Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Write

Despite my general skepticism of online psychological personality tests, I recently took one after seeing a reference to it on Facebook. The results were anything but surprising. Shock of all shocks: I am an individualist who defines myself in terms of how I am different from everyone else. That this is a category is a little disturbing but that’s beside the point. Because I like to think about myself (being self-absorbed is another characteristic trait) I read most of what the site had to say about my categorization. In reference to how people like me tend to fixate on our own thought patterns, particularly negative ones, the following advice was given: people with this type of personality are heavily dependent on their feelings; they think that if they can understand their feelings, if they can gain some sort of radical self-revelation, they will be able to overcome their circumstances. This is not the case, the most that they will gain is an understanding of why they are feeling those feelings right then, the knowledge or expression of what they are feeling will not actually help the situation.
The authority of the website I visited is irrelevant - it could have been written by the Argentinean Nazi Party, the International Union of Jungian Transvestites, or the Bank of America. The point is not that I have gained some deep psychological insight. I find the notion that self-expression may not be helpful disturbing not because I read it on the internet but because I have been suspecting the same thing for a few weeks now.
When I am feeling something particularly intensely I write it down. How intensely I am feeling said sentiment relates to the medium in which it is written (the hierarchy is something like: typed – pencil and paper – ink and paper [repetitive] – sharpie or pen on skin – knife in skin). What I am trying to do is get the thought out of my head; but when I really reflect on the progression of my writing over the last few years, why I am trying to get the thought out of my head has changed drastically. Two years ago, when I was working at Washington Graphics, I wrote my first short story. The words came to me as I was manning the rear end of a screen-print UV drier and I scribbled down the first few pages during my three-o-clock break. Over the next week or so I would actually carry my notebook with me around the production floor and whenever I was doing something with natural breaks I would write during the dead time (of which, as any screen-printer will tell you, there is often quite a bit). Several times on my return commute I had to pull over and write a few particularly pressing sentences before I even got home. For the first time, it felt like in years (the last two years of high school sucked rather magnificently), I genuinely felt that what I was doing was important and valuable and I didn’t want to miss a word. I didn’t want to loose the flow of prose that came so easily after reading most of Cormac McCarthy’s work over the span of a few months.
Although I tend to put it in similar terms, what I experience now is far different. When a thought is torturing me I don’t want it immortalized. I’m not worried about forgetting it before I can write it down. I want it out of my head. I think that somehow if I put the right words to my pain and misery it will go away. Or at least I’ll be able to stand back, get some perspective, and deal with it; and this is generally what happened even up until this year. Last winter particularly I was able to bind my feeling into poems to the point where they lost their burning immediacy (this was the I Hold Four Hydras series). In the last of that cycle I gained some measure of resolution and things generally did improve.
I’m not sure what has changed but writing no longer has this effect on me. In the last few months, the more I have written about my feelings the worse they have become. Instead of binding the ideas into prose or verse so that I can more easily deal with them, the writing has only caused me to fixate – to focus on my feeling so exclusively that everything else becomes dream-like. My writing has caused me to enter into foul fantasy-laden moods where I am unable to communicate, empathize, or care about anything except the object of my fixation and my own expressions of it.
So the question I must now ask myself is whether the entire ordeal is worthwhile. I feel that it is important for my ambitions as a writer for me to express myself in literary form. Writing is like any discipline - if I stop I tend to loose my edge and when I come back I find the practice awkward and imitative. But if I am honest with myself I have serious doubts about my originality, proficiency and potential as a creative writer. I do not seriously believe that my poetry or short-fiction, let alone the fantasy epics or alternate histories, will attract popular or critical attention. I write therefore, for myself: to entertain, amuse, or console, at the very least to give myself something to do. But if my writing no longer functions to these purposes, I wonder whether I can justify it. I wonder whether I can really claim that it is worthwhile to write bad love poems when the concentration caused by the writing of those poems is only exacerbating my distress.
I don’t really have a conclusion to this except to explain one idea of where I might go as a writer. What I need in my writing is to have something to occupy my mind, to keep me so wrapped up in an obtuse and irrelevant topic that the real and pressing concerns of my life become less real and pressing. I can write a dozen poems trying to deal with the threat of being alone all my life but when they are done and posted I won’t feel any less terrified. Conversely, if I spend that time writing about Tolkien or mountain climbing or dialogues between long-dead philosophers I may forget all about the fact that I have no real, tangible friends outside of my classes and be able to fall into bed exhausted, thinking about nothing but the implications of Ungoliant’s threatening of Melkor or the ethics of roped travel or just giggling at my own stupidity.

