Friday, September 1, 2017

A Strange Summer

There sits my hat on a corner of the mirror, waiting for winter. It’s been a strange summer. First, no rain for several months. This is strange for Seattle. Then, there was that week in early August when Seattle had the worst air quality in the world due to the forest fires to the north in British-Columbia. This was the same week that Trump and Kim Jong Un threatened one another with nuclear missiles like a couple of temperamental toddlers in a sandbox. The barely respirable air hung shroud-like and stagnant over the northwest, flavoring the summer with a dark, apocalyptic vibe. Then came Charlottesville, Virginia, and the weird spectacle of Nazis and hooded KKK members marching and rioting in the streets, carrying WalMart tiki torches and assault weapons and clashing with counter-protestors, unleashing a storm of violence that culminated in the death of Heather Hyer when a car driven by a white supremacist slammed into a crowd of people, injuring nineteen others. The police stood by and did nothing.
The world has gone mad. The total solar eclipse which occurred on August 21st seemed like the ideal background to a world teeming with so much mayhem and murder, a perfectly timed piece of synchronicity.
And how wonderful that an astronomical event can provide, for the duration of several magnificent minutes, a much-needed sense of sublimity and awe. A lifeless ball of rock and dust moving in front of a gigantic ball of continual nuclear explosion and jarring our isolated selves into the open with something phenomenal and strange.
How vexingly paradoxical that planet Earth, which looks so heavenly and benign from outer space, a blue and white marbled ball of boundless grace and benevolence, is swarming with so much hatred and misery.
Who was Heather Hyer?
She was a 32-year-old paralegal who worked in Charlottesville at a law firm assisting clients through the bankruptcy filing process. She ate lunch at her desk. You can look her up. She had a pretty smile. She is someone I would’ve enjoyed meeting, someone who would’ve left me feeling hopeful and good, a little less encumbered by the weight of my cynicism.
Life, said French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, is the search for the impossible via the useless. Thinking is not an applied art. I’ve done a lot of thinking over the years (I turned 70 this month) and very little of it has amounted to anything like a power to effect change, to bring a little more sanity to the behavior of people, which is the ambition of a megalomaniac, a magician like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Can there be anything more useless than thinking? Rumination leads to sadness, and in some extreme cases, to clinical depression. “There can be no other human activity more extravagant,” observes George Steiner in his remarkable essay “Ten (Possible) Reasons For The Sadness Of Thought.” “Very nearly the incessant aggregate and totality of thinking flits by unnoticed, formless and without use. It saturates consciousness and presumably the sub-conscious, but drains off like a thin sheet of water on baked earth.”
I would love it if, at will, I could shut it down, shut my thinking off and float, for that is what I would do, float. Thinking gives me weight, not the literal weight of my body on the bathroom scale or the weight of our Subaru bouncing over a pothole, but the weight of thought, which is encumbering in its entanglements, endless in its amendments and indemnifications. It’s the business of thought to find answers, seek solutions, resolve predicaments, plan trips, plot a trajectory, and (most importantly) invent.
Invention is the most fun thought allows us. We can imagine. We can formulate something new. We can take things apart and put them back together differently. Which is what writing is. It’s a continual process of assembly and reassembly.
Most of my thoughts about the world are negative, I’m sorry to say, which gives an added burden to my thinking, a sourness whose lens bends the light into judgements whose weight demands a certain muscularity, the noxious task of holding and revolving these constructions. Nobody is a happier man than I am when I am proven wrong. I love it when that happens. Those judgements melt and drop away from the continent of my being like shelves of ice calving in the Antarctic.
Immanuel Kant proposed a reality beyond what we perceive which is inaccessible to us. What’s up with that? That’s nuts. Isn’t life complicated enough as it is without adding this element, this tantalizing, chimerical candy? He called it a noumenon. In his book The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton proposed a universal Self of which our moral selves are a part and by which Kant’s noumenon is partially accessible. In allowing ourselves to be restricted by the imperatives of the moral self, we can obtain true freedom, true transcendence. Restriction leads to virtue which leads to walking a few inches above the ground.
Sometimes thinking is fun. I can imagine myself in Paris circa 1871 or so sharing glasses of absinthe with Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, or riding a mustang across Nevada when the sun is setting and the air is pleasantly warm, not too hot, not too cold. This is called fantasy, and is a gas. It doesn’t do much. It’s basically a brief entertainment. But if you act on a fantasy, try to make it real, you’ll be in for an adventure, I guarantee it. But will you succeed? Who knows? I can’t speak for your fantasies, but mine are pretty wild. I might ride around the topiary at the Palace of Versailles on a dinosaur, or do some gun practice with Wild Bill Hickok. Harmless stuff, mostly. Jellyfish floating in seawater, the roar of the crowd while I hammer away at a Fender Strat in Torino Red.
Fantasies, unfortunately, feed our ambitions, and ambitions can be cruel taskmasters.
Today I boiled a lot of water. I was trying to clear the drain in the bathtub. Boiling water had been recommended as an easy way to do this. This isn’t thinking, exactly, it’s more like heeding counsel, which is a type of thought, a borrowing of thought. This worked for X, Y, and Z so it might work for you. They have all had success with this technique. And I did clear the drain. A little.
I wish I could clear the drain in my head as easily. There was a time I could do that with alcohol, but it would clog right back up again, even worse, when the alcohol left my body. Alcohol doesn’t stick around long. And it’s always coaxing you to add more to it. “I’m leaving now, but there’s more in that bottle over there.” You can never get enough.
In Zazen, according to Shunryu Suzuki, it is vain to try to stop thinking. “When you are practicing zazen,” counsels Suzuki,

…do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.

It’s when I sometimes wonder what other people are thinking that my thinking goes totally awry. That’s definitely something to avoid, particularly in the political arena. I am frequently stunned by the political beliefs of people I’ve known intimately, and for some time.
Of course, as a writer, I am deliberately trying to enter into other people’s thinking. Sometimes, although rarely, I might actually try persuading people to behave a certain way or subscribe to a certain ideology. This I try to avoid. Most often, all I’m trying to do is put a handful of words together in a way that creates sparks, goads the neurons into finding new pathways, new associations. This is me trying to be a drug. This is me trying to be an amphetamine, a hallucinogen, a mustang climbing a steep hill with a cowboy on his back, desperate to escape. 


Irakli Qolbaia said...

About the sun eclipse, John, comically I found out via a poem by Pierre Joris... It was published on an ezine but I lost the link and only have the copied poem in my file, so I hope nobody will mind my quoting the short lovely thing here. Anyway, thanks, Pierre, for the news. Poetry is the only news, said Robert Kelly.

a quick morning eclipse poem

with cardboard & duck tape
built a box
with my own two hands
rarely thus employed:
a trap for the sun.

As for the summer, more generally, I have tortured through it and was at multiple points, reminded of a line from one of Jerome Rothenberg's Witness Poems

"It is summer
but the trees
are dead"

This, to me, configures much that I sense the world is turning into.

John Olson said...

Sadly, every year the park department removes old trees, mainly chestnuts, that have died from mysterious causes, hollowed out from the inside. These are trees that have been here over a hundred years, that once canopied one of our streets so densely that it was like driving through a tunnel. There has also been a problem in Seattle with people chopping trees down to get a view. As someone recently said, hey fool, the tree is the view!