Friday, November 27, 2009

Private and Public

A striking contrast between the private and the public becomes sharply visible at certain times. Vacations are one category of such occasions—family visits and reunions another. The media recede; they’re temporarily pushed aside. And then—so long at least as the economic foundations are firm enough—the unchanging aspects of life come to the fore so that, remembering the distant past, it echoes the personal present—and, turned about, the present echoes the past. In this country Thanksgiving is perhaps the best reminder of the perennial human pattern. Above all it is a family holiday. It chief symbol is a common meal. Its rootings are in festivals of harvest as far back as we can see—thus in humanity’s organic dependence on the earth’s bounty. Yes. The increasingly hysterical anxieties of our seemingly failing commercial society intrude ever more into this time. My last trip out to buy the last few ingredients at Kroger carried me past vast Christmas trees; wreath and garlands everywhere; and the Salvation army’s huddled figures already rang their bells next to the red pots. The late night check of e-mail last night brought strident reminders that today is Black Friday—which is supposed to arouse my anxieties lest I miss out on some unspeakable bargains today. Christmas, alas, has long been destroyed.

What strikes me about all this is the permanent character of the personal and private and the brittle artificiality of a public projection of—words fail me—of something, of some desired state of mind or nerves, the projection of lures, prods, reminders, and supposed desires in pursuit of which we shall serve some common good, namely the expenditure of money so that those economic foundations, already mentioned above, will remain firm enough to sustain this St. Vitus dance of public insanity.

Twenty, thirty, forty years ago we saw the technological expansion, begun in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as making the world smaller. And smaller it is. Now our children Skype across vast oceans and kid and tease each other as if they were cheek to cheek. But the strange phenomenon of a crazed, brittle, public realm, grinning down at the personal life with a phony smile and deadly eyes—using symbols once infused with feeling and with awe as reminders of crazed commercial need—suggests something else to me now. It suggests that the world has grown tight, as if the sky were disappearing. The limitless dome of sunny blue above us has come to be thickly covered by a dark and incessantly moving wirrwarr of mechanical nastiness. It is thickening, descending—like a curtain, like a pall. It constricts our private and real life. We’re forced now to live our lives with more and more conscious and active effort to disregard a whole dimension of reality, once helpful and encouraging. We must fend it off, ignore it, cope with it as best we can lest it press out the last bit of air from our rapidly heaving chests. This can’t and won’t go on much longer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One of Our Cradles: St. Luke's Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.

The picture is tiny but of great value to us. St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo, has been transformed, since this photograph was taken, into a gigantic and awe-inspiring structure, but forty-six years ago this day, on the morning of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination, long before the sun rose, driving our little grey VW bug, I was headed to this building with Brigitte and, many hours later, our youngest child, Michelle, was born in this much humbler structure to her exhausted mother. Happy birthday, dear daughter. It is a joy to have you here with us today—and strange indeed to think that you are here vacationing briefly from your labors at Les Bluets, that most famous of all maternity hospitals of the great city of Paris—where the facilitation of such events, always absolutely unique although they are, is your calling and your daily work...

The second picture shows Les Bluets. It is a very modern facility but, be assured, has its own honored and ancient history by now. Les Bluets was founded in 1901. Yes. Thinking of that time and this one, and contemplating our present rough history, on its still lurching slouch toward Bethlehem, it strikes me that there are, thanks to the convergence of many tiny lights of human spirit, many things for which we may be grateful in this season of thanksgiving.

The Swans Referred To...


Herewith a picture of the trumpeter swans I mentioned yesterday. A distinguishing feature is the black bill. The much more common mute swans, who, John Magee assures me, are not mute (and I can testify to the truth of that too) have a yellow bill. Trumpeters are also much larger. Photo credit: Patio Boat.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Early Festivities

The chalked message at the side of our house, beneath the arched portico—ideal for the little cars of the 1920s but narrow for those of today—appeared there for the first time a long time ago now to mark one of the visits of grandchildren. Less legibly other names appear to announce that they too slept at this address; those are the names of Malcolm and Henry, the doughty authors of Pontoon Pirates. This fall of 2009, Stella managed to be present all by herself, but in company of her mother. They arrived a week ago on a quick flying trip, out of season, as it were (neither summer nor yet Christmas), but delighting us by illuminating our Thanksgiving holidays.

