Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Acceptance of the Other

Against Justice (or Why John Rawls is Unimpressive)

Justice does not interest me. Ethics can be fascinating; morality and the issues that stem from it are of ultimate concern in almost the Tillichian sense, but justice presumes the existence of that which I find abhorrent: civilized society. Justice seeks to make ethical that which can never be right and good; I believe quite firmly that humans should never live under conditions such that a system of justice becomes necessary. One way to argue this would be with the tradition of anarchist thought, but I am not well enough versed in that literature to lay out the socio-political arguments against civilization in a convincing manner. Instead I will make a philosophical argument for why the divide between the self and the other cannot be bridged, and from this will follow the same essential conclusion for political life as that of 20th century anarchism.

I offer the following as a disclaimer: I am aware of the intensely psychological undertones of this discussion. The central element of my experience is my oppositionality; it is what lies at the root of the vast gulf between my views and those of most of my peers (and what causes me to conceive of things in terms of vast gulfs). The principle result of this is, and has been for some time, isolation. I am alone – I feel alone – to an extent that I gather is quite uncommon. I offer this disclosure, personal as it is, because of how it likely colors the metaphysical points I am about to make. The social creature may well find what I am about to argue nonsensical, to him I stand in mute incomprehension. To the man who feels nothing but empathy for his fellow men and sees the right and good in everything, my philosophy is useless. It is to those who feel otherwise that I write, those who intuit otherness when they look into the face of their brother, those who have no, and want no, place in civilized industrial society.

The Self and the Other

When people talk about the idea of the self and the other they often do so in a way that I feel dismisses the seriousness of the distinction. An example of this is the feminist rhetoric that takes issue with that which they claim is necessary for the deeply rooted misogyny of our culture: the male view of the female as other. They seem to be saying that if only we could see our inner oneness with these things we consider other, we could overcome our problems with them. What I intend to argue is that, in terms of human interaction, the difference between the self and the other is the problem, but it is not a problem like skin color for racial relations, where it is a superficial difference that points to no deeper division, rather it is a problem like gravity for the pioneers of flight – it is real, it is powerful, and it is absolute. The distinction between the self and the other is inherent in our epistemology, and thus should be reflected in our metaphysics. It is not to be dismissed or overcome or wished away, rather it is the central fact of our existence. All the world is other, and until we can accept that we are not the same as the world, as rocks and trees and other animals, as other people, and stop expecting to be the same, we will not escape the hell of the empathy-antipathy divide.
The most basic human reaction when we see another person is to compare them to ourselves. We identify them as a member of the same species and then attempt to determine their possible relationship to us: potential mate or potential competitor, native or foreigner, friend or enemy. These are surface-level judgements made immediately, but we continue to judge people against ourselves as we proceed to interact with them. This activity is basically predictive – we are attempting to understand them so as to predict their behavior (which is what “understanding someone” amounts to), although how we do this is where the empathy-antipathy divide shows itself. On the most fundamental, certain, level, all we can know is ourself; therefore we make these predictive judgements by comparing the person, the other, to ourself. If we see similarities, we tend to empathize, if not, we antipathize. But before this process is explained we must establish the claim that the only certain knowledge is of the self.

Kant’s Subjectivity and the Basis of All Knowledge

The founding principle of modern thought was Rene Descartes’ insight that the only knowledge that was completely beyond all possible doubt was the knowledge of our own existence as thinking things. Although his “Mediations” were flawed in many ways, they opened the door for a much more honest examination of what it means to know and what can truly be known than ever before. The great innovator in this field was Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason initiated what he termed a Copernican Revolution in metaphysics. What Kant’s epistemology did was reverse the position of the knower to the known. Because we cannot verify that our sensory data is accurate, our conceptions of objects must be regarded only as representations, rather than things in themselves. While this means that subjectivity is unavoidable, it does not follow that relativity, and therefore skepticism, is inevitable. Our experience of the object, from which our concept of it is derived, is not arbitrary. Experience necessitates understanding and therefore has rules and conditions which can be known a priori (before experience). These conditions of experience, what makes experience possible according to Kant, are space, time and causality. Following the metaphor of the Copernican revolution, before Kant we considered ourselves, us and our fellow men, to orbit the same objective world, but after him we each find ourselves as the center of our own subjective universe, which, though not arbitrary or relativistic, gives us no assurance that what we experience corresponds with the experiences of anyone else.
From this basic epistemological fact comes the necessity of the divide between the self and the other. If there is an existence outside of the self, which is in the Cartesian sense doubtful, it may be of the same basic stuff as ourselves, Arthur Schopenhauer’s Vedantic-inspired “will” and modern physics both give support to this notion, but the way in which we know creates an unbridgeable divide between the self and the other.

