COULD WITCHCRAFT (a.k.a. willed attention) BUILD A NEW WORLD?

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Predictions are risky, but sometimes we feel they have to be made.

That’s how I felt after rereading Madeline Miller’s wonderful recent novel, based on her deep knowledge of Greek mythology (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2018). Circe has already been praised as a fascinating page-turner, but an attending metaphysician might see it as a corrective potion for women and all others who fear they are powerless to affect the future.

Miller endows the witch Circe, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, with an intimately candid voice, and observational powers that could resonate with the consciousness of many women today, especially those inspired by the #MeToo movement. Considered ugly by her mother and stupid by her siblings, Circe was mocked and unloved among the minor deities. She craved the approval and attention of her father, the Titan sun-god Helios—whose leadership of the Greek pantheon has been sidelined, but not entirely crushed, by Zeus and the Olympian gods—but she is ignored. Until she schools herself in sorcery.

When their fellow Titan, Prometheus, is brought to Helios’ castle to be tortured for the crime of showing mortals how to use fire, Circe stays behind, offering him a drink of nectar–which he accepts–to comfort him before he is dragged away to suffer eternal torments. Though nearly powerless among the gods, she seizes this chance to show mercy, an act of tremendous courage for which she could have been killed if anyone noticed. Without experiences such as this, Circe confesses, she might never have broken away from thousands of years of “dull miseries” (13).

Her voice is raspy like a human but her eyes glint like gold, so she is named Circe, or hawk. Miller has her narrate this myth-soaked fiction with the authority of one who calls out her own foolishness and ignorance. With a raptor’s hawk eyes she perceives the destructive pride of legendary heroes and immortals. As for the seeming truce between Titans and Olympians, she warns: “Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two” (16).   She describes her life up to the episode with Prometheus as having been “murk and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it” (24). – Ah, the pull of individual initiative. Any relevance to current mortals?  Do ancient myths of Titans and Olympians have anything to teach us about national leaders?

Circe’s brother openly described himself as a pharmakis, or sorceror/witch, and was not punished but given his own kingdom (Colchis, birthplace of his daughter, the witch Medea, of child-murdering fame), because he’d told his father that his powers had come to him by accident, that he had not worked for them. When Circe asked him to teach her, he refused. “Sorcery cannot be taught,” he told her. “You find it yourself, or you do not” (69). He also noted that “pharmakeia is not bound by the usual limits of gods” (70)—that is, it is accessible to mortals as well. In Miller’s version of Circe’s world, witchcraft consists first in the patient, trial-and-error study of plants and herbs for the properties that can heal or strengthen the abilities of humans. But foremost, the most decisive component is a strong, focused, determined will.

But unbridled will, especially for revenge, can have terrible consequences.

Unfortunately, as she is developing her craft, Circe falls in love with a mortal, Glaucon, and uses potions to turn him into a god so that she might have an immortal companion. But as soon as he becomes a god his attention turns to another nymph, more beautiful but entirely selfish and uncaring—Scylla. Furious at Glaucon for this betrayal, Circe transforms Scylla into a multi-headed, man-eating sea monster. Thereafter her witch’s conscience is burdened by the weight of knowing that her magic causes the horrific deaths of untold numbers of innocent seafarers. Her brother tells her to choose better after Glaucon, that she has “always trusted too easily” (76).

The shocking transformation of Scylla threatens the rule of Zeus, who insists that Circe be exiled and live alone. Helios obliges by sending her to Aiaia, a magical island in Titan territory.  There she occupies a spacious mansion whose floors, dishes and laundry emerge clean each day by magic, and stores of food and wine are constantly replenished. She realizes that in carrying out this punishment, her father Helios has, despite Zeus’s order, equipped his daughter to rise in exile “higher than before” (80).

