Monday, July 21, 2014

Notes on Michael Andrews

I've written about Michael Andrews before. This morning, calling him to mind as I got out of bed, and using him for "reassurance", I reread his "Notes and Preoccupations" (X 1960, volume 1, number 2, pp. 137-141). He describes "the activity" of painting as "the most marvellous, elaborate, complete way of making up [his] mind". Which is what writing should be for me. What it isn't often enough.

"The painting episode is the real situation imagined. Re-enacted and rehearsed until its performance is the best possible. There is nothing like it in public life …"

"The painting episode is a rehearsal of behaviour in which I go through the motions again and again until it seems the best possible … The ultimate exultation is one feels is that of having done something at the top of one's form. The dispiritedness is like disgust."

This is what I must learn, i.e., to have writing "episodes". To see writing as a private "rehearsal" of behaviour that cannot be subjected to such obsessive repetition in public.

"Every aesthetic adjustment reflects an ethical preference."

In writing, too, we make "aesthetic adjustments", which means that the aim is, as in painting, to "materialize" what is on one's mind, however vague and approximate it seems. "You're now physically close to what was once in imagination." But such adjustments also have an "epistemic" dimension, reflecting its reference, perhaps. Here the writing serves to idealize what is in the world.

"Ethics have to do with self-consciousness, aesthetics with unself-consciousness."

The pangrammatical supplement is something like: epistemology has to do with it-consciousness, aesthetics with un-it-consciousness. (Or just, perhaps, unconsciousness?)

"Mysterious conventionality."

"When suddenly you are out of sympathy with someone you feel your own disposition most strongly."

There's something here too. "Every day there'll be problems and vague and incomplete fragmentary visions … Terrible anxiety to keep things in mind to realize them to the full."

But one imagines Andrews sitting down to work. To rehearse the relevant behaviors. Perfect them. "You cannot force repetitions of a situation [in public life] at the speed of rehearsals on a painting."

Nor in writing. But do we practice enough?


"One must believe, desire, love (and not be embarrassed out of loving) the atmosphere one creates—that is best."

That's good advice. It reminds me that there is a special use of the word "wise" in English, albeit only in conjunction with the preposition "up". As a verb, I mean. We can "wise up". We must not be embarrassed about this either, we must wise (v.) the atmosphere (i.e., "get wise" to it); we must not be embarrassed out of "wising".

Saturday, July 19, 2014


"The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering." (Nanavira Thera, Notes on Dhamma)

"I am entitled to assume that you are never at a loss for an authentic model to study." (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

About a year ago, I was dealing with similar issues in distinguishing between existence and existentialism, the mystical and scholarly approach to things. This set off a series of posts in which I compared Hemingway, Ramana Maharshi, Henry Miller and Douglas Harding, looking at how literature and mysticism deal with the problem of existence, the reality of death. It was very illuminating for me, and I'm going to spend a bit of time rereading and reworking those posts, perhaps into the essay they should obviously become.

Looking for an English translation of the French translation of Heidegger that Cyril Connolly cites in the Unquiet Grave (mentioned in passing in my last post), I stumbled on the life and work of Nanavira Thera, who has been completely unknown to me until now. It looks very interesting. And it was a fortuitous find. Nanavira also read Connolly, and, if we leave out his reflections on the inadequacy of scholarship*, we get telling invocation of reality that resonates nicely with the remark of Connolly's that I cited. First Nanavira:

The reader is presumed to be subjectively engaged with an anxious problem, the problem of his existence, which is also the problem of his suffering. […]* Only in a vertical view, straight down into the abyss of his own personal existence, is a man capable of apprehending the perilous insecurity of his situation; and only a man who does apprehend this is prepared to listen to the Buddha's Teaching. But human kind, it seems, cannot bear very much reality: men, for the most part, draw back in alarm and dismay from this vertiginous direct view of being and seek refuge in distractions.

And here, again, is Connolly:

Both my happiness and my unhappiness I owe to the love of pleasure; of sex, travel, reading, conversation (hearing oneself talk), food, drink, cigars and lying in warm water.

Reality is what remains** when these pleasures, together with hope for the future, regret for the past, vanity of the present, and all that composes the aroma of the self are pumped out of the air-bubble in which I shelter.

It is, I would say, the same "reality" that they are here talking about. That of suffering and illusion. "Distraction". And this is where Heidegger's notion of "care" comes in. I can't shake the suspicion that both the scholar and the sage, the writer and the mystic, suffer, not from too much reality, but too little. They do not engage with experience in a practical way, they don't take their situation "in hand". As Oliver Senior puts it:

If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.

Senior may be right that the problem of drawing a hand is notoriously difficult to solve. The problem of existing is of course much, much more difficult. But I think Senior's is approach is exemplary. Both writers and sages have a tendency toward conventional and symbolic solutions, to substitution of a "semblance" of existence for actually being there, and doing the work.

I, too, of course, suffer from this tendency. But just as we all have a hand that we can use as a model, and therefore are always in a position to practice drawing one. And just as that is the only way to get past the difficulty, so we all have a life, which we can take in our own hands, and by this means become as good as we ever will at "existing". It's not easy, but there's no other way.

*Here's what I've left out: "There is therefore nothing in these pages to interest the professional scholar, for whom the question of personal existence does not arise; for the scholar's whole concern is to eliminate or ignore the individual point of view in an effort to establish the objective truth -- a would-be impersonal synthesis of public facts. The scholar's essentially horizontal view of things, seeking connexions in space and time, and his historical approach to the texts, disqualify him from any possibility of understanding a Dhamma that the Buddha himself has called akālika, 'timeless'."

