30 April 2012

The Birthday Party

The play was Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Though I have not seen very many productions of Pinter’s work I have read a considerable number of his full length plays, and so I did know a bit for what I was in store. There was an absurdist quality to The Birthday Party that called to mind the plays of Samuel Beckett and especially Waiting for Godot. People speak in a Pinter play but unlike in Beckett’s Godot, nobody really seems to be listening. And what is spoken often has little to do with anything, really. Conversation in The Birthday Party is all small talk, non-sequiturs, meaningless banter and empty repartee, whereas in Beckett the small talk barely disguises profundity. Vladimir and Estragon speak and hold the illusion that they speak meaningfully. Estragon says to Vladimir, “That’s the idea, let’s ask each other questions.” Anything to give them the impression that they exist! The reality of their condition keeps imposing itself upon them and thus, Vladimir and Estragon speak to each other to pass the time: in actuality they are trying to hold off the horror of their existence. When Estragon attempts to tell Vladimir his dreams, Vladimir cuts him off: “DON’T TELL ME!” he screams, and Estragon, gesturing toward the universe replies, “This one is enough for you?” The talk is absurd because it is an attempt to avoid the void that their silence reveals.
But in The Birthday Party the conversation is absurd in the sense that though the talk is addressed to someone, it is not meant to accomplish very much outside of merely reporting events. The conversation reveals nothing and usually means nothing.  The conversation is silent. And what is suppressed under all of the talk is a violence and fear. What speaks is silence. Pinter says “There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.” This speech is intended to maintain silence.
The Birthday Party is not about what was said but about what remains unspoken. Butthis matter sometimes comes issuing up with volcanic force. In the play idle banter transforms seamlessly into vituperative assault and violent confrontation, and simple games quickly transform into barely concealed assault. At the play’s end, Goldberg and McCann lead Stanley out of the boarding house in which he has resided, but now he can no longer even speak. The meaninglessness of conversation has perhaps thus far protected him; now forced out into the world, he cannot think to address it: shaved, showered and dressed, Stanley can no longer speak.

27 April 2012

Friday Morning, 5 a.m.

It is Friday morning, 5 a.m. There is an early Simon and Garfunkel album entitled Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. It contains a few songs by Paul Simon, including “Sound of Silence,” but mostly it contains traditional folk songs or songs sounding traditional folk. I don’t know why it is titled Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. Its idealism speaks perhaps to a later hour. Or maybe an earlier one.
It is still very dark at 5 a.m., and this morning the clouds obscure the light of the stars. It is very quiet except for the sound of single bird who, too, has arisen early. The bird is singing. No one returns the call to awaken.There is a wonderful poem by Robert Francis entitled “Summons.” I learned it fifty years ago.

Keep me from going to sleep too soon

Or if I go to sleep too soon

Come wake me up. Come any hour

Of night. Come whistling up the road.

Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.

Make me get out of bed and come

And let you in and light a light.

Tell me the northern lights are on

And make me look. Or tell me clouds

Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.

See that I see. Talk to me till
I'm half as wide awake as you

And start to dress wondering why

I ever went to bed at all.

Tell me the walking is superb.

Not only tell me but persuade me.

You know I'm not too hard persuaded.
I have always felt that the poet spoke directly to me. It is my morning poem.
     Outside of my door, the black cat awaits its breakfast. I put the (to me) foul smelling soft bits of meat or fish into its bowl and fill a second with hard food and set both underneath the table I had placed outside the cabin to keep the elements from the food. The cat has come to trust me, I think. I believe he is right to trust me.
     It is now very quiet, and the quiet is soothing.  The only sound is the click of the keyboard keys and my own sniffling. The coffee is strong and hot; and all about me lie the books I read. On the various desks (there are actually four desks out here!) papers are strewn about and on the surfaces lie pens and sharpened pencils. Wherever I move about out here I am prepared.
     Thoreau writes that that day dawns only to which we are awake. And in this early morning hour I do feel awake and the day dawns out of my windows. The black sky turns first steely blue and then not too gradually lightens and becomes day.
     I do love the morning. My life has led me to awaken early and it has always been my fortune to greet the dawn. It is always perfect. On the wall before me are picture postcards of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman: I associate both with the morning and I admire their freedom. Today I will not plant beans, but I will inevitably contradict myself.
     Nothing gold can stay, but for awhile, there is gold.

