Finding Beauty in Dark Times

Beauty is but a flower / Which wrinkles will devour;

Brightness falls from the air; / Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye. / I am sick, I must die.

Lord, have mercy on us! 

—Thomas Nashe, “In Time of Plague” (ca. 1567-1601)

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Blackened Beauty

If, as Plato and Aristotle both declare, wisdom is born of wonder, it is likely true as well that most forms of practical and theoretical insight are delivered to us through the midwifery of human suffering or personal sacrifice. Something similar might be said of beauty. For when it appears, beauty arrives reliably by way of great challenges and accompanying anguish—whether intense, protracted, or simply unexpected.

In other words, beauty commonly emerges with an accomplice, a quiet collaborator or diligent co-conspirator. Toil and the burden of work—or travail to use an older term that is tied linguistically to torture—are entailed with nearly all pursuits aimed at creating something beautiful, including the labor of artistic and intellectual creation, the labor of athletic training, the labor of a consummated pregnancy, and the daily labor of love involving one’s friends, partners, family, and paramours.

Each activity typically bears some kind of pain into the world at the same time that it brings forth the fruit of beauty—a painting, sculpture, song, or poem; a world record or a marathon finish; a child or a book; or a supportive home and human relationships, for example. This toll is especially evident in the construction of resplendent palaces, temples, and pyramids through which thousands of lives have been forcibly sacrificed. It is evident, too, in the biographies of figures such as Van Gogh, Artaud, and Hölderlin, whose sanity was spent in pursuit of artistic contributions to posterity.

We live in very anxious times. Dark times. There is no mistaking the misery, the fear, the grief, the loss, and the death that scourges nearly every city and town across the country and world.  That truth should not be diminished or ignored.

And, yet, life somehow endures. It either flourishes in the search for a vaunted ideal and often elusive experience of the “good life” or it thrives in the form of an ongoing battle for biological existence—through struggle, survival, and living on. Life thus admits distinctions, in particular what the Greeks differentiated broadly as Βίος (bios) and Ζωή (zoe)—a specific life and life in general—though it is a conceptual divide that is complex and controversial, even among scholars.

While Plato proclaimed the ultimate unity of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, we now tend to separate these notions and spheres while perhaps worrying with other philosophers like Giorgio Agamben that during a pandemic—or “state of exception”—social life and living well are being reduced to “bare life” (la vida nuda). It is a debate worth engaging.

In the recent and contemporary world, however, beauty has fallen into disrepute, especially within modern art and postmodern aesthetics. It has been viewed widely with skeptical, suspicious, or jaundiced eyes as the focus has turned to conceptual art, experimentation, mixed media, and social or political critique, among other approaches. Beauty, we are reminded, does not belong as a property of objects themselves; it lacks objectivity. It is instead tethered solely to the human ear and individual gaze or to one’s subjective aesthetic tastes. Or so the argument goes.

If philosophy once arose through curiosity and awe and towered like a giant with a proud face and confident gaze, it is now riddled precariously with doubt, disappointment, and indecision. Its stature and status are marked by epistemological, existential, and ethical unease. Like Swift’s Gulliver, the giant can neither fully stand upright nor lie down comfortably and wait for reason or “the gods” to return and save it—and us.

So too it would seem with beauty.

I would like to maintain, however, that we—or at least many of us—still deeply need beauty or some semblance of it. We often rely on an unspoken hope that it will alight in our lives with due patience or perseverance. We may harbor an abiding, albeit secret or suppressed, belief that we can still put to use—or minimally appreciate—that which is largely useless. We nod in recognition when Nietzsche writes that “life without music would be a mistake”.

Beauty is perhaps like love in this regard.  It offers us opportunities to find meaning; a reason to persist in the face of fatigue, crisis, or inevitable defeat; and even a promise of potential joy or happiness if we are fortunate enough to be surrounded with it or blessed by it.

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Many nonhuman animals likewise seem to display, seek, and maybe even appreciate beauty as well. Among winged beings, bower birds, peacocks, and lyre birds are the cognoscenti of the “creatives” and avant-garde “artists” of a sort. In different ways, many animals deftly fashion beauty as a seductive lure for a mate, or mimic the tunes of other forest chanteuses, or spike their feathers with kaleidoscopic color to draw an admiring eye. A compelling new evolutionary theory of art locates beauty not in the capricious or culturally constructed eyes of the beholder but more deeply and innately within our brains—nature’s trick and way of acting upon us at a distance.

Other theories point outward as well toward the capacious world itself as a source of the enchanting power of beauty. It has been found in the coiled swirls and undulating curls of a serpentine line—in, for example the curves of the human body, the meandering movements of a river, or the rhythmic turns of a spiraling staircase, whirling dervish, or DNA strand.

Beauty has been located, too, in the geometric proportions and mathematical harmonies of music, the golden ratio, and classical architecture. It has been discovered in the confluence of function and form—what a thing does and the way or style that it does it—the integration of appearance (beauty) with practical use (utility), or “beautility” so to speak. And beauty has been found in the ensemble of each of these previous ideas and expressions, the gestalt and more orchestrated whole that unites or governs the mere sum of its constituent parts.

Setting aside issues related to the exact nature or origin of beauty—if in fact it possesses an essence or hallmark feature—the question remains: can we find a place for beauty in this shaken world, where an “ugly,” invisible, and amoral disease runs rampant, generating fear, division, and death, mocking at times our attempts to carry on or to find meaning in our daily tasks.

Rather than imitating the powerful, blind, and impressively ruthless virus itself, might we better seek models or mentors for human inspiration in other areas or individuals—poets, painters, naturalists, philosophers, and the like? Might we even emulate in some way the magnificent lotus plant, for instance, which arises from the muck and dirt, the mud and darkness, to flower in beauty in the open air? 

Let me suggest a few places or ways that we might begin to look for and even create beauty in order to better navigate through these benighted times. In what follows, I focus on the relationship, in turn, of beauty to ten topics: (i) death; (ii) breath (solidarity); (iii) humor; (iv) the “homely” (domestic and everyday world); (v) the seasons  (nature); (vi) waiting (the unknown); (vii) story-telling (art); (viii) silence; (ix) the sublime; and, finally, goodness (ethics).

The spoken and unspoken context for all of these subjects is the current evolving crisis and pandemic in which we find ourselves.

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Beauty and Death

I died for beauty, but was scare / Adjusted in the tomb,/

When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room.  —Emily Dickinson

Beauty is hitched closely to impermanence, which is paradoxically the only permanent feature of existence itself—an idea encapsulated in the Buddhist idea of anicca and Heraclitus’ notion of panta rhei (everything flows). We find this linkage in the immaculate sand mandala that has been fashioned grain by grain over many weeks and months and then scattered into a mountain stream or yawning body of water upon completion. We find it in the eye-catching Tibetan prayer flags that deteriorate and depart gracefully in the Himalayan winds and autumn rain. And we find it in the pure winter snowfall that melts gently away to reveal like a magician’s trick tiny crocus petals sleeping in the garden soil.

“Death,” Wallace Stevens has speculated, “is the mother of beauty.” “Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.” Almost as if to acknowledge this tie between ephemerality and beauty, we gift colorful flowers at a funeral to those who have lost a loved one or leave them upon the tombs of the departed. Such rituals offer consolation and help confirm to us that transience and evanescence are built into the very fabric of things.

Death, in other words, is not a flaw in the architecture of the cosmos or a fissure in a taut physical or metaphysical system. Rather, it is a necessary and inseparable part of the shimmering structure—or infrastructure—of the universe, like a crumbling marble column in a great cathedral or the vast root system of a giant Redwood in a California forest.  If there is in fact a defensible “right” to life, perhaps there is a corresponding “duty” to die as well, a biological requirement or tacit obligation that is part of an invisible contract that enables us to make room for others to arrive.

Alan Watts once suggested that the most profound truth you can take to heart is that you, everyone you know, have known, or might come to know, will soon be dead. This looming power of the tiny adverb, soon, is of course fraught with existential reverberations that concern time.  How soon? Too soon? Why so soon? For to die prematurely is to die tragically.  But as we age, and move from innocence to experience, we tend to inch closer to recognizing the worth of a good poet’s words or prophetic warning, as when Andrew Marvel confesses, “At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” adding “And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity./Thy beauty shall no more be found.”

Realizing such certainties may encourage the kind of resolution or aesthetic imperative that Rilke has in mind when he concludes his poem, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with the gentle command: “You must change your life”. In a period of global upheaval or personal crisis, many of us may elect wisely to consider that admonition, too.

Beauty thus possesses an odd or extraordinary quality, a trait that deviates from the norm and the terrain of the familiar. “There is no exquisite beauty,” Poe declaims, “without some strangeness in the proportion.” Baudelaire agrees: “The beautiful is always bizarre.” And Andre Breton echoes these sentiments in Nadja: “Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”

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Rilke himself associates beauty with a curious sense of trepidation, and even horror. “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us,” he writes in the Duino Elegies. And Camus proclaims something similar: “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

Despite vain efforts to the contrary, beauty can rarely be captured or fully possessed; it eludes our grasping hands and acquisitive hearts. It disappears on its own timetable like a lover vanishing impetuously around the corner into the late afternoon shadows or the well-dressed body of a deceased family member being planted in the cemetery soil forever, and too soon. Beauty almost seems at times to be an interloper from another realm or, at least, to suggest worlds hidden deeply within ordinary experience, like Russian dolls nested inside one another.

Presently, more than a 340,000 people, including 100,000 in the U.S., have perished from the virus—many in an extremely painful, almost violent, manner—alone without the company of relatives, gasping for air, tethered to ventilators in a sterile hospital room, or trapped in the slums of a crowded city. This is in no way beautiful itself. It is hard to imagine a way such tragedy could be redeemed, and attempts to do so will likely appear as either callous or cruel.

Henry Ward Beecher wrote that “Death is the dropping of the flower that the fruit may swell,” but in the case of a pandemic, it is surely reasonable to wonder which bitter fruit that might conceivably be. And whether the fruit too has fallen with the flower. Nevertheless, it is understandable if we ponder these kind of conundrums once they arise and wonder as well if we must simply learn to live with and even learn to love such unanswered questions, like “locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue,” as Rilke recommends.  

One caveat that we should respect, though, is that our interpretations of suffering and death must not unnecessarily multiply or add to the existing ledger of pain. “It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades,” Susan Sontag has noted. Beauty too, like happiness, may be at times an unintended or incidental by-product of what the natural world throws forth unexpectedly or randomly and thereby makes visible. We should be careful in attributing it to false causes.

Cornell West once remarked off-handedly during a taxi ride through New York City that one does not find corpses in Heidegger’s work and, by extension within philosophy more generally. He implied, rightly I think, that while death is a perennial concern within the discipline, it tends to be treated as a remote abstraction or an empty concept.

Historically, philosophers have been likely to shunt or consign the body itself—from natality to fatality—in its messy materiality and maternal origins to an elsewhere—to a realm of mental constructs, a theoretical mausoleum, or a disembodied afterlife. Corpses, by contrast, are individual specimens and very particular. They are untidy, decomposing, and leaky vessels full of blood, hair, entrails, organs, offal, and viscera. They cannot be easily elevated or, alternatively, sublated into pure “Spirit,” perfect “Ideas,” or unchanging “Forms”.

Meanwhile, in the present-day world, corpses and cadavers are piling up in hospitals, morgues, and, in some countries, trenches and unmarked graves. In general, we been prevented from viewing photographs of these lifeless bodies in newspaper accounts or as images on television, thus denying us an opportunity for shared grief as well as the potential for some kind of transformative catharsis, social epiphany, or political anger.

A good friend of mine lost his father several weeks ago. He was unable to attend the funeral in person and could only be tele-present—a witness distantly removed from a life-changing event. On a larger scale, there has been no national mourning at all, not even an organized moment of collective silence. If we are “at war” with the virus as the President proclaims—a problematic military metaphor he likes to “deploy”—why are the wounded and dead “warriors” not being honored, especially those who have lost or risked their lives in the “frontline battle”?

Perhaps one of the many reasons we were unprepared for this pandemic is that there are almost no memorials for—and hence little social memory of—those who died in the U.S. of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which tore through the country and world a century ago, and which overlapped with World War I. Another likely reason is that the current administration is involved in political denial and obfuscation about the depth and extent of the crisis as well as the swelling number of the dead.

The federal administration seems more concerned about a fictive and dangerous “return to normal”—“normal” itself arguably being an unacknowledged and ongoing major crisis—than to addressing the causes of and responsibility for their own failed response and, more importantly, to moving constructively forward to embrace possible solutions to a host of other calamities that are tied intimately to the immediate and pressing one: health care, climate change, international financial markets, poverty, racial discrimination, global surveillance technologies, prison populations, industrial agriculture, low wages, poor housing, and much more.  Stated more provocatively, Trump and his allies appear ready and willing to break a few eggs in an effort to make an omelette that can briefly feed his own voracious ego—and maybe a few members of his “base” constituency—without sustaining the rest of us.

By contrast, the rest of us watch the daily body count and rising numbers, as if it were being tallied on an athletic or electoral scoreboard, the key difference being that there is no eventual winner and no limit reached when the contest is shut down.

The growing figures still highlight the truth of an old saw—sometimes attributed to Stalin—that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths are just a statistic. Compared to the Spanish Flu, which extinguished upwards of 50 million people, we might be inclined to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic or compare it favorably, but misleadingly, to the seasonal flu.

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We are able to mourn a single death and, over time, find a modicum of acceptance in it or a sense of reconciliation after it, while appreciating the beauty of the individual life that was whisked away. With mass and abstract statistical death, by contrast, we are given over to an enormously different scale: either to the realm of the melancholic where the loss remains largely unknown or foreign to us—we know not what we have lost—or to the realm of the wholly unrecoverable and inconceivable, where the loss can never even be imagined or fathomed. This complex phenomenon holds for the extinction of entire species as well wherein we find not just simply death but the unimaginable end of birth.

This is also the boundary where beauty likely trails off into ashes as it is swept into a black hole of incomprehension from which nothing can escape or return. Here, when we butt up against absolute limits, is perhaps where mysticism, theology, stoic indifference, or a sense of the sublime might begin to exercise influence upon us.

And here, we might be tempted to invoke the wisdom of myth, poetry, or even a fanciful dialogue with the cosmos itself: “While crossing a great dark river, Life encountered Death on a journey and inquired of him, ‘Why do people love me but loathe you?’ Death paused his rowboat for a long moment, adjusted his cap and black cape, and then replied, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.’”

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Beauty and Breath

I can’t breathe. —George Floyd

In constructing this great bridge of international solidarity across the globe, where do we even begin?     

―Ramor Ryan, Zapatista Spring

“Adversity draws men together and produces beauty and harmony in life’s relationships,” Kierkegaard observed, “just as the cold of winter produces ice-flowers on the window-panes, which vanish with the warmth.” Another philosopher, Schopenhauer, also drew on the challenges of winter to devise a parable about porcupines, one which possesses some relevance for our current-day dilemmas regarding social—or, better, physical—distancing and human solidarity:

On a cold winter’s day, a group of porcupines huddled together to stay warm and keep from freezing. But soon they felt one another’s quills and moved apart. When the need for warmth brought them closer together again, their quills again forced them apart. They were driven back and forth at the mercy of their discomforts until they found the distance from one another that provided both a maximum of warmth and a minimum of pain.

In human beings, the emptiness and monotony of the isolated self produces a need for society. This brings people together, but their many offensive qualities and intolerable faults drive them apart again. The optimum distance that they finally find that permits them to coexist is embodied in politeness and good manners. Because of this distance between us, we can only partially satisfy our need for warmth, but at the same time, we are spared the stab of one another’s quills. 

V0021236 A common porcupine. Engraving by Heath.

The pandemic should remind us that we are quite literally connected to one another through breath and through the shared space of air, which circulates without cessation above, around, between, below, and within all of us—a cornucopia of prepositional proximity. The air we exhale—and which others may now fear to inhale—is not unoccupied. It contains not only carbon dioxide but volatile organic compounds such as methane, acetone, isoprene, and ethanol as well as water, ketones, and other hydrocarbons.

And we also move about the planet in much larger invisible “bubbles,” “pockets” and “sheds” of shifting, mixing, and moving air that sequesters multiple gases (especially oxygen and nitrogen) as well as an inventory of germs, pollen, smoke, dust, spores, bacteria, salt, particulate matter, and pollutants. The small exhaled “clouds” we generate through breathing and send back into the encompassing atmosphere, of course, come into contact with other people not only within the closed quarters of our homes, but on buses, in classrooms, in workspaces, in places of worship, in stores, in stadiums, and so many other locales.

Some of the very air you are now imbibing and shunting through your body may recently have been eddying around the majestic peak of the Matterhorn, passing out of the swollen corpse of a raccoon by the side of a gravel road, trailing gently off the tail feathers of a migrating Canadian goose, or whistling through the snow-ballasted branches of a Douglas-fir tree. This can all be rather breathtaking. We are conspiring—literally, breathing together—and to contemplate this fact can dramatically change our lives to reveal new ways that human others and non-human otherness are woven into the very conditions of our existence.

While the medium of air—and with it, human breath—serves as a possible place of contagion, it is also a potential source of solidarity. In fact, it turns out that solidarity might depend on that which is not solid at all! The shared flows and fluid movements of air and breath which simultaneously sustain us and make us vulnerable might be thought of as a form of commonality and unseen connection. Colorless breath—or recycled air—is a literal and a metaphorical bond between us that is much more fundamental to our humanity than widely varying skin tones, political hues (red, blue, and purple state membership), or the greens and gold of currency and cash.

As Richard Rorty observes, “human solidarity [should] be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away ‘prejudice’ or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved.” He adds: “It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.”

Such an imaginative act of seeing another as a compagnon de misères or “fellow sufferer”—a phrase Schopenhauer proposed as the appropriate form of address between humans—is part of a broader ethical and political challenge that continually confronts us. Namely, to witness, to empathize with, and then to respond adequately to the symptoms and associated suffering of other living beings, including nonhuman animals, in a crisis—in the present instance, to the respiratory crisis that often begins with coughing or gasping for air and that can eventuate in one’s dying breath. Such solidarity in suffering, Schopenhauer argued, “reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”

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Many of the world’s major religions, too, notably claim that the “soul” is composed of either breath or air. Luce Irigaray reveals in particular that air, especially bodily breath, is an invisible, un-thought or misconstrued presence within the Western philosophical tradition. In contrast to Heidegger, she maintains that our first home is not in language but within the ambient air, which she invokes in its many modalities, including that which surrounds and unites all bodies, that which carries the voice and call of the other, and that which grants us autonomy when we begin to breathe outside the mother. Air is space prior to all forms of localization. It is at once moving and immobile, permanent but ever-fluid, while remaining constitutive in an original sense of the whole of the world.