How many women find themselves in a much less exalted exile, where they must find their own lodging, clean everything, prepare food, and build not only a life but an identity? Circe’s first night alone is an epiphany in itself, where she realizes how many things she feared. Just being able to survive until the next morning, she is aware that “the worst of [her] cowardice had been sweated out,” and decides not to become like a bird bred in a cage, “too dull to fly even when the door stands open” (81). Similar to many mortals in other circumstances who have to push through their own ignorance, Circe explains:

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not. If my herbs are not fresh enough, if my attention falters, if my will is weak, the draughts go stale and rancid in my hands. (83)

Even after she has learned which plant have what properties, nothing goes right unless she pays full attention, and gives her best energy to it. What is it about attention, we ask, that it alone empowers someone who lacks sufficient divine power? Whatever that is, even a lowly, rejected, isolated and basically ignorant woman has it.  By rights, Circe should never have come to witchcraft, because all the gods “hate toil, and are spared all forms of drudgery due to their power,” and witchcraft is “nothing but drudgery.” “Day upon patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again” (83)     — So why bother, unless you happen to be human? Circe’s answer:

For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who loved me a little did not care to stay. Then I learned that I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands. I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt. (84)

Through her many years of solitude and loneliness, her island is visited by various types of desperate men—some honestly shipwrecked, whom she helps; others led by cunning, cruel leaders who eat her food, drink her wine, and, seeing she has no man to protect her, are ready to rape and even kill her if she resists. Ring any #MeToo bells?  So she develops a potion to add to their wine that turns them into pigs. Too bad some of us mortals can’t do the same, except by identifying them as such.

When the famous warrior Odysseus shows up at her door, abandoned by his patron goddess, Athena, he is the first man who really listens to her, and becomes the closest thing Circe has known to a friend and lover. Except that he is married to the loyal Penelope, and intends to return to her and to Ithaca, the island where he is heir to the throne. Odysseus entertains her with stories of the Trojan War, its heroes and losers, and his keen understanding of his men and their weaknesses—knowledge as important as awareness of their strengths. He is honest about his own treachery, lies, and betrayals–promising to spare a captured spy, and killing him after he’d divulged all his valuable secrets–sneaking into a rival army’s camp and slitting the sleeping soldiers’ throats.

Circe’s experience seems comparable to that of so many women who learn from men the complexities of warfare, the brutality of which that destroys all purity of honor and heroism. Odysseus’s tales confirm to Circe that there are no glories in war, especially when men serve the egos of gods and goddesses in competition for glory.

The great god Apollo appears to Circe before Odysseus leaves, forcing her to be silent as he gives her a vision of Odysseus at the entrance to the underworld, where he faces the blind prophet Tiresias and the spirits of Achilles, Ajax, Hector and other warriors he’s seen die on the battlefield. Rather than feel honored by this vision from Apollo, Circe is enraged and humiliated: “I wanted to tear him with my nails. The gods and their incomprehensible rules.  Always there was a reason you must kneel. …How many times would I have to learn? Every moment of my peace was a lie, for it came only at the gods’ pleasure. …at a whim they would be able to reach down and do with me what they wished” (230).

The gods she resents, evidently, are those who interfere with others’ lives, denying powers of choice and personal agency.  We don’t see them as gods these days, but aren’t powerful interests still imposing their own rules on our lives?  What kind of powers can we muster to  break free of them?

Before Odysseus leaves, Circe gives him instructions and potions that will protect and enable him to meet with Tiresias and return to Ithaca. She does not know yet that she is pregnant by him.  When it is time to give birth, she feels the gods are preventing her child from being born, so she cuts herself open and pulls the infant out screaming.  When it is clear the boy will survive, the great goddess Athena appears, commanding Circe to give up the child, without explaining why she intends to kill him.  Although Athena offers to give Circe another man who will give her another son, plus her eternal favor and protection, Circe refuses, thinking to herself (and us): “Athena had no babe, and she never would.  Her only love was reason.  And that has never been the same as wisdom.”

Athena belittles Circe’s “weeds and little divinity,” and vows to take her son in the end. It is very moving that after Athena leaves Circe alone with her infant son, the witch calls out into the empty air: “You do not know what I can do” (251). It is one of the great messages of Miller’s novel.  What Circe cries out is more for herself than for Athena’s ears.  She has to assure herself–and us–that the powers that try to control us for selfish ends should never underestimate our determination to protect those we love.  The will, driven by love, is stronger than others’ lust for power and fame. …It’s just that we need to overcome self-doubt, and do not ourselves know how much we can do.

