Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections: The Poet's Burden

For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with Italo Calvino’s poetic novel, Invisible Cities, I will state briefly here that it imagines a series of descriptions of cities supposedly visited by Marco Polo in his travels, presented to Kublai Khan as Polo attends the Great Khan’s court. It is a bit like A Thousand and One Nights, but without the overhanging threat, or the narrative content. Invisible Cities is not comprised of tales, but rather of concepts strung together, giving shape and scope to these imagined cities. For a fuller description, click here.

In a recent discussion of poetry and the arts on Facebook, I posited an assertion that the poet, or artist, once he has proclaimed his vocation, and made public the product of his artistic visions, has ipso facto taken on a responsibility to the world at large. This thought was inspired by contemplating these words of the poet, Robert Lax:

It is funny that in most all societies, even though poets may not be well-treated, the idea of a poet is honored. I think it has something to do with vision; that without vision, the people perish. I think the people sense that poets are or should be carriers of vision, and should be those who express it. And people sense that that is needed; that vision is always needed.

If it is e-ffective, one’s art will a-ffect one’s audience, either positively, or negatively. This certainty is what entails the artist’s responsibility; it becomes a moral obligation, reminiscent of charity.

In this light, consider the following excerpt from Invisible Cities. Calvino has Marco Polo describe a city called Laudomia. Laudomia, he says, is not only a double city, allowing equal space for both the living and the dead; but a triple city, in that the unborn are also allowed equal space:

… Rightly, Laudomia assigns an equally vast residence to those who are still to be born. Naturally the space is not in proportion to their number, which is presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, surrounded by an architecture all niches and bays and grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants’ eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect or crouching on every object or bracket that juts from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence, crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before, all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example, or with turkey feathers on their turbans, and you can recognize your own descendents and those of other families, friendly or hostile, of debtors and creditors, continuing their affairs, revenges, marrying for love or for money. The living of Laudomia frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are asked in silence; and it is always about themselves that the living ask, not about those who are to come. One man is concerned with leaving behind him an illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their own actions’ consequences; but the more they sharpen their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or after.
The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit, like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm. In the end, the visitors’ thoughts find two paths open before them, and there is no telling which harbors more anguish: either you must think that the number of the unborn is far greater than the total of all the living and all the dead, and then in every pore of the stone there are invisible hordes, jammed on the funnel-sides as in the stands of a stadium, and since with each generation Laudomia’s descendants are multiplied, every funnel contains hundreds of other funnels each with millions of persons who are to be born, thrusting their necks out and opening their mouths to escape suffocation. Or else you think that Laudomia, too, will disappear, no telling when, and all its citizens with it; in other words the generations will follow one another until they reach a certain number and will then go no further. Then the Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned over; each passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.

Imagine if you will the radically different take on these passages as read by a devoutly religious Catholic, whose moral life is dominated by daily contemplation of the abortion and birth-control controversies; or by an artist who is continuously driven onward in quest of recognition and the apparent immortality offered by fame, or even infamy. In creating and publishing his works, the poet, the artist, is obligated to make a good-faith attempt to present a true vision and an inspired prophecy, rather than just one more cynically contrived and self-referential example of onanistic drivel. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Readings: Why Is a Poem a Poem?

Included in the anthology The ABCs of Robert Lax, is an interesting essay by R.C. Kenedy, (yes, Virginia, that’s how he spells his name) entitled (surprisingly enough) “Robert Lax”. Here is an excerpt from that essay, which I found to be instructive, on the subject of poetry:

Poetry begins where objects renounce their own identity in order to become other than merely-themselves. But this is not the whole story. They go through a stage of becoming in order to assert their existence. The question ‘when is a table not a table’ is only a starting point – and the answer (which may declare that, when burnt, it becomes firewood) is not poetry’s chief concern. Between the question and the answer there is a circular path, which runs through the points of the inspiration, to give a framework – which is meant to define a complete and allusive world. In the arbitrary example of the burnt table, the image is capable of referring the potential reader to poverty and its connotations, or to the axiomatic obsolescence of all matter, whether flesh, word or stone. This possibility is the domain of poetry and the dramatically cited instance, which is vouched for by the poet’s passion, confronts actual existence and observes its changes. The vulnerable is-ness of the object need not pass through the stages of becoming to attest the vast confraternity of everything which has a place in time.