24 April 2012

On Emotion and Feeling

A friend of mine says she ‘feels sad,’ and so I’ve been thinking about her sadness, trying to understand what it feels like and what it means. How is she? Of course, the same would be true were she to say that she felt happy, another word that for me lacks definition. Sadness (and happiness) is not a word I frequently use, though it is certainly part of my working vocabulary. When people inquire after me I usually respond that I am ‘good,’ but neither have I the foggiest idea what I mean when I describe myself in those terms, though this response satisfies whomever it was who made inquiry.  These words are empty vessels I set out and into which someone pours whatever they will. “Words, words, words,” says Hamlet. Empty signifiers ready to be packed. In fact, I cannot immediately recall an instance when last I referred to myself as ‘sad et al.,’ and so immediately I wonder what words I have used to describe myself when I might have meant feeling sad, or happy etc. But I do know others who refer to themselves as ‘sad, etc.,’ and to attempt to better understand them I examine now the word they use to describe themselves. In this case, to understand another’s sadness would be also to define my own.
I do not want to discuss the continuum on which the word sad holds a place, that continuum along which run such markers as melancholia, depression, unhappiness and suicide, though I suspect that the suicide might act not on that sadness continuum but plays himself out on some other scale completely. One may define sad through the use of other adjectives: hopeless, unhappy, forlorn, and the numerous other linguistic markers that map the gradation of feeling. Desolate. Miserable. Despondent. Wretched. Blue. The list continues. Perhaps these separate words designating ‘sad, etc.,’ are all of a piece the way a dish in a restaurant can be prepared with varying intensities of spiciness ranging from mild to fiery. The meal consists of the same ingredients but offers different and distinctive flavors. Thus, depression is a marker on the sadness continuum; the intensity of the particular emotion may be excessive (or even oppressive) though the bodily responses remain not wholly distinct from those of mere ‘sad.’ I can be sad about the progress of a relationship or I can be depressed about it; the constant is the response of my body though the degree of response in it might vary. The body response that images sadness looks the same whether I have lost my lover or my pocket watch though the feeling in each case might be different. Emotions and feelings are not synonyms, I think.
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, distinguishes between emotions and feelings. He defines an emotion as “an action or movement, many of them public, visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors.” An emotion, for the most part, is visible on the body, though I suspect that there are bodily responses that are not so readily apparent, as when my heart quickens pace as a loved one approaches. In the cinema there are few actors who show emotion better than Meryl Streep: the movements of her face express emotion in the subtle turn of her mouth, the twist of her head, the delicate movement of her eyes. That is, emotions can be seen but not heard. Great actors express emotion y in the subtle movements of their bodies. But a feeling, Damasio suggests, is the perception of a certain state of the body along with the perception of a certain mode of thinking and of thoughts with certain themes” (86). That is (I think), when an emotion (a repertoire of bodily responses) becomes associated with a pattern of thoughts about the body there is feeling. I can name my feeling by defining my understanding of my bodily responses. Emotions are bodily responses and feelings identify those responses with a particular pattern of thought and theme; one can then articulate that theme so as to understand it. Hence, when I say that I feel sad, the feeling derives from the idea of a certain confluence of responses in my body, but unless I can identify that bodily response with some theme or way of thought then I am incomprehensible to myself and to others. When I see my daughter walk across the stage my eyes open wide, I feel my body fill like a balloon with air, I flush with warmth, and my skin feels stretched to barely hold my insides in. I experience emotion and I say I feel pride: and at this early hour, were my vocabulary more sophisticated I might feel something more. Or else.
There is a sense where all of this neurophysiology exceeds my capacity to understand it. I am a curriculum theorist (mea culpa) and not a neuroscientist. And I think I’ve written about this before: that certain sights and smells and images produce a certain bodily response, an emotion, and then I associate that body feeling with a certain mode of thinking and thoughts. At a certain bend of the road my body responds in certain ways, and then as I perceive my body response I recognize in it a mode of thinking­a way of thought that I associate with another time that my body responded similarly and in a certain specific environment and event. That is, I can’t eat the damn peach because the last time I ate it my body was sick and nauseous.
And so this feeling of sadness to which we refer must be a response to a body configurationan emotionand the question I might pose must be not about one feels sad, but what does feeling sad feel like in the body, and what thoughts are associated with that body state?
It all seems so clinical, but it is in fact, quite Spinozist. Sadness et al. and their families are inadequate descriptions that demand far more specificity than we now express. What do these states feel like physically? What exactly is the pattern of thought that accompanies that repertoire of physical responses?
I think in this sense cognitive therapy shouldn’t work: to change the feeling one would have to change the response of the body rather than vice versa. “For the mind does not know itself, except in so far as it perceived the ideas of the modifications of body.” (Prop XXIXCorollary). Spinoza says that I cannot change my mind without changing my body, and that I cannot know my mind except through a change in my body. 

