31 March 2012

Dream On

The politics of the week represents to me a level of stupidity and meanness almost unprecedented in my life. The Supreme Court seems prepared to declare unconstitutional the Health Care measure passed by Congress in its attempt to ensure that most Americans, and especially children have adequate health care. I know that the issue is complex, but I cannot understand how anyone can be against the idea of mandatory health care insurance. In Europe this kind of protection has been in place for years.
And then the budget passed by the Republicans in the House of Representatives eviscerates programs that assist those with the least resources to help themselves—the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst, to speak metaphorically and Biblically—and gives benefit to the richest in the form of tax breaks. This is a trickle up but what are a few more drops in the ocean? Take from the poor and give to the rich. And where is our Robin Hood to torment our Sheriffs of Nottingham?
Thoreau was correct: do not read the papers.

I have for years considered that all of the characters in my dreams were representations of an aspect of myself. I was the dream and all that enacted it. This made sense to me at the time: if my unconscious constructed the dream then it was my unconscious that was represented in the dream. What else would fill my unconscious but my own complexes and conflicts. I imagined dreams to be not unlike the scene in the film Being John Malkovich when Malkovich enters his own mind and all that exists in his mind are John Malkoviches. And all they can say is “Malkovich.” He occupies his entire mind—conscious and unconscious.
But lately I am suspecting that the dream work uses others as way to inform my conscious mind of issues with which it actually deals in daily life but about which it remains conflicted. The dream work presents a resolution to a conflict. So was it last night. I awoke at peace: I had seen things in my dream that had troubled my waking life, but in the dream these issues gave no trouble. I awoke resolved.

27 March 2012

Portnoy et al.

These days I seem never too far from Philip Roth.
I think that something that Tony Judt (z”l) says in Thinking the Twentieth Century that resonates here. Judt wonders why American Jews are so obsessed with those events where assimilation has either failed (as in the Holocaust) or been rejected (as in the State of Israel). In the former, of course, the destruction of the Jews—who from the emancipation in France under Napoleon in the 18th century and the continued emancipation through Europe in the 19th century had considered themselves citizens of their respective places of national origin, gives brutal evidence of the failure of assimilation. And if assimilation has been the goal—assimilation that renders the Jew invisible—then of what use is Israel to the American Jew as a place where Jews might be safe. Who would know they are Jews?
Judt argues that the Zionists might have a point: assimilation is a scam. They argue that even if the gentiles like you and accept you for who you are and you achieve ‘asssimilation’, then you will not like yourself exactly because you are amenable to the gentiles. Assimilation will lead to self-hatred. Thus, you will find some way to make yourself noticeable and distinctively Jewish—exactly because the gentiles accept you for who you are and do not acknowledge that you are Jew. This is somewhat akin to my observation a number of years ago: I said that Christians always assume that I am a Christian unless I make a point of stating that I am Jewish, and make a point of being Jewish, in which case I will be looked upon with some suspicion (or worse). The success of assimilation leads—in Freudian language, to the return of the Yid!! Thus, everyone walks about at Christmas time wishing a Merry Christmas to all . . . the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas is assumed. And when I respond that I do not celebrate Christmas (or Easter), I become the leper.
Thus occurs the scandal concerning Portnoy’s Complaint. Portnoy struggles to be the self-effacing Protestant. But his entire upbringing has been dominated by the Jewishness of his parents and the culture in which they have lived and in which they want their son, Alexander Portnoy, to live.  He, however, wants to escape. “Because I have to speak absolutely perfect English. Not a word of Jew in it,” he remarks, as he plots his pursuit of the shiksa, Peggy Ann O’Brian. Fearful always of exposure, Portnoy is tormented by the conflict between his morality that is embedded in his Jewish upbringing and his natural drives: “The headlines. Always the headlines revealing my filthy secrets to a shocked and disapproving world.” I think that in part the book explores the paradox of the American Jew desiring assimilation but suffering from self-hatred as a result. “For skating after shikses, under an alias, I would be a cripple for the rest of my days.” In Portnoy’s Complaint, I think Roth has revealed to the world one of the central secret dilemmas experienced by the Jew in America. 

