A Good Ship

These days have been filled with quiet thrumbs of rain, then sudden swathes of sun, new students, old work and the ongoing attempt to "reduce that pile" which are the books related to works-in-progress that crowd the table and make it hard to eat. I think I was lucky to get sick for a few days (which hasn't happened in years), because I realised that I was accumulating a tower of Pisa of overwhelm, so I knocked that Jenga down and am beginning again with the new thought that I don't want to be a hassled person. I want wisdom now. And by wisdom, I mean "the good life".
I wrote about this theme on my other blog, where I meditated on the topic of "masters in training". I know I've been neglecting this blog, but I have been gathering thoughts for it and expect to be blogging a bit more regularly in April. As I said, I have been trying to learn how to take things in stride, including blogging, and how to be "good" - how to cultivate, exalt, and expand the mind, which is what Seneca implores Lucilius to do (Letter 76). Of course, this takes time, hence my absence.


I love rereading Seneca. This time, I was really amused by what suddenly appeared humourous to me: "The situation for people is the same as it is for things." But it's just the way the translation reads that is amusing. In all seriousness, these ideas he writes of really do take time, in order to ponder how they may be implemented sincerely and effectively. For example:
The situation for people is the same as it is for things. A ship is  called good not if it has been painted with expensive colours or if its ram  is covered with silver or gold or if its figurehead is inlaid with ivory or if  it is heavily laden with treasure and regal wealth; but rather if it is stable, solid, tightly built with seams that keep water out, sturdy enough to resist  the sea's attack, easy to steer, swift, and not swayed by the wind. 
You may wonder why I cite that particular passage. It is in part because I often wonder at change in fortune and material lack, feeling in my rotten nature the stresses of barely purchasing my lifestyle "extras" like running shoes, which have nothing to do with bare existence, and so shouldn't stress me at all.
On my other blog I wrote about a Russian parkour athlete, Stranik, who is relevant here because he has made a series of really creative videos that center on nothing more than old uneven bars - so, no stress about running shoes in those clips. This, to me, is a picture of Stoic art, an art out of almost nothing, that answers stresses with, if not a tight hull, then the tightness of practice; stress replaced by jokes using whatever is around: skittles, a beer bottle, a hat.
The wind that sways can be material ("the situation for people is the same as it is for things"!) It can also be one based on mood. In answer to those stresses, I would like to become that ship that Seneca writes of. And add playful humour, for good measure.
Speaking of play, I updated the post "Utopia and Accident" after corresponding with the artist to clarify what she meant by "play". What she wrote to me in her emails reminded me of Huizinga's Homo Ludens. I'll end this post on a maritime-related theme from that book: Huizinga writes that many play-words take rapid movements as their starting point. He connects "Plato's conjecture that the origin of human play lies in the need of all young creatures ... to leap" with the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon lacan, which has the sense of "'to swing, to wave about' like a ship on the waves".
May we be that good ship.

Brush: Misprinted Type.

Everybody Goes to Them

The titular phrase is lifted from Trollope's The Way We Live Now, with its tales of illusory, new global empires, where a decadent world is infiltrated by a worse economy. What's the title got to do with that? Everybody goes to this pernicious economy. (NB. Spoilers ahead.)
As I was rereading the novel this time round, I was especially struck by the two main currents of where this new, empty world came up against classical references. These also make an interesting contrast against two "currencies" of the internet: "the use of abandoned shells" and the oldie-but-goodie "attention commons" (everyone goes to, ahem clicks on, them).
One assumes that no one wants an illusion covering over not-being-better-off. Before I analyse that deficit, I will present the classical retorts to it, as presented in The Way We Live Now.
The first and most obvious of classical references are the explicit comparisons Trollope makes between the head of the illusory empire, Melmotte, and ancient Rome. Not only did Melmotte's demise involve a toga, but the tragic role this garment was to play was presaged: when the most stable and traditional character of them all, Roger, says: "In Rome they were worshipping just such men as this Melmotte. Do you remember the man who sat upon the seats of the knights and scoured the Via Sacra with his toga, though he had been scourged from pillar to post for his villainies? I always think of that man when I hear Melmotte's name mentioned. Hoc, hoc tribuno militum!" (Citing Horace Epode 4.20: that man?! that man?! for officer!!)


The second is part of my favourite passage of the book, and which happens to include the above presage. It is an exchange between Roger and a Bishop, with the latter saying that from his pulpit-perspective, humanity is not degenerating and that Horace, who took such a view, privileged what he saw in front of him over the bigger picture. Roger argues that Horace lived during the decline of Rome, and the Bishop observes that Christ was soon to be born. Then, Roger censures the Romans and Melmotte (quoted above), and the Bishop asks if Roger is certain his accusations are well founded:
"I think I know that they are deserved."
"That is hardly doing to others as you would be done by. If the man is what you say, he will surely be found out at last, and the day of his punishment will come. Your friend in the ode probably had a bad time of it, in spite of his farms and his horses. The world perhaps is managed more justly than you think, Mr Carbury."
"My Lord, I believe you're a Radical at heart," said Roger, as he took his leave.
The Bishop's comment reminds me of Emerson's remark in "Gifts": "it is better to leave to others the office of punishing ... I can think of many parts I should prefer playing to that of the Furies".