Please take careful notes: this will be on the final!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rodak's Writings: A New Way of Walkin'

I have never had much patience for minimalist or ultra-abstract art. Such things as so-called “concrete poetry” have left me cold. But my new-found interest in the work of Robert Lax, and the understanding that I’ve gleaned from reading a couple of interviews with him—as well as his poetry—have brought me around to a new understanding:

I certainly don’t think that you can tell people how they should take your poems, but I think you should feel responsible for any reverberation that a word you’ve chosen may have. I think that if you say ‘red’, you have to realize that some people will see red! But you also have to hope that the context of the poem itself will establish and clarify what you’re saying. ~ R. Lax; interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg, Patmos – 13th January, 1985

This morning I tried to clear my mind of all “busy,” pragmatic thought, and to simply record the “is-ness” of the moment(s). I found this technique—if it can be called that—to be reminiscent of the spirit of haiku, in that it seeks to distill immediate experience down to its essence. In so doing, I wrote the following poem:


dead timexxxxxxxxxx blue wall xxxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxcold room xxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxdead time xxxxxxxxxwritten word
dead time xxxxxxxxxxblank page xxxxxxxxwritten word

blank pagexxxxxxxxxblue wall xxxxxxxxx cold room
blank page xxxxxxxx blue wall xxxxxxxxx blue wall
dead time xxxxxxxxxcold room xxxxxxxx written word
blue wall xxxxxxxxxxblank page xxxxxxx written word

dead timexxxxxxxxx written wordxxxxxxxwritten word
dead timexxxxxxxxx cold roomxxxxxxxxx blue wall
blank pagexxxxxxxxxblue wallxxxxxxxxxxcold room
blue wallxxxxxxxxxx written wordxxxxxxxdead time

I think that timelessness is a real value to art, and that timelessness is also always accessible to a serious artist, just as it’s fairly accessible to a serious mathematician or a serious scientist. Timelessness is something that you can hope to work with. Though how you can talk about timelessness and progress at the same time, I’m not sure. ~ R. Lax; [ibid.]

Having completed the first experiment—again following Lax—I translated the same poem from the language of ‘noun’ to the language of color. I plan next to get out the colored pencils and translate the piece from word to image:

xxxxxxxxxxxxOr, Again

light grayxxxxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxlight bluexxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxlight grayxxxxxxxxxbright red
light grayxxxxxxxbright whitexxxxxxxbright red

bright whitexxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxlight blue
bright whitexxxxxdark bluexxxxxxxxxdark blue
light grayxxxxxxxlight bluexxxxxxxxx bright red
dark bluexxxxxxxbright whitexxxxxxxbright red

light grayxxxxxx bright redxxxxxxxxxbright red
light gray xxxxxxlight blue xxxxxxxxx dark blue
bright white xxxxdark blue xxxxxxxxx light blue
dark blue xxxxxxbright red xxxxxxxxxlight gray

Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout a new way of walkin’. Do you want to lose your mind?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Don't F**k It Up

I invite you to consider first the words of poet, Robert Lax, concerning the role of the poet in the human project; as expressed in a 1985 interview with William Packard:

I think the question that keeps occurring to me whenever we talk about poetry, literature and the rest, is: why are we doing it? Why are we writing it, why do we talk about it, and why do societies in general, at a certain stage of their development anyway, seem to take it seriously as a thing to do. Why are we writing poetry. It is funny that in most all societies, even though poets may not be well-treated, the idea of a poet is honored. I think it has something to do with vision; that without vision, the people perish. I think the people sense that poets are or should be carriers of vision, and should be those who express it. And people sense that that is needed; that vision is always needed. So there’s always or often a place for the poet in a society, and a person who’s writing poetry probably senses too that he’s doing something that matters. And that he should be left to do it, encouraged to do it. At least not unnecessarily hampered in his pursuit.

Okay. Keeping Lax’s vision of the role of the poet in mind, please consider also, in the same light, this wonderful poem by Anna Swir; translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan:


I’m curled into a ball
like a dog
that is cold.

Who will tell me
why I was born,
why this monstrosity
called life.

The telephone rings. I have to give
a poetry reading.

I enter.
A hundred people, a hundred pairs of eyes.
They look, they wait.
I know for what.

I am supposed to tell them
why they were born,
why there is
this monstrosity called life.

Ouch. Yet, consider again Lax, from a bit further on in the same interview:

We are related to all beings on this planet and particularly are human beings: we are all parts of each other. We contribute to each other’s lives in spiritual or psychological ways. We share each other’s dreams and we exchange dreams, and visions. And as we share, the general vision we have becomes larger and sharper, becomes clearer in showing us who we are, and what we are – not only individually, but who we are as one being, as a whole person, one humanity. It all becomes clearer through this exchange of dreams and visions. And one of the regular places for this exchange is in what we call literature – in poetry, drama, in novels – in literature and the fine arts.