Michelle’s ability to break away for a brief spell triggered a somewhat fractured but still emotionally uplifting family reunion here—very rare these days with the Ghulf clan spread all over the continents. Susie, my sister, and my brother Baldy, with Peggy his wife, managed to come here too before departing to host get-togethers of their own. We missed the rest of the French clan, busy finishing school (the children) and starring in a French production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (Papa): no way to break that contract. We also sorely missed seeing Barbara, our oldest, or her brood; she was prevented from coming by having just begun a very promising new job. Alas the real Ghulf clan, unlike its imaginary counterpart, is not sustained by millions and millions of whatever currency you like derived from zerofric. Skype to the rescue—even if the cameras, now on one side, now on the other, did not always function as they should.

This event will end with the usual yawning abruptness of departures after Thanksgiving dinner at Monique’s and John’s house this year on the shores of Lake Wolverine—where trumpeter swans presently have, as it were, made a stunning appearance in great numbers to signal that even species depleted to nearly unsustainable numbers can bounce back with a little assist from caring elements of humanity. And after that the impersonal sway of airlines and oceans will once more come to spread the distance between us and the usual quiet of the banal everyday shall once more settle with, presumably, the falling snow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reminder

Power failures are intended, I believe, to remind us that the most important technological innovation of the modern age is the discovery of electricity. That reminder came again abruptly yesterday evening at 5:30 p.m. Light enough remained to let us find the flashlights and, using those, to find the matches to light the candles. The message for me, personally, was that while technology may be neutral, its absence can be felt as something positively annoying. Light is that ultimate symbol of value. Let there be light!

I’ve spent a substantial part of my life studying technology from various points of vantage. This began for me as a personal point of curiosity while I was still in the Army and later became a professional activity. I remember once in the service filling an empty hour looking up the respective populations per square mile of India and the United States and then calculating the U.S. population as it would be if it had India’s population density. That is a technological preoccupation? Absolutely. By the time I first chanced across Blake’s “Energy is eternal delight,” I lit up, as it were, already adequate to understand that feeling.

You cannot spend your time doing things of that sort without becoming painfully aware of the fact that our civilization is largely defined by the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels beginning early in the nineteenth century. In my personal parlance we have been and are still traveling on a bubble of oil, suspended in air, as it were, but this bubble, like the soapy kind, is of a brief duration. What follows after we’ve exhausted oil, gas, and eventually all coal? What I am hoping is that we shall still have the most important gift that we discovered: light.

That may happen if we eventually master fusion technology. The interesting aspect of that potential development is that it promises to give us light and modern communications and, possibly, energy enough for emergency transportation—and not much more than that. The reasons for that are that the yield of energy obtained, per unit of new energy needed to get it, will be modest. I’ve summarized the issues on LaMarotte here. Still, if we could get there, it would be a great boon—although, at present, mastery still eludes us. But if this brief blip in history, the Age of Oil, now stumbling towards its chaotic end, leaves us with electric power, that will have justified its vast excesses and violence for endless generations to come.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Images of a Culture


Herewith two images, one a little statue of a mandarin, the other a photograph of China's President Hu Jintao. It strikes me that these represent an unbroken cultural continuity.

The statue actually stands guard on the front stoop of a house across the street and down a ways. Each time I pass it I nod to the gentleman, and gentleman because I think he really depicts one. I've modified the photograph, of course, to bring out the image. The photo of Hu Jintao is taken from the Internet, one of those official photos where he stands, his wife to his left, the visiting dignitary (and wife) to his right, on a red carpet, in front of a vast painting of the Chinese Wall. Here, too, I've obscure the irrelevant in a haze of blue to bring out the form. Amazing phenomenon, culture... both in what it shows and what it hides.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Technology is Neutral

An eccentric way to illustrate the truth of this assertion is to point out that science is not what makes “science fiction” interesting. It’s always the story, stupid, and it matters not what the wrapper is, be it sword and sorcery, politics, a medieval setting, a cowboy tale, or the siege of Troy and its great Wooden Horse. The story is always about people.

