Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

Day 7: A Book I Can Recite/ Quote

Although there are books that I have read repeatedly, from which I can quote (or at least paraphrase) bits and pieces, such as Huxley’s Island, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, or maybe even Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Henry V, there are none that I can really quote with any degree of respectable accuracy, from memory (ok, maybe with the exception of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham).

The words that I do tend to internalize, verbatim, tend to come from poetry instead of prose. I can recall with relative ease many of the works by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lord Byron, William Carlos Williams, and Percy Shelley. It’s the lyrical, almost musical, nature of poetry that makes it easier for me to remember. I have an uncanny ability to recall song lyrics, even from terrible songs, after only a couple of listens. Anything set to music seems to go right into my long-term memory, and poetry shares that same musical quality.

Writing this post is making me remember a wonderful poetry anthology titled Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry. I came across this book by chance. I had just moved to DeKalb, Illinois and was feeling incredibly homesick until I found this great old used bookstore right on the main street. I remember walking in and feeling intoxicated by the smell of the old books with their yellowed pages. My homesickness melted away as I browsed the shelves, and I walked out with an old ratty copy of the book, who’s $1.50 price tag fit right into my budget at the time. In this book, as the title implies, the poetry of Byron sits comfortably next to the lyrics of Bob Dylan, just as they do in my mind.

It’s an old textbook, I believe, but a great addition to anyone’s library, certainly anyone who loves either poetry or music. I loaned my copy to someone years ago and haven’t seen it since, but inspired by this post, I just re-ordered it; a used copy, just like I remember it.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “On Life”

While reading the Huffington Post’s Book section yesterday, my attention was quickly grabbed by a piece from Carolyn Vega about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay (or essay fragment) “On Life.” In a seeming instance of serendipity, this essay struck me as being the perfect thing to bring together so much of what has been on my mind, and by extension, what has appeared on this blog, this last month or more.

My initial intention when I started this blog a few months back was to discuss the books that I read; not quite as proper reviews, but as a way to express my insights, thoughts, and experiences of those books. It began that way, to be sure, but quickly it got off track, and I have to admit that I’m happy it did.

This blog has become a much clearer reflection of my intellectual life; of what feeds my nearly insatiable curiosity or of what leaves me awestruck, whether through the written word, conventional or unconventional art, photography of the furthest reaches of space, or recent discoveries in the realms of science. Although the breadth of the blog has certainly grown, I think the general thread that ties it all together has become clearer. If nothing else, its become a better reflection of where my intellectual curiosity comes from, and that’s from taking, as Shelley writes, “an intense delight” in the world and universe around me.

So far, I’ve explored that “delight” through the writing of Eco, Calvino, and Borges (among others), and in the poetry of the Romantics and the Beats. I’ve sought that sense of astonishment through the lessons of scientists, in the humbling images of deep space, in whimsical photographs of the moon, and in the art of the streets. And last night, when I read this Shelley essay, I realized that he expressed that feeling that I get far better and more beautifully than I ever could. He writes,

LIFE and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being. We are struck with admiration at some of its transient modifications, but it is itself the great miracle. What are changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties, with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religious and of political systems, to life? What are the revolutions of the globe which we inhabit, and the operations of the elements of which it is composed, compared with life? What is the universe of stars, and suns, of which this inhabited earth is one, and their motions, and their destiny, compared with life? Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the functions of that which is its object.

If any artist, I do not say had executed, but had merely conceived in his mind the system of the sun, and the stars, and planets, they not existing, and had painted to us in words, or upon canvas, the spectacle now afforded by the nightly cope of heaven, and illustrated it by the wisdom of astronomy, great would be our admiration. Or had he imagined the scenery of this earth, the mountains, the seas, and the rivers; the grass, and the flowers, and the variety of the forms and masses of the leaves of the woods, and the colours which attend the setting and the rising sun, and the hues of the atmosphere, turbid or serene, these things not before existing, truly we should have been astonished, and it would not have been a vain boast to have said of such a man, “Non merita nome di creatore, sennon Iddio ed il Poeta.” But now these things are looked on with little wonder, and to be conscious of them with intense delight is esteemed to be the distinguishing mark of a refined and extraordinary person. The multitude of men care not for them. It is thus with Life—that which includes all.

