The knowledge of reality is always in some measure a secret knowledge. It is a kind of death.
-- Yeats, Autobiographies, p. 482
The secret of the sirens is that they know your secret: your love of self in all its flower. The sirens lure you by weaving that love into song. What was once but the distant thunder of crashing waves becomes an echo in your soul. The song reaches out to you in the call of birds. Wind and wave carry the song and draw you close. At last, you know you are loved. Too late you see the rocks and the shore bleached white with bone. Were you able like Odysseus to hear the sirens’ song and contrive as he does to pass them by, you would become like a god. And just as surely die. So Odysseus, as Dante tells us (pace Homer), sets a new course to the west and away from home. No thought of Ithaca or Penelope holds him back. Out he sails to unknown lands, but all he finds is the barren sea. He sails on, as dead as he will ever be, the song now a bird of prey. Best never to leave home. The sea, of course, will find you, but at least you will die in your bed.
Plato inverts the world as we know it. This world is an Erebus, wherein Socrates is a Tiresian character, alone among the souls of the dead in retaining that activity of mind that makes us akin to the gods. For Plato, this world is a kind of dream and philosophy a way of waking up to this reality, brought about by Socratic questioning that results in an “I don’t know” revelation. Such a revelation makes possible an intimation, if not knowledge, of another, truer way of being. Persephone by this Platonic inversion is the queen of our world and requires of us a payment if we are to be released from this cycle of births and deaths that is but a play of shadows from beginning to end.
Plato, Meno, 81B & 100A; Pind. Fr. 133, Berg
Yo, que tantos hombres he sido, no he sido nunca
aquel en cuyo abrazo desfallecía Matilde Urbach.
GASPAR CAMERARIUS, en Deliciae Poetarum Borussiae, VII, 16.
The Regret of Heraclitus
I, who have been so many men, have never been
The one in whose embrace Matilde Urbach swooned.
There is misinformation roundabout that Matilde Urbach is a character in William Joyce Cowen's Man With Four Lives. There is no such character in that novel. Fool that I am, I bought and read the book.
When at last you have lost almost all trace of identity, and you are on the verge of achieving your heart’s desire, God, All-Loving as He is, learns of your virtual nonentity and invites you to the Library. He knows what it is like to be nobody. You say with all the passionate emptiness of your heart: Thou hast heard. God goes to the bookshelves and pulls out a great volume. You open it up and read: Call me Ishmael . . . . and there you are, with a damp, drizzly November in your soul, following funerals, and needing all your self-restraint not to step into the street and start knocking people’s hats off. You consider killing yourself right out – like Cato throwing himself upon his sword. This can’t be happening, you think to yourself, though what it is that is happening is an empty thought. Then, it is final. The lines of text become threads, a twisted umbilical cord at the end of which there is nothing it is like to be you. You take to ship, a white phantom leading you on. And there you are, abandoned, floating on a vast, milky sea of non-being.
Huike, the Second Patriarch, said to Bodhidharma, "My mind is not yet at rest, Master, I implore you, set my mind to rest."
The master replied, "Bring your mind here and I'll set it to rest for you."
Huike said, "I've searched for my mind, but am unable to find it."
"There," said the master, "I've set your mind to rest."
Case 1, Entangling Vines, Thomas Yuho KIrchnerm, Wisdom Publications, Inc. 2011
So she hooed
To whoever would listen
But nobody did or did
Smile and hide her
says take her and talk her
As if were several selves
All calling me now
Like the muses.
So are all souls
Sold down the river
Bare-assed and spinning.
O listen mnemosyne
To we three times telling
Whole and hole and all.
March 12, 2016. My birthday. 70 years old. Time stops today. Tomorrow will be the afterlife and though clocks will run and I will age, time holds me within the stillness of her arms. You will see me and talk with me and not know that I am already gone, walking up a forest path to a cabin above the clouds. There I will sleep and wake and talk to the birds and ride on the wind and yet seem to be moving among you as I always have. The mystery is how the two can be one. How I have earned this gift I do not know, but it is so.
The etymological meaning of philosophy is usually given ‘as love of wisdom.’ This is misleading, perhaps even a serious misunderstanding. ‘philos’ refers to the feeling that exists between friends. Thus, the proper understanding of the etymology of philosophy’ is not the solitary search for wisdom but the conversation that occurs among friends who pursue knowledge in common. It is the necessary propaedeutic to an ineffable and mutually private illumination.
