28 June 2012

One moment of return . . .

Perhaps in his autobiography, if he ever writes one, Chief Justice Roberts will explain his rationale for his vote to uphold President Obama’s Health Care Act. Such explanation will be an interesting account. Certainly, nothing in his position on the Supreme Court thus far, and especially during his tenure as Chief Justice would have led me to suspect that Roberts would have assumed the position he has taken in this case before the Court. And from what I have observed about the Roberts’ Court up until this moment, and specifically the decision in Citizens vs. United, the Court has shown little concern for the welfare of actual living and breathing human beings or the democracy by which they would live. In this instance Roberts has thankfully shown a depth I did not suspect he possessed.
Indeed, the four conservative judges who seemed ready to strike down the entire Health Care Law made Roberts vote not only critical but even the more surprising. On the one hand, Roberts’ vote highlights the insensitivity and callousness of the minority position. They would continue the suffering of the most vulnerable. If in Camus’s The Plague Dr. Rieux, states almost casually that to fight the plague is “common decency, ” then the four dissenting justices have acted without decency and are the more reprehensible for their heartlessness. There are circles in Dante’s Hell to which they might be consigned.
And as I continue to read about the decision, I think more and more about Earl Warren and the unanimous decision he constructed in Brown vs. Board of Education. Eisenhower never ceased to regret the appointment of Warren (and William Brennan Jr.) to the Supreme Court, both of whom led the Court to rendering more liberal (read ‘just and democratic’ decisions) that transformed the society in ways that are still being recognized. Because it is clear that Roberts’ swing vote ensured that the Health Care initiative remains the law of the land, and that the United States can continue to belong as an honorable member of the club to which the rest of the Western nations belong and who guarantee that their citizens have the right to be sick and to expect treatment for their illnesses. Roberts vote to uphold the law represents an act of common decency, and he applies to become a member of a very select and honorable fellowship. I hope this turn endures.
And at this moment I am also thinking of Father Paneloux’s final sermon in Albert Camus’s The Plague. Paneloux did not desert the plague-stricken Oran, and having contracted the plague is now dying of it. In an earlier sermon, he had ascribed the onset of the plague to God’s retribution on the sinful city, but in this his final sermon, he urges,  “Each one of us must be the one who stays [to fight the plague] . . . we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power.” And I would note, to all the tea partiers and self-righteous Christian conservatives, that it is this commitment that shows the love of God. We must accept this our workwhich is to love Godor we must refuse that work which is to hate God. And who, Paneloux asks, would choose to hate God. The four dissenting justices have refused that work.
It would seem that  in his work in this case John Roberts may have discovered himself and stumbled to do some good that lay in his power. In this moment I think also of Tarrou who, too, devotes himself to fighting the plague and who, too, falls victim to it. He says, “I only now that one must do what one can to cease being plague stricken, and that’s the only way in which we can hope for some peace.” I think that John Roberts may sleep more peacefully tonight for having ceased being plague stricken.  