Years ago, in one of my then endless pursuits of technological change, I chanced across a most revealing academic work, Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change. It is an absolutely fascinating work. It deals with the stirrup, horsepower, crop rotation, protein generation—and how these innovations influenced the physical environment and therefore society.

Reading that book I realized another important truth about technology. Unlike social structures, which cycle—ever recurring, ever decaying, but not really advancing in any meaningful sense—technology is cumulative and progressive. Once invented and proved useful, it will persist. The Incas had not invented the arch. But we now see that form of architecture (notice the etymological link in that word) everywhere in the world. And it won’t go away. Forms of social organization, a kind of technology for controlling people, tend to cycle. Physical technologies—in contrast with human organizational forms—benefit from the persistently uniform behavior of matter. Democracy controls that much more volatile element, free human entities; therefore it recurs in endless forms when conditions favor it and then deforms, decays, becomes unrecognizable, eventually unworkable, and gives way to other recurring forms of rule that then fit the times better again.

I stress the neutrality of technology but, having written this much (writing reveals what is deeper in the mind) I realize now that all I’m saying is that matter is neutral. Technology, after all, is just a tooling for managing matter. What maintains technological knowledge is the unchanging relationship we have with matter, and exactly the same relationship regardless of the ideological structures that guide our thought. Therefore it is in no one’s interest to neglect those things that happen to be universally useful.

I got into this subject today thinking of modern modes of communication: mail, telephone, e-mail, Internet (in general), blogs, and social networks. The underlying technology (of late) is the manipulation of electromagnetic currents and states, their transmission, storage, and manipulation using computers. And the underlying human motives that have lifted this technology into the useful category are two-fold: one is that communications connect the separated; the other is that people seek and value attention. The two are closely linked, of course. All of these manifestations have negative and positive aspects. Mail also means junk mail, telephone also means the automated nuisance call, e-mail also means spam, blogs can and often do communicate hate, and social networks, while they connect, can also distract.

It’s one of our modern fetishes to assign values to neutral mechanisms that, in themselves, carry no values at all. Or, perhaps, to make the point more explicit, these mechanisms are tools—and tools are one half of a whole. The tool user is the other half. Technology also has an inherent value. It is the knowledge of the toolmaker that it embodies, a superior knowledge of how the material world behaves. I hate technology only when it stops working properly. The indifferent, thoughtless, or exploitive uses of technology—why, that’s the story, the fiction part of “science fiction.” And there we must look at ancient concepts like original sin and not speak ill of that steady, never-changing innocent, other we call Matter, and its handmaiden, Technology.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Matapedia

Back in Minnesota days, Brigitte was driving home from someplace when, over the radio, she heard “Matapedia,” the title song of the album named after it. Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote and sang it. Either one or the other of us bought it. Since that time we’ve purchased many a copy of it as gifts to friends. For quite some while now I’ve wanted to put a YouTube video on this blog, and I can’t think of a better one to put on Ghulf Genes than this song. No image moves, but who needs pictures when you have this melody and words. Thus I launch my first such offer with much gratitude to these two gifted artists. The lyrics to the song are available here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Taste and the Abstraction

In a post the other day (“Difficult to Express”) I remarked as follows:

In fact, I must confess, I don’t ... much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residue of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate.

I’d like to expand on that now. The more time passes the more conscious I become of the limitations of concepts. They work fine for personal understanding. In using words, I know what I mean; but we have a tendency to use words we understand to communicate with others—and other people understand those words in quite other ways. For this reason I’ve long felt that genuine inner discoveries of how the world is fashioned and how it moves and has its being can only be communicated effectively using stories and poetry. But those forms of communication, of course, will leave some people dissatisfied. They want their concepts more sharply defined, made mathematical, as it were, stripped of flesh, guts, and circulatory systems, seeing only the supporting structure of bone. But the maddening aspect of reality is that it is captured by the very fusion of its parts. Bones aren’t prior to flesh and blood; but tissue cannot be placed above bone in any hierarchical sense either. It’s the totality that counts. I must assume that bodies came about by a circular or iterative process in which, no doubt, a single fuzzy, undifferentiated intention came to manifest, by degrees, as a structure that has many complexly integrated parts.