The Empathy-Antipathy Divide

This realization about knowledge, that everything we see except ourselves are representations and not things in themselves, must inform all deduction that follows it. Our only base of reference when we are attempting to examine another person’s inner life is ourselves – we look for those traits that we know in ourselves and when we see them we empathize and when we cannot find them we antipathize.
What it means to empathize is to expand the self to include the object of empathy, we see that person as we would see ourself. This should not be confused with some sort of actual “oneness,” like Schopenhauer suggested, but is rather a function of our group-forming social tendencies. There may be an underlying blind will driving everything forward like Schopenhauer claimed, but this is not what we are referencing when we empathize. What we are doing is more of a confusion than an appeal to deeper reality – to act as if another person is yourself is, to some extent, irrational. They are not the self, they are the other; one can bring them into the self by recognizing their similar traits with the self, but there is no mechanism by which the distinction between the self and the other may be broken down.
Schopenhauer believed otherwise and his view deserves mention if only for the purpose of refutation. Schopenhauer’s entire more philosophy was based on the idea that egoistic self-interested actions could never have moral value but that through empathy we could reach compassion, in which the ego is suspended and the distinction between the self and the other breaks down. His argument is fraught with difficulties, beginning with his disinterested dismissal of alternative views of morality and continuing through his often self-contradictory terminology (At first he writes, in On The Basis of Morals, of “what it is that can move human beings to actions of this sort,” but then clarifies this ethical mover as the “genuine moral incentive” upon which “all ethics may be supported”. That there would be an incentive for a moral action implies that there is self-interest involved, for only without an incentive, without any possible physical or psychological reward, could the kind of disinterested moral action Schopenhauer is seeking exist.) The basic problem with his idea of compassion is that if I must imagine another person as an extension of myself in order to act on their behalf instead of mine, which is how he describes compassion operating, the action is still fundamentally egoistic. It is a confused, contorted egoism, but an egoism none the less. What Schopenhauer claims is breaking down egoism by suspending the difference between the self and the other is actually expanding it – instead of acting for our own self-interest, we act for the self-interest of our collective self.
But returning to our social tendencies, the self and the other expresses itself in political life as an Us and Them mentality. On the most basic level, the “Us” is the self and the “Them” is the other, but in order to live in society we expand the self via empathy to include a group of similar individuals. The fact that these individuals remain individuals, that is, individual selves that are other, can be seen as the basis of the denial of society that will be posited in the conclusion. In contemporary liberal circles it is fashionable to express disdain for “Us and Them” thinking, but this is an empty rhetoric. The “Us” may be the human race or the the animal kingdom but it remains an “Us” to which there must be and always is a “Them.”
To antipathize is therefore the opposite of all of this. It is to specifically designate someone as not-self, other with all the most hostile implications of the word. But otherness does not necessitate antipathy – antipathy only occurs when we look for ourself in another person, expecting to find it and instead seeing something foreign. How this examination produces antipathy is vital to my argument. What advocates of diversity and tolerance often seem to forget is that there is not an underlying oneness we will see in all people if we look deep enough. We are, of course, all humans, all members of the same species, and therefore my last point can appear nonsensical. We must, however, realize that the notion of a “species” is a human invention – it is a useful categorization that refers, according to the theory of biological classification, to the ancestry of all organisms, but all that it really means, the judgement upon which we specify what constitutes one species versus another, is the ability to mate and produce genetically functional offspring. Therefore, there is a degree of difference between the genetic material of myself and my sister, this is smaller than the degree of difference between myself and a South African tribesman, and both are smaller than the degree of difference between myself and a pigeon, but in a species differentiation is always a matter of degrees of difference and never of fundamental unity.
Returning to the issue of antipathy, close examination of another person in the light of the self can produce empathy, but just as often produces antipathy. However, this is not inevitable to the examination of the other; a personal example will make this clearer. I come into contact with people with whom I feel no sense of oneness every day. I attend a Jesuit Catholic University on Capitol Hill - besides an x chromosome I have nothing in common with most of the people I am surrounded with. This causes a great deal of antipathy – they are other, but they are an other that I feel should not be an other; they are people, they speak my language, why should I not see more of myself in them? Compare this with how I feel toward a continual source of fascination for me, the oak tree outside the window of my classroom. It is certainly other, if I call it self I must be including all life, but I feel no antipathy toward it; neither do I feel empathy, it is not like me and I am not like it – there is no reason for it to be otherwise. I can only do this, feel no antipathy towards something so other, because I would never think to look for myself in it.

