Monday, November 30, 2009

Rum River Flat

Yesterday was a bit dark. We decided to "get out of the house" and went up to the Central Rum River Park, near Ramsey. Had a nice hike through the woods and returned to find we had a flat tire. A young couple came by walking their dogs and offered to help. He was tall and had an oblong head and an open smile, she was short and pale with beautiful straight black hair. I had already gotten the lug nuts off the tire but the tire itself wouldn't budge from the hub.The guy (who reminded me of my cousin Rick) helped me yank on the tire without success and suggested rolling the car back a bit to free the wheel--also to no effect. He finally said with a laugh, "I've changed a lot of tires but I've never seen anything like this."

Then his wife, who was lingering on the grass with the dogs, said, "Do you have triple A?" and I said, "Gee, actually we do."
"Why don't you call them?"
"Good idea ... but we don't have a cell phone."
She had a worried look on her face, though I wasn't sure if she was worried about us and our tire, or worried about us ruining her walk...or simply incredulous to meet up with two people who were clueless and didn't seem to mind it.

"I left mine in the car," the guy said. "I have mine right here," she said.

So we call Triple-A (she had the number on her speed dial) and described our predicament. They agreed to send someone out within the hour and would call when they were five minutes away. "But if you're not there or we can't find you, we'll have to go on to the next stop."

"You're going to get a call while you're on your walk," I told the guy. "Just tell them you're still standing by the car. OK?"

"Sure," he said genially. "And we'll come by to see if you're still here before we leave the park."

There was only one road leading in to the trailhead parking lot, and once our new friends had headed off into the woods we immediately decided to walk out to the only intersection in the park to make sure the AAA guy didn't go the wrong way, end up at the canoe landing, and give us up for lost. We stood at the intersection by a marsh, looked up the hill through the woods, took a photo of some drops of water clinging to the top of a weed, and generally had a very fine time. I began to think of that intersection in Provence, in the Luberon, where Beckett allegedly conceived the idea for Waiting for Godot. And I began to wonder about the sign directing people to the picnic grounds, the landing, the horse trails, etc. It struck me as odd that one of the entries on the sign was "Canoe Campsite." We had passed the campsite on our walk--it was only available to passing canoeists. But if that were the case, why would anyone in a car need to be told where it is? (Maybe if the canoeist were meeting some of his buddies to have a big beer party?)

We'd been standing by the intersection for twenty minutes, and I was beginning to figure what we might do if the Triple-A guy didn't show. Walk six miles to the labyrinth of malls on the highway in Coon Rapids? Go over to the house of the dog-walkers, who lived ten minutes away and had offered to help us out further? (But what good would that do?)

Just then a little red car pulled up, and our new-found friends rolled down the window. "We wondered where you'd gone off to. They called us. They said they need to have your name."

"What? They already said they were coming!" He handed out the phone.

Just as we were smoothing out that litle wrinkle, a white panel truck appeared from out of the woods from the direction of the highway. AAA. Hallelujah!

Our roadside help was a bearded young man who'd recently moved out to St. Francis from Mounds View. He reminded me of a son of some friends of ours, smiling and relaxed. Two sharp swats of a sledge hammer later (delivered from the back side, with a big block of wood serving to distribute the force of the blow) and the wheel was off. Noticing that our spare was almost flat itself (I had thought it was a hard rubber tire!) he inflated it to the required 65 psi.

We drove off feeling like a million dollars. We had had an adventure and met some very nice people. I can't say that it restored my faith in humanity, because I've never lost it, but it certainly re-affirmed how eager people sometimes are to help out.

I almost feel like calling the dog-walking couple to tell them how we finally got home. (Maybe I should just call my cousin.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Montaigne, the first blogger?

Even for those of us who are self-employed, and sometimes practically idle, the day after Thanksgiving seems more like a holiday than a work day. This morning it was clear and sunny, though at this time of year even sunny days can be distinctly wan. A trip to the gym to run my obligatory three miles—the locker room is almost like a temple, with lots of people fiddling with their togs, zipping up gym bags, heading to the shower … and no one saying a word.

Back home, I begin to sift through a pile of old New Yorkers and come upon Jane Kramer’s essay, “Me Myself, and I: What made Michel de Montaigne the first modern man?” It’s an interesting subject, though I don’t much like the subtitle. It seems to me that “modern man” can be characterized as fanatical, opinionated, pig-headed, all of which were the things Montaigne especially hated and railed against in his famous Essays. He was ever-fascinated by the things we don’t know, but only think we know or feign knowing, and returned to that subject again and again. At one point he complained, with respect to the need felt by many to choose sides amid the religious strife of his day: “We are not allowed not to know what we do not know.”

