Archive for July, 2015

I find myself disappointed by humans much more than by dogs. Why do you think this is?

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I’m thinking the term “self fulfilling prophecy” might be a bit redundant?

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I believe I myself have spent much of my life in a state of selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit. This is a German phrase which roughly translates as “self–incurred voicelessness.” It is an impossible expression really. How could I have self consciously incurred my own predicament, if I was already –somehow –banished to silence?


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I’ve always loved this simple statement by Immanuel Kant, age 60 at the time, penned shortly after he had written his most important work, The Critique of Pure Reason:

Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit.

Enlightenment is our emergence from our self-incurred voicelessness.

The final phrase is highly significant, and cannot be fully captured in English. The word selbstverschuldeten is a compound of the reflexive with a word which implies indebtedness, as if something has been voluntarily wagered, risked or mortgaged. The last word Unmündigkeit is a noun which literally translates as “mouthlessness” but which in German refers to an absence of developmental or legal maturity. I think there is a subtle irony (melancholy? compassion?) in saying that the immaturity is self incurred, since it would seem call into question the very nature of a self that, though green and untested, yet assumed this mysterious debt. What I think Kant means to suggest is that humanity finds itself apprehended in a Faustian bargain that traps us and keeps us—immature, incapable, voiceless, disenfranchised. In the context of the first critique, I think he is proposing that we have mistakenly acquiesced our reason to an algorithm of certainty, fate, and God, to the detriment of our ability to live, negotiate, and mature.

How well Nietzsche understood the old man!

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More and more I’m considering the proposition that many (most?) people live life thinking “X should be easy” and then are really pissed off when they discover it isn’t. X could be just about anything, it seems.

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One of the problems with moral disputes in the US is that they tend to be couched in terms of essentialist ethics. On the one hand the neo-liberal ethic is one of limited government: A Government which makes sure the streets are kept in good repair, (mostly) free of bloodshed, and no more. On the other hand the social justice movement demands that we recognize the essential goodness of all beings, and on that basis treat everyone as “equal” (whatever that means). The problem with both of these perspectives is that they propose to cash the value of an essentialist view of human nature in an algorithmic approach to civic life. Which clearly doesn’t work so well in a world that (apparently) neither heard of their algorithms, nor contracted to follow them. An alternative unconsidered by either camp, probably due to fears of “relativism,” is the notion of civic virtue. The central question of for civic virtue is not “how are we” but “how do we wish to be?” As such it is not nearly as algorithmic as either transcendentalism or utilitarianism – in fact it pretty much gives up entirely the notion of a fixed heuristic approach to human life and instead embraces the apparent contingency of language and community. Rather than asking “what are we?” and then trying to fit everyone into a deductive theory of how we should behave, the question is much more one of “what type of ‘we’ do we wish to be 500 years from now?”

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Knowledge is often defined in terms of correspondences to reality or facts, and this is indeed useful in certain situations, very ineffective in others. We should not be afraid to jettison such a model when, like an old pair of shoes, it no longer serves our purposes. In such cases knowledge may be defined as a felt sense. That sometimes others feel as well. Or so they say.

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If you are new to poetry or old to life, looking for an entry or an exit, you must read Jed Myers. If you love Rilke or want to love him, if you remember Plath the way school teachers remember rain, if you can’t wait to teach your child to sing, or can’t remember what your kids look like, you must read Jed Myers. His is a poetry that echoes and persuades, for novice and expert, for the tactful and the embarrassed, into the field of poetry. He will help you when others have spun off into space, will wonder you when others have sunk too far under-earth, will confront you when others have forgotten you. Is this one about you? Is this one for your neighbor? From what headline was this one ripped? What tea was spilled over this one? That wasn’t the only one, was it?

After reading Jed Myers, you might actually say what you need to. You might want to go home done with all the fashionable micro-management that leisurely kidnaps so many lives these days. You might possibly long, for a moment, to take yourself more seriously.

Quite apart from technical skill, Myers’ poetry ranges further than the eye can see and provides what is sadly lacking from so much published work these days: a human voice. Too much the world of poetry looks for madness for madness sake, strangeness for shock value, like poverty for sustenance, thinking that it is helped in most what it hurts by. Not Myers, though. He has traveled through the eyes of his clients, his family, the news of the day and made it real again for people living real lives. Not the lives of post modern literary theory, not the lives of endless resentment and disdain. Real painful joyful, endless lives that remind me of those eulogized in Hesse’s unforgettable psalm to love’s only faith:

            …what a real living human being is made of seems to be less understood today than at any time before, and people–each one of whom represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature–are therefore shot wholesale nowadays.

