Song in philosophy of the good that could be

Perhaps it feels that a storm is afoot, or that it is already raging. Someone asked a poet today: "How do you see what you do as a poet in the face of the triple threat of the modern age: postmodernism, globalization, and materialism?" The poet considered, besides the occasional wish to run for the hills and retire to the idylls of yesteryear, that in fact poets mostly thrive on discord. He added that poets are not to be trusted and then invoked the (oft-misunderstood) reference in Plato's Republic where poets are banned. I write misunderstood because Plato himself quotes poets as authority in some places, and uses poetic techniques. Plato takes issue with how poetry is used.
And so the storm continues - from whichever vantagepoint we might be taking. It is funny to think that it exists even for those choosing not to attempt to pursue the classical ideals - like truth or justice or love. Maybe these lessons find us anyway, along the way, even if we do not name them, like a poet who takes up residence in indeterminacy. For it is possible to compare: the vague and the exhortation let your faults die before you die - Seneca. Time is ticking. The storm blows on.
Here is a Senecan quandary (all references below to LXXXI): to be asked by a former student, most of whom are on promotion highways, for class outlines and articles. Seneca writes: it is better to get no return than to confer no benefits. When this person then responds belatedly and perfunctorily after being given the golden mean of help: by which I mean, having been treated as one wants to be treated but without having been given the entire silver platter (especially as it was taught in class the first time round!), Seneca advises when the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, in order to succeed ultimately.
It is possible to become bitter, unless one has developed the love of wisdom which always says that life treats us better than we treat life. Perhaps for this reason that despite our efforts we will always be falling short in some respect, I aspire to adhere to the advice Seneca gives Lucilius: forget the injuy and remember the accomodation.

The problem lies with how to use criticism: how to recognise a shortcoming without anger, by simply declining to support such behaviour. To retire, withdraw - and not déchirer (with the shears that word suggests). And if one is calm enough, it might be all right in some situations to name the shortcoming, to assist one's self and others in locating what needs improvement - not to remember it like by labelling another person, but to toss it away as soon as it has been addressed. To name something calmly, or to move on, as Seneca suggests, calmly to the next person, but -
There is a storm. Sometimes we stir it up with our own ignorance or lack of character. I think it requires the combination of philosopher and poet to navigate through it - just like the philosopher Plato references the poet Hesiod's opening to the Theogony in his passage in the Republic about what children should be taught (and we readers are like children of the truth). Hesiod's proem begins with the Muses saying: "we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things". The poet picks up on what the philosopher clarifies.
We may learn that we have words for storms. We can choose to believe that life is good despite them - and suddenly, meaning is nascent all around us.
Plato is not against poetry but in favour of a reminder of the good that could be. Such as, a world without storms or a person who does not have to be flawed. The answer to the storm requires that conditional, but also the philosophical reason to guide it.

Brush: Misprinted type.

Translating Scholarship (into life?)

There is a line in a τροπάριον: "Thou were translated to life" after death. This attribute is explained as a result of excellent properties to begin with. But what of translation of the more mundane and performed by inferior translators? I am bringing a troparian into the conversation I am about to start about less lofty academic translation and my lowliest-of-the-low place in academia as an attempt at deflection. There are so many translaters/professors today who sell themselves and their work as flawless and the-latest-best-thing despite glaring inadequacies. They are so numerous that to wish to discuss the problems and difficulties of the craft seems like it might attract unnecessary criticism. But I wish so much for a space of properly cooperative maieutics, in which all interlocutors question themselves as much as the subject at hand.
My absence from this blog is largely due to an academic book I am translating. In many ways, working on it has felt like getting another doctorate. There are so many terms that need researching that I have ended up reading the texts of what has been cited. In many ways, working on this book has also filled all the gaps I saw in my own doctorate. Goodness forbid one admit such a thing, but unless I am being criticized by one of Jowett's ilk, I am no longer interested in the idea of listening to criticism that does not also bring relief. By relief, I mean all its etymology implies: assistance, and a raising up.
My doctorate was very broad in a way that has only become possible in this age. I did not even realise the extent to which it was a product of its time (which I was blinded to because I felt a moral obligation to research the precedents to almost all of the topics I covered) until I started to translate the book I am struggling with. I knew I'd been missing something, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Now I know - so this book I am translating has been a gift, although my person-to-person social life has suffered. (As they were in childhood, friends are also books.)
As I was saying, I did not subscribe to any school of thought in the dissertation but made a quilt, which you appreciate is not done in adacemic settings (I write in gest: "domestic Suzy attempts to write a dissertation", except I am not Suzy Homemaker, more like a vagabond, well, an itinerant: in homeless thought - by which I mean: make a home on this earth, are you kidding?!)

