May 12, 2014

Words of My Grandfather

  My grandfather was not an articulate man.

His phrasing, like his living, was rough-hewn and simple. He had an incredibly pleasant demeanor when speaking; but his normal mode of speech throughout his life was a gentle and indistinct muttering; nearly everything he said was said under his breath. Perhaps a third of the words he spoke throughout his life were understood only by himself and his dear wife, who asked him to repeat them.  

But he nevertheless told me nearly everything I needed to know.

I learned, first, from the simple sincerity of his silence—a silence which was most often a product of being too productive to talk. So many talk and mistake it for more. Their words  extend, exaggerate, or outrun their actions. Others act so that afterwards they can talk about it. I once heard someone say, “Don’t talk. Do. THEN talk.” Pop’s motto, I think, was closer to “Don’t talk. Do. Then: don’t talk.” He was as close to pure action as any man I’ve met. His mouth didn’t move much; but the rest of him rarely stayed still. He was the world’s least idle man.

To say that he was inarticulate is not to say Pop didn’t speak. He did. He built buildings and souls.

With respect to building in general: Pop had an extraordinary aura of practical competence. If you had a problem—cement work, plumbing, electrical—anything—Pop knew what to do and had the tools to do it. But his chosen professional medium for expression was not these—was, again, not words, but wood. He was an extraordinary carpenter. Countless buildings, motels, shops, restaurants, and homes—including this tremendous sanctuary in which we now sit—along with hundreds, if not thousands, of cabinets, shelves, book-cases—all were crafted by his burnt-tan, scarred-up, gentle artist’s hands. What he could say—the meanings he could shape— with these hands in wood was incredible. Every cut was clean, every angle precise, every corner plumb and true. And all was done with a remarkable deftness. He never once gave me a lecture on how to create, or put value into the world, or how to approach a problem. To see him work was the lesson--particularly his carpentry. With words there was stammering; with wood there was none. There are different sorts of artists. Some artists wear checkered shirts and drive trucks. We use the word ‘genius’ narrowly; but Pop was no less a genius in his chosen medium than any other maker of useable art.

One thing he taught was to build to last. If one were to face a tornado, and had a choice to ride it out in either a cemented basement or a Lloyd-built dog-house on the highest hill, those who knew how Pop built chose the doghouse every time. That thing wasn’t going anywhere.

Another thing he taught me is harder to explain—but is something about timing--or rather, living at the proper pace. On the job he was a whirlwind of motion—but never in a bluster or hurry. He was relentless, but never careless; he neither rested nor rushed. My memories of him nailing roof with the rest of us—tan, wirey, rock-steady at 70 + years-of-age—are recorded elsewhere. But his unusual mood of relaxed relentlessness made a profound impression on me. It was not a lesson about how to do anything; it was a lesson about how to do everything. And the way he built buildings with me helped to build me. To this day I call to mind his steady focus upon the task before him, however simple or apparently ignoble it might seem, in order to smile off my own procrastinations. What I think was missing in him, so common in other men (and myself), was hesitation. He was actually bad at hesitating. There was even no hesitation when it came time to relax. He could drop the job that had consumed him all morning as easily as one unhitches and drops one’s tool belt when the shift-whistle blows. His relaxing was decisive—took no more than an instant. His ability to sleep the instant he stopped moving –a skill bordering on narcolepsy— was legendary. We kids, after being put to bed, used to listen and root for him as he and Nana prayed aloud in the next room before sleeping. We took bets on how many times he would drift off in mid-supplication to the Almighty. He would inevitably, and more than once, nod off in the Presence--and Nana would have to prod him awake and back to his spiritual task, whereupon he would re-start the prayer—remarkably, with the correct next family member or missionary. His struggles to maintain consciousness in church were heroic also, however excellent the sermon. I won’t, even here and now, claim he won that good fight very often. But every Sunday, by God, he fought it.

Pop showed me the difference between being meek and a milquetoast. I’ve just said he didn’t hesitate—and this includes matters of his own personal safety. More than once he stepped on sheeting laid carelessly on a roof and ‘surfed’ his way through air to the ground. But he was never hurt by the fall, in part, I suspect, because he wouldn’t tense up when falling. There was no panic in him. It just wasn't there, even when it should have been--e.g. the casual indifference with which he dragged a corded saw, stepping from truss to truss two or three stories up, was appalling to watch. My other grandfather, long since passed, recalls Pop, furious, firing a very large angry man for incompetence, with a just but sharp and direct reaming out (Pop could not abide slovenly work. It was, to he and Nana, something very near Original Sin). I was, too, a bit of a pill at times. I could give Pop reason to be angry; and he’d sputter a bit, and bring me up short. His anger, coming from such a light-hearted man, carried more weight than the tirades of other men. When his temper was up, he had, in the most literal sense, lost his natural temper. But anger did not well up from him, or sink in to him. It passed over him quickly; and I never saw him sin in anger.

My Papa was a lover in the broadest sense.
He loved one woman for 70 years, as fully as a man can.
As one might suspect, he and Nana’s conversations were not something to put on radio. Their talk proceeded almost entirely via an easy dance of slight nods and a few fairly predictable words. Moreover, Pop was, after years crouched over every imaginable power tool, eventually as deaf as he was quiet. But he and Nana had reached that understanding that feels no need to hire out talk to secure itself; they reveled in the mere presence of one another, and amplified one another’s shared warmth and mutual lightness of heart. They also invited into this shared warmth and light their children, their grandchildren, and their extended family. I cannot describe to you what it is like to have someone so thoroughly enjoy your presence, and to be able, without words, to let you know that you are the source of their enjoyment. But Nana and Papa were experts in this rare and spiritual skill. Having this privileged experience of being enjoyed changed—and continues to change— everything after. If everyone had it for an hour, everything would be different.