Ontological Isolation and the Acceptance of the Other

A brief summary of the points that have been covered is in order. Because the divide between the self and the other goes back to our most basic philosophical position, Kantian epistemology, it cannot be overcome. Civilized society is doomed to antipathy because it attempts to present oneness, when no such unity between the self and the other exists, or can exist, but if that oneness is rejected from the start, antipathy is impossible – one could as easily feel threatened by a rock or a tree as by the otherness of a person. The remaining questions are what the practical expression of this acceptance of the other would be and where this leaves empathy, the two are intimately connected.
The denial of oneness with the other completes the ontological isolation begun by Kant’s epistemology, for all rapport with other people must be seen as illusory. And without this oneness the hope of empathy disappears, leaving the threat of antipathy to drive away all desire for relation between the self and the other. In the wake of this revelation, human society becomes abhorrent, and justice an empty notion. Yet there is peace in the blackness of this anti-sociability. The desire to breach the gulf between the self and the other is found in the hope for empathy, and the true pain and horror of antipathy is the denial of that desire. So without it, with the full acceptance of the totality of ontological isolation, there is, in the Buddhist sense, no suffering.
The practical expression of this philosophy is admittedly, despite the introductory words on justice, not the goal of this essay. I do not know what degree of antipathy must be endured to live in the world, or whether the inevitable conclusion must be ascetic hermitage. Regardless, society must be seen in this light as a thing unnatural to our basic character as thinking things.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

On the Significance of Individuals

For most of my life I have felt the overbearing weight of my insufficiency – the threat of insignificance, and this has impacted nearly every aspect of my life. In accordance with the informal project I have undertaken to articulate my philosophy of life and the world (see the most recent posts, as well as Determinism Explained, The Life of Fire, and On Gods II), it is time I address the topic of significance directly.
Since the 1990s there has been a continuous debate in the popular arts over the issue of specialness. One may recall the mantra of the film Fight Club, “You are not a special or unique snowflake, you are the same decaying organic matter as the rest of us, we are all part of the same compost heap.” This was clearly in response to the movement in education and parenting towards encouraging a celebration of uniqueness in children (although it does not seem to be commonly recognized, Fight Club is largely an indictment of the way men were raised in late 20th century America). The irony pointed out in that film was that despite the constant exhortation of “you can do anything,” adult reality is somewhat less empowering. A related, although distinctly different point was made more recently in the Pixar cartoon, The Incredibles. When the boy, feeling repressed, confronts his mother with her own words, that his talents make him special, she replies that everyone is special, which to him does nothing but admit that the word “special” is meaningless.
If we wish to use this rhetoric, that people are special, unique, and important, we must acknowledge that people are not equal in their importance. To say that everyone is special, important, a “unique snowflake,” is to say that those distinctions have no significance. The best argument for this principle is to follow the metaphor through: if we are all snowflakes, one can put any one of us under a microscope and see something interesting, but for all intents and purposes we come in half a dozen types and are basically the same.
As anyone who has been trained in an academic discipline knows, we can tell our children they are special to make them feel better about themselves, but in all likelihood they are anything but. Literature, philosophy, and the sciences have remembered a few significant individuals and forgotten most others. Simply put, in the historical view of the world some people matter more than others. This mattering takes several forms, the principle two of which are strict quality and historical influence.
Strict quality is the isolated value of the accomplishments of the individual, be they artistic, scientific, or political. The classic example of strict quality is the figure who is recognized only after his death; for the people who first recognize this man, his work has had no historical influence but is significant purely for its strict quality, although for everyone comes after, they see both strict quality and influence. Examples of this would be William Blake, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Vincent Van Gogh. Personally I believe that Cormac McCarthy occupies this position today, though through the films made from his novels he is gaining in influence. This is, of course, subjective and open to debate, but unless artistic merit (I do not believe anyone will claim this for political or scientific merit) is completely arbitrary, arguments for quality can be made.
Historical influence is the extent to which a person has had a clear and measurable effect on future events, artistic, scientific, or political. It is difficult to fully differentiate this from strict quality, as people who have great influence nearly always have quality, at least in the opinion of those that they influence. Through unoriginality however, pure historical influence can be defined. It is a historically recognized fact that Martin Luther, Adam Smith and Adolf Hitler were not original thinkers and have received the credit for ideas they took from other, much lesser known, men, yet these are three of the most iconic figures in western history. The extent of the influence of some individuals is staggering. All of western philosophy has been defined as “footnotes to Plato.” All of Western art can be considered the gradual breaking of the Egyptian canon that held unchanged for two thousand years. Two of the five major combatants in the First World War defined their leaders as the heirs of Julius Caesar (Kaiser and Czar), thereby claiming, in some vague and symbolic sense, the legacy of an empire that had been dead for over a thousand years. Most of modern religion can be traced to the semites, a group of desert nomads living in the near east.
Thus if we are to speak of people having significance, we must admit that either in a quantitative (historical influence) or qualitative (strict quality) sense some people have more significance than others.
Turning to the psychological side of this issue, people who have significance are more valuable than people who do not. One can maintain the inherent equality, legal or spiritual, of all men but the fact is that some people are treated as much more valuable than others. Therefore if one wishes to be held as valuable by other people (which is something approaching a universal human desire), what one is desiring is significance in the ways I have outlined.
The remainder of this essay will be spent addressing potential concerns / counter-arguments.

