My love song for William Shakespeare

1 June 2012

I love Shakespeare. I’ve read all his plays, some several times, though none near as closely and caringly as I hope someday to have. I’ve read a chunk of his sonnets and found fascinating the interplay between the lies and truths and puns spoken by his many characters and the playful reflections found in his individual poems – this despite the fact that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of such close reading. Nevertheless, I wonder if my love of Shakespeare is not strongly colored by my love of J. Alfred Prufrock’s pathetic love song. It’s not only Prufrock’s acceptance/assertion that he is not Prince Hamlet, but just an attendant lord. (There’s an amazing kind of making-to-be that goes along with self-recognition, and a correlative unmaking that goes along with self-abnegation.) Not that one should really wish to be Hamlet… But it’s also Prufrock’s whole style of self-investigation. It’s no surprise when, towards the end of his song, he asserts that he is not Hamlet. One doesn’t ask, “Why would you be thinking about such a thing anyway?” He is the star of his own little show, as we all are, but not the star of anyone else’s. Anyway, I don’t have the time or focus or knowledge to go on an in-depth reading of Shakespeare via Prufrock, or Prufrock in terms of his reading of Shakespeare, or any such thing. I only offer this quick reflection, that often when I write fictional characters who have profound anxieties, they evoke for me the language of Eliot’s clever mockery of the language of the characters of Shakespeare’s many universes. Yes, they recall, for me, lines and characters and feelings from the Shakespearean corpus. But always in the course of drowning to the sound of human girls’ voices. Some day in the future I’ll devote a little more care and thought to this, and perhaps will read Shakespeare and Eliot again, and more closely. One can only hope.

Spring cleaning

12 May 2012

Sometimes, while spring cleaning, I find old scraps of paper with odd little notes scribbled on them. Sometimes I’m lucky and there’s some hint at the date or occasion that inspired the writing, and I can go back to a feeling I’ve otherwise forgotten, and put back together, in some fragmented way, the experience of a younger me. It’s a fun little journey to take. Just as often there is nothing on the page but a few words, and I have to linger over the tension between the feeling the words evoke in me, and the ignorance of what phase in my life they come out from. Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed when the words don’t seem well-composed, and I wonder whether it might have even been quite recently that I felt such clumsy feelings and expressed them so clumsily. This is a fun journey to take, too, and perhaps even more valuable; the first kind of journey helps me feel compassion for a younger me, whereas the more fragile journey, the one cloaked in a more apparent sense of ignorance, pushes me to treat my present self more compassionately. I’m alone with words I have to own as my own. In the case of the note I’m about to post, I know it was written a couple of years ago, though I can’t remember exactly what I had in mind. No bother. I’ll make the words anew by typing them here:

How much family you’ve got
the better to eat me with


And friends — infinite.
I wish only for a little
piece of you, but that
this piece might remain
steadfast —

I don’t want to lose
you each time I feel
drawn in…

it hurts not
knowing how
i affect you

O, these I lack, to make you garlands of, and my sweet friend…

7 May 2012

It happens so quickly you haven’t the time to notice, and the response it generates is so mild and acquiescent, you’d almost never realize you just hurt someone you care about. I’m talking about random, unnecessary, and insignificant cruel remarks. Or, at least as I’d argue, they seem insignificant.

The example I enjoy best is one that I think illustrates just how oddly unnecessary and yet how clandestinely cruel these sorts of comments can be: a friend mis-remembers the name of an actor, or identifies the wrong band in guessing who performs the song playing on the radio. You laugh vigorously and ask how in the world your friend could have gotten that wrong. You grab the nearest person and point in your friend’s face and relate the mistake. Maybe you don’t even bother saying aloud, “What an idiot!” Either way you make the message clear: your friend should feel humiliated. But for what? … Worse yet, when you ask your friend what could possibly have been going through that thick skull, the response is muted: I don’t know! I’m such an idiot. Maybe you even let it go, only to have your friend grab the nearest passerby and ask if they can believe what a dumb mistake they’ve just made…