 I also want to speak about a great secret of Pop’s influence—evident in—even consisting of—a light step, a ceaseless good humor, a quick wink and laugh. He acknowledged everyone he met with a nod, given in this way. This nod was Pop’s inviting them into his ease of soul—to enjoy it with him; and even those who could not enjoy it themselves loved him for showing them its possibility. This easy enjoyment he offered to everyone—the churchman, the clerk, the building inspector, the muscle-bound con with snake tattoos running up his neck outside the grocery store. There was, in his practice of acknowledging all with his near-wink-and-nod, a glimpse of a simple, conspiratorial solidarity. It conveyed…something---something too profound and morally important for further instruction or explanation. And this, too, left me understanding something that could have been taught to me in no other way. 

Pop built younger souls, too, from the ground up, through a similar kind of playfulness. Pop was playful. Children universally adored him. He was, it is fair to say, a bit of a child himself. He never lost his wonder with the world. Though he had a family of four by age 21, I knew him only as an ‘older’ man. But he delighted in novelty, and never droned on about how good everything used to be and how bad it is now. I don't think he ever believed this. What he wanted to know each morning of his life was “What’s next?” He was a child, too, with respect to his expectations that others would be honorable. A bad business experience late in life stunned him for just this reason. I tried to explain once how this person might find pleasure in contentions and resentments; I got nowhere. He’d never done it and didn’t get it. Pop was impulsive. Once, well into his sixties, he hopped on my skateboard and took off down the driveway, to the amazement and consternation of all. In his late seventies, after seeing his great-grandchildren boogey-boarding, he immediately walked up the street and bought himself his own board and a set of swim fins. And he was always buying gadgets, for health, work, and home. Nana made noises to stop him; but, despite his somewhat wild and optimistic shopping habits, she secretly loved him for his boundless curiosity and deep delight in the new.

Papa was incredibly generous. One could not out-give him. The time he was willing to spend upon family was limitless. To get the check at a restaurant required a strategy.

He was joyful. I think this is what I cannot stop saying in different ways. He was no dour lover of humanity. Pop loved particular people. And his joy, and ability to enjoy you, was his first gift. 

His ability to elevate the hearts of others in this way, I think, derived from another quality: humility. His light-heartedness was, perhaps, an unparalleled ability to take himself lightly. Pop simply did not think much of himself—by which I mean: he did not give himself a great deal of thought. He didn’t degrade or discount his own worth; it simply wasn’t on his mind. In company he would instead shine the light of his attentions upon others—would somehow bend the light away from himself, making him at once the simplest and most solid man I knew, yet also somewhat mysterious and hard to see. If this profile fails to capture him, it is because his humility and lightness of being makes him less visible. And this odd invisibility—a product of his humility—is another compliment I would give to his character, which he would never have thought to give himself.

All this is not to say Pop did not have an inner life. There was, at the core of Pop, a very basic faith in Jesus. Though he respected intellectual innovation and labor (as he did every other sort of work), he could not, I suspect, have defended this belief in argument. An ‘intellectual’ might suppose this to show his benighted-ness and backward thinking. But this just shows how confused such an intellectual would be. In any attempt to argue Pop out of his faith, the joke would have been on the arguer. The very attempt would be a comic mis-conception of the life-richness, nature, and depth of Pop’s belief. His belief wasn’t to be proved, then lived. Rather, Pop’s life was the articulation or ‘proof’ of this very belief. He did not have decisive 'evidence of things hoped for’; he gave it by being that very evidence, and by inspiring that hope. He had no great and crushing exhibits or inferences to point to in support of his position; but those who needed evidence could, to support their own position, always point to Pop, as a practical proof of Christian fealty.  For Pop saw—far sooner than his slower, over-educated grandson—that it is not points or propositions but souls that are to be proved. St. Francis says somewhere, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” Papa did not speak many words about God; he simply lived as a Christian in the most literal sense—a ‘little Christ’—and so as a word incarnate. His look, his love, his life, his limitless enjoyment and everyday gratitude, whispered to everyone who met him of something deep, secure, and indescribably Good. To add arguments to this may not be always misguided. But unlike so many who claim the same religion, Pop never lost sight of the fact that, whatever the results of language and controversies, life is the final word.


Papa was profoundly healthy most of his life, despite an incredible workload from childhood on. Just this past Christmas he was putting his brown and knarled hands to use, building for family and church. He was hiking in Arizona. Dancing with great-grand-daughters in New Mexico. In our weekly conversations, he was telling me of his new ventures in health food, and how he was getting on.

Sickness struck suddenly. In a matter of weeks, the irrepressible Pop went from a life of enjoyment, interaction, independence, and accomplishment, to a simple, single daily task: FOREBEAR. Yet he did this, too, with complaint-less aplomb, charming all with his kindness and love, beaming out from beneath the wires and tubes and daily indignities. Once in perpetual motion he could no longer move. And though not a speaker, he could no longer speak—a trach tube now preventing his precious, gentle mumblings. I told his caretakers at the hospital, “He doesn’t look like much now. But this man is a wounded king. Take care of him!” 

And he was. Everyone who knew him feels this. Knows this—felt in his easy, open confidence a powerful natural superiority that would never insist on itself. If the idea of royalty still means anything important, it is the last of a certain royal line who has died.

Yet I am and will always be heartened by considering him, and his quiet, everyday king-liness. Pop lived every second with such vigor, fullness, and grace. He is one of the few men who seems to have somehow got nearly all the big things right. To search his life is to find no conceivable cause for regret. He reserved nothing; he kept nothing; shirked no work; broke no faith, buried no talent; withheld no affection. For most of us, living this way for a week is a miracle. Pop did it for 93 years.

  Relative to all Pop’s natural greatness, this is a small gathering. The passing of the slightest actor or politician or singer will garner audiences and accolades for weeks. Yet in fifty years others will still be sitting, watching, worshiping, and living in the work of Lloyd McKean's weathered hands. And those of us who knew him will, in part, still have been built by him, and go on being built up by him. How many lead such constructive lives? How many leave such deep marks? But Pop would have laughed off any worries about recognition. He was, in his heart, a man of work and love, free from worry, without envy—a carpenter, king, and Christian who, having spoken little, had nonetheless early in life chosen the mediums in which he could best speak, and, by the end of life, through them said everything he had to say.