Irigaray argues that what the present era truly requires is a return to breathing, that “elementary and necessary reality of life.” From her perspective, we are spiritually in an “age of breath” because Christian, Hebraic, Islamic and Far Eastern cultures all underscore the role of an animating and inspiring breath in their religions, and so these traditions could unite ideally in a “culture of the breath.”

Of breath and the “breath breathing human being,” the poet Rumi denies it custody by any one religion or philosophical perspective. It is “Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu/Buddhist, sufi, or zen.” Its ontological status is redolent with paradox: an oxymoronic nothing strutting along the razor edge separating it from an incipient something; a supremely fulfilling, if ordinary, activity recoiling back gymnastically upon its own apparent emptiness and extraordinariness.

The historical Buddha, however, may be credited with the surprisingly simple but extremely significant discovery and promotion of the power of human breath. His Anapanasati Sutra is devoted to the subject and counsels awareness in this most quotidian of processes. Referring to the monk and his daily practices, the sutra commences with the words, “Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.”

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The father of medicine, Hippocrates, also remarks, “there is one common flow, one common breathing,” adding that in this way “all things are in sympathy” (sympatheia ton holon). This claim points to the unity of all beings through the medium of air and its articulation in breath. Chanting, in fact, has been described as a protracted communal exhalation that extends expiration so as to generate higher pressure in the abdomen and lungs.

Another word and idea that might be invoked in a conversation about solidarity and shared breath is “trust,” an invisible bond that has been attenuated, undermined, or lost in recent decades in relation to science, journalism, government, education, and even basic human relationships. How can we restore the loss of such a basic non-tangible social glue, especially in a time of crisis?

Alphonso Lingis points out that when we leave our home or town to live elsewhere, especially in a remote location, we must trust a stranger every day, “someone with whom we have no kinship bonds, no common loyalty to a community or creed, no contractual obligations.”  He writes:

Once one determines to trust someone, there is not simply a calm that enters into one’s soul; there is excitement and exhilaration.  Trust is the most joyous kind of bond with another living being.  But isn’t it true that whenever we enjoy being with someone, there is a factor of risk there, and also a factor of trust, which gives our enjoyment an edge of rapture?  There is something erotic in the trust that a skydiver extends to his buddy plummeting after him bringing him his parachute, as there is in the trust that an individual lost in the jungle extends to a native youth.  Trust is courageous, giddy, and lustful.

Lastly, Indra’s famous net of jewels, wherein each shining stone reflects, attracts and refracts the other’s light, is another metaphor of our interdependency—one that can both signal the dark suffering that we share but also point beyond to the illuminated beauty of our interconnections. Here, one might creatively tell—or reimagine—a story about a woman who loses her child to illness. Being in near unimaginable grief, she cannot be consoled and so in desperation, eventually consults a figure who lives on the margins of society and who is known to possess deep wisdom. After taking tea, this individual advises the woman to return to town and seek out someone who has not experienced great loss and misery; that person, she is told, will be able to tell her the secret of overcoming unbearable pain.

And, so the childless mother proceeds to visit each and every household in the town.  Along the way, she hears many stories of sadness and woe and comes to know many strangers, neighbors, and unusual people who share the intimate and painful tales of their lives.  At long last, she does not find a single family that has not experienced great suffering of one kind or another, and she comes to realize her grief is shared, that her misery possesses genuine company, and that others feel empathetically toward her—and she toward them—in a way that lightens her load and allows her once again to find beauty and meaning in the world.

 

Laughter and Beauty

I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
―Woody Allen

Darkness is a creative matrix for humor, particularly black humor. And it seems to be flourishing in the Pandemic Era. We share cartoons about how dogs want us to stay home indefinitely while cats desire us to reopen the economy so we can get the hell out of the house, go back to work, and leave them alone. We joke about changing our pajamas twice or more a day. Or laugh about toilet paper hoarding.

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Covid-19 cartoons and memes proliferate on social media like—dare we say—a virus. Who knew the apocalypse would be so funny . . . or so boring if all we are being asked to do is stay home and watch TV and porn?

We find a never-ending fount of political humor, too, about a President’s limitless incompetency, inveterate lies, malignant narcissism, and gross policy failures. There are jokes, videos, and cartoons about injecting detergents into the body and irradiating patients with UV light; about redrawing the map of the spreading virus with a Sharpie; about Trump wearing a mask over his eyes rather than his mouth and nose; about him spinning a “Wheel of Blame” every day because, as he admits, “I don’t take responsibility at all”; about his laughable ignorance and misrepresentations of science, medicine, geography, diplomacy, and just about anything else you can name or think of.

In times of high anxiety, humor operates as a kind of hydraulic valve: it releases pressure and stress like air escaping from a hot kettle—or maybe a whoopee cushion—thereby making pain more bearable. Freud advanced such a “relief theory” of laughter, arguing that humor permits us to express thoughts that society normally forbids or suppresses when the superego allows the ego to generate it.

Humor can also reveal hidden realities that are harder to acknowledge or share in more direct ways—truths about race, religion, sex, and death in particular. In this way, humor can operate as a kind of disclosure or, alternatively, performance “theory” and practice of truth—wherein truths are revealed or even enacted rather than viewed as propositions that must correspond to an external state of affairs or cohere with one another in a consistent framework.

Humor allows us to look at things from a slightly different angle, like philosophical thought experiments or “what ifs” that can function as conceptual can-openers for the moral, aesthetic, or political imagination. What if cats had opposable thumbs?What if April Fools is just another April Fools joke?What if this planet were a reality TV show for other planets? What if there were no hypothetic questions?

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Or, more pointedly, what if we could continue to slow pollution and anthropogenic climate change the way it has occurred accidentally since the pandemic struck?  Or what if right wing autocrats would really embrace more “socialist” measures as some of them have temporarily done during the economic lockdown?  Or what if all these new joggers and bakers continue to run and bake post-pandemic?

Fat chance, right?  Well, maybe . . . if we are unable to escape the Twilight Zone episode or “Groundhog Day” movie that we are currently stuck in.

Further, humor allows us to challenge authority and traditional narratives about the world and, in the process, provides a sense of belonging or solidarity with others. And it can return a sense of control to our disrupted lives. Politicians who prioritize their own well-being or the economy over human lives tend to be mocked and ridiculed, their thoughtless remarks transformed alchemically into thoughtful humor.

We need these sly charms of wit, especially in dark and dimwitted times.  As noted, they can help bind us together and entertain us along the way. Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live (or maybe SNL Zoom), Seth Myers, and numerous other comics have risen to the occasion—depending of course on one’s aesthetic tastes or political preferences.

The Borowitz Report in The New Yorker has been especially on target about the current administration and its cast of henchmen and supporters. The titles alone of its “Not the News” short satire pieces are telling: “Fauci begs pharma companies to speed development of anti-narcissism drug”; “Rand Paul says secret to social distancing is making everyone despise you”; “Susan Collins to self-quarantine to avoid possible contact with decisions”; “Murder Hornets doubt they can do as much damage as Trump”; “Trump blames plummeting poll numbers on people who pay attention when he talks”; “Experts believe Coronavirus could be defeated with twenty-fifth amendment”; “Trump says the three things he hates the most are the world, heath, and organization”; and “Trump advises states facing bankruptcy to borrow millions from their dads”.

A large swath of the initial humor about the virus involved subjects such as over-eating (“Anyone else starting to get a tan from the light in the refrigerator?”); drinking too much or too early in the day (“Your quarantine alcoholic name is your first name followed by your last name.”); the pitfalls of Zoom technology (“Not muting your mic is the new ‘reply all’”.); being quarantined with family members (“If the virus doesn’t kill me, being stuck in the house with my husband will.”); or wearing a mask and washing one’s hands (“Are we supposed to be singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the virus or our hands?).

But other opportunities for laughter have arisen along the way. In the cemetery where I run regularly and where others stroll or walk their dogs, someone has posted a sign at the entrance which reads “Six Feet Apart > Six Feet Under”. Again, we need this dark humor and dark beauty. Humor is a coping mechanism, a self-defense strategy, a distraction from the bad news of the day, a way of maintaining our sanity—in short, a form of free therapy.

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One widely practiced style of humor is embodied in the “discrepancy theory” which, stated very simply, calls attention to the temporal, spatial, logical, or epistemic gap between what we expect—or what typically occurs—and what actually happens. This breach or hiatus is what makes room for laughter.  For example, we see an image of a man drowning in a river with his arm outstretched in the air toward the shore where another person looks on, and this is followed not by what we expect (the man to be rescued) but rather the onlooker stealing the drowning man’s watch instead. 

A more particular instance of humorous discrepancy is the experience of the absurd, a phenomenon that Camus explored in non-humorous, philosophical ways. He saw that while we seek meaning in and from the universe (through reason, prayer or love), the universe does not respond. A chasm thereby opens up between what we seek and what we get.  Rather than take a “leap of faith” into the void or commit either actual or philosophical suicide, Camus investigated ways that we might learn to live with, accept, or rebel against encounters with the absurd.

In some significant sense, the pandemic heightens the very absurdity of contemporary life. It appears out of the dark, knocks on our doors, and arrests our lives and most of our attention without explanation, like a character in a Kafka story. We are in lockdown but deep down we are not sure why, or where the arresting officer is, or what we are being charged with.

One viable response to this kind of situation is not to hide under the covers or to engage in denial but, rather, to turn to humor, whereby we embrace the absurd itself and the contradictions and confusion that have already embraced us: for example, employing the “Wuhan Shake” that involves touching another’s foot with your foot as an alternative to greeting them with a handshake or allowing penguins to waddle through an art museum and admire the paintings as they did in Kansas City—apparently, they prefer Caravaggio to Monet—when we are unable to do enjoy the art directly ourselves.

The conspiratorial “Plandemic” video that has been watched by millions is by no means itself humorous—or merely absurd—because instead of residing uncomfortably in the gap between reason and non-rationality, it leaps by irrational faith into the void—suiciding itself, so to speak—in a nonsensical attempt to close the gap between the known and the unknown.  A cartoon that refers to this video, however, does elicit a bit of laughter: in it, a dog sleeps beside a young man who is speaking on the phone and enthusiastically saying to his friend, “You watched Plandemic yet? You should watch it. It’s TRUE. It’s on YouTube. She’s a doctor. Watch it before it’s deleted, bro!”  In the final frame of the cartoon, we observe the formerly napping dog suffocating the same man with a pillow while he himself sleeps at night.

Unfortunately, the current President of the United States has no sense of humor—he rarely if ever laughs—and when he attempts to engage in some semblance of it on Twitter or the campaign trail, it usually takes the form of put down “jokes” that are more cruel than funny. These attempts are bad faith expressions of the supremacy theory of humor, which relies on attacking others in order to elevate oneself and which stands in contrast to denigrating oneself in order to provide others with a laugh—the “inferiority theory” and practice perfected by comics like Rodney Dangerfield.

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Curiously, Trump’s own run at the highest office may have been triggered and born from a perceived sense of humiliation or vengeance because he could not—and still cannot—take a joke himself.  In 2011, he stewed in anger and embarrassment when Barack Obama and Seth Meyers skewered him in person at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising because I just assumed he was running as a joke,” Meyers quipped.

Many of us are familiar with the terse formula, “Comedy equals Tragedy plus Time.” And there may be some general truth in the equation. But the interesting question arises: how much time?  Too little and something is not yet funny. Too much and it is no longer humorous. Jokes about 9/11 are not going to work on 9/12. And jesting today about the War of 1812 or the Black Plague rarely plucks the funny bone either.

Now on the other hand, . . . the War of the Stray Dog (when hostility boiled over between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925 after a soldier crossed the border chasing his runaway dog); or the War of Jenkin’s Ear (when in 1738 a mariner named Jenkins displayed a severed ear in Parliament, spurring Britain to declare war on Spain in 1738); or the Pig War (which commenced in 1859 over an argument about a slaughtered swine) . . . these debacles might still elicit an historically distant guffaw or two when we recall them in the right context at the right time.

Since all of us are potential food for worms while a humorless virus rages happily across the planet, our shared vulnerability permits and even encourages us to jest about deathly serious matters. And this weakness can transform each of us into an occasional stand-up comic—at least in the safety of our own living rooms when they harbor a built-in family audience and a dollop of “loyalty laughter”. Or maybe at minimum through corny “Dad jokes” about the pandemic: “Before the Coronavirus, I used to cough to cover a fart; now I fart to cover a cough” or “Day 3 without Sports. Found a lady sitting on my couch yesterday. Apparently, she is my wife.  She seems nice.”

This sort of joking is widely practiced, but there are likely some limits or taboo topics during a pandemic as well.  We arguably need the social violations of humor to be benign or non-threatening in order to find them funny. Comedy about respirator deaths, the virus hitting historically vulnerable populations, domestic partner abuse in quarantine situations; or about those currently hospitalized or dying is most likely not going to elicit sympathy or a laugh.

As Virginia Woolf once noted, the world’s beauty possesses “two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Humor is clearly thriving in this crisis; and so is human angst. However much we might like more of the former and less of the latter, they are both certainly doing better than the nation’s employment figures or the President’s ratings for job performance and empathy. So, alas, perhaps there is still hope for us all.  Now, if only we could find a way to get a decent haircut during this lockdown.

 

Homely Beauty

It is not always easy to tell the difference between thinking and looking out the window.

—Wallace Stevens

Philosophy bakes no bread, or so the saying goes. But many of us who are in kind of prolonged “stay-cation” mode are becoming philosophically pragmatic about the constraints imposed by the virus, and we are finding enjoyment and sustenance in baking not only bread, but cookies, cakes, muffins, and pies.

If beauty can be found in solidarity, artistic pursuits, the natural world, and humor during dark times, it is available to us in more mundane, domestic and everyday expressions as well. Those who are not involved with frontline work or essential jobs but rather sequestered at home are discovering—or rediscovering—the charms and values of cooking, knitting, gardening, phone calls (not just texting) to family and friends, and reading books. Robust online and remote outlets have emerged for yoga, meditation, art, and even dancing—alone together. Bike ridership is surging, as is running—with or without a mask. These responses are creative venues and outlets for our well-being and sources for making the dark times more manageable.

In his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, Cormac McCarthy writes: “No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.” This is counsel, in effect, to stay rooted in the palpable reality of the 24 hours, the still reliable alternations of darkness and light that encircle us and help to define our lives as kind of temporal home no matter how, when, or where we live it.

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Many of us are spending an even greater share of our daily day at home than we were three or four months ago. We work at home, dine at home, and play at home. We take classes and exercise at home. We might even joke that we are going to “travel” on the weekend—which amounts to a journey to another room in the house, or a possibly an exotic escape to a location like the balcony or roof or basement—as if that were a short imaginative trip to another land.

All this time in one space, however, might lead us to better appreciate the hidden beauty of a house and home.

Whatever form it assumes, the home is a domestic space and site that is rife with sundry forms of meaning. The home is not merely a physical coordinate on a map—“true places never are,” Melville rightly notes in Moby Dick—it is also a realm for living. The home helps to generate notions of personal identity, social order, and human connectedness along with serving as a sphere of intimacy and privacy. It is a refuge from the elements and a realm of familiarity and security. In many ways, the home is our first universe, a cosmos writ subjective and small.

Gaston Bachelard speaks of the home as an inhabited space of intimacy as he develops a phenomenology of the house, which is a “privileged entity” and “our corner of the world.” Here, images and imagination are intensified so as to cast the structure as a kind of protective or maternal cradle. Thus, we are able to imagine the house—one form of the varied home—both as “vertical being” and “concentrated being” because it rises upward—from basement to attic—and because it appeals to us in terms of its centrality to daily experience.

As an edifice that is tethered closely to our personal memories, the exploration of these sites of our intimate and interior lives can complement psychoanalysis so as to reveal the intricate emotional, psychological, and philosophical meanings of the home in its layered tiers, nooks, and corners, including basements, garrets, bedrooms, and stairways or stairwells. It can lead us as well on an exploration—a sort of guided daydream—of drawers, wardrobes, cupboards, chests, closets, and locks inside the sheltered nest of the house, permitting us to rediscover our childhood in its distant darkness and removed sense of beauty.

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If the house is imagined and experienced primarily in terms of verticality, journeys outside of it tend to reside along a more horizontal axis, as lines of flight or forms of circulation rather than as movements of ascension or descension. The home-world must be viewed in dynamic relation to what is beyond it. And this is where the value and aesthetic delights of walking outdoors and appreciating the changing faces of the seasons reside.

During “quarantime,” as I call it, I revel as a witness to the spiders usurping the corners of my kitchen and basement to fashion their own beautiful webbing homes out of gossamer threads. As the human presence wanes in my neighborhood of West Philadelphia, I notice how the opossums who live under my front porch are emboldened to thieve the cat food I place out each evening for strays. The wild and feral cats, in turn, move more freely than usual and take up residence on my back deck. A fledgling from a nest of robins explores the walkway between the neighbor’s house and my own, less afraid that she might normally be.

All across the world, nonhuman animals are stepping forth—crawling, wandering, scurrying, peering—into traditional human territories: dolphins swimming in the Bosphorus in Istanbul; wild boars roaming in Haifa, Israel; buffalo strolling the highway in New Delhi; rats taking up residence in idle car engines; cougars in the streets of Santiago, Chile; mountain goats walking through small towns in Wales; and much more. It’s almost as if the steel bars of many menageries have been broken to create a new kind of urban zoopolis. The air, too, is currently cleaner given that far less driving, less manufacturing, and fewer non-essential services are occurring. These changes will not likely endure very long, but we can certainly take pleasure and inspiration in them while they last.

There is, we are reminded, a larger oikos—an economy and ecology—of beings who are all trying to survive and flourish in their own ways, just like us. And a sense of beauty can emerge in the appreciation of this greater order that surrounds us and upon or through which we are ever dependent and interdependent.

We should realize and acknowledge, of course, that much of the possible appreciation of the home-world depends on the kind of situation and structure—or city and country—in which one resides. Anxieties about rent, safety, or domestic abuse during the pandemic as well as, for example, being in a noisy or cramped apartment, a tin-roofed shack, a basement bedroom, a homeless shelter, or a sleeping bag on a park bench or noisy street do not generally provide the same opportunities for enchantment and oneiric revelation as do stable, well-designed, and more affluent living conditions.

Seasonal Beauty

Poor, dear, silly Spring, preparing her annual surprise! — Wallace Stevens

When the Coronavirus hit with full force in the United States, spring was awakening from its seasonal slumber.  In the last three months, many of us have paid closer attention to the beauty of the natural world than we have in prior years or seasons. We are perhaps more likely to slow down and notice how “little things run the world,” as evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson has put it, from ants, bees, and beetles to bacteria, fungi, and, yes, viruses.

