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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#ME TOO, Part Two

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Now that we’ve seen backlashes to the #MeToo movement—quibbling about women who’ve complained about awkward dates while overlooking their right not to proceed with them, princess-and-the-pea types who seem to expect men to read their minds. Such arguments tend to expose our human capacity to blame others for our own failures of choice or communication. They can distract us from the true complexity.

Sexual trauma runs deep, and generates scar tissue that can stay impenetrable for most of a lifetime. Anyone who gets annoyed, asking, Why didn’t these women speak up long ago, when less time had passed since they were assaulted, terrified, abused as children, bullied into accommodating domineering persons in positions of power, threatened with death when they were victims of incest, or other forms of molestation, should ask themselves, Am I really paying attention? Am I considering how people bury memories in order to focus on their own survival?

For the annoyed scoffers out there, I offer an example of how long an experience of sexual abuse can stay buried—in my case, most of my life—and how it emerged from the dark recesses of my memory after 60+ years. For the purposes of this website I’ll describe it from the standpoint of attention.

As children my brother and I lived across the road from a farming family and often played with their two sons, one my brother’s age and the other several years older, entering puberty. I was 18 months younger than my brother, a tomboy who enjoyed jumping into haystacks in their barn and running from bulls in the field like the boys did. One day our neighbors’ older son asked me to go with him behind their barn, and I did so with the trust and openness of a five-year-old. I knew nothing about sex and had no idea what he had in mind. He asked me to show him a part of my body if he showed me the same area of his body. It sounded simple enough, so I agreed. The exchange was brief and involved no touching. It seemed to satisfy his curiosity, and I forgot about it—until a couple years later when our own farm went out of business and we had to leave the area.

When it came time to say goodbye to our neighbors, I remember only one thing. The two brothers stood before us and the older one would not look me in the eye. He stared grimly at the floor with an expression I instinctively recognized as one of shame. Only then did I realize that he felt bad about what he’d asked me to do behind their barn, and it was affecting the way he related to me. I wanted him as well as his younger brother to show they were sad to see us go, for we’d been pals and would most likely never see each other again. It hurt that the older brother would not meet my gaze, and left me with a visual imprint of his remorse. In retrospect, one could say that I was denied the acknowledgement of what I’d believed to have been a real friendship—some sign of sadness on his part that my brother and I would no longer live across the road from them. In other words, it damaged the quality of attention he was able to give me at this poignant time of parting. Any genuine display of sadness to see us go and well-wishing for our future was blocked because he felt guilty for doing something that—until that moment—I had not realized had been wrong.

That was what I remembered, not the reality that this boy had taken advantage of my trust and ignorance to have asked me to participate in what grownups considered a sexual offense. So I buried the memory as one childhood disappointment among many, including being shunned by my brother when he started school two years ahead of me, and bullied when I entered school because I was pudgier than many classmates. Its meaning in my life as an experience of sexual abuse did not register.

…Until I found myself arguing with an old friend who was annoyed at the dredging up of old experiences in the #MeToo movement. “I don’t know anyone,” he complained, “who would hide such an experience for so long.” Incredibly, he’d had a long career as a spiritual counselor. Who did he know well enough to believe, who had not spoken up? Me. He became first person I’d ever told about the above episode in my childhood. And only because it decided to resurface in my memory in response to his annoyance.

THE PHYSICS OF TIME AND HEAT – AND OUR SURVIVAL AS A SPECIES

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The Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli tells us in his international bestseller, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, that “there is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is the flow of heat.” The flow of time, he writes, is a matter of thermodynamics, subject to the vagaries of probability. Building on Einstein’s amply verified theory of relativity, Rovelli says that just as there is no definitive “here” in relation to other points of reference, neither is there an objective “present” in terms of time. Our sense of passing time, he explains, arises from “microscopic interactions within the world” that are part of “systems” such as human consciousness and memory. That about wraps it up, I guess, if you’re a physicist.

Time remains a mystery, Rovelli admits, but he does a formidable job reducing it to a blur of subatomic particles perceived within the limitations of human consciousness, including the finest of scientific calculations. Given the limitations of my non-physicist consciousness, I think he’s on to something beyond physics when he identifies heat as the sole detectable factor separating our past from our future.

Put in more human terms, is heat rather akin to attention? If we put our attention on someone, are we not transmitting an immeasurable but sometimes detectable impulse of energy towards them—such as when we sense someone looking at us? Keeping things strictly materialistic, our brains consume energy, so can we not consider mental impulses that require the brain’s energy as some version of heat? Looking at it another way, isn’t attention what enables us to distinguish what has happened from what is happening?