- On an unrelated note -

How this works: I write things, and then I edit them, and then I post them, and then you read them. And I know that you exist – blogspot has a statistics function, I’ve had more page views over the last few weeks than at any point since I was in Europe. This pleases me; I don’t post my writing in case my computer crashes, I post it so that other people can read it, so that I won’t be working in a vacuum. Yet I find it disturbing how little response my writing elicits. Is my work really so ineffective that it causes no reaction at all? Does it really leave you feeling blank and unaffected? Because that is what one comment in the last dozen posts says to me (and regarding that one comment: thanks, it really made my day). As I said before, I don’t think my writing is all that good, I don’t think I’m enriching the literary landscape by posting my miserable little pieces. I’m doing this in the hopes that people will respond in constructive ways, that people will tell me what works and what doesn’t, what they found interesting and what didn’t make any sense at all. It’s all pretty selfish but then it is a blog – that’s sort of the point.
The gist of what I’m saying is that I feel like I’m speaking into thin air, and I don’t like it; I talk to myself enough as it is, I don’t need a special way of doing it such that I can hope, but never know, that someone is listening.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And All And Ending, For My Executioner

This was written in response to an execution scene in Everything is Illuminated; which is the best film I have seen in a long time.
There’s nothing like thinking pointedly about death to make you want to feel alive.

From this angle the gun’s barrel is long and tapers to its lacunal mouth where in a moment a fire will be lit and a blast will sound that my ears will never hear and whatever it is that I am will cease to be.
This moment, as my executioner waits for the command to end me, is empty and overflowing.
My childhood first. Might they, my mother and my father, have seen this in my days? Could this evening have entered into their most fearful speculations? I remember sunshine and everything tall; but defined by its repetition, this vision is soon to be darkened. I think of these things now and I will never think of them again. I whispering, hallow them before my predestined bullet finds its resting place.
And then my youth. Again my parents but now there are other faces to be recalled. My friends and their consolation. The hope they spoke of, the wide yawning roads across the land. And the shadow that descended over my face, the feverish nights of pantomime and tearing. Life so of the moment that future and past were as dreams, the perfect negative to my present mind. There my fear was always of infinity, but here - here is the most finite of all possible times. Here I desire the very thing that once drove me to the source of my present longing. The finite and the infinite and the being and the non-being. However I steel myself these minutes have no care.
By now I see the turning - the reiteration of the traditions of the executed. I know what I am to think: doors I left unlocked, lights I left on, machines I left running as they dragged me away to this pale moonset. So many worries and concerns from which I will now be set free; in these quickly declining minutes I see what it is to live without a future. I think of what was and try to forget what is and know beyond doubt what will be.
What might have been - is this even open to me? There is no might-have-been, every one of my steps brought me here, there were no crossroads and no junctions, only the road made straight before me.
But what I would have wished, this is the last diversion as I see his hand tighten around the stock and his eye narrow against the sights. I would have wished to write about the books that I loved and to see the lands described within them. I would have wished to be one of the mighty, a place set for me at the table of my lord. I would have wished to be wished for, to be the name on some girl’s lips as she ran to me, and on her child’s lips as I held him. I would have wished to see in myself what I have seen in my father and to see in her what I have seen in my mother, to stand betwixt generations and know both past and future by their smell and feel.
These things I would have wished for but no longer, here all is ending in the air and darkness and my wishes have no currency. Here is the end of every song I have not sung and every word I have not written. Here all potential ends.
Here. And all. And ending –

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Calvin and Hobbes

So I was reading Hume and this sort of came to me.