And there it is in the last couple of lines. Far too many of us live our lives all too focused on our individual microcosms, so consumed with the minute to minute troubles that life invariably throws at us that we rarely look outside of ourselves, and if we do, our vision is too clouded by all of those things to allow us to really see how beautiful this world can be. Or we become cynical and jaded, or maybe simply complacent, and relegate that sense of magic and awe as belonging only to children. We look at things “with little wonder,” or as Hawking so perfectly states, we spend far too much time looking at our feet instead of at the stars. We should all be striving to be that “extraordinary person” that Shelley describes in this essay, and every time I write I am reminded of this, and hope to be reminding you, too.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!

A page from Shelley's notebook, with the start of "On Life" (1918)

Shelly continues in the essay, in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (which has always seemed to be a continuation of this bit of prose), and other later works, to embrace the existence of an “unseen force” or power that pervades the universe, and he links it to our sense of astonishment, and it is here where our ideas diverge, although not with hostility. Whereas I suppose that I am more grounded in a rationalist and scientific understanding of the world around me, I am not immune to the enormous power that the universe has to awe and inspire. Although Shelley rejects materialism and rationality as an obstacle to wonder, I’m convinced that knowledge, science, and a rational mind can allow us to see beauty in the world in a way that is unique. Richard Feynman, the physicist, explained it best in this anecdote about the relationship of science and beauty,

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says’ “you see, I, as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined as theoretically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimensions. The inner structure, also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting. It means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that… why is it aesthetic… all kinds of interesting questions which with science, knowledge, only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

The bottom line is, that no matter what road one chooses to take, be it through science, or any other way you choose to know and live in the world, let it be one that allows you to always experience the beauty and wonder of reality.

The full text of Shelley’s essay “On Life” can, and should, be accessed here.

Allen Ginsberg and William Blake

Photograph by Cynthia MacAdams

For the last couple of days, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Beats. I read through Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (triggered by watching the Republican Iowa Caucus), followed by plenty of Gregory Corso, a little Rexroth, and some McClure, too. But today has been an Allen Ginsberg kind of day. Without planning to, I wove Ginsberg into my AP European History class via Blake and Romanticism (more on that in a minute), and I somehow even managed to work his poem “America” into my AP World History class.

During lunch, I sat and watched this BBC interview with him, which reminded me of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with him in college. He epitomized the kind person who lived with his eyes open to all around him, and his mind open to all the world had to offer. He was a kind, gentle soul with a keen mind. Needless to say, he was also an incredible poet.

As I talked about in a previous post, my love of the Beats stretches back about twenty years, when I was asked by an ex-boyfriend to write a paper for his twentieth century American history class. I chose to write about the Beat Generation’s role in the 1950’s countercultural movement because at the time, I was an English major focusing on English Romanticism and I had heard that there was a connection between William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.  I found out that he had had an ecstatic vision while reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” “The Sick Rose,” and “A Little Girl Lost” from Songs of Experience. He claimed that it was a pivotal moment for him, one that shaped his views of writing, his life, and the nature of the universe itself. In his “A Blake Experience,” Gingsberg wrote,

…the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers — and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me…Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t even have to think twice, was Blake’s voice…

Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very

ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about — in other words that this was the moment I was born for.

In 1948, Ginsberg immortalized that moment in his poem “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose.’

Rose of spirit, rose of light,
spirit whereof all will tell,
is this black vision of my sight
the fashion of a prideful spell,
mystic charm of magic bright,
o judgement of fire and fright?

what everlasting force confounded
in its being, like some human
spirit shrunken in a bounded
immortality, what blossom
gathers us inward, astounded?
is this sickness that is doom?

With that, I then set out to read as much Ginsberg as I could get my hands on, seeing in him what I had seen in Blake so many times… the ability to make simple language a thing of almost unbearable beauty, a depth of thought and feeling that seemed nearly unending, and a the gift of a sense of liberation as my eyes read their words. They were different, to be sure. Blake, the English Romantic, mystic and rebel, who challenged his contemporaries and his readers to think more clearly and to feel more deeply. Ginsberg, the gay poet from Patterson, New Jersey, mystic, and rebel, who also challenged… wait, maybe they weren’t so different after all. Different times, different voices, but connected by their ability communicate in a manner that transcended the words on the page.

