The Breath

January 25, 2014

A precious thing, breath...
From Raw Deal:

I always said I like talking to a sharp guy.  You don’t waste breath.  Precious thing, breath.

When people think of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, they think of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but the soundtrack is suffused with the sound of breathing, which is what I think of.  The breathing in the space suits, in the space pod, as Dave decommissions HAL9000, and in the final scene, as the old man Dave meets his end.

Russian Satori

December 25, 2010

I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace.  The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat.  Is that the real story?  Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre?  When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.

Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story.  They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx.  Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death.  First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded.  In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes.  He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.

He is barefoot as the weather is still mild.  He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete.  This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat.  A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night.  They are keeping him prisoner!  Him, and his immortal soul!  They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him!  Satori, the zen enlightenment,  comes at odd times.

The Sailor’s True Binnacle

November 29, 2009

Moby Dick, or The Whale tells, among many other things, the story of Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of a great white sperm whale named Moby Dick.  The whale chewed off his leg some years past, and he is going to get even or die trying.  Who was Ahab?  As with almost everything else in the book, there are biblical overtones, usually Old Testament ones.

The Reign of Ahab
Kings 1: 16

And in the thirty and eighth year of Asa king of Judah began Ahab the son of Omri to reign over Israel: and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty and two years.

And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD above all that were before him. And it came to pass, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jerobo’am the son of Nebat, that he took to wife Jez’ebel the daughter of Ethba’al king of the Zido’ni-ans, and went and served Ba’al, and worshipped him.

And he reared up an altar for Ba’al in the house of Ba’al, which he had built in Samaria.

Ahab married Jezebel, a foxy pagan princess from one of the neighboring non-Hebrew tribes that the Jews were always slaying and feuding with, and he was seduced into her ungodly ways.  He listened to false prophets, and imprisoned or executed the true ones, largely at the urging of Jezebel. The Lord was not pleased, and he dealt harshly with Ahab, his sons, and Jezebel, who ended up being shredded and devoured by dogs as predicted by Elijah.  Naturally, the crew of Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, regarded him a bit warily.  Is he mad?  Money talks in the end:  Ahab nails a Spanish coin to the mast and gives the men a pep talk.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!

Being many things, the book is a meditation on death, and life, and the relationship between the two.  The entire crew dies in the pursuit of Moby, who shatters the Pequod as the whalers pursue him at the end.  Only Ishmael survives to tell the tale, quoting the bible, in this case, Job:

… and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

In the midst of calm and peace, Melville can find chaos and terror, as in this passage about standing watch in the crow’s nest, high above the vast sea…

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

… and amidst chaos and carnage, he can find peace and the still point at the center of the universe, as in this passage where Ishmael describes being in the midst of a enormous pod of whales which the men are busily slaughtering – the water is remarkably clear, and looking down into it, he sees whales copulating, being born, nursed…

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm. I like that line.  Amidst the torrent of events, there is a still center.  This leads us to today’s treat for you, oh reader!  A recovered fragment from the second known text, The Sailor’s True Binnacle, in the mostly lost series, The Wine of Life, authored by the unknown thinker, Lichanos, from whom I have taken my blog nom de plume.  [N.B:  The text is not to be confused with the “sweet tract” written by Becky Sharp’s relation in Vanity Fair by Thackeray.  That one is entirely fictitious!]

A binnacle is a casing for a navigation compass which is non-magnetic, and allows the compass to move freely and to point the way.  It is mounted on gimbals so that it can remain steady and horizontal despite the tossing and rolling of the ship, and always pointed to north.  Calm center, within the storm.

Pauvre reader!  O poor lecteur!

How our Souls are all pitched and tossed about like the frailest shallop or jerry-built wherry upon the boiling waves!  What Trials we have known struggling against current and headwind, seeking only to be Sturdy Helmsmen as we pass between the Devil and the deep blue sea!

The Sailor guiding his vessel is blessed with two articles with which he may ply his rudder:  his binnacle and his compass.

[text lost]…Yet still the Gnashing, the Lamentation:  “Where is our binnacle? Where is our compass? The Answer to these soulful queries has been the quest of many great men, both Good and Evil.

[text lost]… Bewilderment, begone! … [text lost]… The mystery of the True Binnacle stands revealed.  To the compass of our minds is the Body our Binnacle, standing in its organic fleshiness impervious to the Magnetism which seeks etermally to deflect our inner Director from its true course.  Be not skeptical nor materialist, for Mind/Body are one, and through our Binnacle/Bodies are we led and do lead.  Truth once again arises from out of unity of Mind/Body, so that pleasures owing to one are not denied to the other:  they work in tandem, a mighty engine of enlightenment propelling our dynamo sense onward to that final effulgent union with the ground of all …[text lost]

Hi-ho! me buck-o’s, through our skin we will absorb the World and revel in the Universe, sailing through the placid lake of the firmament to our own Safe Haven.  Our Compass shall rock on its Gimbals of Life, and we will drink, as sailors we all are and are all wont to do, aye! we will drink the Wine of Life.