Hobbes: you know, life really is nasty. and brutish. and short.
Calvin: and people are totally depraved.
Hobbes: actually, maybe just you. We need strong authoritarian government either way though.
Calvin: mostly just to stop everyone from dancing.
Hobbes: but what about making tuna-fish sandwiches?
Calvin: I don’t have a problem with that, but remember, there’s only a limited amount of atonement, so don’t use the whole jar.

That’s right, Hobbes uses atonement on his sandwiches instead of mayo.
I am an idiot.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Proof and Implications of the Life of Fire

- a non-reflexive examination of what it means to be alive -

Non-reflexive here meaning that I have consciously resisted back-editing based on conclusions reached later in the essay.

A definition of life as we may hope to encounter it independent of our own ancestry has three conditions: life must be a set of chemical reactions capable of
1. Self-propagation
2. Birth and death such that it can be said to have substance and life in the substance
3. Movement (caused by the life in the substance) independent of gravitational and geologic forces.
Fire, that is the combustion of organic matter instigated by human activity and electrical storms, can be considered life, but one that is only partially separate from our life. Fire lacks DNA, and therefore a carbon based body and any of the characteristics of the life of our ancestors. In fact, fire lacks a material body of any kind, which accounts for its relative fragility. Fire cannot endure and passes in and out of existence far more easily than we. Yet fire satisfies the definition of life laid out previously as long as a pure chemical reaction, independent of any enduring form, can be said to have substance.
Does fire then have life and substance, soul and body in the Aristotelian sense? That fire has life - soul - is obvious, it moves independently of gravitational and geologic forces, but its substance can only be detected if the life is removed: when what remains is found to have the peculiar, vacuous, expired quality of the body of a once-living thing.
If then, in creating fire we create life, our offspring take two forms - organic and fiery. To the organic we pass both body and soul, but the fiery only soul - its substance, though present, is immaterial.
If offspring derive their soul, their life, their movement against gravitational and geologic forces, from their parents (as must be the case, for where else could they get it?) are fires not of our making likewise ensouled? These fires are lit by lightening - could the storm too be alive? This cannot be the case - storms do not propagate themselves, they are created by the unequal distribution of the sun’s energy on the earth’s curved surface, and are therefore gravitational and geological in movement. The sun’s movement, though superficially similar to fire, is purely gravitational. Additionally, storms give no evidence of substance, either in life or in death. Therefore, despite its similarities to the domestic fire, the wild fire cannot be alive, for there is no where for it to get its life.
But this is impossible, though they begin in different manners, the wild fire and the domestic fire are chemically identical, the only difference between them is that the former cannot be considered truly independent of geological and gravitational forces for its movement.
Is life then wholly dependent upon its genesis and not its qualities? Could the first and second conditions be removed entirely?
Here it should be noted that geological movement is actually derived from and can be included in gravitational movement (the heat of the earth is a result of the great internal pressures, which are caused by gravity - the exploding volcano is thus, ironically, a gravitational movement).
Reducing the conditions of life to merely movement independent of gravity would not seem to alter the set of “living” things, but this is true only on a macro level. The movement of charged particles is in defiance of gravitational forces, but substances whose movement are dependent upon such forces (molecules, atoms, and smaller particles) cannot be called life because they are not born and cannot die - the forces that give them movement cannot leave them. The only exception might be nuclear fission, but as this is instigated by another living thing it is not problematic.