But the book I am translating has brought together all the theory A Person Like Me could find a home in. I finally found my legacy. The irony of this whole situation is that the very title of my disseration would place it in another department from where I defended it, according to what the book suggests (the title was a very generous gift to me, which I wonder if I deserved).
Some of what I didn't know, I know now - but what an uncomfortable way to learn, in one's own moccasins. Isn't one supposed to be mechanically streamlined out of such pain in academia? Most people are.
And most people seem not to share the same issues I have with translation. I never systematically learned the langauge I am translating from. And as a person who is old-school at heart if unschooled, this is very painful because I know in advance there will be mistakes I won't see. I am obviously trying to avoid this: highlighting what I am unsure of, asking native speakers. But there is just so much material, and I was told that it would be very nice for everything to be finished by a certain time - so that weighs on a person like me, which is another mistake. It is scary to have an entire book one is responsible for especially when it contains good ideas to begin with. All these months, I have been unsure if I am the 'man for the job.
But somehow, I find myself where I am. It seems, for now, I've been asked back to teach another year at university - which I love, because I love all of this reading, even though there is just so much sometimes I feel that I am drowning. When I am not drowning, I feel like a detective, learning something about the human condition. So, here I am.

One night, when I was feeling the depression of uncertainty of "being here", I turned to a documentary on Jakcson Pollock, whose paintings I don't like in theory but honestly really enjoy, especially in person. It seems that in a radio interview once he said, "Method is ... a natural growth out of a need." I am not sure this translates into academia. It seems rather risky if you ask me, particularly because of the competition by administrative types.
But the good thing about having been reduced to the lowest on the totem pole (you see, by some, those directly above me, but not all) is that there is nothing left to lose. Yes, reputation, for example, if I fail at the translation. But as I read English translations of Bakhtin, for example, now with the eye of a translator, could I really be criticised? So often those texts retain the original syntax! I write this because I feel that I must be brave, but perhaps I just departed from reason into pathos.
I have a need to try this out, because it seems that even my mistakes make sense - and, most importantly, as a teacher, I try my hardest (which is not to say totally successfully) to not close the doors to other's needs, to not squash, but to foster, curiosity even where I disagree with it. From that standard I try to set, I hope to be afforded the same in response.
But we do not live in Candy Land, and people are just waiting to cut others down to get ahead, especially in academia, perceived as a cushy job by those who don't bear the weight of the responsibility associated with it (which is not to say that bearing responsbility makes one perfect - it's all so tricky).
I can just try my best, and hope excellence will be achieved. But I also decided to write this post to ask for constructive criticism, if anyone has any.

Coda: I hope one day to write a book like Toelken's The Anguish of Snails - if this is a path that continues to be open to me. I see in his approach something of Gadamer's Truth and Method - but applied, and enjoy that while exposed to what can sometimes be the stifling aspects of academic life, he retains his curiosity; while he retains a wish for insight, he does not lose sight of responsibility.
Here are some quotations from his "Prologue": "My fieldwork experiences have probably not been much fifferent from those of many scholars who have discovered that culturally shaped expressions often defy objectve analsysis; in fact, we all run into unexpected events which totally change the picture we think we see". "Nonetheless, whenever I - and other scholars similarly inclined - have used these personal perspectives to resolve ethical issues according to Native preference rather than benefit scholarly propriety (say, by withdrawing or destroying dangerous or sensitive texts or choosing to avoid problematic themes), colleagues have issued sharp rebukes". "To my mind, a subjective approach does not preclude being careful and objective in a discussion; rather, it offers a special vantage point born of experience and engagement and should produce a richer analytical frame of reference." "Let's go along this cultural riverbank together, paying attention to what we actually see and hear that may offer us common ground for speculation, discovery, insight. We won't pretend to pry into the secret lives of snails, but we will try to account for the patterns in their shells".

Book in background: Butler's Midwest Modern; brush: Misprinted Type.

The Heart of a Poppy Flower

The larks are playing extravagantly - and loudly - in the invisibility of the air, but despite the scraps of blue in the sky tinged with shy pink clouds at this golden hour, it has just begun to thunder and a new grey mood has cast itself like a shadow that "falls": I could not have set the scene more dramatically had I invented it. So much time has passed since I last wrote here that I feel this post deserves a personal note. But just like the weather is doing my writing for me, I think a lot that I could write will actually speak for itself in coming weeks as the circumstance of this time in history continues to unfold. As much as the Self-Made Man narrative still continues to dominate so much of public discourse, I think that environment at large is now going to have its say. Or maybe I am just getting older and deaf.
Hearing only the xylophone of rain. Electricity in the sky. Still trying to figure out the meaning of life: how horrifying it would be to reach the end of one's days without having figured out what is worth the devotion of time. The time that is being alive.
It would be easy but there is so much that is deceptive. So much escape that is passive: sedentary in a figurative sense. I read somewhere that the internet is often abused as a faux safety blanket: whenever one wants to escape, one can tune into it. It could be said that there is a mechanical response to mechanical environments where no one is responsible but responsibility is assigned to a few workers who by default will be burried in work. It is hard not to be burried alive.

