30 January 2012


So far things are going very well, I think: the black cat has effectively trained me. I had begun to leave food for the stray animal, and it began with some regularity to visit in its meanderings for a meal. I left it a bed outside the cabin in which it might achieve some warmth and comfort should it choose to rest. And during the day (and perhaps the evening too) the black cat rests comfortably in the bed I’ve provided, warm, secure and snug, I hope. However, each time I enter or leave the cabin, the cat quickly bounds up from its lethargy and scampers away; as soon as I enter back into the cabin to again begin my work (or to get away from the house), the black cat returns and walks directly to the wooden planked entrance to the cabin immediately before the door, with longing, I imagine, stares in at me. And so, thinking it wants entrance, I get up and head toward the door to offer it admittance, but it again runs away. And so, in strict behaviorist fashion, to shape the black cat’s behavior and to suggest that I am a friend, I open the door and put a handful of food in its bowl, and return to my place in the cabin. In just a few minutes, the black cat returns to consume the snack I have left, and then sits before the door again, only to run away when I move toward it. I again return to my work.
So far, the cat has put on four pounds and I have gotten a great deal of work done. Of course, I feel t-i-e-d to the cabin, but what the hell, there’s only trouble in the house. And I have proven to myself that behaviorism works: I discover I have been quickly trained by a stimulus to perform a desired response.

27 January 2012

Black cat redux

Gradually and against my wishes otherwise, I have been constructing a home for the homeless black cat. After twenty-five years of caring for cats, I wanted to relinquish the responsibility of caring for animals, and even though the household, against my wishes, had adopted two new kittens, I declared emphatically that I would not be caring for them. Whoever wanted the cats wanted to care for them. I was finished.
But I was not that strong. Perhaps I have never been so. I like to think of what I refer to here as weakness as ethics. Daily and a bit distant from the cabin this homeless black cat appeared, sitting passively in the woods beyond my windows, sensing a human presence and yet fearing it. It was thin and scraggly, and on its neck was the wound of a recent fight. It looked hungry and sad. At the beginning and before the regular cold set in, I began to leave food out at night that I had taken from the house, and by morning the bowl had been emptied. Since I never saw sign of any other animal, I assumed that the cat had partaken. For the most part I didn’t see the animal so much as sense its presence; the cat stayed quite clear of me. I had placed the food bowls on the North side of the cabin and under the eaves, and as long as the cat walked close to the frame it could remain invisible. Only the empty bowl indicated its presence.
One night, however, it rained, and the bowl in which I had left the food filled with rainwater, and even the cat wouldn’t eat the soggy mess. And so, I took from in the house a long, low pine table and placed it under the cabin eaves and over the food bowls. But in the first snowfall the wind blew the heavy flakes into the bowls and again spoiled the food that I had that evening brought out for the cat. And so I moved the bowls and the covering table to the west side of the cabin where the wind did not blow so strong and where the sun shone for a good part of the afternoon. Of course, outside of the cabin door sat a useless low pine table changing the aestheticthere was nothing to place on it and it was too low to serve much goodbut I felt that now, at least, the cat’s food would be safe.
As the black cat learned that there would be regular meals, I began to see it more frequently. Sometimes it passed less carefully and rather casually beneath my window, and sometimes it even sat before the door looking in awaiting its meal. Still, if I moved toward it, the cat always ran away, but since I sensed that it might be hungry, I put out the food. Soon the black cat would return, partake of its meal and head out again on its travels. It undertook, I considered, a large circular route through the environs, because it seemed always to arrive at the cabin from the east and north after it had headed out for the west and south.
Always the food bowls were under the table and for the most part safe from precipitation. But the weather eventually did grow very cold, and on several nights the food in the bowls froze and became inedible. On those early frigid mornings, I brought the bowls into the cabin to thaw out the meal, and I even occasionally placed the bowl over my tea warmer (!) and cooked the cat’s meal, so to speak. Then I would return the bowls to their spot under the table, and the cat would eat from the bowls and head on its way.
Now the black cat began regularly to come around twice a day at least; and twice a day I fed it. I began making weekly trips to the supermarket for food that I stockpiled in my cabin.
It snowed (finally and considerably) this week, and on a sunny afternoon atop the table outside of my door sat the black cat wrapped in its tail, and though the snow was melting, the cat seemed to be sitting, albeit resting, in the snow. I assumed it was wet and cold even though it basked in the sun. And so, I went down into the basement of the house and found there a small round cushioned bed we had once purchased for another of our cats now deceased, and I placed this furniture on the table. I went back into the house to fix myself a glass of tea, and while the tea brewed, I looked out the window and saw the black cat comfortably resting in the bed with only its head and yellow eyes visible. I think it looked happy.
I wonder when it will ever decide it safe to enter the cabin.  I do not want a regular occupant, but I suppose I might welcome an occasional visitor.

