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“This day winding down now / At God speeded summer’s end”

are the first two lines of Dylan Thomas’s “Prologue.”

William York Tindall points out how the “now” and “end” stand at the ends of the lines, giving these words “weight,” and he also notes the “sinister” sense that “God speeded” gives these lines, because it makes the passage of time seem like a goodbye.

Now is the end, so goodbye.

A sombre beginning for a poem.

Seasons come and go, and there is always a touch of melancholy in seeing the end of something you have enjoyed. So Thomas is just expressing a feeling we’ve all had at the end of a summer, probably more than one, at some time in our lives. Probably a summer long ago, perhaps when you were very young, and you thought it would never end. There’s melancholy in the thought of time past and gone.

“God speeded” is particularly fitting here because not only is it a goodbye and good luck to the summer, but it emphasises the speed with which time can seem to pass. That thing we always say when we say goodbye to a time fondly: Didn’t it go by fast?

And yes, we will wish summer good luck and success on its journey when it’s time for it to go, we will look forward to its triumphant return, and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to it on its way back around to us. For all the melancholy of summers past, there’s joy in the knowledge there’ll be another.

The seasons are something easily taken for granted. Poets like Thomas shock us into noticing and appreciating the passing of things, in this case by hinting that a summer is a thing that might have a mishap on its return journey. Is “shock” too strong a word? I certainly think Thomas has done all he can to make his farewell to summer here quite striking, just two lines into the poem.

(I’ve been reading William York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Dylan Thomas.)

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Clinging On

There’s an old man in a story by Nabokov, a terrible old man, whom the narrator makes quite sure you could have no love for – he’s lecherous, sour, selfish – but perhaps still you can feel sympathy because he is a dreamer whose dream has gone stale yet still he clings to it, a dream that “had been in his youth a delightfully exciting plan but had now gradually become a dark, passionate obsession.”

There’s a difference between passion in its purest form and the obsession it can become as time goes on, and it’s easy to confuse the two. Passion is the stuff of life, gives us vitality. Obsession might be your reason for living but at the same time it drains your life out of you, making you live only for it; it exists at your expense.

The old man clings to his shop as the “symbolic link between his dreary existence and the phantom of perfect happiness.” He’s become a spectator of his own life. He sees it as it is and as it might have been. When at night he dreams, it is like watching a film, a sentimental story that ends, as films do, by plopping the viewer back into the reality of their own life – in this case back into a dismal reality of his own making.

Nabokov makes it hard to feel sympathy for the old man perhaps so that we will look away from him in disgust and back at ourselves. What passion has become stale for you? What must you leave behind? And what must you seize now in order to live life more fully?

(I’ve been reading “The Aurelian” in Nabokov’s Collected Stories, published by Penguin Classics in 2010.)

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One Life

“Always merry and bright!” is the ironic refrain throughout Henry Miller’s “The Tailor Shop.” Miller doesn’t hide the bad in those times, the dark and the grim; he doesn’t hide his own “bad heart” or the bad in the other people he spent time with. And yet the cheerful refrain rings out: “Always merry and bright!” Because you’ve got to keep your chin up, haven’t you?

As Robert Ferguson notes, Henry Miller by the end of his life was the model of the cheerful old man, “shamelessly proclaiming his happiness” and riding around on his bicycle. Old Miller seemed to know the meaning of life and was a shining example of a happy human being.

But the Henry depicted in the story of the tailor shop is a younger Henry, who has not yet found his way. He is a man in no way to be admired. Not for the things he does, nor for the way he passively allows things to happen to him. He wants to be a writer so he writes books. But he only writes them in his head, in the mornings on the way to a job he doesn’t want to do, and by the afternoon he’s forgotten everything he’s “written” and has to start over again the next morning.

But there’s no point judging him. He’s dead and gone this young Henry Miller. He died so that the old Henry Miller might live. Henry Miller the flawed human being had to make way for Henry Miller the holy man and writer.