22 March 2012

Bloody but Unbowed

The black cat reappeared during daylight hours today. I had not see it in almost a week, and I had begun to think that it had, as it is said, moved on. But late this afternoon, when I came out here to Walden he (or she) was laying beside the cabin looking, I thought, rather peaceful. I was glad to see it. But there was something about the cat’s demeanor that suggested to me that something was amiss, and as I drew nearer the cat didn’t scamper away as has been its habit over these past several months. Oh, it always soon returned as soon as it sensed there was food about: I had been putting food out regularly for this occasional visitor who would never enter the cabin but would share happily its offerings. But this week there had been a change in the pattern: the food I would lay out in the morning remained uneaten until evening, but then in the morning, the food would be gone. The black cat had usually come for its meals during the day. I did not consider it to be a nocturnal visitor. I wondered who had been dining in the just big enough bowl, and grew concerned that perhaps a raccoon was frequenting the environs. Raccoons scare me. Of course, I think it was I who had entered the environment last, and had occupied the land once roamed by raccoons and others, and that circumstance certainly is both here and there, but I wondered about the cat.
And then late this afternoon, beside the cabin there lay the black cat seemingly warming itself in the sun. I went inside the cabin where I store the food and grabbed a packet from the box, brought it outside, opened the bag and splashed the gooey mixture of salmon and cod bits all over my hand, and then filled the bowl. And as soon as I put the food down, the cat stood up and . . . limped to the dish. The cat kept its right legnow hanging lifelesslyoff of the ground. It had been injured in either a confrontation with another animal, in an accident during its regular meanderings, or by a passing vehicle that sped along the road carelessly oblivious to the wild life that shared these spaces.
It disturbed me to recognize the animal in pain . . . and yet, it did not whine or complain or rail at the gods. It hobbled with grace and stoic purpose to the bowl, ate, groomed itself and headed off to wherever it goes for the evening. I am glad that it has been so warm these days; at least the black cat had not to also contend with the weather that usually oppresses in March.
The preceding is either an allegory or a metaphor, but it did (and does) really happen.

19 March 2012

Cell Phones Redux

Cell phones have become appendages. These devices lie in the palm of the hand like giant warts or goiters, but unlike the latter, the phones are all dressed up in fancy costumed attire. This seems true mostly for young women under a certain indefinable age, like my daughters, who would sooner be caught clothes-less than phone-less.  Of course, many men carry their phones readily available in their shirt pockets the way men used to store their packages of cigarettes, or they stuff them in their front pants pockets and must reach obscenely into their crotch for them when they ring. Some men even hold the devices in their hands. And with surprising regularity both the men and the women glance down at the devices to check for newly received text messages or for missed calls. Of course, how a call could be missed remains a mystery to me since ring tones are intrusively loud.
I think that this response can be understood as a nervous tic not unlike unconscious nail biting or nervous leg shaking. Every 30 seconds or so the person holds the phone to his/her face, assesses the news on the face of the phone, and then responds accordingly. The image of thousands of thumbs clicking away on those tiny screens intrigues and appalls. Intrigues because I cannot get out a message without eleventeen spelling errors and little content: like Facebook most text messaging reports the minutae of a daily life and calls for little or no response, though response is always immediately made. And appalls because the ubiquity of these phones means that everyone is always somewhere else.  At the slightest pause in any event (or non-event, like walking down the street or waiting at a crossing light) everyone looks down at their telephones that, despite the caution made at the beginning of most performances, have not been turned off but simply been put on silent. Or they consciously ‘leave’ the event to check for messages from outside of it. And when the event has concluded, and before commenting to anyone about the quality performance(s), the individual checks the messages received and the phone calls missed. Before exiting the aisle, responses are made. I look about: where is everybody?  Where am I? I am too often guilty myself.
I cannot remember what the world was like before I was availableand expected everyone else to be available as welltwenty-four hours a day. In the midst of the great forest that man stands with his cell phone wondering “Can you hear my now?” There is little respite from the noise. There are today few places to be alone. I usually turn off the sound of the phone when I sleep, but if I am expecting something (what?)  I simply turn the sound down low. I assume that if someone really must speak to me after hours they will ring loud enough! There was a time when the only people who called late at night were those dialing me as a wrong number and those with messages of bad news, but I wait with my phone beside me with expectation and not trepidation.
Silence has become a rarity and solitude unfamiliar. Thoreau writes, “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other . . . Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications.” Thoreau should see the latest discounted rates for phone plans!