In recent months, birdwatching, too, has developed a great following, a practice and an art we can engage in alone and with respectful distance from others.  The night sky and its bestiary of creatures—“zodiac” means “circle of animals” in ancient Greek—in the wilderness of constellations invites us to gaze up, dream, and organize the cosmos, as well.

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Although we may increasingly run our lives on “virus time”—a clock without hands that can dictate and orchestrate what we may or may not do based on safety precautions, legal or work prohibitions, social etiquette, 24-hour “breaking news”, and the inability to plan travel, family visits, or medical appointments—there nevertheless exists a deeper and older sense of time to which we might turn for consolation, orientation, and natural beauty.

Winter, spring, summer, and fall provide us with a lens through which to engage and grasp different senses and scales of time from the geological, biological, and historical to more sensual, mythical, and qualitative modes of temporality that compete, dovetail, or co-exist in specific locations. In addition to offering us both a profound, other-than-human perspective on time, the seasons afford us evanescent surface outcroppings of emplaced beauty through the cadences of changing colors, sounds, temperatures, textures, and smells.

Changes in natural phenomena—rainfall, temperature, humidity, sunlight—trigger and contribute to processes and events that help to define and give voice to the individual seasons: bird migrations, hedgehog hibernation, the blossoming of flowers, the dormancy of plants, ice formations or thaws, color loss or gain in leaves, and the transformation of the Earth’s albedo from brown to white, white to green, or green back to brown.

Sightings of particular species of animals and plants or even individual beings—birds or mammals—are often omens or concrete emblems of the passage of seasonal time: the sleepy or awakening bear at the opening of his cave; the seals and whales arriving en masse to the craggy rocks off the shoreline, the swallows returning each year to San Juan Capistrano, the salmon making their way home to spawn through the chilly, fast-moving waters, or the squawking geese in a V-shaped formation overhead.

We learn to recognize and celebrate the signs: crocuses popping their tiny heads out of the thawing earth to peek around the corner at a timorous spring; apples fruiting in autumn; bees diligently pollinating; or sunflowers stretching their golden heads toward the azure sky in summer.

We encounter spring aesthetically with our attendant senses: when we smell the earthy scent of soil that microbes, known as Streptomyces, release chemically as they warm, or when we hear the whistles and trills of a succession of song birds like the pine warbler or red-winged blackbird as they migrate back into our air spaces.

There are also visual cues provided by animals, who serve as seasonal “indicator species” of a sort: when gray whales return from their 10,000 mile migrations in spring to California and Mexico; when newly-hatched and hungry inchworms dangle or drop from trees along the eastern coast of the U.S.; when fox pups emerge from their dens to explore and play; when baby robins break forth from their blue eggs; and when the browns of autumn and the whites of winter give way to the greens of arriving March and April.  Plants, too, have their own circadian clocks and rhythms: they sense when daylight waxes through photoreceptors in their leaves, triggering to themselves—and, by extension, to us—that it is time to flower.

The seasons help to emplace or “platialize” time, which is not tantamount to “spatializing” it—that is, encompassing it within the frame of a clock, watch, sundial, hourglass or calendar. When time is treated in terms of space and portrayed figuratively as an arrow aimed in a single direction or as a linear string with extension, it is often forcibly squeezed or violently stretched, and problems rapidly ensue. By comparison, place-based time is less of an abstraction. The seasons bound and locate temporal continuity and change within a geographical context, climactic setting, or ecological area. Gardens, for example, are physically and etymologically enclosures.

Time is particularized, given shape and form both as a concrescence and in local, more atmospheric ways. The budding or progressively denuded magnolia trees in a park or campus quad embody it; the squirrels anxiously gathering or burying nuts evoke and express it; the fruiting pumpkins or ripening strawberries in a farmer’s field articulate it in their engaging colors, sizes, and scents; the migrating caribou or spawning salmon communicate it as moving emissaries or ambassadors of a place. And humans dancing, singing, harvesting, cooking, and eating—especially during seasonal festivals—celebrate this kind of time when they offer a place to itself through rituals, play, and performances.

The seasons, in turn, leave marks and create traces of their presence and passing, signatures in effect of time. This occurs in tree rings, in fossils, in sidewalk cracks, and in mounds of leaves. It occurs in lengthening shadows crawling up and down a city street. The year is held—even memorialized—in the land, in the scape and shape of the ever-proliferating surface of the earth.

And this, the syntax of time, so to speak, is what we learn to decipher or “read.” If we liken individual plants and animals to the black tufts of letters alighting on a page, particular places become like words; ecosystems emerge as sentences or paragraphs; and the seasons appear as something like chapters of the evolving and revolving year in the great text of the environing world—the “Book of Nature,” as it used to be called.

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The notions of repetition and rhythm are also integral to the idea and perhaps even identity or ontology of the seasons. Spring, summer, autumn and winter clearly recur and repeat themselves in some fashion. We witness a revolving and recycling wheel of time with recognizable portents and hallmark signs.

But the spring of 2020 in a given place is not exactly equivalent to the spring of any previous year. The air will be slightly cooler or warmer; the amount and frequency of precipitation will be different; the colors of flora will vary; and fauna will appear in greater or less numbers. (I suspect we will all remember and recall the seasons of 2020 very differently than other times—perhaps as the “lost year of washing our hands and wearing funny masks.”)

Repetition, while serving as a defining mark of an entity or process, need not be construed as sameness or self-sameness. Repetition with difference provides a twist and deepens, in turn, our encounters with the phenomenal world.  Here we might even ask: Is this seasonal “twist” somewhat like a Möbius Strip, wherein movement along a looping inside path subtly and slowly changes, eventually becoming an outside as one follows its course?

Experientially, a sense of enchantment and a hint of the sensuous are bound up with encounters of repetition. We take delight and comfort in the beauty of discernable patterns, colors, textures, sounds, and smells. But we are charmed by surprises that break the order and disrupt the familiar so as to interject wonder, awe, or curiosity into the world and our routines. To this extent, when seasonal predictability is upended, we become suddenly engaged: warm days in the dead of winter; snowfall in July; a solar eclipse that brings darkness to the day; unexpected hailstorms; or a night sky replete with shooting stars.

Rhythm likewise involves flux and flow. It expresses time in terms of a musical movement that is punctuated with cultural or biological significance.  Here, we can draw a distinction between endogenous and exogenous rhythms, tying these changes to the fluctuations of light, shadow, and darkness. Endogenous rhythms persist even when the environment fails to significantly change. By contrast, exogenous rhythms are linked to the physical changes in the environment and do not continue when external conditions remain constant.

The seasons appear to possess both aspects in an intertwined or chiasmatic way: there are internal or immanent (endogenous) rhythms that drive the seed into the fruit in summer or fall, for example, as well as more externally-expressed (exogenous) rhythms of plants and animals that respond to, for example, elemental changes in light, temperature, water, wind, and soil.

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A related way to grasp the seasons is through the oscillating and rhythmic polarities of expansion and contraction. Spring and summer can be understood in terms of the progressive waxing of elemental light and heat as the days grow longer and warmer. By contrast, the solar energy of autumn and winter slowly wanes, and we witness a marked “closing down” of earthly activity with the onset of increasing darkness, cooling, and freezing. In the first two seasons, animals who migrate, hide, or hibernate slowly re-appear and alight; life moves from below ground to the surface and sky. The more interiorized and intimate world—embodied in the cloistered bird nest, bear cave, rabbit hole, or human house—of winter expands and gives way to more exuberant displays outside. Colors brighten; pace quickens; movement becomes more pronounced.

Finally, when the seasons cross into the cultural sphere—or even the geological realm—they might enter near mythic or deep time (duratio permanens). This is the place where Plato speaks of time as “a moving image of eternity”—a “time” in effect outside of conventional or mundane ideas of change. In this regard, the critic Northrop Frye, who has examined poetry and literature to discover archetypal patterns, motifs and symbols, argues that mythically spring is linked most closely with comedy, summer with romance, autumn with tragedy, and winter with irony and satire, points he develops through an analysis of the Bible, works by Shakespeare, ancient Greek plays, and a wealth of classical poetry.

Metaphorically, spring, too, entails an upward or rising movement (as the word “spring” suggests) while autumn is associated with a downward or falling movement (as the word “fall” implies). These cyclical and cosmological symbols are, in turn, associated as well with complex connections to innocence (e.g., rising happiness or humor) and experience (e.g., a tragic “fall” of the hero), along with the four periods of the day (morning, noon, evening, and night) and the four periods of life (youth, maturity, age, and death).

Grappling with the senses of natural time, the naturalist Annie Dillard writes, “Yesterday, I set out to catch the new season, and instead I found an old snakeskin.” Knotted in a loop without beginning or end, the snakeskin becomes an image of lived eternity, an Ouroborus—the snake consuming its own tail, the unending and continuous loop of time itself. “Time,” she speculates, “is an ascending spiral if you will, like a child’s toy Slinky. Of course, we have no idea which arc on the loop is our time, let alone where the loop itself is, so to speak, or down whose lofty flight of stairs the Slinky so uncannily walks.”

There are clearly inner, affective dimensions of seasonality and overlapping ties between human temperaments (dispositions), temporality (time), and temperature (weather). The seasons come and go, materialize and dematerialize, as indefinite cloud-like moods, media, or atmospheres and not just manifest themselves through objects or distinct places. Here, there are connections between seasonal descriptions and elemental language in terms of phenomenological notions such as “ambience” and “attunement”.

The seasons are not beneath or beyond us as transcendental principles or Platonic Forms but rather exist and endure like the weather (over short periods), the climate (over longer periods) or atmosphere (a more permanent, if mutable, presence) as a kind of medium “around” or “surrounding” plants, animals, humans, and elemental entities—an un-thought or under-thought quasi-environment. As they emerge in a given place, the seasons are, in a certain sense, circumambient, depths without clear surfaces, dimensions replete with color, texture, and tempo—metaphorically, something perhaps vaguely or poetically akin to an aesthetic quintessence or “fifth element,” as aither (ether) was once imagined to be.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” observes Rachel Carson, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

 

Waiting for Beauty

One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.
― Krishnamurti

We are in the very midst of a crisis. There is no standpoint apart from this current moment, no history of the present, no outside of this expanding and deepening inside.  Our immersion in a confusing and scary “now” makes it relatively opaque, darker than other periods of the past. Kierkegaard apprises us that one of the oddest dilemmas—almost a paradox—of our existence is that while we live life forward, we can only understand it backwards; that is, in hindsight.

Speaking of both our shared evolutionary history and the short spans of our individual lives, Richard Dawkins has written:

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.

Why bother to get up in the mornings? More than a few people have been asking that question of late. Beside the mere force of habit or an instinct for self-preservation, the desire and need for beauty might be as good of a reason as any to drag ourselves out of bed.

My own sense is that most scientists, like most philosophers and artists, are likely motivated more by curiosity, wonder, and beauty than by monetary rewards or fame—at least early in their lives or careers. But it is reasonable to ask whether many of us have lost this sense of wonder and our fascination with the unknown and even started to imagine the latter as a kind of enemy. In times of trouble, many of us are inclined to seek solace in simple or simplistic answers and the seductions or illusions of control rather than to embrace the more difficult wisdom of insecurity and impermanence.

“Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding’,” Werner Heisenberg observed in Physics and Philosophy.

Is any of the aforementioned beauty—or even all of it—worth the cost of a great tragedy playing out on the world stage? Can suffering and death or the loss of livelihoods ever be redeemed? Are we tempted at times to modify a line from Adorno to read, “After the pandemic, no more beauty”? Such kinds of questions are, of course, largely just provocative, rhetorical or counterfactual. We probably can’t make the trade or transaction even if we wished to try.

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In the meantime, we wait. We wait for schooling to return, for stores to open, for sports to start back up. We wait for jobs to come back. We wait for social restrictions to be lifted. We wait for a chance to actually hug our children, family members, or friends. We wait for a loved one to leave the hospital and return home. We wait for a vaccine or the next election to “rescue” us. We wait for our next breath.

Sometimes, it seems, we spend our lives in waiting. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for darkness to fall or dawn to rise. Waiting for a train or a bus to appear. Waiting for the gray hair of wisdom or the gentle grace of enlightenment. Waiting for a letter to arrive or damp laundry to dry. Waiting for a call or a lost child to return home. Waiting, at last, to die. (Or just a chance to wait a little longer.)

Waiting: a line + time. A queue with many moments and far-too-many torments before us. Infinity plus one . . . and counting. A crawling traffic jam. A procession that fails to move. It endures . . . and with it, us. We are placed on hold. Held up. Hostages. With a faint spark of faith but a mounting avalanche of resignation.  Not quite boredom but not enough cruelty to style it tragic.

Paralyzed in perpetuity. We wait for something. Rarely, if ever, for nothing. Nothing happens. That is of the essence—at the tap, tap, tapping stilled heart of waiting.

Waiting on the tarmac for a plane to lift off.  Waiting for the rain to commence. Waiting for the landing. And the storm to subside. Waiting for a prayer to be addressed, or a throbbing ache to be numbed, and perhaps all of this to be erased.

Such waiting, however, needs not be entirely passive and, further, it is not necessarily devoid of wisdom or beauty. On first blush, waiting appears to be the very antithesis of the joy and ecstasy—what many of us want in a time of crisis. Waiting’s hallmark is interiority and patience. Ecstasy’s is openness and otherness. The former demands self-control; the latter relinquishes it. But each is an interruption in the flow of familiar time. Waiting tends to arrest motion, change, and the continuous course of things.  Ecstasy, by contrast, involves an aesthetic transfiguration of time that can issue forth in a new experience of fluidity and becoming-other.

Waiting, in fact, may be a kind of en-stasis—a “standing-within-oneself” in the sense of self-contemplation rather than an ek-stasis and an engagement with alterity.

Waiting for love entails a peculiar form of patience. Intense but attenuated. In this sense, it might offer lessons related to beauty or insights for our dark times.  Eroticism is often born of delay, tested by tedium, and nurtured on exhaustion. “Will he ask me?” “When will she come back into my world?” “How will I know this is true?” A lottery for which no ticket may be purchased, though with fortune one might be chosen. Do not, however, mistake the sound of your heartbeat for the hooves of approaching horses. So warns an ancient proverb.

We might attune ourselves to the aesthetic dimensions and even possible enchantments of waiting, especially when it concerns love. Roland Barthes noticed that there is often a “scenography” at work here.  As we wait for a beloved, we imagine a drama with a given setting and scenes that are played out in our impatient minds. Alas, we are the solitary actor in this play, which perhaps occurs inside a café, where we wait with anticipation for a rendezvous. Act I: Concern or confusion. Where is she? We wonder whether there might be a misunderstanding about the agreed place and time. Act II: Anger. How dare she not show? Act III: Anxiety and grief due to a sense of loss or abandonment. Is she dead? These action-less “acts” of waiting may continue to evolve unless or until the play ends swiftly with the other’s arrival: in Act I (a calm embrace), in Act II (either a heated “scene” or a gracious greeting), or in Act III (surrender or departure).

“Am I in love?”, Barthes inquires. “Yes, since I’m waiting,” he replies to himself. Despite attempts to defeat this emotional logic by arriving late or busying oneself with distractions, we begin to acknowledge a cruel truth: “The other never waits.”  Have we then also discovered a secret to the lover’s doomed identity?  Indeed, yes, insofar as we recognize a discomfiting reality: “I am the one who waits.”  In closing, Barthes offers us a small enigmatic parable:

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan.  “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.”  But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.

What to make of this story?  Did the mandarin grow tired of waiting?  Or did he find a way to reverse the trajectory of desire, the longing for the future to be present?  We know that seduction depends upon coldness more so than heat.  It coolly, calmly, and inexorably draws both the flame and the moth to its object precisely as it shrinks or scuttles away. Like innocence or indifference, absence can be a great aphrodisiac, the bait that lures others into extended bouts of waiting.

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The ever-small measures endemic to the practice of waiting are often conducive to—even necessary for—the rapid burst of change that may arrive much later. Like an unexpected tsunami that builds imperceptibly and in increments in the deep ocean of our lives, such discipline can result in a tipping point and then great overflowing avalanche, a wave of insight, bliss, or rapture.

Think here of the vaunted “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that mastery in a field such as music, athletics, chess, computer programming, or science requires approximately ten thousand hours (roughly 20 hours per week for ten years) of diligent practice. However controversial this claim, the ecstatic performances and achievements that eventually come for great or world-class artists, athletes, writers and scientists are no doubt often the result of long, slow growth periods, serious dedicated focus, and patient maturation processes.

Or consider the famous marshmallow experiment with young children—one that correlates well with predicted success later in life—wherein oral delight is deferred and then doubled by a period of mandated waiting and delayed gratification. Here, the cultivated ability or learned discipline to defer immediate desire for a single sugared treat can signal greater rewards down the road.

Rather than being construed merely as a form of postponement—a kind of procrastination by time itself—waiting might be reconceived as a type of mindfulness and attentiveness—an aesthetic awakening to detail, nuance, and depth—a protracted preparation for possible transcendence, and the emotional, epistemic, or spiritual break that may eventually come to be.  In this sense, waiting is not a recipe for boredom—“a tame longing without any particular object,” in the words of Schopenhauer—but an opportunity for subtle observation or introspection.

In other words, we might try (or, better, try not to try) waiting as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. Simply wait, as opposed to waiting for something in particular. Let go of attachments to possible consequences, goals or results, which are usually beyond our control.  Merely listen and observe what arrives. This idea is set forth in Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Wait”:

Wait, for now./Distrust everything if you have to./But trust the hours. Haven’t they/carried you everywhere, up to now?/Personal events will become interesting again./Hair will become interesting./Pain will become interesting./Buds that open out of season will become interesting./Second-hand gloves will become lovely again.

Following Heidegger, we can invoke a distinction between awaiting, which has an object and is thus involved in representation, and genuine waiting, which is not tied to distinct ends or expectations because it “releases itself into openness” and a “letting be” (Gelassenheit) of what is coming. In Heideggerian terms, the former is part of “calculative thinking” (which plans and seeks goals), whereas the latter belongs to “meditative thinking” (which is non-willing and hence able to think the truth of being). Alternatively, we might state this distinction as a prepositional difference between waiting for (which is bound to human needs, expectations, and intentions) and waiting upon (which is open to what is given or what comes as a kind of gift).

We might recall here the story of the Buddhist monk who was commissioned by the emperor to make a Sumi-e ink painting of bamboo.  Curiously, the monk kept putting off the task for years until by fiat he was forced to perform the work. He then proceeded to produce a beautiful picture with a few quick strokes of the brush. When asked why he waited and did not create this image much earlier, he replied that he was living with and learning from the bamboo, studying it, remaining open to its essence, and positioning himself for the perfect ecstatic moment to express and embody the long period of meditation and more immediate inspiration.