            The wisest man could ask no more of Fate
            Than to be simple, modest, manly, true
            Safe from the Many, honoured by the Few
            To count as naught in World or Church or State
            But rather, inwardly, in secret, to be great.

I have loved this man.
Thank you for coming.

            -Delivered at service, 5 August 2013

November 7, 2009

Ethics and Pirates

There an exhilaration which is consistently and quietly murdered by mere satisfaction. One can be satisfied that one has enough money; one can be satisfied that one's career is going swimmingly; one can be satisfied that one's spouse is inoffensive--even pleasant. But this is not enough and the soul knows it, and so finds this sort of satisfaction scandalous. Adding insult to scandal is the realization that one has not only accepted, but is now accepting, this spiritually apalling arrangement. One breaks for a moment and knows that some awful deal is being made--a deal by oneself for ones self. And yet one stays and stays and stays... as in a merger-like marriage... because it is stable, it shuffles, is safe.
Yet every soul has a breaking point. And it may be that a soul can only take so much safety. With respect to social safety this is certainly true. For this sudden commission ('YOU CAN NO LONGER BE HERE! YOU CAN NO LONGER BE THIS!') often appears as a gag reflex, where what is gagged on is respectability.
"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and start slitting throats".
This, of course, is not quite right; at its best the call is not a call away from ethics, but a call to it--(a call to which I must shout out 'Here I am!' immediately or all is lost). But there seems something right in the thought here expressed. Of course, it affirms our opening point--that, however paradoxical it sounds--it is normal to be suddenly and overwhelmingly repulsed by normalcy. But then, a repulsion of normalcy does not obviously produce an admiration of piracy--much less a temptation to it. So why piracy? Slitting throats is obviously not what calls to most of us in the pirate's vocation. What does? A decent answer would seem to be this: it is the privilege of the pirate to be in a position to criticize us--to suggest just how sleepy and slow both respect and regularity have made us. The young muscular buccaneer, his body slathered in tatoos raging against the very possibility of assimilation, incarnates an unequivocal renunciation of respectability; and the sheer audacity of this renunciation plays upon private suspicions that our satisfactions and respectable routines have made us lesser, made us soft--have not so much dignified as degraded us. We have become civilized, and in consequence lost the razor-edge senses of the sea-going savage. So the value of this element of savagery sensed by otherwise ethical persons need have nothing to do with throat-slitting. Rather, what the temptation towards piracy reveals to the ethical is how they are perpetually betrayed by the very stability of ethics. Lulled by it. For a fine thing, isn't it, to be a non-pirate--to be ethical?--to be on dry land, where down is always down, up is up! None of that dreadful rocking and rolling! We even pride ourselves on living lives on ground that stays sensibly flat. On such a footing, how respectable we are--accountants who trundle off to offices, smiling thinly past narrow glasses, nodding to all on the way ("Greetings, sir." "Fine weather we're having", "Tomorrow at luncheon--of course"). Now, though, see our citizen against his criminal counterpart. To begin, what a different creature must thrive who rides the sea, where the very base of one's world may leap up and throw you at any moment; where an untimely wind or a careless word means death; where clashes are not the work of lawyers; and where one whole-heartedly hails or hates, and refuses to mix the two. Yes, today, perhaps, our accountant has had his luncheon; perhaps he has even gotten the contract which has worried him for weeks. Ah--but meanwhile-- what a different soul is produced by leaping to the deck of an enemy ship in the face of a blunderbuss blast--or taking port, daring a town and its constable by your swagger, rolling and roaring drunk in a street whose name you can't pronounce and will never see again, shutters snapping shut as you pass! Snapping shutters! What fun! The sound of respectability in full retreat! Back! all of you! to your clean, well-lit places--to the ever-narrowing quarantine of the careful! A toast, brothers! And another! Is this not outrageous and grand? And so is it not the sinner, here, who enjoys the larger soul? From thoughts like these we get our worry: being lulled into respectability for so long, we have lost the ability--or rather, the agility--to be free-wheeling, devil-may-care, aggressively, unselfconsciously--and even savagely ethical. Our ethic grows larger while our souls grow smaller. And so the familiar picture of the ethical, neatly seated, all in one corner, hands folded, behaving themselves, while the others have all the fun--while the pirates really live.
What is happening to me? I'm doing all the right things...
Rightness, then, taken as regularity, appears to strike the sensitive ethical soul both as somehow caught up with ethics, and yet also a kind of enemy. And this is why the ethical admire some feature most often possessed by the enemies of ethics. Discord may not, strictly speaking, be ethical, but by God it keeps me awake--and, given the ethical urgency of life, it may seem unhealthy--even unethical-- to continue to sleepily shuffle through it. So ethics seeks stability, then comes to be unsatisfied with it, and on seemingly reasonable grounds. In this way the uninhibited criminal calls to us by his very uninhibitedness--his committedness to risk-- and we see him receiving as the enviable wages of his sin a resulting alertness which we suspect we cannot match. This alertness, (which we elsewhere called the ethics of insomnia), is thus usually found in turmoil, not safety--in places where disorder, not Order, have the upper hand. So the paradox: that stability engendered by ethic evinces a kind of sleepiness which undermines the attractiveness of the ethical. The ethical seems less alert than its opposite. Thus this alertness, though decidedly shady in its associations, becomes, even to the ethical, a value of its own. And it is this value which attracts the ethical to the limits of the ethical-- draws the ethical to the very edge of ethics--and of everything else. It then becomes natural to seek out the edges of things, where one is startled into wakefulness by the prospect of being slashed by them--perhaps literally. Lermontov's Pechorin, an amoral character almost entirely animated by this separate value--the value of wakefulness--muses in just this way after rejecting the love of two women of quality in favor of a lonely life and endless war in the Caucuses:
"I often scan the past and ask...why had I not wanted to tread that path...where quiet joys and peace of mind awaited me? No. I would not have gotten used to such an existence! I am like a sailor born and bred on the deck of a pirate brig. His soul is used to storms and battles, and, when cast out on the shore, he feels bored and oppressed, no matter how the shady groves lure him! no matter the peaceful sun!... "
How does the ethical soul achieve the wakefulness of Pechorin? No obvious answer here, but that does seem the right question. How might it be answered? It seems the ethicist must figure out, and incorporate, what the pirate gets right--must distill out the alertness engendered by the pirate's roguery without the awful chopping, hacking, and ruthless theft executed by those who seem most alert. So how, one wonders, does one do this 'distilling'? How does one 'go rogue', ethically speaking? For if the above is at all correct, it is ethically essential for keeping a certain sort of soul from drifting away from ethics--a drift resulting not from a straightforward appeal by evil, but in order to avoid something genuinely bad--in order to avoid the ethical evil of sheer boredom, which soon becomes a boredom with ethics, ultimately inspired by this honorable fear of sleep. Shall we appeal to social support? This seems counterproductive, since clashes, not comity, keep the soul awake. Conformity appears to such a person as a sort of chloroform; social support begats smugness, complacency--and renouncing this, we said, is just what the pirate gets right. So the social dominance of ethics works against any vivid commitment to it, by making it ubiquitous. Ubiquitous and thus risk free--and for the soul sick of safety, the absence of risk is great danger. So is the problem that ethics is dominant? Is winning? Is that what makes it secure, and so unsatisfying? Perhaps this is the beginning of an answer: Ethics should be the underdog. Ethics triumphant, perhaps, is a mistake--and so, therefore, are those stories which present it as all-conquering on a Throne. Ethics must dissassociate from Power-- needs the aesthetic of an insurgency. Ethics, above all, cannot be safe.
This thought, in tension with ethical triumphalism of every stripe, is scattered in various places--perhaps most prominently in the American Western, where the ideal ethical character is always rough, savage, marginal, alienated, and the Law is always best defended by some form of outlaw, as if ethics itself recognizes it needs a bit of lawlessness in its defense. The Nameless Drifter in the town more often than not must be lured and cajoled into saving it as if it were important to play up the fact that his loyalties are by no means certain--that his very ethicality is a close-run thing. In its own strange way, Christianity certainly started here--Jesus, up and through Good Friday, is presented as the God Who Fought the Law and Lost, and famously closed out His career as Criminal. His early followers began nobly enough, as wild, hunted conspirators, communicating by signs in the sand and whispered signals, taking to the catacombs to chant in flickering light the unfathomable Mystery that men should love one another. Yet now, few seem to be giving thought to the great slander Christ's church brings upon itself by selling itself as something strong and civilizing, something respectable, triumphant, tame.
Chesterton, to his credit, was one Christian who understood that the true orthodoxy is not portrayed--or at least, had best not be portrayed--as some safely frozen Form--as stability--but as a spirit of constant alteration, improvisation, velocity. Thus his famous description of an orthodoxy which could still exhilarate: "In my vision, the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild Truth reeling but erect."
If we need one, let us make this our point: that ethics--Faith--best stays erect precisely by being wild and reeling; its stability in the soul depends, not on its careful, but rather, its careening quality. Ethics is not the balance one has on land--that is the land's balance, not ours; rather, ethics is stability, not as status secured, but as tenuous and moment-by-moment achievement. Yet if this is so--if ethics is this skill of balance--it is best learned not in stability but in instability--not on land but on a ship. The urge to freeze everything in ethical poses--in rules, in routines, in institutions--even to force ethics itself to freeze and pose--is what takes from us our ethical sea legs and savage spirit, whose sensed departure is precisely what tempts us to 'spit in our hands and raise the black flag' to get them back. So no stable ethic for us! It is not up to us to keep it safe. Like the ark of old, a chest full of inestimable treasures, ethics tilts and wobbles in its way; but we only undermine it--and evince a lack of faith-- when we seek to steady it with our own well-meaning hands.