In the same post I make the point that for me essences, or forms, are best viewed as intentions, and by that I mean that intentions have a formative impetus. But when I compare this understanding of form to the eternal forms associated with Plato, I see something quite different. Plato’s forms appear to be static—whereas intentions are always dynamic. Eternal forms don’t seem to have life, but intentions are life. In the usual ways of teaching young students the basics of Greek thought, form and matter, the examples for form tend to be static: it’s the image of Venus rendered in stone or bronze, the static idea of a residence, fully formed and rendered as architect’s drawings. But behind that Venus or that residence was, first, a living form in a living mind, and not present in full detail at all but, as I say above, in a fuzzy state, at least as much feeling as image. The concept of “form” has a great deal more energy and life hidden within it than that word routinely suggests. Now I suspect that Plato’s own conception was undoubtedly much more like what I’ve just laid out than as it has come to be passed on to later generations, but the exigencies of communication have eroded its most essential characteristics into a caricature.

Yesterday, after writing a brief and very foreshortened piece on existentialism—and discussing it with Brigitte—and later pondering our talk while on my walk, it suddenly dawned on me that what Heidegger called care (Sorge) and what Sartre called engagement, that very same whatever is what I routinely mean by consciousness. That happens to be my pet expression for something that, in its native form, is an experience, a complex something, a feeling as much as an understanding or, perhaps, an understanding of a feeling—what the Sufi’s call a taste. You have to taste it to know it, the Sufis say. But a taste, alas, is very difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t already tasted the same thing.

In my own personal lexicon, consciousness contains a meaning quite missing for many other people. In my personal understanding, it gets a certain emphasis. It has the character of being awake, really awake, more dynamically of coming awake, of realization, of a sudden grasp. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn—if I could summon the spirit of a long-dead gnostic—that what one calls care, another engagement, and a third consciousness a Gnostic might have called a gnosis, a knowing. In this contexts I might mention that Hans Jonas, in his superb The Gnostic Religion, concludes that Gnosticism in its own time was what, in ours, we experience as existentialism.

Now I would submit here that the storyteller, novelist, and poet—all using a much more comprehensive language than merely that of concepts—is much more able to communicate the taste, the reality, and the flavor of experience than the person who tries to balance the entire insight on the single leg of abstractions.

A Pleasing Gate


Wrought Iron Gate Photographed in Hagenau, France—courtesy of Pontoon Pirates.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Eye and the Beholder

Many years ago now, engaged in a study of packaging on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, I got involved with bottles-and-cans. That phrase became shorthand, later, for a significant uproar across the environmental community dealing with beverage containers, their discard as litter, and efforts to force industry to reclaim and to recycle them. In studying this matter I visited Coca Cola in order to understand better how this aspect of packaging worked. In that process I came to marvel. The more I learned about the subject, the more it expanded. An empty, bent, carelessly discarded small container along the roadside—barely seen as we drive by it—morphed into a vast commercial, engineering, and manufacturing colossus which was the central concern, indeed the living, of thousands of people across the United States. I came to think of these containers as the uniformed armies of the two great competing empires of Sugar-Water, and, indeed, later on, having visited the one in Atlanta I also traveled to upstate New York, and there I was appropriately awed by the glorious glass palace that housed Pepsi, the other.

Who says that life in business is a dull affair? You drive away from such a setting in the green-gold countryside at the wheel of your red Avis on a brilliant fall day, having admired very fine art on display in a vast building-circumambulating lobby, and you think yourself magically transported into another medieval time of duchies and princedoms, the dukes and princes of whom are powerful figures who visit—or are visited by—senators and presidential aides, and in your thoughts, as the palace falls behind you and the black ribbon of the road bisects breathtaking woods, you wonder what a strange thing it might be to expend your efforts serving Sugar Water, travelling over oceans in shiny airplanes on its behalf…and realizing that this strange notion may never ever occur to Sugar Water’s actual minions who, bless them, just think of what they do as the same-old-same-old-same-old job.