In Hermann Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, a young man born into a wealthy Brahmin family in the Hindu tradition, abandons his home to wander the world as a mendicant ascetic for many years. At one point, he announces with bravado to a querulous merchant that he can do three things: he can think; he can fast; and he can wait. With no worldly possessions, he is thereby able to reign in his mind (thinking), command bodily desire (fasting), and fashion a robust and healthy relation to time itself (waiting).

Through self(less) rule and discipline—what the ancient Greeks called askesis—he is able to attain his enlightenment and his bliss. Through practiced meditation and “waiting,” he achieves an awakening—the becoming of the Buddha—and this serves as the basis for his ecstatic emancipation and release (moksha for the Hindu and Nirvana for the Buddhist) from the normal cycle of time. Within Buddhism, such patience is in fact considered one of the “perfections” toward which we should aim in seeking wisdom. And it appears not only to mean being able to endure difficulties or bear suffering but also a commitment to not returning harm to another.

Some contemporary and conceptual artists also tarry with the complexities of focused waiting as preparation for ecstatic discovery. In “The Artist is Present,” Marina Abramović sits directly across a table from individual visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an indefinite period of time.  She and they wait and watch and wait some more for an epiphany to occur, or for tears to flow, or a guffaw of laughter and a mutual recognition to happen, or something else entirely and wholly unexpected to arise in these primal but increasingly uncommon face-to-face encounters with another human being:   https://vimeo.com/72711715

Andy Goldsworthy, by contrast, waits patiently through winter for brief moments of ecstasy that might emerge two full seasons hence. During the cold months in Scotland, he creates gigantic one-ton snowballs, which he keeps in refrigerated storage. Months later, on a warm summer night, Goldsworthy transports them quietly into London’s financial district, where he deposits them on the sidewalks. In the dawning day, Londoners gaze or gawk at these “sculptures” with a mixture of fascination, admiration, and amusement.

Pedestrians are provided with a temporary tie to a different place and seasonal time: the outlying countryside and the vanished winter. As the snowballs melt and evaporate, their interiors reveal a smattering of surprises: pinecones, seeds, feathers, branches, barbed wire, stones, or wool. For five more days, the artist and public observe the action of wind, heat, and human hands on the changing size, texture, color, and shape of the snowballs, which themselves are unusual ecstatic objects, standing out as they do serenely against the steamy breath of summer, against the pell-mell movements and busy-ness of the modern city, generating child-like wonder and a playful release.

I wonder: do we need a few beautiful snowballs of a sort to get through the coming pandemic summer?

It is rumored that the Lakota have no words to express waiting or lateness.  Do they still experience these untimely things?  Must we, in turn, amputate the hands of our clocks? Smash the invisible hourglasses everywhere around us?  Torch the very calendars we reckon the days upon?

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Waiting is intimate; it means growing familiar with the stranger inhabiting one’s self, and the oddity of one’s thoughts. It courts the complexities of Being more than the complications of Doing.  Imagine: a being who is un-doing.  Being undone.

Picture: slow drying paint. The whistle on the kettle that doesn’t. The doorbell that is un-ringing.

Another cup of coffee. One more cigarette. A last stab at an uncompleted crossword puzzle. (What else is there to do?) One down. The impossible, unsolved question: A seven-letter word that means not only “to wait” but also “to hope”?    (Hint: Spanish)

E-s-p-e-r-a-r.

Yes, that seems fitting, and to fit. Elegant, if fleeting. A silence spoken. Will the heavy wait finally be lifted?

 

Restor(y)ing Beauty

But how could you live and have no story to tell?   ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Artists, musicians, photographers, writers, and many other individuals have been responding creatively to these dark times. We have been making pinatas in the shape of the Coronavirus so that children may playfully take aim at and bash them with hockey sticks or golf clubs while teetering in blindfolds beneath the branches of a backyard tree. We have been recreating and humorously reimagining famous paintings with our bodies and belongings and then posting these creations to social media sites.

We have been playing songs and sharing live guitar music on the Internet. We have been making artful posters about the pandemic and pasting them to barren walls in the neighborhood. And quarantined Italians are singing proudly and loudly to each other as a bawdy chorus from their balconies each spring evening.

Thousands of people have been asking their Facebook friends what their favorite books or music albums or travel destinations are, and passing this request and information along to others. In this small way, a narrative thread is kept alive and elongated.  We need to share our stories with others, almost as if to confirm our very own existence itself, especially while we are “locked up” or left alone.  Perhaps this is why many prisoners or men and women at war invest themselves so heavily in letter writing. It is a deep need and beautiful longing to stay in touch or stay sane.

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Stories and storytelling are one extremely important form of aesthetic expression—at once distraction, entertainment, and inspiration during troubling times. In the Decameron, written circa 1353 and set during the time of the Black Death, Boccaccio shares the long narrative of ten young people who flee infested and ravaged Florence to spend ten days—roughly the length of the current quarantine period for infection—in a deserted villa outside the city. There, they survive the plague by engaging in elaborate storytelling, all told a collection of 100 tales through which they cycle.

These stories move each day through various themes and tones: human vice, triumphant fortune, tragic love, happy endings, wit, deceit, and untrammeled license, among multiple others. And the parallels between the Covid-19 crisis and the Decameron’s Black Death opening scenes are legion: from stories of revelers celebrating in debauchery to those cowering in fear or retreating to isolation as society collapses. Corpses lay strewn; some folks take up herbal remedies; others walk about with nosegays before their faces (like masks) to shunt the disease away.

In recent months, I have written a story myself—part of a trilogy of fairy tales for adults and curious children—that addresses the climate change crisis by focusing on the fate of a forest that houses talking trees and a donkey, who is the narrator.  It has at least helped me to work through some of my own thoughts and feelings about living in a slowly unfolding disaster, and maybe even vaguely prepare myself for the possible “plots”, intrigue, drama, loss, and resolution of the present one:

https://davidmacauley2003.wordpress.com/2020/01/04/fabulism-a-sort-of-fantasy/

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” Hannah Arendt observes. We are invariably drawn to the power of stories, and even continue to tell them to ourselves as we sleep and dream. In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron notes that “Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.”

What is the best, most accurate, or most compelling narrative for this crisis? Does it rely on human heroes and villains and an invisible, powerful antagonist? Will the drama end happily or in tragedy? Or even end at all? Can we recast it as a comedy? What if it continues into many seasons, like a cringeworthy television series that has long outlived its welcome?

There are already many conflicting stories about the pandemic. Some are based in science; some are based in anger; and others are based in flights of fancy.  Almost all of them are rooted in pain or loss as well as some kind of hope for redemption or restoration, which always exacts a price.

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We need to remind ourselves that parables, myths, and allegories were present at the inception of philosophy’s emergence in both the West and East. From Zeno’s paradoxical tales to Plato’s enduring myths; from the fables of ancient Hinduism to the puzzling kōans of Zen Buddhism, these brief aesthetic and philosophical stories helped to convey complex ideas, evoke questions about knowledge, beauty and goodness, and generate curiosity, wonder, and debate. Over time, however, such short narratives were increasingly marginalized or displaced as reliance upon more formal uses of reason, analysis, logic, and argumentation grew.

Philosophy—and, with it, other disciplines—presently needs engaging stories because it has arguably become overly analytic and too ahistorical in its orientation and style. Difficult ideas, challenging truths, and life-altering experiences are often best transmitted in short narrative form so as to open up conversation and reflection or to illustrate multi-faceted viewpoints and abstract theories. The parables of Plato, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus, and Taoist sages as well as the short aesthetic tales of philosophical writers like Kafka, Borges, and Dostoevsky suggest how we might conceivably “re-story” and, by extension, restore philosophy to a more relevant place in the contemporary world.

William Gass observes: “So much of philosophy is fiction. Dreams, doubts, fears, ambitions, ecstasies.” “No novelist,” he avers, “has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extrications—the soul’s escape from the body, for instance, or the will’s from cause.” He continues:

A novelist may pin a rose to its stem as you might paper a tail to its donkey, the rose may blush at his command, but the philosopher can elevate that reddening from an act of simple verbal predication to an angel-like ingression, ennobling it among Beings. The soul we must remember, is the philosopher’s invention, as thrilling a creation as, for instance, Madame Bovary.

According to Gass, fiction is more vital to philosophy than the reverse. At the same time, novelists might learn more from philosophers, who have been “lying longer.” “Though philosophers have written the deeper poetry, philosophy has drawn to it the inartistic and the inarticulate, those of too mechanical a mind to move theirs smoothly, those too serious to see, and those too fanatical to feel.”

With the demise of philosophical systems and grand meta-narratives, one response might be for thinkers and writers to become more personal and their approach to philosophy to be more lyrical and anti-systematic. In this regard, Susan Sontag notes, “the starting point for the modern post-philosophic tradition of philosophizing is the awareness that the traditional forms of philosophical discourse have been broken.” She maintains that “what remain as leading possibilities are mutilated, incomplete discourse (the aphorism, the note or jotting) or discourse that has risked metamorphosis into other forms (the parable, the poem, the philosophical tale, the critical exegesis).”

In short, might we restore the story in order to seduce ourselves to another kind of truth. . . and an older but perennial form of beauty?

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Barry Lopez highlights insightfully one last value of storytelling:

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.  If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.  Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory.  This is how people care for themselves.

That is a good place to end . . . and also to begin.

 

The Beauty of Silence

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy.   

—Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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The streets, towns, and cities of the world have grown much less crowded and less noisy during the pandemic. There is a serene beauty at times to the silence and solitude that has emerged. It is a little like the experience we have following a heavy snowfall when we move about quietly: shoveling the sidewalk, digging our cars out from packed mounds of soiled snow, trudging to the store for groceries, or journeying to the park in order to watch our kids sledding down a hill or engaging in snowball fights.

Almost every day, I run or ride my bike through the streets of Philly. I have only driven my car several times in the last three months—and then just very short distances—mostly to make sure it is still working properly and free of small animals who may have taken up residence under the engine hood.

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I also walk, run, and wander about in the Woodlands Cemetery, a local necropolis where, among many other inhabitants, the realist painter Thomas Eakins is buried. I think about his paintings from the late 1800’s, particularly The Gross Clinic and The Clinic of Dr. Agnew, which provide detailed anatomical and medical views of the surgical theater at the time and the attempts by multiple physicians to treat and heal anesthetized patients.

There, I also tend to reflect upon both death and beauty because they are kindred pairs in most graveyards, especially in spring when the trees are sprouting leaves and small creatures are scampering about.  In the Woodlands, there are “grave gardeners” who tend to the flower beds they have planted next to or upon old and often illegible tombstones and graves all throughout the cemetery, which is the setting for one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels, The Signature of All Things, as well.

As I round an elegant bend in the cemetery path on a walk or a timed run, I sometimes remind myself that I am still vertical while “they”—the dead—are horizontal. On one such trip along the perimeter, I witnessed immediately in front of me a darkly beautiful event: a red-tailed hawk swooped down to the ground and plucked up a large squirrel in his talons before ascending again to the treetops.  Death, flight, and life-sustaining food were united in one single and awe-ful instant.

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Such quiet walks and runs help to calm the nerves and provide a form of focused meditation for me and many others. During the “lockdown,” regular walking is in fact becoming a widely practiced and safe form of individual movement about our neighborhoods that offers needed silence, exercise, relaxation, and freedom. It serves, moreover, both as an escape from the confines of the house and a way of experiencing the sensuous beauty of the natural and built environments—in parks, along waterfronts, through architecture, on beaches, beside empty streets, and in forests that might be available to one on a quiet stroll.

Many of us are paying closer attention to the beautiful tweets, chirps, and songs of residential birds because their sounds are more distinct and pronounced when our own technological noises are quieted and our interior mental chattering is stilled. Lawn mowers, leaf blowers, street traffic, jackhammers, car horns, and the din and drums of construction have waned.  And the relative silence has been ear-opening.

There are, of course, many different forms of silence, and a few writers and even several composers like John Cage have helped us to understand the many expressions and values of these acoustic breaks. In his poem, “Silence,” Billy Collins writes:

There is the sudden silence of the crowd / above a player not moving on the field,

and the silence of the orchid. /The silence of the falling vase

before it strikes the floor, / the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it, / the silence of the moon

and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,/ the silence of the window above us,

and the silence when you rise and turn away./ And there is the silence of this morning

which I have broken with my pen, / a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house— /the silence before I wrote a word

and the poorer silence now.

And the novelist and social critic Paul Goodman echoes some of these observations about aural repose and the stilling of sound:

There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy; the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face; the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts; the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, “This… this…”; the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity; the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear; the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and subvocal speech but sullen to say it; baffled silence; the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

There is even the visual silence and solitude of paintings by artists like Edward Hopper, whose work has found a kind of brief renaissance and even practical use during the Coronavirus “era” since it invites reflection upon emptiness and being alone in traditionally occupied settings.

These disparate pauses, which clear room for moments of listening and contemplation, are being offered to many of us during the pandemic.  They are low fruit for the taking, and they are opportunities for sustenance that should not be passed by.

 

Beyond Beauty?

That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them —Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

We have an immense challenge before us. But we still possess significant resources and a few creative ways to illuminate the darkness. We also have a great opportunity: an actual chance provided by a major visible crisis to change parts of the world for the better if we can learn to overcome our past mistakes, our short-term memories, and our many forms of blindness. A tall social, political, and personal task to be sure.

I have not tried here to offer any kind of unified or coherent theory of beauty; in fact, I tend to doubt there is or needs to be one. Rather, I have attempted more modestly to identify just a few outcroppings of beauty as well as to suggest several loose possible aesthetic or philosophical responses to the crisis in which we suddenly discover ourselves. There are many names for and expressions of beauty, which often arrives unbidden, survives accompanied by trauma or pain, and departs having transformed who we are.

If beauty is indeed a deep desire and personal need in our lives, it may be valuable, for example, to revisit and perhaps revise Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of needs in order to better account for its important place, no matter where we find ourselves in a pyramid of physical and psychological requirements.

Is there also a vast mountain of ugliness—even abject horror and monstrosity—available to us in this pandemic? Without question, yes. Much can and should be said not just about the suffering and death that are occurring but also the fear, panic, depression, loneliness, racism, unemployment, inequalities in health care, inability to grieve properly, and so many other matters. I have elected instead to train a flickering candle on a few ways that we might better endure and muddle through this crisis together while, at the very same time, addressing the absolutely real, vital, and darker concerns.

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There is something also to be said for attempts to transcend, however temporary, the immediacy of our suffering; that is, if we are fortunate enough to be able to make the effort. Here, the complex question can be raised whether a notion or sense of the sublime—or even “sublime indifference”—which lies outside or beyond an experience of the beautiful can perform any valuable work in addition to needed forms of practical reason, mutual aid and support, and social criticism. (“Criticism will be love or will not exist,” André Breton once remarked.)

Given that the virus likely has origins in the biological world, even if its rampage has been facilitated and magnified by human responses, we might be inclined to gesture toward an idea of the sublime. After all, isn’t everything “beautiful” in a strange way from a great height . . .  or from a long temporal distance? Or, at least, isn’t it somehow sublimely acceptable, tolerable, or understandable?

It might depend in part, of course, on your level of magnification. Do you view the world through a microscope or a telescope, or maybe more aesthetically through a colorful kaleidoscope? Or do you just see it through ordinary everyday eyes?

For some, a pandemic might exhibit features of the sublime, being an event that routinely engenders at once both wonder and existential worry, or at least discomfort—a peculiar sense of awe coupled with the suspicion of something conceivably awful. The sheer magnitude can generate feelings of our own smallness and finitude in a vast universe, as well as provide us with an experience of amazement.

Kant distinguished two forms of the sublime: the mathematical (being overwhelmed by great size) and the dynamical (being overwhelmed by great force). Following Kant, we might say, for example, that whereas daylight is beautiful in its ability to “charm” us, night is sublime to the extent it can “move” us.

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The sheer immensity beyond our capacity to compare or fully comprehend it, along with the near boundlessness and unrecognizable formlessness of a pandemic can trigger our sensibilities to oscillate swiftly between aesthetic extremes. And it can cause our feelings to shift quickly between the emotional poles of repulsion from and even attraction to death, especially during widespread panic.

Nietzsche suggests we take a perspectival step backwards or, better, a few giant steps upward when he announces, “He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.” Another aphoristic thinker who wrote and lived in the heart of darkness, Emil Cioran, asks: “What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?”

In other words, it can be helpful to remove ourselves from too much personal involvement in suffering and try instead to witness the world and our own lives in a more detached manner.  In Camus’ novel The Plague, a work that many are now revisiting, we read:‘Who taught you all this, doctor?’ The reply came promptly: ‘Suffering’”.

In time, we humans will most certainly go extinct—unless we merge ourselves with technology before then—like almost every other species has before us. The challenge with the issue raised above about transcending suffering and rising about the protracted painful moment is that we do not live our lives at the geological or astronomical scale. We live them more immediately in biological and existential flux, bound by a rough period of 70 or 80 years if we are lucky.  Within that framework, we understandably seek to reduce our suffering and prolong our very existence, which can also inadvertently extend our pain as well.

Still, if encounters with the sublime give rise to feelings of danger and terror, they can also possess a strange allure or even delight. As Kant observed, “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.”

The Tao Te Ching, however, cautions us about making too simple assessments and too quick value judgments: “When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”

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On this point, a final question can be posed—although not here answered—about the thorny relationship of beauty to goodness and how aesthetics dovetails or diverges from ethics and politics in interesting or unusual ways. To perform one’s duty is typically a thing of merit. We might think in this regard very generally of certain professions and personal roles, especially those of parents, teachers, medical personnel, soldiers, journalists, firemen, but also bricklayers, mailmen, and bus drivers, and many others.

However, duty-based views of ethics can appear inadequate in periods like the present. Praise and, with it, beauty of a different order can arise from the sacrifices undertaken that lie past the sphere of the obligatory. Such actions occupy a philosophical space known as the supererogatory, a realm that exceeds duty. Actions here are, in short, praiseworthy but not required.

In the current pandemic, many doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, in particular but not exclusively, have risked their lives and gone beyond what is expected of them. Many of these individuals have shown exceptional courage, generosity, commitment, and patience that might only be described as beautiful. The same thing, of course, might be said, of individuals who put themselves in harm’s way to save a drowning person or donate an organ to a stranger or run into a burning house to rescue a child.

As Shakespeare writes in the Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

As a Utilitarian philosopher concerned with human and animal suffering, Peter Singer points out: “Were we incapable of empathy—of putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own—then ethical reasoning would lead nowhere. If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.” But one might also point to the cultivated virtues of human character—a more Aristotelian framework of ethics—that can rise to the challenge in a crisis and be revealed in their beauty through public action.