Perhaps, reading this description, you’re rolling your eyes. Just having a little fun, and the like. We all find ourselves on both ends of this kind of interaction daily. It’s almost like talking about the weather. But, if we’re just having a little fun, it won’t hurt for me to ask: Why? Why is this our idea of a little fun? Does it feel good, after all? Does it establish in our friend’s heart that we ought to be trusted and respected, and that we trust and respect our friend? Or, as I’d obviously argue, does it do the opposite? Imagine just a tiny little wound is suffered – by the friend, by the friendship, by oneself – on such an occasion as this; namely, when we all but tell our friends, even if somewhat quietly: You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and feel small, and foolish. Imagine this wound being re-opened at each such instance. How are we to trust our friends, be vulnerable with them, learn and cultivate intimacy with them, if we can’t even make insignificant errors without being ridiculed? Do we not curse our parents for their overly critical attitudes? Do we not lash out at lovers who say hurtful words? Why should we tolerate such bland and insignificant cruelty among friends…? Read the rest of this entry »

Leisure, suffering, philosophy, and Joni Mitchell

21 April 2012

That first part is perhaps a bit too grand a title for this post. (Though maybe Joni will save me.) I’m thinking today about how much leisure is involved in my practice of philosophy and my reflections on suffering. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m wary of self-pity for privilege, as much as of self-congratulation. I’m privileged, and I suffer, and some of my suffering is connected with my privilege. Etc., etc. That I have so much time – free time, it would be right to say – is the pinnacle of my privilege, and though its dangers are as great as its opportunities, I’ve been able to take advantage and focus my life towards self-awareness (which I think of as super important). I’m extremely grateful for this, but I also often enough forget to be grateful. It is, after all, despite all my whining over the years, very hard to actively understand the minds of others, and so, for the sake of ease, I treat people coldly and from a distance. For many people spending a bulk of their work and leisure time on philosophical reflection would sound like a nightmare, or at least a major bore, so it’s helpful to remember there’s no inherent value in what I do, other than that for me it is inherently valuable. But I also feel passionately that there is potential value for everyone in what I do – both whether they themselves want to and are able to partake, and just to whatever extent I myself do it well – which means there’s also great responsibility.

A long time ago someone said that all things are characterized by three principles I’ll now badly translate as: they are impermanent, they are in tension, and they are not identical with or reducible to themselves. Probably even longer ago some adult cracked wise about youngsters thinking they’d live forever and taking their youth for granted. I’ve long wondered whether these two sentiments are not themselves in pretty sharp tension with one another. (How better should we have been enjoying our youth?) But moreover, I’ve also long felt both were hogwash. Not necessarily the “taking for granted” part itself, just that exclusively the young do such things. Endlessly lamenting the loss of youth (rather than, say, mourning it) has long struck me as being whatever the hideous underbelly of “taking one’s youth for granted” might be. And which youngsters, I had wondered, really think they’re going to live forever? How many people’s lives have not been touched by death, by the confusion and pain of the death of a loved one, or the death of a loved one’s loved one, of a loved pet? I’m not sure I know anyone in my age range who hasn’t known a classmate to die before the end of high school, before the end of college. These are stark examples, and it doesn’t take the death of someone close for the fact of death to make its way into our thoughts. It doesn’t take adulthood for us to reflect on the bizarre question: What will it mean for me to die? (What does meaning mean if I am dead?) And yet, our concerns remained, through high school, through college, on less cosmic concerns than the fact that we all die eventually, and that many of us may die soon. I’ve long held this notion – that there is some bit of wisdom adults have that they are right to wistfully and arrogantly remark on in our presence as if we just couldn’t yet understand – to be obnoxious and misguided. Read the rest of this entry »

Poem :: Conveyor

13 April 2012

Check out this post over at the Conveyor Magazine blog, which features a piece by photographer Allen Chen and a poem, “Three Times,” that I wrote in response to it. In about a week there will be a second post featuring a photograph Allen composes in response to a different poem of mine. While you’re over at the Conveyor blog check out some of their other recent posts. There’s a lot of great stuff!