19 April 2012

Take the Load Off Fanny

A lot happens when Gary and I run on the trail. In twenty-three years and over a good many miles (several thousand by our count and I have difficulty with numbers), we have shared lives, confidences, secrets and gossip that we would never give voice to away from the river. There is very little we have not discussed in our travels, not a few problems we have not solved, and still more that yet awaits our consideration. I have written at least five books running alongside Gary and he has built a dozen or so homes. We have studied a great stretch of the physical and emotional world, and I think we have both grown considerably as a result of that chance meeting on summer Sunday twenty-three years ago when then we were running different directions.
And over the years one song accompanied all of our conversations.  From the very beginning as we ran our troubles out onto the trail we referred continually to a specific line from the “The Weight,” an 1968 song from Music from Big Pink, the first album by The Band.  As Gary and I would voice our plaints, as we bemoaned our condition, as we bore the weights of living we would sing “Take the load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me!”  And all of our problems would get poured into those line, and on we would run. I don’t think we really knew to what the line meant, but we knew it referred to us.
Levon Helm died today. It was the clap of his drum that starts that song. Though I know other versions, it is his voice that I hear singing that song. Now there’s only Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson still alive from the original Band left to sing it. And Gary and I, of course.

15 April 2012

La Folia

I learned from at least John Dewey that dualisms are almost always false. Today’s Suzuki recital focused me on endings that are almost always paired with beginnings. Today was Corelli’s “La Folia,” Telemann’s “Canonic Sonata for two Violins,” and Accolay’s “Concerto #1;” then it was “Twinkle, Twinkle” in a series of rhythmic variations. Then it was a ¼ size violin that produced a quarter sized scratchy sound, and now it was a full sized violin with a rich, graceful sound. Then it was a single minute performance, and now it was a full twenty minutes of solo and duet playing.
But those are expressed dualisms, and it behooves me to understand those events as points on a continuum and not as single, isolated moments of beginnings and endings. I can often hear the Twinkles in the Accolay, and I can see the six year old learning to hold the violin in the poised pose of the performing eighteen year old. And sometimes when I look at it right, I can even see the twenty-five year old.
It is not that I regret that this run of recitals is at an end, not even that the sound of someone practicing the violin will leave the house. I will not miss the music stands left in the middle of the living room where I inevitably trip over them in my own wanderings. It will be pleasant to see the coffee table again from underneath the music scores. And sharps and flats will no longer keep me from my slumber. It is not endings that I experience now but finishings; perhaps these two seeming synonyms are not synonymous after all. Endings seem to me akin to Hamlet’s “No more.” There is nothing after the end. But finishings are more like a pause, a musical caesura, a rest after which things (whatever they be) will begin again. I am anxious in both meanings of the word: worried for her future (it is the worst of times) and thrilled to see her move toward it (it is the best of times). As I write now I hear still the double stops she played at the end of “La Folia:” they were full, strong, loud and finished. In some very recent time she defined herself by this piece, and perhaps she played it today as if she were it. Certainly she filled those concluding double stops.
I am not sure when I’ll hear her “La Folia” again, but in the morning I will greet it as usual.    