If you call yourself “poet” then, or “artist,” you assume a major responsibility. Don’t fuck it up.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Quote du Jour: Where It's At

…I agree that the conquest of naturalism has been a good thing. The struggle for man to adapt himself to an anthropocentric universe is tragic; yet if he had ever really become Christian man would see and understand his present position much better. It is because men never really understood or believed in Christ that we have reached the present position. This is not a cliché, and certainly it is not meant in the sense that “men never became devout Christians.” On the contrary, there have always been devout Christians, but frankly they solve no problems for anyone, least of all the world. Christ did not die on the cross merely so that there might be devout Christians. ~ Thomas Merton; letter to Czeslaw Milosz, 16 September 1961

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Readings: The Man From Nazareth

It might have been the name of the author—Harry Emerson Fosdick—on the spine of the book that caught my eye. There, in a cardboard box labeled “Religion,” amidst a jumble of others, was a thin, black covered, hardback book, and I remember thinking something like “Why would an F.B.I. Director write a book about Jesus? Doesn’t that name (which was vaguely familiar to me for reasons that I still find obscure) suggest a high government official, rather than a man of God? Yet, a man of God was the Rev. Fosdick—a Baptist preacher, to be exact—and a man whose biography is worth taking a glance at.

As I collect books about Jesus Christ, and as the risk of picking up a book at the public library’s used book sale is all of thirty-cents, I brought this one—the full title of which is The Man From Nazareth as his Contemporaries Saw Him—home with me.

I have now started reading it and have to admit that I’m enjoying it. It is nice to have a sensible Protestant voice in my head, once in awhile. It is also nice to read a book on the “historical Jesus” written by a believer (rather than a stone-souled scientist) once in awhile.

As a “writer,” I particularly liked and concurred with this concept of Fosdick’s:

One hesitates to use the word “artist” about Jesus, because he was so much more, but one does not understand him and his impact on his contemporaries, if one fails to see him as that too. In his thinking about God, the soul and the profound concerns of religion with which he dealt, he was never a speculative theologian, working out a formal religious philosophy, but an artist, seeing truth with visual vividness and embodying it in similes, metaphors, parables, which mankind has never been able to forget. If the common folk who heard him were to understand serious teaching at all, they would best understand that.

If you ever come across this book in a cardboard box, looking for shelf in a friendly home, pick up; it will repay your loving attention.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Readings: Merton and Milosz - a Correspondence

Last night, when I was already starting to think about going to bed, I went upstairs to see if I could find a certain book on the shelves in the family room. What I found instead was a forgotten treasure—a book that I had purchased from a catalog along with several others, put aside, and forgot about until I found it last night—Striving Towards Being: the Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz. I don’t even remember what book it was that I originally went up there to find.

I brought the book downstairs and thought I’d just leaf through it a bit before bed, to see if I really wanted to add it to the stack of books I’m already reading. I ended up reading for well over an hour in my chair, and then bringing the book to bed with me—something I almost never do—to read a little more.

I have thus far read about a third of this little (178 pages) book, which begins with a letter sent cold by Merton to Milosz in December 1958 and ends with Merton’s untimely death a decade later; the last letter being a brief note sent to Milosz by Merton from Darjeeling, dated November 21, 1968. Merton was accidentally electrocuted while stepping out of a bath and touching an electric fan, on December 10, 1968, while traveling in Asia.

Thomas Merton, although a well-known writer, a priest, and a Trappist monk, does not seem to be a man that Catholics tend to brag about. He is, however, one of my favorite Catholic writers; probably for all the same reasons that he is out of favor in his Church: Merton was a mensch.

In my reading last night, I found Merton’s letter of May 21, 1959 to contain some thinking that strikes a responsive chord in me. Here, for instance, he is talking about the place of the Christian in the contemporary world; about how one tends to become a bystander—standing around doing nothing while crimes are being committed:

I am more and more convinced every day that it is a religious as well as a civil obligation to be discontented with ready-made answers—no matter where they may come from. How much longer can the world subsist on institutional slogans?

Later in the same letter, Merton discusses his concept of Providence:

Insofar as we are Christ, we are our own Providence. The thing is then not to struggle to work out the “laws” of a mysterious force alien to us and utterly outside us, but to come to terms with what is inmost in our own selves, the very depth of our own being… (and this inner Providence is not really so directly concerned with the surface of life) what is within, inaccessible to the evil will of others, is always good unless we ourselves deliberately cut ourselves off from it.