Quick thought on dream-time

11 April 2012

Leaving lucid dreaming aside for the moment, how often do you experience dreams in the present tense? Obviously, when we recount a dream we are later in time than the dream itself, thus we narrate in the past tense, but the time of the dream itself is generally present. (Excepting those dreams in which we remember, or dream, or etc.) Still, when I hear people refer to “believing” a dream to be real during the dream, I don’t buy it. I’ve never had a dream in which I asked or wondered whether I was dreaming or awake and concluded that I was, in fact, awake. In those few instances in which I’ve thought at all about the status of reality from within a dream, I have always then become lucid to the dream. (I’m searching for someone who can claim to be an exception.) Dreams don’t cloak or hide themselves, it’s just that we tend not to need to know they’re dreams, and we tend not to bother asking. (That latter part may be why dreams are useful metaphors for waking consciousness, as we tend not to ask after the status of our waking consciousness, either. (One wonders what lucidity would be in this analogue.)) Do we really “believe” that the dream is real? Wouldn’t a more accurate description be just to say we are dreaming? Sometimes we are inclined to smooth over complexity and seek a falsely simple explanation; other times, though, we muddy otherwise clear waters. I don’t believe I’m awake, either. I’m just awake.

If you ask how I know I’m awake, I’d say that’s a different kind of question. I don’t have to know I’m awake to be awake, but being awake entails an “awake” kind of awareness. If you’d like me to offer compelling reasons that demonstrate I was asleep last night and woke up this morning, I can try and do that. But episemo-phenomenologically that is a different process than the being-asleep and being-awake that I’ve done/been over the past day. That’s what makes lucid dreaming such a fascinating experience: I am doing something regarding dream consciousness other than just doing dream consciousness, which is ordinarily all we do in that state. Reflecting on being awake is easier when awake than reflecting at all while asleep, so it feels less dramatic. Nevertheless, neither do I have to know I’m dreaming to dream, nor does (non-lucid) dreaming imply that I believe myself to be awake. The magic of dreams has nothing to do with deception; it’s just that dreams are dream-like.

This has already become a bit convoluted, though. Is it belief or knowledge? Well, I would say that if we know we’re awake, in that same sense we know when we’re dreaming. If we ask, “Am I awake?” the answer is immediately clear in both contexts. But nor was I experiencing a state of knowledge (and certainly not the kind of knowledge derived from analysis) in or in order to be in either state. So although I’d perhaps grant a kind of knowing to dreaming and waking consciousnesses, I’d want to push back against that a bit. On the other hand, belief doesn’t seem to me to play just about any role in either. When I ride my bike to class I don’t believe I’m cycling. Frankly, I have more pressing concerns. I just am riding my bike. Occasionally I am led to reflect on the present cycling, in which case you can say an awareness of being-cycling is a constituent element of the reflection. But belief seems like a terrible word to describe this. Knowledge, too, seems inadequate. I think saying that I know myself to be biking is to already complicate matters too much. I’m cycling. Maybe I’m also reflecting on my cycling, or on cycling generally, or whatever. But I’m also just doing that.

Reinterpreting the karma/rebirth theory in terms of neuroscientific determinism, or, Another look at déjà vu

8 April 2012

There is so much I wish to cover in this post, and I can only cover all of it unsatisfactorily, so I’ll just jump write in and try not to worry too much about how paltry my efforts will be.

