Reading in Allentown

Tonight, I will be reading at one of my favorite places: A public library. With one of my favorite fellow-writers, April Lindner.

Information on my Events page. More later…

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Still more difficult books

I am perpetually out to confound myself.

After reading Larson’s odd but lucid koan-like “biography” of John Cage’s creative interpenetrations with Buddhism, I have begun Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1961 text The Phenomenology of Perception. Already I have encountered some thoughts in Merleau-Ponty that relate to the indeterminate, a concept that excited Cage and that Larson demonstrates shares a great deal with Zen. But reading Merleau-Ponty is more challenging than reading Larson’s book, as I have less background in early 20th-century philosophy than I do in Zen studies. I enjoyed reading Bachelard’s imaginative, image-based take on phenomenology because I could relate to it on a poetry level even when I missed some of the philosophical antecedents (or contemporaries) he references. That possibility isn’t available to me with Merleau-Ponty.

I do appreciate that his writings were formulated before technologies that made neurological processes visible and while psychology was still bickering with the “hard sciences” about empirical measurements. (Actually, that bickering continues in some areas of study.) I do not think Merleau-Ponty would agree with, say, E. O. Wilson’s rather reductionist idea of consilience. Yet clearly, the philosopher was willing not to discount the sciences or empirical study–he just felt those areas were not of particular use to a philosopher, particularly a phenomenologist.

The body is what we have with which to experience the world, Merleau-Ponty tells us. But the human body is limited by its perceptual experiences. Structures–and that includes abstract structures such as thought–appear to have recognizable patterns, and the perceiver may posit cause and effect as a result. But another body may perceive differently, due to a different biological process or a different time or any number of physical or environmental variables. We perceive yellow with the cones and rods of our human eyes; the dog or the bee, the spider or the hippopotamus, may have eyes that do not see yellow as we do. Is yellow a quality or a perception? Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying (I am not very far into the book, so I  may be in error) that science cannot be objective, even though it is science that made us question our senses: “We believed we knew what feeling, seeing, and hearing were, and now these words raise problems.”

And how does this all relate to consciousness? Maybe I’ll figure that out as I go along.

ann e. michael poet

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Here’s a sentence I love because it speaks to me of poetry and the arts on the level of ambiguity: “[Science, with its categorization] requires that two perceived lines, like two real lines, be equal or unequal, that a perceived crystal should have a definite number of sides, without realizing that the perceived, by its nature, admits of the ambiguous, the shifting, and is shaped by its context.”

Or perhaps by observation? A little Uncertainty Principle going on there. I feel that good poems change when observed, and change in the context of the reader’s time, place, experience; that they possess ambiguity not in the sense of rhetorical wishy-washiness but in the rich sense of complex possibilities, indeterminacy, transformation.

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I’m especially pleased to have found Bernard Flynn’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the link to the entire article is above), which ends with the following reflections on Merleau-Ponty:

If we think how the thought of Merleau-Ponty might prolong itself into the 21st century, or as it portends a future, then we cannot not be struck by the fact that his philosophy does not entertain any conception whatsoever of an ‘apocalyptic end of philosophy’ followed by the emergence of some essentially different mode of thought. Unlike Heidegger, there is no anticipation of an ‘other beginning’, also there is nothing like Derrida’s ‘Theory’ which is waiting in the wings to displace philosophy, and unlike Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty’s thought does not await the disappearance of philosophy. In the academic year 1958–1959, Merleau-Ponty gave a course at the Collège de France entitled “Our State of Non-Philosophy.” He began by saying that ‘for the moment’ philosophy is in a crisis, but he continued, “My thesis: this decadence is inessential; it is that of a certain type of philosopher…. Philosophy will find help in poetry, art, etc., in a closer relationship with them, it will be reborn and will re-interprete its own past of metaphysics—which is not past” (Notes de cours, 1959–60, p. 39, my translation). After writing this he turns to literature, painting, music, and psychoanalysis for philosophical inspiration.

The theme of the indeterminate frequently recurs in the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Philosophy is enrooted in the soil of our culture and its possibilities are not infinite, but neither are they exhausted. In an essay entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere, ” Merleau-Ponty explicitly reflects on the future of philosophy, he writes that philosophy “will never regain the conviction of holding the keys to nature or history in its concepts, and it will not renounce its radicalism, that search for presuppositions and foundations which has produced the great philosophies” (Signs, 157). In his Inaugural Address to the Collège de France, he claimed that “philosophy limps” and further on that “this limping of philosophy is its virtue” (In Praise of Philosophy, 61).

What will philosophy do in the 21st century? It will limp along.