As a loose and provocative “rule”, it might be said that in fortunate times and in societies with extensive freedom, everything is permitted but nothing matters, whereas in dark times and societies with few liberties, very little—or less—is permitted, but everything matters. Where, we might inquire, do we reside now relative to these admitted extremes?

In troubled times, when freedom contracts and suffering expands, we need the clarity not only of practical visionaries but the deeply moral voices of citizen leaders in whom we can locate exceptional courage or generosity. Figures who stand out and stand up to provide selfless models and to serve as agents of transformation.

This is where people like Lobsang Tenzin, Malala Yousafzi, Greta Thunberg, Rosa Parks, Susan B Anthony, Chief Joseph, Paul Robeson, and Frederick Douglas come to mind, but also the efforts of countless unnamed and unknown individuals who throw sacks of sand on the banks of a flooding river or carry bags of food to distant people in the dead of night. Or work exhausting extra shifts in the hospital in order to save or prolong another life.

Currently, there is even a vicarious and contagious sense of beauty that can emerge and flourish when, for example, we witness New Yorkers collectively clapping, honking, or banging pans and pipes each evening at 7 PM to honor frontline workers who might be leaving their shifts to go home and get a meal and a few hours of sleep.

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In a Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit has explored how communities often arise from and respond admirably to great calamities. By investigating disasters like the San Francisco earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Halifax explosion, 9/11 in New York City, the air bombings in London during World War II, and the earthquake in Mexico City, she shows how many people create and find networks of mutual support, meaning, and even joy in the challenging work of building, mending, and restoring their towns and cities. There are deep moments of generosity, collaboration, and altruism that frequently emerge during the immense pain and grief, ones that provide implications and hope for those living amidst the present crisis.

Solnit speaks of disaster in terms of a “crash course” in Buddhist ideas of “compassion for all beings, of nonattachment, of abandoning the illusion of one’s separateness, of being fully present, of awareness of ephemerality, and of fearlessness or at least aplomb in the face of uncertainty.” And she writes of the surprise she discovers when she asks people about the catastrophes they have endured, finding on “many faces that retrospective basking as they recount tales of Canadian ice storms, midwestern snow days, New York City blackouts, oppressive heat in southern India, fire in New Mexico . . . and a strange pleasure overall.”

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While a disaster—from the Latin words meaning “without a star” and implying disorientation in the universe—is fundamentally tragic and grievous, Solnit is right to claim that we should not ignore the constructive possibilities and side-effects a catastrophe can also produce: desires for social change, for inclusion, for purpose, for civic life, and for experiences of joy that can accompany rebuilding and survival.

Along with many others, I can attest myself to this truth, having experienced a number of serious floods that wrecked my childhood home and having lived in China during the student uprisings and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square.

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In the end, beauty is a fragile fortune and a key value among related others. It offers us a small shimmering hope of finding accord with the world or tranquility in our individual lives. In a secular society, we might even wonder if it is a suitable replacement for religion or a supplement for spirituality. Perhaps the best form of beauty, however, is what Nietzsche compares to a “slow arrow”:

The most noble kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating . . . but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing.

In a dangerous time, with no clear exit or terminus on an expanding horizon, it makes sense to carry such a slow arrow in the heart’s quiver as we proceed through the darkness.

© David Macauley

Fabulism (a sort of forest fantasy)  

The Second Story World:

Fairy Tales for Grown Ups (and curious children)

David Macauley

I have this silly idea that there might be a second-story world, one which most people can’t perceive but that quite possibly exists, nonetheless.  It hovers just above this world like a very faint shadow or delicate, shimmering fog and it’s populated by beings and things others don’t see or hear because they are too focused on or anchored to the ground floor.  There is no furniture within this realm, and everyone wears soft-soled slippers, so it remains pretty quiet.  That’s also partly why few of us realize it is there.

Some people, however, seem to know about and occasionally visit this place. When we dream, we may climb the stairs gingerly to enter this world, but we usually forget our errant sleepwalking once we come back down. People in love might catch glimpse of it as well and a few of them even desire to stay there.

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Here are a couple of stories that could be from this world. They were related to me by an affable donkey, and he indicated they are part of a trilogy. In the first rather fantastical one called “Fabulism”, the donkey is a horse.  In a more absurdist second story, “Folly,” the donkey is a zebra.  In the third tale—a kind of romance—”Fortuna,” the donkey is disguised as a donkey.  I know . . . it’s a bit confusing; I’m not clear either.

Don’t feel obligated to read these tiny tales or do anything with them.  Really. They are just distractions from the extremely busy first-story world where we all work hard to get by, and they are probably quite content to remain in the second-story where no one normally pesters them much. Imagine: they don’t have to worry about rent, parking meters, or stepping accidentally into the gutter there. But if you want to invite one downstairs for a cup of tea before bedtime some night, the donkey will be more than happy to oblige and chat with you for a while.  You can even change the ending if you like; he’s not that stubborn despite his reputation.

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Fabulism (a sort of forest fantasy)

 

The Burro and the Book

Jack was a friend of pain, of the burdens of the burro, of weight and ponderous thoughts about things belonging to the foreign world of those who move about on only two legs. Weight that crushes but when borne properly does not saddle one with unbearable sadness.  He spoke of shoulder stress and shin splints and the fear of being sold to the glue makers, but also fondly recalled ferrying a tired peasant safely across a swollen river or delivering a lost child home to her parents.

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“My weight is my love,” he whispered proudly to himself. “Pondus meum amor meus,” he added in the few words of Latin that he had learned from the scholarly monks who dwelled in the nearby abbey. Their goats, who wandered freely on the steep mountain paths, would on occasion coax Jack to kneel down and remain still, enabling them to leap off and onto his strong back—which served as a sort of shaggy rock—again and again as part of a playful game. When he complied with the goats’ requests, Jack felt thoroughly loved; he experienced a deep sense of the world’s beauty as well as his own usefulness to others. “Beau…tility,” he brayed through his big chomping teeth, in an attempt to combine these two feelings into one new word.

Over time, Jack had developed a consummate ability to adapt to conditions in which he found himself and to metamorphose—to shape-shift—seemingly into bodies that resembled in appearance his birth form as a donkey but that differed in subtle ways. He would not, however, share how he accomplished this trick or transformation. “There are things of which one should not speak aloud,” he apprised me, “for they have a way of coming into being beyond one’s control: storms, pestilence, nightmares, war, even death.”

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I was left myself to imagine whether Jack’s mutations were due to his artfulness with dyes, hair, powders, maquillage, and fabrics; to the inventiveness he may have acquired through his wide journeys about the Continent; to his growing awareness of the customs of other creatures; or even to some kind of familiarity with black magic.

Regardless of the true nature and origin of these alchemical charms, while toiling in the fields one summer morning with a congregation of bawdy monks who were harvesting a cornucopia from the land—including pomme de terre, truffles, cassava, and Jerusalem artichokes—Jack happened across a weathered old book. The ragged and fraying tome, which was tucked deep inside the hollow of a decaying tree stump, contained exquisite water-stained illuminations in the marginalia of Gryphons, Basilisks, Cynocephalus, Centaurs, Pegasus, Sun-lizards, Ercinee, Sirens, and other fabulous beings whose names he could not fathom.

But, as he inspected the work more closely, what struck Jack most strongly was that the volume was dedicated to a singular topic, now apparent as he opened to the faded title page, which announced The Book of Trees. What followed were chapters devoted to their classification, geography, biology, and history. There were illustrations, too, of odd and usual trees like the Baobab, the Dragon’s Blood, the Rainbow Eucalyptus, and the Blue Jacaranda.

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Jack was conversant with a great variety of books—the “the alphabet re-arranged” as he jestedfrom working many seasons with the learned monks, who spent countless hours in the colder months copying, translating, and preserving esoteric texts of all types—and he prided himself as a bibliophile. In his satchel, Jack carried a small trove, including a primitive atlas, a few chapbooks of poetry, a guide to edible plants, several philosophical treatises, works on both alchemy and astrology, a collection of fairy tales, and three or four dictionaries in different languages. He lamented that he could not transport more with him, but the weight of these books was already quite enough, even for a resilient donkey.

Jack flipped awkwardly but attentively through the pages of his new loosely bound manuscript with his right hoof—the most dexterous of his four—his eyes halting upon short passages written in a florid and unfamiliar script, some of which were also accompanied by colorful drawings:

Bury me beneath a great tree in the Diamond Forest.

Or plant me deep inside one.

Let the woodpeckers chip my eyes out.

Let the squirrels thieve my Adam’s apple.

Let the vultures feast on my entrails.

And let the cicadas strum my clavicle to make beautiful music

     at midnight once every 17 years.

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Beside this cryptic entry, he spotted a note entitled, “To the Next Tenants”:

 

You no longer need the keys.

We’ve removed the lock. 

Then unhitched the door from its jamb. 

And unscrewed the jamb from its wooden frame.

Voilà. There is now a vast window onto the cosmos.

Un-build this house. 

Enlarge this portal to provide yourself a front row seat— 

To the forest. To the mountains. To the sea.

And beyond:

To the yellow moon and the morning sun and

—when you peer deep into the night—

To the feral animals in the constellations. 

Aries, the winged ram

Cygnus, the swan

Volans, the flying fish

Draco, the dragon

Apus, the footless bird of paradise

Monoceros, the unicorn

Aquila, the thunderbolt yielding eagle

Canis Major, the great dog

Hydrus, the water snake

Capricornus, the sea goat

Vulpecula, the little fox,

Musca, the fly

Constellations

An elk may stroll into your living room. 

A velvet-winged owl might roost in your attic.

The postman will un-deliver your mail. 

Your neighbors live below you in the soft earth.

They scramble about in the canopy overhead, too.

The headlines in the wet newspaper on your Welcome Mat

may announce “Nothing happened today”. 

You will know otherwise. 

And delight in that. 

Inspired by this cryptic missive and the allure of an enchanted woods, Jack resolved right then to seek the Diamond Forest with the aid of a folded map that was in danger of falling apart upon its very first opening, one that had been placed inside the pocket of a small brown envelope slipped behind this very page. It was a risky proposition, he reminded himself, because in all likelihood the forest was simply a figment, a flight of a monk’s literary fancy.

The Forest and the Trees

Jack’s gamble, however, was not in vain. After many weeks of travel and some long and lonely nights of being lost along the way, he arrived at last upon the Diamond Forest, which was marked by a barely legible sign and a dilapidated wooden gate, which seemed to swing open on its own when he touched the Wisteria vines that were strangling it. On the sign, Jack could make out a few faded words: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest of wilderness.”* Below it in capital letters, he read: “WELCOME HOME”.

Emboldened by this apparent fortune, he then located the house referred to in the note. As the “next tenant,” Jack set about transforming it into a home—an open air stable and pavilion of the kind he imagined on first reading the text.

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In short order, nightingales came to nest in the porous rafters. Swallows flittered through the windows. A family of ducks shared his bathtub. Large Wolf Spiders took up residence in the corners. And Jack happily communed with these and many other creatures while studying their habits and this new habitat, recording his observations in an old leather journal.

It should be duly observed that Jack was now living as a horse—to the best of anyone’s guess, likely an Andalusianwhom others called Jacques, their having initially mispronounced his name, which afterward then stuck to him. As a sensitive fellow with a penchant for wry humor, he was keen on walking backwards when someone was before him but trotting forward when someone was approaching him from the rear. He explained that the reason he slept on the ground was so he wouldn’t fall out of bed. And he joked that he maintained a vegetarian diet not because he loved animals but because he hated plants. As for his appearance, he possessed a large refined head, a long broad neck, a thick tail and mane, and a massive chest.

By establishing a series of small vegetable gardens and erecting trellises to grow grapes for wine around the perimeter of his porous home, Jacques staked a further visual hold upon the bottom corner of the diamond-shaped woods. Much to his consternation, the forest possessed long narrow cemeteries along each of its four edges, creating a sharp distinction between the vertical, sky-bound world of the living flora and the horizontal earthen realm of the dead. And at each of the other corners stood singular striking trees that by their unique appearance defined the surrounding groves and seemed to anchor and orient the canopy of the forest around them like magnificent circus tent poles nailed to the earth.

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Over time, Jacques discovered that Poe was one of these three great trees, a versifying Willow, also known affectionately as the “PoeTree” of the forest. Poe was youthful and elegant, with long graceful limbs that she could bend down to reach a pool of water or, if necessary, to pluck up a hatchling that had fallen off a branch and return it to the nest. Poe was always daydreaming, singing, or swaying in the wind, enticing colorful songbirds to perch upon her branches and share their mellifluous tunes. And the grove around her was alive with ephemerals like Bloodroot, Calypso Orchids, Dogtooth Violets, Dutchman’s Breeches, and Shooting Stars.

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At the apex of the forest lived a second tree named Sy, the empathetic Banyan and soulful “PsychiaTree,” as friends frequently pointed out. Sy was journeying through the middle passage of life. In fact, much of what characterized this tree was an expression of the middle and in-between. Sy was of mild and flexible temperament, and his or her roots extended far and wide so as to connect with most all of the other trees in the neighborhood. “It would be like tucking an octopus into bed,” Poe joked, “if they ever need to place Sy and her tempestuous skein of roots into a pine box.”  Sy’s character and gender fluctuated with the weather and seasons and often depended on who he or she was interacting with. But Sy’s support of other forest beings was constant and completely unwavering.

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The third and oldest tree was Philo, the wise and reflective Bodhi Tree, sometimes respectfully referred to as the “Tree of Knowledge,” though only at the most formal of occasions. He rooted himself upon the angle of the forest opposite Poe. Philo possessed gnarled, wizened bark, and many knots on his limbs.  He had been struck by lightning more than once. It was a sign, some surmised, that he was endowed with special insight, bestowed with flashes of brilliance that could also have hints of darkness. Philo spoke slowly and deeply in a baritone voice that boomed at times like thunder. His branches formed an umbrella of shade. He had a stout and sturdy trunk. Whereas Poe tended to communicate in verse, rhyme, or lyric song, Philo preferred the precision of philosophical discourse and the concision of more prosaic speech.

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Each of the three great trees was gifted too with an unusual form of communication in addition to more ordinary ways of relating to their forest companions. They used these methods when they couldn’t see one another across the forest due to a storm or bout of fog. As a friend to the winged and being herself rather dreamy of character, Poe used the sky and a form of “air mail”, summoning birds, moths, and even low-lying clouds to carry her messages to other trees near and far. Having a close connection with the ground, Sy relied more upon “snail mail”, strapping his letters and memoranda onto the backs of box turtles and salamanders, or even groundhogs, when more speed or strength was required. And, finally, Philo took to “shipping” his communiques on floating sheets of bark that sailed through the meandering brooks to their destinations. In this way, the three stayed in touch with one another and the other creatures of the woods.

A central stream, The Arbor, also coursed through the forest, nourishing the trees and providing food, bathing, and recreation to all the inhabitants. As it passed by Philo, the stream coiled slowly into clear reflective pools that calmed the landscape and allowed him to view the heavens above through the liquid eyes of the earth. Philo used the placid water to meditate upon grand questions and issues. When the stream reached Sy, it spread out, branching into a network of dendritic tributaries, spilling like vascular roots in all directions. And upon nearing Poe, The Arbor gurgled and gushed. It spoke with its mouth open before cascading over a tiny waterfall that led to regions outside the forest.

The Library and Its Keeper

Near the midpoint of the Diamond Forest stood a slender but towering library referred to as The Tree House. The library was formed through the progressive enlargement of the interior of a rotted-out Giant Sequoia that rose many stories into the sky. A steep spiral staircase linked a series of small rooms together, stacked as they were like layers of a wedding cake on top of one another. This organic edifice was surrounded in turn by a tight circle of ancient trees, which protected it from the wind and rain.

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The library possessed an interesting origin and history, too. For years, a Franciscan monk nicknamed Orpheus surreptitiously deposited old, unread, or discarded manuscripts and damaged books that he had removed from the monastery into the cavity of the decaying Sequoia, which he carved out incrementally. He dreamed of establishing a small sanctuary and school for outcastes, runaways, and orphans, but when the Abbot at the monastery got wind of these deeds, which were deemed illicit, Orpheus absconded one night in order to avoid punishment, and then lived as a fugitive and genial outlaw in the temple of the forest.  Here, he tended the library and built his home.

At night, Orpheus would ascend The Tree House staircase to the roof, where he would play the lyre or flute, and then read aloud from the books he was repairing or translating. At such times, the forest would grow silent—as if awaiting a great snowfall—as the animals and trees tuned in to the many songs and tales he shared.  In this way, the forest denizens learned the nuances of human language, music, and story. When Orpheus died, his body was ceremoniously embedded upright at the base of the library in the very tree itself—just as the fragment in The Book of Trees had suggested—after he was embalmed in amber sap. That allowed others to honor him or, as Jacques chose to do, greet him with a gracious wink or knowing nod of the head upon entering.

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After Jacques was situated in his home, he gladly assumed the role of Librarian in the Diamond Forest. He swore to himself that he would do his best to protect the books and serve his new forest friends. Due to having four legs and a large girth, however, Jacques had to forego using the spiral staircase and instead accessed the interior shelves of the library by way of a platform rigged to a pulley on the outside of the Giant Sequoia, one that had been set up by Orpheus when he was constructing and, over time, maintaining and repairing The Tree House. The platform, which Jacques fitted with a settee fabricated of hay bales, a crude telescope for observing the stars, and an awning made of palm fronds to shield the sun and rain, suited him well because it enabled him to read and work in the open air while watching the birds and activity below on the forest floor. Jacques could not have imagined a more perfect way to pass his days.

Trialogues and Debates

Given their very different vantages on the forest world, the troika of eminent trees debated all sorts of issues with passion and verve, conversations followed intensely by Jacques, who increasingly joined in or, alternatively, provoked discussions himself, which he recorded later in his journal as “trialogues,” three-way colloquies.

Jacques mentioned in passing that he once overheard the monks at the hermitage disputing the conundrum, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” Apparently, most of the monks claimed that sound does not occur without a human perceiving it.

Philo let out a trunk full of laughter when he heard this and, as Poe tells the story, almost fell down himself, convulsing in mirthful disbelief. “Oh my. Of course, a sound occurs,” he belted out. “So many beings in the forest would witness that—deer, bear, and chipmunks, not to mention millipedes, pill bugs, and termites. They would all hear and also feel us tumble and fall. Those two-legged theologian types are so silly and self-centered to believe that no one would be around to experience the sound. That is the problem with humans. They imagine the world would not exist at all without them.”