Since I’ve been intrigued and inspired by, broadly, Buddhist thought, I’ve been similarly intrigued by the dual theory of karma and rebirth. The precise theory is framed and conceived of differently in different contexts, but loosely speaking the theory is that action (karma) leads to a rebirth the qualities of which are determined by various qualities of the relevant actions. That is to say, act “well,” be reborn in a “positive” rebirth. For a time I was indifferent to the truth or falsity of this theory. Then for a while I didn’t believe it; then I believed it; then I became indifferent again, but differently than the original indifference. In Intro to Buddhism courses I tried to argue to my skeptical classmates (who were often quite new to this theory other than in the popular “what goes around comes around” version that holds that if you do a nice deed at the beginning of the day, someone might do something nice by day’s end) that it was “not moral.” Why would I say such a thing? Our typical conceptions of morality involve moral guidelines, such as those laid down by a creator god, by which we can judge our actions and by which our actions can be judged. To say that the Buddhist theory of karma is “not moral” is to suggest there is no such outside agent determining which kinds of actions are good and which are bad, but rather just that actions that lead to a rebirth that feels good can be considered “good” and those that lead to an unpleasant rebirth can be considered “bad.” This is not moral so much as it is metaphysical. It “just is that way.” The better in tune one is with how it “just is,” the better one is able to judge which actions are conducive to what we would consider good results. In the meantime, I guess we ought to just follow the Buddha’s guidelines. Something like that.

Now, there is an argument to be made that this is a non-moral theory. But what if the details of my argument were true and the theory were still moral? What might that entail? Perhaps morality is just “how it is” when “how it is” comes into contact with the human mind, human relationships, and human culture. What if morality is just our half-hearted attempt to make sense of how it is?  Read the rest of this entry »

Quick thought on terminology (East/West)

6 April 2012

We refer to “East and West” pretty commonly, but the problems with these terms are significant. I’m not the first to point it out, and, actually, it’s become something of a strand of thinking amongst my peers that the terms have got to go, but we still haven’t come up with much better alternatives, and surely none that have really caught on. For example, we can speak of “Euroamerican philosophy,” which is at least better than “Western philosophy,” but what of the philosophy of the rest of the world, is it all just … Eastern? (Additionally, it must be noted that the term ‘-american’ in ‘Euroamerican’ refers basically to the US and sometimes Canada, leaving out the rest of the Americas.) I was recently reading Matthew Kapstein’s Reason’s Traces, a terrific book on certain questions regarding Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and an early chapter led me to wonder: what if the term ‘Western’ wasn’t all that bad, just that ‘Eastern’ had to go? After all, merely marking a distinction between, say, ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ already splits ‘Eastern’ into two immense traditions, time periods, civilizations, etc., etc., etc. And just as ‘Western’ or even ‘European’ leaves room for the significant individual and overlapping histories of the many peoples who have lived within the arbitrary borders of “the West,” so do the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese.’ Then again, we can broaden these out with such terms as ‘South Asian,’ ‘Southeast Asian,’ ‘East Asian.’ So now we have Euroamerican, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian. Great. But… what about, you know, the rest of the world? Okay, so there’s also this place called the “Middle East,” which, now that we’ve stopped using the terms ‘West’ and ‘East,’ doesn’t seem clearly to mark the middle of anything. Instead we might say “Western Asia,” which, like all of these other terms, will never be perfectly satisfactory, but will do for now. I wonder, does ‘Western’ ever really refer to anything not already covered by the term “Euroamerican”? (Interestingly, both seem to have some space for Australia, although I don’t know whether any of us know exactly what to do with that wonderful place.) If not, this seems to mark a curiousity about our old friends ‘East’ and ‘West,’ as the former has been split into at least four impressive subgroups, whereas the latter has just been more accurately rebranded. It’s a big world out there, the West. But our breakdown/rebranding has helped us with a far more important detail: where are Central/South America and all of Africa beyond the northern countries associated, in the term ‘Middle East,’ with what we’ve temporarily rebranded “Western Asia”? In terms of culture and philosophy, we have room for “East and West,” which would seem to cover it all (as North and South are icebergs!), and in population probably covers a majority, but nevertheless falls well over a billion people short. (This while we’re still brushing with broad strokes.) Now, I don’t think ‘West’ and ‘East’ should be entirely retired, nor do I expect most people to begin speaking of “South East Asian” this and that on a regular basis anytime soon. Nor do I suppose I’ve stumbled upon the best of terminologies in this quick thought. But let’s at least grant this: we do a pretty good job of excluding others from the conversation. This is in most contexts. In terms of, say, Western academia, there is surely room for West, and there is more and more room for East, and though there is room for everyone else, I’m not sure the institution itself has grown used to it. So in whatever context in which we rigidly distinguish between ourselves and others, yet manage to leave still others out of the hierarchy altogether, if we happen to unconsciously think, when they come to our attention, that those others are below us in some capacity or other (see: many of the excellent criticisms of Kony2012), perhaps our terminology is aiding the ignorance. Thoughts?

