qualms before a storm
1 May 2023, around 15.55.
It is the short period of the year when the ground is damp enough, but the weather is dry enough, that fires for burning yard debris are permitted. A week of sun has more or less dried out the massive pile containing three years’ worth of deadfall, although as the neighbor who is helping (well, doing all of the real work) noted, it is no bad thing to have some damp material on hand to keep the fire from getting out hand.
It seems a massive, unbearable task, but it is merely routine – housekeeping. Some things are mechanical – setting out the buckets of water, the shovel, the rake. One could use a propane torch burner to get things started, which is faintly amusing to think about but seems even more excessively wasteful than the bonfire itself. The word ‘incommodius’ springs to mind, but there is a pleasure in savoring such incommodities, which tie one to the present moment. The wind is constantly shifting, and the smoke seems to follow, not matter where one stands, as one passes the time by swatting at cinders and trying to think of something to say. One’s clothes smell of woodsmoke and swamp,1 with a suggestion of dirt, rising sap, and the faint echo of yesterday’s sunshine under today’s mizzle.
- Because it’s also the season for skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, the fleshy yellow flowers of which disarmingly echo the flames. [↩]
9 May 2023, around 16.32.
τὴν κορυφὴν τοῦ ὄρους μὴ ἀργῶς ἴδῃς, ἀλλʼ ἐκεῖ ἐπʼ αὐτῆς θεοὺς ὑπονόει περιωπὴν ἔχειν τοῦ ἀγῶνος· καὶ γάρ τι χρυσοῦν γέγραπται νέφος, ὑφʼ ᾧ, οἶμαι, σκηνοῦσι…
Do not look carelessly at the top of the mountain, but assume that gods have there a place from which to view the contest; for, observe, a golden cloud is painted, which serves, I fancy, as a canopy for them…
—Philostratus (Imagines, 2.21.3, trans. A. Fairbanks)
There is an acute pleasure in watching serious runners run casually; it is not a matter of speed or endurance, but rather of lightness: a momentary suspension of gravity, the feet touching the ground sparingly, which lends the fleeting appearance that they draw all of their energy from air, rather than earth. It is perhaps more often noticed in dance (for example), this transmigration of athleticism into grace, but its rarity among runners makes it all the more delightful when seen.
* * *
Lately I’ve been reading about insomnia (among other things), the sort of finickity memoir that never resolves because it doesn’t have a story to tell, only a mood to convey. Sophistic exercises, these descriptions, which take one out of one’s own circumstances (sleepless or not) and invite one close to intimate detail, without (generally) sharing anything of real moment. I’m not quite certain what I’m supposed to take away from these books, aside from a sense of ‘aw shucks, I’m sure glad I can sleep at night’ that is harnessed uneasily to the dread that some night soon I won’t be able to.
The accounts of sleeplessness always remind me of the myth of Antaeus, that child of the earth who made a habit of asking every passer-by to a wrestling match, which he would invariably win, because the earth would heal his injuries and give him strength so long as he could maintain contact with the ground. He did quite well for himself until Heracles came along and bested him by holding him off the ground and crushing him in a bear hug. A minor incident to a hero: Antaeus wasn’t even numbered among the labors of Heracles. It’s one of the troubles with heroes – they are no respecters of persons. Neither is insomnia, of course.
Die Sprache ist ein Labyrinth von Wegen. Du kommst von einer Seite und kennst dich aus; du kommst von der einer andern zur selben Stelle, und kennst dich nicht mehr aus.
Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.
—Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, ¶203; trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al.)
12 May 2023, around 4.21.
Nothingness is absolute self-deception, proton pseudos, the absolute lie in itself. He who thinks nothingness thinks precisely nothing. Nothingness is the negation of thought; it can therefore only be thought at all in so far as it is made into something. In the moment nothingness is thought of, it is also not thought of, for I also think the opposite of nothingness. ‘Nothingness is simple sameness with itself.’ Oh really? But are simplicity and sameness then not real determinations? Do I really think nothingness when I think simple sameness? Do I therefore not deny nothingness the moment I posit it? ‘Nothingness is complete vacuity, complete absence of determination and content, complete undifferentiatedness in itself.’ What? Is nothingness undifferentiated in itself? Do I then not posit something in nothingness in exactly the same way in which nothingness in creatio ex nihilo is posited as quasi-matter in so far as the world is supposed to be created out of nothingness? Can I then speak of nothingness without contradicting myself?
—Ludwig Feuerbach (‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy’, in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, p. 88, trans. Zawar Hanfi)
15 May 2023, around 4.45.
A poet who writes in Romansch arrives for a day; we all listen to him read with his Dutch translator. The two of them sound like strange birds, chippering and swooping. I don’t need to understand a word to know I like the poems a lot.
—Martha Cooley (Guesswork, ch. 11)
I was reading along in one of those books, those perennially available books in the library ebook app (citation above), and encountered the following: ‘I have no dog in this race, as we say in English’ (ch. 4.) – and I wondered: Do we, in fact, say that in English? It’s certainly not something I would say; if pressed to that sort of folksiness, I suppose I would say ‘a horse in this/that race’ or a ‘dog in this/that fight’. ‘Dog in this race’ was new to me, though; I am seldom up for a wager, so I wouldn’t lay odds on one phrase being more common than another.1
One thing I did find interesting, though, was the context in which the author used the phrase. A native English speaker, she was living in a small town in Italy for a long-ish span of time, a time in which she was busy ‘practicing wordlessness’ (ch. 5) – at least in terms of speaking (she was working on several writing/translation projects) – and she repeats the phrase ‘as we say in English’ several times throughout the book, always as sort of verbal crossing guard for an idiom. In each case, the words seem to be set down with particular care (like the cat in the poem) and strain towards a concrete, quotidian simplicity: a dog, a race, a bet or stake – and wouldn’t a horse be too large, or a dog fight too cruel?