24 June 2012

The Plague

On command (so to speak) I’m rereading Camus’s The Plague.  The copy I’m using must be almost forty years old. I don’t remember what might have inspired me to read the book then: I know I had already finished The Stranger during my existentialist years as black turtle-necked, disaffected teen-ager writing happily about the theater of the absurd, and I was at the time moving into my political Marxist period. In not a few years I would have put aside my Ionesco and Albee for my Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton; I read Das Kapital, Volume I, and studied socialism with Michael Harrington and evolution with Stephen Jay Gould at the Marxist School on the Upper West Side of New York City. I was walking home on Upper Broadway from just such a class on the night John Lennon was shot and died.  
And I was this morning engaged in the reading, engaged an apt term for the themes of this novel. The plague had beset Oran, and everyone is finding some means to deal with it or to pretend the plague does not exist. Or they succumb to it. Monsieur Grand, the government official and aspiring writer, after a very long day invites Dr. Rieux to his home to share a drink and to see Grand’s work-in-progress. “Shall I read it to you?” he asks. “Of course, ” Rieux responds. And Grand lifts the first page of the manuscript and begins to read: “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of Bois de Boulogne.” Grand stops reading! Rieux remarks that the opening sentence has intrigued him, and he would like Grand to continue. But Grand says, “That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my minds’ eye . . . the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!” You see, Grand can’t move beyond the first sentence because he it is not writing the book that he desires but to have written it. He has not the book in mind but the praise that the perfect product that he can’t write will rightfully garner when she should write the book. But Grand will never write his book because he will never get it perfectly right.
I know The Plague is about more than Grand’s novel but the issue of Grand’s novel is a part of the world in which The Plague occurs and about which it speaks. In an imperfect world Grand believes that he can create perfection, and that the critics in this imperfect worldwho are themselves imperfectwill have the capacity to recognize perfection! “Just see what I make of [this sentence],” he tells Rieux, “when all this is over.” But what Grand does not realizewill not acceptis that ‘all this’ is never over.  And so Grand’s sentence will never be finished and the book that should follow from that sentence will never be written.
And that, perhaps, is one thing that The Plague is about: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot concerns what to do in this life while we waitand unless we act (They do not move) we are always waitingthen Camus’s The Plague concerns what to do in this life when we live amidst plague.

21 June 2012

Happy Birthday Emma!

The only real task for the poet laureate in England was to write poems to commemorate state occasions. I suppose over the years a great many very bad poems were composed because in all of my study (that is a boast) I recall very few anthologized works that had had their beginning on assignment.
Art Garfunkel sings, “Everything waits to be noticed.” When I walked out the back door of my house, I saw the black cat sitting in front of my cabin door. We are friends, the cat and I; he speaks to me and I pretend to understand. He watches as I set out his food and before I am done he has moved toward the dishes and my serving hand. I leave him to eat in peace and enter the cabin and shut the door. When his meal is done, he sits before the cabin on the wooden entrance path—it is summer and for the most part warm—but he never seeks entrance.  I think he appreciates the close proximity of another, and when I look towards the door, he notices me noticing him.
Perhaps too many wait to be noticed. I’ve had a discussion with my friend concerning the royalties we earn from our books. As for me, they rarely buy a good dinner and a bottle of wine. We joke, but we wait to be noticed. Of course, we each have our definitions of notice. As for me, I want to once walk onto an airplane and discover someone reading one of my books. I will have been noticed. I wonder what notice David awaits. 
The sun has risen. No, the sun rises every day, but for the past several mornings it has been covered either by clouds and/or heavy rains. The sky outside the window is a pale blue, a tinctured white almost (called ‘Alice blue’), but soon it will turn a rich ‘deep sky blue’a meaningless description. Slowly the temperature will rise, and the black cat will seek shade under the trees outside the cabin. Tomorrow morning I won’t be here to feed him: today is Emma’s birthday and we will be with her to celebrate.
 I am no poet laureate and have no poem to sing, but I can wish her a simple Happy Birthday. I could not be me without her.

