Only teasing John! But with a shard of self protection.
You wrote, “If I want to get from here to there, from suffering to not-suffering, from delusion to truth, from ignorance to enlightenment, there is no “line” between the two points because the first point of departure is illusory.” After reading your comments, my wife was momentarily confused about who was writing what. Your phrase “If I want to get from here to there” echoes many things that I have expressed to her and touched on in a number of essays. Taking this sort of pragmatic approach to spiritual exploration, which demands that you begin where you are while acknowledging that there is a gulf to be crossed, reduces the process to its essential elements. There is really nothing in your two posts with which I disagree, although I can see that our focus is somewhat different.
The acknowledgement that all life is suffering and that a release from it is possible is certainly one of the central facts of many types of spiritual practice. The Buddha, of course, positioned this acknowledgment of suffering, or “Dukkha,” as the first of the Four Noble Truths. Who am I to disagree? But again, I believe that he did this for a practical reason: that is important for each person to begin where he/she is. He then proceeds to describe three other Noble Truths and an Eight-Fold Path of release. Running parallel to this focus upon suffering, however, is that we are also called to be embodied agents of the Dharma, or cosmic order, and that we have certain responsibilities to perform. The nature of this responsibility is one of the things that I had hoped to address in this essay. Part two of The Snare of Distance is scheduled to go up soon, and I think that it will provide some further insight into the paradoxical nature of my approach. Where the Buddha perhaps departs—or at least seems to depart—from earlier the earlier Vedic vision is in his shift of emphasis away from the concept of “Lila,” or play. I do not believe that it is necessary to choose between a focus upon liberation and a focus upon play.
Let me shift traditions for a moment before I circle back to the image of the labyrinth. When I was 17, I took a course called “Cultural and Intellectual History of Europe,”: in which we studied Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” I suspect that Pico’s synthesis of Neoplatonism and Kabbalah had far more of a personal impact on me than on most or all of the other students in the class. I already had some grandiose ideas about becoming an artist and perhaps a writer and had several violent energetic experiences, but all of my ambitions were quite amorphous and I lacked any sense of the larger context into which they might fit. Pico’s argument, that human beings do not have a fixed position in the hierarchy of creation, that we belonged to all levels and to none, and that, because of this, we were free to act as cosmic adventurers and intermediaries, hit me with incredible force.
This idea, that we are actors on the stage of the cosmos, with a certain role to perform, is one that I have been exploring ever since. On the one hand, we are called upon to be actors, rather than servants or devotees or observers/ On the other hand, we must free ourselves from illusion if we are going to act effectively and fulfill our role. This intuition of a cosmic calling ties in with both the Buddhist concept of Dharma and the Vedic concept of play. The image of the labyrinth, I think, reconciles the impetus towards action with the realization that there exists some form of underlying stillness. Like Jason and the Argonauts, we must set off in search of the Golden Fleece. It is our movement itself that generates wealth, which brings new dimensions of knowledge and creativity into being. At the same time, all of this movement occurs within the context of the labyrinth, whose many turns are organized around a center and within a circumference. From inside the labyrinth, we may believe it to be a maze; no passage leads where we expect and each direction results in a reversal. From a certain distance—which may be due to a flash of enlightenment or during a life-review at the moment of our deaths—we can see that all of our actions have taken place within the convoluted economy of a circle.
Over the past week, I have been revising an essay called “The Blind Staircase, Revisited,” which has a passage that might be relevant. (The style of this section was perhaps influenced by the 20th Century Greek poet George Seferis.) The passage in question reads:
The extended form of growth is always that of a spiral, as they have shown us in archaic urns. To cultivate the “fire in the belly" you must depart from home, whether Ithaca, with its clockwork owls, with its prows that are painted with wide-open eyes, or South Worcester, with its mix-and-match neoclassical factories that are manned by hungry ghosts, it is all the same. Contemptuous of death and, at first, as light as a feather, you must travel far across the many colored ocean. You must experience the changeable hearts of men, the weird will of the gods, the wonders of phenomena, great and small, bright and dark, only to return at last to the place that you had started, with a gift to give. There, you will rediscover the beauty of those objects close at hand.
I don’t know what to do with all of your kind words. If I respond to your positive comments too specifically I will seem to be indulging in some sense of self-importance, which I would much prefer not to do. Let me approach things from a different angle: I suspect that there is a devious and convoluted strategy behind your insistence that you are a “naïve amateur” and a “bungler,” even if, on a conscious level, you are no more than a bystander to this strategy. Are you familiar with this story about Nasrudin and the hole? “Nasrudin was digging outside, and his neighbor asked him, ‘What are you working on?’ ‘Well,’ Nasrudin replied, ‘There’s a lot of excess dirt on the road, so I’m digging a hole to bury it in.’ ‘But what are you going to do with the dirt that you ’re digging out of this new hole?’ said the neighbor. ‘Hey,’ Nasrudin replied, ‘I can’t attend to every single detail.’” There is something very liberating about defining yourself as small rather than big, low rather than high, foolish rather than wise, and confused rather than certain of your direction.
