26 February 2013

A Timely Rant

There has been quite a bit of comment of late on Of Clay and Wattles Made, and most of it has been absolutely irrelevant. That is, the comments for the most part respond in some generic way to a postingany posting, reallyand then goes on to advertise another blog altogether or refers me to some website at which I might purchase something. Other than sex or painless dentistry I have not yet been able to figure out much what I am being offered, though today a comment sent to the blog post cautioned me against toxic mulch and directed me to a Nursery that I presume does not carry such product.
            Here’s the point: what the hell is going on? The incivility displayed by ignoring my postlame as anyone but me considers itto usurp my space for his/her own purposes, appears to me the epitome of the vulgarity of our time. I am appalled by the remarkably low level of public discourse and social display. Forget Congress! The papers have been filled for the past two days with comment upon the Oscar ceremonies. This one liked the host and that one detested him. That one thought him tasteless and this one thought him funny. This from the lead in the Times: “Jewish, women’s and family organizations on Monday publicly flung knives at Seth MacFarlane’s off-color Oscar show. Hollywood for the most part stayed true to form and aimed its cutlery at his back.” And the pictures of the best and worst dressed are splashed all over the internet and will certainly be a feature in People and Us.
            Who cares? Who cares about any of this? Best picture? Best actor or actress? Who is kidding whom? Why should one give measure to that measure at all except that the award will earn more money for the already grossly overpaid actors and actresses? How to compare Spielberg’s Lincoln, that I very much enjoyed and appreciated and admired, with Haeneke’s Amour which I appreciated, admired, and found so painful to watch. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook but there is no way to compare her performance in that movie with that of Emmanuelle Riva in Amour. I mean: the roles demanded such different evocation of talents that it is absurd to attempt to equate them so that one could win an award. How could a best actress not be in the best picture? And what about Argo made it worthy of the best picture. I came. I saw. I was not impressed.
            I am in the mood to rant. So much money and time is spent on this frivolity. I adore going to the movies: sometimes I think I am happiest sitting in the center of a relatively empty movie theater on any afternoon when the lights dim and the screen lights up. But I hate the idea of being subjected to this spectacle as some final measure of the product. I hate finally that my enjoyment is tainted by the necessity of public displays of false affection.
            To a person who doesn’t eat meat, no steak is good. I don’t care what people say about Quentin Tarentino’s films: I walked out of Pulp Fiction and have never returned.  His is not a world I want to enter, and that is for me a final arbiter of quality. I don’t particularly like what I think Tarentino thinks of me, the viewer,  that I would even want to enter the world of his films. Yet, there he was up for the award for Best Picture. Can’t people who like his movies go to them?  
            As painful as was Amour, it was a world filled with amour. But whether it was the best picture of the year: I couldn’t begin to measure. And few of the reviews I read of Silver Linings Playbook saw in it what I did, You’re right from your side, and I’m right from mine . . . why bother giving an award to either.
            So, to those who irrelevantly and rudely comment on my blog, and to those who give credence to any award: phooey on you. You should be ashamed. 

18 February 2013

Derivative Thoughts on Agoraphobia

I have for some time considered that I suffer (though I am certain that the verb, ‘to suffer,’ is too, too extreme) from a mild case of agoraphobia. I am uncomfortable being away from home for any extended period of time, say, twenty-four or so hours, and I am loathe to travel any great distance.
It is fun to label my mild but constant neuroses, and it is even more fun to define them. And so I have been considering the nature of my agoraphobia: of what does it consist? If agoraphobia is not about the space itselfit is not a specific space of which I am afraid but of all space into which I might venturethen the agoraphobia must be about my relationship to space itself. Though I love looking up at the stars, I do not think I want to get any closer to them than I am at present as I view them through my window or even standing outside in the proximity of my back door. I do not ‘amuse’ myself on roller coasters or Ferris wheels, and on an airplane I always choose an aisle seat and do not look out of the window. It is not fear of heightsacrophobiabut the extreme openness of the space that panics me.
I think that my problem with space lies in my perception of its vastness. After all, my entrance into a wide-open space demands that choices be made in that space, and the choices (and possibilities) are, as is the space, illimitable.  Agoraphobia represents an unwillingness, perhaps, to confront illimitable choice! Agoraphobia is a fear not of making a wrong choice but of making any choice at all and stems perhaps not from an ignorance of what rubrics might be followed in choosing or what set of criteria to use for choice but of having too many possibilities from which to choose. Agoraphobics don’t lack initiative or confidence: they suffer from too much knowledge. In limited and limiting spaces the agoraphobic can choose from a seemingly very narrow menu, and the wider the possibilities the greater is the fear. The agoraphobic prefers a short range of choice and fears  contingency. It is not certitude that the agoraphobic demands but limited possibility. A constricted space presents the agoraphobic with only a minimum array of choices: the agoraphobicc’est moifeels more comfortable with such limit. I know there is more out there but I am very content in here, thank you.
And the opposite seems also true, and perhaps for similar reasons: because so much could be placed within illimitable space, a cluttered space makes choosing too difficult. There is in this space too much from which to choose and too many possibilities by which to choose. I recall once walking onto the floor of a large department store in search of a dress shirt, and confronting table after table piled high with many beautiful shirts. Each and all appealed to me, and I hadn’t any idea how to choose from the vast array and therefore, which to purchase. I would have them all!! In that space there existed too much criteria by which to consider choice and no material basis on which to choose. I turned around and went home. I appreciate the limited selections I find in shopping by catalog.
Adam Phillips says that perhaps we enter such a filled (Phillips refers to it as ‘cluttered’) space in order to find something, but then in that space discover something else for which we did not think to look. I believe that we discover something we have lost only when we find it, but that is part of another topic I have dealt with in my book, Ethics and Teaching. Here, I think Phillips’ suggestion is only true concerning one’s own clutter: we can almost always deal with our own clutter (or put it in some order) but we are not so tolerant of the clutter of others. Freud says somewhere that we can only tolerate the smell of our own excrement. The agoraphobic prefers to stay close to his own familiar. And I do not have to leave home to experience my own clutter, though the clutter of others in my own home seems intolerable and sends me back to my own calming chaos.
Of course, the Freudian in me recognizes that the restricted space suggests both the womb and the tomb, the desire for either representing the ultimate denial of living my life. But I do not sense that my agoraphobia stems from this desire, though it is also true that our phobias (how we defend ourselves) tell us a great deal about what we desire. But though I could not enter the department store, I still needed and wanted a shirt to wear to the party! And it is not tight fitting clothes in which I am most comfortable, though I do still tuck my shirt into my trousers even when I remain in the house.
I like to consider agoraphobia as a relationship to space because as with all relationships, there can be change. Though the agoraphobic (c’est moi) enjoys a limited repertoire for change.