23 January 2012

Thoughts in the Snowfall

If Burt Bachrach asked “What’s it all about, Alfie?” then Roth’s Zuckerman responds, “Its all about nothing.” Unlike in Everyman, where the stars remind the narrator (not Zuckerman of death, in I Married a Communist “the stars are indispensable.” There, up far above human foibles, the stars just exist. Up there, human actions have no effect: “hydrogen alone was determining destiny . . . There is no betrayal. There is no idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence. There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice. There are no utopias. There are no shovels.” All that exists up in the sky are burning furnaces of the people who have died and become stars. And all of the stars exist in the sky together without conflict: there is a universe where “error does not obtrude.” Yes, the stars are indispensable because they exist above and outside human concern. Nothing occurs up there, and nothing matters. Down here, where everything matters, it isn’t about anything.
What is it all about, Alfie? Complexity, but not in theory; it is about the unfathomable complexity of human motive and action that people attempt to simplify, categorize and dismiss. Eve didn’t marry a communist, Murray says, she married a man hungering after a life and yet a man who could not construct one that fit. “Nobody finds his life. That is life,” Zuckerman wonders aloud to Murray, his English teacher, who in the story of Ira Ringold offers one final lesson to his illustrious student.
And to avoid that complexity and that failure, Zuckerman has retreated into his cabin. To avoid having to construct a life that fits, and forever failing to successfully do so, Zuckerman has withdrawn from active life. “What are you warding off? What the hell happened?” Murray wonders. Interestingly, in Exit Ghost, Zuckerman will return to the City and almost decide to engage again in life, but at the end, retreat back to his cabin where all is safe and all of the conflicts occur only in the words that he writes. I suppose what happened is the content and meaning of the Zuckerman novels.
What happened? If I cannot find my life, what can I find? Finally, for Murray, all that is left is the myth of his own goodnessand for that he had to sacrifice Doris. “Because its not a static system . . . Because everything that lives is in movement. Because purity is petrifaction.” And so I live impure in impurity. We wonder why it is we do what we do, and we have to “endure without knowing.” The stars are indispensable: they endure without knowing.

19 January 2012

On Enemies

It snowed yesterday and over the course of the day the wind blew and the air turned very cold. This morning as I walked out to Walden the snow crunched under my feet and my steps left a trace on the frozen ground cover. The moon is 17% full and so the sky remained fairly black, though the stars shone calmly, even tauntingly bright in the sky. The food in the bowl I leave for the black cat had frozen and I have placed it on the tea warmer to see if it will thaw enough to become available for its breakfast. I worry where it sleeps at night, but it will not enter the cabin even in the full light of day. The cat stares at me through the windows and sits expectantly outside the glass door, but it runs into the brush to the south of the cabin whenever I move in its direction. I want only to offer it some warmth, but it does not appear to trust me though daily it appears for its meals.
In I Married A Communist, Zuckerman journeys to Zinc Town where Ira Ringold introduces him to his friends Horace and Frank, taxidermists extraordinaire. The walls of their meager shack are covered with the stuffed remains of all sorts of plain and exotic animals. Zuckerman watches as Frank skillfully skins a fox that he will soon mount whole. And Zuckerman retrospectively considers that the simple lives of these two men exude a good-naturedness and humor that Zuckerman admires. And Nathan wonders if perhaps these personalities “who didn’t have to get stirred up and go through all that Ira-ish emotion to have a conversation wasn’t the real, if unseen inactive Ira . . .” Because the Ira that Zuckerman knows is contentious, argumentative, confrontational and often rude in his public advocacy for the working man, a class to which ironically, by marriage he no longer belongs. Though at his shack in Zinc Town and through the people with whom he associates there, and who once in their lives belonged to that oppressed working class and have since become society’s outcasts, Ira remains in contact with his past.
And Zuckerman wonders if perhaps Ira had lived a more conventional life, remained close to the land and to manual labor and self-sufficiency, that maybe he might have lived a less troubled existence. “The respect and fondness that Ira had for Horace Bixton suggested even to me, a boy, that there was a very simple world of simple people and simple satisfactions into which Ira might have drifted, where all his vibrating passions, where all that equipped him (and ill-equipped him) for society’s onslaught might have been remade and pacified.”  But Zuckerman considers that if Ira had been more like Horace, without enemies that “life might have been more impossible for Ira to tolerate than it already was." Ira needed enemies. Having read all of the Zuckerman novels, I do not think that Zuckerman ever achieved any such peace. And perhaps that peace remains unavailable to someone like Zuckerman and like Ira who require enemies to make life tolerable.
What good are enemies?  Yes, the world is too much with us late and soon, and I think our enemies afford us some means to direct our angers outward rather than inward, and to focus our rage against the world and give that rage substance. Our enemies make our lives difficult, but without them perhaps our lives would be reduced to stuffing dead animals and selling rocks from the deserted quarry. We ought not to hate the world, and we should certainly not hate ourselves, but perhaps it is wise to maintain some enemies to save us. But I suppose we should choose our enemies wisely, which seems to represent some absurd contradiction.
I think I am the enemy of the black cat.

