“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction

 

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

“. . . Street urchins make more than me. Water tastes funny without cups. . .”

"Flowers," by Joe Brainard

“Flowers,” by Joe Brainard

Michael Rohrer is a poet. A published poet. A respected poet. A poet whose poetry I happen to like. And not only because he is gay.

I’ve been reminded by a couple of friends lately the stated purpose of this blog (as opposed to my serious blog, Sumnonrabidus—my pidgin Latin for “I am not crazy”—which has been around for a long time) is to write “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old” (see “about” above).

See “about” above.
See above about.

(I think if I were a poet, I could make something quite lovely out of “about above.” Say it over and over and see what happens to your tongue and your mind.)

I’m pretty sure I don’t “get” Michael Rohrer’s poem, “Jangling” completely. Starting with the problem that poetry.org says it was written by Rohrer and Joshua Beckman. I wonder if they are simply two poets who put poems in the same book and then say they both wrote all of them or they work together on writing poems (which doesn’t seem fair somehow) or if they are lovers/partners/married and Rohrer thinks he has to put Beckman’s name on his work, too (I hope he’s not that “co-dependent”). Rohrer is also a blogger whose work I read quite often.

“Jangling,” by Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman
Money cannot find me.
I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you.
Street urchins make more than me.
Water tastes funny without cups.
How far will I go?
Jingle jingle jingle.
Despite holes that compromise living rooms, friends visit.
Money money and more holes to look into.
You are dangerously close to falling.
The money said nothing.
The neighbors called up to us, “Your whole system sounds cockeyed!”
They suck the life from each other and we pay the bill.
Money always whispers,
“You pathetic humans don’t know my true name.”
I know my own name.
It is something exaggeratedly French.

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

Chaos? by Joe Brainard

 

So I like the first line. “Money cannot find me.” It’s true. Whatever I do, money seems to slip right by me without even noticing I’m there. “Well,” you’re probably saying, “anyone who writes so disparagingly about capitalism shouldn’t care whether money finds him or not, so stop being hypocritical.” You’d be right in saying that. I think capitalism (at least as it’s played out these days) is gross. Terrible. Unspiritual. And designed to keep the poor at the same level of poverty they’re at while making the rich richer by the day. Alice Walton, don’t you see, needs the money. I’ve been to Crystal Bridges. I’ve seen what too much money can do to a person. (That’s a cheap shot because I actually loved Crystal Bridges and can’t wait to go back. Oh, yes. Alice paid for it. The whole thing. Doesn’t absolve her for anything, but it’s a great place.)

Joe Brainard isn’t one of my favorite poets—because he wasn’t really a poet. But “I’d walk a mile for” an exhibition of his art (you get that reference only if you remember when cigarettes were advertised on TV).

I think Joe must have been my kind of guy, and I must get back to Ron Padgett’s memoir of him. I don’t mean he was my kind of guy because he was gay or because, if he were still alive, he’d be about my age. No, I can tell by the picture of his studio he and I had something in common. He obviously was inspired somewhat by living in (immediate physical) chaos. I, on the other hand, just live in immediate physical chaos. He was a successful gay artist. I am a gay dilettante, not quite successful at anything.

Here’s the deal. “Street urchins make more than me.”

And that bothers me a little. It’s a conundrum. I think our national religion of capitalism is inhumane and (I hate to use the word because I don’t want anyone to say it about me—especially about my being gay) sinful. But here I am about to retire (in less than a month), and I’m not sure how I’m going to continue to pay the rent until—when? like my father until I’m 97?—I die.

I try to be reasonable but money is horridly banal.
Money, blow and blow is what I think about you
.

So on the one hand there’s this gay poet (or these two working in tandem?) writing cleverly about money. And then there’s the really clever gay artist writing about “life.” And I think he’s got it about right. I don’t know when he wrote, “I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went.” Was it before or after he learned he was dying of AIDS?

And I think he’s got it just about right here, too. “We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves.”

Money, AIDS, poetry, art for Matthew and Joe.

And for me, so much more stuff I can’t even begin to list it. But I want “To try and get rid of the fucked up parts” so I can just relax and be myself. I don’t know how to do that yet. Never have. But if I figure out the paying the rent part, I’ll keep you posted on how I learn to relax and be myself.

