Too difficult?

Another difficult book, Poetry, Language, Thought by Heidegger offered me less insight than I’d hoped and irritated me more than other philosophical readings I’ve been perusing lately. I do see a link between Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, etc.; these essays also connect to linguistic and semiotic philosophies. In the semiotic-etymological vein, however, I much prefer Umberto Eco‘s writing.

Of the essays in Poetry, Language, Thought, my favorites are “The Thinker as Poet,” “Building Dwelling Thinking,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art,” although that last one is problematic in a number of ways. Heidegger uses etymology, history, and his own concept of the fourfold making  up the onefoldedness of being (crucial to his philosophical cosmos but unconvincing to me) to question being and origin. The problem, always, is language. How to express the inexpressible? How can we use words to communicate when we cannot even reasonably define them–there’s no staying-in-place with words. Wittgenstein proves that even so simple a word as “game” has no single, stable definition that can serve as a premise for a logical assertion–yet, he notes, we do not need a definition in order to use the word. [For a ‘cave-man’s explanation’ of this topic, see the section called “Meaning and Definition” in this Wiki article: philosophical investigations.]

Dwelling: a light-house

Dwelling: a light-house

As a poet, I work with words, so these ideas interest me. Heidegger hasn’t helped much, though his discussion of what it means to “dwell in” will stay with me, resonating a bit with Arne Naess’ writing. I also found helpful his assertion that the best meaning for the word truth is unconcealedness. I like the idea that Truth, that vague abstract Big Concept we invoke so often as pursuit or justification, is always and ever present–but that we must un-conceal it, a slight variance in connotation from the usually-cited revealing of truth.

~

Some Heidegger quotes of note:

“Truth is at work in the work [of art]”

“Art…is the becoming and happening of truth. All art is essentially poetry” –because, “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is.”

~

So onto what irritated me. Among other things, most of all the essay “What Are Poets For?” The discussion stems from a famous line of Hölderlin‘s: “…and what are poets for in a destitute time?” Heidegger proceeds to use this famous inquiry to examine a lesser known poem by Ranier Maria Rilke–in the sort of philosophical critical analysis that drives me bonkers. Granted, this is a personal bias of mine and I won’t go into a rant upon it in this post. But, if you have read Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you’ll have some idea of what I mean by interpretation for one’s own purposes. This essay could almost have been Nabokov’s inspiration.

Maybe it’s me, and Heidegger is just too brilliant for my limited depth in philosophy and art. But I am pleased to be leaving him behind now and am already enthusiastic about the lectures and essays in Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre.

I suppose I ought to stick with poets who philosophize about poetry.

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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

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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…

~

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.

Place

A family member has recently complained that she wants to move from her apartment because her feelings for the place have changed. It’s been on her mind so much that she seems obsessive about this urge to find a more suitable home, somewhere she feels she can “fit in.” My response, initially, was compassion; then, I began to feel irritated (other people’s obsessions often seem irritating). I’ve been reading essays by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess for the past few days, however, and his work has tempered my irritable response. Place matters.

Naess was an originator of the “deep ecology” movement, a follower of Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, a mountaineer; his influences include Taoism and Spinoza. Deep ecology, as a movement, is fairly controversial and has been subject to some pointed criticism–but as a philosophical practice, its inquiry and premises have been valuable to subsequent thinking and critical problem solving as applied to the earth and its environmental limitations.

What appeals to me about Naess, though, is the personal aspect of his “ecosophy,” a term he coined to refer to earth-wisdom, to place-wisdom. He called his own place-wisdom Ecosophy T: the “T” stands for Tvergastein, a mountain he loved and sometimes chose to live on. Living above the timberline for weeks at a time, Naess observed tiny flowers, diverse lichen forms, changeable and severe weather systems, mice, foxes, herds of reindeer bedding down in front of his hut. He contemplated life’s interconnectedness, the concept of peace in all aspects of earth-dwelling, compassion for all sentient beings, respect for earth-forms from rock to plant to insect…


(saxifrage photo–http://torirotsstitches.blogspot.com)

As Buddhist studies say: “When one has great loving-kindness towards all sentient beings, there are limitless beneficial effects.” Naess seems to have believed this whole-heartedly. He loved the mountain, he loved the miniature saxifrages, he loved the view of the valleys and the lake. These things enlightened him about the inherent earth-wisdom of the place itself. All of his thinking seems to spring from the mountain’s earthy source, its seasons. A mountain seems unchanging to most of us, but Naess appreciated its transformations. Such acceptance can lead to an abiding sense of peace and peacefulness, and certainly to a comfortable feeling of belonging to place.

I understand that urge to belong to place. It’s one reason I have stayed in one region for so long: I do not live in an area of breathtaking natural beauty or harsh extremes, as Naess chose to do, but I respond to my surroundings deeply here in the valley. The temperate climate with its four distinct seasons, the plants I recognize, the familiar birds and mammals, insects and toads, salamanders, the gravel and the different soils, the creeks and meadows, the agricultural fields and–yes–the suburban sprawl and nearby highways all make up the place where I exist. It’s comfortable, and it is comforting, and it is always surprising in small ways as I push my observations and attempt to deepen my understanding of and connection with the place I call home.

There have been times I’ve had to leave places that felt like home, and there’ve been times I’ve felt uncomfortable in the place I dwelt. And I needed to move on when that discomfort became too nagging, to irritable to ignore.

So I’m back to my place of compassion again.

Here’s “Urge for Going.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3EofN3Flag