Dylan vs. Saint Augustine

November 18, 2010


Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)


In fact, from the moment a man begins to exist in this body which is destined to die, he is involved all the time in a process whose end is death.  For this is the end to which the life of continual change is all the time directed, if indeed we can give the name of life to this passage towards death.  There is no one, it goes without saying, who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year…

City of God – Book XIII, Chapter 10:     The Life of Mortals:  Should it be Called Death?

Here’s a link to Bob Dylan doing his song, I Dreamed I saw Saint Augustine.

The meaning of life

August 24, 2009

And on a related note, this.

Magical Textual Tour

August 1, 2009

the primitive reptile within

Now for something completely different.  A tour round my head, by way of text.  I have collected [mostly] pithy quotes, ones that penetrate to the center of life, that I used to include as tags on my email.  I stopped because I figured they didn’t go with my “professional” personna.  Here goes:

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville


And how can you bring it home to them? By an inspiration? By a vision? A dream? Brothers! People! Why has life been given you? In the deep, deaf stillness of midnight, the doors of the death cells are being swung open–and great-souled people are being dragged out to be shot. On all the railroads of the country this very minute, right now, people who have just been fed salt herrings are licking their dry lips with bitter tongues. They dream of the happiness of stretching out one’s legs and of the relief one feels after going to the toilet. In Orotukan the earth thaws only in summer and only to the depth of three feet—and only then can they bury the bones of those who died during the winter. And you have the right to arrange your own life under the blue sky and the hot sun, to get a drink of water, to stretch, to travel wherever you like without a convoy. So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how your are imprinted in their memory!

But the convoy guards stroke the black handles of the pistols in their pockets. And we sit there, three in a row, sober fellows, quiet friends.
The Gulag Archipelago I,Alexander Solzhenitsyn


When people asked him how he spent his time, he replied that he was a “respirateur,” a breather…
Reported of Marcel Duchamp


Don Quixote coming to the squire, whispered in his ear, “Heark ye, Sancho; since you would have us believe what you say,touching the things you saw in heaven, I desire the like credit from you, with regard to those things I saw in the cave of Montesinos. That’s all.”
Don Quixote, Cervantes


I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.
Talking WWIII Blues , Bob Dylan


I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysées.
Stendahl, The Red and the Black


I have often said that the chief cause of man’s unhappiness is his being unable to sit quietly in his room.
Pascal, Pensées


The three requirements for happiness are selfishness, stupidity, and good health, but without stupidity, the others are useless.


The most honorable thing we can say of a man is that he does not understand the court; there is scarcely a virtue we do not imply when saying this.
La Bruyère


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!
Melville, Moby Dick


Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I …Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?
Melville, Moby Dick


The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the  understanding …that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.
Lionel Trilling from Introduction to Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet


The artist is not a special kind of man; each man is a special kind of artist.
Jean Gimpel from Meister Eckhart


Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production.
Winston Churchill


The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world.  Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed.
The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein
1984, George Orwell


But then, only those who decline to scramble up the career  ladder are interesting as human beings.  Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.
The Gulag Archipelago III


All the problems which tease and tormet men who have been free we solve with a single click of the tongue…”Things have been worse!”
The Gulag Archipelago III


The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities


I can no longer sit back and allow terrorist infiltration, terrorist indoctrination, terrorist perversion and the international terrorist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids-
General Jack D. Ripper


Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven
Marlowe, Dr. Faustus


…instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.
Thoreau, Walden

Recollected in tranquility

July 31, 2009


Over at Troutsky’s blog, I ran into a blogger named KulturCritic who is concerned that we, human beings, that is, have lost something valuable from our paleolitithic kin-relationship days and are the slaves of our own creation, the time-production-history schtick.  I like to make fun of him for being a wild-eyed utopian, but I share a bit of his sensibility, as any reader of my posts on the “International Work Machine” can tell.  Well, I found myself feeling more sympatico with his posts as I walked home from work on the sidewalks of lower Manhattan yesterday.