“Others give you the appearance of happiness, but I give you the reality.” (Socrates, Apology)
What is the difference between seeming to be happy and actually being so? How can it be that I am not actually happy when I think I am? Does this correspond with my own experience? And if it does, what does Socrates offer in place of the “appearance of happiness”? What good to me is Socrates’ dictum that the “unexamined life” is not worth living? Is that dictum not some sort of self-torture? I certainly acknowledge that I often feel that there is something lacking in my life, that there should be something more in the daily round of my activities. But what is this “something more”? What for me is happiness? It is sustained activity in accordance with my basic being. What do I mean by “basic being”? Though there are many possible answers, the one that comes to me again and again is that my “basic being” is ethical – that is, I want most deeply to be a good human being. I believe no harm can come to me if I am actively living in accordance with my own ethical intuitions. I don’t mean that I would not suffer but that whatever suffering I experience would not be able to touch me. The happiness I experience when I do live “from the inside out,” acting out of that ethical core, makes me inviolable.. Not even death can harm me. So what about what Socrates offers, the examined life? Is that not precisely what I am doing here and now in this journal entry. It is. His dictum recalls me to myself, my basic being, my ethical core.
A poem without a woman
begets no sound
no wind born child
There is no overflow
no yes no now
A poem without a woman
closes on itself
night and day
and makes it real.
First I need to say that I am intentionally using the phrase ‘ingenuous mysticism' as opposed to 'ingenious mysticism'. By ingenuous mysticism I am referring to a spontaneous, intuitive, ‘innocent’ mysticism untethered to any doctrine or school of thought. Ingenuous mysticism happens when the imagination seeks to express experience without any predetermined mindset. This causes language to become metaphoric and customary logic to fall away. The result is that poets speak a kind of beautiful nonsense that reveals a dimension of reality otherwise inaccessible.
What you see is not the flower --
Lo, the flower unfolds itself
Within you and Behold! You
Are there as though one apart
from the blossoming of your soul.
Were I young once only
I would not know now
how to walk with trees
or fly south with the geese.
Would you know yourself
If you were to see the beauty
Of your eyes in mine
Or would you see the mountains
Rise up and kiss the sky?
makes this rock
a place to rest --
so too the moon.
Even the wind may rest.
WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED RAILWAY-CAR
here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i
-- Dan Pagis
If it would only rain my words would pour forth like girls and boys too young to know shame O they are bold as I would be the rain falls I am young again dance touch while the music plays so falls the rain O she is here there are tears of joy tears songs of praise for the beauty of the day earth yields up its flowers to her hand turns to gentle thunder her body lifts and holds her laughter makes the night shudder unbinds her hair and falls to me now here now there like summer rain
I have reached that time when I measure my life not by the years but by the months. Thus, I lengthen my life. I say to myself I may have only 6 years remaining, but 72 months is another lifetime. Soon, I will do the same with days and hours, then minutes and seconds. Each new measure will push life’s horizon back to a safe distance. The question is, of course, how long can I get away with this sort of time-chopping. Theoretically, forever.
Ah, but poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simple emotions (one has emotions early enough)--they are experiences. For the sake of a simple poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else--); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,--and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very well blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
Excerpt from <em>The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge</em>.
I don’t know how you know you have to make a change. I just know you just do it and think about the whys and wherefores later. And in any case, I would only be making it up to sound like I wasn’t crazy or something, as though I actually had reasons for doing what I did. Maybe it was the rain. Who in his right mind would throw a few things in a backpack, leave his car and bank account behind, and just set off walking in the rain? That's exactly what I did. At nightfall I found a place along the side of the road to sleep, but I couldn’t stop shaking. It didn't stop raining until early the next morning when the sun came up as though for the first time.
I had started out in Rhode Island but hitched rides that left me the next night in Georgia and the next day I was in the panhandle of Florida, walking down some back country road that would take me wherever I was going. I really had no idea, but I was goin and I was gonna stay gone. I know that this all sounds crazy, but it didn’t feel that way then. It felt right and for the first time in a long time my head was clear. That’s all I can tell you.