In any case, not my circus, not my monkeys, as the saying goes.
- According to Google Ngram viewer (with all appropriate gesticulation about its limitations, etc. – and here it does make more of a difference as there are many examples about concrete animals in races that actually occurred, rather than cute phrases.), some people clearly do use it. [↩]
19 May 2023, around 4.26.
Moment after moment we should follow the flow of time. You should go with time. When you become tired of doing something, you may talk about this way or that way, just to kill time. But when you see that the vegetables in the garden have almost dried up in the hot weather, you do not have much time to discuss what is the appropriate thing to do today.
—Shunryu Suzuki (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, p. 157)
22 May 2023, around 7.30.
What the distinction of place means is indifferent to the unfinished man; like the fool, he does everything at all places without distinction. Fools, therefore, achieve reason when they recover the sense for time and place. To put different things in different places, to allot different places to things that differ in quality – that is the condition for all economy including even that of the mind. Not to put in the text what belongs to the footnotes, not to put at the beginning what is to be put at the end, in short, spatial differentiation and limitation belong also to the wisdom of the writer.
—Ludwig Feuerbach (‘Principles of the Philosophy of the Future’, in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, p. 234, trans. Zawar Hanfi)
31 May 2023, around 6.21.
‘The deepest secrets are to be found in the simplest natural things, but, pining away for the Beyond, the speculative fantast treads them under his feet’ —Ludwig Feuerbach (‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy’, in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, p. 94, trans. Zawar Hanfi)
‘Even though many ideas come, we do not think about them – they come in and go out, that’s all. We do not entertain various ideas – we do not invite them to stay or serve them food or anything. If they come in, okay, and if they go out, okay. That’s all.’ —Shunryu Suzuki (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, p. 63)
‘I have come to the conclusion that mindfulness is much like tidying the house. It is focus and satisfying in concentrated spurts, but it lacks a direction of travel. It seeks to keep things as they are. It leaves the world unchanged’ —Marina Benjamin (Insomnia, 85%)
‘Ambivalence was painful equipoise; poetry was how he broke its grip’ —Martha Cooley (Guesswork, ch.14)
‘The problem with routine is that when you are wedded to it—let’s say, it’s breakfast, and you must have an egg or your kind of coffee or tea—when that gets disrupted, even temporarily, so you can’t perform it, the rest of the day is off, and it all feels wrong’ —Lynne Tillman (Mothercare, 89%)
‘If you are being trashed by the machinations of a heedless world, disguise yourself as a bin bag; if you’re being savaged by wolves, disguise yourself as a wolf. It’s a way of hiding in plain sight’ —Samantha Harvey (The Shapeless Unease, 21%)
‘The thing about running, I was realizing, was that I could think in motion in a way that I could not bear to when sitting still. In stillness, thinking threatened to overpower me, sink me, destroy me. There on the trail the thinking rolled with me, the hill itself forcing me to breathe’ —Liz Tichenor (The Night Lake, ch. 4, §2)
‘…enlightenment as a kind of majestic imperturbability’ —Marina Benjamin (Insomnia, 84%)
Erinnere dich, daß wir manchmal Erklärungen fordern nicht ihres Inhalts wegen, sondern der Form der Erklärung wegen. Unsere Forderung ist eine architektonische; die Erklärung eine Art Scheingesims, das nichts trägt.
Remember that we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one; the explanation a kind of sham corbel that supports nothing.
—Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations, ¶217; trans. G.E.M. Anscombe et al.)
‘A dull person is good because he is dull; a sharp person is good because he is sharp. Even though you compare, you cannot say which is best.’ —Shunryu Suzuki (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, p. 42)
‘St Augustine asked: what is time but a set of nothings? The “no longer” and the “not yet” separated by the vanishing now’ —Samantha Harvey (The Shapeless Unease, 39%)
‘…chronos—the kind of time we know and mark here in this life, the kind that moves like an arrow, orderly, reliable, chronological—and kairos—the kind of time that folds in on itself, mysterious and creative and well beyond us, the kind of time that belongs to God’ —Liz Tichenor (The Night Lake, ch. 10, §2)
During our tea, Bononi had told us that his biblioteca gave him access to an interior space, a realm of truths at once hidden and open, available to all. What he hadn’t said, though I was certain he felt it, was that this realm belonged to the dead, could belong to no one else. They and not he were its real curators.
—Martha Cooley (Guesswork, ch. 12)
‘Being so out of time, unable to plan, not able to maintain her own schedule must have been terrifying. Also a terrific blow to her sense of self. A great wound to her pride’ —Lynne Tillman (Mothercare, 19%)
He picks up on the sense of anxiety I describe, that of something groundless and objectless, something that has to find objects to attach to in order to maintain itself, but which originates without those objects. The mind inflates with a shapeless unease, he says. I find myself going over that phrase again, the loveliness of it, the aptness, the fact that shapeless is a word that occurs to me often lately: the shapeless dark, a shapeless fog of thought, the shapelessness of loneliness as opposed to that human shape in the doorway, the shapelessness of a life without sleep, where days merge unbounded.
—Samantha Harvey (The Shapeless Unease, 59%)
‘He who has written a bad poem and knows it to be bad, is in his knowledge – and hence in his being – not so limited as he who, having written a bad poem, thinks it is good.’ —Ludwig Feuerbach (‘Introduction to The Essence of Christianity’, in The Fiery Brook: Selected Writings, p. 105, trans. Zawar Hanfi)