15 March 2012

Two scotches in . . .

In “Life without Principle,” Thoreau writes “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.” I’ve just climbed the driveway from the mailbox carrying today’s letters, and there was not one communication either for or from myself. I have not heard from myself for awhile. I think I’ve missed me.
I would speak. Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak.”  I lately cannot make me speak. Of course, there is always the politics to offer as grist to the mill but to me the banality offends me, and I would not soil the stones with such ordure. “I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week . . . We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day . . . Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” I continue to read extensively but would not turn the blog into a book review. Before me as I write are pictures of Thoreau and Whitman; behind me are posters of Marx and Dylan. I aspire to their admiration.
I sometimes suspect that my silence derives from an unwillingness to pluck out the heart of my mystery. Lately I have been considering that all that exists at my center is mystery, but that finally this mystery is ultimately impenetrable; much of my action attempts to mask the existence of the mystery. I would not be found, in fact, and would not even find myself, if the case may be. And I have allowed this unfathomable mystery to stifle my voice, fearful as I have become by the realization of the mystery and the effort required to acknowledge its ultimate opacity. I would speak but have not the skill. The audience remains myselfand there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ,” but sometimes I don’t want to fill another’s mailbox with my clutter.
Thoreau again: “Having read this, and partly forgotten it, I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do . . .” It is a curious phrase, ‘doing as others do.’ I wonder: is Thoreau asking that doing as others do makes his life unsatisfactory, or is he asking whether like others he thinks his life unsatisfactory? Either interpretation works in this instance, and both interpretations work for my own consideration. Thoreau speaks in this instance of the Gold Rush and the mad race West to mine the earth for one’s fortune. Of course, as is his wont, Thoreau metaphorizes his life by wondering why he might not mine for the gold within him though that gold be found only as the finest of particles; he wonders why he might not “sink a shaft down to the gold within me and work that mine.” So, I would be a miner though my drill bit may never disclose the vein, and though all I discover might be the finest of particles, so it will be. The blog’s audience is always myself though I appreciate the eavesdroppers.

