunbeam run up and down
The first moist ivy of spring.

*

My twin in the mirror will stay up.
I’ll sleep soundly. Good night, night.

*

And this is youth, that glorious time

*

Like happy love,
Calculating and malicious.

*

Don’t kiss me, I am weary.
Death will kiss me.

*

And I knew I’d pay a hundred times
In madhouse, prison, tomb:
Wherever such as I would wake.
But torture by happiness continued.

*

Not for anything would we exchange
This granite city of calamity and fame

*

Do I not talk to you
With the screech of birds of prey?

*

The sky sows a fine rain
On the lilacs in bloom.
At the window beating its wings
Is the white Day of the Holy Ghost.

*

The evening light is yellow and wide,
April is tender and cool.
You have come many years too late . . .
Forgive me for so often
Mistaking other people for you.

*

And the burdocks stand shoulder high,
And the forest of dense nettles sings

*

Why are my fingers covered in blood?
This wine burns like poison.

*

We were fated to learn . . .
What it means to find out in the morning
About those who have died in the night.

##

It remains a luminous fact that in spite of her great suffering Akhmatova did not commit suicide. Yesenin did, then Mayakovski, then Tzvetayeva. Life had become more painful than they could bear. What gave Akhmatova the strength to endure? I think it was her dedication to poetry as the sacred task of her life and the miracle of creativity. Secondly, she identified with Russia, with the greater story of the suffering of her country. In one unforgettable poem, “Belated Reply,” she speaks to Marina Tzvetayeva:

We are together today, Marina,
Walking through the midnight capital,
And behind us there are millions like us.
And never was a procession more hushed,
And around us funeral bells
And the wild Moscow moans
Of a snowstorm erasing our traces.


**

Addendum: Nikolai Kondratiev, the brilliant economist who described the long-term cycles in capitalism, was also executed under the guise of “10 years without the benefit of correspondence.”


John:

Love the ghost of the last days and the ghost of the first days.

Oriana:

I love that too, that ghost of the first days knocking at the door. Wow!

Una:

A fine piece of prose with a depth of meaning many women will relate to.

Now that is the classic Olds that I like very much. Details are one of her specialties, and she has really captured the parting after a long marriage (30 years). I remember saying as I left, “You will always be the father of my children” -- I felt the need to soften the blow.

Akhmatova is amazing. How I’d love to read Russian so I could hear her voice and not the translation. I love the willow’s “branching magnificence"

It is a wonder to know great poetry from the very good. Akhmatova for sure is a great and Sharon is very good.


Oriana:

Now I realize what bothered me about the poem by Olds: too much telling after this:

Quickly, then,
the worst was over, I could comfort him,
holding his heart in place from the back
and smoothing it from the front

For me the poem could end right here: “holding his heart in place from the back / and smoothing it from the front” is wonderful writing, a fusion of metaphor and physical detail; it would make a perfect closure. Until the point the poem is achingly physical.

Olds is precisely the poet who makes some people object that what she writes is “prose with line breaks.” Early Olds seemed more poetic, though even way-back I noticed that after reading those little narratives I didn't feel like re-reading them. The older Olds has more to say, but has gotten too wordy, too prosy. She just doesn't compress enough to make it poetry. It's more like journal writing, though a high-caliber journal writing. And the images sometimes keep me from wanting to re-read, e.g. the image of her ex and his new wife flying together like storks with medical bags in their beaks. Very striking at first, but you don't really want to encounter it again. It's not delightful enough, at least not for me. Too crude or whatever it is.

**

Akhmatova aimed at perfection. I will never forget how a young woman who  knew Russian closed her eyes in ecstasy and chanted (rather than merely said), “Akhmatova’s poems in Russian are soooo beautiful . . .  soooo beautiful.”

Akhmatova kept her poems short, but they are as if graven in marble. Her conciseness reminds me of Dickinson. Imagine Dickinson as a poet of love, venturing further into wild nights . . . a heady thought.