17 January 2012

Of Huts and Shacks

I am often enthralled by the insight into human behavior that Roth possesses. In I Married a Communist, a book I will talk about further and in the future, the young Zuckerman assumes the role of Sylphid’s date at a dinner party thrown by her mother, Eve Frame and her husband, Ira Ringold. The latter is the communist she married, and the book she writes is entitled I Married a Communist, but that is not Zuckerman’s book. This irony alone is remarkable, and reminds me of the complex structure of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: the title refers to both the final notebook and the novel itself  that contains all of the notebooks. Sylphid is Eve’s daughter by her second marriage and “the only way Sylphid could begin to feel at ease in her skin was by hating her mother and playing the harp.” Sylphid’s motives derive from her hate, but all of Eve’s actions must conform to Sylphid’s hatred.
Zuckerman is intrigued by Sylphid’s behavior, and says, “I’d had no idea how very tame and inhibited I was, how eager to please, until I saw how eager Sylphid was to antagonize, no idea how much freedom there was to enjoy once egoism unleashed itself from the restraint of social fear.” The OED says that egoism, in metaphysics, is the belief on the part of the individual that there is no proof that anything exists outside the mind. Zuckerman’s fear derives from the idea that everything exists outside the mind and is prepared to judge it. In ethics, egoism regards self-interest as the foundation of morality. For Zuckerman ethics is adhering to the behavioral norms set by others, or disregarding those norms at the cost of great guilt. Egoism, is opposed to ‘egotism,’ the latter a mere boastfulness or selfishness, a refusal to acknowledge anything outside of the self.
Freedom exists not in egotism; that is a kind of trap, I suppose, because here behavior is shut off and determined. Freedom exists in egoism, a belief that the world is my creation to do with as I wish; a belief that what is good for me is morally correct. The world remains open to my imagination. Sylphid’s egoism attracts Zuckerman because he has for his life been trapped in a morality organized by others, primarily his parents, their culture, and their dreams for him. And Sylphid’s egoism is placed in contrast to that of the ideal communist, Ira, who rails against the oppressor, advocates for social and political change, and spends his life, until he is blacklisted at the Red hearings, impersonating to the point of becoming Abraham Lincoln, the great Emancipator. For Ira, morality entails care for the worker, the poor and needy, or, in good Jewish terms, care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. But Ira lives in the magnificent domicile of Eve Frame on 11th Street, and one gets the sense that his vocal advocacy derives in some part from his sense of privilege. Johnny O’Day would never approve.
You see, once engaged in the world we are beset by contradictions. Ira’s shack, to which he retreats when he feels too battered, like Zuckerman’s shack to which in his sixties he has now retreated, is “the place where you are stripped back to essentials, to which you return,even if it happens not be where you came fromto decontaminate and absolve yourself of the striving. The place where you disrobe, molt it all, the uniforms you’ve worn and the costumes you’ve gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you.  . .” I think this hut is my Walden, and it is also the theme of the first movement of the Symphony. This hut is where Ira retreats from Eve, from Sylphid . . . from the world.
The subtlety of Roth’s thinking attracts me, draws me into the book and I can reside there; the world is there but I am not in the world. The psychology is so interesting that I do not want to depart from the pages, and I have little trouble in my sleeplessness returning to Zuckerman’s narration.

11 January 2012

If I knew then . . .