There. Is that “a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old?” It’s about as close as I can get, most likely.

“Life,” by Joe Brainard

When I stop and think about what it’s all about I do come up with some answers, but they don’t help very much.

       I think it is safe to say that life is pretty mysterious. And hard.

       Life is short. I know that much. That life is short. And that it’s important to keep reminding oneself of it. That life is short. Just because it is. I suspect that each of us is going to wake up some morning to suddenly find ourselves old men (or women) without knowing how we got that way. Wondering where it all went. Regretting all the things we didn’t do. So I think that the sooner we realize that life is short the better off we are.

       Now, to get down to the basics. There are 24 hours a day. There is you and there are other people. The idea is to fill these 24 hours as best one can. With love and fun. Or things that are interesting. Or what have you. Other people are most important. Art is rewarding. Books and movies are good fillers, and the most reliable.

       Now you know that life is not so simple as I am making it sound. We are all a bit fucked up, and here lies the problem. To try and get rid of the fucked up parts, so we can just relax and be ourselves. For what time we have left.

More flowers by Joe Brainard

More flowers by Joe Brainard

 

 

“. . . he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In the two days since I wrote about “pimping merchants” several people have contacted me. None of them got my point. They all turned what I said into a political statement which it is not. Some applauded, some did not.

The Bible

The Bible

Apparently none of them read my sentence, “I am not writing about government or capitalism or regulation or anything political. I’m writing about greed—corporate greed, small business greed, your greed, government greed, and yes, my greed.”

The fact that billions of people on the planet do not have enough of the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter, water, safety—is not a political problem. It is not a problem of capitalism versus socialism. It is not a philosophical conundrum.

It is a matter of morality.

Do we Americans have ability to think about anyone but ourselves? Especially those of us who think we’re in what used to be the middle class and those above us on the economic ladder.

Some people are so brainwashed by the “American dream” that they think it is reality. That God or the Bible or some mystical power invented capitalism, and if we just believe hard enough and fight for it consistently enough, God or that mystical power, or we ourselves will cast down the non-believers from their thrones and the world will be saved.

At least you and I will be saved. And rich.

I don’t know why understanding the morality of money and its possession is so difficult. I’m not very smart (I know smart people, and I ain’t one), but I get it. If anyone is hungry, we’re all responsible.

Period.

The Gospel According to Luke begins with the declaration that what God does is all about equalizing resources.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53, NRSV).

He (God) has sent the rich away empty. That’s how it begins.

Go ahead, explain that away. Tell me I’m proof-texting, cherry-picking, using one little sentence from the Bible to prove a point. Tell me I’m as bad as the ante-bellum  Americans who used the Bible to justify slavery.

It may come as a surprise to many christians, but the Bible is full of stuff about bringing the rich down and helping the poor. Read the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

The Quran is likewise adamant about serving the poor. “Those who spend (in the cause of Allah) privately or publicly, by night and day, have their reward with their Lord. And (on the Day of Resurrection) they shall neither fear nor grieve” (Al-Baqarah 2:274). “Allah eliminates usury (i.e. deprives usurious profits of prosperous growth) and multiplies alms gifts (i.e. increases blessings of clean wealth manifold through charity donations). And Allah does not like anyone who is ungrateful and disobedient” (Al-Baqarah 2:276).

I don’t know much about Hinduism, but I have read articles offering Hindu ideas similar to “. . . Hindu temples continue to promote charitable and community activities. Still, the highest praise in Hindu history is not reserved for the generous but for those who regard wealth with indifference and are able, when the proper stage of life arrives, to renounce all their belongings” (“Hinduism on Wealth and Poverty.” Resources. Georgetown.edu. Web.)

I don’t know if there is a religion on the planet that extols wealth—besides Joel Osteen’s “Prosperity Gospel.” Perhaps some do. But those that are easily researched certainly don’t.

The wonder of magical thinking

The wonder of magical thinking

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . .’” (Matthew 25:34, NRSV). This is definitely not a parable. It’s a prophecy or—if you believe Jesus is the Son of God—a statement of what will happen. “Then will (God) say to them. . .” Those on his right hand are those who took care of the poor, the sick, the weak.

I’m not preaching Christianity. It’s the religious tradition I know and from which I am an apostate (but not a very committed one). Whether or not I believe the fine points of the theology, it has shaped my thinking.

