“. . . Yet the absence of the imagination had Itself to be imagined. . . (Wallace Stevens)

turban walkingFor some time I’ve been meaning to research all of the possible meanings of the word turban. For a specific reason. Wallace Stevens uses it in the last line of the second stanza of his poem, “The Plain Sense of Things.”

No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The rest of the poem gives me no trouble. I have a meaning that it means to me—if a poem “means” anything. But how on earth can a “turban [walk] across the lessened floors?” Bizarre. I’ve had this poem in the back of my mind for a while but have avoided thinking about it directly because I can’t figure out what that image is.

I Googled “turban walking” and found a plethora of pictures of people in turbans walking. Most of them pretty silly. Many, of course, worthy of Charlie Hebdo—tasteless, mean, unnecessary, pushing the bounds of “rights” into the arena of “irresponsibility” (akin to the constant idiocy of the NRA). What I hoped to find was the image like one of a couple of handsome men in their white robes and turbans walking on the streets of Amman, Jordan, that I took in 2013.

I found one I liked of a distinguished man said to be in Amman, quod vide above.

Yet the absence of the imagination itself had to be imagined.

Not too long ago I wrote about the statement attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that “It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.” I do not know which to prefer, imagining the absence of the imagination or the impossibility of imagining non-being. (See stanza V.)

Mr. Goethe

Mr. Goethe

I’m pretty sure Goethe is more right than Stevens on this point. The absence of (anything) cannot be imagined (the old joke, “don’t think about the elephant”) because as thinking beings it is impossible for us to imagine not being.

When I write about these things, a few people who keep track of me worry that I’m suicidal or something. I’m not thinking about death. I’m thinking about not thinking. I suppose that means I’m thinking about being dead, but that’s not the same as thinking about death (which for some of us leads naturally and easily to thinking about suicide, hence causing friends to worry).

Simply put, I’m wondering if, when I am dead, the world, the universe, my family, this Internet posting will continue. Or, when I die, does the whole charade, the entire imagining of someone’s mind ends. Is the jig up? Long ago some comic strip or another (I used to think it was Bloom County with Opus) as its daily installment started with one character whispering to another, “The jig is up, pass it on.” The last frame showed a faraway character whispering to another, “The wig is wag.”

Isn’t that the way we get our information? especially about our own mortality. So many people in the “pass it on” line have misheard the original truth that we actually think what was said originally was,

“Whosever believeth in Him shall have eternal life.”


“Theirs are gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – their eternal Home. Allah is well-pleased with them.”


“Make me immortal in . . . the third region, the third heaven of heavens, where the worlds are resplendent. For Indra, flow you on, Indu!”


“But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

Because my intellectual acumen is not as great as Pat Robertson’s, or Bill Maher’s, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, or Mullah Mohammed Omar’s, Or Amar Zutshi’s, I can’t agree or disagree with any of them.

My observation is limited to this. Anyone who is 70 years old and is not giving at least a passing thought to these things is not doing their homework.

. . . The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

“THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS,” by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

Michelangelo's heaven

Michelangelo’s heaven

‘. . . Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . .’

my powers lying wasted

my powers lying wasted

Yet another [well-meaning, I’m sure] friend emailed me to ask if I am ok based on my posting of last night. She was certain I am obsessed with death, and that cannot be healthy.

I have two primary struggles at the moment. The first is the sling which I am sentenced to hold/ rest/ immobilize my left arm until December 20, my next appointment with the surgeon, dr. Steven Thornton [that’s 21 days and 6 hours from this moment].

The other is this wonderful new Lenovo computer a good friend helped me buy a week ago. I will love it when I figure some things out. Like all new laptops these days, it has touch-screen. I don’t have a clue how to use it. Mysteries abound. It has no ‘start’ icon, so I don’t know how to power it up and down.

The first struggle is related to the second, obviously, because I have to type with one hand [typos such as missing upper case letters are the result of that inconvenience, and such niceties happen when msword makes them happen automatically—deal with it].

I purchased Dragon and the computer help desk at smu installed it on the Lenovo. Dragon is a voice recognition program which works wonders for grading papers but which is useless for writing. I can think no faster than I can type, so speaking is not writing. It’s blathering. Besides, what I deal with daily is hypergraphia, not hyperdictia [my invented word for ‘running-off-at-the-mouth’].

So this writing is slowed down to a crawl, and it’s impossible that I’m obsessed with anything, death or anything else, except hunt-and-peck typing. So the following is probably hunt-and-peck thinking.

Not too long ago I was involved in a conversation which, in retrospect, seems more like that of two college sophomores [can you spell ‘sophomoric?’] than two old grumps in their 60s. we were talking about ‘the meaning of life,’ and I was saying that I don’t see much reason to believe in an afterlife. He’s a somewhat devout roman catholic, so his view is a bit different from mine [although, of course, ‘gay’ and ‘roman catholic’ are mutually exclusive, so his logic is a priori suspect].

He quoted [almost correctly] Goethe’s statement that, ‘It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life. In this sense everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.’ It took me awhile to find that the aphorism is attributed to Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann, in Conversations with Goethe, 1852.

I suppose that’s close to the intellectual underpinning of Faust—the only way to be certain to live forever[hence negating the need to imagine one’s ‘nonbeing’] is to sell one’s soul to the devil. Or something. I’m neither philosopher nor literary critic enough to make that kind of pronouncement.

At any rate, my friend said that, because it’s ‘quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing,’ one [that is, I] should stop thinking about death and get on with life, ‘living in the moment.’

Of course, his logic is as fallacious as the logic of essays I read daily by college sophomores.

A thinking being might be able to imagine nonbeing more than to imagine being. I’m willing to admit this may be the [somewhat specialized] thinking of a TLEptic, a child suffering the dissociation of temporal lobe epilepsy, but my great youthful question to myself was, ‘how do I know I exist; how do I know I’m not the figment of someone’s imagination?’ There, Goethe, put that in your pipe and smoke it!

So I’m not obsessed with death. I’m obsessed with life. Not the life of getting and spending and laying waste our powers. I have not become a wordsworthian romantic.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.     
—–Wordsworth, William, 1770–1850.

But I want to avoid the world too much with me. I get and spend with the best of them. Well, not quite. Alice Walton and I are hardly in a ‘getting’ contest, much less a ‘spending’ contest. I expect her wealth is her attempt to hedge her bets against ‘nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life.’ But if Goethe is right, she shouldn’t worry because the mere fact she chooses not to think about being dead means that she’s immortal. Really?

Rather, she chooses, like all of us, not to think about it. In Rosencrantz’s words, ‘I wouldn’t think about it if I were you, you’ll only get depressed” (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, tom Stoppard).

So I don’t know where I meant to go with this. Only to say I think if you’re 68 years old and aren’t thinking about these things, you’re gonna run up against nonbeing without having been in the most crucial way. If we’re the only animals who know we’re going to die, then pretending not to know it is avoiding—no, denying—the very reality that makes us human.