**It is worth connecting this remark to Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "...solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality coordinated with it." (T5.64) (Cf. also William Carlos Williams).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Constructivisms

I just came across a passage in the Unquiet Grave that made me sit up and ruffle my hair. Let's call it the Palinurean construction of reality:

Both my happiness and my unhappiness I owe to the love of pleasure; of sex, travel, reading, conversation (hearing oneself talk), food, drink, cigars and lying in warm water.

Reality is what remains when these pleasures, together with hope for the future, regret for the past, vanity of the present, and all that composes the aroma of the self are pumped out of the air-bubble in which I shelter.

He goes on to quote Heidegger on "care" and "anxiety". Connolly's vision can be usefully compared with the Proustian construction of reality:

What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art)...

This will be worth thinking a little more carefully about.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


it always had
it was given

it had to have me
to be

Note: This is a companion to "Prijos". It works the etymology of "wisdom", as "Prijos" plays on the etymology of love.


i never wanted
to be mine

i only wanted you
to be

Note: For some background see this post.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Modern World

Wittgenstein: Philosophy ought really to be composed like poetry.

Pound: The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world.

Wittgenstein: The world is everything that is the case.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Memo from Henry Miller

Looking for something else, I just came across this nugget of wisdom in the Tropic of Cancer.

On the meridian of time there is no injustice: there is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama. (96)

The coordination of time, justice, motion and poetry demonstrates exemplary pangrammatical precision. If you want, try to construct the pangrammatical supplement.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Alain Badiou, a Twit

This isn't fair to anyone, not Alain Badiou and not Laura Carter, but since I just realized that the latter has a Twitter feed, something must be done. Here are four recent tweets out of Atlanta:

Now, as I react to this, keep in mind that I am a great admirer of Laura's poetry and, in fact, of her poetics. (Though it's been too long since I've engaged with her work.) What I want to say, in effect, is that Badiou, even in Laura's reading of him, doesn't understand Laura's poetry. Or something like that.

My response consists of four pangrammatical correctives. First, poetry is obviously the guardian not of decency but indecency in speech. Second, the heart of a poem is not ontological but ethnopathic, it's about people not things, passions not reasons, and what is affirmed is not "not set out" as an object but not set out as a subject. ("Set out" may be the wrong phrase. "Put down" may be better. The heart of the poem is to set down the emotion on the page, not to put down the subject.) Third, (as I said to Laura almost ten years ago, in my fourth post to this blog) a poem is a positive machinery, just like philosophy. It does something, though they do different things. A poem utters not being but becoming at the point where the subject appears. Fourth, as in philosophy, the "correct method" in poetry is to say only what it is possible to say. It's just that poetry says it about different subjects.

James Baldwin once said that white people are protected from an understanding of jazz by their sentimentality. The point of my corrective of Badiou is to show that philosophy about poetry is often too much in awe of its object to really understand it. We must prevent the sentimentality of philosophers from making nonsense of poetry.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Minima Economica

We don't make people work for air.
That is, we don't charge for breathing.
But we do pay a utilities bill.
Water, gas, electricity.
And you have to pay for the food you eat.
If we charged for breathing,
and either let those who had no money suffocate
or humiliated them for "air stamps",
we would be evil. And yet we charge for
food, water, heat, shelter.

We say these are "scarce" resources.
One day we'll no doubt say the same of air.
Some of the nicest people I know
are working very hard to make the air
scarce. If they worked as hard
to secure an unconditional basic income for all,
this earth would be a paradise.
There'd be plenty of air too.

The Complicated Egoist

Is it because we are denied our natural pleasures that we become the complicated egoists that we are?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Eliot on Hamlet

Ever since I first read it, I've thought I disagreed vehemently with T.S. Eliot's "Hamlet and his Problems". Rereading it just now, I realize I am too hard on him, probably because I take offense at the idea that Hamlet might be an "artistic failure". I still think it's a success, but tonight I'm willing to grant that Eliot makes a good case. And his reading of the play is much more generous than I have been remembering.

It seems that Eliot was aware that Shakespeare was trying to depict a man whose emotions are "in excess of the facts", a man without an "objective correlative". He does not even become a successful madman, just as Shakespeare does not succeed as an artist. Of Hamlet's madness, Eliot says:

In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.

Eliot's error, I still think, is in thinking that the relevant emotion is his disgust with his mother. Read as an attempt to portray a man who is more disgusted with his mother than she deserves, Hamlet is indeed a failure. But I take a more transcendental line. Shakespeare was trying to portray a man without objective correlatives full stop. A man whose political and personal life has been entirely undermined, a man who has lost any functional family and community.

I think Mailer got it right when he appropriated Eliot's concept of the "objective correlative" for political purposes. Hamlet, Eliot says, is imprisoned with a "feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action." We are all like that, but not because of our mothers. There are much larger forces at work.

Much probably hinges on whether Hamlet and Hamlet succeed or fail as one, or separately. I think Eliot believes that Hamlet fails ever to correlate his emotion with the facts. I believe that the resolution at the end is, although of course "tragic", nonetheless successful. Understanding this, I think, is the key to appreciating Shakespeare's achievement.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Occasional Piece

Lust is to politics
what wonder is to
science. A scandal.

But wonder is also
to knowledge what lust is
to power. An occasion.