When Telegonus is15 Circe tells him about his father, and from then on all he dreams about is sailing alone to Ithaca to find Odysseus. Rightly terrified that he will be killed by Athena, Circe is so determined not to lose her son that she descends into the darkest depths of the sea to challenge Trygon, the ancient creator-god, to lend her the use of his poisonous tail, known to be capable of killing a human with the slightest contact, and of making a god suffer unending pain. No gods had ever succeeded in borrowing Trygon’s tail.  Circe’s brother tried, but had not been up to it.

In a breathtaking encounter with this ancient creator-god, Circe hears that the price for using Trygon’s tail is an eternity for her of physical suffering.  Despite her overwhelming fear, she focuses her mind on the image of her son’s bright, innocent, hopeful face, and extends her hand to accept the penalty.  I urge everyone to read this thrilling scene, but I almost laughed when Circe hesitates, wondering if she is being played a trick, and Trygon has to insist that she cut off his tail, and dismisses her fear that it could lead to war between the Titans and Olympians!  He has to remind her that she’d come all that way to demand this favor!  As Circe reluctantly begins to cut off the deadly tail, she thinks to herself–even realizing that she will survive this ordeal–that she cannot bear this world for another moment.  The primordial god hears her thought, and replies, Then, Child, make another.  (282)

What can we make of this modern twist on ancient Greek mythology?  Miller, not Homer, creates this dialogue between Trygon and Circe.  The ancient world would not have given a female immortal such a vote of confidence to go forth and make a better world.  But today we have a woman author with knowledge of the classics,  who writes about a witch goddess who would rather be a mortal woman.  Most readers of this novel can relate all too easily to the drudgery, loneliness, numberless failures and mistakes–including being raped–that Circe undergoes to acquire her skills. Even today, the term witch bears the burden of disapproval and exile.  Miller’s contemporary personification of Circe has the will, and hears the command of a much more ancient and powerful god, to make a new world. That’s what a new mythology might be able to accomplish, if we only paid attention, and applied our will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ATTENDING TO LIES – THE ORIGINAL DARK WEB

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I confess there’s been a gap in my postings as an attending metaphysician, because one of my dearest friends took issue with my previous post, stating that she voted for Trump and did not wish to discuss politics with me in any way, ever. She did not explain why she voted for him, because that would have meant breaking her newly made rule not to discuss politics. All I could do was wonder why she, a deeply religious person and close reader of Scripture, could have made such a decision. Out of respect for her new prohibition, I did not ask. But I gave it much thought.

That said, I believe this admirable friend put aside some of the essential values of her faith to vote for Trump. The following thoughts are not meant to debate her decision, rather to identify some aspects of what might lead to her regret it. Then I will offer a personal experience of a pathological lier less charismatic than Trump but still charming .

The Book of Wisdom, strangely, remarks that wisdom never makes its way into a crafty soul (Wis.1:14). Why would being crafty, which requires intelligence, prevent anyone from becoming wise? This attending metaphysician guesses it has to do with deceiving or obstructing those who pay sincere attention to what others says or do, and other matters of importance.

Why do we pay close attention to anything? It is said that curiosity may be our strongest human impulse, more powerful than hunger or sex. That may be a survival mechanism given to us by evolution. One thing seems clear: paying close attention may be the only way we acquire wisdom. For sure it’s how we learn anything that sticks. Close attention includes studying a subject, practicing a skill, observing others who’ve mastered skills or know more about things we want to know. And always, like the proverbial devil in the details, any process of close attention is obstructed or made futile by the insertion of false or unverified information.

In the world of education it is a grave offense to provide unverified or unattributed  information, misleading others in their quest for knowledge. This applies, without being formally stated, to any field taken seriously—be it farming, sewing, nuclear physics, plumbing, medicine, local or national government, beekeeping, whatever. In Scripture there is a commandment against bearing false witness—an ancient rule initially applied to legal testimony—whose implications remain strong for practically all aspects of human interaction.