Regarding personal significance there are several forces at work. The first is simple delusion: the parent who believes their child will be a great [insert profession here]. Everyone with healthy familial relations is “significant” to their parents, but this is completely regardless of their actual, objective, significance. What my entire argument, what every argument I make, presumes is a universalist perspective - the denial of the personal and particular is of upmost importance if one wishes to approach truth in any meaningful way. Therefore someone can be important to you without being actually important. Again, for the word “important” to have any meaning it cannot be defined such that it can be applied to anyone or everyone.

Regarding the bias towards dead white men in any traditional historical evaluation of the significance of individuals, I admit that it is troubling but will maintain that it is inevitable. In terms of historical influence the blame can be shifted to the cultural institutions that made men, and Western European men in particular, more influential than other people, but in terms of strict quality, the problem is preservation. Surely just as many intelligent talented women have lived as men, but their work has not been of the kind that has been preserved. Historically this holds true until the modern era, with progress yet to be made, but is especially prominent prior to the medieval period.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

These Are Not My Countrymen

The republican primary this election season has been highly educational.
What we have been watching is a consistent second-place candidate, by all accounts a competent man, endure extremist after unelectable extremist taking the front-runner position because the conservative base in this country is nervous about his religion. This confuses me. I am not a Republican, I am not religious, but if I was I would think a Mormon would be the least of my worries. Any real Republicans watching this circus must be saddened – the chances of finding a man capable of defeating their sworn enemy seem low.
But as I said, I am not a Republican, nor a conservative of any kind, and so the lesson I have taken from this is entirely different.
Romney stated matter-of-factly that corporations are people, as if the notion was obvious.
Santorum claimed that environmentalism is a phony ideal.
Gingrich said that if given the presidency he would commit the nation’s resources to colonizing the moon.
I could find more appalling statements made by each of these men, but these will serve to make my point.
Aside from the fact that we were born in the same UN-recognized political entity and we share a native language, I have nothing in common with these people. Not one of my ideals is shared by them. I disagree with every leading Republican candidate on every possible issue. I am offended by most of the statements they make that are intended to win support and am even more offended by their opinion of what is worth making statements about. In no conceivable way are these my countrymen.
Yet these men control a large portion of the government of my country, and come next year, one of them may occupy the highest executive office. I could not find the prospect more terrifying if a Saudi prince, a Somalian warlord or a Maoist Chinese bureaucrat were about to be given the presidency, and I mean that without sarcasm. With these men I can feel no kinship, imagine no compromise, conceive of no rapport. I do not believe that my differences with these men are reconcilable in any way; there is no underlying unity to which to appeal.
Religious conservatives regularly label democratic candidates the Anti-Christ, this is meant to convey the utter unacceptability of their holding office. As I am not a Christian, I cannot make use of this metaphor, but I believe that my feelings toward these men, toward the three front-runners of the Republican primary – Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, are roughly equivalent to how Christians must view toward the men they label in this way.
Fortunately, the situation is not as grim as I have made it out to be. Primary races tend to bring out extreme views – the candidates have to appeal to their base to get the nomination, and the happy reality is that in all likelihood Obama will win a second term (Romney is unimpressive; Santorum’s religious conservatism will alienate moderates; and Gingrich is a disgusting man). But in another four years I may not be so lucky.
What I am afraid of is that there is a time coming when the ideological gap between liberals and conservatives will become so great that it inspires not just revulsion and anger, but violence. We are rapidly approaching the level of division that occurred in this country directly before the civil war, and all that we are missing is a key issue by which one side will impose its will upon the other. Health care, environmental restrictions, immigration reform, social issues: none of these are nearly inflammatory enough, they inspire hate but not the feeling of existential threat that prompts revolt.
As for a preemptory solution, there is only one: divide the country. Look up the Obama-McCain divide from the last election and follow it roughly; I am not an expert in political science, demography, or economics so I won’t get any more specific than that, but there is simply no reason why I should have to coexist with these people – after all, they are not my countrymen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Defense of Philosophical Inquiry