October 26, 2009

Silence and Romance

" ‘Fools!’ said I, ‘you cannot know
Silence like a cancer grows’..."
Or so says Mr. Simon, in his and partner Art Garfunkel’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Sounds of Silence’. But the analogy between silence and cancer he deploys here has one simple problem: Cancer is obviously and always bad for us; silence isn’t. Indeed, sometimes silence seems positively good for us—so much so that what is lost in such sloppy indictments of silence is what we might call its nutritive qualities--particularly to malnourished modern minds which know so little of it. Carl Sandburg, in his wonderful biography, tells us of Lincoln that 'silence was immense in the building of the man'. In his early days as a surveyor and woodcutter, Lincoln grew up strong in the quiet, 'like the corn in an Illinois field'. And it is out in the fields, where nothing but breezes rustle the leaves, in which a soul as great, natural, and inscrutable as Lincoln's could wind its way out of the earth. If one wonders why such souls do not grow any more, it may have something to do with the absence of silence as soil.
But this silence upon which (perhaps even by which) Lincoln was raised (that Lincoln who went on to re-unite a country now synonymous with freedom of speech) is a silence whose reputation is more or less captured by Mr. Simon above. But how can both be right? How can the same silence raise a Lincoln, and 'like a cancer grow'? Of course, motivation for the defamation of silence is not hard to come by. Silence is repulsive to many for its associations with solitude, and solitude—real solitude— is feared. Whether this fear of solitude is healthy is a separate question. The present point is that the connection between the two--between silence and solitude-- is unclear. It may be that words and language are thought to be our means of com-municating, as though human relations were not merely related to language but rooted in it. Haven't we been told that 'language is what makes us human' often enough? And don’t we use words to ‘break the silence’ and by breaking the silence end our solitude? Don’t we, on this basis, suppose this breaking to be a good thing? But if experience is any guide, this, again, is an overly sloppy characterization of silence. It overlooks the kinds of human connectedness which seem somehow based on quietness; it does not give sufficient weight to the phenomenological fact that it is not in conversation but in a special kind of silence in which we feel most human; it forgets that ideal intimacy which thrives in the absence of words.
2. This is not some grand or mystical point. We know directly that no amount of speech can save us from solitude. We have all been with persons by whom words were disbursed in a kind of desperation, with conversation a constant attempt to connect--to lasso oneself to the other and vice versa, to forcefully prevent the two from flying apart. Words are flung out from such speakers the way a spider, having slipped from a ledge, might sling thread after thread at some receding anchor point as he falls. And they are relentless (“ever reeling them/ever tirelessly speeding them). With such word-deployers, talk is a tension--a suspension bridge between persons which gives its users no peace or sure footing, and shakes and rattles at the slightest wind. Each participant stands at the far end of this shuddering contraption and is understandably reluctant to commit to it their full weight; it seems to flimsy a thing to enable one to move towards the other. Yet are we not to connect by speaking to each other? But then, with respect to talking to each other as a means of connecting, what has gone wrong?

