April 2002 Archives

Hey Bud!

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this bud's for you


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People with wax heads should stay out of the sun

An eventful day, in a wax head sort of way. I presented my paper on A Journal of the Plague Year tonight. It still feels like a draft, but I received a good bit of encouragement. It seems that according to Dr. Anderson there may be a niche for getting it published; he didn’t say where, but I suspect it’s Literature and Medicine (he is the editor). Now I can sit on pins and needles until he reads the massive tome. I know it needs to be both narrowed, and expanded at the same time. But I just had to stop somewhere and get it out of my system. I’ve only been researching it for the last four months. If he thinks it’s publishable, I have the summer to work on refining it. I’ve still got a paper on Yeats that another editor said he would publish, if I can only get the time to work on it some more... I’m headed into strange terrain, and rather rapidly at that.

I also found out tonight what one of my fall classes is all about. It’s one that I signed up for, for lack of anything better to choose from. It is a special topics course on expository writing, which I chose largely because Dr. Anderson is teaching it. He’s “theory friendly,” which isn’t always the case with writing professors. I’m more interested in figuring out how things work than writing a novel or anything like it. Uh oh. I may have signed up for more than I bargained for. The course is on extended non-fiction. The product of the class will be a text which will be at minimum, fifty pages, and will involve reading a pile of non-fiction book length works. Little did I know that I was signing up for, in effect, “how to write a book.” I suppose it’s about time. I’ve stayed away from that, largely because I don’t feel prepared enough just yet, but with a thesis impending in the spring I suppose I might as well go through with it.

The department has been moving away from the conventional masters thesis, and into accepting extended non-fiction projects. I don’t want to do that, I’d rather do a conventional thesis because I do want to enter a Ph.D. program, and figure the practice will be good for me. Dr. Anderson suggested that it would be possible to take the product of that class and feed it into a project, but I don’t think I want to do that. Instead, being the horrible wax fountain of ideas that I am, I came up with an long-form idea I’d really like to write.

I’d like to write something about photography, using an approach similar to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but about the process of change I went through as I explored the techniques and products of infrared photography. Sort of part theory, part ethnography, and part memoir. It was a big deal for me, and my forays into language philosophy have deepened my understanding of the experience. It may be time to write about it. I’m not sure, but tonight it sounds like a good idea.

Lost Weekend

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Teaching can be hazardous to your health.

Yesterday was a weird day. I painstakingly pored over some essays between classes, hoping to find some way to help my students across the bridge into good academic writing, not the stultifying obscurantism decried by those on the outside, but a subtle blend of the personal and professional that marks truly good research writing. After the morning class, I had a good conversation with Huey Crisp, the director of composition at my school. He has recently started calling the “research papers” written by his students “research articles” instead, to try to distance them from the sort of “reports” written in high school. I like that idea a lot. It makes it sound more like the writing involved is targeted at a larger audience than just a teacher, and allows the student to take the writing they produce more seriously outside the academic enterprise. As I read through the papers, I thought about the difference between obscurity and ambiguity, gestured at by the Lefebvre that I quoted a few days ago.

I was thinking so hard as I drove to the noon class, that I left all the papers I was working on at home. I arrived at school a half an hour early, as I usually do, but without the reason I drove there in the first place. Looking at my watch, I knew it would be close, but I might not be too late if I drove back to get them. I live fifteen minutes away from the school, but it was raining and the roads were all fairly flooded. I decided that being a little late would be better than showing up and making excuses.

I like driving. Little Rock is a fun city to drive in, because most of the roads aren’t straight, but long sweeping curves cut into hillsides. However, in the pouring rain that can work against you. About halfway home, on a four-lane road that is a fairly busy route, the rear end of my car broke traction rounding a blind turn. The car went into a full spin at around 40mph. I have grown use to being out of control back here, with all the ice in the winter and such, so I didn’t panic. In fact, it hardly registered at all. I gradually brought the car back under control after one full loop, using the spin to scrub off the speed and finally coming to a stop halfway through the second trip around, just before crossing the center divider into the oncoming traffic. The people coming around the corner were no doubt quite surprised to see the butt end of my car facing them, but I stopped before I got in their way. I calmly pulled back out, and went on my way. It could have been a real mess, but it wasn’t. I’m not sure if it was luck or skill, but I suspect it was a combination of both. Life has been that way for me. I do tend to put more faith in luck than I should, but it usually works for me when it needs to.

I made it home, and back to school without further incident and was only five minutes late. Class was jovial, and good. Then, when I got home I read another article: 13 teachers, two students, and one policeman were shot dead at a school in Germany. This rips my heart out. How can a place of discovery become a place of murder? Regular everyday life is hazardous enough without the added complications of armed students!

The inhospitable host made my website unavailable for about fourteen hours, so I wasn’t able to write about this then. But so this post won’t be a total downer, I must note one more student blooper from a paper about pre-natal care:

She consumed a baby when she was in the ninth grade.
Cannibalism, now that’s an entirely different topic altogether!

Long in the tooth

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Long in the tooth

If I read one more paper on dentistry or dental hygiene I’m going to yank my own teeth out. I didn’t name any “taboo topics,” because I haven’t had my fill of the biggies like cloning, death penalty, abortion and all that yet. But I’m considering putting anything that has to do with mouths on the “don’t you dare” list. At least one person took a somewhat innovative tack: she attacked the problem of bad breath.

Did you know that “in a Jewish liturgical teaching, a man who marries a woman and subsequently discovers she has bad breath, can summarily divorce her”? I didn’t. Unfortunately, I can’t confirm this because there is no reference cited. Of course that’s a big problem with this paper. Inquiring minds want to know where this stuff comes from, particularly in the context of a research paper. Trying to do ten pages on teeth and gums is just too much. No medical school for me, thank you. At least they could have picked more interesting body parts to write about.

While I’m rambling, I thought I’d cast out a favorite bit from Blake’s Milton which could be applied to the negative side of a lot of postmodern rants:

To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,
But never capable of answering; who sits with a sly grin
Silent plotting when to question, like a thief in a cave;
Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge; whose Science is Despair
Whose pretence to knowledge is Envy, whose whole Science is
To destroy the wisdom of ages to gratify ravenous Envy;
That rages round him like a Wolf day & night without rest (40:13-18)
A lot of critics would like to adopt Blake as a model deconstructor (he is quite good at it), but he’s skeptically anti-skeptic. I wonder if I could find an antiskeptic mouthwash? That was bad, even by my standards. Too many freakin’ dentistry papers, I tell you.

But I can offer up something good, which helped take the edge off the multiple papers on mental health. If you haven’t seen flashback, dim the lights, have some mushrooms, and enjoy. I was told you have to wait until it’s completely loaded before it will play. I’ve had friends like that. I’d better shut up now.

Trees and Transparency

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I think every photographer goes through this phase.

1. The illusion of transparency    Here space appears as luminous, as intelligible, as giving action free reign. What happens in space lends a miraculous quality to thought, which becomes incarnate by means of design (in both senses of the word). The world serves as mediator — itself of great fidelity — between mental activity (invention) and social activity (realization); and it is deployed in space. The illusion of transparency goes hand in hand with a view of space as innocent, as free of traps or secret places. Anything hidden or dissimulated — and hence is dangerous — is antagonistic to transparency, under whose reign everything can be taken in at a single glance from that mental eye which illuminates whatever it contemplates.

. . .

The act of writing is supposed, beyond its immediate effects, to imply a discipline that facilitates the grasping of the ‘object’ by the writing and speaking ‘subject’. In any event, the spoken and written word are taken for (social) practice; it is assumed that absurdity and obscurity, which are treated as aspects of the same thing, may be dissipated without any corresponding dissipation of the ‘object’. Thus, communication brings the non-communicated into the realm of the communicated — the incommunicable having no existence beyond that ever-pursued residue.

. . .

‘Everything must be said! No time limit on speech! Everything must be written! Writing transforms language, therefore writing transforms society! Writing is signifying practice!’
Such agendas only succeed in conflating revolution with transparency.

The illusion of transparency turns out to be a transcendental illusion: a trap, operating on the basis of its own quasi-magical power, but by the same token referring back immediately to other traps — traps which are its alibis, its masks.

Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space 27-29


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Riot in the classroom

The funniest thing happened today. I was doing a final sort of review exercise about the steps involved in writing a research paper, when a student decided that they just had to offer up their opinion of my class, and the university in general.

She said it was all too easy, and not challenging at all. Looking around at all the pained faces, struggling to get their papers into shape before next week, it seemed like things might almost erupt into a riot. She asserted that she learned all this stuff in high school, and so far college had taught her nothing new. I asked her where she went to high school. It was a privileged Catholic girls high school. The class nearly erupted into a shouting match, with quite a few students asserting that it wasn’t that easy, I just made it seem that way. As I look at the numbers, and review the progress of the students I feel like most of my decisions were good ones.

At least 70% of the people are “getting it.” A few are going to need a minor miracle to pass. Now, at least, I had some indication that there was someone who felt I wasn’t aiming high enough. That’s the first indication of this from anyone, and it sort of brought a smile to my face. Though I’ve never said that in a class, I have felt that way before.

I reviewed my comment sheets on this particular student when I got home. Her first essay was a B-. Her second, a complete fail. Her third, a B. If she didn’t feel challenged, that’s her problem and not mine, because she obviously hadn’t incorporated much of what I was teaching into her papers. She has not submitted any revisions on any papers, including the F. She's a miss, but it’s a miss on the lower end rather than the upper end. You can’t reach them all. Her indictment was not aimed just at my class, but at all her classes. I’m sure she’ll complain to daddy and try to get into a private college, but as far as I can see the public school students are way ahead of her. I was proud to see the way my students held their own against her accusation, asserting that there was no way that writing was as easy as she claimed. She’ll be in for a nice surprise if she tries to write at the level she wrote in my class at a stricter private college.

The interesting thing to me was that she equated difficulty with “homework.” I was thinking back, and I can’t remember any university level classes that had anything like homework, with the exception of foreign language classes. My first thought was to tell her that she should have said something sooner, because I know I could have provided something more challenging for her. Now that I look at the quality of her work, I see that that isn’t the problem at all. She wants a nun with a ruler to crack her on the knuckles when she doesn’t do her sentence combining and grammar exercises on time, and that’s something that real universities aren’t set up to provide.

The students who are self-motivated and working hard nearly exploded. If I’ve tried to teach them anything, it’s not to accept things at face value and to dig deeper to produce informed opinions. Their revolt against this uninformed opinion made me feel like I had really done my job. What a great way to start closing out the semester!


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An inquiry about names

I was reading Plato’s Cratylus this morning (doesn’t everyone?) and a lightning bolt entered my brain. Cratylus is a sort of dry inquiry into the nature of naming of things, and its foundation is fairly ordinary. As Socrates says, he is speaking only of situations where “an animal produces only after his kind, and not of extraordinary births.” The core idea is that names have a “true” nature and are not relative and arbitrary as asserted by the Sophists. I’m not saying I buy into this, but a weird confluence occured.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bakhtin lately. He has a rather unusual approach to the rhetorical triangle of speaker-language-hearer. Bakhtin substitutes “hero” for language in his formation, suggesting that at the top of the language pyramid there rests a sort of idealized notion of the hero which both the speaker and the hearer interact with, when they form meaning from language. Then, in Craytlus, the derivation of hero was addressed:

Hermogenes: What is the meaning of the word hero?