Thus the third condition could be amended to movement independent of gravity and other forces predicted by the laws of physics. The claim could be made that should the laws of physics be fully understood, no movement could be seen to be outside of them; and therefore there could be no life in the sense that it is meant here, which is entirely possible but not useful for this line of enquiry at this time.
Therefore the problem remains: life must be defined by both its origin and its qualities, yet domestic fire - a living thing - differs from wild fire - a non-living thing - only in its origin.
[see note at conclusion]
The possibility that wild fire is alive must be further examined. Because wild fire shares all of its qualities with domestic fire, it seems reasonable that it too is alive and another explanation must be found for how it could come to be ensouled without a living thing having produced it.
There must have been a point, assuming an expanding universe, at which there was no life. Therefore, given that we are alive, there must be a means by which the non-living becomes the living; and, unless there are multiple means, that same means must be found within a lightening strike.
We have thus far assumed that any life given to the fire came from an external source, (human efforts or lightening) but it would seem possible that the life of the wild fire comes not from the lightening but from the living thing that is struck. In this case the lightening would cause whatever it is that it strikes - say, a tree - to give birth to another form of life, just as we do when we strike a match. But this is impossible, for a dead man cannot strike a match but a dead tree stuck by lightening still brings forth fire. So unless a dead thing can cause life, a non-living thing is still the cause of the life of the wild fire.
We should then return to the issue of the non-living begetting life. It must have happened, if not in every wild fire then in the genesis of our ancestors, yet where could this contra-physical movement have come from?
Only five-hundred years ago a thinker face with this dilemma would have leapt upon the answer of God - big g God, the Judeo-Christian deity. But this disguises the issue, the claim behind the appeal to a higher power is the impossibility of the phenomenon under consideration. It appears then that unless this entire enquiry has been for naught and there is no contra-physical movement, a miracle is required - an instance in which a soul springs into being.
There is another option, if the third condition is removed but the first and second retained, there can be “life” in a radically deterministic (solely and utterly determined by physical laws) universe. In which case there is no sharp distinction between the living and the non-living, “life” is simply a human term for anything that propagates in a cycle of life and death.
We see now that life has no significance without the third condition, the term “life” creates no real distinction without it. The man may well be the popping ember, be the rock tumbling off the mountain; physical movement is physical movement, against which there can be no movement with out a miraculous occurrence.
Returning one last time to the fire, if there was a miracle that took non-living matter and brought forth our ancestors, then we may see the same miracle in the birth of every wild fire. This would be to admit the possibility of the impossible and to hint at movements we have no mechanism to detect or understand. Which would be a rather heinous mother-of-all-paradoxes unless we admit, like Socrates, that we may know nothing at all and that therefore there could be levels of the possible far above anything we currently understand.
Which is still to posit an unexplainable sort of biological singularity instead of admitting that our movement cannot be contra-physical.
In simpler terms, we - the living - might assume what we know to be impossible in order to placate our arrogance. The arrogance being the claim that the existence of the living is more significant, more extraordinary, and more meaningful than the existence of the non-living.
Or more reduced - pride versus objectivity.
Given the stakes (I don’t know how to be a person in a truly objective world), I’m honestly not sure.

