Wrangling Visions

I haven’t done any reading for a week or so. It would be easy to read a little more of Whitman, and yet it’s quite a labor for me afterwards trying to process it. Even my subconscious mind works on it like some kind of puzzle, creating weird dreams and thoughts. If I could ask Harold Bloom about his ideas as a critic and so forth, I would. It’s a complicated situation for me because I was never able to go back to college, so I feel exiled from the university and the campus; and also, Bloom happens to be dead. Thus, the answers to my questions are securely locked away in the mind of the Sphinx, forever a mystery. Time rolls on and everything will be forgotten, surrounded on every side by millions of years. I’m actually getting this idea from Sandburg’s poetry as well. His message is quite different from Whitman’s, by saying the past is a bucket of ashes and the future equally insignificant. Whitman claims he will be immortal through fame and his body’s atoms will continue to be cycled through nature after his death. It’s almost as if Sandburg scratched out what Whitman said about everlasting life.
I don’t know which attitude I like better, let alone which is the truth. I think Sandburg is pessimistic. But, he makes a point that is nearly indisputable in the wake of Whitman’s attempt at self deification. Both visions are very powerful and hard to reduce. They oppose each other, even though Sandburg admired the other poet.
Therefore I’ve been trying to figure out my readings in two different books.
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A Pilgrim Shadow

Eleven twenty.

We went to Bi Mart where I bought some things. The paper towels were free because Dona forgot to ring them up. I felt bad. Six dollars in my favor. But it’ll probably average out another time. Afterwards we had cheeseburgers as we usually do. Gloria bought mine this time, saying she had a windfall yesterday… Sometimes I think I should call up my old psychiatrist to see how he’s doing, though I know that bridge is pretty much burned. It’s just strange the way it goes. I feel sort of tired, with the aches and pains of growing older and the same mental pains as ever. If I could only be natural in my life instead of keeping my chin above the mire of dung. 

Noon.

It is good to rest now. My mind wanders to my mother. With her gone and without the alcohol, life is still kind of mysterious. I used to compose music to please her. In fact, my existence fairly orbited around Mom. And now it’s an empty vessel, though I can remember what went before. Losing her was to lose my soul, so I go around desultory and displaced, a specter of my old self. I’m like the traveling shade in the poem of “Eldorado,” experienced in the mountains of the moon and the valley of the shadow. Or maybe I am the knight yet to discover the place called Eldorado? 

Whitman

Quarter of nine at night.

Gloria called and canceled her workday tomorrow morning because a friend of hers is visiting and it’s her last day here tomorrow. So I said okay. The air quality was “unhealthy” in Eugene this afternoon and I could feel the difference in my well-being: my body ached and my head hurt so I needed to rest a while. They said it would rain Tuesday or Wednesday this week, which should help clean the air.

This afternoon I peeked into the book of Walt Whitman that came last Friday. It’s a selection that zeros in on the personal side of his poetry, but still I’ll go back for a closer look later. If he was gay, then I can see why he would swear off Christianity and sort of replace Jesus with himself in his cosmos. Bloom’s language isn’t totally lucid in critiquing Whitman’s poetry and his life, or else I’m dense as a reader; but I think I tend to be more obtuse and blunt, as well as direct and perceptive… Maybe I shouldn’t mess with the book, yet I’m quite curious to understand more about it. I’m reminded of the song by John Lennon with The Beatles, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” It would’ve been even harder for a guy in 1855 to be gay. How much of himself did a very great poet want to share with the world? It’s hard enough in 2022 in the more jerkwater places in this country to just be yourself. It’s worth thinking about. 

Privacy of Experience

Eight o’clock.