But if Montaigne were nothing more than a skeptic, endlessly reiterating how little we can really know about anything, his writings would not have endured as long as they have. His essays are often about things, not merely about our ignorance of things. Just take a glance at the table of contents: “Of sadness,” “Of liars,” “How the soul discharges its passions on false objects when true ones are wanting,” “Of solitude,” “Of warhorses,” “We taste nothing pure,” “Of smells,” “Of honorary awards,” and so on. At one point he writes:

I could wish that every one would write what he knows and as much as he knows, not about one subject alone, but about all others; for one may have some special knowledge or experience as to the nature of a river or a fountain, who about other things knows what everyone knows. He will undertake, however, in order to give currency to that little scrap of knowledge, to write on the whole science of physics. From this fault may spring grave disadvantages.

Montaigne has a point here, though I’m not sure he always followed his own advice. It’s not that he went overboard in padding his observations to make them sound more authoritative, but that he knew about a great many things which he kept to himself. Kramer’s mini-bio makes it clear that Montaigne was a man of the world, serving as mayor of Bordeaux, head of an estate a day’s ride east of the city, and sometime counselor to Henry IV, the future king of France. Yet to a large degree, his essays consist of references to classical authors such as Horace and Livy, well-turned nuggets of philosophic wisdom, things he has read about the customs of other nations, and generalizations about “human nature”—a thing that he felt did not exist. There is not much that brings us into direct contact with sixteenth-century Aquitaine to be found in them.

Similarly, we might approve when he remarks, All our efforts can not so much as reproduce the nest of the tiniest birdling, its contexture, its beauty, and its usefulness; nay, nor the web of the little spider. But that being the case, we might ask ourselves why Montaigne spent so little time describing such beautiful creations.

Perhaps it's because he took an overriding interest in the "inner" aspect of things human--and himself above all else--so that details of politics, husbandry, clothing, cuisine, or his natural surrounding fell by the wayside, too mundane to relieve his persistent melancholy.

We may be thankful that Montaigne had both the leisure and the talent to bring a well-developed sense of Gallic joie de vivre to those habits and foibles of human conduct that we exhibit repeatedly without reflecting much on them. (The first modern man? Maybe Kramer is right.) He considered conversation to be the supreme art, and turned his ruminations into internal dialogues, challenging his own assertions, wandering hither and yon, holding the "chain" of thought (such as it is) together by a supple prose style that remains umatched even today, (and makes Francis Bacon, to take an example from among his contemporaries, sound like a complete blockhead.) You can open the essays to almost any page with profit and amusement. (To read more than four in a row is sometimes difficult.)

The Italian savant Benedetto Croce once wrote a book called Shakespeare : Corneille : Ariosto. That always struck me as an odd trio, though perhaps the thrust of the book was to highlight differences rather than similarities. To my mind the trio that calls out for simultaneous analysis is Shakespeare : Montaigne : Cervantes. These writers differ in temperament but are more or less equal in stature, and they stand at the peak of their respective genres. (If it were necessary to include an Italian in the group, my candidate would be Castiglione rather than Ariosto, though his chapter would be a short one.) In the introduction to the edition of the Essays put out recently by the Modern Library, Stuart Hampshire offers a different trio for consideration—Montaigne, Diderot, Stendhal—whom he describes as “the three great monuments of secular French sensibility.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Always in the Woods

Many years ago I worked at a canoe camp for a few summers. We took teenaged kids, sometimes only a few years younger than ourselves, “on the trail” for a week or two in the BWCA and occasionally further north into the wilds of North Ontario. We’d arrive back at camp worn out but exhilarated by our adventures, take a blistering sauna, enjoy a hearty meal with real meat and real potatoes, and then engage in a ceremonial evening around a fire in the camp’s oldest log structure. On one occasion my fellow counselor (we typically went out in pairs) gave an introductory speech as we sat in the dark in rickety canvas chairs with the light of the fire flickering in our faces. He concluded his little peroration to the campers with the remark, “…so wherever you go in life from this point on, you’ll always be in the woods.”

I can’t say whether it was exhaustion, the utter relaxation brought about by the food and the sauna, or the smoke from the fire, but when I heard those words, “you’ll always be in the woods,” I had to muster every bit of self-control at my disposal not to burst out laughing. The expression “in the woods” (as you probably know) has the same idiomatic sense as “out in left field.” Today we would say that someone who’s “in the woods” is essentially clueless.

That’s not what my friend meant, of course. He was trying to suggest that the experience of being in the woods affects us at an elemental level, giving us a radically different perspective on life, not through brilliant intellectual constructs but viscerally, in ways we can’t describe and seldom feel the need to. Perhaps it’s odd that I should remember that trivial event, but it’s stayed with me like a Zen koan, and I’ve even come to believe that the deepening in perspective that we derive from being outdoors is related to the condition of being clueless—in a good way. I guess the joke’s on me.