Kathleen: (reconstructed from memory -- Macbeth, my computer, seems to have concealed Kathleen’s message)

I really like the comments you made about parting, especially the feelings of the one who is being left and of the one who is doing the leaving. Quite perceptive. 

 
Oriana:

If we live long enough, we become well-traveled in heaven and hell -- various circles of hell, so when it’s our turn to do the leaving, we know what it feels like to be left . . .

I think Akhmatova is marvelously perceptive when she says:

Not weeks, not months -- years
We spent parting.

In long-term relationships, the growing apart does take years. But then, beware: in the last days, the ghost of the first days will knock at the door, and the old intensity and mutual attraction may return for a while, the way someone dying often has that last rally of strength: s/he sits up in bed and starts talking with animation, perhaps even planning life after recovery -- the face suddenly much younger . . . 


Charles:

When I first looked at the orchid I thought it was a photo.

Love the ad at the top of the page. You are truly a poetreneur.

If you didn't explain Stag's Leap I wouldn't have understood it in such depth. Thank you.

Actually you explained both poems beautifully.

So interesting that Akhmatova was persecuted because she wrote about the individual -- about personal matters such as love.

"The Beloved" can become the state. I see this happening in America now.


Oriana:

That painting by O’Keefe is perhaps the least known among her flower paintings. I love the title even more than the actual painting, though those lacy fringes of petals are irresistible -- like emerging fractals.

It’s not so much the state that become the Beloved as the dictator. We saw this with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the North Korean dictators. When humans worship someone, it can be romantic infatuation or it can almost as easily be a deity or a dictator. 



Tuesday, February 5, 2013

THE WISDOM OF NO CHOICE


BIGHORN SHEEP
Never Summer Range,
Colorado Rockies


On the slopes of Specimen Mountain,
between patches of eternal snow,
a dozen ewes and lambs.
Horns even on the watchful females,
but the lambs not skittery –

one stops in the saddle of the pass,
stares at me like a child.
Then, near wind-twisted, green
island of krummholz, four rams –
triangular faces between

spiral galaxies of horns.
this is their acropolis,
this plateau of cloud and stone.
I crouch, creep up
until I can see the fused rings –

If only I could come
closer yet –
if they’d sniff my hand,
lick sweat off my skin.
Being human is exile.

I stir, collect my pack.
they grow agitated.
pressing through dense branches,
the fifth ram, the biggest,
steps out.

He walks over to another ram,
waiting, frozen in profile –
he surveys me again, then slowly
lowers his great scrolled head,
and they retreat. 

I too retreat, descend.
Behind me, the sky
pulsing with good luck;
before me, the great bells
of the thunderheads. 

The wind parts the grass,
combs it close to the ground.
I gather a few threads
of the coarse wool.
At least we are granted

glimpses, wisps
among thickets and thorns.

~ Oriana © 2013

**

I have had my glimpses. There is something sublime about suddenly encountering beautiful animals in the wild. Now that I’m pondering visits to orthopedic surgeons, do I wish I could repeat that hike? No. Been there, done that. And thinking of the joggers I passed by during my leisurely sunset stroll the day before -- the usual panting and pained gasping, the usual contorted faces -- I felt almost blissful thinking that this self-imposed torment would never be mine: I had no choice in the matter. This morning again I woke up feeling wonderfully posthumous. There was nothing I felt I had to accomplish, nothing to strive for.

I did, however, need to fill out a lengthy application. The deadline was still far-off, but I knew from experience that if I didn’t do it as soon as possible, I’d be haunted by the darn thing, my energy drained from more enjoyable thoughts and activities. So I decided to give myself no choice: I’d do it right away. Not tomorrow or next week. I closed those options. I filled out the application; it turned out to be quite easy and took less time than I expected. As someone observed, we don’t procrastinate because the task is difficult; the task is difficult because we procrastinate.