Words here, we might say, are working too hard. Those who put them to such use do so under false, or at least exaggerated, expectations. If words are used to connect people in any intimacy beyond trade/economy, too much is being expected of them. To see the connection words always fail to make, consider the opposite case: a few of the lucky have, if only for a few moments, known a silence in which everything was sure--a kind of social certainty between persons which is not constituted by materiel as suspect as words. This sociality does away with suspense entirely. At such remarkable moments, one can acknowledge with words the connection; but one never supposes that the connection could be supported, much less constituted, by either knowledge or words. In this silence, one does not talk to understand the other; rather, talk enjoys the backdrop of a prior understanding. Before the questions, answers, compliments, and, eventually, accusations, there is a background welcome--an a priori confidence one has been admitted to which one is confident will never be withdrawn. Not that Language has no role; but its use cannot establish the conditions by which it can enjoy this background understanding. Its role is limited. It contributes to this form of interpersonal/Personal intimacy--this faith two persons find in each other-- the way our religious tradition claims Reason is said to contribute to Faith. Reason can not ground Faith; instead, Reason is ‘Faith, seeking understanding’. Faith, an interpersonal understanding, is silent, though about this silence reason can certainly speak. But Reason adds nothing to Faith's substantive silence.


So, in a face-to-face, one seeks, through speech, a better understanding about the other; but who connects on the basis of 'about'? Whose intimacy is bolstered by, much less built upon, a sharing of information, however personal? Whose faith? What has information to do with intimacy? One can know everything about someone without 'knowing what they are about' in the relevant sense. And someone who only knew about persons, not ‘what they’re all about’ would not know persons at all. Such a connection between persons based solely on knowing about persons, is, in fact, a description not of a perfect sociality, but of the perfect sociopath.

3. So we seek a pure sociality which Reason and words cannot establish, only acknowledge. Sincerity—an openness to another, which is not constrained to pass through the over-narrow aperture of words—is for this reason indigenous to silence. We know that, with respect to establishing this intimacy, there is nothing to say. One still seeks, through language, knowledge of others; but the knowledge about others only matters to us against the background of this 'sound of silence', so sweet to us that we are always straining at, or rather, past words to get at it; we are always listening for it. We seek it, but do not find it—particularly if we suppose, absurdly, that it is something words might contain. But how are we to seek this silence? How can we go about trying to hear silence? How might this Social Silence be listened for?
4. Speaking broadly, we have both individual and collective examples of how not to listen. Both in individual experience as persons and as one among peers--both as our irreducibly separate selves and as members of Western culture—we have already gone quite far down the wrong road. But the cultural fear of silence, coupled with the individual’s quest for it, have to be taken together if either is to be understood. This is why the desperate chatter of two thirty-somethings in a diner, both panicked for connection, should be read against the larger cultural tradition in which their little (but infinitely important) drama is played out, and vice versa. For consider both cases at once—even consider both cases as one: is not the dissolution of desperate words into an understanding both silent and superior, the ultimate aim of each of us-- of all of us when we are one of the people at the table? Likewise, isn't the aim of philosophy (understood as epistemology) the end of philosophy? Isn’t the practice of raising questions about knowledge to know, and so settle them, and so justify being quiet about them? In both the personal and philosophical cases, isn't the idea to reach an understanding that we need no longer reach for?
But both in both cases we seem to suppose that words are the way to reach this understanding. And this seems wrong. In the personal case, words inspired by a desperate attempt to connect are a de facto acknowledgment of the failure to do so. Nevertheless, in cars, cafes, kitchens, bedrooms, words are launched, fall, and shatter--small memorials to failed connections which litter our wasted evenings—like little white crosses--tombstones on hillsides. Words fail to connect us as we hope, because that is not what they are for. They died trying, because they were trying to do the impossible. Likewise, in its own looming way, the role of the word, already out of character in Western romance, is miserably mis-cast in Western philosophy. That knowledge should be our link to other minds! That we should talk our way to each other!
5. It is open to us to reject this role for language in both cases. If we accept Silence of this special sort we have been describing, we get, as a result, the background ethical solution to every supposedly epistemic anxiety. For the deep uneasiness of Western culture at the prospect of absent knowledge must, for it to grip us as it does, be rooted in a powerful individual worry. And it is. For the Western urge to alleviate the terror of skepticism is, at root, driven by terror of solipsism. And, loosely but accurately speaking, the fear of the thirty-somethings at the restaurant is that fear which has given rise to the bulk of Western philosophy. Consider our couple: they are two people with a terror of solipsism. And this terror is at root, not the worry of being condemned to being deceived about reality—is not a concern about distorted vision; rather, it is a fear far deeper: the fear of being invisible. The terror that we do not know (in Western parlance, do not see) is the sublimated terror of being unseen. “No one sees!” the Cartesian might worry; but this worry has its roots in the heart, which worries “Dear God! I see no one, and no one sees me!” The fear of the unknown, and the fear of not knowing, are, at bottom, the single fear of every one of us that we will never be known. To understand the world... is this our quest? What for? Who for? No. Our quest as persons is to be understood, and to be understanding, with reference to each other, without reference to knowledge. And this is the 'knowledge' in which silence is at home. Silence is even evidence of having reached such an understanding.
6. Of course, even the philosophies of the East, which did not care for the West's exultation of language (which freed them to make their own brilliant and novel mistakes) did not suppose that words were of no value. But the value of words and concepts was, as it were, a grudging concession, a temporary instrumentalist grant of reprieve; a work permit was issued them provided they take their natural place, subject to the requirements of the understanding that says nothing--provided speech was properly subject to silence. As the Zhuangzi has it:
"A fish trap is for catching fish; once you have the fish, you can forget about the trap. A rabbit-snare is for catching rabbits; once you've got the rabbits, you can forget about the snare. Words are for catching ideas; once you've caught the ideas, you can forget about the words. Now where can I find a person who has forgotten about words, so that I may have a word with him?"
Our account of the sociality of the right kind of Silence clearly rejects some implications from this citation. First, we may reject that words are a necessary condition for understanding each other wordlessly. It might be wiser to content (as Levinas does) that word-less understandings are the precondition for the narrower, non-personal understandings which words can contain. More important to expunge, however, is the idea that words are primarily and originally for gathering ideas rather than connecting to persons. If the first word ‘broke’ the Silence we are discussing, it shattered the peace of an original understanding, not created it. And perhaps this is another aspect of the quest for connection: the sense that we are re-establishing an original connection lost. Words cannot establish contact, perhaps— only re-establish it. At any rate, the more original the word, we should say that the more explicitly it will be found carrying out its function of acknowledging, recognizing, repairing this original intimacy. Surely 'hello' is the first word, and a word par excellence, not ‘green’ or 'fire' or 'cat'! For who would break the Silence merely to describe?!
But, if we consider the quest of the West, which, at bottom, is a quest of Western individuals for interpersonal connection, we can say, of the couple incessantly talking over their over-priced dinners, that what they are seeking by their incessant talking is some one to whom they need not talk. They seek, not to break the silence, but repair it. They seek a silence which they both hear—the antithesis of solitude—to which they can together repair. This Silence, they hope, will never be broken. Two persons, understanding and understood. Nothing said established it; and now that it is established, there is nothing more to say... And this is to say that for all its appalling dryness and tiresome pretensions of inhuman rigor, Western philosophy is, in a very direct sense, a manifestation of these two frustrated daters; literally speaking, its air of objectivity and epistemic obsessions have fundamentally romantic roots.