Later that evening, Jacques looked over the notes in his journal to recall some of the other more engaging and entertaining interchanges the three trees had since his arrival:

Does a tree have a face?  Poe was adamant that trees possess a countenance, and he appealed to their senses as proof. “Look at my willowy tresses that flutter and pirouette in the wind. My mouth imbibes the stream’s ambrosia. My eyes are a pair of spiraling knots that soak in the feral world,” she cooed.

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Philo was less personal but more philosophical: “All of the outer appearances of a tree are surface, meaning over or above the face. Trees face in all directions: skyward, earthwards, and around-wards. We face the sun. We face our forest relatives on all sides. And we interface with the soil, the subsoil, and the deep earth. Our trunks are faces all the way down and all the way up.”

Sy, however, was skeptical about the question and its assumptions: “What is a face anyway, and why must we possess one like animals or humans? The clouds have no faces, and yet they provide us with rain and shade and colorful displays of light and shadow. We can see without true eyes and breathe without distinct noses. We can drink lacking mouths and hear lacking ears. We are facing each other right now but devoid of conventional faces.”

Jacques listened intently, but he was now more confused as to what he should believe.  He wondered whether he also possessed a face himself or just owned a large handsome nose and sculpted head.

What makes tree a tree beautiful? Poe, Sy, and Philo were all in agreement that most trees possess beauty, but they differed as to why this is so. Sy argued that beauty is related to function: “Trees perform so many different services for the forest and wider world, and they do it wonderfully well. There is splendor in this excellence, and the more one knows about our ability to help sustain a diversity of life or prevent erosion, the more one appreciates this beauty. These functions are expressed by our very form: our leaves have evolved to synthesize light; our roots are fashioned to seek out water and secure soil; our branches are perfect for generating shade and homes for birds and so many other critters.”

Sy continued to argue along these lines that beauty does not exist separately as a stable property or independent trait. Rather, it is linked to a broader place, a living system, or a local environment. “It is a delightful part of a greater whole that we cannot always see or know,” he said. “The beauty of a tree is but the attractive bait that should lure us to love the forest of which it is a tiny but important part.”

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Philo presented his case in terms of the merits of order and proportion: “Trees exhibit exquisite harmony and balance in their shapes and deeper essences, especially when it is evident in our features like radial symmetry and concentric rings.” From his perspective, beauty emanates from objects themselves, and hence is more objective. It is based in living things, not merely in the minds of human beings. “Everyone,” he said, “finds geometrically proportionate objects to be beautiful.” “Trees are archetypal—ideal models—because of their structure and form; they point beyond themselves to more perfect possibilities.”

“The very word ‘tree’ is related to ‘truth’ in the aspirational sense of seeking light and enlightenment in ‘the above’, and every tree has a truth to share and story to tell. Our leaves are intricate and ordered maps that can be read and studied. Like animal hands or paws, the shapes and lines and veins therein tell us who we are; what we’ve been, and where we might be going,” he said. “The forest is nature’s most magnificent museum,” Philo suggested, “and it is dedicated to lofty works that have taken long periods of time to be assembled or, more exactly, self-assembled. There is art, even if there is no visible artist at work here.”

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Poe listened closely to his friends, but also desired to signal his differences with them. He liked the comparison of the forest to a museum but said he might prefer an analogy with a church or, better yet, a temple.  He believed that arboreal beauty is tied more closely to the varying aesthetic qualities of a tree’s sensual appearance, its particular disclosure in the forest, the way it stands or sways or shows off its colorful fashion in autumn or spring.

“Let’s be more superficial, Philo, but also more profound,” he declared with some swagger. “We all love different kinds of trees. And, in fact, we are three very different trees ourselves. There is little in terms of sheer outward qualities that all trees share. Some of us are tall and lean; others are short and bushy; some bear fruit; others generate cones; many of us are green; others are white or brown or red, or some combination thereof.”

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Poe proceeded to claim that there is no real agreement about what defines a tree, and that there is even less common ground therefore on what makes one beautiful. “I can appreciate the allure of proportionality, of which you speak, but I also adore deviation from it—bedraggled trees that cling heroically to windswept cliffs; silky bamboo that lacks growth rings, stem girth, and traditional wood; and even the lightning strikes on your own trunk, Philo, and the charming fire scars tattooed all over your wrinkled body.”

Philo thanked Poe, if a bit reluctantly, and interjected, “I take it that you were referring a few moments ago to more subjective and ‘observer-dependent’ aspects of ‘tree watching’—if you permit me a loose comparison with bird-watching—namely, ‘secondary aspects’ such as color that don’t really belong to an object itself but arise in the observation of it.”

“Yes, if I understand you correctly,” replied Poe. “And it is the job of poets like me to praise the beauty of trees while admitting that there is no universal standard or form to which we can appeal. Rather, beauty is born of personal experience and our encounters with it. I will sing a celebration of the Joshua Tree, the Ginkgo, the Sassafras, the Mango, and the Lebanon Cypress, as well as your very own stubborn but lovable self, Philo.”

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“Perhaps at my funeral eulogy,” Philo retorted, “after I lay down and die so as to become a forest log and a decomposing host for mushrooms and mice, Poe. But not before then.”

They both laughed.

After listening to this discussion, Jacques inquired if there couldn’t be a more holistic approach to beauty. “Why must there be only one defining trait that we are trying to chase down?”, he asked. Jacques raised the possibility that many of the aesthetic features that the three had considered could be compatible. “Might it not be the ensemble of such characteristics that makes trees beautiful?” He added, “beauty, it seems, also appears to be bound closely with goodness—a tree’s generosity, self-sacrifice, and value to the forest and to others. Yes, the inner and the outer are kindred; beauty and duty are allied.”

Jacques felt like he was on a roll and had something to offer to the debates for the first time. He asked if there might be a difference between the beauty of individual trees and the aesthetic qualities of the forest as a whole, which he suggested could actually be an instance or embodiment of the sublime. He elaborated briefly on this distinction, explaining that in contrast to the beautiful, which involves expressions of pleasantness, attractiveness, or charm, the sublime has the power to overwhelm us and inspire mystery and awe—even the suspicion of something awful, including a sense of terror.

“The sublime operates upon us on a much grander scale and can make us feel small, finite, or insignificant as well as provide an experience of amazement and wonder. While the day is beautiful, the night is sublime. While trees are beautiful, the forest is sublime. The forest engulfs us non-trees by its sheer immensity and complexity, and it can trigger responses that oscillate between the poles of temptation and repulsion,” Jacques confessed. “This might be why humans are both drawn to the forest and fear it as well,” he added.

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Poe and Sy listened closely to Jacques’s soliloquy, signaling to him their general agreement. Philo remained quiet but was noticeably impressed by what his equine friend had said.

What exactly is a tree? Philo advocated the view that a tree is a person, a “who” and a subject rather than simply a “what” or a mere object, even as he still clung to his position about objective beauty. “Trees are people, too. We have individual stories and histories,” he said.

“Persons?” replied Poe.

“Yes,” Philo stressed. “Personhood is not restricted to humans. We have identities, needs, interests, experiences, and ways to communicate, too, as we all well know. Humans are two-legged persons. Horses like Jacques are four-legged persons. And we trees are one-legged persons, though with many more limbs than others if you count our branches.”

Sy responded by arguing that trees are not separate individuals: “We extend deeply into the ground and high into the air. Our roots dovetail with those of many forest dwellers. Some of us—like epiphytes—grow onto and even into other trees, using them like ladders to reach the upper echelons where light is more plentiful. We piggy-back off some bodies, but we also provide homes for owls, squirrels, and snakes, to name but a few. There are often no clear endings or beginnings to our beings.”

In fact, Sy considered trees to be more like relationships than distinct beings. “In some ways,” he submitted, “we are primarily a web of roots, a network. One could say that we are wooden tentacles that tunnel and claw through sediment; fingered serpents that expand into the soilless sky; sluggish filaments literally hell-bound and heaven-bent on connection. We provide a living bridge between the earth and heavens. We are an over-flowing and ever-evolving middle. We are driven by a desire for addition, for growing outward—by ‘and’ and ‘and” and ‘and’ as we scatter our seeds and nuts—in the guise of food to Blue Jays or squirrels, for example, or launch spores into the capricious but complicit winds.

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Poe was feeling a bit blue and elected not to argue with Sy or Philo but instead simply presented her own perspective:

A tree is an unfolding event, an expansive field of Being as we mature into the oldest living witnesses to a place—wise elders or presiding statesmen for an entire community. Everything else grows small in our presence, though no less important. The children of men as well as many forest critters appear to sense this power when they play in our shadows or shimmy up our branches. I overheard one child say to her siblings: ‘Hey, there’s Great Grandpa standing on the hill, sharing stories with the wind again. Let’s go ask him how many rings he carries in his wooden trunk this year.’

Jacques chimed in: “What if a tree falls down or is sawed up, turned into lumber, and made into a house? Is it still then a tree?”

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“Like our Tree House library?” asked Poe.

Sy and Jacques both chuckled, but Philo gazed up into clouds, scratched his upper trunk with a branch, and underscored that the question merited serious consideration: “Yes, if a tree is primarily matter—wood, fiber, leaves, bark, water, roots, and so on—then we must agree the house is still a tree. But that would be absurd. A wooden bench or a wagon wheel is certainly no longer a tree, nor is a log that the monks might toss into the fireplace.”

“That would mean The Book of Trees is actually a tree, wouldn’t it,” added Jacques. “I mean . . . books depend upon you all for their paper, right?”

“Yes, all these uses of trees are making my bark itch,” Sy noted in a conflicted tone of voice. “It seems that we are often taken for granted or viewed simply as resources, even if it can feel good to be useful to others.”

Philo sought to return to the question at hand, but the others were willing to let the conversation ramble more freely. Philo conceded to their wishes but managed to slip in a final word, as he was wont to do: “Well, if we view a tree in terms of its more fundamental form or essence, as I’ve been maintaining, rather than as soulless ‘stuff’ or mere material, then we will arrive at a different answer to this issue and perhaps even a possible solution. If a tree is not ‘tree-ing,’ meaning performing actions that are proper to its respective nature—such as birthing apples, figs, berries, or flowers—and also developing into what it was intended to become since the day it was a tiny seedling, then maybe it is not really a tree.”

Jacques smiled and couldn’t hide his amusement as he spoke: “I certainly hope that doing philosophy, psychology, and poetry are legitimate ways of being a tree.  Otherwise, you three oddballs are in trouble and might be exposed as forest interlopers and imposters, or worse, instances of invasive species.”

Does tree life have a purpose? Sy turned to address Jacques’ question and drifted into a meditative mood:

Strange to think, but humans evolved with trees and without us their curious tribe would not likely have come into being or survived at all. A primary reason they possess dexterous hands and whirling arms stems from the fact that their ancestors spent many eons in our midst before they climbed down to the ground. We serve as connections with and compacts between their generations. When humans plant a tree, it binds them to biota and the living landscape, but it also ties them through time to future persons or, genealogically, to their own ‘family tree’, especially when a young elm or maple, for example, is established as a ‘green headstone’ above the grave of one of their departed relatives.

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Poe was less interested in the role that trees might play for humans and more intrigued by their ancient origins and what that might say about the future of forests. He spoke of the World Tree, whom he described in terms of a kind of primal existence or, to use Philo’s more abstract word, “being-ness”. Poe said this cosmic tree likely burst forth from the navel of the earth, and it connected the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west, creating a pillar and axis that linked the underworld with the terrestrial realm and the sky.

“We trees,” Poe asserted, “must still go down and descend into the darkness in order that we might grow up and mature into the light. We need to remember that there is an aboriginal source to our existence that cannot be snuffed out, not by fire or even human fury.”

Old Philo was exhausted. It was late in the evening, and he wasn’t feeling especially well. Although he had a definite opinion about what he called a tree’s “inherent purpose” and “indwelling goal,” he yawned and stretched his limbs toward the moon, promising to reply another time. As he looked at the tombstones in the cemetery near his base, he said they reminded him of young trees pushing boldly upward.  “I’m tired, very tired,” Philo declared in an uncharacteristic whisper. “I would love to lie down in the graveyard and sleep a long time, a very long time.”

From his perch atop the library, Jacques glanced toward Poe and then Sy so as to judge their reactions to Philo’s concerning remark, but they were both nodding off as well.

Jacques was unable to get to sleep that night, and so he flipped through the entries in his journal. There, he read through other conversations he had recorded that addressed topics such as Are trees stationary or nomadic?; Should trees respect humans?; and Do trees possess a soul?. He paid particular close attention to the entry entitled, What happens when a tree dies?.

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As Jacques recalled these discussions, it occurred to him that perhaps one day there might be a new Book of Trees, except this time it should be a book in which the trees speak for themselves and tell the world directly what they think, feel, believe, and experience.

Calm Turned Crisis

Despite the climate of woodland tranquility that persisted for many months, the word circulated in the forest that Poe was feeling melancholic and forlorn beyond measure. She now rarely whistled in the wind with a light-hearted voice. Sy was similarly stressed and losing his jacket of leaves rapidly even though it was not yet autumn. The top of his head was nearly bald and extremely sunburned—though not from “crown shyness,” wherein neighboring trees avoid touching one another in the high canopy.

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And, most seriously, Philo was having a terrible time remaining upright. He wobbled in the gales and summer storms, as if he were drunk or standing on a teetering ship. There were signs that he might be dying—brittle peeling bark, deformed leaves, fungi growing at his foundation, and yellowing foliage. All throughout the forest, omens arose that things were not right, that a plague of some sort was assaulting life on all fronts.

In short time, The Arbor began to run coffee brown and then charcoal black, losing its hallmark clarity. A sticky tar-like mucus choked and coated the water, which then stagnated.  Dialogue and trialogue between the trees subsequently slowed because messages would often go undelivered or disappear entirely, like lost mail. Gray smoke wafted from sinkholes that opened in the forest floor, ones that grew disturbingly hotter and larger. The smoldering holes darkened the sky, turned white butterflies dusky, and fouled the soil. The songbirds of the forest took flight and also disappeared—along with fox, hare, raccoon, and wolves—and the accompanying silence added to the eerie atmosphere.

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No one knew why these things were occurring. Speculation and superstition accompanied the panic. Jacques thus took it upon himself to conduct an investigation with the help of The Council of Trees, the most prestigious body of the forest’s beings. He also sequestered himself in the library and poured through books on geology, botany, hydrology, meteorology, and engineering, along with reviewing the shards of forest history that he cobbled together from oral interviews with the oldest sylvan residents.

Through his inquiry, Jacques discovered that the Diamond Forest was so-named because it was once thought to be on the grounds of a diamond mine, in addition to having its distinct geometric shape. It turned out, however, that no jewels had been found in the earth, but only a soft black rock, which forms diamonds over many millennia, and which can be burned for fuel more immediately.

Apparently, a shady scalawag and his huckster sidekick had initially sold the forest to a diamond prospector with this lie, and for the past half century, crews of men had mined the black rock for fuel before abandoning the woods suddenly. The mining tunnels that had long been concealed from view since that time were now collapsing one by one, and the low grade mine fire that had burned for the past five decades was now fully inflamed as it fed on rich dense, but previously untapped, ore.

From the monks, Jacques heard as well that the men who had adjourned the forest because of concerns about the safety of the mine might be planning to cut down the oldest and tallest trees on the perimeter in order to produce fuel for their infernal machines. It was even rumored that in the coming cooler months, they might resort to burning books in some of the remaining libraries in the kingdom, including The Tree House, in order to keep warm, thereby destroying the forest’s archive of knowledge in the process. Jacques could not confirm this hearsay, but it added to his anxieties.

Death-And-Life

The situation was grave. And the unspoken worry that the tribe of the two-legged—the crowd of men—might return to the forest very soon with their noisy instruments and dangerous ideas necessitated action.

On the evening preceding a planned meeting of the forest’s most vaunted elders, Poe released into the twilight air a gargantuan Atlas Moth, whom he called Noah and whose wingspan was nearly the length of the king’s foot, with instructions to seek out and find the great World Tree, in hopes that it might share some kind of inspiration or assistance.

Emergency Measures

Jacques had grown impatient and was unwilling to wait stoically for a change of fortune or miraculous rescue. Under his tutelage, The Council of Trees debated their options. After many heated sessions and policy disagreements, they adopted a three-fold approach to addressing the urgent problem that the forest had acquired from the past; to quelling the present and very pressing threats; and to minimizing the likelihood of future travesty. Further, the strategy relied on a line of defense that coordinated the forest’s own elemental resources: the realms of water, air, and earth would be enlisted and allied with the trees to battle the emergency brought forth by the fire and its unbearable heat, smoke, and appetite.

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First, the forest dwellers set about extinguishing the burning mine, which now crackled and rumbled loudly beneath the ground. Since trees suck up, absorb, and store water—which they routinely share with their thirsty neighbors—Poe revealed how the fluid could be flushed out of their systems all at once by a method she referred to as “cleansing breath,” what the monks practiced as kapalabhati. Toward this end, she instructed the trees how to inhale deeply, holding a great trunkful of watery breath before exhaling it all out.  She was inspired by the creative ability of water and air to do invisible and patient work: to quietly seek low ground or empty spaces, to be both passive and powerful, to sustain life, and to show stylish exuberance as they performed their daily tasks.

There was, of course, a risk of de-hydration to the trees should they lose too much water at one time but, Poe advised, if they drank up great volumes one day after it rained and saved just enough for their own well-being overnight, they could survive a single instance of a mass release in order to squelch the mine fire. And, in fact, this stratagem worked. On the timed signal of dozens of screech owls who were positioned on observant perches throughout the forest, ten thousand trees surrendered their water, which flowed directly down the interiors of their trunks and straight out toward the abyss of the burning pit, thereby suffocating the smoldering flames.

Plumes of steam shot up steadily into the sky for hours like hot geysers. And the fire simmered, fizzled, and eventually died out entirely over the course of the rest of the day. Jacques was overjoyed and remarked that he felt like they had just blown out a large roman candle that was about to explode on a birthday—or, as Philo quipped, “death-day”—cake.

While this first response was a convincing victory, Philo reminded everyone that the tribe of the two-legged was still clearly addicted to what he called “fuels from hell,” those originating underground in the mineral veins of the bounteous land. These deposits were always going to be a potential source of aggravation in all forests throughout the kingdom because the extraction process felled trees; it despoiled the water, air, and earth; and it heated up the temperature in the surrounding regions. Surely, he reasoned, addicts will continue unfailingly to demand energy to run their contraptions. Their avarice and compulsion to seek comfort and convenience would certainly send them again and again in search of fire sources. “As more smokestacks rise from the ground, fewer trees will stand,” warned Philo.