18 June 2012


Thoreau somewhere talks about awakening to the anticipation of the day. That day dawns only to which we are awake! For me the day always begins with the taste of the coffee that I love to brew in the quiet of the early morning. There is a pattern I have set to this time of day. Alone in the darkened house (in the summer this dark is only metaphoric) I turn on the water to heat and fill the French Press canister with hot water. Even in the summer the glass container retains a chill from the evening. I also fill my mug with hot water as well. As you can tell, I like my coffee hot. I am always a bit guilty by this frivolous use of water. Sometimes, I don’t know what to do with my privilege.  Then I place four scoops of fresh beans in the grinder and press the machine on. The noise is harsh but I have gotten used to it: not a pleasant sound but a familiar one. And certainly one with some necessity.
I return upstairs for morning ablutions, and when those are complete (they are not complex) I dress and go down to the coffee and the day. The water has risen to 208o (the appropriate temperature for such business I have been told by those more careful than I), and first emptying the warmed canister of its water, I now place the ground coffee into it and pour the water over it. I stir the mixture and place the plunger lightly atop the liquid. I set the timer on the stove (I am obsessive) for the recommended steep-time (at least four minutes but between the stirring and the plunging and my own impatience I settle on 3 minutes 45 seconds), and then attend to some kitchen details: putting away clean dishes and emptying the sink of dirty ones. I take my prescribed medications.
When the coffee is ready I push the plunger down and pour the brew, add a splash of half and half and head out to the day’s possibilities.
I love to think about writing in the morning. As I write my mind opens like the flowers when the sun strikes them. When there is no pressing matter (a paper, a missive, a particular issue that has puzzled my dreams) I write to let the water drain out of the sink. I (who is the ‘I’ whom I have mentioned four times thus far in the paragraph? Are they all the same identity?) look down at the drain and see what remains. I write.
It intrigues me that the first essay I read in Zadie Smith’s collection Changing my Mind is about Nabokov whose novel Pnin I am reading. It seems that this is also one of Smith’s favorite books: she says that she has reread it half a dozen times. The subject of the essay is not Pnin however; rather, Smith is concerned with the conflict between Barthes’ declaration of the death of the author and Nabokov’s assertion of the authority of the author. Barthes raises the reader to the level of creator of the text and the latter insists (almost dictatorially) on the absolute creativity of the author of his/her work. As Smith says, “the only perfect tenant of the house that Nabokov built is Nabokov.” What s/he means is that there is meaning in the text that the author places there and that the skillful reader can move closer and closer to that meaning (the reality of the text) with constant rereadings. “For he felt his own work to be multiplex but not truly multivalent—the buck stopped at Nabokov, the man who had placed the details there in the first place. His texts had their unity (their truest reality) in him.” There is nothing in the text but what the author has placed there. But I think then that only he (in this case Nabokov) could understand his novels, and he should have hated the critical essays that followed upon his work and tried to interpret it.
But I wonder, when would a reader feel confident that she had arrived at the ‘truest reality?’ When all of the details had been detected, and the picture completed, the question of what the picture portrayed remains. And why this picture? At least with Pnin I can say that though Nabokov has written the book, the narrator is not Nabokov. The narrator is someone who knows Pnin, and therefore, the integrity of the narrator becomes a problem for the reader. All of the details derive not from Nabokov but from the narrator, and I suspect that the narrator knows something that Nabokov does not yet know. Pnin may be the subject of the narrator’s interest, but I am interested in the narrator’s interest in Pnin.
I think that if the writer wants the reader to know exactly what the writer knows then the writer expects what can never be: I can understand why Nabokov hated Freudian interpretations because they took power away from the author. I think the author writes out of curiosity, and the reader reads out of her curiosity. I discover a great book when what the author is curious about elaborates on what I am curious about; or when the author’s curiosity stimulates my own. It has been a long, long time since I wondered what a book meant rather than what it revealed.