I am not a Platonist. I believe that some of the worst damage done to western thought has been done by Plato and his successors, yet I will readily admit that the man was a great thinker and a powerful writer and, having witnessed the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian people, he understood better than most the threat of popular reaction against philosophy.
I have not read the entirety of Plato’s work, but of what I have read his greatest thought is the allegory of the cave. What I have here repeated is not Plato’s allegory, but rather a version of it told to me by one my high school teachers long before I read the original in The Republic. I believe it to be superior to the original, not in form or style (or anything else related to how I have here conveyed it) but in the coherence of the idea expressed.

There once was a tribe of men that lived in a cave on the side of a mountain. They never left this cave, but were bound to pillars within it such that all they could see was the stone wall that formed the back of the cave and all that they could hear were echoes, from each other and from outside the cave. Each day the sun would rise and cast shadows on the walls of the cave – clouds, trees, birds and other animals, other tribes of men – and seeing these figures the men of the cave would exclaim and call out names for them, guessing which would follow the other. They honored those who could best guess the coming form of each, all the while never realizing, never even imagining, that the shadows were not the things themselves.
Now one day one of the men managed to work himself free and ventured out of the cave, and he saw the things that cast the shadows, the clouds and the trees and the birds, and he saw the sun in whose light they were illuminated. All of these things he saw in a blur, for his vision was not accustomed to such sights, but in time he came to see things ever more clearly. Then thinking back to his tribesmen in the cave, how they labored and strove in vain to understand the shadows, he wished to return to them and tell them what he had seen. But when this he did they became angry and commanded him to look only at the shadows and not try to deceive them, but this he would not do, for though he knew little enough of the world, he had seen the things that cast the shadows and could not go back to the life of his tribesmen. But neither could he leave them to their vacuousness, so he persisted in admonishing them to come with him out of the cave, and at last growing tired of him they set upon him and killed him.

This is the threat every critical thinker faces – the attacks upon him by his former tribesmen who will fight to be left in ignorant contentment. Today in America, philosophers no longer face an existential threat; the laws written to protect political speech incidentally protect us as well, but we face other attacks.
The first is trivialization: the misuse and overuse of the term “philosophy” so that it applies to all abstraction and symbolic language. This has allowed the birth of popular philosophy, a whole genre of pseudo-philosophical literature that uses enough of the language of the tradition to present the illusion of depth of thought. Because of this, people who have no training in the discipline can write and speak derisively about philosophy as if they are well-versed in its theories. This takes two forms, although, admittedly, they are closely related: practicality and proletarian snobbery.
Practicality is the privileging of that which leads to immediate material gain over that which leads only to abstract knowledge. Philosophy is by definition the love of wisdom, not the love of wealth or leisure or efficiency.
Proletarian snobbery is the accusation that philosophy is a rich man’s game, that the issues it discusses are, on the most basic level, irrelevant; that only if one is completely satiated can one indulge in pursuits like philosophy.
The most disheartening feature of these attacks is that they do not even need a formal refutation. If one begins where one should begin when studying philosophy, with the ancient Greeks, it will be completely obvious that the discipline is neither impractical nor bourgeois.
Unfortunately, these forces have largely been victorious. Professional philosophy has faded from public view in this country in favor of the fine arts, particularly music and film, and the hard sciences, particularly biology and physics. If asked to name a 20th century philosopher, most Americans, even those who consider themselves philosophically inclined, would likely mention a figure whose work is known more for its literary than philosophical merit. This is in no way intended to disparage any of these disciplines, but rather to point out that the arts and the sciences are only two of the legs of the liberal tradition and that without philosophy the intellectual environment in this country is doomed to democratic consumerism and blind technological materialism.