Towards the end of the story Henry Miller laments that he only has one life: “One life! And there are millions and millions of lives to be lived.” With this lament the young man comes as close as he’ll get to the truth for many years. The truth that he would discover, and which would liberate him, was that one can and must live a million lives in one lifetime if one is to be an artist. Only in this way, by relentlessly experimenting and reinventing oneself, can the correct formula ever be hit upon. Only in this way can a vital and essential transformation ever occur.

(I’ve been reading Black Spring by Henry Miller and Henry Miller: A Life by Robert Ferguson.)

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Paradox and Buffoonery

“You gotta fight for peace.”

And some in the audience must have agreed. If bad people will do bad things you’ve got to do something to stop them. But others just saw the paradox and laughed.

One of those who laughed was Jack Kerouac, who not only laughed but picked up the speaker’s hat, put it on his own head, and walked in circles around the stage.

Some in the audience laugh even harder. Others murmur in their embarrassment. All can see James Wechsler, who’d spoken the paradoxical words, insulted and red-faced. Why would Jack play the buffoon instead of responding to what he’d said? It seems dismissive and disrespectful.

But Allen Ginsberg calls Kerouac’s response “rational tempered,” and really the only one he could have given. And Wechsler would have understood that, had he been more familiar with “Zen masters and Zen answers.”

As with most debates, there’s no clear right and wrong here, so maybe it’s better not to respond. Maybe it’s better to exhibit your position and let it stand, and Kerouac decided to do that through a kind of theatrical display. And why not? After the show, everyone went home and made up their own minds, as they would have done anyway.

(I’ve been reading The Best Minds of my Generation: A Literary History of the Beats As Taught by Allen Ginsberg, published by Allen Lane in 2017.)

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The Conscientious One

“I am the one I must be,” says Zarathustra. He accepts himself fully the way he is. And he walks with a carefree step. So carefree that in fact he is sometimes careless. And walking through the swamp he steps on a man lying in the mud.

The man he has stepped on is angry at first at Zarathustra’s carelessness. The big difference between him and Zarathustra is that he is conscientious. He is careful to limit himself, which is the essence of conscientiousness. He calls himself “the conscientious one” because he takes the time to know only one thing, and knows nothing at all about anything else. To know a bit of everything would be to deal in half-measures, and he despises anyone who is so careless as to do that. He’s lying in the swamp as leeches feed off him, and learning all he can about the brains of leeches. He’s taking all these pains to know the one thing he should know, and to be ignorant of everything else. He is lying here in the swamp, his ears stuffed with mud. He’s taken all this trouble. And here’s Zarathustra, not even looking where he’s going!

Yes, Zarathustra can seem careless and carefree as he dances through the world. He accepts himself and any chance encounter that might befall him. Though he treads carelessly he treads lightly. He steps like a dancer.

This is what makes Nietzsche, the creator of this heroic version of Zarathustra, a source of courage for Gilles Deleuze. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra encourages his hearers to speak from their own heart. No need to limit oneself. You can stumble out into the dark sometimes and see what you find there. Perhaps you will trip over a very interesting man lying in the mud. You can be open to these chance encounters. You don’t need to control everything.

The conscientious one says: I want to be honest. But Nietzsche further has him say: And if I am dishonest, I want to be blind to my own dishonesty. In all of us there is a point where our honesty leaves off, says Nietzsche. This man who calls himself “conscientious” is trying to persuade himself that he is incapable of any dishonesty at all.

Nietzsche seems to be saying here: conscientiousness leads to dishonesty. Conscientiousness means limiting oneself, setting limits for oneself. But you can only limit your conscious self. You can’t keep an eye on everything, and there are even things you yourself do that go on behind your back. Post-Freud, this is a familiar enough idea: you are driven by unconscious drives. The upshot is that if you convince yourself that you have set a limit for yourself, then you are lying to yourself. That is the lie of conscientiousness: that you really can be such a strict guard over yourself.

Conscientiousness wants total honesty, but such absolute honesty is impossible. The best you can hope for is to be aware of where your own honesty leaves off. (And to hope for anything else, Parkes notes, Nietzsche would call a “will to blindness.”) At least don’t lie to yourself in this matter. But the conscientious one doesn’t want this: “Where my honesty ceases, I am blind and also want to be blind.” To become conscientious you must learn to believe the lie that you are honest. Conscientiousness always means hypocrisy.

