20 November 2018

Memory and History

I’ve been thinking that memory embodies an essential sadness. In (and by) memory one remembers a happiness now passed and that is now recalled by its contrast or even similarity to the sense of the present. Or in (and by) memory one remembers the unhappiness that occurred in the past but that is now recalled in the present by an event similarly or differently experienced. In the midst of happiness it might seem that there would be no call to remember a past unhappiness, but perhaps it is exactly then that one remembers such circumstances exactly for the contrast that the memory offers to the meaning of the present. Memory changes the present even as it structures the past. Memory is a narrative construction and what it constructs is a life with continuity even when what is remembered is the experience of trauma—a breaking of the continuity of existence. At the core of memory rests a sadness—a sorrow that derives from an acknowledgement of a discrepancy between present and past and past and present.
     Memory is not history. History is facts, and facts are happenings with the life taken out of them. Historian Bernard Bailyn writes, “I am concerned with one of the central problems in the everyday practice of history that contemporary historians actually face none of whom, as far as I know, believe naively that historians can attain perfect objectivity; none of whom dream that a historian can contemplate the past from some immaculate perch, free from the prejudices, assumptions, and biases of one’s own time place, and personality; none of whom deny that facts are inert and meaningless until mobilized by an inquiring mind, and hence that all knowledge of the past is interpretive knowledge . . .”  History “sometimes an art,” attempts to offer a more accurate depiction of what might have occurred knowing well that such portrayal is always limited and incomplete. “We cannot experience what they experienced in the way they experienced it,” Bailyn writes. Ironically, in the absence of that aspect of life the facts lack meaning.  Facts are cold and sterile, but memory is hot and fertile. This contrast accounts for the vitality of psychotherapy. In psychotherapy one creates the story that works from the facts available; psychotherapy offers energy to the facts, but then it must be acknowledged that those facts are changed by their placement into the story and are no longer ‘facts’ but elements of the constructed narrative. Yes, the Holocaust happened, and we have the facts--dates, names and numbers that confirm it. But the holocaust possesses existential meaning in the stories that are its essence and that arise out of it: in the diary of Anne Frank, the memoirs of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and in the memories and stories of others who survived it and left records of their struggles. History as memory is sad; facts in the absence of story are not history.  “But we must all still be story tellers, narrators—though of events lodged deep in their natural contexts.” Those contexts may be named but remain for the most part interpretable but resistant to any semblance of truth. History, like memory, embodies an essential sadness.

08 November 2018

Late and Soon

In a far away place held in by tall trees and still-thick brush in this late autumnal season. It is quiet here—I came for the quiet—and a chance to begin a reset and refocus in my life in retirement. I like the silence: except for the click of the computer keys under my fingers (and the inevitable back space as I make too many missteps) there is only the sound of my breathing and the gulp of my coffee. Coffee is another good reason to arise in the morning. I love my coffee in my mug: I feel grounded in the grounds.
            But the noise of the world assaults me here anyway. On theair plane into here and from 32,000 feet I hear that Trump has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Not that I really care about the fate of Sessions, but I despair that Trump is carefully surrounding himself only with those who can be loyal to him. He is behaving like a dictator, like a King. I can hear him screaming odf his most recent enemy in the early has been revoked because he is critical of Trump and asks piercing questions to which neither Trump nor Sanders can adequately (or even honestly) reply. This morning early I read that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (one of the citadels protecting the democracy from the obsessive, narcissistic rule of Trump and his Republican lackeys). And I read of another mass shooting in California where now at least eleven have been murdered because our gun laws are protected by the paranoid NRA and its money-needy congress members.
     Why do I read the papers? But more, why even if I didn’t actively look too readily at the papers or their internet facsimile,  the bulletins and notifications would flash across the top of my screen while I was engaged in some more productive, even interesting project. I wonder why it is that I don’t just turn off the intrusions of the banners and notifications. Ah, but even if I did so, I know that I would still check regularly not just the political terrain but all other terrains as well: who won the Nobel Prize; where is Bob Dylan playing next; what did the reviewers think of this movie or play or performance; what does Paul Krugman today think of this or that. The news, etc. represents for me a distraction from the dreams of any night and the useful struggles of every day. So too does my email that I check too often (making by that statement a judgment, I know) to wonder if anyone is calling me out of the present situation.
            There is in these times too much to call me away from myself. I justify the escapes by insisting that these awarenesses are essential to my stances in the world. I use them to justify me. Unlike my friend I do not beat on doors nor lick envelopes or join organizing committees. I speak and I espouse belief, and I seek from the outside defense for what I feel on the inside. Perhaps it is this realization of my quietism that rationalizes my obsessions with the internet and news media. Or do I seek justifications for my current political positions with some outside supports, as if I am not sufficient in belief. I am reminded of Thomas More’s statement in the play A Man for All Seasons. He says, “It is not that I believe it but that believe it.” Perhaps it is that I am not so secure.
     The times offer me too many escapes from myself. I take too many available escapes from myself. Emerson reminds me that a man thinking is always alone, but thinking is often too hard. And it may be that I cannot bear so much aloneness and so I allow the world to avoid the sense of being alone. But isn’t what is wrong with the world that people would not be alone and enter thought. Here what I mean by thinking (by entrance into thought) is the active building of connections: the capacity to follow one statement with the next—with some presence of logical reasoning, a willingness to construct an argument linking one statement to a next  one. (It might be that most statements are arguments in some form? I recall a statement by Gregory Bateson who wondered if most conversations were not an attempt to avoid a fight?).
     I have some private business in which to engage, and I should instead direct my gazes there. 