To rectify this situation I propose the following reform; which will be simple and relatively easy to implement: philosophy should be taught at the high school level. As a requirement for graduation most high schoolers already take four years of english and history, and many take equal credits of science, mathematics and foreign language, to this should be added at least two years of philosophy.
To this there can be two objections, one that it is infeasible, the other that it is useless. I feel I have already addressed the reasons why it is not useless, but in addition I will say that the writing skills a student gains while studying philosophy are at least as applicable as the skills a student gains in studying literature, perhaps even more so given the focus on clarity and logical analysis that philosophy shares with mathematics. Regarding the first accusation, that teaching philosophy on the high school level would be infeasible, a qualifier must be given. To command the public school districts, as they are now equipped, to implement philosophy classes would be highly infeasible; the average humanities teacher is completely unequipped to transition to teaching philosophy. New teachers, teachers with degrees in philosophy as well as training in education, would have to be hired, and given that most philosophy majors are not on the public education career track, the implementation of this reform would have to be gradual. Of course it is likely that many private schools already offer philosophy classes of the type that are here described, but as these schools are fundamentally elitist they cannot solve the problem of the standing of philosophy in America.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Relics of the Verdant Hills

Today in my Romantic Literature class we read Shelley and my professor made several adamant points, the first was that all good poets, without exception, are revisers; the second was that for his circumstances Shelley had phenomenal faith in what he was doing, despite the fact that he had almost no readership.
So here’s me, revising and being unduly confident in what I am doing.

I will not pretend to understand my escape three years ago from the most terrible despair of my life, but I know for certain that it took three corporeal forms: an art project entitled “The Whips and Scorns of Time,” which featured a crucified teddy bear affixed to a 4x8 sheet of plywood amid detritus I had been collecting for years all splattered with black paint, a high school diploma, and a collection of poems I called A Child In The Verdant Hills, that basically chronicled my life from 2006 to 2009.
Although at the time I felt it was my best work, it has not faired well in retrospect. Only a few of the later poems (chronologically) show the influence of Cormac McCarthy, and before reading him it seems I was unaware that one should use interesting words. Although I believe the images I expressed were powerful (otherwise I would not have felt the need to express them), my ability to do this was often lacking. More recently however, I have re-read some of those poems and have been struck by the shear violence and nihilistic power of some of my older writing. These were poems written in abject despair, not reflecting on such experiences - but composed in the midst of them.
Although the original collection was more broad, All of these poems were written during the second half of my senior year of high-school, the winter and spring of 2009. This was a time when I was deeply depressed and had chronic insomnia, I would often would leave my house after midnight and walk to a nearby freeway overpass with suicidal intensions, eventually returning and going to sleep – thus the recurrent themes of night, dawn and awakening.
Some of these poems I have been reworking off and on almost since they were written, mostly because of the clarity of my memory of the image (Bedrock At The Edge of the World and God Intended Darkness.) Others have acquired a certain morbid fascination for me (The Knifing Sun and Botticelian Thaw.) The remaining two are probably the least altered, and are in the extremely unusual position of never really being looked down on; in other words, if I was asked to assemble my ten best poems, these would have been included at any point from the time they were written to the present.
All of these poems have been edited, some more heavily than others, in an attempt to use the skills I have acquired in the intervening years to better express what I was experiencing. To various degrees they cannot be considered the same poems I wrote three years ago, one is almost unchanged and another is barely recognizable, most are somewhere between the two, and if nothing else the context has been greatly altered. Child in the Verdant Hills presented a meta-narrative about despair taking form and finally being repulsed, and nearly all of the taking form and repulsing poems have been eliminated. What is left are the a few of the key articulations, a few of the side-notes, and a glimmer of how I finally escaped that time.