When I had started out I had only a couple packs of cigarettes and about twenty dollars which paid for coffee and more cigarettes for awhile. The kindness of strangers supplied the rest. Folks who picked me up were curious about what I was doing and where I was going. What interested them most was that I didn’t know. They saw my sorry shoes, shook their heads, and gave me money for a meal at the end of the ride. One man said he had never picked up anyone before but now he thought he would the next time he saw some young person thumbing a ride. It had somehow been interesting. I told him that was a bad idea.
I went wherever a ride would take me and that’s how I found myself in a small West Virginia town, where an old preacher picked me up and took me home for a meal. He showed me with pride the wooden casket he had made with his own hands and how he was all set for eternity. He called it his boat. It was really no more than a crate, though its dimensions where about right for a coffin. I don't know about eternity. What I was really curious about, however, were the huge old books that were lying on the casket as if to keep the lid on. He said the truth was in those books and I could see for myself if I wanted. The first one I opened had the picture of a young woman, tied to a stake, her breasts exposed, looking up at the heavens ablaze with lightning. I swear her whole body looked like it was electrically charged as though she were having an orgasm or something. Beneath the picture were the words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I turned over the page and saw the words "I ad crucem!" scrawled over the English text. I knew what those words meant alright: "Go to the cross!" On another page was the picture of some wild man who was having a crimson X branded into his chest. After that I was in a hurry to go, but the old guy kept me there talking about how half the town was dying of cancer because everyone was marrying their own kin and goin’ to hell. I got the crazy idea that he was about to ask me to nail him and his books up in that crate and set him adrift. I told him I had to go. He wanted to know why I was in such a hurry. I told him someone was waiting for me in Winchester, which was just across the state line. He said he would drive me there, but I just walked toward the door and thanked him. I closed the door behind me and didn’t look back.
My next couple of rides landed me in New Orleans. I was beginning to realize that though everything was new to me, I was not quite a stranger to the folks I met. In New Orleans, I fell in with others about my age who looked just as lost as I did. They had liberated an abandoned house, worked at odd jobs and did drugs at night. When I didn’t partake, they became suspicious and shortly came to the conclusion that I was a narc. I had never heard that word before but its meaning soon became clear to me. They said my story about going wherever the road would take me just didn’t add up. That wasn’t the last time I was suspected of being a narc, but later it somehow didn’t matter. They could just think whatever they wanted. The first time, however, it was a shock. I had been glad to have a place to crash for a few days, but they told me I had better leave.
I ended up spending a month or so in New Orleans, making some money by working out of a day load outfit that sent out sober men like me on jobs that paid ten dollars a day. If you didn’t quit the job – loading, unloading, throwing bricks out of boxcars and digging holes – you got paid at the end of each day. In the late afternoon after I was paid, I felt like some goddam saint. Cripples, men with no legs, drunks and drifters like me were lined up along the sidewalk with their hands out. One fella, mounted on a board with rollers, had no arms or legs, just a cup. I had a simple rule. I would give away half of what I made and keep the rest. It was more than enough for my needs. They would call me father, though I was younger than they were. Maybe I looked older because like them I had grown so thin. A fellow worker had his own room where he let me sleep on the floor and he knew all the churches and other places where a person could find a free meal, though sometimes you had to pay by praying after you ate. I didn’t like that and said so. I ended up basically stealing the food before the praying started. The problem with that was that they were on the lookout for you the next time. At night, I wandered the French Quarter looking in the jazz joints and at the girls who looked right through me as if I weren't there at all. I can't say I blame them.
I forgot to tell you that before I left to nowhere in particular, I had been a desk clerk at an otherwise respectable hotel called the Pilgrim Inn that catered to a certain class of working girl. They were all somebody’s daughter and they sent the money they made back to their families. Some paid guys who protected them and would beat them up to keep them in line. I would take payment for rooms from the johns and take them up in the elevator first and then the girls. It became routine. I liked the girls, but they all thought I was queer because I hadn’t done anything with them even when they offered for free. They would laugh and ask me if I knew which hole to put it in. I didn't mind. Everything had been going along fine until one night I was arrested along with the girls in a police raid and spent the night in jail. The next day they just sent me home. The hotel's lawyers had worked something out. The girls had to pay a fine. After that, I felt like I almost belonged and everyone treated me as if I were one of them. Then one night a little later I got beat up really bad by a guy who demanded to know where a certain girl was and when I wouldn’t tell him, he came around the desk and let me have it. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to be afraid or even feel any pain. I was kind of numb or stunned I guess. After that, the girls treated me like a brother, which I guess I was.