He follows this observation up immediately with one that I particularly like:

As for those who are too shattered to do anything about it one way or the other, they are lifted, in pieces, into heaven and find themselves together there with no sense of how it might have been possible.

A bit further on, Merton states:

Even as a Catholic I am a complete lone wolf…I represent my own life… But that is not the kind of thing that is likely to be viewed with favor. …But as far as solidarity with other people goes, I am committed to nothing except a very simple and elemental kind of solidarity, which is perhaps without significance politically, but which is I feel the only kind which works at all. That is to pick out the people whom I recognize in a crowd and hail them and rejoice with them for a moment that we speak the same language. [italics added by me]

Speaking to the Pole, Milosz, on the general topic of the Cold War and East-West relations, Merton makes the following prophetic assessment:

There is, in formation, a whole body of potential “new men” in American universities and even in business circles: men without heads and without imagination, with three or four eyes and iron teeth, who are secretly in love with the concept of a vast managerial society. One day we are going to wake up and find America and Russia in bed together (forgive the unmonastic image) and realize that they were happily married all along. It is then that the rest of us are going to have to sort ourselves out and find out if there remains, for us, a little fresh air somewhere in the universe.

Indeed. As I read on in this slender volume, I find myself much more impressed by Merton than I am by Milosz, who seems to me to be a more conventionally political man. I say this despite the fact that Milosz has cited my ultimate mentor, Simone Weil, in nearly every letter (about which I plan to write at another time.)

Near the end of the letter, Merton writes:

Finally, I think it is eminently good that you [Milosz], especially as a Pole, are not listed as a Catholic writer pure and simple. You can do much more good that way. Categories are of very little use, and often to be clearly labeled is equivalent to being silenced. [italics added by me]

Oh my—what I wouldn’t give to find a letter like this one in my box.
MERRY CHRISTMAS to all my visitors, new and old!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rodak's Writings: Sola Fides

Sola Fides

A priest,
be he Aztec,
Sadducee, or Franciscan,
is one whose livelihood
depends on being believed
when he asserts
the absolute necessity
of his station: a salesman—

a fisher of those willing to believe
there exists a sure thing
in a world designed by the Creator
with probability
as the sole binding agent.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Readings: Another Gass Attack

One of the attractive features of writing one’s own blog is that one is free to state an opinion without spending a lot of time substantiating it with extraneous material. One can simply say “I think such-and-such” and then go ahead and say such-and-such. If somebody wants to contest what you’ve said, they can do so in the comments. At that point you can either defend your opinion, or not, depending on whether you find your reader’s objections to be interesting, or not.

In the following consideration of Cartesian Sonata and other Novellas by the amazing William H. Gass, I am going to cite a few passages that I particularly liked from the last of the four novellas contained in the volume. The title of the work is “The Master of Secret Revenges.”

The first three novellas are all excellent as well. Each is slightly different in form from the others, but also similar in that each is a character study. Here comes my first unsupported opinion: “The Master of Secret Revenges” is a study of ressentiment as exemplified by the title character, Luther Penner. Both the first and the last name of the protagonist (or anti-hero) are significant clues to the character’s significance (that would be unsupported opinion #2, if you’re going to number my transgressions.) He is a clever weakling who spends his life perpetrating increasingly grandiose acts of revenge against those whom he feels to be putting him down. Finally he is martyred in the production of his greatest of all revenges: that of founding a new religion, of which he is the prophet.

As a child, the precocious perpetual victim of schoolyard bullies, Luther Penner temporarily develops the ability to see the souls of his tormentors, from which he gleans the following insight:

We are born morally pure, Luther Penner realized, but life dirties us, and we darken over time, so a self that might have been once radiant within, lightening our skin and shining through our eyes, becomes besmirched by anger, fright, and pride, by pettiness and mean designs. Over time our inner sun will dim, we shall be less and less morally alive, and one day night will pull down its blind, and we shall do a Dirty which leaves us at last with no more guilt or remorse than a squirrel feels for stealing the birds’ seed, and we shall find ourselves finally without humor or indignation or passion or desire or any inner heat whatever. It was what was meant by “the dark night of the soul.” We shall be zombies of the spirit. Like politicians too cynical to bother feeling the cynic’s superiority or even showing the cynic’s sneer.