After the 2016 Presidential election much of our country, and the world at large, got a taste of what can go wrong when distorted attention–by false information, anger, fear, and a sense felt by segments of the population of their innate superiority to others–can lead to dangerous choices in a country’s leadership. Fear, in response to genuine threats, is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger at clear moral wrongs. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance—enemies of clear, focused attention—are factors that can derail whatever is civilized and life-affirming in our shared culture and democracy.

At time people have to lie to survive, to avoid being captured or killed. In personal relationships we sometimes lie to spare others the pain of unpleasant truths. We also lie to be well liked by others, the so-called white lies—compliments on hairdos, clothing, people looking younger than ever when they’ve clearly aged, and the like. Too often we lie (exaggerate, stretch the truth, make unproven claims) to succeed: to make a sale, close a deal, get a job, impress someone we’re attracted to. And nowadays it’s becoming disturbingly obvious that people who crave attention enjoy inventing lies that insult, mock and demean those they dislike.  They intentionally break the bounds of civil discourse to establish their presence as powerful outliers, determined to undermine social norms—a.k.a. political correctness and general civility. Such practices have moved in from the fringes to become dire threats to our system of laws and democratic government.

The power of attention has enabled our species to develop a formidable capacity for wiliness and deception.  It creates a dark web that rivals our use of focused attention to seek truth and wisdom. Now the world must contend with the growing use of artificial intelligence, not only to scan scientific journals for ways to combat disease, but also to create “bots” that pretend to be human, acting as social media trolls and manufacturers of fake news, and the algorithms by which hackers steal our most private and valuable information. All aspects of the play of attention, and what we choose to do with it.

Our sitting President tells falsehoods, according to recent tallies, in 70 to 95 percent of his public statements. Because of this trait, plus his lack of interest in the process of government and his apparent willingness to take this nation into war, many Americans and people in other countries sense impending doom unless he is removed from office. Many feel unspeakable horror when others defend him right or wrong, brush aside his lies, and continue to believe he will make our country somehow “great again”–that ill-defined and ominous goal–when we and most of the world find him untrustworthy, an affront to our national integrity, and a live danger to world peace.

I don’t have a recipe for dealing with President Trump. But I offer this firsthand account of someone like him on a much smaller scale:

When I was in my twenties I was showing my mother around the city when a well dressed, well mannered young man offered to help her up a long flight of stairs and mentioned that he was a doctor trained in Brazil. My mother, a retired nurse, was instantly charmed. After he’d chatted with us further, she smiled approvingly when he asked if he could have my number. After she returned home I began dating him, eventually trusting him with personal information such as where I kept a $20 bill for emergencies. There were no ATMs in those days, and $20 could get you through the weekend when all the banks were closed. One Friday I came home from work having forgotten to get cash, and discovered my spare $20 missing. Only one person knew where I’d kept it, so I called him. No one answered at his home so I tried the work number he’d told me not to call, claiming he’d be too busy to speak to me there. I explained to the person who answered that I was trying to reach Dr. so-and-so, politely using my boyfriend’s last name. After a strange pause, the voice replied that a man with that name worked there but was not a doctor and could not come to the phone. I was stunned, enraged, and felt played for a fool. When we finally spoke he said he’d planned to return the money he’d “borrowed” before I would find it gone. Sensing there was no way I would ever trust him again, he confessed that he’d always found it terribly easy, like a sickness, to make up stories about himself. He’d told me he was a doctor when actually he’d been expelled from medical school in his final year (not saying where that was, but probably not Brazil, given his accent), due to a problem (my guess: pregnancy) with a woman on the staff. He did not say what his real job was, where he’d grown up, or how he’d ended up in the States. But he did have feelings for me, he said, enough to warn me not to be so trusting in the future.

The most memorable part of this breakup was the genuine distress I saw on his face when he described how terribly easy it was for him to lie to people. Like a sickness.