The solution to the life of fire, by the way, is not all that complex -
The wild fire has the first two conditions but not the third, its movement is due solely to physical forces despite that that same movement can be caused by contra-physical forces in domestic fire. So in effect, if the third condition is amended the other two can be dropped. And if then the third condition is shown to be impossible to meet, if there are no contra-physical forces, if to be living does not mean as much as was previously assumed, the entire definition of life breaks down.
If there cannot be contra-physical movement, tracking the continuity of the life in the substance becomes meaningless. Robbed of their metaphysical distinction, life and death cannot be states of being with any significance and the distinction between man, ember and stone becomes purely semantic.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Preliminary Defense of The Silmarillion

"But Ulmo was alone, he abode not in Valinor nor ever came thither unless there were need of a great council; he dwelt from the beginning of Arda in the Outer Ocean, and still he dwells there. Thence he governs the flowing of all waters, and the ebbing, the courses of all rivers and the replenishment of springs, the distilling of all dews and rain in every land beneath the sky. In the deep places he gives thought to music great and terrible; and the echo of that music runs through all the veins of the world in sorrow and in joy; for if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the earth." (34)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, now officially my favorite work of literature, ever.

I just love how every negative criticism of The Silmarillion that is at all discerning, i.e. not "the writing sucks and the story is lame," describes why I love it:
"too serious, lacking the light-hearted moments that were found in The Lord of the Rings and especially The Hobbit. TIME lamented that there was "no single, unifying quest and, above all, no band of brothers for the reader to identify with". Other criticisms included difficult to read archaic language and many difficult and hard-to-remember names." [copied from Wikipedia]

My advice for the adventurous few who may attempt Tolkien's greatest work:
1. Skip the Ainulindale and the Valequenta until after you've read the Quenta Silmarillion and the Akallabeth.
2. Stick a post-it in the genealogies in the back of the book and reference them until you are familiar with the Elven families (especially the House of Finwe), forgetting who is who is the fastest way to loose track of what is going on. Later on in the book doing the same for the map may also be helpful, but don't worry about locations in the earlier chapters. Obtaining a middle-earth atlas may be helpful, as the printings of Tolkien's original maps are often quite poor.
3. Consider reading The Children of Hurin first, it is an expansion of chapters 20 and 21 and will familiarize you with many of the major figures while giving a much more unified plot line. It is also fantastically depressing, Tolkien really had a flare of Greek tragedy.
4. Experience reading ancient and medieval literature is invaluable. The Silmarillion is not a novel, do not expect compelling dialogue, well developed characters in the modern sense, or a continuous plot. Pore over it like a three thousand year old epic and you will find depths in it that match Ovid, Virgil, Sturluson, and Dante.
5. Tolkien penned the first versions of the original stories, Beren and Luthien, the Children of Hurin, and the Fall of Gondolin, in the trenches on the western front of WWI. Don't expect anything light or frivolous, but know that "amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures." (190) It may be escapist fantasy, but it is not an escape into anything less terrifying or beautiful than the world from which one may wish to flee.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hydra Cycle

Another attempt at macro-composition. All have been posted at one time or another, most have been revised, some heavily.
Because maybe if I spend enough time thinking about this it will go away (at least if I post it I won’t be able to work on it for a few days).

The Hazards of Fish II

They are binding my hands,
Thick cords of leather;
And my feet.
Around the binding is another rope, thrice-wound and strong,
Between my hands and feet extended and
Lashed to the harness of an ass.
They yell curtly and the animals trot each forward,
Each their end to me.
Dragged through the dirt as the lines goes taut, one before the other
And then I am suspended
And my spine is separating
And the cord is cutting my wrists to the bone
And my stomach tears
And my intestines are in the dirt
And the ass does not stop, pale coils dragging behind.
Passing them, my murderers, I see their faces:
Mine each one,
And the ass too I see is myself, pulling with all the strength of my body,
And there are no bindings, I grip the rope my fingers clenched;
For no man may be torn to pieces such that he himself is not party.

I Hold Four Hydras (I)

I the crippled satyr
Have left cloven hoof prints in the garden and
Found the child entombed;
Her fetal bones soft in the bejeweled casket.

I fail and call;
Have the oak in her mourning
Found refuge from deathly Saturn,
Her limbs barred before the gale?

I move not and
Have never a fear,
Found though she is
Her door is shut.

I sleep in the sun on my bed in my room and I
Have a dream that high though the peak rose I reached its summit and
Found dead men;
Her face in the moonlight, too far from the shore.

I hold four hydras,
Here in my hands,
And they bite and they tear and I cannot let them go.

I Hold Four Hydras (IV)

I hate,
Have I never,
Found is the word;
Hers is a cruel gaze to see my eyes but not their fear.

I, the whole of hell within;
Have you, Catullus,
Found such a bullet in your ventricle for
Her to parse?

I write on air flowing into the four winds,
Have you, Catullus,
Found such waves filled with the promises of the Lethe,
Her image failing even as it is composed?

I fear all things unpromised
Have fictions unturned;
Found I never
Her name?

I hold four hydras,
Mythic beasts that never bred upon the earth,
And their poison runs within me.

I Hold Four Hydras (III)

I know I cannot swim and still I dream of diving deep into subterranean waters where the world is lit by flowering polyps, those who
Have never seen the ocean floor nor felt its membranous sands might still have
Found any of its treasures for white and deadened they drift to
Her like vapor in the currents of the farther waves.