Wordsworth thought of  poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.”  I am no poet, so what can I do to communicate my occasional epiphanies?  Should I bother, or will I simply produce some tired, trite prose?  Brace yourself…

Why does anyone do anything, I often ask myself.  All the effort people expend, physical and emotional, on stuff, things I just can’t invest in.  People want to build something, or accumulate something, which is a sort of building, building a pile.  Money, power, sex, a string of lovers, an organization at your beck and call, an enormous portfolio of funds?  In the end…

What do they do with it?  How does it make them feel?  How would it make me feel?  You can only buy so much, and one thing at a time.  Eat one dinner, drink one wine, make love to one woman at a time.  (Even a menage requires attention to one at each separate moment.) When all is available to you, is there any thrill in acquisition?  When we grow old and feeble, do we look back on our glory days as manager-honcho and think, “Those were great days, they made me..,” what???  It just passes away.  It’s as if it never happened.

So, as Pascal might have pointed out, everything we do to accumulate is based on the illusion that things, in our lives, do accumulate, that there is more than the fleeting moment.  Really, everything we do is just motion and action to pass the time of day, divertissement, to make the trip from birth to death more pleasant.  Just as we might, if we care, try to make the lives of our pet dogs and cats pleasant.

This is no cause for despair or sadness – it’s just how it is.  Things like culture, art, literature, philosophy, which some see as having transcendent value are simply more “entertainments.” Most people live without them.  That is, everyone has culture, but not high culture, and what is culture in the general sense, other than a framework for helping us get through the day?

We might as well recognize this, and when we do, most things in our world seem pretty shallow and stupid, and what’s left to hang onto is the other people around us, the similarly lost souls, drifting on the sea of time, mindless of its true nature.  So we might as well be nice to one another.  We might as well expend our mental energy on fathoming the minds around us, instead of planning ahead, scheming, working, and building silly intellectual systems that pretend that there is some ultimate meaning to any of our ideas.  The future does not matter, in most essentials, it’s like the past.  The basic structure of life never changes.  Progress, or history in that sense, is a mistaken idea.

Is it easy to think these thoughts when I am comfortable and well fed?  Easier than being poor in this world, certainly.  But long ago, those ancient humans for whom acquiring food, clothing and shelter was not so simple…Maybe these thoughts came more easily to them since it was so obvious what was important.  Maybe the complexity we have created for ourselves has made it harder, globally, to think these thoughts.

Well, that’s what I thought, anyway, although it seemed more important at the time.  And below, you will find links to some related posts of mine, if you have more time to waste:

Turn the Crank

July 11, 2006

That’s what we all do, isn’t it? Turn the crank, keep the system going, economically and biologically. Just like ants in their colonies, or termites in their ‘apartment’ complexes on the savanah. We think we know what we are doing, but we are just working to keep it all going. We have our little cranks, and we turn them until we drop dead. Sort of like those hamsters in cages. A Zen way of seeing this might be that it is just so, and the enlightened one knows it to be that way in his gut. I tend towards the more western-pessimist cum cynic interpretation. We all turn the crank of our little cog in the great big International Work Machine (IWM) because we have learned that we have no choice. Or think we don’t. Or do we? What are we supposed to do anyway?

Pascal’s argument with the ‘philosopher’ intellectuals of his days was just this point of wisdom of the common people, the mass, the crowd, on whom the educated looked down their noses. He said, in not so many words, “You think you are so smart to question all the conventions of the world, but you pretty much accept them when it comes to daily life. The common folk are way ahead of you. They know there’s no escape, so they accept it without illusion or intellectualizing. You pretend you have discovered something.”

Yes, hmmm…I guess mountains are just mountains, clouds are just clouds…Meanwhile, so what if we are all turning our crank?