Socrates: I think there is no difficulty in explaining, for the name is not much altered, and signifies that they were born of love.

Hermogenes: What do you mean?

Socrates: Do you not know that the heroes are demigods?

Hermogenes: What then?

Socrates: All of them sprang either from love of a god for a mortal woman, or of a mortal man for a goddess. Think of the word in the old Attic, and you will see better that the name heroes is only a slight alteration of Eros, from whom the heroes sprang.
Interesting thought. That never occurred to me before. Performing a Burkean substitution here, then language, or rhetoric, is love.

That really makes Bakhtin come into focus. Words bring us together, in a natural birth. This also helps me accept the “hero” concept a little better. I’ve always been uncomfortable with them, but as Carlyle argued, it seems as if people need them. The problem is choosing good ones.

Of course I had to do a little more etymological wandering. It seems like the spelling of my name, Jeff, is a mid-nineteenth century formulation. Finding some of the other uses of the name was enlightening. Did you know that as a noun "jeff" is circus slang for a rope? Makes sense, I certainly give myself enough of it at times. It’s also synonymous with “white guy,” in a derogatory sense:

A derogatory term for a man, usu. a ‘hick’ or a bore; esp. used by American Blacks of white men. Also attrib., as jeff artist, hat.

1870 O. LOGAN Before Footlights 202, I thought perhaps they imagined I was a female Jeff Davis, and were going to make a ‘charge a la bayonette’ instanter. 1917 E. E. CUMMINGS Let. 4 June (1969) 26, I escaped repairing with the bums, mutts and Jeffs. 1938 C. CALLOWAY Hi De Ho 16 Jeff, a pest, a bore, an icky. 1946 MEZZROW & WOLFE Really Blues (1957) 375 Jeff Davis, an unenlightened person, a hick from down South; sometimes shortened to jeff. 1952 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang (ed. 2) (1954) 391/3 Jeff Davis, jeff, a Southern ‘hick’. 1969 Publ. Amer. Dial. Soc. LI. 29 Names used exclusively by Negroes..jeff, jeffer, jeff davis, jeff artist. 1970 C. MAJOR Dict. Afro-Amer. Slang 70 Jeff,..a white person;..a dull person; a horrible square. 1973 Black World Apr. 57 He wears a jeff hat and a light raincoat.
A pest? A bore? An icky? Okay, I feel much better about my name now. However, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a "southern hick," I am a Californian. Jefferson Davis had nothing to do with my name, or Thomas Jefferson either. I don't wear hats or raincoats. And my physique (except perhaps my shoulders) is more round than square. I suppose I’m probably more of a verb than a noun:
‘To throw or gamble with quadrats as with dice’ (Jacobi Printers' Vocab. 1888). Hence jeffing vbl. n.

1837 Baltimore Commercial Transcript 7 Nov. 2/1 (Th.), We move that the printers of the U.S. divide off in halves, and ‘jeff’ to see which shall go to digging ditches or picking stone coal for a living. 1841 W. SAVAGE Dict. Art of Printing 428 Jeff. See Throw. 1875 J. SOUTHWARD Dict. Typogr. (ed. 2) 58 Jeffing, throwing with quads... One of..[the party interested] takes up the quads, shakes them..and throws them..after the manner of throwing dice, when the number of quads with the nicks appearing uppermost are counted,..the highest thrower being the winner.
Quadrats are blank slugs of metal used to separate type while printing (short for quadrilateral, oddly enough). So perhaps Socrates was on to something, for I’m still taking chances and throwing the dice.

Sometimes I think I enjoy the OED too much. Ah, life's simpler pleasures. Perhaps though, I'm an extraordinary birth and have nothing to do with the history of my name. Though I might wish to be related to Geoffrey Chaucer, I suspect I'm not. I was born a mistake, though my mother never claimed any animosity over it.


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2. Resemblance between Man and the Ass. - A round and convex forehead, says Aristotle, is a sign of stupidity.

Long ears are a sign that their possessor is extremely foppish, both in language and action; but indicate, also, good memory. According, to Aristotle, such ears denote a disposition like that of the ass. Polemon and Adamantius say, they denote a dull disposition. Albert assures us that long ears denote stupidity and impudence. Rhases says they are a sign of foolishness and longevity.

According to the opinion of Rhases and Conciliator, he whose face is long, is slow and lazy. Albert says, that such a one is cowardly and sensual, slow in his motions, lazy, and sometimes stubborn.

The under lip, when it advances more than the upper, is a sign that the possessor thinks about a great many vain things, and cherishes vulgar or unpolished ideas.

The union of all these signs in the same head, will be found to correspond exactly with that of the ass, to which it may be compared.

From The Physiognomist's Own Book: an introduction to physiognomy drawn from the writings of Lavater

Who Knew?

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I never wanted to be a writer

I suppose that saved a lot of time. I remember the frustration. Page after page of marked up nonsense; no, this will never do. Spelling errors in every other word. Fragmented sentences, as I tried to get the stuff I wanted to say out— it never worked. I tried poetry, and failed. I’d get a song stuck in my head, and that would come out instead. But I liked pressing buttons. From the near-silent fftt of a Leica or Rollei to the loud WHAP of a Mamiya RB-67— there it is— it’s done. A moment caught, decisive or not— more often, indecisive.

Grammar made no sense. Are they just making this stuff up? Just what the hell is a dangling participle anyway? A subordinate clause? Why is the future imperfect? These things just didn’t seem nearly as pressing as the problem of air-bells on film. Why did they call them air-bells? Those dark circles on film caused by improper agitation. My perfect pictures, ruined by streaky skies and odd UFO type objects on the negative. They can’t be fixed, go on— try again. It’s science, you can handle this. There must be a reason why some pictures turn out and others don’t. I found out that consistency works; if you find something that works, just do it. Nothing worked when I tried to write but it worked, eventually, when I tried to take pictures. I wanted to be a photographer.

CLUNK— I settled in on the sound of the Nikon. Only the F’s, though. I felt like I needed to see 100% and no one else offered that. The real stuff happens at the edges, and I wanted control. Control, control, control . . . the world must be ordered, there must be some sense behind it all. Standing in the empty concrete and brown spaces of Southern California, I tried to make it work. To find in those rectilinear spaces something that I felt was inside myself. What I found out was— the harder you look, the less likely you are to find it. I suppose what I wanted most of all was mystery, and mystery just won’t come when called. Year after year of trying to make sense, when really all I needed to do was let go and let sense and mystery find me.

After you make the pictures, and look at them, it’s only natural to want to talk about them. I talked a lot. Inevitably, it seemed that other photographers just didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. Somewhere in the gut-shot sore loneliness I began to think different. Maybe it was improper agitation. Too much time by myself, the bubbles settled in and stained me. I started looking for conversation somewhere else, electronic bytes over the phone lines. But that meant I had to learn to write. I had no choice, because there were few people around my town that saw pictures as important in the way that I did. They were my way of thinking about the world.

CLUNK— the words misfired. People got angry with me easily. Didn’t they know I was joking? Wasn’t sarcasm a universal right? I grew into being a writer out of self-defense. I wanted to talk, and writing was the only way I could do it. That’s inevitably what this space is all about: Jeff learning to write. If you think otherwise, I have misfired again. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Now Chomsky has made grammar make sense to me, and I’m a million miles away from fumbling poetry, digging deeper into just what I think. In words alone, because at this stage of my life that’s pretty much all that’s left.

I’ve embraced indecision, and let go of consistency. It’s just practice. A writer? Maybe, only in the sense that I’m a guy who writes. Yeah, so I’ve got degrees in it too. But more than that, I’ve majored in frustration— frustration with getting what’s inside into the light so that I can talk about it, and get over it. Words sometimes work, because I now have a sort of control over them that I only dreamed of as a photographer. Who knew? Words are easier!


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Put a candle in the window, cause I feel I’ve got to move...

I started to read Ernesto Grassi’s “Rhetoric and Philosophy” but I had to stop. He started an analysis of Agamemnon by Aeschylus, and I haven’t read that play. Another trip to Barnes and Noble, hoping they have it. I’m terrible that way. If I encounter references to things that I’m not familiar with, I always stop and read the primary text involved. This gets time consuming, and it may explain why I’m usually reading a dozen books at a time. Every time I go into a bookstore, it gets more expensive and my apartment is getting really cramped with books and records and CDs.

I was just at Barnes and Noble yesterday. After successfully resisting it for a couple of weeks, I finally succumbed to the urge to buy the Fantasy Records box set of all the original Creedence Clearwater Revival albums. Ben Fong Torres called them “American Music 101” and I suppose that might be true; they developed both inside and outside of a tradition. They defy placement in an arbitrary label of genre classification. It’s been eerie today, watching Anthony Hopkins play Nixon with the sound turned down on the TV, while listening to this music.

Like Bakhtin’s distinction between speech that reifies and speech which personifies, Creedence does both. It generates an image of the American blues and gospel tradition, a living breathing and shouting music going back for centuries, and a personification of a particular moment of crisis in this country, where people were dying— and dancing and having a good time. Grassi’s essay on rhetoric is a claim that the original structure of language is not rational, but rhetorical. We are inextricably bound to language which moves, which is immediate, not deductive or demonstrative, illuminating and purely indicative. The moods shift from “It ain’t me, It ain’t me / I ain’t no fortunate son” to “Don’t look now someone’s done your starvin’ / Don’t look now, someone’s done your prayin’ too” is sheer genius. The complexity of these simple pop songs is just astonishing. They show, they don’t tell, and like any good history lesson they indicate a slice of where we were without preaching about where we should be.

“Ramble Tamble” is the perfect lesson in the American tone.

Oooh, oooh, down the road I go...
Another of Grassi’s points is that the function of transposition, of metaphor, is essential to our use of language. I suspect that it goes deeper than most theorists propose; we transpose not just the concepts, but the tone into our deepest being. In my opinion, the tone of the American experience is old gospel blues, and it’s a mournful sound which compels us always to be on the road, to move onward to something that we still haven’t found yet.


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Some Bakhtin for the cut...

You’ve got to love any theorist that rolls his manuscripts and smokes them when he’s out of rolling papers. I decided I had better try to make some notes on “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences.” The essay is as dense and rich as poetry, and full of things I’ve been thinking of. I’m still having trouble with accepting the concept that any mode of thought is monologic, though I would grant that some discourses are more dialogic than others. However, the limits of expression that Bakhtin proposes make sense. It’s amazing how well his description of “understanding” fits with modern brain science. While the acts of understanding are perceived as unitary, each act is independent:

  1. Psychophysiologicaly perceiving a physical sign (word, color or spatial form)
  2. Recognizing it (as familiar or unfamiliar)
  3. Understanding its significance in the given context
  4. Active dialogic understanding (agreement/disagreement)
There are two separate modes of understanding in this model. The understanding of significance (comfortable and familiar vs. disquieting and unfamiliar). It seems to me that there are two sub-processes that must fracture at this level; the reflexive, animal response and the higher level linguistic response to the image as sign.