What, though, about things that have taken place in the past but linger in our minds so that they remain alive in the present, events and people we still care about, puzzle over, continue to study, imitate? Lingering objects of attention give force to Faulkner’s famous line, perhaps alluding to the South’s role in the Civil War, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The parts of the past that do not die are those that draw enough of our attention for them to stick in our memory. The elasticity of human reactions allows for widely differing perspectives on past events. The pioneers’ brave expansion and settlement of the American West looks very different from the standpoint of Native Americans, whose tribal lands were overtaken, treaties broken, burial grounds desecrated, and so on.

We give certain experiences more attention than others because they elicit some form of psychological heat – curiosity, fear, admiration, humor, regret, love, resentment, hope, etc. From what I’ve read about how the human brain works, items that stay in our memory are glued to or associated with emotions of some kind. Otherwise they are not retained, at least in that person’s memory.

Think of what an enormous effusion of, shall we say, attention quanta, human beings (not to mention other beings) emit daily. From the homeliest impulse to get up in the morning, to numberless types of effort put forth by multitudes throughout their day’s labor—to serve others, to deal with all manner and size of interpersonal conflicts, to keep informed about what’s happening around us. Within this huge output of attention impulses are, say, quarks of different types of attention—from the keenest concentration required for original work of any kind, to the tedious forms of labor done solely for a paycheck, to routine tasks of personal hygiene, transportation, shopping, housekeeping and so on.

Good luck trying to fathom the myriad attention units devoted to sexual desire, romantic love, and the equally vital efforts of friendship.

Attention quanta may also differ in terms of age and stages of consciousness. The very young survive by focusing on those who take care for them, because their lives depend on whether they receive nurturing attention. Children soon face the demands of schooling, and meet various degrees of success fitting into so-called peer groups, developing their personal identities by trial and error.  Hopes and dreams for making a difference in the world extend far beyond youth, of course.  Many of us do not fulfill our desires and others’ expectations, and must learn to be thankful for whatever we have.  As they age, many find it necessary to calculate the energy we will need to give our full attention to the tasks before (another strange quark of attention) and what to put aside when running on fumes.

For any age, let’s not leave out the unfathomable attention quanta humankind expends on—to paraphrase Zora Neale Thurston—licking the pots in sorrow’s kitchen. Enduring physical pain, illness, disability, abuse, loneliness, trauma, shame and grief are as demanding in terms of attention as they are unavoidable to those afflicted. Oddly, those who suffer through such things are not precluded from moments of happiness as fine as any experienced outside sorrow’s kitchen.

The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil considered attention to be the purest form of prayer. She believed that “attention is the only faculty that gives us access to God.” Whether or not one believes in God, the power of attention is something undeniable in human experience and seems essential to any manifestation of love. There would be no works or art, scientific discoveries, technology, perseverance through hardships, heroism, civilization or survival of our species without it.

Science has not gone beyond the Big Bang theory of how our universe began 13.7 billion years ago, when there was a great burst of heat, light, energy and eventually matter. Only recently we’ve learned that visible matter, including us, is about 3.5 percent of the universe, whereas invisible or “dark” matter and energy constitutes all the rest. What are these unseen constituents?  We have no clue. All we know is that dark energy propels the universe to expand, while dark matter provides the gravity that keeps the stars, gas and dust in all the galaxies from flying apart.

Rovelli the physicist directs our attention to an amazing thought, that the flow of heat makes possible our experience of the passage of time. An attending metaphysician might extend this idea further: that the heat of which he speaks includes immeasurable quanta of attention. The energy source of this attention possibly connects us to that which brought our universe into existence and keeps it from dispersing into chaos.

How we experience time—and how we try to affect what is happening in present time—may determine whether our species will experience a future.

Rovelli’s book closes with a scientifically valid, hard-nosed assertion that our human species will probably not survive the damage we have already done to our environment. He hardly needs to exemplify this prediction with reference to global warming, widespread pollution, loss of habitat and mass extinction of other species due to our overuse of natural resources, and the extinction of earlier human species and civilizations.

It begs the question, in the most total way a species can beg:

Why can’t we apply more of our heat to the flow of time? Can we put enough attention into saving the biosphere so as not to destroy human civilization? Are we not capable of exerting more, stimulating more, innovating more, doing more of whatever it takes to save our future on this beautiful blue sphere on the outskirts of one galaxy among billions? What better goal would humankind have, exactly now?

 

 

 

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.

EVIL TONGUE OR PATH TO REFLECTION AND HEALING?

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Cynthia Ozick was given front page real estate in the New York Times Book Review, with a devilishly catchy title, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” (12/20/2015). Her essay refers to the Book of Genesis, where Eve listens to the serpent and is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as is Adam, her companion. God has threatened that they will die (by which He could have meant lose their immortality), if they eat this fruit. The crafty serpent seems correct when he says they won’t die for eating it (in the sense that they won’t drop dead on the spot).