I was reminded of the strange, lens-like character of attention in the context of yesterday’s post about living in multiple mental worlds. Our ability to pay attention to many quite different realities would seem to have a scattering, a centrifugal force. Here is time spent on complex technical problems (at work), the right wine for the chosen meat (shopping), the matter-form duality underlying Aristotle’s concept of substance and the peculiar habitation of unformed matter and immaterial form (reading), and then (Saturday night) immersed in experience of the music and the husky words of the creator of Thunder Road. Oh my. Yes, indeed. And the loom to weave all this into a fabric?

As the world infinitely expands, proliferates, and complexifies the more we stare at it, as at every blink that gets us closer it only unfurls yet another even greater fractal layer of yet another depth of intricacy—or as this same complexity curls up into a simple object, then shrinks into a token, then turns into a concept, and then may actually disappear as we withdraw our attention—all this while that which is behind the attention remains the only fixed and immutable point. And that point—we can’t actually get at it at all—is ourselves. It does the weaving. How we do it, how well we do it, that is the crux of the matter.

* * *

Thunder Road bring memories? A puzzlement? To hear the song, click here. To read the lyrics, here. The combined effect of words and music will not be revealed, I don’t think, by close study, however intense, of either one or the other, no matter how well conducted.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Difficult to Express

Over the last several years I’ve found myself noting more and more frequently, in this and that connection, that our lives, however powerfully they’re anchored in the material dimension—and they certainly are—take place in mental spaces. The feeling is difficult to express. Someone hearing might say, “But of course. We’re conscious creatures. We live in a stream of consciousness. It’s a mixture of sense impressions, phantasms, and of memories.” The statement is true enough, but it doesn’t measure up to my odd intuition.

Pondering that intution now, I am beginning to see it better. Various relational structures adhere to every kind of activity. Back in my working days, I would work on a novel in the early hours and then travel to my office. And in that space a different set of relationships came into focus. The novel was one structure, the business another. And, being engaged with one, then with the other, I was living each in sequence because of identification. The concerns that used to exercise me in my days at North Star, in Minneapolis, for instance, have absolutely no influence on me now. I can reread one of my novels and re-enter its world again. Once more it becomes real. In the first case the various “issues” that exercised me just happened to concern real people and events; in the other case they happened to be imaginary, but, since the novel in question was realistic, it felt just as real as the flow of events at work. But even if the novel had been quite wildly surrealistic, it would still have operated as a frame for experience provided that it had had the necessary consistency and coherence.

Each world we inhabit temporarily has its facts, logic, dynamism, feeling tones, actions, and consequences. The substance may be predominantly physical—which was indeed the case when I spent several weeks  redecorating the whole house, once, long ago in Kansas. The substance may be commercially toned, as it tends to be in a business. Human relations and memory may predominate during an extended family reunion. The substance may also be on a highly abstract plane—albeit never entirely divorced from physical reference—in a career, say, focused professionally on philosophy or higher math.

The striking similarity between imagined realities (the novel) and the actual (business) comes into focus when I reflect that in most business relationships the physical contact with people is often quite minimal or takes place only from time to time or at some remove (telephone, e-mail). Most of the time most of the people we deal with are mental presences, not bodies visible to my eyes. This is true above all in our era of effective mass communications. For many people the endless meetings—and these are face to face—are a distraction. Most tellingly, in most businesses, those engaged in them almost never see the actual customer unless in a generic sense—when they themselves go shopping. Back when you hawked your goods at your stall in the market—another story that.

The feeling that I find difficult to express today is, I think, a strengthened realization of the huge role the immaterial plays in our experience of living. I don’t want to call it abstract because, in most of our activities, the mental flow has feeling tone and is accompanied by imaginal traces: it is mental but alive. In fact, I must confess, I don’t and never did much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residual of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate. In my own mental culture, I conceive of essences as intentions, thus as having more energy and a closer proximity to the Real than the actual physical manifestation.

