Nothing That Has to Be Done // 3.20.18

Five stories:

—A frog is set in a pot of water, and the water set to a boil. Soon, the water gets uncomfortably warm, and the frog jumps out of the pot.

—Eileen Simpson wrote that when she was married to John Berryman he would sometimes leave to see Delmore Schwartz, saying, on his way out the door, "I am off to Cambridge, to show my new poem to God."

—A friend recently went on vacation, and as he is not connected in any especially modern way to the rest of the world—he has a landline, and checks his email at the library—he emailed a few people to inform them he'd be away. A sparse email, but two lines stood out:

There's nothing that has to be done
I don't even feel like doing this


—A blind man stands on a ladder, grasping for hours at where he believes must be the next rung until finally, fed up, he climbs back down the ladder.

—Another man, not blind this time, gets home from a construction job, where his partner inquires, "Why'd you leave? Did you not like it there?"

"No, I finished."

"But, was it not nice? Weren't there lovely people? Why didn't you stay?"

"I...There's nothing more to do. It's done."

———

So anyways, I am leaving New York.

The Butcher // 3.13.18

My recent obsession with Taoism, and particularly with Chuang Tzu, the ancient sage, has perhaps gotten out of hand. Over Christmas I read Burton Watson's translation of selected writings of Chuang Tzu. A week or so ago I finished Thomas Merton's The Way of Chuang Tzu, a selection of his favorite sayings he edited together from various translations. And a few nights ago I started David Hinton's full translation. (On deck after Hinton is James Legge, if the fire's still burning.)

The parable that has been on my mind most of late is that of the butcher who follows the Tao: he tells of good butchers who cut their meat and have to replace their knives every year. Then there are the poor butchers, who go through a knife a month; they hack and saw at the meat and make a mess of the whole event. But the Taoist butcher simply allows his knife to find its way, it follows the Tao, and the butcher has kept the same knife for nineteen years, still sharp as new.

I find in my writing, I have at times hacked and sawed, or just cut and slashed, no matter, at some point the "knife" dulls, and I need a new one. Then there is that rare writing that is no-writing, accomplished accidentally, in which the way is simply found, no energy is expended.

Ambition destroys that no-writing, compels me to a writing that I cannot accomplish, one that requires hacking and sawing, absent of grace, replete with struggle. It is a fight with the world, following my own (piss poor) way.

Recently a dear friend shared with me another Taoist parable about two fish: the first appears motionless, is contemplating a pebble in the creek bed, and so is straining with all their might against the current. The second fish exerts no effort at all, and so is carried about by the water, wherever the current takes it. "They're both following the Way."

And so, perhaps am I, and the correct pose is one I am incapable of (as I have mentioned previously), that of gratitude.

Detail, Mirage // 3.8.18

In his introduction to The Elements of Drawing, my copy of which, this morning, I spilled iced coffee all over, John Ruskin, writing about the instruction of the young artist, says, "I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw."

I don't know why I'm reading The Elements of Drawing, except Louis Zukofsky's biographer Mark Scroggins keeps (kept?) a blog called Culture Industry or Kulture Industrie, in which he betrays a deep and wide obsession with the work of Ruskin, and as I like both Zukofsky and Scroggins, I presume I may also enjoy Ruskin.

I used to draw a lot as a child, various cartoons, pictures of men with swords, and whatever else I cared to. These days I really only draw sadsack self-portraits while I'm at work (see above), and have given up my childhood dreams of being a cartoonist, or comic book artist, or police sketch artist. I've also given up the firefighter dream; I volunteered at a fire department in high school for a little while and learned it wasn't for me.

These days, I just read and write, and sell books, and buy books, and eat chicken korma, and spill iced coffee, and chain smoke mentholated cigarettes, and try to figure out if what I'm doing is worth doing, if I'm writing because I am actually able to write well enough to someday be paid for the work, or if I have only the temperament, and not the ability, and I should learn a trade, or sell out to some startup or another.

I'm getting off topic. I don't have my commonplace book on me (thank God, it'd be covered in cold brew), but there's a Zukofsky quote from Prepositions that echoes Ruskin, that goes something like, "Writing is the detail, not the mirage, of seeing." Wait, I've googled the quote, it goes, "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody." Which means, I assume, that writing fails when it attempts mimesis, and succeeds in explication of some inner or outer reality. No, I think LZ put it better than my sum-up.