I’m not sure how anyone who accepts religion can believe that the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is in any way congruent with any religion.

And for those who do not believe,

Will and feeling should keep pace with thought if man is to grow as his knowledge grows. If this cannot be achieved – if, while knowledge becomes cosmic, will and feeling remain parochial – there will be a lack of harmony producing a kind of madness, with disastrous effects (Bertrand Russell, Basic Writings, page 370).

Parochial will and feeling—looking after oneself—will produce a kind of madness. Russell goes on to say that, having more than one needs produces “rivalry.” I would say that rivalry takes shape best in capitalism.

Capitalism is a religion. It is a religion in every sense of the word. It “works” only if people believe in it. It has a mythology (beginning with “the invisible hand”), and it requires sacrifice. Just as surely as the Incas at Machu Picchu offered up their children as sacrifices to placate the gods, societies devoted to capitalism offer up the poorer classes to placate the gods of poverty. The religion is based on magical thinking. The explanation for the necessity for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer has become the evidence. Those who believe in capitalism are convinced that it’s necessary for Alice Walton to hire 1.4 million people at below-subsistence wages in order to keep making her billions of dollars so she can hire more people to live in poverty to support her lavish lifestyle and her political power. Capitalism is as primitive a religion as any human society has ever dreamed up. And, for reasons which I don’t understand (remember I know smart people, and I know I ain’t one of them) it’s the basic American religion. Or magical thinking.

Children and poor sacrificed here.

Children and poor sacrificed here.

“. . . I long for scenes where man has never trod . . .”

Not everything in its place

Not everything in its place

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were contemporaneous. Let’s see how many connections I can make. Pope, a shriveled little man with a bone disease that prevented his growing up to five feet, wrote his Essay on Man in 1734. J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was first performed in 1734 (one chorus of which will be my funeral someday—not performed at my funeral, but be my funeral, it and only it, no speaking, no liturgy, only Fallt mit Danken).

It’s difficult—especially for someone who has studied music rather than poetry most of his life—to decipher which of Pope’s poems are serious and which are satire.

In 1725 Alexander Pope published an edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, edited and “corrected” to reflect British “enlightenment” thinking. Tom Stoppard was born in 1937 and wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966. I was Rosencrantz in a production of R&G in 1972.

One might ask what connection 1725 has with 1734 and what connection either of them has with 1937, 1966, or 1972.

None, obviously. I’m trying to get from point A to point B logically, and I’m grasping at straws for connections.

Connections are supposed to be made. Things are supposed to be tidy. The new set of glassware for my kitchen is supposed to be in the cupboard and the old unmatched glasses for sale at the Genesis Thrift Store behind the barber shop where I intended to get a haircut last Saturday.

What a piece of work is man

What a piece of work is man

Tom Stoppard knows how to make connections. In R&G Hamlet delivers his “What a piece of work is man” soliloquy (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are dead but flitting around trying to get Hamlet to come to his senses and kill his mother. (You’ll notice there’s a gay double entendre between Hamlet and Rosencrantz at the end of the soliloquy.)

In 1967 Galt MacDermot’s Hair was all the rage with its version of the soliloquy—almost a connection with R&G, but not quite (they were on Broadway at the same time). I saw the Los Angeles production in 1969, right after I was asked to withdraw as a student at the School of Theology in Claremont because, through A Series of Unfortunate Events (Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snickett, 1999), they had discovered I am gay, and the Methodists weren’t very forgiving. Things were much different then. Right!

Back to Alexander Pope (see how cleverly I make all of these connections?). His Essay on Man, Epistle II, begins

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man
.

Know, then, thyself. TV commercials agree, and try to sell you on a way to “take control” of your life. The proper study of mankind is control. And the point of taking control—or, more precisely, giving Charles Schwab control—is so you can Own your tomorrow. What a piece of work is man! how infinite in faculty! in apprehension how like a god, owning our tomorrow!

John Clare (1793-1864) was known as the country bumpkin poet. He celebrated nature and mourned the loss of the natural in human society.

And yet I am! and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys. . .

“Into the nothingness of scorn and noise” is not exactly where Charles Schwab wants me to go.

Today I’m going to a “retirement workshop” at the university. I probably won’t understand any of it. But I need to know how to “own my tomorrow” after the first of July. I know how to live now. What a piece of work is man. The proper study of mankind is man.