After I had saved a little money in New Orleans, I set out again. I had heard from others about riding the rails. It was fast and straight but they also told tales of railroad bulls that discouraged me. I thought hitching was safer. My first ride, a long sleepy cruise through the night, took me to Texas, a little west of Austin. It had been a sweet ride; the stars out the open window seemed to pump their light right into my veins. My very next ride, however, changed everything, but I have written about that before. I don't really want to go into it again except to say I came out whole after a man tried to force me to have sex with him and maybe for the first time in my life I had been brave. That was then. What I really want to talk about is Richard whom I had met a year before all this craziness began, never saw again, and miss every day of my life. Before we parted he gave me a small carving, made from an odd piece of wood found on a West Texas beach. He had used only the sharp edge of a stone. It was like something out of the prehistory of man and had three faces on each side, one emerging out of another. It is the face of every man I meet. For forty-six years I have kept this carving with me. It really is Richard's story that needs telling, not mine, though maybe his is in some way mine as well. You see, he taught me the only true word I know and he taught me by example and it cost him dearly. He was the most honest person I have ever known and the bravest.
The old goat sighed, lifting first one hoof then another over the remains of the seasons. He had tried to invoke a world, embody his words.
And yes, spring summer fall winter took form, wheeled in cycles and everywhere the plants and little animals rejoiced, colors and music floated through the leaves, browns and greens became a medley of sound in the half light, became wind and in the midst of all stood a man and a woman, opening themselves like flowers to each other, and his words made mountains and streams, the whurling bark of trees traced vowels and consonants, roots plunged deep into pure sound.
Then a scream shattered the scene.
And what remained?
An old goat and his song.
The leaves of autumn littered the ground.
To begin, all that is necessary
Is to close your eyes
To the darkness around you
Like you did last night when you looked at me
And forgot my name.
Let's begin again to tell stories
Of the train station and lost luggage
Of all those lost souls on the prowl
Like tigers hiding
Like me, a
For a name or a destination
Somewhere near the sea
Where I can hear your heart beating --
O how I wanted you then!
Surely you know me now.
Surely you know I am love.
All in, my
Tattered hands hold out for hope
Like some scarecrow
Or just to stand on my own two feet
Or make a call
And speak two words
That mean something
And so stay alive, stay alive
Until next time, this time
This same time yesterday
When the birds came in the morning
And sang for me an evening song
As they do now, stay alive.
If the slave-boy had some inkling of Pythagorean doctrine, it may be that he could not only have learned to make a square double the area of an original square of 4, i.e. a square of 8, but he could also have glimpsed the Pythagorean theorem itself, for it turns out that the square built upon the diagonal of the original square of 4, i.e. the hypotenuse of the isosceles right triangles formed by that diagonal, is the side of the desired square that is twice the area of the original. The square of each of the other two sides of the isosceles triangle added together are 8, the same as the square built upon the hypotenuse, i.e. the diagonal. A more knowledgeable witness might have made a connection here between this unspoken reference to Pythagoras and the theory of the transmigration of souls and the theory of recollection that Socrates is supposedly demonstrating. That the length of the diagonal turns out to be 2 x square root of 2 suggests that Socrates is additionally hinting at an esoteric Pythagorean discovery, the existence of an irrational number, i.e. the square of 2, a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. This perhaps relates by analogy to Meno's paradox and the difference between true opinion and actual knowledge that is discussed in the remainder of the Meno.
See related posts: Meno's Paradox and A Classroom Version of the Slave Boy Scene in Plato's A classroom version of the slave boy scene in Plato's Meno
One of the many things Naomi taught me is that my life is a poem. At first, this seemed to me just a nice thing to say, that my life was too fragmented and too often meaningless and ordinary to be a poem, but then one day I was just sitting there watching the wind move through the leaves and I knew that something like that wind was moving through me as well. I was a leaf in the wind.
You weigh on me, you whom I lost in death.
You’ve given me the silent charge to live for you;
So it is for me now to erase the debt of your extermination.
Until I know that with each ray of sun
You wish to warm me and to meet me;
Until I see that in each blossoming tree
There’s someone dead who wants to greet me;
Until I hear that every bird’s song is your voice
Sounding out to bless me and perhaps to say
That you forgive me that I live.