I love this excerpt from your comment, which strikes me as very much the statement of a strategic amateur, who knows that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”: I have a curious relation to the ‘void.’ I find myself using the word a lot, and I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. It’s like the God of the gaps, thrust in where I’m at a loss. The word just comes of itself, and I keep repeating it, like an obsessive rubbing of a rock until it becomes a stone. It’s like the Mecca Stone, worn into a concave and finally become the site of worship.”
As I said in The Snare of Distance, “If we humans cannot travel from one side of the omniverse to the other, it is perhaps because, at this point in the Kali Yuga, we have gotten much too big.” It just struck me that this was a rephrasing of the maxim that “It is more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” One of the secrets of creativity is, I think, to allow oneself to be taken by surprise. To see oneself as a perpetual beginner—or, more formally, to act with the Zen “beginners mind”—is a way to potentially maximize this result. Oddly, this strategy, whether consciously or not, can coexist with a natural tendency to perfectionism, and it may be one of the best and only ways to make this natural tendency bearable. Whatever one’s obsesssiveness, at some point one must appeal to a larger field of energy and intelligence, and these larger forces must be allowed sufficient breathing room if they are going to effectively go about their work.
When I was younger, I used to read a great many biographies and autobiographies about or by famous writers, painters, and composers, to see if I could disentangle the logic of their creative processes and perhaps find some way to imitate their example. If there was any common thread, it was perhaps a relative indifference to received opinion and a capacity to go deeper and deeper into the demands of their own creative process, that is, to allow the work itself to become the teacher. Here are a few of my favorite statements in this direction:
From Joseph Haydn: “As head of an orchestra I could experiment, observe what heightened the effect and what weakened it, and so could improve, expand, cut, take risks; I was cut off from the world, there was no one near me to torment me or make me doubt myself, and so I had to become original.”
From Johann Sebastian Bach: “I was obliged to be industrious. Anyone who works as hard should get as far.”
From Pablo Picasso: “I do not seek; I find”
From Jackson Pollock: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”
From Hokusai: “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
And finally, here is another story about Nasrudin that you might get a kick out of:
Nasrudin Plays Guitar
Nasrudin was at the town square one day, and a group of people asked him if he knew how to play the guitar.
Nasrudin didn’t know how, but he replied, “Yes, I do. I am a masterful guitar player—in fact, I am one of the best in the world!“
The people, expecting him to make such a boast, immediately produced a guitar and asked him to play it.
Nasrudin took the guitar and started playing only one string, and continued to play only on that one string. After a minute of this, someone finally interrupted him and asked, “Mulla! Guitar players move their fingers and play a variety of strings. Why are you only playing one of them?”
“Well,” Nasrudin replied, “those players keep on changing strings because they are searching for a specific one. I found it on my first try—so why should I switch to another one?”
Hey Philippa - we’re all good. I understand where you are coming from that you made your remark to back me off. Of course you are completely within your rights. I don’t take it personally. What strikes me about your remark is the incredible packed-in energy of it, in relation to the swirling abyss. You see the true terror of it, and how minuscule we are in relation to it. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” You have Brian George doing doggie paddle! (Ha ha!) Yet zooming out and seeing everything in perspective, on a grand scale, how true. If one could blow away all these words we use, and see into the trembling core of each of us, putting it in relation to what surely is going to destroy us all, to Death standing behind everything… to call anyone “great” or “the great”, as I did with you, betrays a dumbness, a blindness. I thank you again for the smelling salts! I see where you are, where in fact we are, in the sobering vastness. I go into clown mode as my own way of coping. Not completely inaccurate comparing me to Feste. I think I like Feste. He appears to belong to the same family as Nasrudin, which Brian has introduced here in his response to me. I’m absolutely delighted. I chuckled heartily reading “Nasrudin Plays Guitar.”
Hey Jasun H., I once remarked to Brian how much it seems the Trickster makes his appearance through you. I’m fascinated by the Trickster, not mere jokester or comedian Trickster, not at all in a popular entertainment sense, but subversive and havoc-causing Trickster, Trickster as kind of metaphysical terrorist. You may or may not have read Brian’s essay “Ashe, the First Artist”, in which he mentions Eshu the Trickster, whose role is to “unblock the circuits”.
One wonders if through the wounds of trauma, is where the Trickster floods in, and then sets up shop within us, even without our knowing it. Our wounds are the windows out of which the Trickster smirks and sneers at others, often without our knowing it. Yes indeed, sometimes when I’m walking down the sidewalk, others look at me funny, and I think, “Is it me?”
P.S. Greetings, Jason White. I read your comment and Brian’s response. Fantastic. You can drop some strange seeds into the terrain near Brian, and count on him to aid in their growth, and be delightfully surprised at what kind of specimens they turn out to be. Love that word you conjured up - “automystically”. Yet too far into postmodern fields, I feel like I want to start playing Whack-a-mole, bonking neologisms on their noggins, and driving them back underground. But when I do this they only come up behind me and bite me on the ass!