An essay titled “William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World,” states that,

Whether truth or madness, Blake’s voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope.. . .As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time.

The same can certainly be said of Allen Ginsberg. He and the Beats, like Blake, wrote during a pivotal time in Western society. For Blake and the Romantics, they were the responding and reacting to the unyielding rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, and the complete transformation of the world around them triggered by the Industrial Revolution. For Ginsberg and the Beats, they emerged as America clamored for normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. They wrote as mainstream, white America fled from the cities and into the suburbs in an attempt to recreate the “Donna Reed” ideal that the mass media was selling. It was an America whose heterogeneity and diversity was being traded in for uniformity and conformity. Ginsberg and his fellow poets embraced Eastern mysticism over American Christianity, favored cold-water flats in crowded cities over the white-picket fenced in suburbs, and with their words attempted to lift the veil off of the country.

The same article later states that,

If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture’s limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism…

Once again, the same can be said of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. They, too, were fundamentally changing poetry, with, as Kerouac coined, their “spontaneous bop prosody,” the cadence of jazz, and the use of what Ginsberg called “kitchen English.” Their poetry became the voice of the people, and even more so, the counterculture. Their disillusionment was clearly, beautifully, and eloquently expressed in the language of the street.

Through my readings of Ginsberg this week, I came across this poem that I hadn’t read in years. It was published in 1972, the year I was born, and although not as famous as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” it’s always been among my favorites. It’s titled “Xmas Gift,” and there has always been something about it that strikes me as being reminiscent of Blake. Perhaps it’s the lines about invented universes, and creatures giving birth to themselves.

I met Einstein in a dream
Springtime on Princeton lawn grass
I kneeled down & kissed his young thumb
like a ruddy pope
his face fresh broad cheeked rosy
“I invented a universe separate,
something like a Virgin”–
“Yes, the creature gives birth to itself,”
I quoted from Mescaline
We sat down open air universal summer
to eat lunch, professors’ wives
at the Tennis Court Club,
our meeting eternal, as expected,
my gesture to kiss his fist
unexpectedly saintly
considering the Atom Bomb I didn’t mention.

Lastly, here’s a reading by Ginsberg, of Blake’s short poem “Ah! Sunflower.”  One of the three that started it all. Just beautiful.

Primaries and Poetry

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….

– from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art 

Last night was the Republican Iowa caucus. From what I saw, it was a close race, with Mitt Romney barely gaining the victory over Rick Santorum. Without getting too political (I promised my father that I wouldn’t allow this blog to become a political rant), I must admit that I’ve felt quite a bit of sadness and frustration watching the Republican primary season unfold.

It has seemed that the candidates neglect addressing pressing foreign and domestic issues, of which there are many, in favor of engaging in a race to see who can present themselves as being the most closed, provincial, anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-homosexuality… ad nauseam. Moreover, never in my memory can recall a time where a candidate’s religion has played such a prominent role. In fact, on Monday, Talk of the Nation on NPR covered that very issue.  Whether Bachman, Perry, Romney, or Santorum, it seems that they are also in a race to try to “out-religion” each other. Is this really where we’ve come to as a country?

Last night, as I was falling asleep watching Santorum address one group or another as the results trickled in, my thoughts snapped to the poem, “I Am Waiting,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I went downstairs and pulled my copy of A Coney Island of the Mind off my shelves and read. Seems as timely today as it must have seemed when he wrote it in 1958.

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
Of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the second coming
And I am waiting
For a religious revival
To sweep thru the state of Arizona
And I am waiting
For the grapes of wrath to stored
And I am waiting
For them to prove
That God is really American
And I am waiting
To see God on television
Piped into church altars
If they can find
The right channel
To tune it in on
And I am waiting
for the last supper to be served again
and a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the great divide to be crossed
and I anxiously waiting
For the secret of eternal life to be discovered
By an obscure practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and TV rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am waiting for retribution
for what America did to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for the American Boy
to take off Beauty's clothes
and get on top of her
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonderI am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeting lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Words of Wisdom from Jorge Luis Borges