I know not how to explicate any outer reality, I can neither draw nor write lovely description, but I feel like I've got an okay handle on detailing inner reality, though my own is fairly predictable, self-loathsome and unsure. The downside is that writing fiction becomes an exercise not in plot, but in putting my own thoughts into the minds of characters, dialogue is near-impossible, and my stories become the memoirs of young men very much like myself. Alas, alack.

No conclusions, but if you'd like to read a perfect short story, track down It was by Zukofsky, it is ever so lovely.

Afraid of the Dark // 2.24.18

At times I consider returning to school for a graduate degree, the most popular idea heretofore has been to pursue an MFA in creative writing, poetry or something. There are two major camps of opinion on the MFA, the first being that they are a great opportunity to get to know one's contemporaries, to make invaluable connections, and to get through ten years of crappy work in two or three years. The opposing camp holds that MFA programs are assembly lines for the homogenization of taste, they kill any chance of authentic work, and they are out-and-out scams.

So I'm conflicted. The other path would be to pursue an MA in some tangential interest, so that my path as a writer is not defined by the program, but they might inform each other. The options there are English or French Lit, or, I don't know, I don't have a lot of interests, maybe whatever Barry Ahearn teaches at Tulane, if I could also ask him about knowing Hugh Kenner.

Or I could go to seminary, I guess.

A great appeal of college is the experience I had with one of my professors, Alissa Wilkinson, with whom I'm pretty sure I took a class every semester at King's but one. Because I am generally a bored ass, I tended to do two things with all my college papers: attend to the assignment, and also attempt some other conceit, like my paper on Vonnegut in which I listed every member of my family and admitted my fear of the dark. She was kind enough to grade me on both of these counts, and several times I got back my work with her note attached, "I get what you're trying to do, but this is lazy."

So now in civilian life, I have been writing still, except without external assignment and without some professor required to read my work and tell me about it. Nor do I have any particular threat of danger if I do not produce work, except the emotional wringer I will put myself through (note: I put myself through it either way, actually).

I have some things I'm working on, I'd like to put together another chapbook this year, and I have an ongoing project of unknown scope or size, it is scattered through iPhone notes, notebooks, and files on my laptop. But all in all, the stakes seem low, and it seems I have no one at present I risk disappointing.

There is a Christian joke that goes something like, if the people in your life don't know you're a Christian, golly, don't tell them! The idea being that if it is not obvious, then it is not true. Application: perhaps if my writing were enough to prompt unsolicited comments and suggestions, I'd be on the right track, and no one getting that feedback genuinely has to worry about asking for it. But I do. I am unable to be satisfied in my knowledge of myself, it is abysmal. So, I don't know. I could go to seminary, I guess.

Bleak Rocks // 2.16.18

Sometimes I remark to my friends that I have no friends, which often they get onto me for, and well they should, it is not a nice thing to say to one's friends. It is faster, however, than saying that there are few if any people in my daily life who I could believe I have disclosed myself to in any meaningful way, and who have disclosed themselves to me. Many of my acquaintances know the things about me that I tell everyone, few if any know the things I tell no one.

(Before the angry emails, I know I'm splicing these commas when I do it, if that makes you feel any better. If not, perhaps the emails will at least be directed more efficiently.)

This desire for self-disclosure manifests in a desire at times for a romantic relationship, as this is a bill of goods advertised and sold as an easy shortcut to know another well. The desire is also accounted for by the attempts to contact the God that is the native of these bleak rocks.

This blog, also, is a similar exercise. Frustrated by those who refuse to participate in normal conversations, who insist on talking about crap no one but them cares about, but knowing I also have these defects, knowing I may lose it if I never talk about my particular interests, I started writing here. The conversation here is voluntary, one can leave at any moment without fear of violating some social convention.

But perhaps the disclosure of myself here—which is not complete, which is performative, is so much more salable than the content of my notebooks—will reach in some way to another, will do some of the work, and will, importantly, risk very little.

I could, and should, if the project is self-disclosure and discovery of sympathetic others, write more honestly, upload the notes from my journal which are more representative, less presentable. I don't know if I will. Or how to conclude this.

Reading List // 2.8.18

My New Year's Resolution has been two-fold: first, to keep a list of every book I finish this year, and second, to, by year's end, become the sort of person who will not post that list on any social media platforms.