With no choice except doing it, I sat at my desk and did it. Now when I happen to glance at the large envelope waiting to go off into the mail, there seems to be something like the smile of the Cheshire cat about it.

As a brilliant neuroscientist I knew in Warsaw said, “We try to avoid a minor discomfort now, and end up suffering a much greater discomfort later.” 

IT’S WONDERFUL, ESPECIALLY IF WE HAVE NO CHOICE

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and writer, has a book called THE WISDOM OF NO ESCAPE. Sometimes just the title can cause a moment of insight, as happened with a different book, Susan Nolen’s Eating, Drinking, Overthinking. I didn’t have to read the book. Simply seeing Overthinking next to Eating and Drinking made me become aware that my overthinking was an addiction -- and an addiction can be overcome.  That “title satori” was a minor step on my way to a major satori about depression. Minor but important.

But back to The Wisdom of No Escape. Our first impulse is to try to escape even a minor discomfort, Pema Chodron states. Of course we have an aversion to pain. But if we put up with it and even get curious about something that appears unpleasant, we will gain, Chodron promises. If we close the door to escape, we may end up in a larger space.

Right in this life, we all get to experience heaven and hell and resurrection. And hell, major or minor, is sometimes a prerequisite of resurrection. Or, as Sartre said, “Life begins on the other side of despair.” When there is no escape, with luck we’ll eventually get tired of despair and being to move forward.

And sometimes life does it for us: escape is no longer possible. There is no choice. And that’s when something amazing can happen: we become quite happy with what we have. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes a crippled man’s reaction to the question about his happiness:

And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and the dancing sheep, and cries, “Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!”

WHY “QUITTERS” ARE WINNERS

Sartre famously said that freedom is found in commitment. By closing the other options, we are free to concentrate on our choice. (Not that it’s easy to know what we want since the human brain contains multiple minds that often compete -- but that’s a separate issue.)

Heidi Halvorson explains that most of us want to “keep our options open”:

Given the choice, would you prefer to make an iron-clad, no-turning-back decision, or one you could back out of if you needed to?

People overwhelmingly prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones.  They believe it’s better to “keep your options open,” whenever possible.  They wait years before declaring a major, date someone for years before getting married, favor stores with a guaranteed return policy (think Zappos), and hire employees on a temporary basis (or use probationary periods), all in order to avoid commitments that can be difficult, or nearly impossible, to un-do. 

People believe that this is the best way to ensure their own happiness and success.  But people, as it turns out, are wrong.

Why does keeping our options open make us less happy?  Because once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in.  This is how psychologists . . . refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions.  Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives.  Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.

**

After quoting so much, I thought, might as well be hanged for a sheep than a lamb -- let me be totally shameless, and quote from an earlier blog post:

Again I want to quote that crucial passage from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code:

Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it . . .  They seem to have no other choice . . . Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent. (p. 28-29)

“Extraordinary people are not a different category”; it’s just that they have clarity about their vocation and a great loyalty to it. And this brings me to another article:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/strategic-thinking/201206/why-quitters-win

The title is misleading. By “quitters,” the author, Nick Tasler, means people who can commit oneself to one option and eliminate the rest. To use an extreme example (mine, not his), Frank Lloyd Wright also loved music. But he didn’t try to be both an architect and a piano virtuoso. He chose his path early and persisted. Architecture is a kind of frozen music – but we don’t need to go that far. He made his choice, and became extraordinary.

Here we come back to the finding that less choice is better, and no choice may be best (depending on the matter at hand). REDUCE OR ELIMINATE CHOICE. Keeping options open is not only stressful, but virtually guarantees failure.

But how can we know if option 1 is the best if option 2 looks yummy also, and option 3 has its seductive angles as well? If the pull of a single option is not that distinct, we have to make a leap of faith. I hate to confess how many times I simply tossed a coin . . .  but even that is better than sitting half-dressed at the edge of a bed, like a woman in a painting by Edward Hopper. Should she put on the red dress or the blue one? (Do I hear someone say, “But Oriana, she is trying to decide if life is worth living!” – Listen, I know what it means to be a woman. She can’t make up her mind about what to wear. The problem is that it all looks good. It’s the cumulative microtrauma of trivial choices that makes women so exhausted.)

