The streets are dark with wet but I didn’t get rained on for my little pilgrimage to buy groceries. When I was reading from Walt Whitman I began to think of my baptism five years ago on a rainy October Sunday. Specifically I wondered why I converted to religion; and probably I considered the benefit to me and not to others. Or more likely I didn’t think anything at all and my feet got in front of my head. Now I ask myself, If I could undo the baptism, would I do it? As it is, I’m just a lapsed Lutheran caught in a tug of war between the church and my independence. An old song by the Stones has been playing in my mind: “Under My Thumb,” the one with the little marimba melody. Whitman suggests that books (and traditions) are not men. I believe he’s saying that nature is logically prior to the fictions people create, including religion. But it’s easy to get this backwards and subordinate nature to the Bible.
I can’t tell if it’s raining right now. Aesop is patient about getting his breakfast. I feel better today than yesterday: maybe I should kick the gabapentin habit to avoid the crashes in my mood. Through it all runs the music in my brain.
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.
They said you was a dreamer
But can you put your hands in your head, oh no, oh no?”
I had a close call with alcohol this afternoon but talked myself out of it again. It’s a mistake to believe I have any control over my drinking. If I start to do it, then I really am “powerless” over alcohol. The way I see it is, I only have freedom and power as long as I don’t drink: my freedom consists in sobriety itself. To drink is bondage.
The best demonstration of this is the novels of Thomas Hardy. So I dug out Tess of the D’Urbervilles, intending to read it for the first time. His belief in fate hinges entirely on alcoholism if you read his books carefully. I love The Mayor of Casterbridge as a perfect example. And I’ve read Jude the Obscure three times. Jude’s undoing is alcohol and his first wife Arabella, a curvy little bitch who works as a barmaid. But the role of alcohol is clearer in his earlier books. Tess was his penultimate novel to be published, and might be better than Jude. So anyway, by reading Hardy I’ve figured out an antidote to the idea of fatalism, which is simply to avoid alcohol— or maybe not so simple.
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?
I realized almost too late that today is Bloomsday! I haven’t done anything Irish to celebrate it, either, except to listen to U2 in the past two weeks. What are others going to do on this day that honors James Joyce?
Nine twenty five at night.
There is still twilight in the night sky, very slowly fading out. I’ve had a four hour nap this evening. Tomorrow perhaps I can play my bass guitar and make a pleasing sound. There are so many great books I want to experience again or for the first time. Can you go wrong with Shakespeare? I feel like I’ve become some combo of characters in one of his plays. If I’d thought I was like Edmund of King Lear, then there’s as much resemblance to Cordelia the soothsayer. For me, honesty is not so much a principle as an artless mode of coping. It is simple and practical to tell the truth because it avoids trouble and complications down the road if you lie. I’d be honest in saying that honesty doesn’t always pay off short term, but then lying can be a disaster for more than just yourself. In the end, it benefits you to tell the truth. The most unflattering truth ultimately is better than an attractive lie, especially regarding the ecology.
The hardest thing for people to accept is that human beings are biological organisms, and as such, mortal. How does a fact like that help us? Maybe we’ll never get beyond the selfish greed for eternal life. I honestly don’t know the answer, but by accepting responsibility for our ecology, we further the future of the whole species of humankind.
Cordelia was not a flatterer but an honest person. And we are like the old king who doesn’t want to hear it.
Tomorrow I have two packages coming, so I’m kind of happy for that, especially the book. I wonder if being in Oz is kind of like the Green World in Shakespeare, a dream world like the unconscious that he more or less invented. I can’t think of another precedent for this idea: who had the unconscious before Shakespeare? Since his time would be easy to show examples, like Goethe and the Brothers Grimm. The only thing I can think of is the Arabian Nights, which were collected in medieval times.