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Philo conveyed to the Council that “fuels from heaven”—from the blue air and oceanic atmosphere itself—were a much better prospect and a safer long-term solution. Through the engineering guidance of Jacques, along with the creative assistance of a battalion of crafty beavers, carpenter ants, and Bower birds, the trees were able to make micro-adjustments to their own woody fibers, veins, and leaves—their mitten-shaped “solar collectors” as Poe put it—to gather enough additional clean energy from above and convert it to a form of potential power, beyond what they needed themselves to survive. By altering the light-sensitive pigments in their leaves, in particular, the trees thus engaged in a kind of reverse alchemy, converting the gold of sunlight into a new currency. “As long as the sun glows in the sky,” Philo said, “the mines in the earth no longer need to burn”.

With a blend of thoughtful improvisation and practical know-how, the team of engineers also transmitted the sun’s tamed energy through a “pipeline” of enhanced and strengthened roots to each of the four cemeteries along the angles of the Diamond Forest. There, it was stored in the many coffins submerged in the earth. These caskets, to which stumps of inflammable petrified wood were added for safety reasons, served in effect as powerful batteries until a more permanent storage remedy could be found.

The dead were now in some real sense charged with new vitality, and some of the youngest trees feared that the corpses might be fully reanimated, brought inadvertently back to life so as to walk the woods with blank faces at night. “I wouldn’t mind that, however” Philo commented, “since most of the dead are likely Druids, who have a naturally affinity with trees. They might even share some of the secrets of the netherworld with us.”

The engineering crew took a further step as well. They proceeded to tap, trick, and trap the ever-moving energy of the wind that blew from the mountains across the treetops. By repositioning the limbs of many Redwoods—the tallest trees in the forest—onto circular wooden pallets that rotated in the gusts of air, they were able to transform these living giants into colossal windmills. The energy collected was then stored in the local graveyards as well.

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On the heels of these communal feats of ingenuity, Jacques composed a letter to his friends in the monastery that apprised them of the developments and included detailed descriptions and diagrams of their work. He asked the monks to share this news discretely with the men in the city, though to be sure not to attribute anything to intelligent trees or a talking donkey. He further suggested that the monks might offer this supply of energy to the city for a reasonable fee and thereby use the funds to repair their own monastery walls or to build a new refectory.

Finally, Sy addressed the persisting concern that men might return to the forest to raze the trees, to ransack the library, or perhaps even to burn their books out of fear, envy, or another form of unreason. He had been working on a long-range response to this worry for some time. Sy proposed that in order to preserve the knowledge in the library and the wisdom of the forest as a whole that each tree memorize a story or treatise before the tree’s time arrived to fall and collapse back to the embracing earth. Many of the trees in fact had already committed to heart a tale or two from the readings that had been regularly offered by the former librarian, Orpheus.

In this way, Sy prophesied, the books of the forest would be “tree-incarnated”. The great stories and truths would survive and even attain a kind of living immortality. They would be preserved in the physical shapes and bodies of the trees—recorded and encoded deeply in their rings of memory like grooves for a gramophone—as routinely happened with the sunlight, the rainfall, the temperature fluctuations, the storms, and the changing seasons that left their peculiar marks and traces for posterity.

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Word of this idea spread excitedly through the forest. Almost every tree adopted a book and began committing its words and images to memory. The canopy was abuzz with the sound of trees reciting passages, talking to themselves almost as if they had lost their very wits, and murmuring aloud in the warm breezes. Jacques could not always decide if the voices in the trees rang out more like a symphony or a cacophony. But he was hopeful they would bear a kind of forest fruit.

Poe himself was torn between many possible options, but he eventually picked a thick volume to learn that included poems and haiku by writers of the faraway East. Sy selected the sutras of the great Buddha, a figure who had influenced him during the most troubled periods of his life. And, after much deliberation, Philo chose the collected works of two of the most enlightened philosophers of the ancient world, fond as he was of their originality, their love of the natural world, their practical wisdom, and the fact that they usually disagreed with one another.

Some of the other trees began to request more obscure books about which they had heard but that were not available in The Tree House. Since the monastery contained a far larger library, they prodded Jacques to obtain these works on loan. Assuming his earlier guise as a donkey, Jacques obliged to borrow as many of them as he could, relying upon his friendship with the monks as well as the gift of energy that the forest had bestowed upon the monastery, one which served as a gesture of good will and tacitly as a form of collateral for the borrowed books.

In order to expedite the process of tree-incarnation, Sy experimentally identified a distinct pattern of vibrations—a simple musical rhythm in essence—that could be telegraphed easily along or inside tree roots and, through its meditative and repetitive beat, facilitate the memorization of a lengthy novel, a complex scientific tract, or a challenging work of philosophy. He called these “tap roots,” and the method for memorization reduced by half the time that an ordinary tree required to incarnate and fully embody a book.

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As Sy’s assistant—so chosen because he could move on four feet about the forest— Jacques would place a book carefully at the foot of a tree, and after intoning a few secret words, he would tap the visible roots and apply a milky substance to them that Sy had distilled from the sap of young healthy trees. From that point, it was up to the tree to perform the careful work of memory—to upload the volume it had selected.

It occurred later to Jacques that The Book of Trees which he had fortuitously found in the stump many moons ago might have come to be there independently in a similar way—left for some unknown reason at the base of the tree after it had been memorized. Was this arboreal communication part of the very fabric of the forest universe itself, he wondered? And how might the world of humans possibly benefit if they were to become aware of this secret? Would they treat forests more humanely? Would they enlarge their communities to include trees and other beings?  Would they envision new kinds of cross-species and cross-kingdom interactions?

After hundreds of books had been uploaded, memorized, and preserved, The Council of Trees soon discovered what no one could have possibly expected. And it delighted them all. Since the trees were already tethered in so many unique ways, it turned out that most of the old growth veterans and some of the younger saplings of the forest could access one another’s stories through the vast network of fine roots that linked them: a “Wilderness Web,” as Sy dubbed it. “It is like Indra’s Net,” he said, “whereby each diamond or jewel in a beautiful lattice mirrors the images and reflects the light of all the others.”

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If the trees shared water, air, and a common soil, it stood to reason that they could also belong to a larger “forest mind,” as Philo speculated. Here was an elaborate “echo-system”—as Poe, with his musical talents, put it—wherein the voices of all trees and their adopted books were coupled at both the material and mental levels. In other words, over time, the library itself would be diffused laterally—and also literally—throughout the entire forest, rather than existing vertically and singularly as it now did. Practically anyone would be able to access it on their own. And until that time arrived, they could at least gain entrance through one of the portals in the three great trees who lived on the angles of the great woods: chez Poe, chez Sy, and chez Philo.

In this manner, with the aid of elemental water, air, and earth, the trees were able to drive the pernicious forms of fire from the forest or, minimally, keep it at bay for a while longer. Together, the triangle of distinguished friends—now become four with the addition of Jacques to make a supportive square or seamless diamond—discovered that they could create astonishing change by yoking themselves to one another, a union of disparate forces.

As if the firmament sought to approve the protracted resolution of this storied struggle, Noah, the giant Atlas Moth, returned on cue to the forest, alighting on Jacques’ shoulders, where he continued to rest for days. Following the moth in great raucous flocks, the songbirds came back, too: Marsh Warblers, Thrushes, Lyrebirds, Nightingales, Magpies, Finches, Bluebirds, Mynahs, Larks, and many others.  And on their heels arrived the remaining departed forest animals.

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From Overstory to Second Story

Jacques—”née Jack” as he would still whinny by force of habit—was grateful that catastrophe had been averted.  The arboretum survived, at least for the time being. The greatest weight of his adventurous life had been lifted or, minimally, lightened.

Poe recovered her fairer spirits and took once again to song, composing an epic poem about the challenges the forest had faced and surmounted. Sy’s beautiful jacket of leaves was being repaired by a platoon of leaf-cutter ants, who stitched it back together with the silky threads of Golden Orb Weaving spiders. Philo stood more erectly, though now with the aid of crutches that had been wrought for him by young Birch trees.

The woods once again hummed with peaceable activity. Ivory-billed woodpeckers drummed in delight as they chiseled indentations into the branches of scores of trees who volunteered their services. The wasps appended empty hanging paper nests to these holes and the fireflies, in turn, filled these makeshift lanterns with pulsing light. The whole forest glowed in celebration. The gem that it was sparkled throughout the night.

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As Jacques descended from the overstory, he gazed across the canopy and saluted the three great trees one by one. As he exited the library, the crickets, cicadas, and bullfrogs applauded his leadership with percussive clicks, chirps, and bellows. A chorus of appreciation rose from the understory. Poe, Sy, and Philo each bowed their crowns toward Jacques in gratitude.

Jacques flashed a big-toothed grin and gazed around the illuminated forest. He let out a great neigh and sigh of relief. For the first time since arriving, he permitted himself to dream of setting forth on another journey, towards a new story, one that would not likely be contained in any book yet written on this verdurous earth.

Copyright: David Macauley, 2020

*Line borrowed from John Muir.

Sun Salutation

The sun [is] a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed.

—John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, “You owe me”.  Look what happens with a love like that.  It lights the whole sky.”

—Hafiz

Tell me the story about how the sun loved the moon so much that she died

every night just to let him breathe.
―Hanako Ishii

Later today, much of America will be enshrouded for a brief span of time in an abrupt darkness brought on by a total solar eclipse, a relatively rare astronomical event. It is helpful to remember that Thales—the reputed first western philosopher—accurately predicted for the initial time an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC, at least according to the account by the respected Greek historian Herodotus. That event, which was interpreted by many as a great omen, likely halted a battle in an ongoing fifteen-year war between the Lydians and Medians when a truce was summarily declared.

Indeed, philosophers have been long interested in meteorological and cosmological phenomena, first being referred to as physiologoi (nature philosophers or physicists). They gazed in wonder at the heavens and stars, looking for evidence of order, marveling at a fathomless beauty, searching for ways to navigate by night, and seeking signs of our place in the capacious universe.

The sun has been an object of veneration throughout human history. Entire religions have revolved around it. Solar deities include the Aztec Tonatiuh, the Hindu Surya, the Egyptian Ra, and the Germanic Sól, among multiple others. Sunday was the day of the week that ancient Romans devoted to their sun god, and it became the time that later Christians chose as their Sabbath. Many early churches in fact followed pagan practices of celebrating the light, warmth, and life fostered by the sun, building their houses of worship to face the alluring sunrises in the East.

Sunlight is the elemental medium in which we dwell, the setting and grand stage for the pageantry of all living things. Many yoga practices take note of this fact with salutations to the sun (Surya Namaskara), graceful bending, stretching, and rising postures (asanas) that aim to energize the body and pay homage and gratitude to solar rays. Within philosophy, such light is allied closely with notions of truth and enlightenment. Sight is nearly essential for insight. Plato’s simile of the Sun is the most well known invocation of our neighborhood star. In the Republic, Plato relates the Allegory of the Cave in which he assimilates the Sun to the idea and ideal of the Good as imprisoned figures make their way from the darkness of opinion (doxa) to the radiance of a true reality. Descartes similarly upholds the clarity of vision and light as ways to avoid falsehood and error while Heidegger revives the Greek notion of aletheia as truth that is brought to light through an unconcealedness and disclosure.

Our solitary star emits light from a distance that requires eight minutes to arrive to our eyes. In turn, we are able to gaze with our own tiny “solar collectors” two and a half million light years away to the Andromeda galaxy and beyond so as to look upon stars that have long since perished. It is small wonder, then, that the poet Milton proclaimed, “Thou Sun, of this great World both Eye and Soul.” Goethe even wondered if our eyes owe their existence to light itself, having been brought forth by the summoning sun with which they are intimately bound.

The Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who saw deeply into the complex nature of change itself—panta rhei or, roughly, “all things flow” is a terse phrase he bequeathed to posterity—observed that even “the sun is new each day.” Heraclitus also made elemental fire (pyr) his universal guiding principle or logos. “All things are requital for fire, and fire for all things,” he speculated. Fire, which is embodied paradigmatically and symbolically in the very sun itself and then domesticated by humans as technology—tamed and tricked into electricity, for example—lies at the pulsing center of the transformational powers of the environing world (e.g., lightning, volcanoes, burning forests) and our own species more particularly (e.g., heating, cooking, lighting, weaponry). Both a natural and social phenomenon, fire possesses equally creative and destructive potential, assisting in the governance of evolution and bonding us in a Faustian bargain and Promethean pact that has forever changed our human condition.

Despite such solar benefits and celebrations, however, the sun is now also emerging as a source of fear or a proximate cause of global challenges. Unanticipated sunburns, cataracts, and skin cancers; insufferable heat waves; threatening droughts; warming oceans; and, more generally, rapid climate change are all familiar and growing concerns. Like vampires, we increasingly don sunglasses; cloak our windows with shades, blinds or tinted glass; and cover our bodies with protective sunscreens or clothing to keep dangerous rays at bay. As with fire, the sun has become a more double-edged entity: both an actual font of light, energy, and life and a potential catalyst for disease, disorder, and death. The French philosopher George Bataille went so far as to speak of our “rotten sun” and parodied as well in taunting and aphoristic style what he termed the “solar anus” in the sky.

On Monday (meaning “Moon day”) August 21st 2017, we will be presented with the majestic splendor and odd specter of a sudden darkness and blackout, the temporary removal of an elemental and reliable “given” in the other-than-human sky. This is surely a time to take heart and to “reflect”—to invoke a word and image bound with light—on our relatively young four and a half billion year old star even if, sadly, we only appreciate some things when they are vanishing, broken, or gone forever. All living beings, of course, rely for their existence and subsistence ultimately upon solar power, from bacteria to lightning bugs and great Sequoia trees. And we are no different.

 

The forthcoming period of darkness might also reasonably encourage us to contemplate and consider the value of both the night and clear skies that are unencumbered by anthropogenic light interference or pollution. Just as we need the bright light and heat of the sun, we—like nearly all other earthly creatures, many of whom thrive at night—require the restorative power of darkness. Whether cast as shadows, sleep, or dense blackness, the night has often been disparaged or demonized in Western thought and culture. The night, however, is best characterized in terms of degrees, shades, tones, and textures rather than as a uniform singularity. The transition from evening to night is the time, too, for philosophical reflection when, as Hegel observed, the Owl of Minerva takes winged flight. It is an opportunity for introspection and wonder, and a period for our sharply defined sense of self to soften and dissolve and to give way to eros, dreams, imagination, and poetry.

In the past, solar eclipses have spawned widespread panic, ranging from fears that they are a threat to pregnant women to rumors of wild monsters that are capable of swallowing the sun. Upon witnessing an eclipse in 637 B.C., the Greek poet, Archilochus, stoked such tales when he wrote: “After this, men can believe anything, expect anything. Don’t any of you be surprised in future if land beasts change places with dolphins and go to live in their salty pastures, and get to like the sounding waves of the sea more than the land, while the dolphins prefer the mountains.”

A solar eclipse is an outcropping of the sublime, an event routinely engendering at once both wonder and existential worry, or at least discomfort—a peculiar sense of awe coupled with the suspicion of something conceivably awful, as when a violent storm, hurricane, tornado or tsunami strikes. The sublime is an encounter beyond that which is simply beautiful. Its sheer magnitude can generate a feeling of our own smallness and finitude in a vast universe, as well as provide us with an experience of amazement and a curious kind of pleasure. Kant distinguished two forms of the sublime: the mathematical (being overwhelmed by great size) and the dynamical (being overwhelmed by great force). Following the German philosopher, we might also say that whereas daylight is beautiful in its ability to “charm” us, night (especially when it is brought on suddenly by an eclipse) can be sublime to the extent it can “move” us. Or, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it more poetically, “Moonlight is sculpture; sunlight is painting.” The sheer immensity beyond our capacity to compare or fully comprehend it, along with the near boundlessness and unrecognizable formlessness of a solar event such as an eclipse, can trigger our sensibilities to oscillate swiftly between aesthetic extremes and cause our feelings to shift quickly between emotional poles.

Naturalist Annie Dillard has conveyed some of the strange and numinous dimensions of a total solar eclipse in an account of her experience while visiting the state of Washington in 1982. She observes:

It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky . . . I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.

Dillard continues:

The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded . . . The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages.

And toward the end of the essay, she adds:

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm . . . We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit . . . This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

On this matter of an imminent or likely “crashing”, the question can be appropriately raised as to whether we humans are becoming like the legendary Icarus, a haughty and unrestrained species flying too close to the sun for our own safety and comfort through our unnecessary over-reliance upon fossil fuels (stored solar fire, in effect). There is a clear and preferable difference between “fuels from hell” (coal, gas, oil) aggressively mined from the bowels of the earth and cleaner, more renewable “fuels from heaven” (solar and wind power). In this regard, the atomic bomb is in some respects like a first-born human-generated sun and an instance of a more technological (as opposed to natural) sublime given its explosive ability to bathe and bury the planet in immense light and intense heat beyond our imaginations. While nuclear weapons now sit like silent Buddhas in their silos, we frequently forget about their presence and, indeed, waxing omnipresence. But in times of darkness, we wait nervously to learn if they might be deployed in a final fiery catastrophic war—with Russia, China, a rogue political faction, or most recently North Korea. Perhaps this is part of an associated or hidden human fear of the sun exploding or, alternatively, going dark—an apocalyptic and unthinkable black hole of a moment for humanity, a living nightmare.

Nevertheless, there may still be reason to hope and time to change, especially since the sun pelts the Earth with enormous quantities of untapped energy each hour of every day. Experimental and environmentally oriented artists, too, are helping us to view the sun and its effects upon Earth in new ways. Spencer Tunick has taken photographs of hundreds of nude men and women atop a melting Swiss glacier in order to call attention to and raise awareness about rapid climate change. James Turrell has explored the hypnotic qualities of the sun by building structures that reveal light’s liquidity, capacity to mark time, and interplay with shadows. He has even converted a large volcanic crater near Flagstaff, Arizona into a monumental work of art so to reveal the beauty of celestial phenomena: the moon, sun, and stars. And in London’s Tate Gallery, Olafur Eliasson has created a massive and dazzling artificial sun by placing yellow lights behind a great screen and below a ceiling filled with mirrors. His “Weather Project” illuminates the significance of the sun on the climate and our societies and helps to clarify the physical and emotional responses of visitors to the Tate, who sunbathe, picnic, and revel in this solar substitute as a kind of modern-day sun worship while often ignoring or hiding from the real rays outside.