When I was growing up and living in Connecticut, there were moles and mole trails in the yard of our house. You’d walk out there on the grass, and in places the soil would give way, almost twisting your ankle. I don’t think it worked, but at one point my Dad tried putting bubble gum down into the ground, in an attempt to choke the little burrowing rascals. My bedroom was on the second floor, overlooking the lawn, and the next day, I envisioned all these moles floating around in the air, floating upward, and the bubbles then popping and moles plummeting to their death!
@JDockus; a little scared of me? lol, I scare myself too. But I recommend my podcast (The Liminalist) so you can hear the medium as well as the message. The pen is mightier than the sword and more impenetrable than a shield, & words are the meat & potatoes of the defended identity and hence, it’s my view anyhow, are much more suited to concealing and misrepresenting reality than they are to expressing it.
I did feel this way about Brian’s prose, rather, that it is a little too poetically proficient; fortunately, we had some private correspondence and I was able to get a better sense of the person behind the prodigious intellect.
I do not believe that it is necessary to choose between a focus upon liberation and a focus upon play.
I was going to answer this but then I realized that I needed to go play with my cat.
Liberation is liberation to resume play and yet (it seems) that learning to play is the only route to liberation (play = total relaxation?).
Playing as a means to attain liberation is not play, however; it is work.
I rest my lying pen.
Indeed you scare me a little, Jasun. (That it makes you laugh relieves me.) You’re one of those who could use the pen as a weapon mightier than the sword. I’m certain you could dance circles around me in terms of linguistic tricks. This is only a recognition, however, of the potency I discern of your mind, what it’s capable of seeing so keenly even in the darkness, and how good you are at expressing it. To say you scare me is another way of saying I have respect for you.
I myself am not a writer and don’t consider myself a writer. As you’d rather play with your cat, I’d rather draw pictures and paint. I’m a reluctant writer. I get dragged into it against my will; then I think, ah, to hell with it, then I plunge in. I don’t foresee myself writing any books.
Those who get more and more involved with writing, to where it becomes all-consuming… I envision each author building upward, constructing a tower, which reaches through the clouds, then tapers into a sharp point. To impale gods? Who the fuck knows. This is where the irreverent and mischievous part of me enters in. Maybe you and I share this in common?
Brian introduced me to the writer Henri Michaux (Brian has a serious knack for drawing one’s attention to things which are highly relevant to oneself). I read this little piece by Michaux, and this is what I’m talking about! I had a shudder of recognition when I first read this:
A DOG’S LIFE
"I always go to bed very early, dead tired, and yet you couldn’t find any tiring work in the course of my day. _
_ Maybe you couldn’t find any.
_ But what surprises me is that I can hang on till evening, and that I’m not forced to get into bed by four o’ clock in the afternoon._
_ What tires me out like that are my continual interventions._
_ I’ve already said that in the street I fight with everybody; I slap some man, grab women’s breasts, and using my foot as a tentacle I sow panic in the cars of the Metro._
_ As for books, they harass me more than anything else. I just can’t leave a word with its original meaning or even its form._
_ I catch it and after a few tries I uproot it and lead it definitely away from the author’s flock._
_ There may easily be thousands of sentences in a chapter and I’ve got to sabotage every one of them. It is absolutely essential to me._
_ Occasionally, certain words remain like towers. I have to go about it a few times and then, when my demolition has already gone pretty far, all of a sudden, while passing by an idea, I can see the tower again. So, I hadn’t knocked it down enough, I have to go back and find the poison for it, and I spend an endless amount of time in this way._
_ And once the whole book has been read, I lament, for I haven’t understood a thing… naturally. Couldn’t enhance myself with anything. I stay thin, and all dried up._
_ I used to think that when I had destroyed everything, I would be well adjusted, right? Maybe. But it’s long in coming, it’s really long."_
That’s the plan.
Adjusted to emptiness.
Hi John and Jasun,
Here are a few more Nasruddin–or Hodja–stories that you might get a kick out of. Nasrudin is a slippery figure to try to pin down. There are similar types of absurd stories told about Zen masters or masters of the Maha Mudra, but in those stores the masters are just about always in charge. These Turkish stories are different. There are stories in which Nasrudin is just a simple fool. There are other stories in which he seems to be a Sufi master pretending to be a fool, perhaps to illustrate some obscure point. There are still other stories in which he seems to be a fool pretending to be a Sufi master pretending to be a fool, which leaves the issue of whether he actually is a fool somewhat up in the air. It all gets very convoluted. Not that the stories themselves are in any way difficult to follow! (Note: The name can be spelled with one d or two, depending on the translator.)
Man is Stuck in Tree
One day, a local man climbed up a rather tall tree.