So our two primordial ancesters are ejected from Eden, suddenly aware of their nakedness and need to be clothed. They are also unequally cursed, as feminist interpreters have noted. Eve and women after her will be afflicted with pain in childbirth, but will desire their husbands. Adam and men after him will have to sweat in hard labor for a living, with no mention of desiring their wives. It is one of two incompatible creation stories that the ancient compilers of far more ancient Hebrew oral traditions placed at the beginning of the Bible. Christians refer to it as The Fall, the beginning of evil among humankind, putting us in need of redemption in the form of a Savior. Others have read it as a parable of human choice to obey God or not, and the consequences.  Interpretations abound.

Ozicks’s unusual perspective sees the first humans’ eating the forbidden fruit as marking  not only humankind’s fall into sin and gossip, but also the beginning of all storytelling and, she implies, sexual desire.  If Eve hadn’t listened, “Eden would still be…a serene and tedious nullity, a place where nothing happens: two naked beings yawning in their idleness, innocent of what mutual nakedness might bring forth.” Ozick and many others assume that Adam and Eve did not make love before they realized they were naked.

One of the Ten Commandments forbids us to bear false witness, and elsewhere Scripture tells us not to be “going up and down as a talebearer among your people.” Without Eve’s original listening, Ozick opines, there’d have been no Cain and Abel, crime novels, Hitchcock thrillers, no great writers like Chaucer, Boccaccio, Austen, and Henry James. It’s a fascinating premise, but rather disturbing in regard to what the ancient Hebrews meant by bearing false witness and tale-bearing.

In early Hebrew culture and law, false witnessing referred specifically to lying in a legal matter—such as claiming that X stole ten of your sheep so that you could take ten of his, when in truth your sheep were killed by wolves and you’re falsely testifying in order to replace them with ten of X’s sheep. Likewise, tale-bearing in such an early context almost certainly meant slanderous rumor-mongering rather than entertaining others with fanciful but harmless stories. Some of the first tales, about heroes and their bravery, were clearly meant to inspire.

I believe this piece of nitpicking is important. Storytelling, minus the motives that boil down to malice, should be defended for its potential, in fiction and nonfiction, to open doors that no benevolent Creator would want closed. The chance to learn of, and be inspired by, the acts and feelings of other beings, real or imaginary.

Of course we are all swayed by the immediacy of a personal truth. Who can surpass Augustine’s confession that he begged God to free him from sexual sin, just not right away? But what if we are obsessed with unrequited passion for the spouse of a close friend? Would we not do better to assume the cover of fiction, removing our story to a different setting and changing everyone’s identity? The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote of literature as an art form that permits people to explore all kinds of experience, including terror and evil, from a safe distance. It was her belief that fiction could explore life’s nuances and complexity better than philosophy, thus the duality of her career.  She was not alone in this view.

I’m tempted to agree when Ozick writes, “Not unlike the philosophers, the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality, and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine.” But not quite. Gossipers with malevolent intent do not strive to clarify true from false. They use craft to make the false convincing, as do all con artists, in order to steal from them their right to make an accurate choice.  Storytellers who seek to inspire or draw people’s attention to troubling aspects of existence are trying to bring about healing and growth.  Very big difference.

I know a man who lost a well-earned promotion because his rival had planted rumors about his physical frailty. The gossiper won the promotion. The one who deserved it, who’d been in good health until he learned of this betrayal, declined toward a premature death. The gossiper does harm by distorting the truth. Altogether different from the craft of a writer-thinker who ponders the meaning of life and tries to differentiate good from evil. In the case of the stolen promotion, both men had records of achievement, but one of them lied about his rival in order to tip the scales.  We acknowledge his cleverness, but sense the evil of it.

Going back to the person who wants to protect his/her identity as tormented by desire for a close friend’s mate. If you fictionalize the story, you redirect your attention into a different space, a lifeworld that frees you a precious bit from the hard reality of personal anguish. It puts your powers of imagination and attention into creating characters similar but not identical to yourself and those close to you. It even increases your compassion for those imaginary characters, and allows you as a storyteller to think beyond your circumstances. In this way fiction lets us express pain and anguish in ways of healing rather than harm.

The problem with Ozick’s compelling take on Eve’s listening as the symbolic origin of people’s capacity to be moved by storytelling is her—probably unintentional—compression of entirely valid biblical warnings against lying and gossip that do harm, with the liberating and healing uses of attention and imagination.

Perhaps the myth of Adam and Eve made it into the Book of Genesis as a creation story because it speaks of the immediate and longterm consequences of having to choose how we listen and act. Evil, for all its surface appeal, can be identified for the harm it does—sometimes not readily apparent. Goodness, however, always exudes an ineffable sense of joy in life, be it through increased understanding, compassion, friendship with real or imaginary characters, or a shared laugh at the ridiculous. Who was it who said the devil hates to be mocked? A wise storyteller.

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?