It’s a Gloria day. I’ve just gone to the store for the basic daily stuff and a Snapple tea for her. The sun is out and there are no clouds. Aesop heard a cat screech and went ballistic for a minute. I’m kind of pondering the nature of introversion just now. I wonder if it’s related to how assertive a person is, or unassertive as the case may be. I was thinking that Coleridge used his imagination and constant talk as a defense for a scared and nervous person inside. My old psychiatrist was very righteous about being an extrovert but it’s not for everybody, depending on how natural it is for people to be shy and withdrawn. Probably we’ll never know the truth of this… My mind hears music by Debussy from Images for Orchestra, taking me back to my birthday in 1995. My dad took me to Fifth and Pearl Shops downtown where I got a couple of new CDs. After that he drove me to the top of Skinner Butte for a look around at the city… I think that in my case, introversion has been a matter of having toxic parents; and yet how can I say this when I have positive memories of my dad since I became sick? Nothing is ever very simple. I guess that’s the thing to keep in mind. Also it’s so hard for people to communicate with each other: our minds are inevitably private and personal, like when you read Virginia Woolf. If it were not for language, we’d never know anything about each other’s thoughts. It is naive to say that everyone’s experience is the same. My psychiatrist was wrong at least on this point. And the Debussy keeps playing in my head, inaudible to anyone but me. 

Fluff

The next time I read a book, it’ll be Coleridge, I think. But it’s kind of weird to deal with his metaphysics and his worldview; or not so much weird as very interesting. I first heard of him from my Chaucer class when I was 23 years old, and that summer I bought The Portable Coleridge, which I still have… I don’t know if I really agree with his metaphysics, and he changed his mind a few times. At one point he was a pantheist (God and nature are one and the same) and a unitarian, but later he subscribed to the trinity, saying it was more mysterious. Apparently he preferred things a little fuzzy. I thought I would go over his poetry again and then try to read Biographia Literaria— but at the same time, I ask myself what for. It seems like a lot of fluff to me. Why is it necessary to create a phantom existence out of ordinary reality? And I think that’s what we’re dealing with when we pick up Coleridge. But maybe that’s the stuff of great poetry: to transcend the everyday and ordinary and build castles in the air, like magic and miracles. He definitely had an influence on Poe and probably on Melville, etc.

Coleridge is fascinating but I don’t know what to do with him.

I don’t know if metaphysics is really useful for anything except to make morality an absolute, so it’s chiseled in stone what is right and wrong. Like Moses coming down from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments on stone tablets: the Word of God received and put into practice. So that metaphysics has a practical application in the form of ethics. I can’t think of anything else it’s good for. I guess I’ve sort of lost my faith in poetry.

One more thought about Coleridge. His fuzziness and fluffiness are probably due to his opium addiction. He is a very great poet, critic, and thinker, but there’s something about him I can’t quite nail down. And for that reason I think I should investigate his stuff further before I dismiss it as a total waste of time.

“Dreamer

They said you was a dreamer

But can you put your hands in your head, oh no, oh no?”

Rethinking Edgar Rice

Well I guess I’d better quit talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Maybe even Nietzsche as well. I was just reading and skimming the “introduction” to the loa Princess of Mars: it’s full of venom and swear words and name calling regarding the author. Junot Diaz has a point. Burroughs is not very politically correct, but Diaz goes further to accuse him of fantasies of slumming on top of colonialism, etc etc. I can almost agree with his points about white domination. He uses the word “superman” at least once, which also makes Nietzsche suspect. In a way, it’s kind of good; it stimulates me to rethink the whole topic of Burroughs and his creations. And perhaps Nietzsche really did go too far with the ubermensch notions. And what’s the difference between the Aryan race of Hitler and the white superheroes of Burroughs?

I don’t know! These ideas are New School. I feel how dated my education is. But even so, I want to take refuge in my old classics, the things that make me feel good. Like Greek philosophy, even though you have to remember that it’s elitist and sometimes eugenic, possibly dangerous stuff. Is there a reason why people don’t study philosophy anymore?

The world has changed a great deal while I was drinking my life away.

Todd approved a prescription for me of the gabapentin for anxiety as needed. So now I have that insurance for emergencies. I didn’t really enjoy my excursion today. It’s a sunny day and beautiful but my heart feels rather heavy, and I’m a bit nervous. The cabbie today said something like, “My give a shit is busted.” I guess my problem is caring too much, though I’m getting better about this.

Ecstasy

Five o’clock.

What do you do when satisfaction is a long time coming? I guess you settle for less than what you really want. And maybe life has a project for you, as in an Emerson essay: we don’t use nature, nature uses us. Perhaps in hindsight it all makes sense to the individual. There was a plan all along, and your ego didn’t form it. I tend to forget this perspective. “But if all this should have a reason / We would be the last to know.” It’s a more religious way of looking at the puzzle. High school taught us to go out and conquer happiness, but it seldom works that way, and I think it’s backwards. Once I was assigned to lead class discussion on “Barter,” a poem by Sara Teasdale, but I had no clue how to interpret it. Many years later, it seemed like a big joke at my expense. What did I know of ecstasy? I was very shy, quiet, and withdrawn. I was more cut out to be a priest than a Don Juan… If Robert Burns is right about the best laid schemes, I try to remember that the real Schemer is not you or me.