Shortly thereafter, however, as he tried to make his way back down, he soon discovered that the trip down might not be as easy as the trip up. In fact, try as he might, he simply could not figure out a way to get down the tree without putting his body at great risk of falling to the ground.
He asked a few passers-by for help, but no one knew what to do.
A few local people gathered near him and tried to help, but he remained stuck.
Then Nasrudin walked by and devised a plan. He threw a rope up to the man and said, “Tie this around your waist.”
The people nearby wondered about what Nasrudin was doing. They asked him his plan, but he calmly replied, “Just trust me—this works.”
When the man had the rope tied around his waist, Nasrudin pulled on the rope. Upon his doing this, the man fell from the tree and hurt himself. The bystanders, horrified to see this happen, remarked, “What kind of a plan was that?”
“Well,” Nasrudin replied, “I once saved someone’s life doing the exact same thing.”
“Are you sure,” one man asked.
“Yes,” Nasrudin replied. “The only thing I’m not sure about is whether I saved him from a well or from a tree.”
One night, a thief broke into Nasrudin’s house and began putting items in a sack. Nasrudin then joined him and added a few items.
The thief was so bewildered that he turned to Nasrudin and asked, “What in the world are you doing?”
“Well,” Nasrudin replied, “I thought we were moving, so I began helping you pack.”
Nasruddin and the Keys
The great Sufi master Mullah Nasruddin was on his hands and knees searching for something under a streetlamp.
A man saw him and asked, “What are you looking for?” “My house key,” Nasruddin replied. “I lost it.”
The man joined him in looking for the key, and after a period of fruitless searching, the man asked, “Are you sure you lost it around here?”
Nasruddin replied, “Oh, I didn’t lose it around here. I lost it over there, by my house.”
“Then why,” the man asked, “are you looking for it over here?”
“Because,” Nasruddin said, “The light is so much better over here.”
Mad at the Fakir
A Fakir claimed that he could teach any illiterate person to read through an “instant technique.”
“OK,” Nasrudin said. “Teach me.”
The Fakir then touched Nasrudin’s head and said, “Now go read something.”
Nasrudin left, and returned to the village square an hour later with an angry look on his face.
“What happened?” asked the villagers. “Can you read now?”
“Indeed I can,” replied Nasrudin, “but that’s not why I came back? Now where is that scoundrel Fakir?”
“Mulla,” the people said, “he taught you to read in no more than a minute. So what makes you think he’s a scoundrel?”
“Well,” Nasrudin explained, “I was just reading a book that asserted, ‘All Fakirs are frauds.’"
Ha ha! The first one had me literally laughing from the belly. Nasrudin is a great character. Never heard of him before, Brian. Thank you for the introduction. I can now - say, elevate Pinocchio to a minor deity after reading your lines "…there is no way to determine what we know, or to differentiate a corporate logo from a hieroglyph. We see, but we have forgotten how to read. We believe that our minds penetrate beyond the ends of our own noses, when, in fact, they rarely penetrate that far.”
Signs being everywhere, with no real ultimate measure, no absolutes, everything now apparently interchangeable, the high and low all jumbled together, mixed up and giving rise to so many possible meanings, nothing fixed, I had this idea with your body of work, Brian, that it certainly is at home at a site like this, but in a way it preaches to the choir of us with our own difficult, or gnomic, or mystifying, or whatever one might call them - open-ended and indefinable - intellectual sensibilities. And even among us there is head scratching. All of us are plunged into the inscrutable ocean, drowning in possible meanings. (“Detachment: the capacity to see the ocean that will swallow up all things, and to listen as it whispers in your ear.”) Writing that becomes really rarefied like yours, is like the head kept just barely above water while doing doggie paddle; it presupposes a certain mentality for someone to follow, but also the desire and will to continue, the will to live actually. Maybe that is the motor of all this ambition. Immortality? Eternal life. The higher and more refined faculties are under constant threat of drowning, and that’s where the desire for immortality resides. How many have drowned before, and come back like a cat with more than one life (that’s a nod to you, Jasun). How many have simply drowned and given up, no longer desiring to come back to life. The world does appear to becoming more and more a world of the dead, overrun by zombies, and androids in human form practicing I.T. The nose detaching and taking on a life of its own, as in Gogol’s The Nose, how intriguing, how grotesquely baffling and unsettling, perhaps satirically funny, it would be if certain of your pieces turned up without explanation in Good Housekeeping, People magazine, even National Geographic. Smuggled into less obvious places. Left in laundromats, or made into pamphlets and dropped by airplane onto towns and cities. During rush hour, read aloud from a P. A. system while driving down streets on a flatbed truck, or in a hearse. The looks on many people’s faces would be priceless!
If my writing was really as amorphous as you suggest, this would save me a great deal of work! I would not have to revise pieces 20 to 30 times. I could just make any random statement. This would then plunge you into the inscrutable ocean, where you would drown in all possible meanings. A sentence could mean anything that you could possibly want it to mean. Of course, if anything could mean everything then nothing would mean anything. There would be no need to stretch your mind in order to wrap it around a koan because you would invariably end up in the exact place that you started. This would be a boring way to write, and such writing would be very tiring to read for more than a few paragraphs at a stretch. There is certainly writing like this.