But perhaps some readers are confused at my calling this second Trollope excerpt "classical" - here, I draw on the fact that ancient Rome and Greece contributed as much to the history of English literature as Christianity. Take this as you will. But you may also take it with the Emerson. So, returning to the main point, from "classicism" (as I define it), there is both a pessimistic view and a more optimistic one, and - spoiler alert - we find Roger, strangely, despite his 'principles', "happy" at the end of the novel, so the hardline against the mainstream ("everybody's doing it") is softened: the world is perhaps more just, after all, and the decadent, hollow economy can cede gems through decisions to change how we face things.
Speaking of 'hollow' in today's world, we might cite "abandoned shells", a phrase George W.S. Trow coined to describe how people turn to hollowed-out symbols of yesteryear as value symbols, because in the overload of information, markers are needed to select out "winners". The shells are hollow because the public has undermined the role played by editors. I read about it here.
This concept is related to "The tragedy of the Attention Commons", which brings us back to Trollope's ancient Roman portents. The phrase is taken from a Ribbon Farm article by Venkatesh Rao on a solution to this tragedy, "the web of intent". Here's a takeaway phrase that I am sure Roger and the Bishop would approve of: "Information work is still largely manual labor.  The Web of Intent is a roll-up-your-sleeves, grungy, grease-stained “fix-it” vision."
Does anyone want to fix the everyone's-doing-it empty shell? She asked, as she wrote her long-form post for her most-miniature corner of the internet.

Brush: Ewansim via DeviantArt; magazine in background Marie Claire Maison.

"Utopia and an Accident"

This post was updated on 1/3/2017.
Sometimes, the mind needs a holiday - especially from all it is conditioned to think and expect. Such a holiday was the effect of happening on an artist's website this evening, purely "by accident". (I was googling the phrase "poetry does not lead to" - interesting exercise, but perhaps best saved for another post.) The installment on the artist's website I was led to on my search seeks "a sculptural excuse where poetry does not lead to evident facts".
What caught my attention were two things: the title of the installment: "The New Sincerity", and the phrase describing the work: "intersection between utopia and an accident or improvised event".
And here is where my mind went: the title makes sense because while sincerity is timeless, it must be forged anew given the ever-changing customs and now technologies mediating it. My second idea was about how the tension in the juxtaposition between utopia and accident/improvisation is almost like a riddle.
It reminded me of my favourite passage by H. Randall about Plato's utopia (in "Plato's Treatment of the Good Life and His Criticism of the Spartican Ideal"), where he explains how utopia is to be understood: as a general direction, not a final destination:
There is the constant temptation to live in the vision, rather than by the vision: to want to go to Heaven, like the Christians, or to bring Heaven here to America like the moderns, instead of living well a human life with vision. There is the temptation to demand perfection, and to condemn all existence because it falls short of what it might be, as it naturally must, instead of using the vision of perfection to discriminate between what is better and what is worse in our relatively and inevitably imperfect world... This, it may be, is the truth that lies behind Plato's ironical warning that the effect of poets is often bad: because men are apt to be too stupid to realise that they are poets, and to take them literally, instead of seriously.

The artist, Belén Rodriguez Gonzales, from the video summing up her work, seems to demonstrate, through things, this problem between projected grids and a geographical, cosmological freeplay of motion: winds, the effects of the sea, the shining of the sun... Despite the grids (or, the "literal"), there is a lot of apparent "potential for vision" for one who is looking. The challenge of life is to learn how to make something of the "natural musts" without losing poetic vision.
Speaking of the poetic, I had been uncertain about what Belén meant by the phrase "a sculptural excuse where poetry does not lead to evident facts", and have since had the great pleasure of corresponding with her in order to clarify. I admit that I had initially understood it to be deliberately opaque in the language of much post-formalist art, but could not have been farther from the truth. Her art is, in part, a response to the overload of art that fades once the joke is over.
Belén's art is like the poeisis that Huizinga describes in Homo Ludens: it is not bound by the ties of the everyday and is inaccessible to the drill of the rational mind. In other words, it is ethereal and elusive, to be grasped at and pondered over, and, in that process, to become transformed (which is the result of all good dialectics).
Huizinga writes:
Poeisis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a very different physiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality. If a serious statement be defined as one that may be made in terms of waking life, poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. It lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child, the animal, the savage and the seer belong, in the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s. 
I like the playfulness, general selection of ideas, and broader implication of Belén's art: it's one holiday for the mind. And if there's a moral to the story of this post, it's that chance can afford a scrap that can be turned into magical good fortune by one who is looking.
Brush: Misprinted Type.