Decisiveness: the ability to choose one thing, one course of action, while “quitting” others. Eliminating the stress of choice. To quote from the article:

The inability to make what Harvard ethics professor, Joseph Badaracco, calls “right vs. right” decisions can be a fatal strategic flaw. An otherwise talented manager who can’t bring himself to focus on one customer segment at the expense of others (but what if they want to buy, too!?!) winds up taking his team in circles, and his career into a rut.

At the heart of strategic thinking is the ability to focus on one strategy while consciously quitting the pursuit of others. Choosing what we want to do is easy. It's choosing what else we want to do that we are nonetheless going to quit doing that is the hard part—to build the school by stripping funding from the hospital; to develop this product while shutting down production of that one. As David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard fame) once said “more companies die from overeating than starvation.” The same truth applies to our careers and personal lives.

**

In the Western world, people certainly die from overeating rather than starvation. But I’m not sure if I agree with the statement “choosing what we want to do is easy.” For some people it is, for others it isn’t. Perhaps the author should have said: “choosing what we most want to do.” But even then . . . Try asking someone, “What’s the most important thing in your life?” People I know would sooner discuss their sex lives (or lack of them).

I do agree, though, that paying the price of focusing – sacrificing other attractive things and activities – may be even harder. Not particularly for me – once I have clarity, it’s relatively easy for me to be single-minded. But I’ve known people so immersed in a dozen attractive activities that they are always in a rush, frantic, unable to do anything at the level of excellence.

We live in a manic, multi-tasking, short-attention span culture. My most important motto is DO LESS. The less you do (but the more thoroughly you do it, and the more you enjoy doing it), the more you will accomplish.

Why? For one thing, you’ll be eliminating a lot of choice-making, possibly the primary source of stress in modern life. The future belongs to the decisive – the “quitters,” those who quit doing too many things.

Arguably the foremost problem in life is that we “can’t have it all.” Once we accept that, the rest is . . . well, not exactly easy, but doable. As one visual artist told me, “When you concentrate on one small thing, something huge begins to unfold.”   

NUNC DIMITTIS

Back now to today, the lovely overcast “no sky.” I’m pondering something recently posted by Max Flumerfelt: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” Knowing who you are and what you want to say is not easy for the reason I mentioned near the beginning: our brain contains multiple minds with competing priorities. Information overload makes focus (or we can call it style) even more difficult. I remember when I wanted to know all about astrophysics, and the history of great ideas, and art, and theater, and all the names of plants and animals, and . . . and . . . and . . .

Soon I was on the road to nowhere, my twenties largely lost due to trying to travel in too many directions at once. Yes, I picked up all kinds of sundry facts, a small portion of which did make way into my writing. Only later I realized that no, there is no time to read The String Theory and The New Yorker, see all the great plays and movies, and write in all the genres besides. And then there were long letters to friends to be written. Alas, all kinds of wonderful things simply had to go if I was to accomplish even one thing at the level of excellence. Anyone can choose between good and bad; it’s the choice between good and good that drives us to despair.

Life begins on the other side of that despair (Sartre again). The wisdom of “less is more” finally dawns. We grasp mortality, as mortality grasps us. A few years before her death, my mother started saying, “That’s not important,” dismissing most of the things of the world. It took me a while to  understand this. I think of myself as a late bloomer, but look! I didn’t have to turn eighty before understanding how little time is left, and how selective we have to get, how many doors we have to close. And as the doors close, what remains is infinitely precious.

I know I flatter myself by calling myself posthumous, above a life of distractions and straining to please (including pleasing my perfectionist self). And I admit that I can’t recall the specific moment when I had my “posthumous” satori. I remember the moment of the my big satori about depression, but not the moment when the sweetness of being posthumous first registered.