It would be interesting if the unconscious was something that developed with human history, that hadn’t always been there with us. It’s interesting to consider the cradle of Western civilization and the birth of logical thought. But according to Russell’s history, no single person was responsible for such inventions. My tendency is to pick an icon like Aristotle and credit him alone for the discovery of reason and the organization of the sciences. But the truth is that there was no vacuum from which Plato and Aristotle arose. Likewise it’s hyperbole to say that Shakespeare invented the unconscious, let alone humanity. Emerson wrote a series of essays under the title Representative Men, which I read fairly recently, but his approach to these geniuses was not realistic. It isn’t like nature selects a genius at random here and there and gives him great inspirations, etc. It’s really much more egalitarian than that, and again, there’s no vacuum.
Stewart Copeland, the drummer of The Police, said about the band, “We were just bubbling up from the slime.” There’s always an underground in everything, whether it’s philosophy or music or whatever. Maybe it’s iconoclastic to say it, but I think Bertrand Russell’s attitude is spot on.
Now, with Bertrand Russell in mind, I think it’s important for us to keep writing, regardless of fame or obscurity for ourselves during our lifetime, because no effort is ever a total waste. Think of the people who read us today and get some inspiration from our stuff. Maybe one of them will be famous later, or teach someone else who will be great; who will be an icon.
Quarter of nine.
The little market opened an hour later today for the holiday. The radio played the Beastie Boys, rather incongruous for Easter morning. For the past few days I’ve felt lousy from a certain prescription drug, so now I’m stopping it. I gave Aesop some Gravy Train after his breakfast, which he didn’t like, but it was all they had at the store. After a while I guess I’ll read my Henry James again, although his attitude kind of annoys me. Everyone would probably love to live in the lap of luxury, but it’s an elusive thing even when you have it, and it so easily melts from your grasp. I feel more like Pip in Great Expectations than like a character in James. It was just a happy accident that I ever went to college, and the benefactor was my mother… My mother despised money and raised me to be oblivious to the fact of it. She sheltered me from the grimy reality of hard knocks, and as a consequence I’ve ended up on the sidewalk, but luckily with a place to live. I still dislike the sight of cash; it makes me think of alcohol… Yesterday morning I was in the car with Gloria coming back from the thrift store. As we passed under the highway we saw the camp of some homeless people: a few shopping carts and a string of junk that they considered worthy belongings. An hour later I’d be sitting reading a book of drawing room manners, never putting two and two together until now.
I walked to the store in a mixture of rain and snow, unseasonable for April, at the first light of dawn. The main thing on my mind was how I felt cut off from the church and maybe from the rest of society. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, which made me think of Easter next weekend. I’d also been considering Thomas Mann and perhaps finishing The Magic Mountain. If I had the money to tithe to church, then I’d feel more comfortable about attending, but as inflation has it, I just can’t swing it right now. Well phooey, it’s probably money pounded down a rathole anyway, but still I get awfully lonely for friends. I can’t read a Shakespeare play without relating to the outcast character, the one who is often illegitimate and an egoist; someone exiled from the cosmic dance and order of things. I looked out the window and it’s snowing and raining at the same time. I’m dreaming of a white Easter. My friend in Texas reports temperatures in the nineties with gales of wind. Even the weather is all mixed up and fragmented from place to place. This calls attention to the need for unity and mutual understanding, but of course there’s always a remainder to the quotient. Some pieces just refuse to fit together.
Ten ten at night.
I woke up an hour ago from my evening nap, having dreamt of the bass guitar trio with Stanley Clarke et al, but I wondered why music was still important to me, and what was the significance of the bass clef. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all in a verbal way. It’s kind of like trying to make verbal sense of folklore and mythology, the purely imagistic: perhaps it does violence to interpret these things as language. They ought to be left simply aesthetic rather than meaningful. I know that someone has said this already. It might have been the commentary by Henry Weinfield on the poetry of Mallarme. But more likely it was an old critical biography of Edgar Allan Poe that stated his distaste for allegory and his preference for pure music, especially in a poem like “The Bells.” The point was not to say anything moral or significant. The point was precisely pointlessness, and the experience of sheer feeling instead of an ideology. Not sense, but only sound. I wish I could find that biography again and hang it on my wall.