September 21, 2009

There are approximately 6 billion people in the world. If one is lucky, out of that 6 billion there are three or four persons who believe in you unreservedly. When one is unlucky, one of the three or four departs...
RIP Beloved Nana 1922-2009

August 30, 2009

Personal Music

Certain forms of music seem less social than others.
One form of music strives for a kind of mathematical beauty--seems to arise as an ode to L'esprit de Geometrie--is paid tribute to what Kant calls 'the sublime'. Presented with such work, we feel witness to the passing of something majestic, immense--something far beyond the human scale, awesome, austere, objective. The work rolls over us, dominates us. Our souls, in the presence of these tones and resonances, are made to realize their smallness, as if the Infinite had passed this way and shown only Its back. Head down, we greet the work in a respectful silence. The interaction between this kind of work and its hearer has a hierarchical structure. We are not its equal, and it does not address us as such. It approaches us with a mien unapologetically aristocratic. Enjoyment of the work, our susceptibility to it, takes the form of an elated subjection. Insofar as we dare to address the work, we bow to it, and feel taller for having bowed. And this element of subjection is not incidental to hearing the work--it is what it is to hear it--or, at least, is what it is to understand it. One cannot hear it at all (except as patterns of noise) unless one genuflects--approaches in an attitude of prayer. But all this makes the work asocial in this sense: we respond to it, but part of its excellence consists of its unresponsiveness to us. The size difference is too great for there to be an interaction. We and the work are never in dialogue. To enjoy this music is to admire its altitude and indifference to us. The aesthetic impulse here is the same which has always tempted humans to honor stars which burn too far away to warm, or to speak in a quiet reverence of the limitless and casually brutal sea.
Posted below is music of a very different sort--a social sort in which a certain responsiveness (between performers, performers and audience, or both) seems to be constitutive of what it is to hear it--not as noise, but as music. Whereas to be 'caught up' by some sublime chorale or classical piece seems possible in a solitary station, to be 'caught up' by social music involves grasping, being grasped by, its responsiveness. Much the way God the Father gave way to His gentler, far more social Son, who fished, snacked, chuckled, listened—here the passing by of Infinity gives way to something earthier—something not too infinite to be influenced by us--something not too vast to look us in the eye. In social music inheres an uncertainty, flexibility, vulnerability. Whereas the music described above suggests an eternal and unshake-able architecture ("somber music/walled against time"), social music is contingent, shifts moment by moment, takes its cues from its surroundings--from nods, foot-taps, faces--from us. Constitutive of enjoying this music is the sense that the music is not there to be honored, but altered, entered, joined. We might say it is honored to be altered. The imperative of involvement is in direct opposition to an overawed and spectatorial stance. Social music cannot merely be observed. In this sociality, other distinctions also lose their relevance. In social music there can be no distinction between what it is to hear music (as more than noise) and being caught up in the responsiveness between performers, as they respond to the contingencies of the particular performance, and the improvisations of each other. Nor can a sharp line be drawn between the performance and the work performed, as these too are in dialogue. And here is another rejection of a spectatorial relation to this music: this responsiveness means a performance is not a re-presenting of a work; a performance is not the same work re-presented. Rather, each time it is performed, seen, and heard, it is open to being seen differently, re-visioned, re-vised. Social music is thus not re-presentational, but rather, re-creational, and in the most literal sense.
Jazz, a music whose 'structure' simply IS responsiveness, re-creation, play--is the ultimate social music. In consequence its improvisational ‘structure’ has all the contingency, potential for awkwardness, and uncertainty of any social engagement. No wonder it is not favored by lovers of pre-established order! Yet its play—its notion of perpetual creation—is never arbitrary— is never a creation ex nihilo. For in all its careenings, its apparently reckless, ‘play what you will’ ethos, it remains anchored by this singular social imperative—Play what you will—but acknowledge the one before you! The randomness of play tempered by inter-play. However, the responsiveness of jazz—its sociality—is often obscured by the intricacies of the language in which its performer-creators respond. Instead, here are two clearer, more visually accessible instances of social music, where the performance arises out of interpersonal address, and our enjoyment of the performance is inseparable from the interaction of the performers. One might say, with the appropriate caveats, that this is what Jazz looks like.
Detached interplay is easy. One sings--then another--that is not sociality, but sequence. But when what one sings next depends on what was just sung... Here, the sociality is so sincere, and the music so beautiful, one wonders how far to push the idea that the latter is the condition for the former--that this openness to each other is, with respect to social music, the 'without which, not'. Louis Armstrong & Frank Sinatra Uploaded by ZeFire. - Watch more music videos, in HD! Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore Uploaded by gucomatz. - Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more. P.S. Dinah's face at :15--lovely!