Sometimes I think only Jed understands Plath’s once enigmatic claim:

            Love, love, my season.

Only he could have written this without breaking a window first and slitting his own wrist in grief and rage:

            She’s his secret mother in her bare protuberant ribcage.

The purveyors of the culture of resentment will thus be quite disappointed that one more has fallen under the scythe of sentiment, succumbed to the demands of emotion, dared to dip from the ink of reality. For here is no cynicism, though there is pain and unblinking harshness (read “Twelve” and then bow to someone who said something you never could have, though you needed to). Here there is no betrayal, though there is a steady gaze. And certain lines jump in, as they should, to save a poem whose life has been braced against the coming of night, and whose viability has been gambled on the charity of the reader, praying that you will somehow work your way suddenly, unexpectedly, to this—

            She falls back on the breast to watch the stars.

Sometimes it seems as though one of the greats has come back and is inhaling deeply one or the other of his turns, enigmatic to the end, toying with us, but not allowing us the luxury of dismissal – as one insane. The whispers of madness only, the promise, but not the full science. Like here:

            …and it seemed

            it was just the backs of their minds, opened
            with long-ago climbs to familiar boughs

            near their houses, across the mountains
            from each other, before they could know

            what it is to call out across space and time
            through the mind of the world to your lover.

Here you will find so many that have come before, all the good ones we all know, though perhaps we don’t like to admit it: Plath, Rilke, Eliot, Oliver, Millay, Celan, Levine, Olds, Shelley, Wright, Darwish, Davies, Whitman.

But you will find them as if by accident, and it will be easier with Myers than it was with those old saws. You will not need an English teacher or a lit crit guide to see you through the morass. You will find your way home because Myers is an expert, in ways the others could not be, at bringing you there. He spends his days helping those in the weeds find a path. He resonates to the lineage from which he hails, in that he is familiar with therapy, but as teacher rather than supplicant. The suffered rather than the endlessly suffering. Too true, we have longed for the sufferers to sing us through our lives, our loves, to be our entertainment and our comfort. But, as Kierkegaard also noted, when the singing gets too much, there we end. They spin out into the immaculate one-ness (didn’t Rilke say that?) and we are left wondering with what air could we have sustained such a song? What nutrition can we harvest from it? But with a poet like Myers, the food is neither bland nor foreign, not un-reachable, neither quite at hand. He counts the way to the stars carefully enough for us go with him—traveler or auditor, all are welcome.

Before I wrote this review, I wrote a poem that he made me write, though he didn’t know it. What poems will you write, I wonder, after reading his?—

            Fellow poet, fellow listener, I

            put you in my pocket and leave again, but
            never again. You understand. What it means
            to make words more interesting. You

            get it without my having to explain it to you:
            that a poem is nothing more than your excuse to

            find a silence I’ve never heard before.
            I want to write your review, but I don’t
            need to read all your poems to do it. Indeed,
            I don’t want to. Read them all. I don’t

            want to come to the end of your discovery.

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It seems to me that relativism often gets punished as the obligatory bed-fellow to nihilism. And yet properly understood as the doctrine that all behaviors are learned behaviors, it seems that it is as far from nihilism as any position could be. How did the two get confused?

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I fear that our country’s founding on classical liberal ideals of equality, self-interest and the rule of law has doomed us all to the mediocrity of ” Sorry, not my job, –I just work here.” Nothing exemplifies this tendency more than the pathetic attempt to adjudicate major moral questions (like same-sex marriage and abortion) on such flimsy notions as equality and privacy, referring them as per usual to some fantasy world of natural rights and liberty. What garbage! Marital opportunities and freedom of reproductive choice are not a matter of rediscovering yet again a nonexistent “right” to equality or privacy, which neither exist nor, apparently, command any sort of respect from governments subjected to even the mildest of exigent circumstances. We would be far better served to consider such questions a matter of civic virtue, a concept which owes nothing whatsoever to the delusion of natural right and consequently cannot by that fallacy be assailed. Civic virtues, in this case the demand for compassion and restraint of political cruelty, by which means alone do we preserve our ability to coexist in community, are the true touchstones of opportunity and due process–our duty to protect and nurture one another. As we have seen time and again, laws alone do not protect people. Ultimately only other people can do that.

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