Modern Valjean

Quarter after seven.

I just saw a rough looking guy stop his car on my street and get out to steal trash from our bins. He’s probably phishing for personal information he can get from discarded mail. For a moment I felt unsafe as he walked back to his vehicle, furtively glancing around for witnesses. It’s a rather weird start to the day. Now I think about criminal minds and other kinds of dishonesty so foreign to my nature. I used to be treated like a criminal for alcoholism, but was that fair to us? But today I don’t know any people who abuse alcohol. It’s going out of fashion, perhaps. My family, so I believed, used to accuse me of leeching off the system, which wasn’t fair at all. It may be true that no human being is without sin, yet justice must be measured out in a rational way or else it’s chaos. Roger, the retired cop, has just opened his garage door. I could run over to tell him what happened, but stealing garbage is a petty thing. Maybe I’m only paranoid again. We live in bizarre, desperate times. Kind of like Jean Valjean but not as honest.

Eight forty.

Les Miserables is the kind of book that is an accomplishment just to have read. I got halfway through it and stopped dead, but with a little inspiration I could pick it up again. I could do that even today. It raises questions of what is justice and how do we know what is right— and according to whom? Sometimes a suspension of the ethical is called for to serve the divine truth… 

Finished Reading Native Son

Three o’clock.

I need some time before I hatch any ideas regarding Native Son, but already I see existential parallels to Camus and Sartre, and it was published before The Stranger and Being and Nothingness. This doesn’t mean necessarily that the French writers read Native Son. Perhaps they and Richard Wright all read the same stuff from prior to 1940. Ideas are airborne and diffuse from place to place, so that existentialism might be considered a time period more than a particular philosophy. People don’t talk much about this in 2022. It’d be hard to characterize the intellectual climate of our own time, other than as the time after the Millennium, which means a great revival of Christianity followed by cynicism and monetary greed.

Why read books like Native Son nowadays? I’m still figuring this out. It’s important for racial justice and awareness of people who are oppressed. But also it raises questions of identity and purpose in life, and how far a person is willing to go to feel happy and free, and like his life has meaning. Further, can a person actually do that in a situation where every avenue to fulfillment is blocked? Bigger wanted to be an aviator; to fly and be free, and free everyone else as well, but instead he pictures everyone in a prison cell like his own. This is the common condition he imagines, the glue for himself and humanity. Rather than freedom he comes face to face with fate, saying his crimes and punishment were inevitable.

The scene of his capture is amazing: when he climbs the water tower and clings tenaciously to the top while the mob below shoots him with water hoses in the freezing winter night of Chicago. There’s an allusion to Christ when he is carried off the tower and dragged by his feet down the stairs, barely conscious all the way to the jail. And like Jesus, Bigger is martyred in the end. The kicker is that Jesus wasn’t a murderer like Bigger Thomas: so is what he did still a form of creation, as his lawyer said to the Court?

Wild Goose Chase

Quarter of two.

It’s a beautiful summer afternoon, perfect for a little walk to the store. For the past couple of mornings I’ve read essays by Loren Eiseley from a book of his stuff. In all of his meditations on natural history he sees humanity as unique and self contained, and every species for him is likewise idiographic, more or less. Human beings are alone in being thinking creatures, he says; never before and never again will there be anything like us. I guess my (amateur) view is nominalistic. It’s not like nature had an essential cookie cutter for the species of humankind. Nothing mystical is involved in our emergence on the world stage, though many people will disagree with that. There are different kinds of biologists. A simply sequential evolution makes more sense to me than something with a design or purpose, maybe a great plan for human beings. I think it’s strange to believe in a nature with essences or immaterial forms. This idea goes back to the Greeks, but apparently it survives to more recent thinking about evolution. A turtle is not the same thing as a chicken, or a chicken as a fish, etc etc. Yet embryos across species appear much the same. How much did people know about genetics in the Fifties? Probably I’m reading the wrong book…