August 28, 2009

Uncalled-for Exercises in Unencouraging Verse

I wrote--and then reversed--the lines, 'his immortal spirit'.
The cursor danced back quietly, and removed the words
whose seams had seethed with meaning
A soft key-touch before
But now by cursor silenced evermore,
As a man
Is subtlely removed from this earth
In a room
Without fanfare.
The cursor dances back across
Anonymous, calm-blinking sweep
The cursor dances back across
His immortal soul.

********* ********* *********

No gates rolled shut like the press of tides

No portcullis fell with as final a clang

As this carven latch on the edge of a wood.

Unanswered Unechoed

The silent trees stood 'round the click of the door

Of the small bungalow

Where Old Yensen is ready to die.

August 1, 2009

Intentional Insomnia

Late nights lend thoughts a grandeur they seem not to enjoy at any other hour--'seem' because this sense of the grand is not because the thoughts we think at night are grander, but rather, because at night we naturally think more grandly, whatever be the thought.
The source of this post-midnight majesty of mind is worth considering--and seems to me to be this: an empowerment by isolation--an isolation that secures for the lone thinker, 'sailing through strange seas of thought/alone' an exemption from daylight economies. These economies are sensible places where thoughts are exchanged--and so wherein thought is a product, and thinking a process of domestication, a cautiousness, a commodity. By contrast: in the dark and absence of others, thought reverts to something soaring, severe, solitary, all but indifferent to the social, even hostile to it. The interpersonal etiquette of thought is shucked off at nightfall, the way an over-socialized savage shrugs off his colonizer's starched, restrictive clothing, paints his face, and slips into the river, eyes gleaming, knife in teeth. In the thickening dark, thought steps outside of the social; the dangerous evening breezes are caught in mental sails which, in daylight, were spread downward, like nets, for knowledge. But now in the cool they billow--and the late-night thinker has altitude--carrying thought above and beyond the reproachful circle of well-lit faces. Lifted beyond accusing lights, thought alights--and crouches, claws out, breath quick, back arched-- breathes wild, alone, endangered, exuberant. In this dark, thought is removed from the exchange economy, where thoughts are engineered with a mind for trading--and becomes a kind of irresponsible and imaginative careening.
Suppose this is the phenomenology, then. What drives it?
The answers I am inclined to accept are in the description above, the crux of which is this: it is only at night and alone (one must be willing to be alone--to face the absence of every face) that we can at last think FOR OURSELVES. All are asleep; our thoughts cast about only for us, report only to us, return only to us--and often not at all. The crucial matter, though, is that all thought we might express to another involves common ground, and so must be mediated; yet, by engaging in thinking which expressly declines future expression--by devising a thought we have no intention to express--we permit that thought to be im-mediate. A thought of this sort--an unmediated thought-- is what we would think, absent the urge, always already internalized, to alter the thought in order to share it with another thinker. Yet this is economy socializes thoughts which otherwise come at us wild, rude, and naked. This is to say the economy of thought concerns itself not so much with traditional representation as with re-presentation of the most literal sort-- the concern that a thought will have to be presented again to another. It is always plumping wild notions for (perhaps unwanted) positions as propositions properly behaved; the economy of thought takes the savage we spoke of and seeks to civilize him--seeks to make of him a civil servant. And again, this mediating, socializing, civilizing, is due to the thinker engaging in thought under the prospect of a future sociality.
Yet I am now up, and no others are stirring. Dark and sleep separate me--provided all others are gone! For even one more thinker is a market; preparing a thought for two constitutes mass-marketing. Yet, now that all others sleep, I may think under this notion: the markets are closed! All others have closed their stands and gone home to soma, to sleep, to others--perhaps even love. But we have not done this. We are alone. And what we think ALONE need not be given to another. We cannot, under these conditions, give the thoughts we have; and therefore we have them differently--have different thoughts--thoughts less sociable, more primitive, and, perhaps, and in some sense, more pure. A thought under these conditions is for no one--not even for me (I expect nothing of it, hold it to no norms) and therefore need not be homogenized--can be wildly and unapologetically particular--need not be ACCEPTABLE to anyone, and a thought unworried about how it will trade is the only thought which, to that mind, is properly considered indigenous. For only such unapologetically sovereign products of mind need not be bowdlerized and/or bastardized. They do not pander to a demographic. How could they? They have none.
Yet of what sort of value, one might ask, are such thoughts? But the answer has to do, not with the value of particular thoughts, packaged, and ready for shipping--that was economy. Granted, it seems this thinking--this anarchic meditation--this intellectual dreaming--seems to have SOME sort of value--an extra-economic value. Yet the paradox is clear. Such speculations are not intellectual investments with a strange return--they are, as it were, an investment in thoughts that, with regards to returning, are under no obligation. To speculate in this way is to fund an exploratory venture which seems to make the speculator suddenly rich--yet precisely because this thinking need not give its sole investor any traditional dividend. Yet the abstract return here, surely, is the freedom from being obligated to produce one. The value is not a commodity within the economy, but, perhaps, the outer wilds that make possible the tame. This value is intellectual liberty in the strongest most undisciplined sense-- cut free from the economy which demands that our thinking be productive, improve the bottom line, please the bosses, turn a profit, produce for common consumption.