A special case of this “life in the immaterial” is our relationship to the Media. Driven by the need to be efficient—in drawing and holding audiences for profit—they tend to create oddly deformed arrangements of reality in which short phrases are used to reference often very complex and dynamically changing relationships. To the extent that the Media optimize their content to maximize their viewership, to that extent they fail to carry out their self-proclaimed mission. And as this ratio shifts to favor the bottom line, to that extent, certainly, the medium is the message.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

One More Fall Image


The Stone Sun

The image is a sandstone sculpture. Brigitte and I saw and immediately fell in love with it at a Renaissance Festival in the Minneapolis Hinterland. It has been hanging in one or another of our gardens ever since. Over the years wind and water have weathered away some of the sand and produced the highlights that you see. In the midst of flux, for us, this object is a small anchor of permanence.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Time of Shatter

Healthy societies are complexly integrated whereas decadent societies are engaged in a process of slow-motion shatter. If I stare at the word complexity long enough, I realize that in a complex system every part and aspect of the whole is equally important although the parts are always hierarchically related. In a monoculture everything is the same. My Mother used to say, by way of dismissing certain kinds of views, “Everything is wood.” When asked what she meant, she would say: “Those people are just like termites. For them everything is wood.” Or everything is money. I picture a book in its normal use. Every word in it is meaningful—in placement and in sequence. So are the letters in the words. The covers have their purpose, the pages are numbered, and the use of the book is governed by its internal arrangements. But if that same book has been discarded, perhaps because it has been damaged, and is now relegated to serve as kindling next to the fireplace, it matters not what page you tear out to light the fire. Complexity has been reduced to monoculture. The words have lost all of their relevance.

Disintegration manifests by the separation of parts once meaningfully linked. So in a decadent society mutually supportive orders became alienated one from the other. What used to be relationships turn into uses. People are commodified. They become markets, human resources, labor, management, constituencies, blocks, interests, lobbies. Creative work becomes content. These are not merely verbal distinctions. They come with feeling tones attached. They are attitudes. They signal distance and indifference. “We’re having some labor problems. But we’re getting on top of them.” My favorite symbols for this include the recorded telephone call (“Your call is very important to us”) and the old Russian communist adage: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

This situation is pregnant with meanings—as is its opposite, community. For instance: as society loosens, freedom increases but relationships weaken. As one Russian émigré writer, living in New York, once complained: “At least back home the NKVD read what I wrote.” The urge to escape the oppressive integration of the small town or the village—in order to enjoy the freedom of city life—becomes the oppressive anonymity of urban life where you don’t even know your neighbors. When community shatters a complex network of relationships yields a single means of relating to everything—through money. Only money carries universal value. Thus is born celebrity and the yearning for visibility—that fifteen minutes of fame on television. And this is what feeds American Idol, brings it contestants and the vicarious participation of the vast alienated masses.

But life in a complex community has its down-side too. It requires attention, time, and effort expended on the community itself—very often “just because,” as in noblesse oblige—thus without any compensation in return. The obligation to work for the common good is not pragmatically rewarded—or, if it is done for reward, it is not that kind of effort. Nothing forces you to do it. It can be and often is felt as a burden. Its support is ethics, thus a moral sense. And this moral sense is reinforced by a hierarchical conception of reality, thus it has a religious connotation or underpinning.

Now, it seems, societies decay by a curious process. Community spirit and complex relationships produce order; order produces wealth; and wealth, as it spreads, weakens the sense that effort on behalf of the community is necessary. It is easier to avoid its burdens. This tendency to turn aside is felt as liberating. The notion is then expanded philosophically into a cult of freedom and individualism. This, in turn, damages the hierarchical arrangement on which the whole society rests. How wide this alienation spreads depends on the extent of the wealth produced. In pre-industrial times, only elites became wealthy enough to lose their bearings—hence also dynasties fell. The so-called ignorant masses kept clinging to whatever spirits or gods they worshipped. In our times, the devastation reaches much deeper into the population because the wealth produced has been so great.