I know already how I will behave if I share the list. Every time someone likes the post I will return to it, read my list again and imagine how that person reacted to each item. I will constantly recheck the log of likes. I will wonder if this or that person, who liked the post, has unwittingly betrayed their infatuation with me, and if perhaps the two of us will be married someday, and if we might hyphenate our last names, and whose name might go first, and I will consider which arrangement sounds best for both our names. Such is my neurosis.

But also I must decide not to share the list or it will screw up my reading all year; I will read short books for numbers, big pretentious books for the imagined glory this will bring me. And all for maybe four Twitter hearts.

The issue is I'm a narcissist, who checks the list anyways, and considers what people would think of it, and I lambast myself for reading so slowly, or for having wasted time rereading The Restaraunt at the End of The Universe. I'm trying to impress myself, and this is just as bad, perhaps worse, because I know how I react, I do not get to imagine nice things. (I lament that where should have once grown humility, I have instead something more like self-hatred.) I actually have no idea what benefit this list is bringing me.

I share all this, one, because I haven't blogged in a few days, and I am all-out on affirmation (if you see me at times posting on Instagram more often than usual, you can tell I'm feeling neglected (I always Instagram far too often directly after break-ups)). And two, because I have found that sharing my neuroses is at times a useful strategy for ridding myself of them. Worth a shot.

Jesus-Fiction // 1.28.18

My last semester of college I took a course on St. Thomas Aquinus with Peter Kreeft, an intensive which I was largely not present for, either mentally or physically, depending on the day. When I did involve myself, I tended to enjoy the subject matter, and, while I likely entirely missed the point (perhaps to learn Thomism from an experienced Thomist), I did amuse myself by raising my hand at various times to offer some contradiction or another.

I remember reciting my reductio ad absurdum to Anselm's ontological argument for God's existence—the proof states that if God is defined as the greatest being one could conceive of, and it is greater to exist than to not, then poof, God exists, or something like that (Just as Pascal's Wager and its synopsis are vastly different, so also Anselm's proof and my poor-faith rendering)—I objected that obviously the greatest thing I could conceive of was that God might be a dragon, ipso ergo, God is a dragon, poof.

I know now I was violently misunderstanding Anselm's argument, and also God, and no longer believe my objection the spark of genius I once considered it. I still, however, think Anselm's formulation ridiculous, as are all arguments toward the existence or non-existence of God. As they should be, I imagine. Just as Douglas Adams's Babel fish disappeared God in a puff of logic, so does (I imagine) any outer proof of God diminish the exigent need for that inner path through which God is so often found, not as concept but as creator, parent, companion, friend.

A possible objection to this inner method comes from W. Norris Clarke's The One and the Many: "This Inner path reaches God as my ultimate Good and Goal, but not immediately as the Source of all being, the full notion of God. Hence it must be completed by the Cosmic Path to be philosophically adequate, though an individual may be satisfied by the Inner Path alone."

I have two replies in different directions: first, Clarke is allowing a non-metaphysician their belief in God, but only for a moment, then immediately reverts to his natural mode, supposing that the one who can suppose God from an inner journey is then incapable of extrapolating God to the rest of the universe without coming to Clarke for Thomistic training to remedy this terrible lack. My second objection is simply that he is not accounting for the solipsists, who need only God and their own selves, and will be alright without other people, especially the metaphysicians, except for amusement, to frustrate those not-others with their ardent cosmic loneliness.

All this, of course, is not what I intended to write about, but instead another remark of Kreeft's, whose end in saying so I cannot remember nor divine: that it is impossible to write good fiction about Jesus. I raised my hand and brought up Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ, and was promptly waved off. I can't come up with any good Thomist reason why it would be necessarily true that Jesus fiction is always bad, and I'm pretty sure I enjoyed The Last Temptation. I've not yet read Christopher Moore's Lamb, nor Phillip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, though both have come highly recommended to me.

But recently I've come across two attempts, one is Guy Davenport's "And" published in A Table of Green Fields, and the second is the photo above, a prose poem by James Tate sent to me by Niall Power (by the way, Fall Risk has been published).

It is unfortunate that Kreeft is unable to enjoy good Jesus-fiction. I suspect he also might not enjoy this bit of Kreeft-fiction, a piece from my senior project, the one that sparked all the rest of the project, and one I still enjoy:


Peter Kreeft

The professor who can’t deliver a joke to save his life, so he polls the class, “Have I told you the one about the philosopher and the zoo?” and if the class does not respond with an affirmation, he call on his TA to tell the joke, because the TA knows all his jokes, and is actually funny.