Thus I present, Relics of the Verdant Hills,
A collection of poetry ostensibly from the winter and spring of 2009, composed of -

God Intended Darkness (June)
Child (April)
Botticelian Thaw (February)
The Knifing Sun (February)
Bedrock at the Edge of the World (April)
Saturn, Herald of Autumn (June)

God Intended Darkness

In the industrial brightness of night
I see my deepmost fallacious thoughts:
I am, sleep and eat and offer no deduction.
These shining arcs, composing my rectified mind,
Fail to intersect and so my doubt
Persists – consists – unfists
Its gauntlet and releases the rods of my pretension–

Though in the sunlit hours I walk amid the djinn of the upper slopes,
In the deep and silent nocturne, when all about me are in the throes of regeneration, I forget the taste of dawn.
All the earth is metallic and ticking and lit,
Lit when God intended darkness,
Lit when all is to be lunar and stardomed and forged of cold shadow.

I recall hating the night for the leering void of its blackness,
Yet always I knew that in this fiendland’s greatest glory,
From the east salvation would come.
But for this schizoid night there may be no breaking:
Each dim and fetal sun stillborn before its fiery depth may be reckoned.

I am a son of man, yet
Where are my children to carry my blood into eternity?
Lost or fled or never were.
Where did I come to be placed here in the curled soul of the race?
Why am I to be, to think?-
On through the steely night.


I, a child
In the verdant hills?
Nostalgia and spent grains,
It was -
A terrifying place.
Agony and shame,
It was red lights in the long night.
Child, fearful child,
Thank God you did not see this
Before you.

Oh child,
How can you run?
Your home is so green -
Paradiso of rains,
Purest of elixirs pouring from the sky!
What beast have you found
At the heart of the river
That you would flee with such vitriol
And set your footprints alight?
What horror must you see
At the corners of your vision?
What fear of mighty fiend must consume you?

Alas for you, Child, and
Alas for your fears
Of the dreams of your fathers:

Child in his arms,
So safe;
Forgotten world -
Now so dangerous.
Towering walls like the ill-begotten end
And the road through the valley to the grave.

Botticellian Thaw

Oh you ice-bound girl -
I see you in the garden, chisel in hand;
Through the rimy haze I make out a ghost:
A splinter of you I have conjured up,
Formed out of air to shape this frozen flesh.

Years ago a woman I loved told me spring would come;
I was a foolish child,
The glancing light may drive me mad but the earth will never right itself.

In this storm-ringed place I see your shadow a star below the horizon;
And whether you intend to arise or sink away out of vision
You have turned the clouds all orange and fiery -
A memory of warmth from a bygone age.

Though where your soul resides I cannot know,
The fractures in my mind all point to your image,
All that an onlooker can see:
Oh vision of Botticelli -
All I can tell of you I adore.
Dredge up my soul from a thousand miles east and let it feed on this fantasy.

All that he wanted was moisture for the garden,
And he gave me naught but the depth of winter.
Would you bring a torch and be my spring?
Thawing fire liberating,
Glacial prison melting upon you;
Oh hoar maiden, be my spring.

The Knifing Sun

Haze before the mountains
And the sun burning through -
Burning beyond all eyes can see;
Burning into the mind its dim morning knife.
Piercing deep through the fog it strikes my throat and
Spills my blood on the frost.
Knife and then the crushing mace:
The unknowing elegance,
Splinter ghost,
Icy hammer smashing any sane skull to pieces.

Tear out my eyes,
Sever my ears,
Maim me that I would be numb.

Destroy me,
Destroy them,
Destroy her -
Werther’s agony in a more murderous form.

Or yet,
Send me farther than all pain can follow,
Send me to that knifing sun that I might be flayed open and burned to cosmic ash.
‘Come, Oh chasm of Sol, and swallow me -
Let me taste your sweet oblivion.’

Bedrock at the Edge of the World

You are the fearful beauty of my dreams,
Your prismatic cratered eyes a twilit moonscape, together
Treading to all horizons a road whilst the somber hymn rings:
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
Naught be all else to me save that thou art.

You are the searching of my gaze and the turning of my neck,
My gentle daydreams and their hopeful foolishness,
Those I remember whose sight I may never catch again:
Glimpses of a feral elegance from which I shrink.