My father would often say, “If I knew then what I know now, I’d be a rich man today!” Then he would shake his head with sorrow, and stare off right through me and toward some distant past. What I think he might have meant was that if only he knew the end at the beginning, then the end at which he had arrived would have been different. For him life was all ends and not means, and the home from which he left every day was always a disappointment when he returned to it. He never knew or had enough, and he was always unhappy.
Lately, I’ve considered a new way to view the expression “If I knew then what I know now . . .” and it has something to do with the pleasure and regret intrinsic to learning that brings to me something new now which had I known about before would have enhanced my life then. I’m going to describe an insignificant event to illustrate what I mean. Several times on this blog I have referred to the place in which I work behind my home as Walden after the cabin made famous by Thoreau and in deference to the pond made infamous by Zonker in the Doonesbury cartoon strip. And I have referred often to the pleasure I have in carrying my early morning mug of coffee out here to begin the work. Now, one cup of coffee sipped leisurely in the early morning while I write and read and before I run delights me, but I rarely have desire for coffee later in the day. When the mug is empty, the coffee is finished.
And somewhere on the blog I have spoken of the pleasure I have learned in the brewing of the leaves purchased in a store that specializes in tea! And so for the past several years I have enjoyed a variety of teas, exotic and otherwise, in the late mornings and early afternoons.
Here we go: now, since I drink my coffee only in the morning, it never becomes too tepid or even cold to drink, nor, as I have said, do I ever return to the Coffee Press contraption to refill the cup, but the same is not true for the tea. Often I desire a second cup, especially since I often drink white or herbal teas (the latter often referred to, I have learned, as tisanes). As I have a special mug for my coffee, so do I have a specific glass for my tea, but this vessel holds only 12 ounces of liquid. The mechanism in which I steep the tea leaves contains almost 32 ounces, and to prevent the tea from continuing to brew while I enjoyed a fresh cup, I purchased a tea pot into which my brewed tea could be contained! But I discovered that in the tea pot the brewed tea cooled too quickly, and the next cup didn’t satisfy. And so I went to my local storeAmazon.com, to be exactand discovered something called a teapot warmer. I clicked the appropriate button, and in two days this lovely device arrived at my door.  I brewed my tea, poured it into my pot, lit the candle in the new tea pot warmer and set the filled tea pot on the warmer and lo and behold!, my tea stayed warm during the hours I worked.
I wish I had known about this system then because then I would have enjoyed the pleasure of drinking the tea that I receive from my having learned about the tea warmer now. But such is the paradox of learning that whenever I learn something new the delight in the now makes the then pale in comparison. What I need to learn is to experience no regret from not knowing something then, a condition that I know now is inevitable, and to take pleasure in the satisfactions to be gained in the learning now, however short-lived the results of this learning must be.
I’ll never know then what I know now: that is the point.

08 January 2012

Least of All

Another death in the community.
   It is easy to write about death, or even everything else that we don’t understand. We have only to speak or write those big and empty words we use when we want to define what really can’t be defined. The idea of death as ‘no more’ I find incomprehensible. Someone dies, and they lie as if asleep, but they will not awaken. Having always awakened from my sleep, I cannot imagine what not to awaken must be like. Of course, this wonder implies a consciousness of not waking, and the dead do not possess such capacity. I think. The dead do not dream, I believe. The dead do not feel, though the Rabbis are not firm on this opinion. Some say that they can only feel the sufferings of the living, and others deny even this sentience. Perhaps it is that the dead do not even know that they are dead. We are only a too, too solid flesh, soon to melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew, and that is all. “When the soul leaves the body, its cry [of anguish] goes from one end of the world to the other,” the Rabbis say, but I am wondering, what does the body say when the soul departs? Dust to dust. No more. Nothing. Absolute nothingness without even a realization of the nothingness. The notion appalls even more that it frightens, though it frightens as well by a complete absence of credibility.
The Torah keeps describing death as a return to kin; death there is portrayed as some kind of homecoming. Hamlet calls it an undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Death is a place. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, Dylan Thomas urges his father. Death is a darkness. Sometimes death is portrayed as a brilliant pure light; death is a blinding illumination. Death, where is thy sting: death is a poisonous creature inflicting pain and suffering, though ironically the suffering of the dying is often relieved by death. It is the living who feel death’s sting. Death be not proud: death is personified as a vain and unworthy human.
Clearly, death is all around me, but I understand it none the more because it is so proximate. I am familiar with its presence but fail to comprehend it. It is non-being, and this makes no sense to being. Who would know the hour of his death?  Koheleth cautions, “For the time of mischance comes to all. And a man cannot even know his time. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net, and as birds are trapped in a snare, so men are caught at the time of calamity, when it comes upon them without warning” (9: 11-12). “Mischance” and “the time of calamity” are the Rabbis’ euphemisms for death; even the wise Solomon had difficulty speaking the term itself. And though I am relieved by his restraint, I am not comforted that Solomon the wise understood death in such negative terms. The Sixties philosophy which I daily breathed taught me that today was the first day of the rest of my life, but the Rabbis say here to treat every day as if it were my last.  I suppose there is some coincidence between these two positions: if I live every day as the first day of the rest of my life, then everything is possible; but if today is my last day, then today everything is possible.  Actually, the Rabbis anticipated this dilemma: they suggest that the reason we are not given the hour of our death is to prevent us from lying abed awaiting it; they mean us to be up and about our doing. All is possible. Death is of course inevitable, even imminent, but its imminence should not deter us from living. Spinoza, (again) said that the free man thinks least of all of his death, but alas, I am not so free nor busy enough to keep my thoughts from death. Or perhaps it is that I do not know how to believe that the work I do in this life possesses enough substance to be called a life. I wish I could survive my death, but death comes always too soon and immortality too late.
Paradoxically, when I write about death it remains far from my thoughts.