I wrote to a friend this evening how much I currently shirk from being asked that question beginning with how, centering on the verb to be and the pronoun you. Like the snapshot of the weather that suddenly moved in as I began this blog post: who has time to read all those signs and then to articulate them into some kind of sense - and for this sense to be true, one would also need to know something of both the future and the past: who can do that? Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Unemployment? (Again the concern for those of us working in higher education.) A new job? Promotion? Inclement weather? Unhappy mobs? Sudden inspiration? Peace?
My friend brought me some flowers yesterday: if I continue to blog, there will be pictures. They wilted as we talked - to begin with, they had obviously been picked much earlier in the day and were merely wrapped in damp pieces of dissolving scrap paper (nothing goes to waste in poverty). My friend had bought them from a granny her heart went out to, sitting in the heat. I thought the flowers would be beyond revivification, but I was wrong. It seems that flowers are not so frail, and hope that I am not, either.
What happens to us when the environment does not cultivate us, when reserves are spent merely to live conscientiously despite what looks like (in the hall of mirrors of appearance) others' compromises, left and right, I don't know. I wonder how much of appearance is spiritual. Cavafy writes: "Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you."

I recently heard a story of a man who had lost his estate after a recent war and moved into what was essentially a holiday cottage. He was known for saying: "What need do I have for all the chores I used to have tending to that huge property and the surrounding land - only now do I finally have a house in the country!" There is a language of the soul that refuses to be defeated.
And from such a vantage point, it seems to me that minutiae are a ballast: thence the victory of flowers. Or even of larks, that continue to play despite the tragedy of human folly. For one can look to the stars (levavi oculos, but also so many models of men once taught in school). One can tune into the moody or flitting clouds instead of endless chatter. Ultimately, shapes happen in the sky out of nothing. That is what I will be sailing on, not what I may or may not know, not the tiresome rant of media, not the circumstance some would like to use as a cage to trap others.
In this day and age, that - say - a sycamore can afford shade centuries after it was planted is no short of a miracle that touches the heart strings. There is song amidst the danger! There are games in the stormy sky!

Brush: Misprinted Type.

Good Sport

It was a terrible day a few days ago, the regular stew of workplace injustice and instability, and also, it was hot. And also, I was walking home in that heat, not dressed for it. Suddenly, a lanky long-haired stick person came just in front of me on a bicycle. I noted the acid-wash jean shorts to the knees, the faded paisley button down, but mostly the hair that hung like a limp cat, overpowering any other aesthetic.
Later, as I was crossing the road, I noticed that the bicycle this person was riding was candyfloss pink - which only caught my eye because this person had scooped the bicycle up in his arms and carried it across the street! As if it were his beloved, in a saccharine flick.
That was amusing, but soon afterwards I returned to the grey cartoon cloud above my head. Except just a few yards later, I saw the bicycle man again, clumsily purchasing a fluorescent ice lolly that had been quickly derobed of its paper, now pop-artily in his hand.
Despite his flaccid pony tail, I found myself smiling at this apparation of a man-person. That is, until I again drowned myself in the rain of depressing thoughts I was cultivating. Until again, the man-person reappeared beside me, the unusually long spider legs inconceivably able to peddle the bike - until he finally disappeared, almost into the sunset (which was really disappearing behind the square he dissolved into).
I decided that the man-person was my omen: that there is really no reason to give in to depressing thoughts, whether or not they are "real", but which are becoming unwieldly because I had registered for a marathon a few months ago, and am now tapering, which is really as horrible as everyone says it is. Without all those miles to bring a physical perspective to pettiness, it is hard to find balance. It is an ambient favoured by doubt - and doubt does not ride a pink bicycle, but is more like a garbage truck intercrossed with the sirens of several emergency vehicles.