Cruisin’ with Immanuel Kant

May 4, 2009

Petra von Kant crying bitter tears

Wow! How’s this for an introduction to the great thinker!


from the Introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason (Penguin Classics) Marcus Weigelt (Editor, Introduction, Translator), Max Muller (Translator)

The Unbearable Pain of Mindfulness

April 6, 2008

The goal of enlightenment, mindfulness, being-here-now, is much sought after these days…perhaps always. Many associate it with zen or other varieties of Buddhism, and eastern religion. It is, I think, generally discussed as a state that partakes of bliss – certainly a cessation of earthly pain. Odd, then, that it is so hard to attain; that our minds and beings seem to actively frustrate our attainment of the state. Perhaps we don’t want enlightenment?

I am beginning to suspect that mindfulness is so difficult to achieve not only because it is difficult per se, but because we actively flee from it, just as some flee from love that they claim they want. Like love, mindfulness can bring pain, terrific pain?

I am lying on my bed – I have no obligations – I am free to do what I want. I need think of nothing – do nothing. My free time, free to attend to the moment, appreciate the here and now…My mind is racing like a formula one car engine, but not in gear, a high pitch scream – – “What shall I do?” Most times, I would dive into a book, do some chores, clean, watch a movie, kill time surfing the Net, read the paper, but at this moment, I don’t feel drawn to any of that. Just sit and attend, observe yourself observing the universe…and what happens? A high pitched whine as of an engine running at full-tilt without load…will it explode?

To simply spend such times attending to the what-is is so painful, so disorienting, so explosive in its energy, the tendency is to rush to fill the time with something more trivial that will get the mind in gear and discharge its energy safely. Perhaps that is the real difficulty in mindfulness. Not that we cannot stop the incessant chatter of our minds no matter how much we want to, say we want to, but that we do not want to!

The alternative is to be left naked, still, simply sitting and observing the nature of what-is at the moment. The light filtering in from the window. The complexity and simplicity of the tree branches. The calming geometry of my room. The rebus of my history that is the clutter of knick knacks around me. The then and the now…The unfathomable indifference of everything to the trivial thing that is me. The weight of the universe pressing down on a single point on my head where my mind perceives it and comprehends it…without a reciprocating care or concern. It’s too much to bear!! Where is that crossword puzzle!!

Anatomy of the “Dismal Science”

February 9, 2008


Reading Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution got me curious about him. A friend of liberty? He describes the epochal event in 700 close print pages of exciting narrative. A stormy, breathless, you-are-there quality, with dashes of sarcasm and much heavy irony, makes it fascinating reading. What did he mean by writing On Heroes and Hero-Worship? No, he was no friend of democracy, liberty, and the common man, though he did begin as a radical. In fact, he seems to have been a rather tortured intellect, maybe a tormented soul.

While thumbing through his life, however, I came upon this interesting tidbit about him and his coinage, perhaps his most famous, i.e., economics is “the dismal science.” It can easily be interpreted as a protest against the pessimistic, inhumane, and souless discipline of a “science” devoted to money. Well, think again…

Everyone knows that economics is the dismal science. And almost everyone knows that it was given this description by Thomas Carlyle who was inspired to coin the phrase by T. R. Malthus’s gloomy prediction that population would always grow faster than food, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

While this story is well-known, it is also wrong, so wrong that it is hard to imagine a story that is farther from the truth. At the most trivial level, Carlyle’s target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus’s predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics “the dismal science.”

The Secret History of the Dismal Science: Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century
by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart

The image at the top is a medallion produced by the abolitionist industrialist, Josiah Wedgewood. JW was good friends with that practitioner of the dismal science and fellow abolitionist, Adam Smith. (Darwin was married to one of JW’s family, and was also an abolitionist, as well as being about 100 years ahead of his time on the question of race. Not only was he against slavery, not only did he think that Africans were the same (species) as Europeans, but he was actually friends with some.) This children of The Enlightenment – that fearsomely evil, anti-moral, godless, soul-destroying ideology – seem like pretty good guys compared to Thomas Carlyle, romantic apologist for dictatorship and slavery.

Still, he was a pretty nice looking fellow, don’t you think?


Heaven & Hell: Zen Tale

October 10, 2007


Based on a Zen mondo – an arrogant warrior is struck by enlightenment when he leasts expects it.

Watch it here.

Lisbon Redux

December 27, 2004

News of a great catastrophe, brought on by an oceanic earthquake and tsunami. The same magnitude as the one that hit Lisbon in the late 18th century and prompted the famous exchange between Voltaire and Rousseau about pessimism, optimism, God, meaning, etc. [Read J.J.’s letter here.]

From Voltaire’s poem about the destruction of Lisbon:

But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?

And this from today’s newspaper:

…the underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth’s surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them….. [These forces] demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is.

Bravo! That’s what I call secularism with a capital ‘S’! Three cheers for the Enlightenment! Up with Voltaire. And as for you Mr. J.J. Rousseau, keep your pollyanna fantasies!

Well…, he wasn’t so bad in his letter to Mr. V. He just felt that Voltaire was too, er…negative. Didn’t give one reason to hope. As he said:

If it is not always a misfortune to die, it is only very rarely one to have lived.

Does anyone write that way anymore?! Alas, no.