-- Viktor Frankl, 1946, from his autobiography Recollections
Ibidom. Is no thinking thing here but the peepinghouse round it goes is there nothing there from sea to rounda coda no knowing no browbeating to hoedown the adamses and damses looking roundaway the wailing goes awagginawaning about the off wall but there shebares all to what is not there the museymusik makes you trot and drop so rainruns and her lastofall. There!
I believe in the Road.
When I was a sophomore at Brown University, I returned home for spring break and asked my father to read some of my own poems and others by Rilke. My father, a pioneer in the study of the biochemical basis of mental illness, told me that my poems and those of Rilke revealed schizophrenia. I left home within the hour, on foot, never to truly return again. Before my father died, I had forgiven him and loved him as a father should be loved. Now, I am grateful to him. Grateful for endowing me with the same passion with which he lived his life, however imperfectly. My own life has been no less imperfect. That night, as I walked down a dark highway, singing to myself the Woody Guthrie song “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” I vowed never to allow another person’s assessment of me to determine how I felt about myself, my ideas or my poetry. I did not then return to Brown. When I did, I was married and a father.
That first long night on the road lead to two years of aimless but purposeful hitchhiking. There were others on that road. One bad man, the owner of an art gallery in Austin, Texas, lured me out to his ranch and tried to force me to have sex with him. I refused. Quietly but definitely. His hired man pulled out a knife. I said, “I will not.” Quietly but definitely. I was not afraid. He did not touch me. In that precarious moment, I knew myself. It was as if life had asked me a question and I had answered.
Since that time, I have found myself in other precarious situations, as I do even today. I will not chronicle these critical moments here except to say they put the integrity of my life in question. Each of these situations required of me an answer beyond any philosophy I had ever read. Philosophy does indeed ask essential questions, but it is only with our actual lives that we answer those questions. Such philosophical questions as Do we have free will? What is truth? Or Justice? are all too often illusions like the paradoxes propounded by Zeno. The illusion comes when we mistake the arena in which these questions are to be answered. What is truth? Observe how I live, not what I say. I necessarily live out my answers to what is true and good. I am my philosophy and all that I have suffered I own.
I am always on the road, aimless but purposeful, knowing that the road is where my true self is revealed. For me the literal and metaphorical road have become one. I know I have at least one great road trip still in me. We may pass by each other in the East Mountains or between here and there. Know all is well even if I look sad, ragged and tired. Pass on. All is well.
For a girl who pushes the boys off
The edge and watches them fall:
And yet when you look down
Is there not one who looks up
And laughs, “Well done, Señorita!”
And you call out, “You fool!
Kiss me and you will die.”
And he will say, “Too late.
I am already dead.”
Just then you fall, though
Some will say you jumped,
And now at last you cry,
Your body parts scattered
Over the rich, dark earth,
"Kiss me and let me die.”
So begins a lover’s life.
Walking through days
I have walked through
long ago, same
step and stride, same
heart wanting something
more; yet today
is the only day
I can’t remember you
Walking through the years
to find me standing
here alone, longing
for the moon,
Its light buried
in my heart of hearts:
Be with you soon.
When I came to school today, I did not come alone. There was a bear with me. No one seemed to notice except for one young girl whose eyes were filled with the glory of the morning and whose red hair played in the light air. She gave me a look, laughed, and asked who my friend was. "What do you mean?" I replied. She laughed again and said "you can't fool me" and flew up into a tree. Later, walking from one building to another, I heard a bird call, and there she was walking beside me. Cautious, I asked, "Who are you?" She seemed surprised I didn’t know. She said she was my student and had been with me from the beginning. This time when she flew away, I growled annoyance and padded on hand and foot to my next class.
So, I thought I was alone on that beach when a sudden gust of wind blew my old tattered hat away. It was like the hat had wings or was some sort of kite, diving and lifting over the sea, but having no string attached, it disappeared over the water and surely landed wherever it is that kites go once they are set free. But then there was this bird call. I turned around and there, where there had been not one solitary person for months, was a girl wearing my hat. She laughed at my surprise, handed me my hat, and flew happily off. I knew then I was not alone.
Who is this girl who loves old men
And sings to those whose song will end?
All that she says is strangely true;
To her belong all the mystic blues.
Tears in her eyes become the sun;
Her home is where all rivers run.
It's she who dances on your bed
Though others give you up for dead.