For example, as much as I like the very magical early poems of Philip Lamantia, one of the first American Surrealists, I would tend to consign much of his later work to this category. “Two pages to a grape fable/ dangles the swan of samite blood/ shaping sand from thistle covered fog/ Over sacred lakes of fever/ (polished mouths of the vegetable frog/ rolling to my iron venus)” (This probably sounds brilliant after a few joints.) In contrast, these lines from “Touch of the Marvelous,” which he wrote when he was 16 or so, have a certain directness to them, whatever the intended mysteriousness of their subject matter. “I am touched by the marvelous/ as the mermaids’ nimble fingers go through my hair/ that has come down forever from my head/ to cover my body/ the savage fruit of lunacy.” Directness and clarity are actually very important to me. Reducing difficult high-energy experiences and subtle intuitions to relatively straightforward statements has been something of a matter of psychic survival. It is curious that the sentences that you quoted to illustrate this idea of inscrutability are all made up of direct, aggressive phrases, with almost no adjectives or adverbs. In the mid-1990s, when I was indeed often overwhelmed by a sense of oceanic vastness, I did my best to take apart my visions, like a child taking apart his toys, and to reassemble them into statements with the paunchiness of advertising slogans. Since then, I have allowed my sentences to get longer, although some of the short ones continue to pop up, like pesky fossils. Whether the sentences are short or long, I do my best to present any abstractions as experiences, and to surround any fancy, Latinate words with a bunch of blunt, Anglo-Saxon ones.
This is not to say, of course, that many readers may not have trouble following my arguments. Unlike the majority of essay writers, I do not usually begin with a thesis that I then attempt to prove. Or, if I do begin in this way, some trickster-like energy will demand that I take a series of detours. Again, this brings us back to the image of the labyrinth; the shortest path is sometimes the most convoluted one. It all depends on your desired destination. I don’t tend to go from point A to point B to point C; rather, I think in complex curves and precariously constructed paradoxes. It is true that this approach makes certain demands to which readers may not be accustomed. The secret is to not try to initially figure everything out, any more than you would rush to figure out a piece of music. In short, it is best to approach one of my essays or prose-poems as a voyage of discovery and not as a puzzle. We live in treacherous times, and I have tried to develop an equally treacherous literary style to go with them. I am not a system builder, like Aristotle and Hegel; I am a hunter gatherer, like Heraclitus and Nietzsche.
I just thought of an anecdote that you might get a kick out of.
A number of years ago, I was standing in the lobby of a building off of Harvard Square in Cambridge. A woman came up to me and asked, “How do I get to Mount Auburn Street?” I pointed my finger and answered, “It’s right out that door.” She did not seem pleased. “Well,” she demanded, “do I go right or do I go left?” “It all depends on where you want to go,” I said. “Ugh!” she grunted, and stormed off.
What I wrote got something of a rise out of you! Thunder and a flash of lightning. I know exactly what I’m doing, Brian. Everything you’ve written here, I see and quite understand. I was actually playing a bit. That’s the thing with this kind of writing. It’s so rigorously composed, and diamond hard in its brilliance, there’s really no surpassing it. It is extraordinary and magnificent, one of a kind. I could try to break things up a bit, so that I could have some voice in relation to it, indeed so I can do a little freewheeling exploration, or be reduced to total silence. Where I cough up stones, you present multi-faceted jewels. I jump up to grab the jewel, and with my trousers loaded down with pockets full of pebbles, I miss and splash into the ocean. I sink and touch down on the ocean floor and walk once again among the dead.
P.S. I’m glad you added the humorous anecdote. Ha ha! Really, Brian, you are the last man I want to fall foul of in the spiritual and psychic realm. You gotta let me be completely myself, if you want to hear from me at all, and quite often I’m a snotty knucklehead.
(One of my darker reflections on your work, one might say a dark shadow cast by the great light that emanates from its face. I hope you take this in the right spirit. Behind all this I’m in total good faith, and share it because there is nothing really to be hidden from you. I figure you’re already intimately aware of and acquainted with this reflection anyway, having had it in your own way.)
One privately must pay a price for shaping and honing work which comes so near to perfection. It’s an irony of your work, Brian, especially since you wrote this in your marvelous piece, Ashe, The First Artist: “The world is beautiful, yes, and also good, but it is not and cannot be perfect. A part of its goodness is that it never can be perfect. So too, it is almost certain that the ultimate perfection of any artwork would be death. The work would encompass the beyond towards which it points, and, in the process, it would annoy the Orishas by making them irrelevant. The Orishas enact a state of pregnant disequilibrium; the perfect artwork would move in every direction at once. To see it would be to understand it, immediately, and down to the last implication (or, just as bad, to believe that one has done so). To hear it would be to embody what it teaches. To touch such perfection would be to be transfixed by its power, to be unable to tear away one’s hand. One would never want to recall one’s breath from the space to which it had withdrawn itself. No story would have a beginning, a middle, or an end. It would not be possible to keep any gift in circulation. There would be no wound to heal. Ashe would not have a catastrophe to remove.” But this is also part of the utter fascination and breathtaking captivation of your work.
