Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Very Close to the Music of What Happens

In mid-2003, as the news of the war in Iraq continued to drone on, my friend J. called me on the phone. We were each feeling the heaviness of the war despite the distance of many miles and the mufflings of spin and counter-spin; the helpless wretchedness of knowing that violence wreaked in our names was being employed by the avarice of power for its own ends. Wanting to express the sorrow beneath the anger, J. found a voice for the sadness she felt in lines from Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. I remember listening on the phone with tears:
...like the misery felt by an old man
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs: he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors underground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.
It's odd -- the poem is not obviously about the sufferings of war, let alone any suffering either J. or I had ever undergone. Moreover, the whole thing is an extended simile -- the old man in the passage is not a character in Beowulf, but a figure to whose sorrow another figure (in an inset story within the poem) is compared. Later that year, Heaney was in Seattle opening the city's annual Arts and Lectures series. In the midst of the talk he remarked upon the war, and by way of insisting upon the perennial relevance of poetry he said he would read a passage that spoke directly to the bereftness of spirit after such loss. I remember feeling my pulse quicken and my breath catch as he began to read. It was, beginning to end, the identical passage. He sensed in it the very same still-viable voice that my friend had heard. It would have been eerie had it not been so obvious.

I suspect Heaney would have found more here than the nice coincidence of a couple of people with roughly similar preferences in literature finding some bare solace in the same stretch of lines. For Heaney, poetry was really a site of genuine meaning, "strong enough to help," in a phrase from George Seferis' notebooks which Heaney quoted more than once (see the lectures published as The Redress of Poetry). This strength comes not from erudition or cleverness or the chance sharing of a taste for verse; and though any attempt to get very specific about it starts, like Yeats' spiritualism and cosmic cycles, to give off a faint whiff of ectoplasm, still you "know it when you feel it." It does help, to find that someone has wrested from what you thought was inevitable muteness an apprehendable word for what you feel; and when that word comes from a millennium away and is recognized by an independent authority (and there was no doubting Heaney's quiet and unassuming authority that night), one has the sense of having touched something almost electric.

One comes, sometimes, indemonstrably close to something, a closeness that is not covered by any deflationary explanation; a feeling that seems actually to depend upon the gap between what one senses, and one's capacity to articulate it; but one feels it the more keenly, the more effort one makes towards articulation -- an effort that can seem effortless but is (any poet will testify) hard-won:

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.
Seamus Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013.

Requiem Æternam.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews VIII: Meaningness

[Apologies for previously broken links in this post, now fixed, I hope. Thanks to the reader who pointed the problem out.]

This series of Brief Blog Reviews continues to be an exercise in revising criteria. My review this month is not of a single blog but of a group of blogs. Though not as frequently updated as most of the blogs I have included, collectively their frequency should just about edge them into the ballpark. They are, moreover, all accessible via a single page, Meaningness, and are all by a single author, David Chapman, who I am commending especuially but not solely for his funny, straight-talking (except when he’s not), and generally right presentation of Buddhism.

By “right,” here, I mean two things, neither of which I am qualified to pronounce upon: technically right about Buddhism, and view-from-nowhere right about reality. Aside from the usual characteristics (smarts and style) that I tend to point out in these reviews, Chapman is “right” often enough to make me suspicious. My guess is that if I read him long enough I may find myself staring at my own prejudices. (I hope I recognize them as such.) His critique of monism (scattered through more than one post but a good place to start is here) is close to spot-on, and generally sympathetic enough to make one feel that he understands pretty well the temptation of the monist enough to give his criticisms street-cred. (I am, however, a little more sympathetic to the "bad ideas," or at least the dead Germans, that he's talking about.) He’s less understanding, as far as I can tell, when it comes to nihilism, which he seems to think is a kind of metaphysical boogeyman. Chapman describes himself as a serious practitioner of a relatively obscure form of tantra, and tantra (according to my limited and book-acquired comprehension) pulls no punches about terror, despair, and paranoia; so I assume he’s seen a bit of metaphysical horror. I find him just a bit dismissive on this count; but this doesn’t keep me from being able to smile.

Chapman, who may or may not be the central character in Ken Wilber’s Boomeritis, is a former neopagan and AI researcher; his current project (aside from writing about vampires) trying to elaborate a space for possible alternative Buddhisms, outside what he sees as the consensus version. In this he is not unlike Tim Morton, or Brad Warner (Chapman expressly credits Hardcore Zen), or (maybe a bit more iffy, this one) Glenn Wallis’ Non-Buddhism; maybe, too, by what people are doing over at the Dharma Overground. (Note: these parallels are Very Rough.) By “consensus” Buddhism I take it Chapman means something fairly close to Yavanayāna (as Amod Lele calls it over at Love of All Wisdom), or what Wallis often refers to as x-Buddhism (again with the Rough Parallels): a general convergence in First-World countries that Buddhism is about interconnectedness, kindness, and the transcendence of ego. Of course, this devolves into a culture of niceness, and at worst of egoism masked as the quest for enlightenment – but Chapman is too wise and too kind to just sassily point this out (we knew this about religions already, after all, from Christianity and Marxism and etc...) and leave it at that.

His close critiques of consumerism-and-Buddhism are well taken, and well served both by his familiarity with Buddhist history (recent and ancient) and by his willingness to look into some of the sorts of Buddhism that rub “the consensus” the wrong way, both aesthetically or morally. (See, for instance, his post on corpse meditation.) All of this falls to some degree under his negative project, the “making space” project. I’m especially impressed, however, by his by his overall positive project of Meaningness (as a word this a barbarous coinage, but as a pointer to experience it works very well), work which promises to eventually coalesce into a book elaborating this eponymous concept, which is in some ways close (i.e. "Very Roughly" parallel) to what I mean by Participation, and (more close to Chapman’s own intent) is a thought-provoking reworking of the central notion of pratityasamutpada.

“Right” though Chapman so often is, of course, we are bound to disagree. He would likely regard me as a sort of Eternalist by some measures (what with my Christianity and all), and I defend myself by distinguishing between Eternity and Sempiternity, as usual. That defense, however, is not this post. I do find his analyses of the pitfalls of Eternalism pertinent, and his takes on other of our contemporary cults -- e.g. that of Bayesian statistics, or the search for the True Self, or “Spiritual But Not Religious,” (an especial peeve of mine; Chapman points me to its apparently popular abbreviation SBNR, one I ought to have thought of) -- are these all rife with compassionate and truthful zingers. (Also, he discovered Eric Voeglin via Robert Anton Wilson, which I cannot help but find pretty charming.) The comments on his various posts tend to be engaged and forthright and Chapman almost always responds with thought and care. I urge you to go over yourself and at least eavesdrop on the conversation.