As 2012 gets underway, I’m turning to Jorge Luis Borges for advice for this new year. I’ve never been one for resolutions; I find that no sooner have I made one, circumstances change, priorities shift, and what seemed of utmost importance on December 31st has become irrelevant by May.  But as true as that may be, there is no denying that just as much as the close of one year brings about a mood of reflection, the start of a new one evokes a sense possibility, and that sense of possibility invariably gets one thinking about hopes and plans for the upcoming year.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” -Borges

With that on my mind, I lay in bed last night reading Borges. As I read and read, I came across two poems that seemed to fit my mood and thoughts perfectly. The first,
spoke to hindsight and thoughts of all the different ways that things could have gone, but didn’t… and God knows I’ve feeling a lot of that lately. The second spoke to the desire to live a life of meaning and joy. Taken together, these two poems form the kind of resolution that I can embrace.

Things That Might Have Been

I think of things that weren’t, but might have been. 
The treatise on Saxon myths Bede never wrote.
The inconceivable work Dante might have had a glimpse of,
As soon as he’d corrected the Comedy’s last verse.
History without the afternoons of the Cross and the hemlock.
History without the face of Helen.
Man without the eyes that gave us the moon.
On Gettysburg’s three days, victory for the South.
The love we never shared.
The wide empire the Vikings chose not to found.
The world without the wheel or the rose.
The view John Donne held of Shakespeare.
The other horn of the Unicorn.
The fabled Irish bird that lights on two trees at once.
The child I never had.

I think its part of our nature to look at our past and wonder about the myriad paths that our lives could have taken. In and of itself, it’s not necessarily an unhealthy thing to do. But becoming mired in what may have been can be stunting and paralyzing if we allow it to take our focus on what we do have and on what actually is. This, I think, is one of those things that is easier said than done, and I know without a doubt that I’m struggling with it. But I’ve known people who live like this, and their lives seem clouded by a regret that never quite dissipates. 

The Just

man who, as Voltaire wished, cultivates his garden.
He who is grateful that music exists on earth.
He who discovers an etymology with pleasure.
A pair in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess.
The potter meditating on colour and form.
The typographer who set this, though perhaps not pleased.
A man and a woman reading the last triplets of a certain canto.
He who is stroking a sleeping creature.
He who justifies, or seeks to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for Stevenson’s existence.
He who prefers the others to be right.
These people, without knowing, are saving the world.

Here Borges gives us glimpses of a well-lived life, snippets of contentment, of generosity, of tenderness. He shows us a life whose meaning comes from simple pleasures, gratitude, and kindness; a life not defined by the external, such as wealth or position, but rather by what occurs in our minds and hearts. I know that this is the life that I want.

I had these poems on my mind when I woke this morning, and went on an internet search for more Borges. As I was clicking through various sites, I came across this. It’s an excerpt from an autobiographical documentary titled Images of Absence/ Buenos Aires, meine Geschichte (1998) by German Kral, an Argentinian filmmaker. This excerpt (I have not seen the entire film) includes an incredibly touching remembrance of an encounter with Borges, followed by words from the author himself. It’s from the filmmaker’s recollections of Borges that I found the third bit of sage advice for this new year.

Borges, who had so intensely loved books, and for whom literature was alive, advised us not to read any book we didn’t enjoy. He told us that morning that if we didn’t like a book, it was better to leave it for some other time. Reading it by force did no good to the book, the author, or ourselves.

Don’t dwell on what may have been and focus on what is. Live a life full of simple pleasures and with a gentleness of spirit. Read those books that you can truly enjoy. Thank you Mr. Borges, these are words of wisdom, indeed.

For more on Borges, watch Buenos Aires: Las Calles de Borges, a short documentary by Ian Ruschel, influenced by the German Kral documentary mentioned above. If you have a little more time, watch Jorge Luis Borges: The Mirror Man, a longer documentary that’s “part biography, part literary criticism, part hero-worship, part book reading, and part psychology.” 

On Love and Forgetting: A personal note

Georges Seurat, Seated Woman (1883)

I’m breaking my rule about no personal posts, but what good are rules if we don’t break them every now and again?

I was recently left by someone who I was really and truly prepared to love for the long haul. It was sudden, painful, and awful in ways that we’ve all experienced but still don’t have the words to describe. Someone really should come up with a break-up specific vocabulary… don’t Eskimos have about a million words for snow?