I know you’re not a systemizer, at least not in a classical, formal and academic sense. But in the wide world there really are herky jerky clashes of signs and symbols, without rhyme or reason, and a crazy quicksand amorphousness. I’m more inclined to believe this world is just a raging whirlwind of nonsense. That’s what it is most of the time. I stand outside of your work, not within it, having a hard time crafting my own vessel. I work with shabbier materials. The world comes out with manifold sense and meaning through the particular body of work you have created, with certain unseen but felt rules and regulations charted out within it, a intricate network of circles and spirals and circuits, all somehow fitting and working together for maintenance and continuation. I think of your work as a kind of Noah’s ark. You safely convey yourself in the durable vessel you have created.
Toward one who has come so near to perfection, and has worked so hard to achieve it, in this crazy and treacherous world, many must feel envious and jealous, more helpless and desperate than they were before, and finally, rebellious. Such work so near to perfection, every aspect explained so articulately, so elemental and luminous in its power, shining like the sun, glowing like the moon, releases also incredibly dark undercurrents, flowing like lava, seeking an opening to erupt into barbarity and violence. Most who haven’t accomplished anything near to what you have, if they didn’t hold back in the face of it, if they broke their silence and allowed themselves to erupt out of their subconsciousness, would in spite of themselves try to get at you, claw at the side of your vessel, try to punch a hole in the hull, before being pulled back down under the waves.
I could hardly sleep when it came that time for me. I rolled over, thinking about this dark reflection, and actually burst into a snicker, thinking, “Man, out on the ocean, I float along on this piece of driftwood, with a broomstick for a mast, and a bed sheet for a sail."
I am tied up with revising a piece at the moment, but there are a number of passages in my essay “In a Small Boat, Drifting on the Ocean,” that may be relevant to the discussion. Here is an excerpt:
My sense is that we are entering a period of transition in the relationship between dimensions, in which the interaction between the vertical and the horizontal axes will be redefined, not so much due to any contagious spread of consciousness—which I do not see at all—but simply because we have reached a dead end. Our normal way of doing things is just not going to work. We must put aside what we know, as well as what we think we know; they will not protect us. Somewhat recklessly, perhaps, we must put our trust in what we do not know. The unknown will not protect us either, but crises may prompt us to rediscover some part of our primordial energy. No exchange will be fixed, and a shock wave will run upwards, through the higher worlds, as well as outwards, through the global body.
It is possible that there will be no non-participants in the revolution against History, that the past and the future will come to be seen as our wayward children, as flawed but necessary aspects of a project that we undertook long ago. At the moment, I feel that I am being carried forward in a small boat on an ocean, with no real way to steer. No matter, since even the small boat must go; all transport must begin and end with the body, in its role as all-purpose vehicle.
Quite beautiful, Brian, and I think relevant. The serenity of it is what I find beautiful. It’s almost like a voice from the afterlife. Amazing that you wrote this before my little wayward eruption of a dark reflection. I find comfort knowing that you envisioned yourself on a flimsy craft too, a small boat. But thinking of it in another way, whenever this passage was written, I think the more you did away with the floating craft, and moved into the body as only remaining, the body itself too eventually dissolving, the more the perfection looms, which is where I picked up my dark reflection.
The residue left over, all that you have worked out of yourself, worked through yourself, and created, is like a giant craft, dropping down from an alternate dimension. The more invisible you become, the more what you think you have done away with materializes elsewhere. Is it only an illusion? A giant ghost ship. No doubt most of all of this is going on in my own head, a refracted chunk of my own working out, “ a transition in the relationship between dimensions.”
"Self-reliance: the capacity to stand on your own as you free yourself from the force-fields of the common wisdom, and then not complain too much. This will be more of a challenge if your head, hands, heart, and feet have been removed. Most prostheses will require some amount of training, after which you will become 100 percent free.”
There’s something marvelous but also horrible about that. I have visions of a supernatural cripple. I have a very strong resistance to the evaporation of my body. Two arms, two legs, one head, my lanky body, animated manner and slight stoop as I walk. I’m not an octopus, though I may imagine myself anything in the entire universe.
I must go. Actually going to watch football with my Dad shortly. He’s not doing well. There’s still some time, but very bad prognosis. I have death dwelling closely in my thoughts presently, and the dear love I have of my old man. I plan on cherishing every moment I have with him.
Many thanks for all of the high enthusiasm and stream of unpredictable insights that you have brought to this discussion! As I mentioned a number of times, I think that you have the makings of a natural critic, and I am always surprised by your ability to comment on almost any subject at a moment’s notice and to give articulate form to both your passing perceptions and subtle intuitions.