01 November 2018

Novels with Fiction

Javier Cercas, in his book, The Impostor, writes “Fiction saves, reality kills.” D.W. Winnicott earlier had stated that the reality principle is always an insult! I read the news today. Oh boy!! I need some defenses. Yesterday I roamed about in a local bookstore searching for something to save me. The news is so horrific that I desperately sought some relief. I couldn’t bear the history or the political sections: they would keep me immersed in the horror. And for the present I had no interest in reading about someone else’s (usually tormented, miserable or glorious) life in either the memoir or biography genre category. The cookbooks were out: I stand with Barbra Streisand who moaned that every time Trump says something she feels compelled to eat pancakes. She complains she is putting on weight.
     Actually, of late I have been reading mostly novels, or as Javier Cercas says, “Novels with fiction.” All books, Cercas suggests, are novels: in ‘novels with fiction’ lies mixed with truth become truth, whereas in ‘novels without fiction’ there ought to be no lies and the narrative purports to be a mirror of reality. I have been considering what truth the novel with fiction arrives at by intertwining truth with lies. Obviously that truth must not inhere to any single statement, event, or character in the novel but must pertain to the fact of the novel as a whole. The books I have now read by Cercas, The Impostor, a novel without fiction, Outlaws and Soldiers of Salamis, each a novel with fiction, concern exactly the nature of truth. In postmodern fashion Cercas casts doubt on the possibility of ever realizing it, and maybe that idea represents the truth offered within the novel with fiction. Searching for truth, his protagonists/narrators are frustrated at every turn by the impossibility of realizing it: in the novels everything is contained within multiple narratives, and truth appears within the lies and deceptions and indeterminacies contained in each of the stories. There is always something that remains untold and hidden from view. Someone with a limited perspective and vocabulary: someone has to tell the story. Truth does not figure as some destination/goal in the novel with fiction since truth seems in these novels indeterminable. Acting as his own narrator in The Impostor, Cercas frustrates himself searching for the truth of Enric Marco. Cercas says he cannot write a novel about Enric Marco because Marco has already told so many lies that his story was already fiction. Any further lying would be merely a redundancy. In fact, the impostor Marco creates himself as would a novelist create a character. Novels with fiction suggest at least that truth does not exist. In this way fiction saves because it denies that Truth exists and that we are not privy to it.
     Cercas says that the result of mixing a truth with a lie is always a lie except in novels where it is a truth. Cercas does not say ‘leads’ to truth; rather that this mixture of truth and lie in a novel with fiction is a truth; that the amalgam of truth and lie becomes truth, Truth is an accurate report of what happened.  The identity of the lie in novels with fiction exists in the attribution of motive and meaning to the truth. But these are unknowable as psychoanalysis reminds us even to the one who acts. Cercas recounts the myth of Narcissus which then serves as his metaphor. Tiresias tells Narcissus’ mother, Liriope, that her son will live to see old age “if he does not know himself.” But one day Narcissus becomes captivated by his image reflected in the water and seeinghimself he knowshimself and he dies. Cercas suggests here that ‘seeing’ is ‘knowing’. I’m not sure. It is only a mirror image that Narcissus sees. But here we might argue that fiction saves because its lies mixed with truth protects us from knowing oneself. The truth of any novel with fiction is that we cannot know truth, and we require novels to remind us of this fact. We are saved by the fiction from Narcissus’ fate. Facts, I think are reality with the life taken out of them. Facts are meaningless outside of the context from which they arise. Neils Bohr said that science was about the result of experiment and not ultimate reality. The latter is always beyond us.