Apparently, I shall be limping along with it.

Energy & stamina

I have been thinking about energy and stamina, and the difference between the two, and how they relate to creative practice. The word “energy” conjures up, for me, vigor and forcefulness, vitality, strength–a sort of bustling intensity, the kind my son exhibited when he was five years old, for example. I have never considered myself a particularly high-energy person.

Think of the cat. A cat is capable of intense bursts of energy but will also husband that energy until the moment it’s needed. The cat will also sleep most of the day, storing up energy for the necessary predatory expenditures of strength. The feline form of energy use does not suit me very well, though I am partial to naps.

Stamina, however–stamina I have possessed. Stamina is also strength, also energy, but it is of a different nature. Plodding sometimes, headlong other times, but steady in the main. The sort of focus and determination a person needs to get through the long haul strikes me as stamina. Stamina is the energy to endure.

free kewlwallpaperWe have the mayfly and the bee, always buzzing actively, bursting with lively energy. Or the cat, conserving and then pulsing with strength and force. And we have the snail, constant and enduring, slowly edging its way toward its object.

My writing practice requires endurance, because I only occasionally get flashes of inspiration or insight and rarely feel surges of creative energy. Nonetheless, I have been told I am a “prolific” writer (by whose standards, I always wonder; compared to Georges Simenon and Alexandre Dumas, I am a piker). I think the reason is that I keep on. Everyone experiences setbacks, rejection, dry spells, discouragement, dull days. How we choose to deal with those situations becomes part of our practice of the discipline of art, and many approaches “work.” Whenever I read biographies of artists of any kind, or interviews with poets and writers and choreographers and composers, I recognize that (despite post-modernist critique) the life, in terms of personality and approach, does to some degree influence the art.

But the results are impossible to stereotype. A talkative, energetic artist may produce quiescent, meditative art. A dour personality can produce hopeful poetry, a still and soft-spoken person may create fierce, kinetic work.

A highly energetic person like Rimbaud can “burn out” on a major art form rapidly (though his busily-spinning, adventurous life kept going). And then there are the energetic sorts who just keep making work with boundless, apparently inexhaustible fire (see Simenon). One method or personality is not better nor more suited to art than another.

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This is my minuscule revelation for the day: The one time I visited a shaman, I was told that my totem animal is the snail. The idea gave me a moment’s pause, but then seemed somehow very apt.

Except I was a little queasy about the slime trail.

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I decided I can reframe the fact of slime once I recognize its purpose. It is not merely a lubricant, helping the gastropod to glide along, but also a glue that enables the creature to climb difficult surfaces, walls, and even ceilings. The layer of mucous also acts to protect the snail from dehydrating.

There must be a metaphor there somewhere. Poetry as…snail slime?

~

Time to keep plugging away, I  think.

The value of noise

Having posted several times on the value of silence, I feel I ought to balance things out by writing about the value of noise. These thoughts likewise stem from my recent reading: Kay Larson’s book about John Cage, creativity, and Buddhism.

This morning, there were a few hours of intermittent sunshine; the air, still nippy from a recent cold front and some high winds, had warmed up a few degrees. I felt inspired to prune some shrubs and start the rather significant task of removing fallen branches from the lawn. I did not realize how big a job this will be until I started the work because the grass is long and the leaves provide a bit of cover. Every few steps, though, I encountered clumps of twigs, broken branches, sticks of all sizes. We won’t want to run a lawnmower over this mass of debris, and it will get caught in our rakes when we try to remove the leaves. The best way to rid the lawn of storm-downed branches will be the old-fashioned way: human power, gathering one or two sticks at a time. The fresh air streamed into my lungs, the sun shone on my back. I pulled on my husband’s old sweater and my daughter’s old coat and my son’s gloves and my own boots and started to work.

What I noticed this morning was noise. John Cage, a man whose later compositions often engaged with silence, also loved noise. His percussion pieces were scored for tin cans, plates, pipes and modified pianos, and he was prescient about the incorporation of electronically-produced sounds into music. I love reading about his experiments with noise, and today I recognized the music in everyday sounds very clearly.

Today’s noises:

Leaf-crunch. The damp leaves produce difference tones from the dry ones. Leaves of different species vibrate in a range of tones depending upon their thickness, brittleness, serrated shapes, oiliness.

Vehicles. The roads are not terribly close to the house, but when the trees are bare we get a range of vehicle sounds from as far as the highway. Large trucks still growl, wheeze, squeal, rumble, and beep as neighbors get trees removed from their properties and department of transportation crews work at street clean up. Cars drive past.

Somewhere, a leaf-blower. Several chainsaws in the distance.