Crying and lying in the wake of Titanic

6 April 2012

Having spent my early teenaged years reveling in snobbishness, I now find the distaste of some of my fellow academics for all things popular to be childish and annoying. And yet, is it more or less annoying than the distaste many others have for things highbrow? And what’s with the feeling of annoyance, anyway?

Titanic came out when I was but a wee lad of ten, though I don’t recall seeing it until it played on cable, which must have been at least a year later. Let’s say I was eleven. My distinct memory is itself something of a recollection, so we’ll trace back to it.

For years when the movie would come up in conversation I would make a grunt of distaste along with a comment about some flaw or other. (I’m not sure where I got my info on the “flaws” of the film, though considering that the film does indeed have some flaws, I may well have been “right” in the specifics – but, oh, to miss the point…) But as of the last five or six years when the movie has come up I’ve tried to keep silent. This is part of a trend of the last several years of my life in which I try not to be a robotic snob – especially about things I ought to or could know better. (It’s taking a while, but there has been steady progress nonetheless.) Titanic is a good example. See, when I expressed my distaste all those years after the film came out, I was aware of a significant lie central to my criticism: when I saw Titanic, I cried. Sure, I hated myself for it at the time, thinking, as I did, that I shouldn’t like a stupid, super-popular, melodramatic girls’ movie. But I did anyway. The story is pretty damn good, after all. And yet, I held fast to my assurance that, tears be damned, it was a terrible movie. Through the years this memory (of, you know, caring about the characters) slowly strengthened and finally won out against my angst, so I began to keep quiet about the film. (That was step two, I guess.) Now, the best part in all of this is that I can’t quite say whether I like the movie or not, just that when I saw it when I was eleven or so, I was resistant but engaged, and I cried. That’s all I really know. Hence my silence is probably appropriate. But if I were to speak up, why not just say, “Well, when I saw it shortly after it first came out, I cried”? That seems fair enough… Maybe now that it’s back out in theaters again I’ll have my chance. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick thought on śūnyatā as ‘intimacy’

16 March 2012

I’ve been thinking again about my poetical “translation” of śūnyatā – again, ordinarily translated as “emptiness” or “voidness” – into intimacy. There are some peculiar qualities of śūnyatā that are difficult to convey in any one translation. Although this isn’t so great of a problem (it is, as far as I can tell, quite true in the Sanskrit original, as well), nevertheless there is a certain quality I think it would be helpful to carry across and, further, I think it would be beneficial to have a translation that can be shown to contain those various peculiar qualities.

If I remember correctly, I’ve spoken about the relation between “dependent co-arising” (pratītyasamutpāda) and “emptiness” – Nāgārjuna equates them – but somehow those two translations fail to help (me) generate a discourse explicating that relation. This is one such peculiar quality of śūnyatā; namely, that it is pratītyasamutpāda. How so? Well, very superficially, we can make two declarations: (1) things arise together in dependence on one another, and (2) things are empty of a wholly unique, isolated nature or being. Of course, the former is “dependent co-arising,” and the latter “emptiness.” But the important fact for our current concern is that, again superficially, we can say that (1) and (2) are different ways of saying the same thing. Choose which way you want to look at it, it’s the same truth.