15 June 2012

On Accidents

Anna Rose is a bit concerned about her new responsibility as a camp counselor.
For the first time she recognizes that she will be responsible for a group of others even more vulnerable than herself. As part of her training she was told a cautionary tale of a drowning, “a complete accident,” of a six year old boy. She became frightened that under her charge someone might not be safe. I tried to reassure: to her description of herself as spacey and unaware, I responded that others referred to her consistently as kind and warm. But she rightly pointed out that kind and warm were not the opposite of spacey and unaware. Regardless of the accuracy of her self-description, I think what she was acknowledging an awareness of accidents. 
Accidents are those things that happen for which we are not prepared and which we did not expect. Accidents occur outside our will and despite all of our knowledge. We can never know enough to prevent accidents from occurring though perhaps our knowledge can limit their incidence or mitigate their impact. One prepares in the anticipation of an accident and makes plans in the event should one occur. I think of the training of airline pilots in flight simulations that create accidents to train the pilots how to handle them should one of these situations actually occur. In these training episodes it is someone’s job to invent accidents for which to prepare others to respond, I think to do so requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and imagination. And even a rather morbid sense of the way of the world: it is this person’s job to invent things that go wrong so that in the event that they actually do happen someone will have learned procedures to avert some larger calamity. Most of us just engage in defensive driving and alert observing to prevent accidents from occurring, and I think that for the most part we are successful. But not always regardless of our attentiveness.
They call them accidents because they cannot be planned for completely. They will occur always despite our caution because we neither have access to absolute knowledge nor possess absolute control over ourselves and especially of other. They (the ubiquitous they) will sometimes do things that result in the occurrence of accidents: break a window or dish; crush a fender; enter the water where they should not swim, because they, too, do not possess absolute knowledge or control. Sometimes this situation occurs as a result of inexperience and sometimes it happens from obstinate willfulness.  We all maintain only limited control over and knowledge of those objects that we have brilliantly created. The artist of Kouroo remained unconcern with time in his attempt to create the perfect walking stick. Because he had both world enough and time, accidents were hardly an issue;  but alas, we are always subject to constraints of time. We make mistakes in our mortal attempt to get things done. Accidents occur. Because we don’t yet know anything, and have not time to learn all before we act, and because everything new we create brings it with it new contingencies for which we are not prepared, accidents will occur.
And so I tell my daughter that accidents will always happen, but that the more knowledge we acquire in and of the world the better able we may be to first, prevent their the accident from befalling, and second, and then to handle the consequences when the accident inevitably happens. Learning is the best preventative we have to avoid and to mitigate accidents, but this prescription sometimes a hard sell.
The Jews have a prayer to cover this somewhat distressing aspect of life covered by the concept ‘accident:” “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.” This is the traditional blessing said on every festive occasion and holiday. It recognizes the contingency of this world and declares our knowledge that it is a mercy that we are alive and well enough to celebrate whatever the occasion might be for which we now are gathered. It is a good blessing. The blessing accepts the reality of accidents and our relief at not having experienced one.