12 April 2012

Too Early, Early in the Spring

The secret seems to be that one must learn that there are no rules to how a life should be lived. These are the existential question, I know: what is the right thing that I must do? How ought I to behave? To receive some answer seems to me why Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot: “What exactly did we ask him for?” Estragon wonders.
V: Oh . . . Nothing very definite.
E: A kind of prayer
              V: Precisely.
             E:  A vague supplication
             V:  Exactly.
             E:  And what did he reply?
             V:  That he’d see.
             E:  That he couldn’t promise anything.
Vladimir and Estragon wait desperately for Godot to arrive and to give them direction; alas, Godot will never come today but will always arrive tomorrow. Today we are always on our home:  “What’ll we do, what’ll we do?” Estragon cries despairingly. There is no redemption forthcoming: no rules offered by which one might live.
Actually, to live in the belief that life must be lived by some set of rules and that the purpose of life is to learn the rules deflects me from living my life. To hold to such belief mires me in self-doubt, and separates me inevitably in and from the company of others; out in the world I continually assess my behavioral and even psychological compliance with some vague set of rules, and in this process I focus not on my self but on the judgments of my companions’ regarding my conformity to these supposed rules. Because there are no rules but I live pretending that there are, I live forever in some existential doubt. “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
This is in large part the problem of assimilation. Tony Judt speaks of this paradox in his discussion of the assimilation of American Jews. In America, he claims, assimilation has been a great success: that is, in America Jews are not instantly recognizable unless they wish to be so, and yet these same assimilated Jews are obsessed with circumstances in which assimilation has either completely failed, as in the holocaust, or completely rejected, as in the Jewish state. In the former, Jews who thought of themselves first as Germans or Poles or Austrians were denied this identification and murdered for being Jewish, but in the latter case, Israelis want to be known only as Jews. For American Jews, Judt suggests, assimilation has not led to satisfaction: “Even if the gentiles like you and treat you as one of their own, you will not like yourself. Indeed, you will like yourself even less for just that reason. And you will seek other ways in which to assert your distinctive Jewishness. But the price of assimilation is that the Jewishness you assert will be perverse and unhealthy.” Because this Jewishness acted out will be practiced from some rule-governed behavior that derives from some external source and won’t be authentic or productive. Or one will act out difference in ways that defy whatever rules the society has set. Assimilation always fails either because one never learns all of the rules of the society one wishes to join, or in obeying any of the rules one is then subject to contumely for inauthenticity: obeying the rules in bad faith. Who should I be? What is to be done?
            What are the rules? In fact, it was Kant who believed we abide (or at least we ought to so abide) by a certain set of innate rules: Kant called them the categorical imperatives. A categorical imperative commands an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances. According to Kant, the categorical imperative is both necessary and justified as an end in itself, and the first formulation of the categorical imperative says: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” That is, I want to act as if everyone else would act in a similar manner: this would eliminate my engagement in such heinous crimes as murder and war because if others practiced these customs I would become endangered. The same would be true for them. I don’t know Kant well enough to consider how he might respond to such activities as nose picking or passing gas in public, but the simplicity of the categorical imperative troubles me.  Absolutes trouble me, and I began this rambling with the problem of rules: the absolutes. The question returns me to the trouble with strangers, the title of Terry Eagleton’s book on ethics. I do not live by myself and so there are standards by which I choose to interact with others, but from where do these standards derive? And what do they mean?
To be or not to be is not the question, rather, the question is how to be! In this world of conflicting and competing motives, how to choose remains the central issue. Vladimir and Estragon conclude “Nothing to be done,” though they do continue to wait for Godot. There is something to be done: waiting is itself an action, passive as it may seem. Roth says that life is getting it wrong, but how do I know I am or have been wrong? And having been wrong, is there repair? 

09 April 2012

The Marriage Plotz

I just couldn’t finish it. The Marriage Plot, that is. The newest book by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The premise, I suppose was interesting, though I must acknowledge that because I didn’t finish the book my general assessment of the plot, or even what the premise might have been is severely compromised. The book concerns  . . . well, having finished better than half of the book I guess I can’t really say what the book concerned. Perhaps it was an attempt to comment on the marriage plot: how so many 18th and 19th century novels end in marriageand how during the 20th century the rise of social movements, feminism and divorce led to the decline of the marriage plot even as its remnants (as in John Updike’s novel Couples) provided some insight into the persistence of misogyny in society. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a book based in the marriage plot but given a 21st century perspective. But I thought that Eugenides’ book lacked all of the subtlety and irony of Jane Austen, or the intelligence of George Eliot, or even the social portrait of Trollope or Thackeray.
I know who the characters were: Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, each a Brown University graduate (though I believe Leonard took a series of incompletes as a result of having been institutionalized in a psychiatric ward at the end of his final semester and didn’t formally graduate. He does get an internship at a biology laboratory on Cape Cod, however, and I’m not quite sure how that event occurred.) Madeleine took a major in English and wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot that eventually receives publication in an academic journal. And Mitchell (Grammaticus?) a religion major searches the world for some mystical understanding but really wants only to marry Madeleine who will not have him. I think that at the end Mitchell forgoes Madeleine, the ministry and marriage, but really I didn’t care, and Madeleine divorces Leonard.
What was explicitly wrong with the novel is that Eugenides’ characters served merely as his mouthpieces and had no independence outside of his need for them to speak for him. They did not speak; they mimicked. When the characters spoke it was in the voice of Jeffrey Eugenides informing me how wise and smart he is: he who also went to Brown University. And the choice of an omniscient narrator permitted the author to know everythingand for this author in particular to tell everything. For example, during Leonard’s decline into severe depression, Auerbach, one of Leonard’s friends asks “Where’s Leonard?” And then the omniscient narrator continues in Auerbach’s voice, “Where was the guy who could write a twenty-age paper on Spinoza with his left hand while playing chess with his right? Where was the professorial Leonard, purveying of obscure information on the history of type in Flanders versus Wallonia, deliverer of disquisitions on the literary merits of sixteen Ghanaian, Kenyan, and Ivory Coast novelists, all of who had been published in a sixties-era paperback series called “Out of Africa” that Leonard had once found at the Strand and purchased for fifty cents apiece and read every volume of? “Where’s Leonard?” Leonard asked. Leonard didn’t know.” Certainly, I never believed that this Leonard had ever existed: how could he ever be found?  Interestingly enough, the Leonard for which Auerbach searches is a biology major! But it is finally Eugenides who is being described, and the reader is meant to be impressed.
I never believed that Madeleine or Mitchell or Leonard were ever as smart as their conversation might suggest: there was never any indication that they had learned anything of which they were made to speak: of Derrida, of Barthes, of semiotics. Nobody I have ever met has ever talked with the articulateness of these college students. Not even their professors.
This novel received glowing reviews by even those reviewers for whom I have respect. I must have missed something. No, I think I missed everything.