13 March 2012

Business and Desires

Having spoken to the Ghost and received his charge, Hamlet dismisses the inquiry of his dear friend Horatio:
And so, without circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part;
You as your business and desire shall point you,
For every man hath business and desire,
Such as it is . . .
I’ve been thinking about business and desire.
So that he can plot and plan, Hamlet demands solitude from Horatio: Hamlet has, as do all men he claims, business and desires. He would engage. Of course, Hamlet has been not without desire: “I have that within that passes show . . .” he tells his mother who has chastised him for the persistent mourning at the death of his father. He has, however, been for some time inactive. He came from Wittenburg where he studied and lived the life of the student to Elsinore to attend his father’s funeral and his mother’s o’er hasty re-marriage. He has since abandoned any engagement in business. The ghost’s charge to revenge his foul and most unnatural murder energizes Hamlet and demands that he attend to business that derives from his desire, to engage in a business that would give to desire some body and direction.
At Elsinore, Hamlet has been thus far incapable of action though I think he is not without desire: “Methinks I see my father . . . in my mind’s eye.” And though Hamlet will become busy, he will not finally enact his pointed business. And perhaps that is the rub: in his obsession with his desire Hamlet neglects his business. When the ghost returns he admonishes Hamlet not for his lack of desire but for his failure to fulfill his business: “I come to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” In his passion he stabs through the arras killing Polonius hoping it were the king but in a moment’s reflection should have known it could not be having just passed the King in apparent prayer. I think that Hamlet has been so consumed with desire that he has forgotten his resolve. He may appear busy but he cannot effect his purpose. The pale cast of thought has distracted Hamlet. In his consuming desire to set the world right, Hamlet has forgotten his business in his distracted busyness.
I’ve been thinking that there may be little in our lives but business and desire, and that our lives are a seeking for some balance between the two.  In his urgings to Horatio, Hamlet expresses a desire to return to life even as Hamlet demands that Horatio go back to life. He has from the play’s beginnings lacked purpose but not desire. His depression, or melancholy, may be understood as a loss of balance between his engagement in business and desire. Hamlet has suffered not from too much desire but from an insufficient engagement in business. When the audience first sees him, Hamlet is seated in a chair. Or he is wandering somewhat aimlessly, carelessly and inattentively amidst the crowd gathered before Claudius who acts decisively upon his business and desire. Hamlet’s problem is not necessarily that he has no desire, but that he has no business. Hamlet is immobilized by his inability to engage in business.
Dylan expresses this despair. In “Not Dark Yet” he sings, “I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from.” The narrator appears to have lost all sense of business and desire, though he does remember that his present situation in which he presently finds himself resulted from some desire to get away from something. He recalls business and desire, but experiences neither. Though I think now that the creation of the song expresses this melancholia derives from business and desire. The song expresses emotional lassitude but its having been written denies that depression. The creation of art derives in part, I suppose, from pointing toward business and desire even if the art itself describes the failures of business and desire. Shakespeare may have suffered much desire, but in writing  Hamlet he has done much business.
As Hamlet fumblingly attempts to fulfill the charge of his father’s ghost, he forgets what it was he came here to get away from. “Yet I, a dull and muddy-mettled rascal peak/Like John-a-dreams unpregnant of my cause and can say nothing!” Hamlet accuses himself of indolence, but of course, Hamlet has been not at all lethargic; indeed, he has been very busy. The problem is that he discounts the reality of all action save the one act he intends and cannotperhaps will noteffect: the death of Claudius. The execution of that act may be confounded by his complex desire. I think that never was there a man so beset by desire as is Hamlet: I am not surprised that he cannot direct his business. Hamlet’s problem may be that his desire and his business are at cross-purposes, or that his desire confounds the execution of his business.
The separation of desire from business and business from desire makes cowards of us all. Dylan’s narrator may not hear the murmur of a prayer, but in the song Dylan has created one. Alas, Hamlet’s last words decree silence.

08 March 2012

Too early, early

Right now my feet are very cold. The unusual warm weather has melted the unnecessary snows from last week and left the pathway out to Walden swamp-like. I sludge out here in my Emu boots that I thought I had waterproofed but that seem now to absorb water like a dry sponge. It is the second week of March and this has been an un-Winter. In the past whole weeks would go by where the temperature never rose to zero degrees, but this year I cannot recall more than a day or two where the weather dropped below zero. Most days the temperature hovered in the normal range: 15-30 degrees, and students put on their shorts and tank tops. The cross country team runs in singlets.  We hardy Mid-Westerners recognize this warmth in January as signs of incipient Spring.
Sleeping has become the issue. Or rather my failure to sleep. Oh, it is not that I can’t fall asleep: that is not the issue. Rather, I do not stay asleep, and last evening with the full moon flowing through my window I awoke not wrought with anxiety but actually in a restful state. These early morning hours when the world here is very much asleep (except the cats who beat on the door demanding breakfast when they sense the presence of any awakened consciousness) do not trouble the will. I awaken from the dreams to think them through to reality. From my bed and from under the quilt created for me by a dear friend, I watch the moon drop through the sky and fall into the horizon. In another room my daughter lays asleep (soundly, indeed, after routing the cats from her bedside as they cried for their breakfastthey moved quickly to my door and beat on it with the insistence of Macduff at the doors of Dunsinane). I do not turn on the light but lie somewhat puzzled by what keeps me awake. Joyce’s stream of consciousness insists that it is words that run through the mind, but for me the show is images to which I then attach words. From these pictures I create the narrative, and once the story begins, I speculate how it might proceed. There is always the clichéd ending, but I try to eliminate that possibility: it is too tied to the real world and the full moon inspires fantasy. From the threads I weave a life and hope it will be mine. In Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, Tristam Tzara cuts apart a poem and places all of the words into a hat only to pull them out one by one to create a new poem. It is non-sense to which he aspires: there is already too much sense in the world and it doesn’t make any sense at all!
I awaken with all of the words in the hat, and one by one . . .