That’s why I distrust monologism. It seems to me that “active dialogic understanding” is in some part, a conversation between that animal level and the more machine/thinking level. I really love Bahktin’s conclusion that “each particular phenomenon is submerged in the primordial elements of the origins of existence,” and that this awareness is not synonymous with individuality. The act of linguistic recreation of the world is an act which means to move to a higher sensual realm, a realm of flight in language. Disquieting is my word, not Bahktin’s, because it seems to me the more the process of thought moves away from concrete reality into symbol, the more alienated we become from our animal selves. It seems so presumptuous to proclaim, as Pasternak’s poem “August” cited by Bakhtin does, that the word gives the world its image:

Farewell, spread of the wings out-straightened
The free stubbornness of pure flight,
The word that gives the world its image,
Creation: miracles and light.
Is the reconstitution of symbols purely a matter of “filled-in recollections and anticipated possibilities”? These are the things that support the idea that identity is socially constructed; I think to value this aspect over the other divergent path of consciousness, into the animal depths, into the “primordial elements of the origins of existence,” is to miss the real resonance of Bakhtin. I think that the image of the world created through writing and images is a dialogue between that animal side and the metalinguistic, the expression of individuality by conversation and interrogation of concepts, as understood within the small time in which we dwell.

The realization that you cannot construct yourself through writing, that an active renovation of the psyche through the creation of images is a fools project, comes later. Writing ourselves into existence? Sounds great, but a person still must eat and excrete. Is writing a creative process, a recycling process of accumulative images, or an excretory process? I’m leaning toward the latter. Internal conversation creates images, and when they swell up they must be released. They are not images of self, but of a dark aggregate of waste material that must be expunged.

The true author cannot become an image, for he is the creator of every image, of everything imagistic in the work. Therefore, the so called image of the author can only be one of the images of a given work (true, a special kind of image) . . . The author-creator cannot be created in that sphere in which he himself appears as the creator.

Bakhtin raises the possibility of a third consciousness, outside the concepts of I and other, “a ‘neutral’ world where everything is replaceable,” and “question and answer are inevitably depersonified.” Contrary to the conception of Romanticism as being a celebration of the individual, I think the majority of its writers were in tune with this concept. They pushed language to its edge, not to define themselves, but to somehow create such a barrage of images that an outline of that “primordial consciousness” might emerge. I particularly like his delineation of two lines of thinking: reification and personification. Do we write to make our world palpable, in the same way the animal world is, an impossibility given the distance we have between our conscious and animal minds? Or, do we write to reveal a self that inevitably recreates nothing more than endless images?

The real mystery is not in the said, but in the unsaid. That’s where I think the surrealists were onto something. They were attempting to dance upon an edge, and the boundary of that edge is forever shifting:

The “unconscious” can become a creative factor only on the threshold of consciousness and the word (semiverbal/semisignifying consciousness). They are fraught with the word and the potential word. The “unsaid” as a shifting boundary, as a “regulative idea” (in the Kantian sense) of creative consciousness.
I think Bahktin was right to emphasize tone as a central concept of consciousness, and its striking how much that word reaches across disciplines and modes of understanding. We can’t help but try to embody not only the practical significance of images and feelings, but their tone. And tone seems to be more connected with the animal side of the unconscious rather than the practical sorting of symbols, at the risk of choosing too obvious a word, I must insist that tone resonates across that shifting boundary of consciousness.

Maybe in the end, it’s all shit. The painter Robert Williams once suggested that it was a useful conceptual exercise to stand in front of a supermarket, and picture the state that all the colorful products on the shelves would be in within just a few weeks. They would be processed, and turned into brown. It’s a humbling thought, and a thought that anyone who seeks to write or create images should bear in mind, I think.

In the end, it’s the dialogic nature of the creative self, constantly conversing with a concept of “great time” vs. “small time,” and at once a best friend, and worst enemy, to both of these things

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend -
Or the most agonizing Spy -
An Enemy – could send -

Secure against it’s own -
No treason can it fear -
Itself – it’s Sovereign – Of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe –

Emily Dickinson #579

Broken mirror

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Broken mirror

It’s been theories of knowledge week around my house. There is a fracture between language and image; a sort of metaphoric divorce. I’ve been thinking about that gap, because it also represents my “second life” after years of dealing with images. Only lately have those ideas begun to coalesce, because virtually every theorist splits the visual and verbal into independent realms. Indeed, empirical observation tends to support this. As I have recollected before, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk and make photographs at the same time.

Reading Roland Barthes' “Photography and the Electoral Appeal” reminds me of the essays on politics and language that I have considered this year, from George Orwell and Toni Morrison. Barthes, as usual is unique in his approach for he deals with photography as “an ellipse of language and an ‘ineffable’ social whole,” proposing that in this sense photography “constitutes an anti-intellectual weapon and tends to spirit away ‘politics’ (that is to say a body of problems and solutions) to the advantage of a ‘manner of being’, a socio-moral status.”

Barthes goes on to perform a rhetorical analysis of the variety of poses and types of political photographs, suggesting that each one conveys its own sense of ethos which the candidate sells to get himself elected, liberated from the problem of actually dealing with issues. This is distinctly parallel to the point made by Orwell and Morrison, that political language is a tool used to dumb us down and force us to accept violence, unquestioningly.

What is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his plans, but his deep motives, all his family, mental, even erotic circumstances, all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example, and the bait.
But I am very uncomfortable with the idea of images, photographic or otherwise, as an “ellipse of language.” I think they operate on a separate field, and though the basic nature of the appeals (ethos, pathos, logos) is much the same, the realm of the image is tied to a different circuit in our brain.

I’ve written a bunch of stuff about emotional memory and trauma in the last few months. The core of it is that emotions are placed into memory without control or processing by higher brain functions. Reading a article about visual research at Vanderbilt suggests that vision works in much the same way. The brain centers that deal with temporality, narrative order, and the like don’t get primary control over what we see. Consequently, it seems unlikely that image is an ellipse, an extension, or modification of language. However, some people like Aristotle offer a fairly compelling argument that language actually springs from images. At first, I pretty much agreed. Now I’m not so sure.

To give one primacy over the other is the problem, particularly when the complex processing required for language seems to occur in many parts of the brain. The level of complexity increases when you examine other research on Braille readers suggesting that there is an abstract level of meta-image that is close to language, and outside the influence of the senses. So, in saying that language springs from images, which images are we speaking of? Sensual images, or abstract mental images unrelated to the senses? Other work on image rotation suggests that “unreal” images are dealt with differently than real ones, consequently finding a connection between image (of the sensual variety) and language seems even more obtuse than at first glance. Like the emotions, confrontation with images of the real may operate at a visceral level where processing is different and not at all language or narrative driven. Can these two systems be reconciled? Are we hopelessly separate and at odds with our animal selves?

Antiphon, the Sophist, seems to have thought so. In the fragments of his lost work On Truth he cuts right to the core problem:

Mind rules the body, but it needs a starting point.

This starting point is the senses. We believe what we see with our eyes more than abstractions

But when we speak, there is no permanent reality behind our words, nothing in fact comparable to the results of seeing and knowing.
Language, borne from the fantasy centers of the brain, is consistently unreal. We create our concepts of self only through language, learned from the communities we live in, and yet inside at the deepest of levels it must be our own, turning and twisting and examining itself. I still don't buy social constructivism because, like Antiphon, I don't believe that there is a permanant reality behind words. It's just a negotiation of inside and outside, of animal and socio-logical creature, which often gets shattered in waves of self (not community) doubt.

Even as a broken mirror, which the glass
In every fragment multiplies; and makes
A thousand images of one that was,
The same, and still the more, the more it breaks;
And thus the heart will do which not forsakes,
Living in shattered guise, and still, and cold,
And bloodless, with its sleepless sorrow aches,
Yet withers on till all without is old,
Showing no visible sign, for such things are untold.

Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III 289-297.

Sounds like living, and thinking, to me.

Killing to young people

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Just a short note before I forget

I really need to keep close track of my students bloopers. They help break the tension of worrying about how they’re doing. From another revision of the paper on medical marijuana:

THC, a chemical erection from marijuana . . .
I was reminded of this one when I read the brilliant summation of an article in the National Review about the mayor of New York coming out as a pot smoker:
But when it comes to policing grown-ups at leisure, the war on marijuana is sillier than a weed-fueled giggle. The same government that permits Americans to soften the edges of modern life with Xanax, Tylenol PM, Lotto, and Jagermeister immediately should put a match to the entire anti-pot project. If marijuana amuses the mayor of America's premier city, it should be available to entertain adults in Anytown, USA.
I’ve got to agree with that. The only thing stupider than smoking pot all the time is legislating against it. It sort of reminds me about the uproar over sex education, lambasted by another student of mine who wrote a paper about AIDS awareness:
It is commonly assumed that killing to young people about sex will make them do it.
Yes, I’ve got to agree. Killing young people about sex doesn’t seem like a good idea either. It seems a lot more extreme than talking to them about it.

Because I could not stop

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I suppose I've spent so much time dwelling on elegy because it's a form of poetry written to someone who isn't there. That's a situation I'm feeling increasingly comfortable with. I write most of the things I write here to someone who isn't there. I know there are people out there that read this, but they're odd bits of broken image to me, a piece here, a piece there, and only fragments of connection. People are complicated; I suspect it's largely because we ride the same horse that there is a connection at all. Is there something to be said, something that's been learned, something that we all should know? Perhaps in the end it's just to say that we should remember to talk and listen to each other, because the ride doesn't go on for long.

I love the way that Ginsberg turns the corner into the narrative part of his "Kaddish" near the end of the proem:

Now I've got to cut through— to talk to you— as I didn't when you had a mouth.
Forever. And we're bound for that, Forever — like Emily Dickinson's horses
—headed to the End.
They know the way— These Steeds— run faster than we think— it's our own
life they cross— and take with them.
Sometimes poetry seems like and endless hall of mirrors, where you have to know your way around before things start to make sense. There was a time I knew Patti Smith's Horses far better than Dickinson's. It wasn't that long ago. And still, they don't seem that far apart. I suppose part of me still prefers Patti Smith's Horses, because they rock in the most sexual of ways. But they're headed the same place as Dickinson's:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 't is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Death & Horses & Loss— boy, I'm in such a damn cheerful mood today. I hope the coach pulls out of the graveyard soon! Some kinds of death are better than others.

In the sheets
there was a man
dancing around
to the simple
Rock & roll

Oh no!

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Oh, no!

After writing the last entry, I stepped over to Luke's place and found out something I didn't want to know: Which John Cusack Are You?

I could have gone a lot longer without this bit of information, though I confess that I do value my record collection perhaps a little too much.


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Ivor the engine driver— a remedy?

A cluster of articles, poems, and songs get caught in my head. For now, I can’t get past the opening proem of “Kaddish,” because of the way it resonates with other thoughts. How strange a resurrection (needs) must be.

Six years? Maybe it’s seven. It’s been a long time since my divorce. Daphne Merkin’s article in the New Yorker raised some good points. I can’t see myself among the categories mentioned either: the good enoughs, the enhancers, the seekers, the libertines, the competent loners or the defeated. I share her desire to find:

something to help me explain why I am lingering on the stage set of life after the curtain has come down and the others have got married, or died. Marriage and death have always been the two paradigmatic endings in Western culture, which raises the question of how to make sense of the havoc represented by divorce, as either an end or a beginning. Perhaps divorce is a way of living two lives for the price of one. Surely this is what the social historian Lawrence Stone had in mind when he noted that the remarriage rate in the seventeenth century was similar to that of today, with divorce replacing death as its precondition:
Indeed, it looks very much as if modern divorce is little more than a functional substitute for death. The decline of the adult mortality rate after the late eighteenth century, by prolonging the expected duration of marriage to unprecedented lengths, eventually forced Western society to adopt the institutional escape-hatch of divorce.
Two lives for the price of one? I must say that is closer to the way I’ve tried to look at it. When I climbed out the escape hatch, it wasn’t because I wanted to be alone. It took help to drive me into the change, a change that I still see as necessary and important. There were parts of it I wish I could have skipped, like being a subservient doormat to someone else (after my marriage, not during it). Mostly, I suppose I really hate thinking that I was just a quick one, while he's away.