Mockingbird–not all of them have flown south just yet. The buzzy twittering of starlings and small flocks of sparrows. Woodpeckers drilling at trees.

My breathing.

The sound of the nippers and hedge clippers, the sound that pruned branches make as they whoosh and scratch and shimmy earthward and get tangled in the shrubs. The different noises of a cut made on dead wood and on live wood. The snap of twigs. The silken whisper of long grass underfoot.

Creak and groan of the walnut trees as a stiff breeze hits the woodlot. A dog, barking. The hens, chuck-chucking in their run.

The telephone from inside my house. An overhead jet.

And it isn’t cacophony; it’s a kind of music, certainly. The randomness and the patternedness work together. As do the silences.

 

Here’s one of Cage’s most melodic works, “In a Landscape,” very apropos … very lovely.

YouTube/John Cage “In a Landscape” Stephen Drury pianist

 

Silence (John Cage, Zen, head-noise)

Slow Muse blogger Deborah Barlow–artist, critic–recommended Kay Larson’s recent book on John Cage, Where the Heart Beats. Silence was so significant in Cage’s work and thinking that, given my recent reflections on noise or lack thereof, this seemed the right time to pick up that text. Lo and behold, synchronicity of several kinds. The author, Kay Larson, thanks John Daido Loori, a rōshi of the Mountains and Rivers order of zen Buddhists and long-time abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, NY. She studied with him beginning in 1994.

In 1992 and 1993, I attended two weekend retreats there; the brief days remain vivid in my memory. Perhaps more on that another time. Haiku is involved…and silence.

Recently, given some irregular bumps along the walk of life that have led to excessive “head-noise” (my term for stress I can’t quite let go of), I have been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of his essays–dovetail very neatly into this reflective book on Cage’s life, work, and influences. Larson’s “Zen” approach to writing about Cage is so gentle and refreshing that reading this book soothes me. I find within myself a kind of inner silence, my breathing returning to its slower, quieter pace, as I read the brief selections of prose Larson uses to explore the life of the mind of this peculiar and innovative artist/composer/writer.

Very like philosophical analogies, Confucian fables, parables of many cultures, koans, meditations, prayer and other forms of contemplative practice.

What reduces head-noise? For me, the best strategy is calmness, but I am not an adept at meditation. I have sat zazen badly, and learned much from the practice of sitting zen badly, but I have never managed to make meditation a genuine practice in my life. Deep breathing and slow movement, such as tai chi or qi gong, seem to work better for me. In addition, the Quiet Place. I settle down better when I can detach from computer, phone, electric lights, appliances. Art reduces head-noise: art requires attentiveness. Poetry, yes. Gardening, walking out of doors–good choices. Music, sometimes.

Philosophy, not so much. (Alas.)

Politics? Weather reports? Analysis? ….as the Buddhist monks might say: mu. Translation into teen-speak from five years ago: “not.”

And also, compassion. The practice of compassion keeps a person attentive and also relaxed. It is a form of active prayerfulness, of acceptance of self through the acceptance of others. After the bruises and bashings of a presidential election year in 21st-century United States, a little compassion would reduce the malaise and anxiety we have had to endure intellectually, emotionally, and–in the wake of bad storms on the east coast–physically.

I give you Quan Yin, or Guanyin, or Kannon Bodhisatttva, known as Avalokitesvara  in Sanskrit and termed the goddess of mercy, a counterpart to the Christian Jesus or Mary. This being represents the compassionate, merciful, kind, non-judgmental, accepting aspect of the cosmos, the universe, or god. I realize that it seems I may have wandered a bit far afield of Cage at this point. But read Larson’s book; I haven’t drifted as far from my topic as it seems.

And just because it does seems as though I am rambling considerably in this post, I think I can close with a poem from my collection Water-Rites, and somehow make it fit with these topics:

Intervention

I am thinking about the cowbirds who fought
in my driveway this morning
and how they struggled, one overbearing the other,
pecking at its head, keeping it pinned
to gravel. I wonder, now, why I chose to stop
and free the losing bird from its aggressor,
lift its bloodied damp body in my hands,
rescue it even though
it was also a cowbird, a pest
that usurps the nests of thrushes—
although I respect the dominion of beak & claw,
I want to preserve the generation
of songbirds; there was no reason for me
to intervene, no logic but somehow I felt
surely there is a place,
in the battle that is this world,
for the mandate of compassion.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

Lost trees

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Herewith, some photos of neighboring tree damage. There is an environmental aspect to huge devastating storms…some of my neighbors’ houses have been standing for over 150 years. Some of the trees are 50-90 years old.

