01 September 2014

A Thousand Simple Tests

I am made so happy reading again Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The rhythm of his sentences move with my breath, or it is that as I flow through his sentences I experience a quiet and calmness that I enjoy in very few other instances in my anxious life. I can be with Walden anywhere. 
            He writes in “Economy’: “We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours.” I like that the verb Thoreau employs is a clear active one and not the vague verb ‘know,’ though I understand ‘try’ to mean ‘to know.’ There are so many ways to measure our existences; to consider our lives; to accept that we live. Thoreau calls these ways simple tests though they seem to me to have little in common with the high stakes testing and accountability measures that pervade our society. These ‘tests’ of which Thoreau speaks are ways of recognizing that we are alive, that we exist, and that the universe is not opposed to us! These tests are not summative or judgmental, nor are they even formative and developmental. These tests are the measure of the Now, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.” These tests are the measure of our life’s openness and not the measure of how open are our lives. Carrie Newcomer sings, “The wise men say, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground!” Thoreau’s thousand tests are the measure of our joys. Though Thoreau’s neighbors’ question his life-choices, their questions are really answers and hence, judgments about his life; Indeed, many of our questions are nothing but answers and often are attacks on the choices others that us have made. These judgments derive from the uncoupling of the two eternities.
            As an example of how we might try our life by a simple test Thoreau offers this: that if we were to ‘consider’ that our existences are merely part of a vast universeThoreau intentionally uses the plural ‘earths’andconsider’ that in our lives we were only a part of Nature, neither isolate nor extraordinary; and ‘consider’ that what we experience belongs to us as our experience, even as the experience of others belongs to them; and ‘consider’ that what we know as our realities are experienced everywhere and elsewhere by others the same and different than us; and ‘consider’ that whatever I see exists only as my individual perspective; then we live wholly present.

            And then Thoreau (to my mind) remarkably adds: “If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes.” Not all his errors, but certainly ‘some mistakes.’ I admire his honesty. There really are so many ways to live life.   

22 August 2014

Yoga practice

I have been doing Yoga. Not studying Yoga, but going to classes to do Yoga. Actually, I don’t really know what I’m doing though there is a great deal of talk (when I can hear itI have certainly been in attendance at too many rock concerts) about breathing (which I have always done fairly well!), and focusing and centering. Of course, during most the poses I am quite off center, unfocused, and sometimes struggling for breath. I will continue in the practice nonetheless. It is interesting, though, that when the hour session concludes I feel a bit otherworldly, a bit . . . somewhere else—and when I leave the studio I have to be somewhat cautious as I cross the street and head toward my car; and when I am finally driving home (she said during practice I was home!!) I keep the speed carefully slow and am exceptionally concerned that I’m not seeing something I should be seeing.
            One thing (among several things) that I am learning during practice concerns the insecurities I experience about doing the pose correctly. The teacher suggests that we practice with our eyes closed, but when I can’t see what others are doing I don’t know what I am doing! And tonight I thought that my obsession with doing things right can prevent me too often from doing things at all! Certainly this has been true in my scholarly practice: I am forever fearful that in my writing and speaking that I am setting myself up for humiliation. So tonight I tried to remember the practice poses and rhythms, tried to distinguish my Warrior I from my Warrior II, and actually (for a short while, at least) stopped worrying if I was doing anything correctly. But I was doing it.
            In his memoir, Little Did I Know, Stanley Cavell speaks of his own practice, not Yoga but philosophy. He says, “At most, day to day, isn’t what I have asked myself no more than whether I was interested to continue what I was doing, as I was doing it?” Which I am beginning to understand is not to do philosophy but to be a philosopher. There is the choice between living life and writing about it: Cavell teaches me that the two practices need not be separate.