You are serenity etherial as the sun rises,
Crumbling like bedrock at the edge of the world:
Fading as I awaken, blanched by dawn sunlight,
Cross-bled into incantations, premonitions
and tears, water for those lost into memory.

Saturn, Herald of Autumn

Like chalkless night there stands before me a time of all lurid dreams.
The glimpsed surreal destiny has utterly fled.
Deafness descending in mute terror -
Winces and gasps and flitting about,
Delaying – defying – defining.
Shall I lay myself down on this undoctored bed?
Prostrate myself before my nemesis, Saturn, the herald of autumn?
Fall into lucid sleep and march on,
Awaiting the never for to be.

Here in the evening,
Amid sundown, all despair becomes westward desert winds.
In crazed light I halt afore the fiendish torridity of a promised lone weeping destructor
And in faithless abhorrence
I fall unto the end.

Forthwith the dawn will come,
Sunbeams knifing a rift in the very desolation of the sky.
Some dawn will come
And I will awaken anew.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Reminder That I Have No Backbone

Regarding The Purity of the Glowing Ember
I am never certain with what degree of self-consciousness to write in this forum, as I am never really sure if I have an audience or not. I am reminded of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the troop of players goes on performing after the title characters have left, they are later incensed to be denied such a basic element of their lives - the assumption that someone is watching. Anyways, I have once again given in to the temptation offered by the possibility of an audience, despite the lingering terror of of humiliation that I am mistaken. Regardless, I will not be continuing to post selections from Glowing Ember. When I began that endeavor I had forgotten exactly how personal certain sections remain, despite my efforts to deautobiographize the story. I can imagine in some distant time, when I am a well enough establishing writer to get away with something so eccentric, when perhaps I am more confident in myself or more distant from the self that it describes, or using a pen name, publishing it, but for now it will remain unread.

The Cavern of the Ocean Tree

For all at last returns to the sea - to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the everflowing stream of time, the beginning and the end. (Rachel Carson)

Out over the blue and the black of the flickering sea
And the grey roof above it and the rolling sand,
He heard the heartbeat of the waves,
And out over the surf he walked in pursuit.
The beach grew firm and ridged and from around his feet moisture was pressed,
Foam on his ankles and eel-grass strands unwinding,
He swam into the ocean of the night.

In its deeps the water was cold,
Under the pressure of its vast weight thickened,
And he swam and dove and surfaced. Beyond
The cresting waves and the reaching headland,
He swam and dove and yet did not rise, for
Far down into the cold a tide had pulled him
Until he floated before the ancient lord of the ocean.

It was a beast unmet, its tentacles splayed
And great body still. Its otherness and strength
And with inhuman focus its eyes meeting his.
And then its ropey limbs entwisted him and
With the behemoth he dived.

His mind was numbed by depth and cold and water,
Salt burned his eyes but, the sea’s mirrored undersurface dim,
He could not close them for the gazing.
Above him, silhouetted in the currents and the moonlight,
All manner of living creatures racing along invisible pathways
To every corner of the ocean.

And then air and dripping and thrashing
And the ocean’s blood pressed from him
To flow down the stone of the cavern.
And then light, as he lay released and collapsed,
Green and white, a rind of life glowing:
Flowering polyps and skittering shelled things,
Shinning in the phosphorescence their curious mirrored being.

He then rose and stepped with care,
For the grooved stone was slick with
Some lit creature flowing from within
The recesses of the cave.
Toward that source he crouched and slid
As the chamber narrowed and
Then opened into a basin, shallow and pulsing with that same light.

In the center of that subterranean lake rose an isle
And rooted to it was the ocean tree:
Smooth and silvery driftwood at its core and
Kelp, fronds held aloft entwining all,
Barnacles and sea moss and starfish and green mottled crabs -
A hundred denizens of the tide, all alit, all dripping
From some crevice far above, all growing, wild with life.

Across the pool was a dwelling in the cavern wall
And by the tree, beneath its luminescent branching leaves,
She stood, calm and pale as the moon,
Her hair long and haggard, her dress worn thin.
He waded into the lake and stepped on to the isle,
She before him in radiance,
Her eyes afire with the violence of the eternal sky.

I will admit that recent assignments in my literature class include Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, though this is actually an adaptation of a story I wrote several years ago.