09 February 2013

Life's Story

Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator in Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist, learns that he did not receive a Fulbright award because of his association with Ira Ringold, a blacklisted Communist who the FBI thought was his uncle. This news, given to him by Ira’s brother Murray more than forty years after the fact, comes somewhat as a surprise to Zuckerman. Murray tells Nathan that Ira had carried about with him for his whole life the guilt “[a]bout what happened to you” when Zuckerman younger. Nathan says, “Nothing happened to me. I was a kid,” and Murray responds, “Oh, something happened to you.”  Of course, that something has made all the difference.
And Nathan considers: “Of course, it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about¾your life story is in and of itself something that you know very little about.” I’ve been wondering what he meant by that since self-awareness sits high atop my list of values. I have spent too many years in therapy discussing and even constructing what I thought was my life-story. The unexamined life is not worth living has served as a guiding principle. My goodness, I’ve tattooed on my soul Thoreau’s charge: “Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him? Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself is? Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes -- with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.” I sense that Zuckerman is responding to Thoreau.
And perhaps this is what Zuckerman means: one doesn’t know one’s life as a story, complete with a plot and theme, and thus, it is impossible to know what event had some importance in the development of that life.  One lives a life from moment to moment, without the teleological trajectory so inherent in and necessary to a story. Whatever else a story is, it is a construction, and what is included in it has significance and therefore importance. But if my life story isn’t very well known (by which I mean as a story) then, of course, certain event will not enter into any plot. I am thinking now that it is perhaps not even at its end that one can see ones life as a story and can recall all of the events that happened in that life that could be deemed important. Zuckerman will say, “I came here because I don’t want a story any longer. I’ve had my story.” But Murray’s narrative suggests to Zuckerman that whatever life story he though he knew was at best incomplete and at worst, just plain wrong! Zuckerman: not lord of any realm, but a mere jester.

06 February 2013


It was the song “Anathea” that struck me last night.
Almost fifty years ago on her first album Judy Collins sang that song and I remember (I think) being mesmerized by the power and clarity of her voice. And the song’s theme¾addressing the venality and corruption at the center of the public order¾resonated with my adolescent rage and rebellion. Along with Dylan’s version of “Seven Curses,” Judy Collins’ traditional ballad version of “Anathea” condemned the American system of justice without having to explicitly name it. The Civil Rights movement highlighted the violent racism that permeated our society; and the war in Vietnam, still in its infant stage, was a vague threat that troubled our rest. These songs spoke to our senses of disquiet and our feelings of outrage. Not metaphor but metonomy, “Anathea”, and other songs just like it, represented the generation’s attack on the system it condemned no less powerfully than did the Port Huron Statement in 1962.
And Judy Collins’ phrasing in the last verse announcing the execution of her brother almost as if it were a lynching (illogical though its sense was¾given the report in an earlier verse that in the bed of the venal judge Anathea had heard news of her brother’s death on the “gallows groaning”), made even more explicit how thoroughly rotten was the system of justice.
Anathea, Anathea,
Don’t go out into the forest
There, among the green pines standing
You will find your brother, hanging.
The cruel deception and abuse practiced by the immoral judge on Anathea represented a crime against us as well, and confirmed our suspicions about the system that was meant to protect us but was made to serve only to oppress and destroy.  
I had not remembered that song over these-almost fifty years, but as Judy Collins presented her own autobiography through the set of songs she had constructed, she recalled it to me. I saw myself as a sixteen-year-old adolescent (I was so much older then!) sitting downstairs in a friend’s bedroom listening to “Anathea” on that first (or second) album, arguing the particular merits and strengths of Joan Baez and Judy Collins as artists and representatives of our generation’s outraged voice, and feeling self-righteous and incorruptible and prepared to set right the ills that songs like “Anathea” described. It was so easy then to know wrong from right, and I was content and hopeful.
It was good last evening to join a part of my past to the present: Judy Collins didn’t wear the peasant dresses with which I had come to associate her, and the times they have certainly changed. Interestingly (at least to me) she did not sing a song by Bob Dylan, because her version of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” helped define that song for me. But her opening song, “Song for Judith (Open the Door)” opened my past.
I used to think it was only me,
Feeling alone not being free
To be alive to be a friend
Now I know we all have stormy weather
The sun shines now when we’re together
I’ll be your friend, right through to the end.
I felt last evening that I sat amongst friends, brought together by an old friend, and accompanied in my mind’s eye by one special friend.