But let’s have a smile for the old engine driver. While I might be called either a seeker or a competent loner, or on occasion be numbered among the defeated, mostly I strive to be true to my nature. As Blake said in the letter I put up a few days ago, “Perhaps the simplicity of myself is the origin of all offences committed against me.” If he learned one lesson during his time as William Haley’s lap-dog, it was this: “that a too passive manner. inconsistent with my active physiognomy had done me much mischief.”

The strange thing about my own particular mourning regarding my divorce is not that I think it was something that shouldn’t have happened, and indeed the end of my marriage seemed perfectly natural and peaceful, slipping away in the night due to natural causes. Instead, it’s the particularly violent loss of the life I thought I was escaping to, and I try to find solace somewhere. It was a loss, a trauma, not a death though I wish that there was some way I could say that she is dead to me now, and mourn it. As Ginsberg observes in the proem to Kaddish, “Death is that remedy that all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy.” And I turned back to those majestic stanzas that Ginsberg speaks of, in Shelley’s Adonais.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour'd glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome's azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.

Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?
Thy hopes are gone before: from all things here
They have departed; thou shouldst now depart!
A light is pass'd from the revolving year,
And man, and woman; and what still is dear
Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither.
The soft sky smiles, the low wind whispers near:
'Tis Adonais calls! oh, hasten thither,
No more let Life divide what Death can join together.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,
Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.

The breath whose might I have invok'd in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

My spirit's bark is far from shore. It’s not the death that bothers me, but the loss of a star to steer by. I walk along on that dome of crushed glass, and pick up a few pieces and write about them. These things are but stains to eternity, but they’re my stains. And I hate doing laundry, or looking for a remedy.


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Sometimes marriage doesn't leave much headroom

Being born

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He not busy being born is busy dying...

It’s that time of year again. Swamp-like humidity in the morning, burning off in just a few hours. Sticky yellow residue of sex everywhere, gumming up wiper-blades and making it hard to see. My car needs a shower, it’s getting really funky.

But then there’s the green. A thousand shades of it, bursting out everywhere. There’s something special about this time of year, because the black trunks are still visible behind the subtle shades now decorating the spidery network of trees. I accept myself as a metaphor-making creature, and I’ve been thinking about how the color of this state is truly green, in every sense of the word. It’s a big change from where I’m from.

The dominant color of the Great Central Valley of California is brown. Green occurs in the patchwork fields, since most of the fruits and vegetables for the country come from there, but it’s mostly monolithic, non-variegated patches of a single cash crop in the fields that can afford to pay for the water it takes to grow them. What sticks out in my mind are those empty fields, the stretches of brown sandy dirt, seldom impeded by a stone put there by nature. Instead, the fixtures are concrete, and often covered with fading graffiti. And the people turn brown too, as they work in those fields. It is truly a land of dirt, dust, and brown. Infinitely variable shades, really. It takes a long time to become acclimated to them, and to develop a language akin to an arctic tribe, that need not really have a thousand words for snow, but instead endless variants of modifiers and types to describe the state of the snow. In California, what matters most is the state of the dirt, not the individual crops placed in it; most of what grows is not wild, but transplanted from somewhere else. When plants are transplanted, there is often a shock, and leaves turn brown.

I now live in a land of somewhere else. It’s green. It’s green with envy, as one of the poorest states in the union. It’s green with naiveté, as they still fight the civil war over race issues oblivious to the fact that one day they, like the rest of the country, are likely to be overcome by brown. But it’s also green with brilliant underbrush, in a million shades, covering the blackened underside of trees that once rooted in the brutal clay soil, refuse to give way. Every spring, the green comes back. It seems so miraculous, so beautiful, and above all, so wet.

Aristotle wanted to blame everything on moisture. Moisture, however, is where life springs from. I like living in a wet world; I don’t mind taking a shower to wash off the residue from time to time. While you’re being born, it’s bound to get messy. It just seems, well, natural. Ah, I get it now, that’s why they call Arkansas the natural state.


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Beating off with the beats...

Psalm IV

Now I’ll record my secret vision, impossible sight at the face of God.
It was no dream, I lay broad waking on a fabulous couch in Harlem
having masturbated for no love, and read half naked an open book of Blake on my lap
Lo & behold! I was thoughtless and turned a page and gazed on the living Sun-flower
and heard a voice, it was Blake’s, reciting in earthly measure:
the voice rose out of the page to my secret ear never heard before—
I lifted my eyes to the window, red walls of buildings flashed outside, endless sky sad in Eternity
sunlight gazing on the world, apartments of Harlem standing in the universe—
each brick and cornice stained with intelligence like a vast living face—
the great brain unfolding and brooding in the wilderness!—Now speaking aloud with Blake’s voice—
Love! thou patient presence and bone of the body! Father! thy careful watching and waiting over my soul!
My son! My son! the endless ages have remembered me! My son! My son! Time howled anguish in my ear!
My son! My son! my father wept and held me in his dead arms.

Alan Ginsberg, 1960.

The essential nature of a sunflower is that it always turns toward the light. I’m not too familiar with Ginsberg, but in an odd coincidence I had just purchased his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 a few days before In a Dark Time started to take him on. I bought it mostly for “Kaddish,” which was recommended to me by someone I trust as a tour de force in elegy, a favorite genre of mine. Blake never wrote any elegies. He was constantly looking toward the sun. Blake’s sunflower is a complex thing, weary and yet patient.


Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travelers journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794.

I suppose that like Loren, I find much of Ginsberg’s verse to be simplistic and cartoonish, particularly when compared with his self-proclaimed spiritual father, Blake. To compare them isn’t very fair, but it is inevitable. Ginsberg was certainly a child at Blake’s feet, but he knew that.

For a look at a black and white version of the plate which this poem appears on, click here. If you click the symbol in the upper left, they have a variety of audio versions available, including Ginsberg singing it.

Oh, and for the record: Blake was against masturbation. He thought that religion caused it:

In the secret shadows of her chamber, the youth shut up from
The lustful joy, shall forget to generate. & create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow.
Are not these the places of religion? the rewards of continence?
The self enjoyings of self denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely, that thou seekest solitude,
Where the horrible darkness is impressed with reflections of desire.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion, 7:5-11

He thought everyone should just have sex instead, because sex is a beautiful thing.

Letter from Felpham

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Excerpt from a letter from Felpham, August 16th 1803.

Dear Sir This perhaps was sufferd to Clear up some doubts & to give opportunity to those whom I doubted to clear themselves of all imputation. If a Man offends me ignorantly & not designedly surely I ought to consider him with favour & affection. Perhaps the simplicity of myself is the origin of all offences committed against me. If I have found this I shall have learned a most valuable thing well worth three years perseverance. I have found it! It is certain! that a too passive manner. inconsistent with my active physiognomy had done me much mischief I must now express to you my conviction that all is come from the spiritual World for Good & not for Evil. Give me your advice in my perilous adventure. burn what I have peevishly written about any friend. I have been very much degraded & injuriously treated. but if it all arise from my own fault I ought to blame myself

O why was I born with a different face
Why was I not born like the rest of my race
When I look each one starts! when I speak I offend
Then I'm silent & passive & lose every Friend

Then my verse I dishonour. My pictures despise
My person degrade & my temper chastise
And the pen is my terror. the pencil my shame
All my Talents I bury, and Dead is my Fame
I am either too low or too highly prizd
When Elate I am Envy'd, When Meek I'm despisd

This is but too just a Picture of my Present state I pray God to keep you & all men from it & to deliver me in his own good time. Pray write to me & tell me how you & your family Enjoy health. My much terrified Wife joins me in love to you & Mrs Butts & all your family. I again take the liberty to beg of you to cause the Enclosd Letter to be deliverd to my Brother & remain

Sincerely & Affectionately Yours

When he composed this letter to Thomas Butts, Blake was about to go on trial for sedition. It’s a peculiar tale. An unruly soldier came into his back yard while he was composing poetry. Blake asked him to leave. He didn’t. So, Blake pushed him down the street, pinning his arms behind his back, back to the tavern where he came from. The soldier, Scofield, conspired with his friend, Mr. Cock (appropriate, no?) to have Blake arrested for sedition.

It was the end of what Blake considered to be his exile to the coast, and he was returning to London to write Jerusalem. Sometimes, I think of Arkansas as my Felpham. I hope they don’t try me for sedition when I try to get out.

Silence in the head

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Silence in the head

I had to find it, before I could work. I remember reading about an artist, I think it was Jasper Johns, who said regarding his alcoholism "I drink to kill the noise." The rational mind sets up so many obstacles to understanding, making it hard to just be somewhere and experience what is happening there. I've never once tried to make a "statement" through a photograph, I've only wanted to show the things that pricked me, generated an interest in me, or more accurately, made me feel.

Art doesn't say, it shows. That's where the conversational metaphors for communication break down. Conversation, especially in one's head, really makes you miss things. You concentrate to much on what is being said, and neglect what is being experienced. It's distinction that is often taught in writing classrooms: "Show, don't tell." But as soon as an image appears in our heads, the only way to get it out is to tell someone about it. But that must come after the experience itself, otherwise you miss it. The bio piece on Johns I linked covers this well:

That distinction between saying something and being something corresponds precisely to Wittgenstein's distinction between what can be said and what shows itself, and the point about art is that it shows rather than says. Johns's sense of the distinction between saying and showing produced a memorable declaration: 'When you begin to work with the idea of suggesting, say, a particular psychological state of affairs, you have eliminated so much from the process of painting that you make an artificial statement which is, I think, not desirable. I think one has to work with everything and accept the kind of statement which results as unavoidable, or as a helpless situation. I think that most art which begins to make a statement fails to make a statement because the methods used are too schematic or too artificial. I think that one wants from painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.'

Shortly after the recording ended, he added: 'To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist.'

Emotional memory is iconic. I suspect that's the land that I dwell in most often. I used to sit on the couch for at least an hour, in something akin to meditation, before I would go out and take photographs. I needed the time to finish those conversations in my head, to clear it out to make room for experience. When I would finally get there, I tried to be open like a raw nerve waiting for the electricity to strike, to pass through from my eyes to my fingers without hesitation or second guess. To really be there, instead of thinking about being there.

When I went back to school, I tried to do what everyone tells you to do. Take notes carefully, follow along in the text, and all that. It just didn't work for me. When I discovered that I am different, that I can take in a complex argument at a glance without painstakingly jotting down all the details and noting and highlighting a text, I finally became comfortable with school. I do the same thing I did as an artist. I just clear my head, show up, and look and listen. That's enough for me. I just make sure I'm there. Unlike most of my fellow students, I seldom write in my books. I write in my head.

When I became a teacher, I was given one piece of advice: "Bring yourself to class." I knew exactly what that meant. You have to be there, and avoid getting lost in your concept of what a class should be, and just concentrate on what it is. You have to embrace that helpless feeling that asks what the hell am I doing here? You make it up as you go along, or at least I do, in response to what is happening at the time. I've got lots of "selves," and I bring them all with me wherever I go. But I've got to shut them up most of the time, so I can hear what other people are saying.