Of course, I wanted to lock myself in my room and not emerge for days or weeks, allowing myself the time to mourn the loss of something I wasn’t ready to let go of, but being a single mom, that was not an option. I had to go on as if nothing had changed, at least in front of my daughter (she’s only three). Which got me to thinking about forgetting. If I could forget the emotions that tied me to him, if I could stop replaying the hundreds of conversations that seemed only possible between the two of us,  then maybe I could really go on as if nothing had happened. It would be as if Mr. Peabody pushed a button on his WABAC machine, and all was reset. Byron captured it best, at the end of his poem “To Caroline,”

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

A while back I wrote that his words in this poem elicit, at least in me, powerfully contrasting emotions. On the one hand it stirs a yearning for such a deep love, while at the same time it evokes a palpable sense of fear of experiencing such a profound loss. I suppose I knew then, when I wrote about Byron and love, that experiencing that kind of loss was a real possibility. Perhaps that’s why it was so hard then to type out those last two stanzas.

I’m currently reading a book titled Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, by Harald Weinrich. It had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and now it simply seemed like a good time to read it. The book traces “forgetting” through Western cultural history, from Homer, Vergil and Ovid, and Dante, to Kant, Freud, Proust, and Sartre (among others). This book actually reminds me quite a bit of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight. Attlee searched for moonlight, Weinrich seeks forgetting. Although I’m only about halfway through the book, its been an interesting exercise to look at how others have sought forgetfulness; the countless poets, writers, and heroes that have chosen to exchange the weight of their memories for the lightness of a blank slate. If nothing else, its good to know that I’m in good company in wanting to forget.

Salvation and healing are sought in forgetting above all when a mortal is throated by pain and suffering. Forgetting one’s misfortune is already half of happiness.

Reading Lethe also brought to mind one Umberto Eco’s essay, “An Ars Oblivionaris, Forget it!” that I wrote about in the first days of this blog. In it Eco wrote about the impossibility of voluntary forgetfulness; that although we may employ several techniques to help us remember, there is, for better or worse, nothing we can do to help us forget. He suggests one way that we can if not quite forget, we can at least muddy the waters of memory,

“One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

Needless to say, the application of that idea to this situation may have worked in my early twenties, but not now.  But if there was a method I could use to truly forget, would I use it? I’ve certainly fantasized about it this past month, but if seriously presented with the chance to “produce oblivion”, would I take it, even if it also meant forgetting all the good, too?

Then late last night I came across this post on the “Freshly Pressed” page. Needless to say, its title “On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline” (okay, maybe not the Facebook part) immediately spoke to my current obsession with remembrance and forgetting. In the “Erasing Memories” segment of her post, she talked literally erasing her memories, or at least the evidence of them by deleting chat logs, Facebook messages, emails. (When I was in high school the equivalent would have been throwing away the letters, tearing apart the photographs and erasing the ubiquitous “mix tapes.) She refers to it as kind of “self-curating.” Its a great idea, in theory, but despite my desire to forget the love I felt and still feel, I’ve had no impulse whatsoever to delete anything. Although I’m nowhere near ready to go back and reread our exchanges, I imagine that one day looking back on them might provide a little clarity, some answers, or maybe just a chance to reminisce about something that was good.

She also mentioned the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times in the past, and I’ve always liked it, although I could never really connect with it. I’ve always been a firm believer in some permutation of “no regrets,” and by extension that means “no forgetting.” I could never understand why Joel and Clementine chose to erase their memories of each other. Now I get it. There’s that part in the film where Joel (Jim Carey’s character) goes into Lacuna (which interestingly enough means  a blank space, gap, or missing part), to have the memories of his relationship with Clementine erased. The doctor then explains,

There’s an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core it starts its degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning, all the memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared, as in a dream upon waking.

An emotional core indeed. All my memories seem intertwined with emotion at the moment, and the urge to erase and forget is now strong. I suspect that if there did exist an ars oblivionaris, a Lacuna, Inc., or a river named Lethe for that matter, that I would be seriously tempted to use it, but I’m sure that if I did, that there would come a time when I would regret it. Even Joel, at the end of Eternal Sunshine, choses to remember. Erasing my memories would be erasing what was an incredibly loving, honest, passionate, and, well, a fundamentally good part of my life.