23 October 2018

Robbing My Time: A Rant

In his song, “Close the Door Lightly” Eric Andersen sings, 
Who was the one that stole my mind?
Who was the one that robbed my time?
Who was the one? Made me feel unkind
So fare thee well, sweet love of mine
I thought about those sentiments today as I rode my bike during a spin cycle class. I have for the past forty-five years exercised with some regularity. For many of those years I ran long distances. I have run three marathons and didn’t finish last in one of them. I loved running not only for the physical benefits of exercise but for the psychological and emotional rewards that I enjoyed. I often took my life out on the roads, thought through personal and professional situations—even difficulties—and returned to the house cleansed, at peace, even sometimes transformed. I wrote my books during those miles, and I wrote the eulogy for my father. My running almost always calmed me and gave me energy. Running as part of my days improved those days. Ah yes, there were some bad days when the running proved difficult, my breath drawn with difficulty and my legs heavy, but in my memory those days were rare. I found peace on the roads. I made my peace out on the roads.
     I have retired from about four or so years ago and taken up spin cycling and yoga. I practice of the latter only Hatha Yoga or Ashtanga Vinyasa. In both the atmosphere is peaceful, calming. The music soundtrack is quiet. I can Be. Now, spin cycle has a different ambiance: the music is loud and pulsing, and the class instructor directs the class through a microphone. “Turn the blue knob, increase resistance; double your speed; up, out of the saddle; get a drink.” Spin cycle has become for me a total physical experience with a rare and often surprising moment of insight. When I ran I could set an agenda for my thought, but that is impossible in the cycle class. I’m there to sweat and get my heart rate up. I still set the agenda: I rarely follow the instructor’s lead not to be oppositional but because I am not physically capable of doing what he says. And he does often remark, “Do what you can. This is your ride.” And the music, neither Bob Dylan nor the Grateful Dead (but sometimes Bruce Springsteen and the Talking Heads) accompanies the ride and facilitates my effort.
     I join the class to improve myself and not to be improved. Loud as the music in the room may be, I can usually find my space in the room to exist in some private quiet and find some personal peace. But sometimes, however, the instructor robs my time, and the class becomes a forum for his/her agenda. I’m thinking of Lyle Lovett’s song “Church,” where the preacher he keeps on preaching and everyone in the congregation gets hungrier and hungrier: “And now everyone was getting so hungry/That the old ones started feeling ill/And the weak ones started passing out/And the young ones they could not sit still.” I don’t come to class for life coaching, and I don’t want to be assaulted by declarations concerning what I should believe and how I should act. I don’t want to be lectured with an agenda that is not mine and that does not apply to me. I just want to spin, to sweat, and to occasionally have a necessary thought. Insight rare but welcome.
     And electronic music doesn’t inspire me to work harder at all but rather, it seems to make me angry and want to get the hell out of there.  
Who was the one that stole my mind?
Who was the one that robbed my time?
Who was the one? Made me feel unkind
So fare thee well, sweet love of mine

21 October 2018

The Garden

In James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, the character Jacques says, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden . . . I wonder why.” I have long considered that question, and I have come to accept that that we do not stay in the Garden because there is nothing to do there. In myth the Garden is paradisiacal: there is no death, no labor, no effort necessary to do or to receive anything. In the Garden all is provided for and there is no disruption of ease. In the Garden of Eden the mother’s breast is always full and immediately available. In the Garden all desires are fulfilled, which is to say there are no Desires. There is nothing in the Garden that requires any forward movement. In the Garden there is nothing to think about. David, the novel’s narrator, says that to remember Eden is to remember innocence and to suffer the pain of its death; but to forget Eden is to suffer the madness that derives from a denial of pain and from the hatred of innocence. David suggests that a hero can do both: remember Eden and forget it. Heroes, David admits, are rare. But I think that our onward movements depend on an oscillatory alternation of moments of remembering and forgetting. In the Garden there exists no motive to neither remember nor to forget.
     It might be true as the novel’s narrator says that everyone has his or her own Garden of Eden, but each individual Eden is structurally similar: it is the place where all is perfect—the women, if you want them, or the men if that is what is desired. In the Garden there should be no consequences because the Garden of Eden is the fulfillment of Desire and in the Garden exists no obstruction to the realization of it.
     But I know that there is a world that exists outside of Eden. The world and reality (always an insult, says Winnicott) is out here and unlike are things in the Garden, out here what I want is not immediately available. Out here I must make an effort to achieve anything. Out here I can begin the repair of myself and the world. David, the narrator, says that the phrase to find oneself “betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” Indeed! But to me it seems more accurate to believe that out here one doesn’t find oneself so much as create that self. In the Garden without resistance there is no growth, and growth doesn’t come without sweat and cost.
     Nobody can (or even should) stay in the Garden, of course, because there is too much to be accomplished and gained, ah, and destroyed and lost out here. Yes, by the sweat of our brows we must earn our keep, the difficult ground out here must be cultivated, and our births are often harrowing and dangerous. Like Death, the Garden is a place of nothingness. Life exists outside it.