Luther Penner is projecting like a bandit there (#3), but we note also that he is employing the second person in expounding his nascent philosophy. The next excerpt, although expressing rank bigotry, is presented here because I find it to be, nonetheless, funny (#4). In addition to being funny, it beautifully demonstrates Penner’s understanding of pervasive ressentiment:

He didn’t like fairies much. But he did believe every homosexual was getting even with a parent or two. The gay guy has got his father’s balls in a basket and is carrying them to grandmother’s house to wait for the wolf, he said.

The final excerpt is taken from the book’s closing pages. It is spoken by the novella’s fictional narrator; a man who befriended Luther Penner while both were students at a junior college, and who later researches Penner’s life by collecting his writings and by obtaining an oral history from his family and associates:

…I believe Luther Penner presented us with a mordant yet magnificent metaphysics: life perceived not simply as if it were lived amid a maelstrom of conflicting and competing myths, but as if it were dressed up in illusions deliberately designed by those who have been previously misguided, and who are now getting even as only secret enemies secretly can. How many in one’s own home or neighborhood—to examine a small sample—have been betrayed by isms and ologies of one sort or other, have given money to nutcase causes, and squandered much of the precious time of their lives in vain spiritual pursuits?

It is difficult to argue with that. But, by all means, have at it if you can show evidence to the contrary.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Quote du Jour / R.I.P. - Capt. Beefheart

The world touches too hard. ~ Don Van Vliet


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Quote du Jour: Just For the Hell of It

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
— Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Readings: Gettin' Holy Wid It

I don’t do book reviews, as such. What I do on this site is note what I happen to be reading at any given time, and post excerpts from that reading which strike me as interesting, relevant to my own state of being, particularly insightful, or illuminating. I’m reading a book now that is chock full of ideas falling into all of those categories. The book is The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. The author is Judith Shulevitz.

I discovered this book in the course of giving the New York Times book review’s list of 100 notable books of 2010 a desultory look-see. If you click the link and look at the list, you will see that this title is nowhere near the top. Yet it reached out and grabbed me. Inexplicably, the Times list’s little blurb held such appeal for me that I went onto OhioLink—the state of Ohio’s university resource sharing network—to borrow a copy from the University of Cincinnati libraries. I haven’t been disappointed by having made that little effort.

Simply stated, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I recommend it without reservation. At this time, I’ve read a little bit more than half of its 217 pages of text (and xxxi pages of introduction). The first excerpts I selected to share were found in the introduction. The final one that I will post was found on page 88. I could have chosen many more.

I should not give the impression that this is a totally uncharacteristic type of book for me to read. I read on religion frequently and broadly. All religions and many schools of secular philosophy interest me deeply. Religion has, in fact, informed my attitudes to the extent that I often don’t react to things as many people expect, or prefer, that I would react. This does not enhance my popularity. I have, therefore, experienced a bit of what this excerpt speaks of:

... Seen from the outside, the quest for religious solace looks preposterous. Søren Kierkegaard said that religion has a truth so purely interior that it approaches madness. ...Insofar as it is untranslatable, the holy, not to mention the search for it, has the powerful potential to be lonely.

But this book is about the Sabbath, as the title would imply:

Why associate the Sabbath with solitude? ... [A]t the core of the Sabbath lies an unassuageable longing. The Sabbath grasps at that which is out of reach. Qadosh, the Hebrew word for "holy," comes from a root that means "apart, separate, withdrawn." In Judaism, that which is holy is that which has been fenced off. The Sabbath rituals create this boundary, and the boundary creates the experience of otherness that we call the holy. But the inverse of this process is a yearning for an impossible ideal, a utopia that is by definition unattainable. The Law, the legal theorist Robert Cover says, is a bridge between our imperfect world and the vision of its perfection. Religious laws and rituals remind us that we live in exile, not in perfect harmony, neither with one another nor with God.

This next excerpt speaks for itself. I can relate to its every element:

We all know what it feels like to give short shrift to ourselves, our families, and our children, not to mention the stranger in our midst. It feels disgusting. Our bodies, our houses, and our relationships spiral toward disorder and decay. Our nails lengthen because we forget to cut them. Our eyesight blurs because we can’t be bothered to visit the eye doctor. Slime accumulates on pantry shelves. The tone in our spouses’ voices hardens. Children mutiny at times seemingly calculated to be inconvenient. Too busy to attend to our own needs, we lack sympathy for the needs of people who seem less busy than we are. That, too, has consequences. Before long, the underemployed become the unemployable, then the menacing mob.