I suppose I’m glad that there’s no way to erase our memories, or to go back in time and reset everything. At the end of the day, despite the heartache of loss, I know that eventually the memories will be good ones. Today remembrance brings with it a mixed bag of hope, loss, regret, and longing, but although remembering is painful, maybe one day it will all make sense. After all, it’s all of these experiences that shape who we are. That, and of course only by acknowledging the past can we hope to make peace with it.

Love and Byron

The question of love has been very much on my mind lately. It sometimes feels as if we’re wired to love, but not equipped to deal with the pains that seem to be a part of truly loving someone, and for the last month I’ve been quietly seeking my answers in the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

I think like most people, I first met Byron in my high school English Literature class.  It was taught by this supremely elegant woman who seemed to have such command of every word, every nuance, and every theme.  My love of literature and poetry were awakened with her.  I fell in love with Chaucer (and in college proceeded to learn Middle English as a result), breezed through Shakespeare, sat horrified and riveted by Robert Browning, was mystified by Blake, and quite literally wept with joy at what Coleridge could do with simple words, all while under her spell.  Then we got to Byron, and the spell was broken.  He seemed trite, almost dismissive.  How could he be placed among greats like Keats and Shelley, I asked?  The answer wouldn’t come until much later.

That “later” came in college, where I took a course titled “Second Generation Romantic Literature.” I figured Byron would be the price to pay to get to fully immerse myself in Shelley and Keats for a semester. It turns out, however, that Byron was the prize. It was here that I began to see him in a different light.  I began to see beyond my high school perception of Byron as the handsome but superficial womanizer, and began to appreciate the subtle complexities of both his life and his work. His poetry, I realized expressed a heartbreaking innocence juxtaposed against a near knavish manner, an almost brooding darkness set against a childlike playfulness, his heroic actions contrasted against his physical deformity.  He was right when he said, “I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” But what truly engaged me, what began my love affair with Byron was his passion, and not just in the obvious sense.  Yes, he clearly had a passion for women, but he had a passion for life, for words, and for feeling… for all that makes us human.  It was with this new perspective on Byron that I reread the first poem of his that I had so hated in high school, “She Walks in Beauty,”

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

What had once seemed trite now seemed tender, seductive, rhythmic.  It made me long to be that woman described by someone so attentively and lovingly. The poem lost its “high school” simplicity and opened me up to what else Byron had to offer, such as this…

Think’st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes,
Suffus’d in tears, implore to stay;
And heard unmov’d thy plenteous sighs,
Which said far more than words can say?

Though keen the grief thy tears exprest,
When love and hope lay both o’erthrown;
Yet still, my girl, this bleeding breast
Throbb’d, with deep sorrow, as thine own.

But, when our cheeks with anguish glow’d,
When thy sweet lips were join’d to mine;
The tears that from my eyelids flow’d
Were lost in those which fell from thine.

Thou could’st not feel my burning cheek,
Thy gushing tears had quench’d its flame,
And, as thy tongue essay’d to speak,
In sighs alone it breath’d my name.

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

I almost didn’t include the last two stanzas of this poem, “To Caroline,” because they invariably make me cry.  Such longing, sadness, love, passion… the desire to just lose themselves in each other is palpable, and one cannot help but feel it with them.  It makes one envious of that love shared, yet so afraid of enduring that kind of loss.  What beautiful contrast, and what beautiful emotion.

Byron’s way of describing such intimate feeling, elicits from us an equally powerful reaction, whether we are complicit or not. His understanding of human nature, of what moves us, of what we fear, and of what we desire, cause his poetry to seem to speak directly to our hearts and souls.  One of my favorite poems of his, “Solitude,” always seemed to highlight this understanding of who we are.

To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

Last, before I go on too long, there is one poem that always shined like a ray of hope.  His “Stanzas to Augusta” (Augusta being his sister with whom he purportedly had an incestuous affair, this is Byron, after all), speaks to the power of love itself, to withstand adversity, to face all challenges, to give strength that seems impossible, and to pull the lovers through.