13 August 2014

Morning Again

Stanley Cavell asks “So is it completely necessary or completely contingent that I have come to this place to tell the story of how I did not die from many catastrophes? And if it is neither [necessary or contingent] then what is the story of a life? And where is a place and what is a form to tell it?” I am paraphrasing; or I am asking the question I want to ask provoked in part by Cavell’s autobiography Little Did I Know, a book I have not yet finished. Because though he is writing his autobiography he is really questioning the reality of an autobiography. Does an autobiography track a life’s inevitability or does it record its contingency. If the former then an autobiography creates direction and the life becomes a work of art, a creation out of materials chosen and then fashioned with intent and forethought; but if the life narrated is understood as the result of contingency then what events does the autobiographer narrate except those that interest him/her in the present.
            Cavell says that the problem in autobiography is maintaining the narrative thread. This is no easy problem, because at “each step I seem to run up against a crowd of related matters that demand their expression.” But is it in the narrative or in the memory that he runs up against the crowd? It matters! Since a whole life can’t be narrated, then the life that is narrated is different than the life that was lived and depends very much on memory. But is he trying to remember or to forget? The autobiography is not the facts: “I mean to speak from identities compacted in my existence, a matter of attaching significance to insignificance and vice versa.” It is fiction, nonetheless: “Is anything other than the whole truth even a partial truth? And is anything the whole truth?”
            I have been thinking for a long time about autobiography: if I wrote one what life would I want to portray? From what place would I choose the events to narrate to create the life narrated? What life would I want the narrative to portray? Who do I think I am compared to who others might consider me? Cavell defines the Tannhauser effecta condition I experienceas the discrepancy between my feeling about my effort (my work) in the present and the effect that effort has on others. Yesterday, I got my annual royalty check for $78.29.
            My friends support my ego, but Cavell cautions me, “what friends cannot do is to prove that you have made yourself comprehensible to strangers.” Is the function of my work to make friends of strangers or strangers of friends? Cavell says that narcissism is a “suspended recognition of the separation of a world apart from me, a wish to show oneself, to make oneself, one’s work worthy of love.” How is my writing purely self-indulgent and narcissistic? And if I tell only a partial truth, then what part of the whole autobiography is true. And what am I to make of that part which is not true?  
            But perhaps a life becomes so only when it is narrated and then it becomes available to be read as fiction. Fiction, Kendall Walton suggests, are works whose function is to serve as props in games of make believe, and that any work which has the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe, however minor or peripheral or instrumental that function may be, is a work of fiction! Why do people write autobiographies? To create a life? Why do I read them?

23 July 2014

Other Lives to Lead

Thoreau says that he left Walden for the same reason as he went there in the first place: he had other lives to lead. Now, I recall that he originally occupied Walden as an experiment: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” I have never had Thoreau’s discipline but at no point in my life have I not tried to live by his principles. And at this moment I am drawn to these lines because I am leaving a Walden.
            For years I have defined myself as a long-distance runner, and for many years I actually was such. I had run three marathons in not unrespectable times, and I have accululated and worn through drawer-fuls of race t-shirts. There were times in my past when I logged in at forty and fifty miles; when I anticipated the journey out and often sought means and paths that would lengthen that passage; when during the run I did not concern myself with time nor climate. I loved to run and lived in my running. But these days I seem more apt to anticipate the cessation of the effort and the closeness of the approach to home. Now I count my steps and measure the time until I can stop. I hope for rain and difficult weather. I no longer experience the freedom or joy of the trail.

            And so I have taken to the health club and lifting free weights. I have enrolled in spin cycle classes and in attempts at various forms of Yoga. I am seeking a life of activity away from the running trail. It is difficult to leave one Walden even for another and so in the process I experience questions of identity and selfhood: if I am not a long distance runner then who am I? Or perhaps it is that I don’t leave my Walden but rather take it with me to my next location. I have other lives to lead. “I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops.” And so I do not leave the runningthough they are fewer there are still miles to go before I sleepbut I plant other seeds that I hope may sustain me. It is all an experiment and they are all Walden Ponds. I am learning new horizons and limits.