Here’s what mankind (or people, or womankind, or whatever) does. People spend about 3/4ths of their time cleaning up after themselves and tidying and arranging to “make the house fair as you are able” (from a Christmas carol saying Love the Guest is on the way). People (at least people I know) live orderly lives with all the loose ends tied up. A place for everything and everything in its place. Every Libby glass, every pair of undershorts, every book, every feeling, every thought. Every thought. Manage those thoughts.

If you have a thought for everything and every thought is in its place, you can “Own your tomorrow.” It all depends on clean towels in the bathroom, never missing an appointment, going to the retirement seminar to learn once again when you must, by law, begin drawing money out of the pittance they call your retirement fund.schwab-big-2-opt

I can’t. I can’t own today, much less, tomorrow. This writing was inspired by yet another friend telling me about yet another “self-help” book I need to get myself organized. It seems to me—because I’m too lazy or too prideful to do menial work, or some other obstreperousness—we spend most of our energy trying to be that piece of work. Trying to be

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Not keeping all of my dishes washed every day, and not putting the new glasses away in the cupboard, and not dutifully checking my mail every day, and not noticing that my car’s yearly registration has expired, and not keeping up with the Kardashians does not make me either a good person or a bad person.

I don’t long for death—or whatever John Clare hoped for. I’m not sure about his God. But I would like right now, not after I die, right now to be

Untroubling and untroubled where I lie.

If the proper study of mankind is man, I should think mankind is not doing too well on the untroubling and untroubled side of things. We’re all troubled and troubling each other—with tidying up, with

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by [ourselves] abused, or disabused
.

Hamlet, Act II, scene II, by William Shakespeare (or Alexander Pope, or Tom Stoppard, or Galt MacDermot)
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

“Essay on Man,” Epistle II, by Alexander Pope
Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

“I Am!” by John Clare
I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best—
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

“. . . the outcry of old beauty Whored by pimping merchants. . . “ (a short poetry lesson)

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

A Nike sweatshop, China. The flunkeys and their Crash.

Stephen Crane was born in 1871 and died in 1900. Americans who attended public high schools before 1971 read his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), a realistic picture of war by a man who never saw war. His Maggie—A Girl of the Streets (1893), is the earliest novel in the “American Realist” tradition.

A few days ago someone mentioned Red Badge to me, and I realized I remember it only vaguely. In about 1995 I read Maggie for a graduate seminar at UTD with Professor Harvey Graff in the history of childhood in America.
I Googled Crane thinking I might get Nook versions of his novels and read them again—they’re simply written and short! I ran into Crane’s poetry, to which I had never paid attention—an obvious oversight.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry, on the other hand, I read quite often. Ferlinghetti, last of the “Beat Generation” poets still living, was born in 1919. At 95 he writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Observer and still helps run City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Crane was one of the “modern” poets when Ferlinghetti was in high school.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys,
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives (Stephen Crane).

The impact of a million dollars is to create a “crash of flunkeys” (crash: a plain-weave fabric of rough, irregular, or lumpy yarns; flunkey: “a person who performs menial tasks”); that is, the impact of a million dollars is to create a rough or utilitarian fabric of people who perform menial tasks.

The menial task these “flunkeys” perform is to create “yawning emblems.” This “fabric” of menial laborers creates a “fabric” of phony Persian carpets, the “outcry of old beauty, Whored by pimping merchants to submission before wine and chatter.” The reproduction of old beauty (“yawning emblems”), rather than making something beautiful, prostitutes both the workers and their phony Persian rugs.

The merchants who own the means of producing these yawning emblems and who sell them are pimps.

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

Mark Parker, the pimping merchant

The flunkeys are dead men who “dreamed” that the fabric of their lives would be “fragrance and light.” It is not.

In a poem for UNESCO World Poetry Day, March 21, 2001, which he read at UNESCO’s celebration at Delphi of the prophetic in poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing.

Unlike Stephen Crane’s poem, this needs no “unpacking.” . . . who would make a plutocracy of our democracy in the Great Divide between the rich and the poor.

Walt Whitman did not hear America singing between Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, or Antonin Scalia.