The process of decay is also marked by a movement from the personal to the abstract—because love (one of the three theological virtues) is withdrawn. The farmers market where contact is vividly real becomes capitalism. Trade—at core a vital, complex, two-way river—becomes soulless globalization. It is a negative phenomenon because its single glassy eye is focused solely on gain. It produces a monoculture of technique. Everything must align with it or perish. Good-by to the shop, farewell the local merchant. In agriculture we literally have it—monoculture. Industrial means of raising chickens, pigs, and cattle are, frankly, obscene. What is the justification for this? The only denominator common to everything in a shattering culture: money. When a hierarchy of values is absent, complexity begins to disappear. When complexity begins to show cracks, only time is required for the whole to fall apart. In the midst of this process it is almost impossible to believe that the society is doomed. But such is the case.

The human community revives from these long and painful periods of desertification only because minorities fiercely cling to the more complex value systems which are the full expression of humanity. Small communities, often isolated, certainly separated, continue to exist. As things fall apart, these seeds begin to link. Out of them are formed new cultures which, for a time anyway, realize the values we celebrate over the centuries. To this I might add that the Decline of the West (as Spengler called it) can be and is resisted by those other societies in which the ethical current still flows strong.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Loom

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind —
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.
       Millay, Edna St. Vincent, Hunter, What Quarry? Harper & Bros., New York, 1939.

This poem, written at around the time of my birth and published when I was three, has illuminated reality for me in various and different ways ever since I stumbled across it at the Overland Park library in Kansas (one of those splendid libraries I always praise). The event took place sometime in the 1970s. There are these moments. You don’t forget them. I still see the scene, the shelves to my left. I was looking inward, into the stacks. The yellow book (how come we remember such things?) was open in my hand. I was reading this poem. The words produced electrical shudders in my body. The odd power of this poem lies in its ability to say different things at different times; like a magical mirror it reflects back that which appears before its face. At that time my inner state reflected back the surface meaning—namely the absence of a loom. With time I came to realize consciously what it was that had made me shiver then—namely that this poem itself, proclaiming its absence, is actually the very loom that produces a fabric of meaning. For starters…

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tomato Manikin

















This is the last tomato we managed to grow this season. He does not seem very happy, regretting coming late enough to miss just about the whole of summer. “He talks to me,” Brigitte says, and indeed, he seems to. The markings are entirely natural, although the festive gown and the supporting toothpick are donations from humanity. Brigitte also likes to speak of this little fellow as her Tomato Pumpkin or Tompkin...

To make this introduction a little more formal, this small gentleman’s full name is Mr. Tompkin Lycopersicon esculentum, meaning edible wolf’s peach. The name in the Vulgate, as it were, is Yellow Cherry Tomato. This variety is quite small, about the size shown when full grown, and to the taste very sweet.

The River

I’m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t get how Broadway works or what to make of our culture. [Neil Simon, quoted in the New York Times on November 2, 2009]
This statement, of course, has its specific context. A revival of Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of his most popular plays, opened on Broadway a week ago and abruptly closed again yesterday. Now I don’t happen to be a great fan of Broadway (despite minoring in Drama in college); nor am I much attracted to popular shows like Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach, Biloxi Blues, or Broadway Bound—to cite just those Neil Simon works that start with B. But I was a fan of Sid Caesar’s in the 1950s, and Neil Simon wrote many of the episodes and jokes that I enjoyed; I certainly appreciate Simon’s wit and sense of humor. Simon, who is now 82, left a very big mark on popular entertainment but evidently learned little about culture. Failure is a better teacher; hence he is now at last embarked on the narrow road to wisdom.

Interesting how, in his reaction to the reverberating thud of the last curtain on this revival of Brighton Beach, Simon seems to think that “Broadway” and “culture” are static structures, a kind of rock-solid reality that, once understood, always understood. Not. The play deals with a Depression era family coping with hard times, no doubt the reason why it was revived on Broadway. Its producers evidently thought that it would resonate with the public; but they too were benighted.