…Oh, blest be thine unbroken light!
That watched me as a seraph’s eye,
And stood between me and the night,
For ever shining sweetly nigh.

And when the cloud upon us came,
Which strove to blacken o’er thy ray –
Then purer spread its gentle flame,
And dashed the darkness all away.
The winds might rend, the skies might pour,
But there thou wert -and still wouldst be
Devoted in the stormiest hour
To shed thy weeping leaves o’er me.

…But thou and thine shall know no blight,
Whatever fate on me may fall;
For heaven in sunshine will requite
The kind -and thee the most of all.

Then let the ties of baffled love
Be broken -thine will never break;
Thy heart can feel -but will not move;
Thy soul, though soft, will never shake.

And these, when all was lost beside,
Were found, and still are fixed in thee;-
And bearing still a breast so tried,
Earth is no desert -e’en to me.

Still no answers to my questions about love, but one thing Byron does illuminate is the ability of love to transform us in ineffable ways.  Ineffable to us, maybe… it takes a poet like Byron to put into words that which exists only in our hearts.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell… Revisiting Blake

Title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ...

This past week’s theme in regards to my reading seems to be the revisiting of old favorites from my “formative years” (early 20s) – Huxley’s  Island, Hume’s Inquiry,  Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (post coming soon), and after last night’s post, and in keeping with the trend, I went back and reread Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This work is Blake’s attempt at presenting to us, in true Romanticist fashion, an argument against the dualist, Manichaean, view of good and evil which characterized Christian Europe.  Deliberately upsetting the common understanding of those very definitions of good and evil, and dark and light, Blake begins by blurring the lines.  He writes,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.
Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

And just a few lines later he adds,

 Energy is Eternal Delight.

He opens this work by presenting the argument that humans are, and should be, both angels and devils, both reason and passion.  To deny either part is to deny our humanity. It is in these contradictions, and it is in these grey areas that we find our humanity.

The entire work, which often mimics the structures of biblical passages and prophecies, fuses the sacred and the profane, the divine and the fallen, and the spiritual and the material; in effect,  a “marriage” of heaven and hell.  Blake, unlike Dante (who also uses the literary device of imagining himself visiting hell) presents hell as a place of poetry, energy, and exuberance – a place the speaks to our passions and our physicality.  Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of reason, restrained passions, and “unacted desires.”  For Blake, neither is inherently evil nor inherently good.

The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the contemptible.
The crow wish’d every thing was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
Exuberance is Beauty.

Blake beautifully express the Romantic desire to recapture the irrational element in man, something that the Enlightenment had effectively, according to Blake, killed off (he regarded the philosophes as “unimaginative killers of the human spirit”). Echoing this idea, in another poem, “A Little Girl Lost,” Blake writes,

Children of the future age,
Reading this indignant page;
Know that in a former time,
Love! sweet love! was thought a crime.

Isaiah Berlin, in his book The Roots of Romanticism, in Proustian fashion, attempts to define Romanticism.  He writes,

Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence. . . It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. . . It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy. . . It is energy, force, will, étalage du moi. . . It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul.’ It is, in short, unity and multiplicity.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  Blake illustrates this definition eloquently and elegantly.  By “marrying” heaven and hell, by blurring our perceptions of what is base and what is sacred, Blake shows us that our very souls exist in this “unity and multiplicity.”  He is a true spokesman for his age when he calls our attention to the inherent “sturm und drang” (storm and stress) of human experience.

Also in true Romantic style, Blake not only blurs the lines between good and evil, but also between man and God.  He writes,

And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

Which is reminiscent of this quote by Sagan, from his Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,

God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of Man.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, although one of his earlier works, captures the spirit of Romanticism beautifully.  But more than that, he truly articulates what it means to be human, with all of our contradictions and inconsistencies. We are both of the spirit and the flesh, and of the mind and the body. We are both reason and passion, intellect and lust.   He confirms and condones this as he closes the work, liberating us to embrace our entire selves,

Let the Priests of the Raven of dawn, no longer in deadly black, with hoarse note curse the sons of joy. Nor his accepted brethren, whom, tyrant, he calls free: lay the bound or build the roof. Nor pale religious letchery call that virginity, that wishes but acts not!
For every thing that lives is Holy.