I am sorry to hear that you father is not doing well, but it is wonderful that you are taking this as an opportunity to heal any past schisms and let go of any lingering resentments. I did not see my own father for twelve years as I was growing up. When we finally reconnected, after his second divorce and when I was already out of school and married to my first wife, things did not go smoothly for the first ten years. Thank god that something changed. We had a terrific ten years of good communication and of at least partial mutual acceptance and understanding before he unexpectedly passed in 1998. I am always amazed by people’s ability to hold grudges. My own sense is that these key karmic relationships, no matter how messy, are things that we really have to work out, and that the rewards are very much worth the effort.
On a political level at least, I still feel like a child on a small boat drifting in the ocean, with no real way to steer. My wife Deni just made a comment about the media wanting to see Trump elected because all of his over-the-top statements and unpredictable behavior would be so good for their bottom line. I thought, “Wow, this is one of the few times I can think of that she is even more cynical about politics than me. I did not think this was possible.” While I do have something like absolute faith in the unbreakability of the cosmos, this does not make me anymore optimistic about the sustainability of our current way of life. I expect a great many things to fall apart. This is also a natural process, however, and more or less inevitable. Complex structures do not develop in straight lines, at least not for any length of time. My motto—or at least one of them –is “Think small, and improvise as you go.”
Hi Brian: I really appreciate your last comment. Thank you so much.
I take a running start and leap from one monolith, raised into the sky, clouds drifting by below, to another across the chasm, just barely catching the edge by my fingertips, and pulling myself to safety. This virtue you wrote has been in my mind lately:
"Balance: the capacity to see the right in every wrong, as well as the wrong at the dead center of each right. By the blinding light of the hypersphere, we can see that even the most generous of our actions is a crime; at one and the same moment, every crime can be regarded as a type of revolutionary act, as a flawed but useful reinvention of the law. Strange indeed are the methods of the stern Goddess of Necessity!”
The first time I read this virtue, it struck me that you used the word “crime." That’s a heavy, loaded word which conventionally isn’t applied everywhere. “Innocent until proven guilty”. Culpability and guilt is bound up with it. Crime implies one has broken a law, not only has done wrong, but has done something which has caused harm and suffering to another or to others, something for which one must pay, or be punished, some penance served, for the sake of justice and to restore balance.
But you go even further and call “even the most generous of our actions” a crime. Of course I realize, as you posit it, this is in relation to “the blinding light of the hypersphere.” I wonder how far this is only a clever and highly imaginative word game. Or maybe it’s a recasting of karma. In practice, to invoke the hypersphere could I imagine be used to control others, instilling fear and awe in them, just as much as the invocation of God, or “the true God.” That’s meant to put people back in their places.
What a tricky thing you’ve come up with here. As much as I might question it from different angles, I do think I have a sense of what you’re getting at. In a living, shape-shifting Totality, move one part, and all the other parts move too, falling back into place, the whole returning immediately to that Totality, or hypersphere.
We humans are always becoming, never arriving in life to a finished state. If we do actually achieve a momentary state of perfection, maybe capturing it in a work, providing proof of it, since there is nowhere else left to go, that highest peak achieved, there must thereafter, as sure as what goes up must come down, be an unraveling and collapse, and reversion to the opposite.
In the thought of this, I think, for instance - though each operates on the opposite side of the law - of the similarity of a hacker to a computer specialist, a cop at the top of his game to a big time career criminal, each the longer their cat and mouse game continues the more profound their mutual recognition and unstated respect for each other grows, though it is fueled by fury and tempered by contempt, each desiring to gain the upper hand on the other. Or in another way, I think of the same dynamic playing out within one and the same individual, Mozart and the golden works of music he created, and his scatological sense of humor, or the Corporate Titan who by day is strict and imperious, impeccable in professional manner, even like a puritanical priest on a mission, who by night shifts almost entirely into the opposite persona, crawling around on all fours with a leash around his neck and the stiletto heel of a dominatrix dug into his back.
Though liberating, there’s something troubling about this way of thinking that moves with grand moral neutrality, seeing the bad in every good, and the good in every bad, never actually taking a side, but always slipping away by taking all sides, seeming at times to condone evil, at other times to champion virtue, arguing for the necessity of all, while sitting like a king on the Totality of the world, watching events fleeting and unfold and writing about them as if they were only scenes or parts of an epic movie.
I wonder if this troubling aspect, or ethical dilemma - maybe that itself is the “blinding light of the hypersphere” - figured into the titling of your piece “The Snare of Distance and the Sunglasses of the Seer.” “Sunglasses of the Seer” recalls to my mind De Chirico, who I know is very important to you, and his haunting 1914 painting “Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire.”
I found in a 2003 Guardian feature, Portrait of the Week, the following words by Jonathan Jones about that painting:
“Distinguishing features: His eyes are black circles of nothingness, unreflective and unyielding. He is frozen somewhere between life and death - a man of stone, a marble bust wearing blind man’s glasses. He looks right at us, however: his blindness is that of the seer, the poet.”