I know that at least one friend who often reads my posts will now be either be venting about my not understanding how “capitalism” works and how regulation and government intervention are ruining America and destroying the ability to create jobs for the flunkeys, or he will have stopped reading.

I am not writing about government or capitalism or regulation or anything political. I’m writing about greed—corporate greed, small business greed, your greed, government greed, and yes, my greed.

When I was younger I would think about sweat shops making Nike Shoes, and I would think about seats in Congress for sale either to the highest bidder, and I would think about horrid men (I’ve never heard of a woman member of “The Fellowship”) who trample the religious integrity of people around the world, and I would think of the bankers who are making billions simply from making billions, and I would think of judges who have ensconced themselves as the friend of those people, and I would think of myself with six pairs of jeans and fifteen shirts and a pipe organ in my living room and my iPad my iPhone and my two functioning computers here on my desk and a paid-for car and health insurance that keeps me from having seizures and from being suicidal, and I would think, “Something must be done politically; there must be a way to change things.”

After all, by what right do Mark Parker, Lloyd Blankfein, Brendan Eich, Mary T. Barra, Virginia Marie Rometty, Stanley O’Neal, Doug Coe, Darrell Issa, Antonin Scalia, and I have to enough to eat and extra clothes in our closets and cars and homes and luxuries too numerous to name? By what right do we have homes when people are sleeping in doorways—yes the doorways of Neiman Marcus—and in homeless shelters crowded and dirty? And by what right do we have the means to be cared for when we get sick when 50,000,000 people in this country and billions of people world-wide do not. And by what right to we travel around the world having fun and/or making more money—I am determined to see Easter Island—when most people in the world never get more than a few miles from home—unless because of wars and natural disasters they become refugees.

By what right?

It grieves me more than my chronic, clinical, incurable depression does that I can do nothing—or so little it seems to be nothing—to make life significantly better for any one of those people.

It breaks my heart. As it should yours.

“The Impact of a dollar upon the heart,” by Stephen Crane
The impact of a dollar upon the heart
Smiles warm red light
Sweeping from the hearth rosily upon the white table,
With the hanging cool velvet shadows
Moving softly upon the door.

The impact of a million dollars
Is a crash of flunkeys
And yawning emblems of Persia
Cheeked against oak, France and a sabre,
The outcry of old beauty
Whored by pimping merchants
To submission before wine and chatter.
Silly rich peasants stamp the carpets of men,
Dead men who dreamed fragrance and light
Into their woof, their lives;
The rug of an honest bear
Under the feet of a cryptic slave
Who speaks always of baubles,
Forgetting state, multitude, work, and state,
Champing and mouthing of hats,
Making ratful squeak of hats,
Hats.

“To the Oracle at Delphi,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Great Oracle, why are you staring at me,
do I baffle you, do I make you despair?
I, Americus, the American,
wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,
from the dark of ancient Europa–
Why are you staring at me now
in the dusk of our civilization–
Why are you staring at me
as if I were America itself
the new Empire
vaster than any in ancient days
with its electronic highways
carrying its corporate monoculture
around the world
And English the Latin of our days–

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,
Awaken now at last
And tell us how to save us from ourselves
and how to survive our own rulers
who would make a plutocracy of our democracy
in the Great Divide
between the rich and the poor
in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil,
you of the winged dreams,
Speak out from your temple of light
as the serious constellations
with Greek names
still stare down on us
as a lighthouse moves its megaphone
over the sea
Speak out and shine upon us
the sea-light of Greece
the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,
Come out of your cave at last
And speak to us in the poet’s voice
the voice of the fourth person singular
the voice of the inscrutable future
the voice of the people mixed
with a wild soft laughter–
And give us new dreams to dream,
Give us new myths to live by!

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.

The homeless refugees of the Republic of the Congo.

“. . . the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele. . .”

Cybele and her ox-eating lion

Cybele and her ox-eating lion

When I was a kid my Baptist preacher dad gave a Wednesday evening prayer meeting Bible study on Galatians. When he explained Galatians 5:12, my ears perked up and my memory went into high gear.

“I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Galatians 5:12, KJV). Dad explained that “they” were exactly two in number. How could a pubescent (gay) boy ever forget Dad’s further explanation that it meant “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (NRSV)?