But being a writer, I can imagine it. I am in Europe, roaming in the streets of an ancient town. I walk into a lovely old church, shivering with pleasure at finding myself in the cool twilight of that stone building that rightly continues the tradition of Neolithic sacred places. But out of the silence, voice, above me in the choir. The singers are rehearsing “Nunc dimittis.”

How can I, a committed atheist (that was another closing of a door, and what a burden fell away from me), imagine an important moment taking place in a church? Because I take from religion whatever is beautiful. Buddhism or Catholicism, it’s all my heritage -- but I swallow nothing whole. I select.

And I select “Nunc dimittis”: now you let your servant depart for my eyes have seen salvation. This needs translation so that it would have a personal meaning: now I let go of the busy and distracted life, of striving, of trying to please. What writing may come will come without effort, both out of the moment and out of the past. Now my eyes see the path of Less so that something larger may emerge.

And now I walk out of the church into the hum and rush of the streets, but with a beautiful silence within me. 




Steve:

THE LIFE YOU MIGHT HAVE HAD


Hear the word of Lachesis, daughter of Necessity. . . .
let he who draws the first lot have the first choice,
and the life he chooses shall be his destiny.
                                                ~ Plato, Book 10, The Republic

Cries of seabirds lifting like needles
from tissues of mist. The brocade
of breaking sea. The faintest discernment

of salt. The silk of your breath spun
into cloth in early morning air.
The loom of the mast, the shuttle of the sail,

the quiet design of the harbor. The stone
of a house set like a gem in a fabric
of hills. The shimmer of lambent late

afternoon light. The weave of the lover’s
lavish touch. The rise and fall
of flesh, petals in a night-blue bay.

If only you had paused when Lachesis
spread the patterns of life like pieces
of quilt. If only, when she asked you

to choose, you had recalled the tangled
knots of the world, the groans of discontent,
the torn tapestry of your last life.

You might have asked for less,
settled for a gown of dreams—
for this, the life you might have had.

 
**

Oriana:

Ah, that gauzy dream life poem! Thank you for this engauzement! And dear old Plato with his gorgeous nonsense, as some Victorian remarked.

Some case might be made for choosing a “challenging” life, but nobody would choose, before birth, the horrors that do happen to someone after all: early-onset Alzheimer’s, for instance.

For me the alternate life was, for decades, what it might have been like if I’d stayed in Poland. It was easy to see myself having a ball as a student at the University of Warsaw, the city a succession of blossoms: lilacs, then chestnut trees, then linden trees. And after the lush summer in the countryside, a return to the golden autumn in my favorite parks. And love, love, love. One child more likely than two. And then vagueness, fog, Decembers when sometimes it's dusk all day -- and the knowledge that of course there’d be suffering, just different. When you change countries, you change problems.

In terms of personal happiness, I have little doubt that I would have been happier. I don’t know if it’s evident, since I never wanted to sound like a kvetch, but I suffered a great deal as result of my displacement -- as happens to most immigrants. Some stay bitter for the rest of their life. When I first met those unhappy immigrants, I swore not to become like them. Of course soon enough I was devastated and growing more and more bitter. I caught myself at the last moment, I think, not wanting to lose it all.

But is happiness the right criterion? Many people have asked me, “Would you have become a poet?” Possibly, but as a completely different person, probably one who’s more intent on playing with the language. I might be experimental, avant-garde. I had a gift for that, apparent already in childhood.

In any case, eventually I realized that it’s pointless to spend time imagining that other potential life, making myself miserable that way, rather than making the best of my real life. It seems almost surreal how long we can stay wedded to a doomed dream rather than commit to reality. 



Cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland


SELF-IMPOSED LIMITATIONS (THE PATH OF RENUNCIATION?)

Charles:

I think this blog has more wisdom than any other.