You have responded to this “virtue” in the form of a maxim exactly as I hoped that an ideal reader would. As a literary form, a maxim is usually phrased in a fairly dogmatic way, but the goal is catalytic, to destabilize the reader’s normal way of looking at an issue, to present a concept in a way that has resonance so that it becomes more rather than less complex as you look at it. In short, it should upend the common wisdom and prompt ongoing reflection rather than offer some sort of hard and fast truth. A good maxim does not even have to be accurate. For example, Nietzsche’s most famous maxim is probably “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This could not be more ironic. In 1888, at the age of 44, he suffered a total nervous collapse, such that he was barely able to clothe and feed himself and had to be cared for by his sister until his death in 1900. This does not make the maxim any less true, with whatever truth it might have. It does, though, clarify the way that we should approach this or any other maxim: as a challenge, as a beginning and not an end.
In these “Anamnesian Virtues,” as in the “Anamnesian Maxims” that will follow in part two of this essay, I am trying to present certain virtues and principles that I believe to be valid, but I am presenting them in a highly paradoxical and open-ended way. In this virtue that you site, as in others, one of my goals was to argue against the facile logic of many contemporary conspiracy theorists, who tend to see all of the world’s problems as being caused by some immensely evil and powerful group of barely human “others.” Over the past ten years or so, I have been both amused and horrified to see the focus shift from Grand Masonic Cabals and Gnostic Archons and Reptilian Overlords to flat-out—and very unimaginative—anti-Semitism. While I do believe that there are many real conspiracies, I suspect that the great majority of these have to do with the simple acquisition of wealth and power, and that it is a mistake to attribute any vast occult powers to the participants. Even if this were not the case, I just do not accept that an “Us versus Them” attitude leads anywhere, not to individual liberation and not to any breadth of vision.
As to the idea of even the most generous of our actions being a crime, let me begin with Mozart, whom you mention. How could the creation of such perfect and generous works of art be a crime? I say this not in order express any cynicism about human motivations or to point the finger at great artists such as Mozart, but rather to call attention to the intricate way that self and other are connected. In Mozart’s case, for example, although the works themselves may represent certain high ideals as well as being perfect in and of themselves, early on Mozart was incorporated into the project of romantic German nationalism. He was seen as a messenger from the Realm of the Ideal, a divine youth, a hero with supernatural powers who was fated to die young. He was also proof positive of the superiority of German culture. Many enthusiastic Fascists were brought up in the cult of Mozart, and this did nothing to moderate the darker aspects of their behavior. I seem to remember, too, that Himmler never went anywhere without his copy of the Bhagavad Gita. We could also look at Tennyson, who was one of the very few Victorian poets to truly master the mock-Medieval style then in vogue. He was also writing at the time of what is quaintly called “The Irish Potato Famine,” which was really a form of genocide, in which the British systematically removed almost all of the food from the country. Tennyson’s great skill as a sonic technician did not make him any less of an apologist for the British Empire. One can trace a line directly from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to the mass-slaughter of the First World War. Again, I say these things not in order to point fingers, only to point out how subtly and strangely high and low, good and evil, self and other are entwined.
Part two of this essay should be going up sometime over the next day or two. The 21 “Anamnesian Maxims” touch on many of the same issues as part one. Let us perhaps continue this discussion in the forum for that piece.
Oh, I knew it, Mr. George! Your maxims, or Anamnesian Virtues, are highly provocative, which is why I like them. To get the most out of them, however, one must step right up, disregarding the cordoned off area and the cardboard cutout security officers, stepping through the rope barriers, and take them down off the shelf, pull them out of their display cases, as it were, and puzzle over them, play with them like toys, take them apart and put them back together.
What fantastically weird toys you present! I applied pressure to one of them, and I swear this long wire snaked out and coiled around my leg, disappearing up my shirt, and when it emerged, there was a mezmerizing gold ball like a stick shift knob at the end of it. I looked closely, and a slit appeared on it, zipped shut like the fly one one’s trousers. When I looked even closer, the slit parted, and it was an eyeball looking at me! I pulled my shirt up over my head, I was so startled.
These are the sort of things, in the first waves which rush over one, when one first picks up the mysterious box and shakes it, and then opens it, which exist in the “gaps” of your highly provocative lines. One must sort of push through, before deeper meaning and actual significance begins to reveal itself. Yes indeed, the labyrinth. One must get lost to find oneself.
I think this is the way to call the bluff on paranoiac occult nonsense too. One must to some extent be playfully rude about it. Falling into passive awe leads one right into the trap. One must go with the gut and not be shy, just state what comes, and that is the guide, the light which lights the path.
How exciting. I see Part Two up now. (Not going to be able to comment until later. I got some things I have to do. Gratitude and confetti all in your direction, falling all around you, Brian George.)