06 April 2012

This is How You Shall Eat It . . .

The moon is almost full. Tonight it achieves it will achieve its whole fullness. It was this way at the exodus. It would have been on a night such as this that God says that God “will go out in the midst of Egypt., and that every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first born of the maidservant who is behind the millstone and all the firstborn of beast.” It is tonight that several hundred thousand people will leave slavery and begin their march towards freedom.
I am fascinated by the composition of this tale. Someone wrote this story down many, many years ago, but they were intent on communicating the intense drama and excitement that this night portended. The full moon was an essential detail. How else might the people find their way out into the desert? How insightful to have situated the exodus on a night such as this!
And then come the directions for the preparations: after all, the people will be entering the desert and they will not stop for meals. They are directed: On the tenth of the month each household must gather a lamb or kid goat, but if the household is too small, then neighbors shall share a lamb or a kid: “everyone according to what he eats shall be counted for the lamb or kid.” Nothing will be wasted and no one will remain hungry. That lamb must be kept until the 14th day of the month and then it shall be slaughtered and its blood placed on the doorposts. And then the lamb or kid must be eaten “roasted over the firewith matzos and bitter herbs they shall eat it.” Of course, this is the model for the Seder that we will celebrate tonight, though at that moment the story that we will tell had not yet occurred.
And then the author(s) added this: “You shall not leave any of it until morning; any of it that is left until morning you shall burn in the fire . . . So shall you eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; you shall eat it in haste.” I love the drama in those lines. Be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Long sought freedom is at hand and nothing should hold anyone back. This is how you shall eat it: expectantly and with some haste.
I sometimes think that our ability to write great literature has developed over time: Henry James trumps Gilgamesh any day, I suppose. But I find in the story of the exodus such skill in the narrative style that equals any writing with which I am familiar. The full moon; the elaborate preparations; the explicit directions for the meal all portend a great event and I read the narrative breathlessly each year. And when I see the moon full I imagine the great multitude their loins girded, the shoes on their feet and with their staffs in their hand, moving almost silently out of slavery.
Happy Passover! 

02 April 2012


There are many signs associated with the coming of Spring: the appearance of red-breasted robins, buds opening on the trees, young men’s fancies turning to love, the blooming of crocuses and the greening of lawns. Outside my cabin is another signal: snuggling still close to the ground are a first clump this year’s first bright yellow dandelions. Soon, I know, my front yard will be covered with the yellow spine-like petals of these pesky plants, and in a week or three their willowy, cottony seeds will blow about in the wind to sow next year’s carpet. The feathery filaments will blanket my window screens.
Lawn aficionados, in order to maintain the purity of their grass carpets, will spray their yards to kill these invading and unsightly weeds, but I know what to one man is a weed to another is a flower. When the mower comes the blade treats them all with equal destruction. I wonder when manicured lawns became popular amongst the common folk. I know the great expansive lawns of the palaces of England and France were carefully designed and carefully kept, but when our plots of land came to require such grooming I am not certain. I am certain something of our culture can be understood from this historical account, but I am not inclined to search it out. There are, I know,  communities where grass left unkempt is punishable by a monetary fine.
It would seem of late that gasoline-powered mowers crop very close to the ground giving the lawn the appearance of putting greens on a golf course or buzz cuts (or crew cuts) on a young girl or boy. No untamed nature for us: our gardens are carefully designed, meticulously weeded and shaped. And when we head out for the wild, we take with us our iPods, our televisions our laptop computers and DVD players. Civilization makes little room for uncultivated nature.
I am not a nature lover in the sense of wanting to be out in it, though I do like to look out upon it. I hold with Fran Leibowitz: “The great outdoors is lovely . . . so they tell me.” My idea of camping is a motel without cable access. But today I appreciate my dandelions, and though they will be soon decapitated by the lawn mower, for a short while they are the earth’s suns.