There are different ways of killing the noise. I grew up reading Zen texts, matured using chemical enhancements, and returned eventually to a more idiosyncratic method of clearing my head involving a lot of blank staring, and an occasional cry. The question of meditation always reminds me of a funny story about Warren Criswell, a somewhat eccentric Arkansas painter. A student once asked him at a lecture if he used meditation.


Oh, meditation! Well, medication, yes. Meditation, no.


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Swan song

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Loren considered the swan. Swans can be a complicated symbol.

A detail from plate 11 of Blake's Jerusalem

To labours mighty, with vast strength, with his mighty chains.
In pulsations of time, & extensions of space, like Urns of Beulah
With great labour upon his anvils, & ladles the Ore
He lifted, pouring the clay ground prepar’d with art;
Striving with Systems to deliver Individuals from those Systems;
That whenever any Spectre began to devour the Dead,
He might feel the pain as if a man gnawed at his own tender nerves,

Then Erin came forth from the Furnaces, & all the Daughters of Beulah
Came from the Furnaces, by Los’s mighty power for Jerusalems
Sake: walking up and down among the Spaces of Erin:
And the Sons and Daughters of Los came forth in perfection lovely!
And the Spaces of Erin reached from the starry heights to the starry depth.

William Blake, Jerusalem 11:1-12

There is a lot of speculation why Blake drew a swan with a woman’s body on this plate. I don’t buy most of it. The glosses read as if the swan is dying; the text underneath does not reflect a scene of death, but of birth. This scene is early in the massive poem; Los is labouring at his furnace, attempting to shape the world to match his “system,” striving to instill forgiveness through sympathy, as humanity grows and shapes itself. Erin is of course connected with the revolutionary forces in Ireland at the time Blake was writing; he saw some hope in the growth of revolutionary spirit around the world in his time. But pay close attention to the language used here. Erin walked "up and down through the spaces of Erin," much like Satan in the Book of Job. Is revolution a good thing? There seems to be a subtext of mixed feelings throughout the opening of Jerusalem, a subtle shift from Blake's earlier revolutionary politics. I feel sure that Yeats meditated deeply about this plate, as he did about most of Blake’s work, and saw in this a justification for re-writing Blake’s biography to make him an Irishman.

I feel reasonably certain that Yeats connected this plate with Leda, as I do myself. Leda was raped by Zeus. Leda had four children. two human, and two half-god. All twins, sprung from two contrary eggs. The children were born of rape. Some Blake commentators have remarked that the sad image is at odds with the happy scene of the plate, others have insisted that the swan is actually happy. I think Yeats, more than anyone else, has a real sense of what is going on here. Dr. Murphy, in his inimitable way, saw this legend as one of the primary ingredients that Yeats incorporated into his complex system of gyres, contraries and negations spinning against each other creating all of human history. A great and complex history was borne from this point, how could anyone know of the tragedies that would follow?

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow:the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

WB Yeats

Leda’s children were Clytemnestra, Helen and Castor and Pollux. Obviously, Helen could be considered responsible for the Trojan war, and the root of the problem of war on the planet might be traced to the rape of Leda. I think the question Yeats asks is a good one. Did Leda know what this rape would bring? The image of the swan, through this allegory (not through symbolic interpretation) is rich with its associations to violence, war, and revolution. It’s a bittersweet moment, indeed. Brother against brother, we struggle.

The allegory holds strong to the present day, and even shows up in a song by Dinosaur Jr. The swan, for me, will always be connected with the story of Leda. We can’t seem to get past the rape, and the wars that still follow this loss of innocence.

Forget the swan

It's floating through the abyss
Under the brig my head swings down

Beware her wrath, the image gone
The Shell is crumbling, fix my frown
This spell would be clear in non-tradition
And stepping on these pieces of pain and smirk
And rape goes through to sin my eyes
And shapes know where the heartache will lurk

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Drifting among this rubble
I guess the waiting, wished I would
I found a box, untethered and true
Possession it understood

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

How I tried to warn my neighbor
But the corn was much too high
In confusion up and threw him, woke up every day
But it's not too late brother, I'll still say you were mine

Forget the swan, a stone swims near
A stone has come, if I could cheer
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Forget the swan, the dreams are gone
The pain goes on, they fly at dawn

Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan
Forget the swan

Same scene, three writers. Go figure. Some legends don't want to die. Collapsing the richness of the story into a hard and fast symbol denies its complexity. Is humanity a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it's complicated.

Oh, and on a final note, versions of the legend differ. In some versions, it wasn't a swan and Leda, but instead a goose and Nemesis. Loren's connection has more weight than just idle conjecture about birds. It's not that "swan" means something special, it's the story that lies behind it. It could just as easily be a goose. And as both Blake and Yeats conjecture, it's also possible that after the rape Gods and humans might share each others characteristics, as Blake has so aptly drawn.

After all, as Blake wrote in one of his earliest tractates: "God becomes as we are, / that we may be as he is."

A Bikini Girl, sans machine gun


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Keeping up with the latest

I logged onto the OED online to check something out, and just for the heck of it I checked the entries that were just added last month. Would you believe they have just got around to adding mindfucker?

mindfucker, n.
coarse slang.

[< MIND n. + FUCKER n., after MIND-FUCK v.]

1. Something that disturbs, astounds, or amazes.

1969 in J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang (1997) II. 559 This thing is a real mindfucker! 1971 Oz 34 42/1 Some gigs Jimi [Hendrix] was terrible, some nights he was good as it ever gets. His records generally contained, an equal mix of absolute killers, real total mindfuckers, and interesting little also-rans, marking-time things, ultimately just fillers. 1980 A. MAUPIN More Tales of City (1989) lvii. 188 Jon shook his head incredulously. ‘That is..a mind-fucker.’ 1993 R. RUCKER et al. Mondo 2000 71/1 It's a real mind-fucker.

2. A person who psychologically manipulates another.

1971 E. E. LANDY Underground Dict. 133 Mind fucker,..[a] person who attempts to manipulate another's thinking without consideration for the other. 1980 National Lampoon Aug. 67 You're some kind of mindfucker. You're a witch. 1992 Harper's Mag. May 36/1 In common usage, the term ‘mindfucker’ refers to someone who manipulates other people, who fucks them over emotionally or financially

Why does it not surprise me that one of the earliest attributions is a reference to Jimi Hendrix?

But this wasn't what I was looking for at all. I actually was looking for a word that I found in the online Malleus Maleficarum that Luke so graciously pointed out. Believe it or not, one of my professors used this historic work in a rhetorical theory class. But then again, he did his dissertation on something regarding the rhetorical structures of Gothic death metal... But I digress, again, as usual. The passage that caught my eye was this:

JUST as the generative faculty can be bewitched, so can inordinate love or hatred be caused in the human mind. First we shall consider the cause of this, and then, as far as possible, the remedies.

Philocaption, or inordinate love of one person for another, can be caused in three ways. Sometimes it is due merely to a lack of control over the eyes; sometimes to the temptation of devils; sometimes to the spells of necromancers and witches, with the help of devils.

Philocaption seems to be an interesting problem. I've suffered from it from time to time. I think my problems largely stem from the first reason, a lack of control over my eyes. But I suppose I'm open to the suggestion that I'm tempted by the devil. Unfortunately, this charming word isn't even in the OED, let alone any other online dictionary. It's a charming thought, but the Malleus Maleficarum (Witches Hammer) insists that strong men can resist:

It is said that when a man does not give way to temptation he does not sin, but it is an exercise for his virtue; but this is to be understood of the temptation of the devil, not of that of the flesh; for this is a venial sin even if a man does not yield to it. Many examples of this are to be read.

. . .

There are still some strong men cruelly enticed by witches to this sort of love, so that it would seem that they could never restrain themselves from their inordinate lust for them, yet these often most manfully resist the temptation of lewd and filthy enticements, and by the aforesaid defences overcome all the wiles of the devil.

Sorry, I'm with Tom Waits on that one: "Temptation, temptation / I just can't resist." Then again, it seems like a fun cop-out, oddly connected with the National Lampoon reference in the OED: "You're some kind of mindfucker. You're a witch. " But maybe the real problem is that I like witches. My ex-wife's mother was a bona-fide Wiccan, and she was one of the nicest people I ever met. No mother-in-law jokes from me; she was a fine lady. I don't really suspect the witches; I suspect that my eyes are the source of most of my mindfucks.

Someone to talk to

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She needed someone to talk to

I listened, but I knew that these were questions with no answers. If it were anything other than the cruelty of life itself that was the problem, if it were drug addiction, or alcoholism, or abuse there are agencies that might help her. But it wasn’t that. It was just life, and sometimes life sucks. More than anything else, she just needed someone to talk to. But there was a rub; part of her problem was caused by the “system,” so it seemed difficult to tell her that she needed to go into the system for help. I’ve never felt so unqualified to deal with things before.

As is my usual response to unfamiliar things, I decided I could research the system to see if there was a way to cut through some of the crap. Every door in my department was closed. Out of town. No one to talk to. I went by several other campus agencies, hoping to find someone who would know where to go. I got some suggestions. I came home and made some calls. It seemed like it was a dead end. All the right people were going on vacation. I went back to campus, and looked up an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a year or more. She teaches in the School of Social Work, and trains the people I was trying to reach.

She made some calls, and got some more answers for me. Six weeks, at least, before I could get this girl someone to talk to who was qualified. I took the numbers, and knew that it wasn’t the golden thread, it was only a realization of the truth. If you’re a normal person with a problem instead of a criminal or a drug addict there is no place to turn. You’re on your own. Get used to it. This isn’t what I want to tell my student. This isn’t what I wanted to tell her at all. I began to become even more traumatized myself, knowing that there wasn’t anything I could do.

I felt oddly displaced as I walked away from the social work offices. My old mentor from the English department shouted out into the hallway in a building I usually don’t pass through anymore. I walked over to the doorway. “We’re talking about your book, Jeff: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” I stood there for a little while, silently while Dr. Yoder passionately conveyed the complexity of Blake’s model to a new crop of students. Looking at the lists of attributes on the board, I was reminded that Blake’s project was to reunify reason and the emotions, to allow them to forgive each other. I remember how long it took for me to really “get it” and understand just how important some of those “simple” passages were. I thought about the way thinking hard about complicated ideas made me feel less alone. It’s been a comfort to have conversations in my head, interrogating these ideas and trying to understand where these long dead voices are coming from. But it’s all inside my head.