The Mississippi as it flows at its origin out of Lake Itasca—where it is a tiny little streamlet and you can jump across it, as I did, grinning from ear-to-ear (“I just jumped over the Mississippi”)—is not the river that empties its masses of mud-laden waters out into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. I saw that too. My first view of American “land” came when, aboard the USS General Muir, we saw the ocean turning yellow hours before we actually saw the scrubby islands that mark the river’s estuary.

Neil Simon evidently managed to remain unaware, as the years rolled on, carrying him toward 82, that he was in motion all the while, and looking down, the bright, shimmering, young stream had become a vast, huge, sluggish, muddy mass on which big, grey ships and barges now carried ignorant, young, brash, but hopeful immigrants upstream to fashion a new world.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Well of the Past

In the opening lines of Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann says: “Deep is the well of the past. Shouldn’t one call it bottomless?” I looked down that well just recently when, inspired by tangdynastytimes, I tried to answer the question: How exactly does that dynasty fit into Chinese history? I’ve kept returning to the subject of Chinese history ever since I encountered the culture in my teens through the writings and presentations of Lin Yu Tang. Later, in the Army, in college classes brought us in Germany by the University of Maryland, a stellar professor introduced us (an admixture of sergeants and colonels) to an ancient and evidently very effective philosophy of rule: rely on the mandate of heaven. This approach to governance has produced, if not the oldest then certainly the longest living continuous society in human history.

I don’t hesitate to oversimplify when the subject is beyond effective summary. With that in mind I provide a graphic of that history below. It traces the dynasties and kingdoms in China from 2100 BC to the present. That date marks the beginning of the first of many long-lived dynasties, but it is well to remember that, in 2100 BC the people of the Middle Kingdom already looked back on 800 years of history. The Yan and the Yellow emperor were then already legendary figures.



Time in this chart runs both downward and from left to right. The regimes that held sway in China are shown in chronological order. The horizontal bars show how long each dynasty or era endured. I’ve colored red those periods in which no single dynasty dominated the Chinese territories and states contended or multiple kingdoms ruled parts. Notable in this drastic summary (a single Excel graph compressing 4000 years of history) is the long dominance of single dynasties and the recurring punctuations of disorder or disunity. Not that those long periods were quiet and without conflict—nor that periods marked in red were entirely chaotic. Parts of the Great Wall of China were built during the Warring States. Notable against this panorama of endurance is the puny aspect of the latest dynasty in China, call it the Mao or the Communist dynasty. Just a blip on the last line—but it certainly loomed and still looms large in our own parochial temporality.

Now for the Tang Dynasty. It was a period of exuberance, wealth, and cultural flowering. It lasted quite a long time, certainly for a dynasty, and long even when matched up against the period of a culture, say Christendom. The Tang Dynasty began roughly 300 years after Constantine established Christianity as the ruling religion of the dying Roman realm. The Tang rule broke apart into many competing regimes about 90 years before Christianity reached its peak in 1000 AD and clothed itself in a white mantle of churches.*

The most famous names likely to be familiar to Westerners long predate the Tang Dynasty. Confucius and Lao Tsu both date to the Spring and Autumn period, which is the concluding part of the Zhou Dynasty (722-481 BC); Chuang Tsu, probably the best known Taoist teacher and Lao Tsu disciple lived in the Warring States period. Sun Tzu, the general who wrote the world-famous The Art of War is placed either into the Spring and Autumn period or into the Warring States period by scholars. Buddhism was present in China by about 265 BC, but, looking at some pictures, it is obvious that the most inspiring statues of Buddha were created in Tang times.

The coexistence of what we would call an advanced, sophisticated era like the Tang on one side of the globe and what most people call the Dark Ages in Europe suggests to me that the environments we inhabit (will-ye, nil-ye) are above all cultural. With effort and imagination we can think and feel the airs beyond them, but what surrounds us and dominates our everyday is the creation of our own place and time.
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*A phrase attributed to Raoul Glaber, an eleventh century monk of Burgundy: “It seemed as though the earth were shaking off the rags of its antiquity, to clothe itself anew with a white mantle of churches.” Quoted in Albert Guerard, France—A Short History, W.W. Norton, 1946, p.85.