During those years when I spent my summers in the North Woods, I also worked at the Bell Museum of National History on the campus of the University of Minnesota. I’d sit on the tile floor in front of those beautiful dioramas of timber wolves, elk, and moose, surrounded by obstreperous grade school kids, one of whom would invariably raise his (or her) hand as if to ask a question, and then say, “My daddy shot one of those.”

I spent some idle hours in the museum's break room with the other guides, too, and discovered that most of them were not much like me. I eventually developed a scheme to describe the varieties of nature-enthusiasm: Some people cultivate a relationship with nature through hunting, fishing, and woodcraft; some satisfy the need to work out-of-doors through scientific research, examining pond samples or charting the growing season of the dwarf trout lily; some enthusiasts see nature largely as a playing field on which to pursue extreme sports; and some take an entirely poetic stance, exploiting nature as an environment within which to probe life’s mysteries in solitude and silence, and perhaps also as a font of metaphor for moral truth.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive, of course. It seems to me that nowadays we sometimes place too much emphasis on ecological analysis, which may leave us with the unpleasant impression that nature will do just fine—just so long as we’re not there. Only rarely do we catch wind, at parks and government-funded nature centers, of the long tradition of reverence toward nature, both poetic and metaphysical, that extends back through time from the Romantic poets of the late eighteenth-century through the Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance to the Pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient times. Not to mention the strain that reaches back in a different but perhaps more interesting direction to the Druids.

Perhaps it’s significant that the word Plato uses to describe the primordial stuff of matter actually means “wood.” (to be continued)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bright Star

The poetry of the English Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley—is the stuff that most of us put behind us when we leave college. We may remember it as being “good,” but the poems we recall tend to be the brief chestnuts rather than the meaty epics. I can still recite a few lines of Keats’s magnificent ode “To Autumn” and snatches of the Wordsworth piece that begins “Tis a beauteous evening, calm and free….” But looking back into The Eve of St. Agnes or The Prelude is likely to reinforce the impression that there are simply too many words, and quite a few of them ring false, too. It were as if, in an age before cinema explosions and steamy bedroom scenes, the best way to stir the reader’s blood was by referring to medieval legends, Greek gods, and leafy glades in cleverly rhymed iambic pentameter.

Historians tell us that to display such rapturous interest in the countryside was a new thing at that time, and it ushered in a more “natural,” personal, and deeply-felt mode of expression—hence the term Romantic poet. The stilted language of the eighteenth century gradually fell into disuse and the Greek gods eventually became less compelling too, though perhaps it’s worth noting that a half-century later, when Whitman was singing his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the New World, Tennyson, Browning, Swindberg and other dandies were still all the rage in England.

With Bright Star, Jane Campion, the director of Angel at My Table and The Piano, has given us a look at the poet Keats, and the story is so slight we are likely to wonder why she set herself that particular challenge. The film has the trappings of a BBC Jane Austen flick but not the complicated plot lines. The Regency clothing, the china on the walls, the mahogany furniture, and the bucolic landscape are all in attendance, as well as the backdrop of financial insecurity, but the story is restricted to the confines of a single semi-rural duplex, where Fanny Brawn, a talented seamstress who knows nothing about poetry, falls in love with John Keats, an enigmatic poet of little money, bad health, and virtually no reputation beyond the circle of initiates that gather from time to time to discuss things literary.

The film is told largely from Fanny’s point of view, though it might have benefited from a bigger dose of hearty masculine literary small-talk. In one scene Keats agrees to give Fanny “poetry lessons,” and the few remarks he comes up with, “Poetry is like a lake, and when the poet jumps into it, his purpose is not to swim immediately to shore, but to luxuriate in the water…” leave us wanting a little more. But it might also be argued that Amy Cornish, who plays Fanny Brawn, is a lake herself, and her ever-changing expressions—curiosity, anticipation, frustration, affection, disgust—provide us with an inexhaustible font of interest, romantic and otherwise. Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats, is diffident and wary—largely, we suppose, because his lack of prospects make it impossible for him to marry Fanny, though it may simply be that his brooding entanglement with the muse or the illness of his brother Tom make it difficult for him to cultivate other relationships. His buddy and collaborator Brown, (who is also supporting him financially) is a simpler and far coarser, but also a more animated film presence.

Campion shot the film in a modern, anti-romantic style, with lots of jump cuts and seemingly random slice-of-life scenes. Fanny’s mother is a paragon of good sense and her two young siblings wander continually in the background, largely silent but attentive to Fanny’s growing infatuation. (In fact, every time her sister “Toots” appeared on screen I could hear someone a few rows away whisper to her companion, “She’s so cute.”)