As I walked away to teach my next class, I felt scared to realize that I didn’t really have anyone, in the physical world, to talk to either. Sure, I can write my whiney blather here, and often receive consoling e-mails. I’ve got skills, of a sort. But one of those skills isn’t being able to solve life problems, particularly those that are insoluble. For my next class, I tried to lighten myself up a bit by doing what I can do: explaining complicated topics as simply as possible. Today, when I got up I just started trying to get past that feeling of ineffecualness. Surfing on a tangent, deluding myself into thinking that things will be okay, I found a poem that hit me square in the forehead:

The Boat is a Lever

       --after Simone Weil

After my student went to the doctor to
Check out the rash speckling his
Right hand and found out he had
Leukemia, that the cancer had spread
Into his lungs, then where did he go?
I've called his number several times.
Flat-bottom boats light in water.
Brown brack and mud smell,
Stumps like chewed-off candles,
Cypress knees, knock and small
Talk floating over water, a motor
Chuffing off, a small blue cloud of excess
Gasoline spreads an ugly
Rainbow on tan water. Every
Thing rests on its proposition
Including smooth isobars along the bay.
Since collective thought cannot exist
As thought it passes into things
Chemo takes a few gray hairs. Mustard
Cruises the bloodstream under a blizzard
Of white cells. Subdued by the arbitrary,
Suspended, the one in the boat still needs
To row it -- to direct the muscles, to
Maintain equilibrium with air
And water. If water is waveless
Then the boat reads by leading marks.
There is nothing more beautiful
Than a boat

Ralph Burns, from Swamp Candles

Ralph Burns teaches at my school. I know him, casually. He was trying to recruit me for his classes for a long time. He’s a good man, but I was always a bit to distracted to think about expressing myself in poetry. Poetry is hard work.

But the dedication rang a big bell. I knew I’d read something about Simone Weil this week. I searched until I found it in an entry at If. I dug a little further, and found some interesting quotes:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, "What are you going through?"

—Simone Weil

It’s not much, but it made me feel a little better.


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Writers take note.

Found at the Vocabula Review:

It seems that it would be wise for the writers of the present to renounce for themselves the hope of creating masterpieces. Their poems, plays, biographies, novels are not books but notebooks, and Time, like a good schoolmaster, will take them in his hands, point to their blots and erasions, and tear them across; but he will not throw them into the waste-paper basket. He will keep them because other students will find them very useful. It is from notebooks of the present that the masterpieces of the future are made. Literature, as the critics were saying just now, has lasted long, has undergone many changes, and it is only a short sight and a parochial mind that will exaggerate the importance of these squalls, however they may agitate the little boats now tossing out at sea. The storm and the drenching are on the surface; and continuity and calm are in the depths.

— Virginia Woolf, How It Strikes a Contemporary

While you're there, you might enjoy a nice article about famous last words.

I just love the idea of Time as a good schoolmaster. History is nothing if not pedantic. Look at what fools we once were, as we work harder at being better fools today. Great books as squalls on the oceans of time? You've got to love it. But I also love Karl Marx's last words: "Last words are for fools who haven't said enough."

Few people would accuse me of that. I talk too much.

But I suppose there's a downside to that. It was funny, after writing about Metafilter as an arena of forensic discourse, to read another academic use it to trace reactions to the poor guy who only wanted a handjob. It does pay to be careful what you say.


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Multiculturalism in action.

I learned something from one of my fellow students tonight. I commented that every “multicultural” event I’ve ever attended in Arkansas is predominantly attended by black folks. She said that when you advertise an event as multicultural back here, that usually means black.

It was a “town hall” meeting about racism put on by two local radio stations (with the same owner, imagine that), one with a mainly black audience, and one with a nearly exclusively white audience. It made me think about a lot of things. It was supposed to be a “rhetorical” observation trip, to see deliberative rhetoric in action, but as far as I’m concerned it was purely epideictic: praise and blame. There was a lot of that going on. I glanced down at the notepad of the black gentleman sitting next to me. He was taking notes, and the header on the page he put a few short comments in was “Notes to Self.” The first item he had written there was “Quit blaming yourself”

Racial issues are a weird thing in Arkansas. I was reminded that there is a lot of history that I wasn’t here for (I’ve only been here six years or so). People have long memories, and institutions are slow to change. I did not know, for example, that the governing board of the University of Arkansas consists of nine white folks, and one black person. It almost became ten white people last year, due to a proposed appointment by the lily-white Baptist minister governor (who looks a lot like Gomer Pyle; talks like him too). As the white senator who was present read the list of committees in state government, noting the racial imbalance in every aspect of state government, it was appalling. Why does this power structure survive? There does seem to be a big problem. The figure that was thrown out regarding the balance of population was 2.5 million whites, and around 500,000 blacks statewide.

Then, I started to think about my day to day experience. The faculty of my state-funded university is primarily white. However, it seems quite likely that this has as much to do with the fact that as universities go, they pay poorly. The population of the school is nearly 30% black. There is one black assistant professor in the rhetoric department, added only a year or so ago, and one who is in the process of becoming tenured faculty. I suppose there are about 15 full-time professors, so that’s a little better than the norm but not much. They actually went after Professor Cox, I think, to come back after going through the undergraduate program here and getting his Ph.D. in Texas. There are no “good-ole boys” in the department though, and the disparity has more to do with the applicants for openings rather than hiring practices, at least in my opinion. The best and brightest black students move out of state.

And in my limited experience, there are a lot of great black students. A lot of black students in my classes are the product of private schools. My classes, just by the luck of the draw I think, are a bit heavier on the black side than the university average. I adjusted my teaching strategy as a result. I decided I needed to use more black authors.

But the problem is, now that I think about it, I’m painting a pretty dismal picture of the white race. Most of the most memorable essays were written by black writers. I need to dig up some better white folks to use, I think. The black writers I used were almost too good. I may be slighting the white students, making them feel a little inferior. I need to work on that. The white writers I used were good too, but a bit more inaccessible than the black writers, even for the white students.

One of my fellow rhetoric students, Jason (the preacher) who also teaches in public school, brought up that he was audited in his class to make sure he displayed enough black faces on the posters on the walls. He asked if “counting” the presence of black faces in the classroom wasn’t just an artificial token system that had a bad effect on the atmosphere of the classroom. No one answered him. Another student in my class observed that there was not a single Mexican face in the meeting. They are the largest growing minority group back here, and it won’t be long before they overtake the black population. There was little going on except blame-casting, mostly at institutional and media practices. I never turn on the media, so I can’t say, and the institutional guidelines toward fair practices seem to be firmly in place. So what’s the problem? I suspect it’s just money, pure and simple. This is a poor state, with the most poorly paid teachers in the US. Of course that makes getting an education cheaper, and that’s why I’m doing it here. Another side of the “low-pay” equation is that there are few real prima-donnas here. There are some brilliant people, working at a second-tier school because they love it, instead of for money alone.

In the town-hall meeting a guy got up and claimed that black people weren’t allowed to rent at any of the better apartment complexes in West Little Rock. I live in West Little Rock, the “rich” side of town. A black family lives next door. Most of the complex are Indian or Pakistani. I just had to shake my head. While I wouldn’t call it upscale, it’s certainly middle class. I just don’t get it. I think the money issues are a much bigger factor than residual racism. Sometimes I think it’s just time to get over it. There are some staggering imbalances that need to be taken care of, this is sure, but I don’t think that they are primarily racist issues. It’s about the money.

One of the members of the panel was a black judge and reverend, and he kept ranting about racism in the system. A fellow from the nation of Islam (who held up one of their newspapers as a political stunt at the end) was quick to point out that the judge attended white schools growing up, and lived in a white neighborhood. I hear a lot of rhetoric about racism, and it’s hard to figure out who to believe. I see a lot of black folks “movin’ on up” and later, movin’ on out. I know that there are a lot of pockets of white whackos out in the sticks, but tonight I also heard from a black man in a wheelchair who was consistently reelected to a seat on the city council of Jonesboro, by margins of up to 70%, in a town that has a black population of 7%. I really can’t figure this place out.

Reading an article about The Color Blind Web this morning worried me too. I wonder if I should put a banner up listing my color? I suppose the majority is rather pinkish, with a big patch of strawberry-blondish-brown with a few streaks of gray hair on top, offset with rapidly graying blue eyes? Why does this still matter? There were police at this town-hall meeting tonight. A patrol-car pulled out of the parking-lot as I left. Was it because it was a “multicultural event”? One great question came up tonight. White teenagers are not chased out of the Kmart parking lot a couple of blocks from me when they gather on a Saturday night. Black teenagers, in a similar spot not far from the university are. Now that’s a thought provoking question. I’ve seen that in action. As much as I wish I could, I can’t turn my back on racism.


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I’ve been reading a lot of difficult things this semester. Not difficult in that they are intellectually challenging (though there has been some of that), but difficult in the sense that they are trauma narratives, narratives about the darkest side of human experience.

When I got home tonight, I read another narrative that I have to take notice of. Mike Golby is an astounding writer. I strongly recommend reading this post. It should be read. It’s not something that will cheer you up, but it does express what a sad and beautiful thing life is. Good writing is often hard. So is life.

I read something else today that I must have stitched on a pillow, or perhaps tattooed on a bicep:

Effective writing is affective writing.
I can’t separate my scholarly writing from my personal writing. The further I go, the more they become the same. Some professors have told me that if I ever let that schism happen, it’s a wound that will take years to heal.

The same essay that had this quotable quote told the story of a professor that had been teaching writing for years with his head, and it had consistently failed to improve the performance of his students. When he began to teach with his heart, only then did his students improve.

Guy Allen teaches at the University of Toronto, and has received a 40 million dollar grant to found a writing center. I like his approach, but it feels so weird to read about it. My journey through life was completely the opposite. I’ve run the first forty years with my heart, and only recently discovered that I have a head. But I don’t plan on putting away my heart any time soon.


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I’ve always thought I needed glasses.

When I was a kid, it seemed part of the equipment a person needs to hide behind. I wore mirrored biker shades, and it reflected back the people who would look at me. I can take care of myself, thank you. If you want something to concentrate on, concentrate on yourself.

But I had to give them up. Besides the fact that I was constantly losing them, or sitting on them, when I became a photographer they just didn’t work right. If you look through a viewfinder with sunglasses on, you can’t focus. You also can’t see the edges of the frame. All of the interesting stuff usually happens on the edge of the frame. I tried leaving them on, and then taking them off when I wanted to take a picture. This didn’t work. My eyes were constantly adjusting back and forth, and by the time I got it together the picture was gone.

So I gave up on them, but I wanted to pick them up again when I started back to school. I was worried about my eyes. They had always been better than perfect, but all the close reading was making them get blurry. I took a test. Slightly below normal in one eye, perfect in the other. No dice. No glasses for me. I think the second time around, it was more of badge, rather than a barrier, that I was looking for.

Glasses are a sign of imperfection. And I’ve never felt so imperfect as I did when I returned to school. Those who can’t do, teach, and all that. But you’re a natural born teacher, my friends would say. Yes, I suppose so. Naturally born second-rate. Naturally born imperfect. Except for my damn eyes. Why couldn’t they be as imperfect as I felt?

Now there are circles under my eyes. They get a little darker every year. If I only wore glasses, I could hide them. Too many late nights. Too much going on behind my eyes. Just too much. Sometimes I wish I didn’t see so much. It makes me easily distracted. It makes it hard to maintain relationships, when you change at such a rate that from one day to the next you’re a different person. If I had glasses, maybe I would be more comfortable with standing still. Maybe I could be comfortable with being damaged.

Walking back from my car today, I bent over to pick up a pair of glasses. They were tortoise-shell horn-rims for a woman, lying in the middle of a handicapped parking space. Nope, they didn’t suit me either. I dropped them off in the lost and found, but I wished they had been mine. I like glasses, but they just don’t seem to work for me.

Scott (2)

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Outer badly experiences

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Ritualistic endeavors of outer badly experiences?

If I would have smoked a joint before reading this particular essay about medical marijuana, some of the typos would have been even funnier. I wonder if it would be out of line to advise against smoking a joint before proofreading?