In this book Shulevitz explores the idea that the ills described above might possibly to mitigated by returning to a dedicated observance of the Sabbath; whether as Jews, or in some Christian version. But most of us are trapped in attitudes which make such a return unlikely:

To those of us who live in a disenchanted, Euclidean world, the category of the holy feels like a superfluity, a drawer into which you might toss odds and ends. Sacred things are relics. Sacred words are abracadabra (the word is a parody of an Aramaic sentence describing God’s act of creation: avra ke’davra, “I create as I speak”). Holy days, once meant to open up the heavens for a glimpse of time on a cosmic scale, are now “holidays,” meant for skiing trips or preschool parties.

In order to enjoy the existential benefits of observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy, we would need to make a personal commitment:

Holy time, then, is time that we ourselves make holy—time that we sanctify by means of ourselves. We have to commit ourselves to holy time before it will oblige us by turning holy. […]
From this perspective, Sabbath rules can be seen as formal exercises in sanctification. Don’t do on that day whatever it is that you do on all the other days. What could be less enchanting than that? By divvying up the world into this kind of activity and that kind of activity, we fabricate holiness. The atheist would say that this proves that religion is a charade. The rabbis would say that this is how we become like God. After all, God ushered his world into being by dividing one thing from another: light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, and so on. Much of Jewish law flows from the Durkheimian notion that drawing distinctions is a holy act.

As a writer, I particularly related to the concept of distinction as an act of creation, and therefore holy. The making of art, whether with words, with colors, or with shapes (or any combination of the three), is always done by making distinctions between the infinite supply of these things available to the artist, so that certain carefully chosen elements are offered to the world as the Chosen ones.

If we could do these things, Shulevitz reasons, new possibilities might open up to us:

I could relinquish the overwhelming burden of being me and take up the lesser burden of being a member of a holy community.

These excepts do not even make a good start at presenting a selection of the fascinating historical facts and comparisons, the glimpses of personal history, and the religious and philosophical contemplation—particularly with regard to time—that has gone into the writing of this brief but richly erudite book. I again recommend it without reservation to any person who is not perfectly happy with his or her relationship to the world that they encounter on a daily basis. X

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reflections: Liquor & the 2nd Amendment Solution

There's nothing missing from that sign but JESUS:
God bless America!

Friday, December 10, 2010

R.I.P. - James Moody

He was one of the best, one of my favorites; the jazz world has lost a true great.

Here is a contemporary rendition of Moody's signature tune.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remembrances: Working Class Hero

The is nothing I can write now, 30 years after the fact, that could even begin to measure the scope of our loss. So I am not even going to try.
I will, instead, let John Lennon have a say:

I didn’t hear about it until the next morning. On my way to the subway on E. 198th Street in the Bronx, I stopped in at the candy store on the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes. And there I saw the headlines on the tabloids.

In the job I had at the time, at a medical college on the upper eastside of Manhattan, I had occasion to be in contact with Dr. Stephen Lynn, the E.R. physician who tried, but was not able, to resuscitate John Lennon after he was shot and killed. This brought the whole thing closer to me than it might have been otherwise.

In addition to this connection was the circumstance that in the late summer or autumn of that year, as I was walking up Central Park West to meet my wife at the theater in the Park, I walked right by John and Yoko, who were standing in the street, hailing a cab. New York City is the biggest small town in the universe.

Rest in peace, John Lennon.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Readings: Jane Hirshfield Strikes Again

Lion and Angel Dividing the Maple Between Them

Easy to see
that the lion and angel
are one visitation,
but how do you come
to offer your throat to either?
In autumn, the trees
learn to drop off
both their disguises,
what finally fills them is simple.
The heart's deepest
affections will equally be devoured.
And still we go ankle deep
into that carnage, lifting first one,
then another part up to the light.
As if we were looking for something simple.
As if what we wanted
were not the thing that falls. ~ Jane Hirshfield, The Lives of the Heart

And so we learn over and over again, in pain, that human relationships can be domesticated only by a steady diet of benign lies. One nourishes the beast on truth only to give it strength enough to leap up and tear out one's throat. I ain't lyin'.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Readings: a Whole Fragment

These are the last five lines of a poem entitled "A Room" by Jane Hirshfield. There are seventeen lines preceding these five; but they stand quite well alone:

And so I instruct my ribs each morning,
pointing to hinge and plaster and wood --

xxxYou are matter, as they are.
xxxSee how perfectly it can be done.
xxxHold, one day more, what is asked.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Revelations: It's Just a Shot Away

Check out this revelatory isolation, found via this site:

HT/Amy McCann