11 June 2012

On Regret and Sadness

Emma asks, If I drive down a street and accidentally hit a dog is it regret or sadness I feel?  I think she asks two questions actually: what distinguishes regret from sadness, and what is regret?
And so let me see if I can begin to consider how to distinguish the phenomenon of regret from that of sadness. (Though even as I write I am wondering if feeling sad is different than the experience of sadness? If I change the word don’t I also change the experience!) The Oxford English Dictionary defines regret as “some sorrow or disappointment due to some external event or circumstance.”  The word regret also refers “to sorrow or pain due to reflection on something one has done or undone.” I suppose that a felt sorry or pain for that which is ‘not done’ would also be included in the definition of regret. Now the dictionary also refers to regret as sorrow “at or for some loss or deprivation for a lost thing or person.” I think that in all three definitions regret is a passive response and accomplishes nothing. That is, though reflection appears to be an activity, in regret one recollects on what is no more and cannot any longer receive any action. One might feel active in the experience of regret but regret requires that nothing more be done; to feel regret requires that no further action be taken.
By the first definition regret seems rather akin to sadness: the regret being an emotional state inspired by some external event or circumstance and accompanied by sorrow or disappointment. Sad is a state characterized by sorrow! When I look up the word ‘sorrowful’ I find in its definition the word ‘sad.’ Now, sad has some interesting meanings: for example, bread that has not risen is referred to as ‘sad,’ and soil that is stiff and heavy is ‘sad.’ But I believe that the sad to which Emma refers means ‘sorrowful or mournful.’ Now, sorrow refers to “a distress of mind caused by loss, suffering, disappointment, etc.” (It’s a chase without end, this looking to words to define a word! ‘Distress’ means: ‘to cause pain, suffering, agony or anxiety to; to afflict, vex, or make miserable’). So sorrow refers to the experience of a troubled/unpleasant/painful psychological state; sorrow refers to “grief, deep sadness, or regret” (oh, no! there is that word again!). As a noun ‘sorrow’ refers to that which causes grief, deep sadness or regret.
Thus, it would seem that the concept ‘sad’ seems to inhere to the meaning of regret and sorrow, and the latter seems to suggest some intensity or extremity to the sadness. But nevertheless, implied in regret (Remember Alice?) is the belief that there has been some active complicity in an external event or circumstance and that the outcome of this event did not turn out the way it had been planned and that this unwanted result has led to the feeling known as regret. In this formulation there appears to be some activity involved in regret. I cannot suffer regret over something I have not done. I must have done something, even if what I have done is not have done something. That is, for example I should not feel regret when someone driving my car has run over a dog; but I can regret that I allowed someone else to drive my car. I should not regret that rather than to have chosen another route on which perhaps the dog would not be present, I chose to turn down the particular street on which the dog was walking and I happened to run it over. Unless, of course, I knew that the street was itself overrun with dogs and there was no chance I would avoid running over a dog. I could never have known when I lent out the car or turned on the street that this event would occur. And so the sorrow or disappointmentthe regretis directed not at the event itself, for which I might experience sadnessbut at the universe in which such contingency is always at play. What I regret is that I was not omniscient. Which is absurd because omniscience is not a quality that belongs to human beings despite the exalted possession of it claimed by various politicians and clergy. As Philip Roth suggests, getting it wrong is what life is all about, in which case sadness is inevitable but regret absent of meaning. Purposeless. 
And so I think the assumption of activity on the part of regret is specious because, in fact, regret derives not from the activity but from its avoidance. One can only regret by situating oneself in the past where activity is outside the realm of possibility. Nothing can be done in the past; indeed, for that matter, nothing can be done in the future. Only the present enables action. Indeed, the only way to avoid regret is to cease all activity. This reminds me of Merry in American Pastoral whose Jainism requires that she live in squalor and don a face mask to prevent her harming even accidentally any living thing. Merry becomes ironically a complete victim. Needless to say (I am uttering an apophasis), Merry adopts this stance after having killed four people in terrorist bombings as part of her anti-war activities. Indeed, she expresses no regret for her deeds. But her Jainism is not regret but active response: her activity transforms her into a victim.
However, if in the first place I meant to be cruel and set out to run over a dog, then I suffer would not experience regret anyway!
In the second definition above, regret occurs “on reflection” of the event and is not itself inherent in the event. That is, here regret does not occur as a part of any event but rather, results (again) as a consequence of the event’s end that could not (again) be known at its beginning. Regret results when the world did not turn out as one had expected! But then, I suggest, how could any end ever be known at its beginning? Even the Nazis got it wrong! Getting it wrong is what life is all about. Dewey once said that any experiment that turned out exactly as planned was a useless experiment in which nothing was learned but what was already known at the beginning. Or, to offer my own humble idea: if we knew the end at the beginning, then the end already exists in the past. Two things seem to follow here: first, in this case one would live in the past, and second, however I get to that end becomes acceptable. Any means to the end will serve which perhaps is not all that different from the end justifying the means. In such a situation, as long as the end set at the beginning is realized, then regret does not exist regardless of means. But if one does experience a regret, then that experience holds the individual to a past that cannot be altered, and to ‘reflect’ on that past absolves any engagement in the present. Regret becomes a strategy for avoiding life.
In the third definition, regret is the realization of a loss experienced as the result of the loss of thing or person. I regret losing my jewelry, my innocence or my friend. Seneca talks about the uselessness of grief that I am equating here to regret. The wise man, says Seneca, does not hanker after what he has lost,” though, of course, he does prefer not to lose those things! Seneca’s correspondent, Lucilius, has experienced the death of a friend, and Seneca suggests to him that tears may be appropriate to the experience but that lamentations are not. “Would you like to know what lies behind extravagant weeping and wailing? In our tears we are trying to find means of proving that we feel the loss. We are not being governed by our grief but parading it.” I think that Seneca addresses the concept of regret at which I aim. In this description regret is a product of vanity: it is ourselves we mean to display in our expressions of regret. Seneca remarks that “Nobody really cares to cast his mind back to something which he is never going to think of without pain,” but in fact, the person who lives in regret revels in the pain.
The answer to the uses of regret lies in the definition. Contingency is the state of the world and therefore, regret is useless. Who would plan an event in which failure was the end and then continue to reflect on the failure rather than work for attainment?