Grading the essays today was a lot more fun. I can’t figure out why the 12pm people are so far ahead of the 8am class. It started out just the opposite. There were some innovative essays from the second class, and it helps me forget about my frustration from yesterday. Yes, at least some of the people are getting it. I graded hard, but there were several A papers in this group. Perhaps more important than that though, was that most of them were interesting to read!

I’m tapped out now. Zoning out and watching Six Feet Under. The show has really increased in depth and complexity in its second season, and it reminds me just how complex relationships are. I almost feel relieved I’m not in one. Just me in my cave with this glowing terminal, trying to come up with something interesting to say. I gave up on “outer badly” experiences years ago, so it’s just the TV and a glass of wine.

And that’s all right. I’m just looking for that Dean Martin glow tonight.


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Not making the grade

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A long hard day

Maybe it’s because I started out the morning by reading Blake and Shelley, but I’m ready to take back everything I said about how great my students were. I tricked myself, I think, by reading the essays I knew would be good as a preview. Now that I’ve worked my way through the stack from my 8am class, I’m ready to take a baseball bat to most of them.

There is little evidence of thought in most of those papers. While they’ve got mechanics down okay, they just seem to be allergic to thought. Just recite the information from the book, that will get you through. . . in a pigs eye. I hate to think of failing over half of them, but if it comes down to it I will. The 12pm papers should be better, I hope, at least from the sample I looked at. Why is it so hard for some people to think? Why do we make life a project of just “getting by”?

Of course I’m just pissed, and overstating the case. I also went through a bunch of revisions that are showing real progress. But they’re not there yet, and I’ve really got to hammer on them in the next few weeks to get them ready. I’m not going to pass anyone who can’t construct a credible argument, no way, no how.

At least 30% of them are making a genuine effort, and making progress. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with the rest. I may have to force them to write an essay about how to write an essay, in class. They seem to be able to tell me when I ask. So why aren’t they doing it? Is it just pure laziness? Next time, the assignment will be due before spring break. I think that’s part of the problem. They just threw it together after they got back. No, this just won’t do.

Are you Experienced?

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Are you Experienced?

Mr. Roger’s musings about Wordsworth and the definition of a poet reminded me of an issue I’d been meaning to write something about. It’s something about the “I” (ack!).

When people think of Romanticism, usually it’s Wordsworth who’s trotted out as the poster-boy. It’s a fair enough assumption, but this sort of unary lumping strategy really undercuts the complexity of what was going on at that time. There are some things that have always bugged me about Wordsworth that keep me at arms-length. While his influence can’t be denied, I think he was a big mess. It’s what happens when you set up childhood as the high-point in your life, and figure that everything is downhill from there. I don’t buy it. Shelley liked him though, and it shows. I remember a passage in a diary somewhere (I think it was Trelawny, but I could be wrong) where Byron complained about Shelley always trying to force Wordsworth on him. But Shelley took what Wordsworth was on about, and pushed it to a higher level, complicating it in the process. I like what Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry about childhood, which is strangely like Blake’s concept of a prelapsarian innocence.

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves. Many of the circumstances of social life were then important to us which are no longer so. But that is not the point of comparison which I mean to insist. We less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede or accompany or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. As men grow up, this power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and habitual agents. Their feelings and reasons are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts, of a series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.

Besides being a great description of the LSD experience, the concept of innocence as a unary thing, is strangely at odds with his language: “a distinct and intense apprehension” of things that “constitute one mass.” No inside, no outside— and yet it is described as being “distinct.” Things can only be distinct when separated from the things that they are not; fallen language just can’t deal with the problem. But whether arrived at through authentic childhood memory, or more recent drug experience, this revelation moves Shelley to denigrate the importance of the individual, distinctly at odds with the conception of the Romantics as champions of the individual, and the poet as the lone suffering figures of the age.

The view of life presented by the most refined deductions of intellectual philosophy, is that of unity. Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by those the names of ideas and of external objects. Pursuing the same thread of reasoning, the existence of distinct individual minds similar to that which is employed in now questioning its own nature, is likewise found to be a delusion. The words I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.

Shelley goes on to disclaim any illusion that he might be thought to be speaking as the “one mind,” but rather as himself, constrained by language:

It is difficult to find terms adequately to express so subtle a conception as that to which the intellectual philosophy has conducted us. We are on that verge where words abandon us, and what wonder if we grow dizzy to look down the dark abyss of— how little we know.
I get dizzy when I read that. Now that “intellectual philosophy” has moved away from the unary conception of things, it still isn’t any easier and we don’t know much more.

One thing seems certain to me though. Whatever “real” answers their are, they are bound to be complicated. If there is “one mind” as Shelley postulates, it’s certainly got a lot of distinct thoughts going on. Shelley’s notion of the child is infinitely more complex than Wordsworth, with deeper implications. We aren’t children any more. We’re all pretty damn experienced, and we’ve all been experienced as well.


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Up before dawn

I never get up this early, but I did today. The first thing I read bothered me, and the second even more. Thomas Wright’s What’s for afters? is typical of the sort of ill-informed comments often tossed about regarding Blake:

My personal favourite is the Swedenborg-inspired heaven of William Blake. Only those capable of appreciating beauty are allowed into this dome of pleasure, Puritans and ascetics being unworthy of its splendours and the marvellous conversation of the angels.
Utter rubbish. Blake saw the afterlife as “going from one room into another,” and the gates of paradise as open to anyone who could forgive. Heaven was filled with argument, “mental fight” where people continued with the same force of will to impress themselves upon others. Blake didn’t suffer fools lightly, and some of his conjectures are quite humorous. It’s possible to be a learned fool, as he so amply expressed in his Descriptive Catalogue:
The Learned, who strive to ascend into Heaven by means of learning, appear to Children like dead horses, when repelled by the celestial spheres. The works of this visionary are well worthy the attention of Painters and Poets; they are foundations for grand things; the reason they have not been more attended to, is, because corporeal demons have gained a predominance; who the leaders of these are, will be shewn below. Unworthy Men who gain fame among Men, continue to govern mankind after death, and in their spiritual bodies, oppose the spirits of those, who worthily are famous; and as Swedenborg observes, by entering into disease and excrement, drunkenness and concupiscence, they possess themselves of the bodies of mortal men, and shut the doors of mind and of thought, by placing Learning above Inspiration, O Artist! you may disbelieve all this, but it shall be at your own peril.
One of Blake’s greatest heroes, Milton, was a Puritan. The young Blake railed against asceticism, but the old Blake railed against learning without inspiration. Dome of pleasure? That was Shelley's vision of heaven for Adonais, his elegy for Keats. It has nothing to do with Blake. Blake saw life in Heaven as struggle, just as life on earth is, though we do gain freedom from corporeal war there.

In Blake’s day, as in our own, “unworthy men” rule by shutting off the minds of humanity through hollow rhetoric; it isn’t learning that is the answer, but belief. Belief that there are great things, visionary spirits who have left a legacy worthy of study, belief in grand things. Heaven exists primarily through the active process of creating it each day. It isn’t a club that only a few can join, and I resent the implication that “only those who appreciate beauty” are allowed. Blake never said anything even remotely resembling that. Even of one of his worst detractors, Dr. Trusler, Blake offered a sarcastic apology: “I am terribly sorry you have fallen out with the spiritual world...”

It’s all about the inspiration, breathing in the world and expelling it tainted with our own feelings and thoughts. It becomes a thick space, when all the complexities of life draw in, as he said in his Public Address

Resentment for Personal Injuries has had some share in this Public Address But Love to My Art & Zeal for my Country a much Greater.
I would adopt his disclaimer for my own version of this Public Address.


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"I just want to be able to be satisfied when they can write a paragraph."

One of my fellow TA’s said that, as she explained how much she was looking forward to teaching remedial writing classes. I wish I was that easily amused. Each day when I go to class I think about how difficult writing is, and how difficult it is to explain it. Sure, there are the basic evaluative criteria, firmly entrenched since 1863, of unity, mass and coherence, but I really want to get more than that from people. I want them to think.

It’s been incredible to watch some of my students grow. At first, most of them didn’t seem to care about the quality of their writing. I think grading the first essay hard was a quick way to fix that. Welcome to college. By the time we got to the second essay, most of the conversational artifacts and persistent mechanical problems were taken care of. While they were largely clueless about citation styles and such, the overall level of mechanics was strong. Now that I’ve started to read the third assignment, I’m proud of most of them. While there are still some issues, harping on the component structure of the classical essay really seemed to work. The essays are really starting to convey unity, mass, and coherence. There should be no problem in evaluations for these kids, they’ve got the basics coming together.

I think an open revision policy is also a big plus. Only a few students are turning in shoddy work at the deadline, knowing that they can redo it. Mostly, it’s the borderline and below folks that this helps the most. Many of them have turned in several revisions, trying to make the best grade possible. What matters is how far they get in the end. I have no intention of grading on a relative scale; I think that this is a cheat which just passes the problem on to the next teacher. Considering my class will be the last writing class most of them take, I think it’s important to have them writing at least at junior or senior level by the time they leave, even if it is a “freshman” class. But that’s where the real work is.

Writing at the upper level is less about mechanics than it is about critical skills. I learned most of those in the study of literature, and sadly many of these students will opt out of World Literature in favor of Anthropology, which fits the same slot in the curriculum. So, besides writing, I think it’s a big part of the job to teach people to read.

I had my students do that today. I’ve figured out the correct factor, I think, for allowing in class time for reading. If I multiply how long it takes me to read something at a median rate by three, then about 75% of the class will finish in that amount of time. Out of about 16 students today, four finished early, and eight were done right about the cut-off time. I could tell by the expressions on their faces where they were, as much as anything else. A few kept nervously checking if I was watching, as if to see if they could just blow it off. No dice. I thought it was an important thing to read.

It was One Step at a Time: Japanese Women Walking from the latest issue of the Journal of Mundane Behavior. I chose it for several reasons. First, it displays a constant questioning of presumption. The author starts with a mundane question about the way that Japanese women walk, and continually evaluates the real worth of the question she’s asking. Along the way, it turns from casual research into deeper statistical research about the level of freedom for women in Japan. It doesn’t bog down in abstract numbers, and much of the data doesn’t really support her conclusion. Her conclusion is a culturally inclusive one, that points at the difficulty of evaluating things based on arbitrary scales. In the end, she decides that her primary question wasn’t the right one at all. It doesn’t matter how people chose to walk. But it makes a great sustained metaphor out of what begins as a mundane investigation. Crafty writing, and tolerant world view. What more could you want?

Guys, as a general observation, don’t care for this one much. I suspect that it has a lot to do with the discussion of platform shoes that opens it. But who cares? It’s the writing style, and the fact that you can construct good writing on any subject that matters. Even something as simple as the way people walk.

The ability to do that can’t be easily tested, but it can be easily proved. I suspect that most of my students will prove themselves to be good writers when this is all over, regardless of what subject they chose.

Writing paragraphs is hard, particularly since there is much controversy about what one even is! How about this definition, for starters:

The paragraph can be described very roughly as an autochthonous pattern in prose discourse, identified originally by application of logical, physical, rhythmical, tonal, formal, and other rhetorical criteria, set off from adjacent patterns by indentations, and commended thereby to the reader as a noteworthy stadium of discourse. Though all good paragraphs are stadia, not all stadia are paragraphs. Many must exist merely as emergent possibilities, potential paragraphs (as well as smaller units) dissolved in the flow of discourse. (Paul C. Rogers, A Discourse-Centered Rhetoric of the Paragraph)

I’d rather teach people to write, rather than how to write paragraphs. Paragraphs are too confusing.