He explained the New Testament debate whether or not a man had to be circumcised to become a Christian. I’ve remembered ever since the New Testament version of “Go f- – - yourself,” which is “Go castrate yourself!” The Baptist preacher in the ‘50s explained this to the small but faithful band at Prayer.

These days, I don’t remember much, but I remember Dad’s Galatians lesson. Years ago I discovered the NT debate took place in the context of the cult of Cybele in Galatia with the earth-mother goddess Cybele and her cadre of “Corybants” dancing around her, men who were castrated (“eunuchs”) so nothing untoward could happen between them and the earth mother even if they were out-of-control.

One of the dangers of trying to write about one’s inner experience is that such writing can quickly degenerate into exhibitionism, self-pity, self-loathing, terror—a few of the less than desirable outcomes of self-revelation.
I question my motives when I write about what proper people do not talk about in public. Am I trying to shock? Am I looking for pity? validation? because I’m willing to expose myself and try to be honest? I continue to write here about my experiences in a way that could be described as exhibitionism or a confusion of immodest self-display for candor. I might be a Corybant dancing wildly in “licentiousness” (a word Dad taught us from the Bible).

Much as I would like it to be so, I don’t have Greek poetry floating in my head to pull out whenever I need it. I was trying to find a word to use for being wild and out-of-control, and my thesaurus recommended the old word I hadn’t thought of for years, “corybantic” (frenzied; agitated; unrestrained).

So, just for fun, I tried to find a hymn to Cybele—thinking there must be Ancient Greek ritual texts that would say something close to what I wanted to write.

An ox-eating lion came to the cave-mouth;
with the flat of his hand he struck the great timbrel he was carrying,
and the whole cave rang with the din:
the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele
and raced quickly up the forested mountain,
afraid of the goddess’ half-woman servant—
who hung up for Rheia these garments and yellow locks.
— —Stesichorus, Fragment 59 (trans. Campbell, Greek Lyrics Vol. III) (7th to 6th B.C.)

(Note: “half-woman servant” is a eunuch; “Rheia” is a more ancient name for Cybele.)

You see, it’s like this. Last Sunday I played the organ for the evening Eucharist at the church I belong to (and which I attend when they ask me to substitute at the organ). I was on something of a high when I finished. I love the chapel organ at the church, and I played extremely well, and all the music was wonderful stuff.

Her eunuchs, wild and out-of-control

Her eunuchs, wild and out-of-control

Monday morning I had an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon at 8:10. Before I left home, I had to give my cat Groucho his twice-daily insulin injection. He hates it—of course—and knows somehow, no matter how sneaky I try to be, when it’s coming, and he runs away. We had a tussle just before I left home, and I was nearly in tears. I hate that he is afraid of me. I grieve it.

I should have known being elated Sunday evening and frustrated less than 12 hours later was a recipe for disaster. I had allowed plenty of time but got caught in traffic on the way to the doctor’s office and when I tried to call to say I was on my way the answering machine said they didn’t open until 8:30 but I was supposed to be there at 8:10 who the fuck were they jerking around and I passed the exit to the hospital and took the wrong one then I was lost—how do you lose a hospital?—and ended up driving through Texas Instruments and realized I was in trouble when I was going 70 MPH on a residential street that was a dead-end and I had no idea where I was.

Screaming, crying blindly. Over the edge. Wild and out-of-control.

I won’t belabor the point. It ended without my injuring myself or others, and with my doctor’s care. But it took me two days to calm down, and writing about it now, I have tightness in my chest and want to cry again.

One of my projects of the last fifteen years has been to try to discover how my moods are coupled and what happens to send me into a wild and out-of-control state. I try never to think about these things on my own. My mind is like a bad neighborhood—I should never wander in there alone.

So my psychiatrist tells me anger management classes will not help me. That I must learn to understand that my “manic states [are] predominantly characterized by an emotional coupling between happiness and anger/fear” (Carolan, Louise A., and Mick J. Power. “What Basic Emotions Are Experienced In Bipolar Disorder?.” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 18.5 (2011): 366-378).

I know no one wants to hear about this, but I must time and time again wrestle this demon. It seems as mysterious as

. . . the whole cave rang with the din:
the forest beast could not abide the holy booming of Cybele
and raced quickly up the forested mountain . . .

Ancient Greek religion can be as useful as any other.

How can you lose a hospital?

How can you lose a hospital?

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