There was real pain behind his confession, because he knew it was the end of our relationship, during which we’d shared some happy times and enjoyed each other’s company. He was losing the trust and friendship he’d had from me, and on some level he knew that if he hadn’t tried to deceive me he wouldn’t be going through that pain. On the other hand, if he hadn’t lied about being a doctor, would he have charmed my mother and convinced me he was respectable enough to have my telephone number after so brief an acquaintance?

After an experience like that, can you blame me for hoping our President—before he does greater harm to this country—will find himself in a personally painful situation where he admits to the truth about himself—that he has lied about his motives and many other things, falsely maligning his opponent in the election, promising jobs and health benefits he could not deliver—and is unfit to carry out the responsibilities of our nation’s highest office? Or is that too much to hope for in a crafty soul?

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIAT LUX – Impressionist Painting in Light of Trump

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An art historian friend convinced this attending metaphysician to take a boat tour down the Seine to visit some Impressionist painters’ hangouts in northern France, plus a few days in Paris to squeeze through the city’s Impressionist exhibitions. The group consisted mostly of retirees pursuing long-postponed avocations— travel, painting, writing, reading, and, if possible, becoming more active citizens.

For ten days in May we enjoyed the glories of crisp sunny weather in Montmartre, Auvers-sur-Oise, Etretat, Honfleur (where sunshine morphed into dark clouds, flash rain and back in under an hour), Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake), Monet’s magnificent pond and garden at Giverny, and back to Paris for a cruise of the city’s magical nightlights. Throughout, we tried to retain scraps of the vast knowledge of art, doused with sly wit by our unforgettable guide, Jennifer Burdon, whose presence was worth the price of the trip.

Footsore and awestruck from tromping through so many sites made historic by the Impressionists’ depictions of them, we sat down to wine-soaked—this was France, after all—and waistline expanding gourmet meals. Alas, lunch and dinner conversations seemed to drag themselves helplessly toward the elephant in the room. Those willing to reveal their views had grave fears that President Trump would undermine or destroy our democracy. This was before he revoked U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord.

How could we apply what we were learning about art to said elephant? Our hearts were touched by reminders of the near-starvation poverty of Vincent Van Gogh, supported whenever possible by his brother Theo, and the sight of the brothers’ graves, side by side, symbolically united by a thick cover of ivy. We heard about Armand Guillaumin, a lesser-known but influential painter who won a lottery, was able to leave his job and devote himself to painting, sharing his breakfast rolls with less fortunate artists out painting with him. Under the roiling coastal skies of Normandy, birthplace of Impressionism, we learned how the emphasis on the play of light and color on myriad subjects—including just clouds—gradually transformed traditional standards of beauty and artistry.

Jennifer informed us that not all Impressionists accepted the term, as it once implied sloppy workmanship. But they might have agreed with commentators who claimed that, because of them, the painting itself became the subject, rather than what was being painted. –With that insight, against our will, we were brought back to Trump.

It was hard not to notice that this President tries to make whatever he paints—in words, at least—more important than the actual subject, which is the reality of facts. He got elected by promising what he is unable to deliver in terms of jobs and health care, playing upon people’s fears and stirring up misogynistic hatred of his opponent in the presidential campaign. Now that a slim lead in the Electoral College has given him the Presidency—when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a decisive margin—his self-portrait is becoming one of a willfully ignorant winner of a campaign based on his own lies, fake news, and widespread tampering with social media by right-wing extremists and a foreign, anti-democratic government. What kind of impression does that make on those paying attention to his abuse of light and color? The lineaments emerge as a very real and dangerous paradox: a legitimately elected, but morally and ethically illegitimate President.

What chance does our country have to not be dragged down into less than reliable—even former—status as the world’s indispensable nation? Those of us who have no handle on political power can only rely on our powers of attention. In particular, the motivation to protest dishonest leadership and to support responsible media and nonprofit organizations willing to expose this administration’s threat to our democracy, our health, environment, economy, and our responsibility to help others here and around the world.