"Wounds, Talent"

As I sit at this computer and write, fireworks are already going off - and will continue to do so almost through January. I am rarely a fan, but as I read a poem by Pindar earlier, I found the fireworks to be the perfect accompaniment to his paeans of physical glory.
In an ode to Epharmostus, Pindar includes a passage in the middle about the victor's earlier triumphs (a "now and then"), showing how our hero, though young, was not allowed to compete with youths, so was faced with elder rivals, who one imagines to be more experienced, and manages to endure and prevail. The drama of this suspense cedes to cheers reverberating in the arena, which you can practically feel as you read:
in Marathon, torn from beardless antagonists,  he stood the onset of older men for the silver vessels.  He threw these in his speed and craft  with no fall scored against him  and walked through the ring to loud acclamation  in the pride of his youth

Sometimes when I read Pindar, I stop reading his message and dwell instead on the characters or themes he brings up in a single poem, and forge my own associations, imagine my own poem.
This poem (Olympian 9) mentions a character called Telephus. He is mentioned in the poem as a stand-in for the concept of foe - a counter to a faithful character (Patroclus) born of the land that produced our athlete victor.
Pindar does not mention here that Telephus was wounded by Achilles, nor how the wound would not heal so Telephus consulted the oracle at Delphi and learned that what had wounded him would heal him, or how he was ultimately healed when scraps of the spear that had injured him were rubbed on the wound. Frazer cites this as an example of "sympathetic magic" in his Golden Bough. I wonder if this story is relevant to the poem because Pindar does mention Heracles, with a strange twist: at once exemplary and inadequate, and in one account of the Telephus wound story, we know that he reached his cure by invoking Heracles.
It is interesting to consider the relationship between what ails and cures. This is almost a holiday message.
But that is not all that I want to share in this holiday post, because there's a depth to ailments when other bonds with nature are strained.
In my case: trying to accept who I am without that urgent flailing towards "better". To all this, Pindar says: natural talent is far better than learned abilities, especially where the latter lacks the divine component. In his words:
That which is inborn is always the best; but many men strive to win glory with excellence that comes from training. Anything in which a god has no part is none the worse for being quelled in silence. For some roads lead farther than others ... The paths to skill are steep things to win
So as the fireworks continue to rumble in this little city that produces so much light, I leave you with the idea of catharsis: for wounds, but also for a recognition of the talents "inborn" - what is sought is found. Here's to the endeavour! (This post is a variation of  the original on my other blog. Translations of Olympian IX a combination of Svarlian and Lattimore.)

Brush: Misprinted Type.

Human Life in its Genuine Colours

Plutarch (in Consolatio ad Apollonium) quotes Pindar's "Man is but a shadow's dream" to comment: "He used an artificial and very perspicuous hyperbole to draw human life in its genuine colors; for what is weaker than a shadow? Or what words can be found out whereby to express a shadow's dream?" His point is that we are born into corruption and inconstancy - and so, knowing that, are to defend ourselves "against the casualties of life". Which reminds me of Seneca's counsel that we do not die because we're sick, but because we're alive. And that all sounds rather grey - but again, this grey is the remedy, in Plutarch. Knowing we are a shadow's dream is our inoculation.
For a series of years now, I feel like I have been doing a study in this grey, but suddenly have an inkling that I am on the verge of some kind of peripeteia (though admit this may be but a sensation). Still, this hope (which Plutarch also writes of) has brought colours to my palette - and through this relief,* the greys have become even more beautiful to me, my own memento mori.
This week on The Getty Iris blog, an artist wrote of how Diebenkorn "spoke about the difficulty of making a gray painting—how hard it is to make something meaningful and able to connect when one of the fundamental elements of painting—color—is not present or is reduced."


The very day I read that, I went out for a run and found that very grey (do follow the link to see the grey Matisse paintings referenced for comparison) - and wondered how hard it would be to make a painting of that, rather wondered, because isn't El Greco's "View of Toledo" and Turner (e.g. "Snow Storm") largely based on grey? When searching for the latter painting, I found it was included in a getty exhibit entitled, "Set Free" - which perfectly suits my interpretation of grey.
If human life in its genuine colours is but a shadow's dream, to become set free from that is to embrace the Senecan adage, and from there, add all the colours, knowing they are fleeting gifts. That's kind of what Diebenkorn's "Ocean City" manifests visually: the colours relegated to the edges; present, if minimal.
And sometimes [Diebenkorn] just needed to think out loud, and he’d talk about painting as a discipline, about having a work ethic, and about not being complacent with either success or failure and how they were both valuable lessons if you paid attention.
Grey is a valuable lesson. Harder to work with - but, as Turner shows, not impossible. What is more, it seems that the only way to find "freedom" in this grey is to accept one's own lot in life, whatever this may be. To accept, as Dienenkorn is described to have accepted, that life is work. Again, to quote Plutarch (quoting Socrates), our own lot is easier for us to carry anyway, so we might as well accept it:
And here that opinion of Socrates comes in very pertinently, who thought that if all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence every one must take an equal portion, most people would be contented to take their own and depart. 
Interestingly, that Socrates anecdote is rather similar to one told in an Eastern tradition about a man who complained the cross he was carrying was too heavy, so an angel brought him to a room full of crosses and said: set yours down, and pick any here in its place. When the man had chosen one he found light enough to carry, the angel said: that was the one you had been carrying to begin with.
*Nb. I am fascinated by the various manifestations of relief, and wrote about its etymology in an earlier post.


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