The sun is now crawling across the white gravestones in cemeteries and potters’ fields of New England, bleaching and polishing their rough-hewn surfaces. It is yawning over the well-preened lawns of quiet suburbs, tugging shafts of green toward the sky. It is hopscotching about the silver-coated chicken coop roofs of rural America. It is making photosynthetic breakfast in thousands of forests around the equatorial belt and warming the water for tea in Tokyo, Baghdad, Cairo and Beijing. It is tickling the tendrils of fiddlehead ferns in the cloud mountains of Costa Rica and, well, working its legerdemain just about everywhere you can name, map, number or imagine. So, let’s put the solar-powered coffee pot on—yes, fossil fuels are truly slow-birthed sedimentary offspring of the sun—and toast a big “hallelujah” to that thermonuclear fire in the sky before it takes a respite and rest of sorts for a few minutes from our busy world.

Good morning. There goes and soon here comes again . . . the sun.   Salut!

Waiting for Ecstasy

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After ecstasy, the laundry.   — Zen saying

Philosophers have tended to prefer the gentler arts and pleasures, those tempered by dispassion, detachment, and the yoke of reason. They have been inclined, for example, to sing the praises of contemplative love rather than swoon into the arms of a siren and risk being drawn along in fervor. In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s ladder of love and intellectualized vision is favored over Alcibiades’ intoxicated pursuit; friendship is prioritized above erotic embrace.

In traditional Western art and thought, we are likewise generally discouraged from ingesting a drug or, say, spinning as a Sufi dervish or free form break-dancer, perhaps out of concern for surrendering to carnality, danger or the reverie induced by unbridled passion. If happiness arrives, it is usually belated, even deferred until death is close at hand, as the chorus warns us in Oedipus Rex. Or it comes in the guise of measured serenity and stoicism rather than a heightened state of bliss or ecstasy.

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Must this scenario or story necessarily be the case? Might there be another perspective or path—a less sober one—worth considering as well? 

Ecstasy is a break in the weft of ordinary time—a tearing, a breach, a rift. This rupture might also make room for a form of rapture, a sudden release. Ecstasy yanks us from our seats, our stasis, where most of us spend the prosaic day. What is it to wait for—or work toward—ecstasy? And must we always wait in order to be seized, summoned, or moved from the outside, the exterior? Patience or passion: which way, or which one, to choose? 

Before ecstasy, then, the wait. The often unbearable weight.

Wait . . .

Waiting on first blush seems to be the very antithesis of the ecstatic. Waiting’s hallmark is patience and interiority. Ecstasy’s is openness and otherness. The former demands self-control; the latter relinquishes it. But each is an interruption in the flow of familiar time. Waiting tends to arrest motion, change, and the continuous course of things. Ecstasy, by contrast, involves a transfiguration of time that can issue forth in a new sense of fluidity and becoming-other.

Waiting, in fact, may be a kind of en-stasis—a “standing-within-oneself” in the sense of self-contemplation rather than an ek-stasis and an engagement with alterity.

Nevertheless, the ever-small measures involved in the practices and discipline associated with waiting are, it seems, often conducive, even necessary, for the rapid burst of change that arrives with time like an unexpected tsunami, one that builds imperceptibly and in increments in the deep ocean of our lives and then appears like a great watery avalanche, a wave of insight, bliss, or rapture.

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Think here of the vaunted “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that mastery in a field such as music, athletics, chess, computer programming, or science requires approximately ten thousand hours (roughly 20 hours per week for ten years) of diligent practice. However controversial this claim, the ecstatic performances and achievements that eventually come for great or world-class artists, athletes, writers and scientists are no doubt often the result of long, slow growth periods, serious dedicated focus, and patient maturation processes.

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http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/09/malcolm_gladwell_s_10_000_hour_rule_for_deliberate_practice_is_wrong_genes.html

Or consider the famous marshmallow experiment with young children—one that correlates well with predicted success later in life—wherein oral delight is deferred and then doubled by a period of mandated waiting and delayed gratification. Here, the cultivated ability or learned discipline to defer immediate desire for a single donut can signal greater rewards down the road.

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Rather than being construed merely as a form of necessary postponement, waiting might also be re-conceived as a type of mindfulness and attentiveness—an awakening to detail, nuance, and depth—a protracted preparation for possible transcendence, and the emotional, epistemic, or spiritual break that may eventually alight. In this sense, waiting is not a recipe for boredom but an opportunity for subtle observation and introspection.

We might recall here the story of the Buddhist monk who was asked to create a Sumi-e ink drawing of bamboo for the king. Curiously, the monk keeps putting off the task for years until by fiat he is forced to perform the work. He then proceeds to produce a beautiful picture with a few quick strokes of the brush. When asked afterward why did not create this image much earlier, he responds that he was living with and learning from the bamboo, studying it, seeking its essence and waiting for the perfect ecstatic moment to express and embody the long preparation and more immediate inspiration.

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In Hermann Hesse’s novella, Siddhartha, the protagonist, a young man born into a wealthy Brahmin family in the Hindu tradition, abandons his home to wander the world as a mendicant ascetic for many years. At one point, he announces with bravado to a querulous merchant that he can do three things: he can think; he can wait; and he can fast. With no worldly possessions, he is thereby able to reign in his mind (thinking), command bodily desire (fasting), and fashion a robust and healthy relation to time itself (waiting). Through such self-rule and discipline—what the Greeks called askesis—he is able to attain his enlightenment and his bliss. Through practiced meditation and “waiting,” he achieves an awakening—the becoming of the Buddha—and this serves as the basis for his ecstatic emancipation and release (moksha for the Hindu and Nirvana for the Buddhist) from the normal cycle of time. Within Buddhism, such patience is in fact considered one of the “perfections” toward which we should aim in seeking wisdom. And it appears not only to mean being able to endure difficulties or bear suffering but also a commitment to not returning harm to another.

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In the west, Nietzsche—perhaps the greatest thinker of ecstatic states of consciousness—however offers a slightly different vantage on this apparent virtue. Being able to wait,” he observes, “is so hard that the greatest poets did not disdain to make the inability to wait the theme of their poetry.” He adds: “Passion will not wait” and invokes the instance of duels, in which the “advising friends” must determine whether the parties involved are capable of waiting a little longer. If they are unable to do so, then a duel is justified since to wait would be to cause “suffering the horrible torture of offended honor” to continue.

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Modern and conceptual art also tarry with the complexities of focused waiting as preparation for ecstatic discovery:

Performance artist Marina Abramović sits directly across a table from individual visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an indefinite period of time. She and they wait and watch and wait some more for an epiphany to occur, or for tears to flow, or a guffaw of laughter and a mutual recognition to happen, or something else entirely and wholly unexpected to arise in these primal but increasingly uncommon face-to-face encounters with another human being:

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Artist Andy Goldsworthy, by contrast, waits patiently through winter for brief moments of ecstasy that might emerge two full seasons hence. During the cold months in Scotland, he creates gigantic one-ton snowballs, which he keeps in refrigerated storage. Months later, on a warm summer night, Goldsworthy transports them quietly into London’s financial district, where he deposits them on the sidewalks. In the dawning day, working Londoners gaze or gawk at these “sculptures” with a mixture of fascination, admiration, and amusement. Pedestrians are provided with a temporary tie to a different place and seasonal time: the outlying countryside and the vanished winter. As the snowballs melt and evaporate, their interiors reveal a smattering of surprises: pinecones, seeds, feathers, branches, barbed wire, stones, or wool. For five more days, the artist and public observe the action of wind, heat, and human hands on the changing size, texture, color, and shape of the snowballs, which themselves are unusual ecstatic objects, standing out as they do serenely against the steamy breath of summer, against the pell-mell movements and busy-ness of the modern city, generating child-like wonder and a playful release.

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. . . Ecstasy

Ecstasy no doubt belongs to a continuum of emotional, physical and mental states that encompass pleasure, delight, enthusiasm, elation, exaltation, euphoria, bliss, rapture, joy, catharsis, transcendence, and the like. The etymology of the word is illustrative. Ecstasy, from the Greek ἔκστασις, suggests a displacement, a way of being transported outside oneself (from ek- “out,” and stasis, “a stand”). In this sense, one may be seized, summoned or transformed in relation to the exterior, by the lures, pulls, commands, and imperatives of sensual beauty, intoxicating music, inspired poetry, athletic activity, or even a sense of the divine.

Ecstasy intensifies experience and affirms. It is affective and implies pathos, plenitude, and animal vigor. It generates subjective feelings of passion and exuberance for life, even if its “object” is characteristically elusive and difficult to circumscribe or pinpoint. At the same time, ecstasy may possess “destructive” dimensions. In this regard, it is helpful to recall that the orgasm, a kind of paradigmatic, if short term, ecstatic state, is also known as “the little death.” Ecstasy is simultaneously a liberation from and annihilation of sameness and stasis, and a conduit or movement toward union without necessarily achieving complete unity or a reduction to mere identity since rapture is fundamentally excessive and transgressive.

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Here, we can distinguish ordinary and more commonplace kinds of ecstasy from those described and celebrated as unusual and extraordinary. The literature of religious mysticism is especially teeming with accounts of ecstatic union with Brahman, Allah, God, YHWH, and other forms of the numinous. This latter kind of ecstasy is also associated with trances, poetic beauty, and the intoxication experienced or professed by those who commit arson or murder for aesthetic reasons—e.g., the metaphysical ecstasy of some who engage in regicide or terrorism, or perhaps the character of some of Dostoevsky’s anti-heroes, or historical figures like Leopold and Loeb who commit a perceived great homicidal transgression.

Nietzsche’s parable of the madman in the marketplace who announces the death of God, too, seems to engender and express this ecstatic state: “We have killed him—you and I,” he proclaims with verve. This cry of the heart leads into a dizzying, ecstatic fall, a directionless plunging through the gaping abyss of universe.

On a contrapuntal note, the novelist Milan Kundera observes, “We are used to connecting the notion of ecstasy to great mystical moments. But there is such a thing as everyday, ordinary, vulgar ecstasy: the ecstasy of anger, the ecstasy of speed at the wheel, the ecstasy of ear-splitting noise, ecstasy in the soccer stadium.” “Living,” he adds, “is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves . . . Step outside ourselves for a mere instant, and we verge on death’s dominion.”

As an illustration of this point, Kundera recalls a day from his youth when we was driving around in a car with a friend. He spots someone whom he does not like crossing the road up ahead and barks to his friend: “Run him over.” Although intended as a joke, his friend is overtaken by euphoria and steps on the gas. The targeted man in the street is frightened; he slips and falls to the ground. The driver breaks and stops in the nick of time. No one is hurt, but a crowd of onlookers threaten to lynch the two in the vehicle. Kundera’s words had sent his friend into a momentary ecstasy, the ecstasy of an offhand joke.

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There are, it seems, many other examples of ecstatic states of consciousness, some more everyday, others less common. Below are a few that I’ve had the privilege, pain, and pleasure to experience:

  • Waiting at sunset by the ocean to catch that elusive “green flash” generated by the yellow-gold of the sun momentarily meeting the blue of the water and sky as it dips suddenly beneath the outstretched horizon.
  • The ecstasy of snorkeling with colorful fishes or sharks . . . or nearly drowning in the undertow but surviving to recall the story.
  • Peering into a powerful telescope at the heavenly constellations and peaking through a kaleidoscope or teleidoscope at a mosaic of twinkling hallucinogenic colors.

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  • Waiting after a long dull period of dormant weather for the first signs of spring and awakening one morning to the shocking burst of pinks, greens, purples or reds in the trees, hedges or flowers in the fields and streets.
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  • Spotting a rare bird species in the woods, witnessing one die in flight, or (yes!) seeing a red-tailed hawk pluck up a squirrel in my local cemetery and fly off with the creature in his talons, pairing in one instant the daring dream of flight with the drama of unexpected death.
  • Holding a free standing handstand for seven seconds during yoga class before releasing it and returning to earth.
  • The ecstasy of lying on one’s back and looking into a recessive, seemingly infinite, cloudless sky while hungry vultures circle overhead.

 

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  • The sublime euphoria—or “runner’s high”—following on the heels of intense and exquisite pain as one finishes a 26-mile marathon almost three hours after starting it.

 

There is, then, it seems, often a very somatic and physiological dimension that accompanies certain states of ecstasy. And, in fact, we frequently find a “bliss born of pain” (to invoke Nietzsche’s phrase) associated with Dionysian exultation or delirium.

Ecstatic Time

If waiting is rooted in a drawn out and attenuated experience of time—a spatialized, lengthened, horizontal or linear sense of temporality—ecstasy is more typically a more heightened, vertical and intensified experience. Waiting slows the metabolism of time; ecstasy quickens the heart and threatens to annihilate conventional time, especially when it dances on the edge of death’s dominion.

Another way to put this might be to distinguish the two in terms of the perceived or experiential tempo of time.

The ancient Greeks identified several different kinds of time, including Kairos (καιρός) and Chronos (Χρόνος). Whereas Chronos refers to sequential or chronological time, Kairos signifies a less determinate time, a period or moment in which something unique or special may occur. It is a kind of intermezzo, interstice, or in-between place of time. A temporal opportunity for the making or taking. Time seized. Carpe diem. Chronos is quantitative in nature; Kairos is more qualitative. To this extent, waiting is bound to chronological time, while ecstasy is given to that suggested by Kairos.

Ecstatic time is, in this sense, an intimation or promise of eternity, a “time” out of joint, exterior to normal, mundane time. A contemporaneous experience of past, future, and present. An enlarged or pregnant NOW. Ecstasy seduces and beckons us in such a manner. Or as Nietzsche tersely encapsulates it: “All joy wants eternity, deep, deep eternity.”

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To illustrate the tensional relation and difference between these tenses of time and, by extension waiting and ecstasy, we might again refer to Zen Buddhism. Within this philosophical tradition, satori is an ecstatic and sudden insight. It is akin to finding nirvana in the midst of the daily cycling of life, or samsara. It is, for example, the sudden ecstatic release that arrives with the solution or dissolution of a puzzling koan such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And it stands in contrast to the prolonged waiting practice or weighted patience of zazen, or seated meditation, which can endure for endless hours, months, and even decades before enlightenment is achieved. It is a difference between, on the one hand, polishing a stone for years and years until it becomes like transparent looking glass, thereby enabling one to observe at a great distance—as through the lens of a powerful telescope—far-away galaxies and worlds, and, on the other hand, a direct, intuitive “seeing into”—an immediate in-sight into—the nature of something such as an unpolished, even very blemished and ordinary stone. That is, a “Eureka” moment or an ecstatic “Aha!”

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In the contemporary world, speed is quickly becoming our favored form of ecstasy, one that ostensibly counteracts stasis, even if speeding drivers are, ironically, still seated and hence stationary, often going nowhere fast in heavy traffic. We no longer seem to possess the patience or discipline to wait or even just to saunter, stroll or slowly walk. Think of all the frustration generated by waiting for lumbering elevators to arrive or traffic lights to change or webpages to download and appear.

“What will we wait for when we no longer need to wait to arrive?,” the theorist Paul Virilio has inquired. His answer: “We wait for the coming of what abides.” In other words, the ever-present instant. In the technological world, the experience and even reality of duration—of time that tethers and weaves together related and meaningful moments or minutes—is contracting, so that we no longer reside in chronological or linear time, but instead inhabit the “light of speed” (as opposed to the speed of light); that is, the light that speed gives off when, for example, cameras flash or images pass with alacrity across our proliferating electronic screens.

Who knows, perhaps somewhere in that process or the not-so-distant future we might manage to find a fleeting “byte” of incidental pleasure, a greatly diminished and slimmed down second of delight in our technological diets, one appearing and then rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirrors of our accelerating lives.

In any event, and until then, it’s likely we will rediscover ourselves headed back once again to a more reliable and grounded truth:

After ecstasy, the laundry.

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Class Portrait

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Oh, that memorable moment when we snare and suddenly freeze the escaping line of time in the lives of those whom we love. And then later tempt—even dare—them to glance back mischievously 20 or 30 or maybe 70 years hence with only faint recognition . . . or near disbelieving denial.

Was that really me?  Was my fate and my fortune sealed even then?  Did I will all of this?

What happy accidents or dark corners await those who now sit like little Buddhas in cross-legged innocence and polite repose?  With fickle dimples or a nervous grin.  Holding a twitching smile for a stretched out second . . . into eternity.

Flash forward: What’s that line every college freshman is told in the autumn:  “Look, to your left, look to your right.  One of those around you will not be here next year.”  (And, quietly, we also wonder: “Might that be me”?)

Tempus fugit.  Time flees.  As a fugitive would.  Like a wild horsefly on a sweltering summer day.

Flash back: This photo could be located in another era. In the year 1992 or 1972 . . . or possibly 1942.  Look again: the lens is now angling in on you.

(((((*)))))

The camera clicks. The wheel spins.  The mind flickers.  The hair thins.  Out of necessity—yes necessity—we fail to remember . . . which is not always the same as that all-forgiving erasure: “to forget”.

I must admit: these children appear mannered and well adjusted.  And that invites parental speculation: does the boy in the bow tie already believe he will be elected to Congress or will make it big in big business one day?  Does the proud tall girl in the back secretly sense she is destined to become a teacher or a botanist?  Do you spy an engineer or two in early training?  Might one of these wide-eyed creatures become another’s ne’r-do-well and learn to live as a wandering troubadour or poet? (Let’s hope for the best and hope so.)

And your own child  . . . whither do her thoughts dart and her dreams take flight?

If the camera slowly closes in and, with it, your keen telescopic eye and fertile imagination, might you already know?  Might she? (And, if so, will you tell?)

In the meantime, we stick to the inherited script: we declare an unseen, unfolding, indeterminate or infinite future . . . We look up into the sky, outward toward the stars (or perhaps downward and inward toward our genes.)

Either way, it’s “Hi ho. Hi ho.  Off to work (and back to school) we go.”

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Something strange about the uncoiling spring

When the worm dances for the circling bird

When the egg hatches the delighted sperm

When the nut endears itself to squirrel

When the berry invites the bear to dine

When the light calls forth the glittering eye

When the willow paints the whistling wind

And everything begins with nothing’s end.

 

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(Photos:  Clark Park with Alexzandra and front door mat with mushrooms)

Faces of an Age

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Nerval
strolling through Paris
with his lobster
on a leash

Lautreamont
making love
with a hungry
shark

Duchamp
installing
urinals
in museums

Manzoni
canning shit
and selling it
in galleries

Burroughs
playing William Tell
and shooting
his wife

Mailer
knifing his
then being impaled
by a fictional self

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Artaud—
tragedy on stage
was not
enough

Bukowski—
tragedy in life
was too
much

Mayakovsky
risking Russian roulette
blank/blank/blank
. . . and a big bang

Plath
having “done it again
. . . exceptionally well”
no encores this time though

Thomas
after 18 whiskeys
not going gentle
into that good night

Woolf
pockets lined
with stones
lungs filled with a river

Pound
howling mad
with Van Gogh
with Strinberg
with Nietzsche
with Villon
with the rest of us

The images
demand
an era
to etch their grimaces

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