The Impressionists started out in poverty, their works rejected by those in power in the art world, the French Academy. But gradually, after great effort and the undeniable genius of a new form of art, their achievements (if not the artists personally) prevailed. Let’s hope that what made America great will prevail—being a nation of immigrants fleeing poverty and injustice, helping win two world wars, assisting war-torn nations to rebuild after those wars, providing moral leadership during the Cold War and in matters of human rights, and an economy based on freedom to innovate.

Let us also hope that our nation’s mistakes, yet uncorrected—failing to bypass the Electoral College, which enabled a previous loser of the popular vote to preside over major disasters such as the invasion of Iraq, the ruthless speculations of Wall Street investors and banks that caused the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession—will also be overcome, so that the tyranny of wealthy oligarchs does not prevail.

Even it means removing President Trump and his cronies from leadership.

Let there be light. And hope. And attention to activism.

WHEN ATTENTION GOES DARK

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So far, this attending metaphysician has focused on positive, life-enhancing aspects of attention. But after the 2016 election, much of our country, and the world at large, has had a bitter taste of what could go wrong when attention, facilitated by false information, anger and fear, can lead to dangerous choices. In itself, fear is essential to human survival, as is righteous anger. But negative byproducts such as hatred and intolerance are forces that can derail whatever is civilized in human civilization.

To estimate the vast range of the power of attention we have to look at its dark side. As this election has demonstrated, when people let their thoughts and feelings be manipulated by others, or base their decisions on appearances without backup information, or trust a charismatic personality without taking into account his previous life history, or allow any other factor to prevent them from making informed decisions, then their choices can endanger our entire culture.

Normally we do not look for the dark side of attention, but we do feel its effects. Especially in the past year or so, we sense it in our deeply polarized political climate, when people who voted differently became enemies or former friends.

There’s reason for recent talk of tribes, information silos, fake news, and the growing distrust of facts even when presented by traditional sources of expertise such as responsible journalists and scientists. If not a sickening awareness, there is at least a justified fear that we live in a post-truth era. In order to discredit the most pressing issue of our time, the reality of human-caused global warning, a handful of ultra-rich, conservative industrialists and politicians—represented most recently by Donald Trump—have called global warming a hoax. Doing so requires ignoring enormous factual evidence. Mr. Trump’s campaign speeches have been so rife with falsehoods, and so many fact-checkers have called him out on them, that he and his allies have retaliated by denouncing facts and truth in general.

A telling detail emerged soon after Mr. Trump was assured of winning the election—despite losing the popular vote. He no longer insisted on some of the key premises that brought him victory. The most obvious was calling his opponent crooked, corrupt to the core, probably a murderer, and if elected he would put Hillary Clinton behind bars. Instead, in his victory speech, he insisted (rightly) that the nation owed her a “major debt of gratitude” for her many years of public service.

That statement alone revealed how cynical were the false accusations Trump and associates had hurled against Mrs. Clinton, stirring up hatred to the point where many of his supporters were dismayed to hear that their hero was not going to “lock her up.” In a thank-you speech to his supporters, bewilderment showed on their faces when he brushed aside their chants as having “played well” during the campaign, but were of no further use to him. Were they not, sadly, the ones who’d been played?

This revelation also exposed how easily Donald Trump had built his campaign upon decades of hate-filled smears against Hillary Clinton by far-right talk radio and Fox TV News commentators. Joseph Goebbels said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” After years of angry, fear-mongering diatribes against Mrs. Clinton in right-wing media silos, many people were ready to believe that she actually was a criminal. They primed to accept fake news that the Pope had endorsed Trump for President, and that the Clintons were operating a child molestation ring in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor–inspiring a father of four to drive 20 hours on a weekend and fire his assault rifle in deluded defense of those imaginary children.

I am reminded here of a long neglected warning from a great but little read philosopher, Bernard J.F. Lonergan. In his classic work, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1978 [1957]), Lonergan dared to claim that what people accepted as “common sense” was often the result of mental laziness, received ideas unredeemed by individual reflection and intelligence. If he were alive today, Lonergan might well identify the widely accepted but unfounded assumptions and suspicions about Mrs. Clinton as examples of what he called the “social surd.”