Favorite line in “Bighorn Sheep” is
"The wind parts the grass,
combs it close to the ground."

Love the so many pearls of wisdom starting with: We don’t procrastinate because the task is difficult; the task is difficult because we procrastinate.

This blog is so great. I think you and I intuitively have many self-imposed limitations to limit choice. That's exactly why we can get ahead in the world.

More people die from overeating than from starvation is also a truism.

“It’s the choice between good and good that drives us to despair” is another favorite.


Oriana:

Yes, the choice between good and good, and bad and bad -- those are the heartbreakers. But especially the choice between good and good -- that in-your-face announcement that you can’t have it all. Recently that has been hitting women more: that realization that you can’t be a super-dedicated professional and a super-mom too. Come on, hire a nanny. But in this country, it’s disapproved of. “Here you do everything yourself,” I was told.

I like your choice of favorites. Those are mine as well. Thank you.

One of my recent surprises was the gain in strength and focus once I closed the door on “theist doubt” (wondering if god exists after all -- not a Judeo-Christian god or any other man-invented god, but some unknown “real god”). Until then I didn’t even realize there was that dribble of energy going into the question, like precious water from a leaking faucet.

Long live self-imposed limitations! Facebook is a huge enemy of focus. And even quality newspapers and magazines, full of fascinating stuff that will nevertheless be forgotten almost instantly, since it doesn’t fit the framework on the ongoing major project. Fascinating, yes, and I could spend all day reading those articles, and not accomplish a thing.

When in doubt, there is a tool one can use: “red light, green light.” Before plunging into an activity, ask yourself: Does it serve my purpose? If yes, it’s a green light for go; if no, it’s a red light for stop. Soon all you are asking is “Green light? Red light?” After a while, you don’t even ask. You instantly know if it’s a green light or a red light.

Before I knew the red light/green light technique, I used to bypass intellectual distraction by saying to myself, “This is from Satan.” I’m not kidding. It served me well.

Now, nobody is on the path 100% -- except under deadline pressure. Of course now and then I too stray into the New York Times, say. But how shallow those articles seem after a stretch of concentrated work. And you know you’ll be going in all directions at once and not getting anywhere. Or, to change metaphors, we are dying of intellectual overeating, not of starvation.

*

I already hear a chorus of voices asking, BUT DON’T YOU BECOME TOO NARROW?

And I can joyfully and with 100% certainly shout back, “No!” The paradox of focusing in depth on any subject is that a whole infinity opens up. You narrow down, and get to something huge. Cultivate one garden, and you gain the world.

But if you don’t focus on anything coherent, all turns into dust. You are not building anything.

ONE BRAIN, MANY MINDS

Sarah:

Yes, it's all interesting... I wonder though in what sense you mean 'many minds'... I find that the most interesting - the thought that there may be 'many minds' within one brain, but I am not sure how you are defining mind here. You mean self-contained wholes, within a whole?

I am reading about the extended mind at the moment, in my PhD stuff, and inclined more and more to think that our minds are pretty much where we draw the lines (and how much choice in that matter we have is debatable, but the illusion of choice is necessary - the illusion of free will, and control - and also, limitations on the choices are necessary, as you point out.

I think it's maybe not a question of too much choice but of not bringing enough of the organism into play when we decide. If everything is on the one level, say the rational level (but not necessarily) then we have no real grounds to choose one thing rather than another - we can create arguments for anything. If on the other hand we bring all of our resources into play - it seems to me that our choices are 'automatically' reduced by our own 'whole organisms' (again, that's where we draw the line).

If we can live this way there is a lot more peace - eventually it seems you do not have to 'choose' anything, or if you do, that's because a problem has risen in the internal communication, and we can only 'think' or only 'feel'...when it all comes together there is usually a single outcome.