I sat in a Japanese restaurant tonight listening to some guy next to me whooping with joy as he ate, expostulating, “This is some kick-ass wassabi!” To me he sounded like a vulgar idiot, but who is more the fool of the two of us…at that moment at least?  He, who sounded like a numbskull?  Or I, who waste my time wondering which of us is more an idiot, rather than just enjoying my food?

The place had two fish tanks with brilliantly colored fish swimming around, but the two tanks were identical. They were digital projections. Is life imitating art here? D’Esseintes might have liked it, and gotten one for his room with the flowers he bred to look like fakes. Is this an important development in the kitsch wave of destruction, or just another form of entertainment or decor? The latter I think.

We just have too much, or so much, free time. Struggling to survive focuses the mind wonderfully. No need to meditate on the meaning of it all, it’s quite clear. But surplus food and time brings culture and the meaning of that all is something that we create, that is not given to us. (Not one of les donnés, the ‘givens’, the datums, which Duchamp told us about.) We have to think about the meaning of it all, and we do, all of us. Some find the meaning in making more money, being powerful, buying stuff, collecting stuff, having sex with lots of partners, eating, and so on. Some dismal philosophers see this as a fleeing from the awareness of death, but I see it as a search for meaning. Nobody wants to accept that all we’re doing is turning a crank. If you do accept it then what is there that means anything? Just your loved ones, your friends, and your hobbyhorses which you indulge in the full knowledge that they are meaningless in themselves (stamps, coins, baseball cards…?!) but are a means to ease the passage of time as we turn, turn, turn the crank.

Or, you can chose to deny it all and follow some religion. Those people always have an answer.

Without God, All or Nothing…

February 5, 2006

In the novel, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters exclaims, “Without God, everything is permitted!” This is the traditional view of believers, that faith in God gives order and structure to our ethical world, such as it is, and that without God, humans will just degenerate into a pack of howling, selfish, criminal beasts.Wait a minute…sounds like a description of much of what passes for humanity today! Well, even the great sceptic Voltaire sort of believed it – isn’t that the meaning of his quip, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him?” Why would it be necessary, if not to keep the social order in reasonable shape. That was something about which Voltaire was quite conservative, indeed.

I would like to take a leaf from Richard Dawkins and propose that, on the contrary, the mirror proposition to Karamazov’s is true: “With God, anything is permitted.” That is, it is the belief in God that permits and sanctions the beheading of kidnapped non-combatants, the flying of airliners into skyscrapers to kill thousands of innocent people, the mass murder of dissident sect members or those who profess a completely different religion, and so on.

On the other hand, it is the acceptance of the notion of limited human knowledge, human rights, tolerance of minorities, and the right to speech that restrains people from these barbaric activities.

So, which culture breeds permissiveness? Humanist secularism or deistic faith?

Into the Real World

November 22, 2004

Day by day we become more familiar with our view of things, but microscopes are a good antidote to that. I had one as a kid, but it wasn’t very good, so now that I’m a grownup with my own cash, I bought an educational model on eBay – a really good deal! The optics are excellent, and I can clearly veiw all the little critters that I wanted to see when I was young.

This specimen here (photo by others) is a rotifer. It’s a multicellular organism, and I happen to have a thriving colony of them in the tank that houses my son’s African Clawed Frog, aka “Killer.” Note the fuzzy things on the top of the main stalk – those are twin ‘propellers’ that are always whirring and sucking food into the thing’s mouth. It can also lurch, leach-like, about in its micro-world.

This is the real world, where most of the biosphere’s mass exists – in the micro-realm, out of our notice. Actually, this rotifer is already pretty darn high up the evolutionary scale since it is multi-cellular. Looking at the thriving protist-eat-protist world that exists in every drop of water can give you a different perspective on life on earth. As conservationists, we tend to focus on the big, spectacular animals such as lions, tigers, and whales. But they, beautiful and deserving of our support as they are, aren’t what make the world go ’round. As philosophers plumbing the meaning of life, we should think more about bacterial and protozoa, and less about homosapiens. We might get our ideas out of their current rut.