15 October 2018

Not in this Club

As I live through these unbelievable, unacceptable times, I think about Groucho Marx, and his declaration “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Who would choose to belong to the Republican Party, an ideologically bankrupt group of thugs. They have stolen a Supreme Court nomination, insulted President Obama in any number of repulsive denigrations and contemptuous actions (recall the South Carolina congressman who screamed “You lie” during the State of the Union Message: an act that would have sent any third grader to the principal!); insulted a woman (all women) who claimed that she had been sexually assaulted by a clearly inappropriate Supreme Court nominee; and plowed ahead without a care in the world for anything but their own autocratic, anti-democratic agenda. And to do so with glee.
     Today the New York Times reports that Trump talked with the King of Saudi Arabia who (surprise!) denied complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump suggested that perhaps some rogue killers had been responsible for the murder. Interesting, I think, because Trump seemed to acknowledge that Khashoggi was murdered somehow in the Saudi embassy, a fact the embassy personnel has stridently denied. Trump seems to admit that a murder has taken place but that the Saudi leaders had nothing to do with it! The stupidity that Trump displays is only equaled by those who believe his lies.
     The article in the Times announces thatIf the Saudi leaders are found to be behind what happened to Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Trump would probably face more pressure from Congress and other countries to respond.” More Pressure?? What pressure? If the Republican Congress hasn’t pressured Trump yet, then why should they begin now? In fact, the Republican Congress has abdicated all responsibility of serving as an independent and balancing arm of government; rather, they have in disgusting cowardice groveled at the feet of the President. “Oh no, there is no Sanity Clause” in this Republican government.

11 October 2018

Hurricane Watch

Once when I was yet in high school we were either sent home in the middle of the day or told to stay home in anticipation of a hurricane. Maybe then we experienced a hurricane but if so I recall nothing of the event and only the anticipation. Many years later I lived in New York City on the Upper West Side in a corner apartment with a number of large windows. A hurricane was forecast and we were warned to prepare ourselves with food and water supplies (and chocolate donuts) and to place duct tape in X patters on the windows to prevent them from dangerously shattering in the onslaught of gale-force winds splaying shards of glass about the rooms. I did as I was told . . . but there occurred no hurricane—we were spared--but in my lethargic relief, I waited too long to remove the tape from the windows and the sun baking my rooms burned shadows of the tape onto the glass resulting in the panes to remain marked with a large X that now covered the entire length and breadth of the oversized windows.
     The newscasters (and weather people) hourly give alarming reports on the destruction that has resulted from Hurricane Michael (and before that Hurricane Florence and before that Maria, and before that Sandy) making landfall in Florida before it will move North into parts of Alabama and North Carolina. The news would say that the storm will ‘leave devastation in its wake as it moves.” I am intrigued by the anthropomorphizing of the hurricane. The headline of today’s New York Times reads “Storm Devastates Panhandle,” and the lead sentence says, “Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the continental United States, slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, unleashing a trail of destruction across 200 miles that splintered houses, peeled off roofs and stirred up a terrifying surge of seawater that submerged entire neighborhoods and set boats careening down city streets.” The on-line headline reads “Hurricane Michael Cuts Path of Destruction Through Florida’s Panhandle.” I am interested in the action verbs that attribute agency to the hurricane. My own use of an active verb “move’ in the first sentence of this paragraph is symptomatic of this assignment of agency to a natural phenomena that clearly has no consciousness to choose anything. Hurricanes simply are, and destruction follows in their wake. Destruction is caused by hurricanes, but hurricanes do not choose to destroy.Actually, in Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen!Natural conditions there are not suitable to the formation of such storms but unprepared as the location might be for such storms massive damage could be caused. Hurricanes have no agency and I wonder what is the consequence of assigning human agency to natural phenomena. In this construction the active agent becomes Nature as if Nature could with any conscious good or bad order events—as if hurricanes actually knew what they were doing, and we humans merely passive objects of the hurricane’s fury. Yes, we are certainly victims of the fury of the storm, but we are not the storm’s enemy. The storm is an impersonal force that is incapable of consciousness and therefore, of agency. But I think our willingness to employ language to reduce humans to passivity indicates further our sense of helplessness in these first few decades of the 21stcentury. If Nature has agency then climate change can be attributed to Nature’s way and not to human action. We humans are relieved of responsibility. Anthropomorphizing non-human phenomena (I am told we live now in a post-human world—another topic for another time) gives agency where it does not belong and removes agency from its proper place of origin. I think our verbs tell a great deal about our sense of self in the world. If we learned to speak with greater consciousness and acknowledge our agency.