Oriana:

I am somewhat premature in speaking of “many minds.” Neuroscience isn’t quite there yet. I suppose you're getting at something like a "whole-brain response." In terms of traditional evolutionary neuroscience, that would include the reptile brain (survival), mammalian brain (attachment, at least in social animals), and cortical brain. This is an oversimplification that goes back at least thirty years, as if there existed little communication between those layers of the brain. Perhaps we need to include the extensive nervous system of the heart and the intestines as also a kind of "mind" (a word impossible to define precisely, but then the Catholic Encyclopedia is unable to define "soul").

I suspect that there are several “minds” within the cortex itself -- or call these subpersonalities. And perhaps the talk about "the highest self" and "inner child" and so on also has validity, but I doubt we'll ever be able to establish the coordinates of each realm, not to mention constant change and flow. All we know is that under stress we become more survival-oriented. As for subtleties such as my having a somewhat different personality when I speak Polish, forget it! I even have different moral values when I shift to Polish. As Ewa Parma said, "If you had stayed, you'd still write, but as a totally different person." Not sure about "totally," but sure about "different." (What would remain the same, I think since it feels like the core of my being: the love of books and ideas; the love of beauty.)

How do we integrate the many minds, the many subpersonalities? Your idea of listening to our whole being and not just to the rational mind is quite appealing, and when I seem to make a choice but my body shows discomfort I certainly “listen to the body.” But for me the integration is more about “being on the path” and not straying into every attractive direction. Then indeed there is hardly any need to choose: you keep on going.

So I am back to SELF-IMPOSED LIMITATIONS. When motivation is intense, I hardly notice the limitations, nor do I need to put any energy into enforcing them. There is also the question of building the habit of working. When Heraclitus said that “character is destiny,” by “character” he meant “daily habits” -- at least that’s what some scholars say, and that makes sense to me. Some people manage to accomplish things by manic fits and starts; I am the plodding type. (True, nobody sees me as plodding, since I have a relatively high level of animation when I am with people; but I know what I am like in private.)

I have certainly tried the opposite of limiting choice: hey, let the mind stray wherever it wants to. Hours and hours of browsing. It feels good while I’m doing it! I have a broad intellectual foundation and everything interests me, so I can flit from one article to another, from one intellectual blossom to another. I can’t complain about being bored! But afterwards: EMPTINESS.

The opposite is focused work. The kind of work doesn’t matter; it’s the focus that matters. I’m tempted to say: don’t worry so much if it’s the right goal; the important thing is to have a goal. Have something small and manageable planned for today, and something larger in mind as the overarching goal (that one can be somewhat vague; it will keep evolving toward clarity). “We manage best when we manage small” ~ Linda Gregg. The big goal doesn’t have to be fully known.

Doing something with concentration is not as easy as browsing. But afterwards, a feeling of accomplishment, of having done something and gotten somewhere. I’m tired but happy. I think of what I have written and smile to myself. And I know I will sleep well.
I noticed this already when I was leaving my childhood years. Playing began to bore me. And it puzzled me: why did work feel so much more satisfying than play? I don’t know if that true for everyone, but I know that my brain thrives on focus. 



*

Not that I feel “completely in control.” I’ll never forget the day when a neighbor gave me a newsletters for families of Parkinson’s patients. My father was dying of Parkinson’s, a slow, macabre death. I started reading 
“research news,” and became so fascinated that poetry couldn’t offer me anything that day, or in the following days. Soon I was spending my weekends at the UCSD Biomedical Library. I dropped poetry and gave myself to my new passion, which soon branched into hormones. And when I read a lot about something, I begin to write about it, so a new career opened up. For eight years I stayed away from poetry -- I, who once believed that poetry was such a strong addiction, there was no quitting it.

And then I saw “Shakespeare in Love,” with its divine passages from Romeo and Juliet. And I was a poet again, my “second coming.” Then came the blog and prose captivated me. So I know that if the attraction is strong enough, my brain decides for me. Resistance is futile. But ever since I became a writer, one thing held steady: I kept writing. The form and content have changed, but writing has remained the center of my life.