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Or so Keats said. Bright Star is a thing of beauty, though its joy is muted by the gravity of the circumstances it depicts. It gives us less entertainment value, perhaps, than the average big-budget British romance, but it has soberness and integrity—like swimming in a lake where the water is a little too cold, and the bank suddenly seems very far away.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cleaning Day

It’s a cleaning day. That rare day when idleness (or neglect of duty) builds to a peak and I begin to devote myself in earnest to dusting, straightening, emptying old folders devoted to books that are now back from the printer and out in the bookstores, while simultaneously downloading a few things from Itunes, most notably some tracks from a new CD by the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and his Colours of Jazz Orchestra. (The vocalist, an Italian woman named Diana Torto, evokes memories of the 1950s, with her Swingle Singer purity and agility.) Moving the table, I find, under a ream of typing paper and the wooden recycling box, some hand-made paper from another life that’s long since been flattened—and suddenly I want to make a hand-made book. Yes, but what would it be about? (And who would read it?)

I haul the tower from my old Gateway computer down to the basement. Why not? It isn’t connected to anything. As I’m clearing out a space for it I come upon a broadside I printed using old-fashioned “cold” type many years ago entitled “The Golden Sayings of Heraclitus.” Here are a few:

The sun is the width of a man’s foot.

Men who love wisdom should acquaint themselves with a great many particulars.

Although it is better to hide our ignorance, this is hard to do when relaxing over wine.

A man’s character is his guardian divinity.

Then the vacuum cleaner comes out of its closet. When I turn it on, orange lights appear on the handle signifying “extreme dirt.” I move the vacuum back and forth, but the lights never go out.

Daunting challenges remain—for example, to organize, label, and store all the data CDs that are lying around. But that could take hours. First I ought to thumb through the latest Daedalus catalogue which arrived in the mail a few minutes ago. It isn’t too early to order a discounted 2010 calendar, for example. I also notice a book translated by Stephen Mitchell called The Second Book of Tao, and there, on page 31, is The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro, whose work I’ve lost touch with in recent years.

Throughout this pleasant ordeal, which has gone on for hours now, I have a sneaking suspicion that I should be doing something else. Something more productive. On the other hand, as I shuffle and discard and file and rearrange, I feel that I'm looking at things that have been in my field of view for months, and actually seeing them for the first time. The experience is so strong and rich, I'm all but paralyzed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Spirit and the Self

In a recent NY Times editorial, philosophy professor Gordon Marino suggests we might benefit from refamiliarizing ourselves with Galileos of the inner world such as Soren Kierkegaard, who have been stuffed in a back-closet of antiquated ideas in an age of Twitter and Facebook. He singles out for attention a distinction cultivated by the gloomy Dane between depression and despair, and suggests, following Kierkegaard’s lead, that while the former might be a medical problem, the later was likely to be a spiritual one.

There is something to be said, I think, for the argument that when we are low, the underlying issue might be spiritual rather than medical. But I doubt whether Soren Kierkegaard would be one to shed much light on it. At any rate, Marino’s line of argument is certainly not very convincing. In fact, he inadvertently exposes the central weakness of Kierkegaard’s approach to life early on in the article, when he quotes the first few lines of Sickness Unto Death.

A human being is a spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation.

Two big problems here:
1) the spirit is not the self;
2) the self is not a relation relating itself to itself, etc. etc.

To these initial stumbles Marino almost immediately adds a third, when he cites the Dane’s definition of “human being.”

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.

This, too, is off the mark, in so far as the word “synthesis” (an abstract and tendentious concept) masks the real question: in what way are the infinite and the finite brought together in us?
But all is not lost. We might reassemble and rearrange the various phrases Kierkegaard has provided to arrive at a more convincing assertion along the following lines.

Despair is the result of too closely associating spirit with the self, of wandering off into the labyrinth of soul-wracking but empty reflections that exhaust themselves due to lack of substance. What seems to be required is to cultivate affinities and associations with the world “out there” that enliven and invigorate us.

When Marino, paraphrasing Kierkegaard, suggests that despair is “marked by a desire to get rid of the self,” which is rooted in “an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are,” we might reply that most of us don’t really know who we are most of the time. That’s part of the problem. Therefore, the suspiciously abstract question “Who am I?” might better be replaced by more specific ones such as “What do I like to do?” “Where do I fit in?” “Where does my enthusiasm lie?"

Kierkegaard is certainly right
to regard this as a spiritual issue, but not because spirit is the self. Rather it is a spiritual issue because spirit is not the self. Not quite. It is far more than the self. But we share in it, participate in it from time to time. Adventure, sports, child-rearing, church-committees, food, conversation. These (and other) activities bring us to attention, engage us, lift us up and beyond ourselves, at least momentarily.

Even to wrangle with a challenging metaphysical issue like the one we're dealing with here, following threads of inference, groping for enlightenment, can sometimes have that effect.