04 January 2012

The Impulse to Write

John Berger’s new book Bento’s Sketchbook: How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin?  links the impulse to draw to aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy in the Ethics. Spinoza talked about the ability to live in the present fullyto have adequate ideasand to live in the present under the species of eternity. This would mean to know that what exists does so by necessity and could be no other way. And this knowledge should lead us to an understanding of all that exists and to know how all that exists must exist as it does. When we understand the essences of thingsthen we participate in eternity. Since God is the only substance—because a substance can only be its own causeand since all things are only modifications of the infinite attributes of God, then the closer we come to understand things then the closer we come to God. “God’s existence and God’s essence are one and the same thing and is an eternal Truth. The closer we come to realize this the closer we come to eternity. Thought is an aspect of God and God, therefore, is a thinking thing.” When we thinkand Spinoza knows that to think is to discover why things are like they are and can be no other waythen we are like God.
Thus, Berger writes, “we who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” We draw to make something visible that demands to be visible—but what that something is we do not know until it is seen. And we bring that something to its proper destination that we will know when we arrive there. When we make something visible we make it be and bring it on.
Or the impulse to draw begins with the desire to hold onto something when the present has passed. Courage, Spinoza writes, is “the desire by which each endeavours to preserve what is his own according to the dictate of reason alone.” To draw requires courage. Berger’s use of his mishearing of Woody Guthrie’s “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” as “Hold, on, hold on, Its been good to know you” explains the impulse to draw because to draw is to hold onto something that insists it be held onto, but what that something is may never be completely known until it is drawn.
It is why I writeto enact E.M. Forster’s statement, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say.” There is a dynamic expressed here: in the act of writingor speaking, evenForster creates what he thinks because writing and speaking (though to a lesser extent) demands a linearity that creates thought. I write to think; if I didn’t write, what would I know?
And when I write I think myself into eternity for when I write time does not exist. “It is the nature of reason to regard things not as contingent, but as necessary . . . but this necessity of things is the necessity itself of the eternal nature of God. Therefore it is the nature of reason to regard things under this species of eternity. Add to this that the bases of reason are the notions which explain those things which are common to all, and which explain the essence of no particular thing: and which therefore must be conceived without any relation of time, but under a species of eternity.”
I’m not always sure what he’s saying, nor even sometimes what I’m saying, but I’m working on it. 

01 January 2012

New Years 2012

I keep trying to write about News Year’s Day and nothing comes to mind. Which is also to say that for me there is nothing of interest about this day. Yesterday possessed the marker 2011 and this morning the marker is 2012. What has changed? The hands of the clock. What will change? How could anyone know anything about what will be but that at the same time next year the markers will change again and 2012 will become 2013. As Estragon says in Waiting for Godot, Let’s go,” but the stage directions report, “They do not move.”
Of course, New Years is a symbolic marker, hence the focus on ‘new years resolutions,” commitments to change life patterns in the coming months. Interesting that behind these commitments lie only the New Years event and no change of character. That is meant to occur in the coming year with the enactment of resolutions, but I wonder if change was really sought, why need it be initiated on this day and not another earlier one?
One of the first things the Israelites did when they left Egypt as slaves is to invent for themselves a calendar. Only free people can organize their own time. And so New Years marks a new beginning. The image of the new year is a baby in diapers: an entirely new and fresh life lies ahead. But for none of us can the year start fresh. In all of our refrigerators is the left over foods from last evening’s celebrations; in our closets hang all of our clothes and in our living rooms sit the same comfy or uncomfy chairs. Nothing changes but the markers. The Israelites never ceased complaining during their desert wanderings. And we move into the New Year with the egos of yesterday. Where are the snows of yesteryear? They are here, right here now. 
What makes for the fulfillment of resolutions? Character and not calendar. Perhaps New Years celebrations forget that, and perhaps this accounts for the quiet of the coffee house this morning. Everyone is either enacting their resolutions or forgetting them with the advent of the new day.
Another cliché.