But I heard a great comment about doubt today along with other things I agreed with (such as the fact that there is no such thing as writer's block - I teach my class in such a way as to prove that to claim this is merely lazy thinking). The comment was that we all have self-doubt (a sweeping claim I would hesitate to make but one I found incredibly reassuring) and that there is no reason to believe doubt when it arises, which it will because there is always room for it.
The commenter was Adam Skolnick on the Rich Roll podcast (new to me): Skolnick spoke mostly about his book on freediving, which has a lot to do with the art of breathing but is also described as being a poetic encounter with the infinite. He also talked about his own far-range ocean swimming that brings him alongside large sea creatures. As he spoke, I thought of those Mycenean frescoes of flying fish and dolphins and that seeming communion with nature that runs across those walls. Out of the scheme of one frolicking monkey after another, there is a fresco (Akrotiri, Xeste 3?) where a singular monkey ascends stairs to a throne. At one point, the reflection of things takes on a new dimension, there is presence through one's looking, so one is there, but one's eyes are no longer glossing over "furniture", rather objects take on quests out out out, and suddenly one is seeing being.
I had that experience earlier this week: I was running by a huge surface of water at once so still that it seemed to capture the sky; I was looking into a huge mirror and instead of this mirror reflecting a banal face or human chatter, it was reflecting the expanse of sky, so astounding because it seemed like although I was looking, I could still not see the end of what I was looking at.

Except the podcast does not leave one in that infinitude, which is but momentary, rather the podcast concludes that such encounters are fleeting and, with respect to freediving, risky. 
So what of the pursuit? It contains the risk of dissolving in deception. Not all bicycles are pink and come with pocket money for cool treats; some bicycles are a tiring journey into penury.
But if the bicycle is the heart, it needs attention or it goes away. Not lavished, not spoiled, but listened to in the way it is said that one is to learn to listen to the body. Something can be learned, though never to the point of total mastery: injury can be sudden and is real and humbling. The pursuit gets harder that way, when it is not where it seems to be. Effort is made for the wrong reasons, invested in the wrong people - both friendly and not, and strength is lost. To trust, on the other hand, is not to strain overexhertion, to not consume what does not fuel during training, but to allow that one is holding a singular gift that will find its way because it didn't belong to one to begin with.
Maybe it was this gift that the man-person was carrying across the road, the bicycle gift that would never have caught my attention had it not been held in such a way as to stand out from what is otherwise just the furniture of the street.

Book in background: Boucher's 10,000 Years of Fashion; brush: Misprinted Type.

What About the Fox

This week, I read the Fables of Babrius in microfilm online,* and wondered what it must have been like for students for centuries after the 4th to have begun their education in rhetoric by recreating fables. And how, too, certain tenets of those fables were revived in Erasmus' Adagia, also a popularised didactic tool. By tenets of fables, I of course mean maxims: illustrations of both good and bad character. Scampering throughout Babrius' Fables is the fox - a tricky character, reminiscent of the trickiness Chesterton gets at when he writes: " But if you are going to mend an innkeeper, you must do it tenderly, you must do it reverently. You must nail an extra arm or leg on his person, keeping always before you the Platonic image of the perfect innkeeper, to whose shape you seek to restore him." The wily fox has a place in the story of perfecting images.
Some of the fables depict the fox in situations reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, playing tricks on the Road Runner (which gives pause for thought: did fables inspire some Looney Tunes?)
But there is a curious one in which the fox, having (literally) fallen on hard times, is offered help from a hedgehog that it refuses: musing that to rid himself of his plight would be to expose himself to worse. The fable opens by being lauded for its ethos: Aesop used it to sway a crowd!
It was at that point that I could no longer refrain from wondering about Berlin's hedgehog/fox essay - specifcally, how he made the fox so one-dimensional as compared to how the fox appears in the fables: as immoral as cunning - and even wise. It turns out that Berlin said of the essay: "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something else, this one was very simple."
The idea from an Archilochus fragment that the essay opens with, about a fox knowing many things and a hedgehog one, also appears in Babrius - although with a twist: it is a hedgehog's boasting that prompts the fox (reynard) to say that it "possess[es] a mind of more variety than thy skin or mind". The fable ends with the maxim: "Each magnifies that which within his own possession lies."
* Please note since I did not make this clear: Babrius collected Aesop's fables. I do not know why I insist on reading Babrius and not Aesop.

There is an interesting thread about where Berlin got the Archilochus reference from at languagehat, which came up as I was doing topical reading to make sure this post I wanted to write was at least somewhat original. One of the commenters links to Bowra's paper on how Archilochus used the reference, postulating that he was comparing himself to the fox when he did.
The difference between the Arhilochus fragment and the Babrius fable illustrates that knowledge of a corpus of references does not stifle creativity, as some contemporaries seem to argue - lacking a shared vocabulary of possibilities for thought voiced through the safe remove of the animal.
What about the fox is partly explained by the Chesterton essay cited above. It questions whether the original nature of things is good or whether it is bad or "lost all power of being good". What the fox is about is the quest for what makes good or bad, how hard it is to pin this down, how the definition can change in an instant, in a different retelling, in a different context.
Building thought on the fox seems useful, not just paper dreams.

Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idées; brush: misprinted type.
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