Lonergan borrowed the term surd from mathematics—surds being numbers such as the square or cube root of 2, that cannot be reduced to a fraction of two integers, and are called irrational numbers. Both surd and its better known cousin, absurd, come from surdus, Latin for deaf, dumb or stupid. The force behind Lonergan’s idea of an irrational social surd lurking within “common sense” was his identification of the accumulation of unexamined assumptions and emotional bias as components of cultural evil.

Why evil? Because received ideas—such as someone’s being “crooked” or a murderer without evidential proof—distance people from their personal responsibility to consider someone’s character in light of verifiable facts. Innocent until proven guilty remains, despite too frequent compromises, the basis of our justice system. As in a court of law, if jurors/citizens accept the opinions of others without looking into them, or assume that news items on social media or the opinions of “talking heads” are true when they are not supported by credible evidence, we leave ourselves open to mental and emotional manipulation. And small manipulations increase injustice in a society, distort “common sense,” and can end in tyranny.

How tyranny? Think of the rise of Goebbels’ boss, Hitler. As a society accumulates unfounded judgments—racism, sexism, xenophobia, religious bias, etc.—it can fall under the sway of charismatic leaders who are amoral sociopaths. But even without a demagogue setting the tone, biased reasoning can rip up the social fabric and undermine democracy, which stands or falls on the basis of citizens’ commitment to vote thoughtfully and fairly.

This gives new meaning to the old adage, Constant vigilance is the price of virtue. Today we must be more vigilant, to protect ourselves and others from the dark side of attention. More on that later.

RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE

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RETURNING TO A NEGLECTED LOVE—RELEARNING PATIENCE AS A VIRTUE

For years I walked by the closed lid of my piano, stifling pangs of regret and longing to be back in the weeds making music. I had solid excuses: courses to prepare and teach, stacks of homework and papers to mark up. It was heartfelt work that kept me up long into the night and delivered a shot of adrenaline each time I entered the classroom, followed by the joy of learning from my students. Years flew by. I would dust the piano and tell myself, Someday….

Then, in an impersonal flip of academic politics, I found myself “retired.” Hiding momentarily behind the bewilderment, however, was the gift of time for me to write more…and return to the piano!

Lifting the lid on that untouched keyboard was like trying to make amends with a long forsaken lover. I now had creaky, arthritic fingers and a thumb that stabbed with pain when asked to play notes forte or louder. Not only did I need larger reading glasses so I could look up at the music and down at the keyboard, but my vision was erratic. My eyes skipped ahead or landed too far up or down on the staff, and had to be reined in like puppies on a leash.

It proved necessary to acquire a half-deaf forgiveness for the sounds I produced. Especially the ruination of promising-sounding passages that came to rude, aborted ends, given my unpredictable but ever lurking tendency to botch things I hadn’t previously messed up.

You see, I may have been treating my piano like a piece of furniture, but I hadn’t stopped going to concerts and hearing great artists at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The contrast between their mastery and my bungling was all too real. How to avoid the sinkhole of exasperation and disgust?

Ages ago, a concert artist and revered teacher, Alice Shapiro, told me to first learn a piece by playing it very slowly. Her advice resonated with that of my inspiring present teacher, Michael Blum, who says, “Play something so slowly and softly that it’s like doing tai chi. Don’t try for any kind of expression at first. Just let the notes quietly tell you about themselves.” By this he means listening for their harmonic structure, their phrasing, and how those elements support the mood and feelings the piece might express. It struck me as a form of meditation, or perhaps a reflection on great literature, where one dives into real or imaginary worlds from the safe distance of an observer.

Similar to meditating, I found it ever so easy to lose patience with the process. As soon as I try playing something faster than I can do justice to the notes, I stumble upon why patience is a virtue. It’s hard to get comfortable with the reality of attention being a discipline, requiring humility and time. I’ve wasted precious time repeating botched passages at full speed before, duh, I think to play them slowly, accounting for each note, after which they seem to fix themselves.

Music is like a relationship. The more attention you pay, the deeper you go. And, whether gradually or in bursts of affection, playing the piano rewards attention—with relief from arthritis, and the feeling of earned participation in works of genius.

ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?