And this world of consumption is where we labor all day. Yet every 3 a.m. brings about the overthrow of the values of economy. At that hour the mind enters a temple emptied, just after the table of the moneychangers have been upset, and all others have vanished. With lights low, the night a great, high-ceilinged church, an open-air cathedral in which all other parishioners are always absent, one is simultaneously free from, and vulnerable to, every blasphemy, and we feel ourselves uninhibitedly thinking our thoughts as ours. Answerable to no one, accepting a thought outside of the productive, deep night frees us to think without the daylight obsession with answers. We are, with no accusing face awake to tell us to be sensible-- to put us in harness--to MAKE something of our selves--to make sense-- we are at last able to wildly and irresponsibly cast about with a positive intent to catch nothing, lunge for branches we'll surely miss, sail for islands that may be myth, launch quests for conclusions we cannot reach, and, wholly apart from any green-eye-shade measure of productivity which daylight and the presence of others requires, relish the pure joy of the leap, heedlessly flinging forward our thoughts ("ever unreeling them/ever tirelessly speeding them"), our selves ("And you/O my soul").
There is, of course, a dark side to this kind of adventuring. It presents a special danger. Some minds, too long absent from others--those whose 3 a.m. lasts too long--somehow confuse slipping into the dark with letting the dark slip into them. They set out at night as we do, yet in such a way that they never find their way back to morning. Their thoughts, never formulated under the gaze of another face, become terrible, faceless. In severe cases, there is even a rage/resentment against the faces that constitute the morning of the mind. There then arises, so as to make the night last forever, a desire to close all eyes--the terrible dream, in the nightmare of Lear, which Cornwall represents.
But that the night-minded face such threats is hardly a point against our practice; for an equally terrible darkness falls upon minds who seem to grow blind by being subjected to too much daylight, too much sun, too much sociality. They are NEVER alone in thought--never think, free of other faces-- always think for others--and so come to regard the natural state of all thought as engineered for others; their entire mentality never escapes economy, and so they literally never think for themselves. Such persons operate the means of production, but no longer own it. All their thoughts are encompassed by economy, therefore all their thoughts are engineered 'for the people'--are genericized even before they are had. Such persons do not, strictly speaking, ever have their own thoughts; there is no thought of theirs which stands as private property. All is in common, and so is common--terribly common. Thus the dangers cancel out: the night-thinker's mind may collapse inward; but this is no point against it, as the day-thinker's mind may collapse outward--have its boundaries always and everywhere violated by an incessant light and the relentlessly prying eyes of others. When day-thinkers collapse, they do not explode, they dissipate-- become hackneyed, unoriginal--and by not exempting themselves from economy, come to that market offering nothing which might fully be called their own. By contrast to the collapsed night-thinker, the collapsed day-thinker is less seen than sensed; we sense that we know what they will say before they say it--know that whatever they say, we will have heard it before--know that, whoever it is that they are speaking for, they have somehow, and at the deepest possible level, relinquished the very capacity to speak for themselves.
So there are dangers on both sides--respective dangers of both a social and solipsistic savagery. Why prefer our way, then? Why prefer insomnia?
For just this reason: there is, in our nightly leaves from considerations of economy, a possibility of a new kind of value. It is our intense provincialism, possible only at night and alone, that makes us valuable to others come morning. We wake late--we walk out, and into faces--faces welcoming, warning, suspicious--but we have been away--and therefore can be of value to them. We are returning from elsewhere and so, here in daylight, face others with something to offer. We are less domestic labor than importers; and the novelty of our imports is only possible given the exile from economy already described.
Might we push this further--might we say, in a bit of hopeful self-praise, that our alienation has interpersonal--that is, ethical--value? The thought would be this: suppose we had not accepted the utter isolation of night--had not accepted night in its fullness--had, when faced with its emptiness, declined it--or at least, declined its unique disciplines. What if, instead of being the savage we spoke of, who relates to--even relishes--the dark into which he slips, we had, like good civilized souls, warded it off with phones and family and friends which we clutch and wave against night, like the blinding torches one might wave at a bear, or a cross the character waves before an approaching vampire. Suppose, at nightfall, instead of letting all outer lights go out, we built blue ones--huddled before flickering screens, streaming the dreams of others--what would have been the result? Isn't it true that, had we warded off night rather than welcomed it--had we defended against its asociality rather then accepted it--we would have remained blind to what it shows us once our eyes adjust? As a result, would we not have destroyed the very indigenousness of thought it enables by thinking with and for everyone else? But now...everyone else... if we have not, in their absence, had thoughts which were made apart from them, and, as it were, without them in mind, what will we give them at a reunion? With what exotic and unprecedented gift might we present them, if we have not ranged far and wide? And yet: if dark is something into which we voluntarily, and with a thrill of fear (always fear!), slip--were our thoughts in the dark allowed to rage as a kind of noble savagery we were willing to risk--into which we might nightly immerse ourselves, into which we might nightly descend--if we had the discipline to sink into it--the discipline not to keep to the surface--the discipline not to swim--what extraordinaries might we now have to sell at the morning market?
This, it would seem, gives us reason to hold that, at times, the Western equivalence between thought and light fails us--for given the previous paragraph, it follows that the tendency to stay near the light is not necessarily excellent--even in an economic sense. The dark, a wild sea, must swallow us sometimes--and we may ourselves be complicit in bringing about this swallowing. One cannot sink out of sight for others--that would still be a motive of economy; but once one does it with no thought of others, one may for this very reason come to have something for them.
"But it feels that I might drown..." This is because you might; but this is true of anyone who, like the hopeful pearl diver, grabs his rock, holds it tight, and plummets to the bottom, where, amidst the colds, pressures, and inexplicable darks, stays down long enough, and maintains enough presence of mind--his mind-- to bring something beautiful up from those fiercely individual depths--up...up... to the easier, everyday trading which takes place upon a reassuring surface-- solid, sun-drenched, shared. He enhances the surface by breaking it.