The duke

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Lost in space

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Lost in space

A screaming migraine for two days.

Upon surfacing this evening, I started to read The Production of Space by Henri Lefebvre. I hadn’t thought about just how hazy the concept of space is until I started to read Weinberger’s book, with it’s opposition of “map space” vs. the spatial concepts of the Internet. Then of course, I found a connection when I started to read Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

The book begins with the image of an old map of Vietnam, and observations about how inaccurate it is. I think that’s part of the fundamental character of spatial maps, they are always inaccurate and fail to represent what we really think of when we think of space. Oh, and the time thing is in there too. The entire book takes place in the time it takes to draw a breath and release it, in a fictive space of memory.

Lefebvre sorts out many ways of thinking of space, largely mental abstractions and proposes that one method of approach is dividing it into physical space, mental space, and social space, the divisions that any real “science of space” must deal with. Then he goes on to demonstrate the separation between theories of mental space and social space, and the wide rift that exists between them. I think that’s a big problem with the approach to spatial metaphors for the web: is it in our heads? Or, is it a developing social space?

There’s not an easy answer to that one and the two types of space seem deeply at odds with each other. I do think that there are individuals separate from the social construction of “selves,” which distances me from Weinberger’s view right out of the gate. There’s something about the public/private interface that complicates everything, when you try to reach for any sort of unified theory.

There was a great example of that in my rhetorical theory class on Tuesday. Jason, a student that I’ve spent a lot of time with, asked a question that we ended up spending hours on. He’s a minister, currently enrolled simultaneously in the Rhetoric program and a seminary. While I wouldn't call him "open minded" I certainly find him to be congenial, intelligent, and a fun person to talk to. Encountering Rogerian theories of argument, Jason found this aspect of modern rhetorical theory a problem. Rogerian argument, unlike the attack/defend stance of classical rhetoric works to seek compromises by evaluating the core values between speaker and audience. Both sides are expected to give, in order to reach workable compromise. Jason wondered just where the line is. How much can you compromise your personal values to reach accommodation?

It went something like this. Jason said “I believe in capitol T truth, so how can I compromise on what I feel I know to be true, in talking to others?” This triggered an impassioned plea from another student, a pagan who has felt oppressed by the preaching of all the militant Christians in her life, for Jason to leave his truth at the door when entering into conversations. I found myself taking the middle ground, as an agnostic, telling her that in all my conversations with Jason I know that what he considers to be true will always be his opinion, not a proclamation of fact. Jason isn’t a deity, and doesn’t claim to be one. He just believes, and asking him to leave his belief at the door just isn’t an option. I think it’s up to the hearer to judge for themselves. Living in Arkansas, if I didn't talk to people because they had religious convictions of one sort or another, there wouldn't be many people left!

There are always oppositions to be dealt with. Thinking about it, my concept of my web pages as a mental space will always be separate and at odds with moving through the web as a social space. Theories that approach the web from the social side often leave me cold. When theory becomes too social, I suppose I always want to pull it back into myself. I know my space much better than anyone else's.

That’s what I created a web space for. For me, mostly, and only as a second thought, a place where people might visit and get to know me. I suppose I’ll always be a bit of a cowboy about that.

Love and Death

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Love and Death

Sometimes it seems like love and death are the only subjects really worth writing about. This binary quickly becomes unary when you think about it, though. I was walking to class yesterday evening when I approached a girl I know from an intro survey literature course. She was walking down the green path, just scanning the skies with a deep smile. She stopped and said:

You know what I was just thinking?

How could anyone think of suicide on a day like today!
I just stall midstream when I try to think about death. The master narratives of glorious death just don’t do it for me, though the transformation of death into sleep through elegy is interesting, largely because these poems become love poems to life. Most of the time, I feel like Woody Allen’s idiot questioner in Love and Death:
What happens when we die? Are there girls?
I prefer this line of questioning more than the militant struggle of survival, epitomized by the answer to the old joke “Why did the chicken cross the road,” in the Hemmingway style: “To die. In the rain.” I like Yeats’s take on the topic in a poem called “Politics.”
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and wars alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

We understand so little about love, and why it drives us so. I was teaching a short bit on sexist language today, and while I hate the PC tongue-twisting, the avoidance of generic objectifying is relatively easy. When you speak of everyone, you cannot say man alone. But all the same, if we speak in character, we do objectify those that are different from us. Objectifying, dividing things that are different from us into the “not us” is a fundamental building block of language. I speak of love only with the terms that I know. Being heterosexual I can only speak of women as different from me, and a binary that love seeks to unify.

But what triggered all this, more than anything else, was a song from the Pontiac Brothers called “Almost Human.”

Well she’s almost human when she steps up to you,
And gives you a kiss, from the lips that never miss,
Well she’s almost, she’s almost human.
I suspect that love is the only thing that allows us to tolerate one another. I was struck by the description of the discovery of the Pontiac Brothers by the guy who constructed the site I linked:

I came across The Pontiacs in an appropriately unassuming fashion. I dug up Doll Hut out of the incoming bin of a local used record store. I remembered seeing a Frontier Records ad for it calling it "Stones"-like, so I figured it would at least be a style of music I liked. I got Tom Waits' Closing Time the same day. I had just had a death in the family, just split with a girl.

Love and death and the Pontiac Brothers and Tom Waits. Go figure. But then, I started to think about how many rock lyrics get a bad rap for being sexist, among them Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid. I just can’t read it that way, no matter how I try. It seems to me that its one of those inner voice things, and his musings about needing “just someone to keep my house clean / fix my meals and go away” is part of that same frustration in the Pontiac Brothers’ song. A frustration that we just don’t know why we need lovers so much, and yet we do. I think Liz Phair’s “Canary” really expresses the other side of being loved as an object through so many layers of sexual metaphor that it makes my head spin. I still haven’t been able to remove that damn CD from my player...

I learn my name
I write with a number two pencil
I work up to my potential
I earn my meat
I come when called
I jump when you circle the cherry
I sing like a good canary
I come when called
I come, that's all

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

I clean the house
I put all your books in an order
I make up a colorful border
I clean my mouth
'Cause froth comes out

Send it up on fire
Death before dawn
Send it up on fire
Death before dawn

Love and death, that’s the stuff... Or maybe just love. I’ve been collecting definitions of rhetoric, and I found another one I like from Jim W. Corder:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures in communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear commodious language.

To be told we objectify something is the deepest insult to love. Sexist language does violence, on both sides. But if a room is truly commodious, isn’t there room to say what we really feel?


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I was thinking about how much he permeates my consciousness today. The response from Dr. Kleine regarding my hypertext essay included, in part, “If William Blake were alive today, do you think he’d be doing what you’re doing?” I suppose in my imaginary construction of him, I believe he would. This whole space of mine owes a debt to him, the title of this blog, for example, comes from him. I was trying to think what sort of “simple” explanation I might offer, regarding this rather complex man, as to why I think of him as my greatest teacher.

Blake was unashamed. He said what was on his mind, forcefully, and without hesitation even when he was wrong. And he paid the consequences.

I was reading Dispatches by Michael Herr yesterday, and I ran across a slight reference that’s still ringing. It was in the form of an observation about the “spooks” behind the Vietnam War, specifically Robert “Blowtorch” Komer.

If William Blake had “reported” to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Komer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation.
The famous incident related by Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, was this:
On Peckham Rye (by Dulwich Hill) it is, as he will in after years relate, that while quite a child, of eight or ten perhaps, he has his “first vision.” Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars. Returned home he relates the incident, and only through his mother’s intercession escapes a thrashing from his honest father, for telling a lie.
It isn’t the fact that he saw visions that is the key part here, it is Blake’s insistence on telling everyone about it. He was willing to take the heat. I think he saw scientific rationalization as the agent-orange poised to defoliate the human consciousness; there are mysteries to life, mysteries that can’t be explained away through the three-fold vision of the senses.

That’s where I always reach my impasse. Rhetoric is, by its essential nature, a threefold vision. There’s so much more to say here, and another paper is coming together. I think I’m getting to the core of it, by asking myself what would Blake do?

I don’t want to do what Yeats did. He kept it to himself.

In his Autobiography Yeats constructs an account of hearing spirit voices, much like the story Gilchrist told about Blake. In Yeats’s case, he is afraid to tell people he’s heard them: “I had some wretched days until being alone with one of my aunts I heard a whisper in my ear, ‘What a tease you are!”

Mysteries exist to be told, not to be kept to oneself. That’s what drives me to write I suppose, I listen to those internal voices of thought and spill them out over the side for anyone to hear.

Even if it means that some can’t resist the urge to defoliate my trees.


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Toni Morrison

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Word-work is sublime

I found the perfect counterpoint for George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture. It went over well in class, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in a more open, and yet just as powerful essay on language. It's really great stuff. Here are a couple of snips:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek--it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language--all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

. . .

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference--the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

I really enjoyed teaching this one today. I suppose I should add a postscript to my morning entry. I'm okay, folks. Sometimes, I just have to freeze little atomistic moments of terror in my own way. It was a bad way to start the day, but it turned out okay in the end. As Lou Reed wrote once upon a time, "there's always work... the most important thing is work..."

Walk away

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It wasn’t her first affair, but it was my last.

She passed by me, about three feet away. I think it was her, but I can’t be sure. Her hair was dyed red. She looked so angry. She wouldn’t make eye contact. I had been smiling, happy, coming from class after teaching a brilliant Toni Morrison essay on language. I was happy that they seemed to get it. Language is what we have, what we can control. It creates pictures, but more than that, it reaches to things that can’t be pictured.

One foot in front of the other, one word after the next. It’s what we have in this life. Move on, keep going forward. To stop is to die. I hadn’t seen her in over five years. Everything ended then, and I have to keep placing these words, the only thing I can control, together. Because we won’t be together again. Ever.

But when I got home, there was such a pressure behind my eyes. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s cold, but it’s hot. I wonder how love could cause such anger, such pressure, such hopelessness. Only a moment before I had been happy, but now I’m not. I suppose it’s because she didn’t stop, she just buried her head looking displeased that I’m still on the planet. I’m not sorry she’s here. She reminds me of the essential facts that rule my endless procession of movement.

Feelings, I can’t control. I act on them. They are always there, wild and radical and unconforming to any sense or sensibility. When someone decides they hate you, there just isn’t much to be done, even though you don’t return that hatred.

Words, I can control. There is always a subject, real or implied. There is always a verb, or a gerund, hoping, believing, longing, desiring, feeling... But there isn’t always an object. Place one after the other. Follow the possibility, watch it get narrower and narrower until it becomes a hard and compact point. The limit of opaqueness, according to Blake, is Satan. Writing seems to be a devilish move.

But my feelings are open, translucent, and exposed. The limit of expansion is God, as Blake would say. Feelings can be ineffable, but language can only reach, and with every step contract. What can I say next? What can I do? It is always dependant on choices made, and things done before. Language pushes and pushes, but it can never get there because with each step it always becomes its own oppressor. It’s not a rhizome, free to bond at will, and yet it is infinite, and springs like weeds from every situation, every feeling, growing and branching and weaving, Language tries hard to make it last.

But people usually just walk away.

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