I know I cannot swim and
Have never seen the ocean floor nor
Found any of its treasures for
Her like vapor in the current.

I know I
Have never
Found any of
Her like.

I hold four hydras,
And one slips from my grasp,
Three hydras to demarc the tide.

Ave Maria

Behold the lady of the garden,
Her white and downturned face a thousand years sacred.
Behold her dim entangled radiance,
The hood and the robe,
And the blossoms at her feet.
Behold her,
Her and not the hydras nearly slain.

I held them, here in my hands
And they died twixt my fingers.
Died as maws grew afresh from the ragged things,
Gangrene and necrotic from birth.

Look not upon them, those parasites of the flesh.
See instead the lady,
Who could not answer even would I ask.
Behold instead her ancient sanctity,
Her adoration cold and silent.

I held them, and their venom was dear to me;
Have you seen her,
In the garden, upon the mountain,
On the road to God knows what city?
Found is the soul and found is the shrine;
Her beheld, lit in the evening.

I Hold Four Hydras (II)

I am aridity, I am the cracked and the dry.
Have you no moisture?
Found you no well?
Hers is the water and the life and the glory.

I scratch the seared earth until I
Have ten bloody fingertips;
Found are the wet sands
Her power, the moon, hid before dawn.

I, amid red sands fine,
Have, feet worn grey and splayed,
Found, upon the blasted heath,
Her; and know no road to the city or the temple.

I ache and sting and
Found no dwelling place beyond my crystalline spheres;
Her sight etched there ‘til all goes to dirt.

I hold four hydras,
Dead and limp,
Reeking of all necrotic things.

Staring at the Sun

There are a dozen earths before you
But only one treadmilling under your feet,
And who’s to say you are not the one still body
Around which all else turns?
All things turning but you unmoved.
And I’m staring at the sun
Seeing the clouds set afire and the sky scorched pale
And soon I’ll be blind;
Seeing this before all disappears.
You a great emberous glow eternally in my eye.


I and the hydra everlasting:
Is it my conceit to think us bound together?
Yoked by great violence - two species so contrary,
Consuming each other ‘til like frost and furnace,
United only in dream or Mosaic vision,
Each is the sign of the other’s death?

Is this our nature or some image less grand?
No myth or other world,
Some man but nearly blind and lost in a house of mirrors who,
Seeing a multitude, tries to tell his own reflection?
Which my conceit and which my pretension,
Which the true worlds wedded.

Perhaps no simile, no gesturing lie, can do;
Only the barest of words for my many-headed beast.
I desire, and she does not.
And I am afraid, her kindness of all the sharpest cruelty.

Lent (v.2)

Sometimes in winter it is cold
And to feel the wind, its chill purity,
I walk bare-skinned.
My sense knows the cold’s lethality and I shiver and clutch myself
But such air is not but what I make it
And if I honestly wish it away, it will be so.

Sometimes in a mirror I, glancing, catch my sight
And it is foreign, some other’s wilted face.
Like waking from a tossing sleep,
Struggling to parse the dream from what before.
In this time I see an awful cartesian scripture
Written on the walls of all tenuousness.
Always I could awaken and find
This, the extant world, gone.
Myself a child again,
Free to the morning light.

An old and dreaded hope, this.
But my rest too shallow to harbor such revelations,
Bliss and terror, time passing slowly in the late night.

I see you and I
Wonder at your neurotic pitted elegance.
If I am to be alone all my life then I am dead already and
Fall to sheol as I write.

In my dream you were sleeping and I took you into my arms
And whispered into your ear that I love you,
Your mind and your body and your soul, but
Then I walked to the ocean and laid
You in a cave for the rising tide to carry away … because sometimes in winter

Special thanks to Helen Palmer, John Darnielle, Seattle University Housing And Residence Life, Dr. Andrew Tadie, the concept of patience, the irreconcilable unity of envy and disdain, Rachel Carson, our lady of the Admin Garden, St. Matthew, Chiori Miyagawa, Mark Moffett, I-90, Dr. Sean McDowell, and my own little Falkland Islands.