This points us back to my poetical translations: “relating” and “intimacy,” respectively. Now, if I say (1) that things (or, to turn Nāgārjuna momentarily into a psychologist, people) exist naturally in relation to others (and do not and can not ever exist in any other way), and (2) that things (again, people) exist intimately, which is to say bound up with, others, and, finally, (3) that these are two ways of saying the same thing – at least one thing is clear: the terminology seems compatible. Whether statements (1) and (2) are true, whether they relate as I say they do in (3), and (most significantly) whether they in fact correspond to (1) and (2) in the paragraph above – these are all up for debate. I’ll do my best to defend them later on. For now I just have one quick thought. A potentially major obstacle for my choice of “intimacy” as a translation for śūnyatā is that the word ‘intimacy’ does more, especially on an emotional level, than merely state a lack of a certain quality (non-intimacy, lack of interpersonal connection, isolation – to use psychologically-oriented descriptions), but states a positive condition (more fitting, perhaps, of pratītyasamutpāda, in a way) generally considered to imply familiarity, emotional connection, love… For example, we might choose to say, again focusing on people, that śūnyatā only tells us that I am not a certain way, implying that I am “made up” of networks of matter, of cultural significations and norms, intimate and non-intimate relationships, and so on. Intimacy, on the other hand, is a quality I ascribe to certain relationships: my girlfriend, family, close friends. But this latter fact is actually an extremely curious aspect of śūnyatā, even if an implicit one (about which I’ll have to do more pondering and research). How so? Well, it may be (philosophically) easy to deny me any isolated existence, any from-my-own-side-ness. But it is impossible, it seems to me, to deny that my conventional sense of self is rooted on networks of relations that exist, and that, even more significantly, those relations are not equal in determining what we all conventionally agree to call me. Now, those relations, too, cannot be said to exist permanently or in isolation. Thus the streams and networks with which I am bound up are shifting in relation to one another – day to day, even moment to moment. The “me” I am at any given moment is bound up not only with the streams of matter, consciousness, and relationship that have led me to that particular moment, but also with the specific (even if somewhat unspecifiable) network of relations from and in response to which I am acting.

My contention, finally, is that śūnyatā is implicated in everyday life, that understanding śūnyatā in a significant way entails understanding what role it plays in how we function in our everyday lives. In that sense, intimacy seems like a fitting and fittingly challenging translation. I am, for example, closer with Sarah partly because my relationship with her is, we can say, more intimately bound up with my everyday sense of self than is, say, my relationship with the person from whom I bought a loaf of gluten-free bread this morning. Further, there was also a degree of intimacy, in that moment of buying bread, with the baker that was of greater significance (in an everyday sense) than whatever sense in which my life and the baker’s are “bound up,” say, every other day of our respective lives. This suggests that at the very least in an everyday sense śūnyatā does not suggest the truism that “everything is connected” – or, at least, it doesn’t suggest that we say this if that’s where we wish to start and stop. It’s more complex than merely that it all, that we all are connected. How our connections work, how they connect with other connections and finally do in some sense entail a kind of “everything is connected,” is worthy of serious thought. ‘Intimacy,’ the term, already suggests relationship (which I think is true philosophically of the concept śūnyatā), but it also already suggests a potential for closeness and distance of relationships. This, it seems to me, surely fits with our psychological experiences, with our everyday experiences, and, if I had the time to yammer on infinitely, I’d want to say it also gibes with what we might want to call the “ultimate” or “absolute” perspective – but of that I’ll just have to think (and write!) another day. I think this has been a long enough “quick thought,” don’t you? Plus, I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself into quite enough trouble….