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Not old by, say, Asian or European standards. But pretty mature and historic for the USA.

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New Jersey and Staten and Long Islands were hit much worse, as they also got sea-water surges and flooding. Here, we mostly had tree-down damages. Wires snapped, pulling out transformers and knocking down utility poles and wires.

It was a different type of storm from the ones we experienced last year at around this time (see my post from 2011).

Things are gradually returning to normal. I wish to thank, whole-heartedly, the men (and a few women) who work on the utility and tree crews and who came from all over the USA to help out. Convoys of utility trucks have been greeted with joy by all of us in the mid-Atlantic states. May we never have to return the favor–may you and your loved ones remain safe, sound, and connected! But if you do need help at any time, I hope we can return the favor.

Hurricane & silences

Having been through some big hurricanes before, I was prepared as possible for the weather that hit along the MidAtlantic states of the USA (and west to Pittsburgh PA, and north to the New England states).

We are somewhat rural, and we do not have city water or sewer; so if the electricity fails, we lose those modern amenities along with lights and computers and a stove. In Europe, and in newer developments in the US, power lines are more often underground. A wise idea, but not in our current infrastructure at my home.

So weather events–as the news media terms them–are significant to us. They alter our relationship with our house, our land, the earth. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it is pleasant to wake at dawn and hear no humming, no sounds of modern appliances at work. We note, instead, the noise of owls or wind or starlings. The rustle of grasses.

We miss hot water the most. That the well pump isn’t working and the water heater’s not heating: that means our standards of cleanliness necessarily fall. We can get used to it, but we miss it. Cooking on charcoal or a camp stove takes longer but isn’t really a problem for us, however. We can sleep in the livingroom by the fireplace if the cold weather sets in before the electricity comes back on to make the furnace fans operate.

We lost power Monday evening, and since then the human-made sounds are those of vehicles, chainsaws, and generators. And a pleasanter noise: my windchimes.

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When the winds were very high, I sensed the resolute structure of our house, which did not shudder, though the windows made some alarming sounds–a kind of whistle, a bit of rattling, the occasional thump.

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Days without electricity take me back ten years when my family spent a week on an island off of Nova Scotia. Our host lived off the grid by necessity–no electricity or plumbing on the island even though it had been inhabited since the mid-1800s. Tides, sunrise and sunset were our time-keepers. The natural sounds were restful and healing.

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So, too, the kinds of silence I experience when a large tree falls on the powerline, though the sense is less restful because of anxieties over family members, job, and the awareness that there are messes and expenses to deal with once we are reconnected to the 21st century. For a day or two, however, I feel my breath returning to a more animal pace and fullness. I watch things more closely. The line of water droplets beading irregularly under the porch handrail, the grass tassels’ subtle color variations as they move in a breeze, a toad’s progress across the patio slate, a few brilliantly yellow trees that kept their foliage despite the gale.

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Weather like this is refreshing, my sister says, even if frightening, because people need to be reminded that technology cannot control everything. The hurricane interrupted cell phone use, communication systems, transport networks, traffic, electrical grids. We ended up wet and cold and we needed to take shelter with friends and to share supplies and stories, to wait awhile before we hurry on our way.

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So here’s irony, that I am using technology to enter these words into a system that keeps them in an electronically-maintained, digitized data ‘cloud’ so people in the Netherlands or Norway, Seattle or Colorado, India or Britain can retrieve and read them…even though my theme is the joy of low-tech lifestyle (for awhile, at least). My power at home is still out, so I am posting these thoughts from a borrowed computer an hour from home; but I composed these thoughts at home, on paper, with a pen, by kerosene lamp. And I will be going back to that quiet, chilly environment later this evening to feed our pets and continue waiting for the valiant and hardworking utility crews to get to our backwater…

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My reading material during this ‘weather event’ has been The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess, an excellent philosophical companion for study by lamplight. I was struck by his essay “The Place of Joy in a World of Fact” which is so life-affirming. Not playful–Naess is serious about joy–but sensible. Environmentalists need to get out and find joy in the environment, he says, not just focus on the joyless losses. He urges all of us to give up the “cult of dissatisfaction” and promote good causes by example.

“One may say, somewhat loosely, that what we now lack in our technological age is repose in oneself. The conditions of modern life prevent the full development of the self-respect and self-esteem required to reach a stable, high degree of acquiescentia in se ipso [self-acceptance].”

~

What I feel when the power goes off is repose in myself. While it may not reside within me for long, the fact of its appearance–its existence–is gratifying, joyful, powerful. I do not require the fridge, the computer, the lights. I am an animal alive in an animate, changing, living world.

It’s good to be reminded, now and then.