13 July 2014

Queen for a Day

One of the TV programs I recall watching when I was quite young was Queen for a Day. On this show, hosted by Jack Bailey, the women-contestants would be asked to recount publically their sordid tales of misery and woe, to which the audience would be asked to respond with applause (!) that would be measured on an applause-meter. The woman whose story inspired the greatest applause would be named “Queen for a Day,” and she would receive as a prize just those things the absence of which her story proclaimed as the source of her suffering.  There would always be considerable lament and weeping in the narrations. I think that what Queen for a Day promoted was misery, and its appeal seemed to lie in the ability to leer obscenely at the suffering and pain of others and then to enjoy the privilege to to assess and quantify the misery presented, and to elect the woman who had narrated the most wretched tale of woe to be Queen for a Day. Losing contestantsthose whose stories just weren’t sufficiently depressing would also receive some token reward for allowing the audience to leer. Later Phil Ochs would in a different context define the entire experience of Queen for a Day in his song “Crucifixion.” He sang, “Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all/ And do you have a picture of the pain?” It was the pleasure of viewing someone else’s pain that made watching the show pleasurable.
            I raise this issue now because for some time I have been reading and thinking about memoirs, a genre that some might say is emblematic of our time‘our time’ being the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That is another issueor no, perhaps it is the same issue, but I am headed in another direction right now. I think autobiographies are problematic: the truthfulness of any one of them is dubious (see Philip Roth’s The Facts, or Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled, or Paul DeMan’s essay, “Autobiography as De-facement”) and so I have been wondering that if they are not truthful, then why do we read these texts and why they are written. Again, this is a complex problem (I think), and one I mean to more formally pursue in the future. But I have recently finished reading two separate memoirs: Mary Karr’s trilogy, The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2000), and Lit (2009); and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005). These memoirs recount the miserable lives that each author endured, overcame and survived to narrate gloriously, say the reviewsabout their torturous experience. Both authors as a result became instant celebrities and extremely successful ‘artists,’ and their books appeared high on the New York Times Bestseller list.
            As a result of the portrayal of the pain and suffering each author endured , she moved into the ranks of the rich and famous. That is, both Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls become famous by recounting the misery of their lives; there is, it would seem, some value in emphasizing the suffering! In recounting their pain vividly they become, as it were, queens for the day. And I cannot now distinguish between this experience and that of old television show that rewarded a brilliant recounting a life beset by misery and suffering. These women are rewarded by a public hungry for tales of woe for their tale of woe. But until the writing neither woman had much of note to report, and their notoriety derives from their recounting of their lives and not from any material achievement in their existences. Since neither author engages in much psychological analysis of the lives in which the suffering derives, there isn’t much to be learned from the accounting. It is the spectacle of suffering that remains the attraction. And of course, it is the misery that must be foregrounded and hence, the tale is focused and falsified to this end. Any narrative that narrates conversation that took place twenty or thirty years ago strains credibility. The consciousness of a thirty year old imposed on a three year old just doesn’t bespeak an honest telling.
            To my mind the life of each author is no more nor less miserable than that of countless others. The same, of course, is true of the memoirist Frank McCourt whose own trilogy (Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man) may be partly responsible for the popularity of the form. He too offers exact transcriptions of conversations that took place fifty years earlier! As in Queen for a Day, the narrative is directed toward the depiction of misery, and the more miserable the better the story!
            But the same, I think, cannot be said, say, of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, a memoir that recounts the endurance of a human confronted by a historical force that was designed to deny the very humanity to which the writing offers testament. Levi’s aloneness in the camps was not particular to him alone, nor did what he suffered stem from his eccentric familial situation: it might be that Happy families are all alike, and that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but to read Anna Karenina is to observe not eccentricity but individuality. There are motives underlying behaviors that Tolstoy meticulously studied and explored. The novel is an exploration of a complex humanity in the face of suffering and not merely an account of the suffering. I can be Anna during my reading of Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in these memoirs of misery with which I can identify or from which I might gain insight into my own life. It is pure voyeurism in which I engage, but I am no longer amused.