To be conscientious you must limit and censor yourself so that you hide your own dishonesty. That is dishonest.

Which is more valuable? Honesty or conscientiousness? Nietzsche makes us choose one virtue over another. It is not possible to have all the virtues, so which would you prefer out of these two?

I think that the artist always chooses honesty over conscientiousness. This is why artistic creation always involves following unconscious processes. Let them see the whole of the artist, the whole person, every aspect of the human being.

(I’ve been reading Graham Parkes’ translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Martin Joughin’s translation of Gilles Deleuze’s Negotations.)

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Image is from Pixabay

It’s difficult to wait for something.

How many times in your life have you really had to wait? Usually if something you look forward to is happening in the future, you pass the time until then. The show is on the 12th of next month, today is the 23rd, so you’ve got about three weeks. You’ve got other things to do until then and little time to wait around. Occasionally you remember the event: two weeks, one week, three days to go. And for a moment out of time you stand in expectation, imagining the day of the event, seeing it as if you’re already there, before returning with a jolt to the present moment’s business. Apart from these moments where you stand in readiness, you’re not really waiting. You’re just passing the time as the day approaches.

But what if all you had to do was wait?

Perhaps you don’t know exactly when the day will arrive. And perhaps this thing is very important to you. An opportunity that will change your life forever. Like Christmas morning to a child, it’s all you can think about. Everything else in the world becomes jumbled and irrelevant, noise and chaos. The only thing that has meaning now is the awaited event. Do you count the hours, minutes, seconds to the end of each day?

But even this simple act of counting becomes a jumble. Your mind cannot focus on anything as immediate as seconds, or even on the present minute or hour. What day is it? All you can think about is the moment that is not here yet. It repeats and repeats, the toll of a bell from a too distant future: not yet, not yet.

What about the place where you wait? It is a dark hole in the ground, nothing more. It has no details that will register on your mind, your brain craning out too far into the void of the future for anything in the present to impact upon it.

“I can’t wait!” says the child. And what if you literally cannot? Perhaps waiting becomes impossible when all there is to do is wait, when there is nothing that can interest you in the present moment, nothing to latch onto. You have no clear idea of where you are, of time passing … And how can you be said to be waiting if time has ceased to pass? A paradoxical notion: to wait for eternity. And you start as if from a nightmare as the vertigo of that thought hits you. That here in the dark, waiting, is where it all ends.

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Image is from Pixabay

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) quite regularly for five years or so now, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters.

But what is a monster?

I’ve been looking through Medieval Monsters by Damien Kempf and Maria L. Gilbert, and at the beginning of the book there is a quote attributed to Alfred Jarry:

“It is common to call any unusual combination of dissonant elements a ‘monster’ … For me ‘monster’ signifies all original, infinite beauty.”

When we think about things we would call “monsters” we tend to imagine something we find horrible in some way. But Jarry seems to use “monstrosity” in a different way, to signify something interesting, exciting, and original. That’s what is truly shocking about a monster: it surprises us because it is unusual and different.

The best D&D players know that “monster” doesn’t necessarily mean “enemy”. They don’t just run in and slay every goblin they see. There are lots of different ways to interact with the strange creatures they meet on their journeys. Perhaps, instead of killing that troll, they might befriend it and persuade it to give them a vital clue that will help them on their quest.

In real life we encounter goblins and trolls all the time: “bugbears” we sometimes call them, those little things, and people, that irritate us. And wise people know that those minor irritations aren’t always the enemies they can seem to be, and you can learn a lot about yourself by paying attention to the things that bother you.

And the monsters of fiction: though the creatures in, say, H.P. Lovecraft’s stories might be far more terrible that those little daily annoyances of real life, if his dreams hadn’t been troubled by these terrifying cosmic visions then the world would never have had those stories to read.

So maybe this is what “monster” can often mean: something troubling and discomforting that an inquisitive and creative spirit will nevertheless always be happy to have encountered. Something that by its very strangeness stirs something new in us and changes the way we see the world forever.

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The Bag Thief

Image is from Pixabay

There’s a story in the Arabian Nights in which two men are being interrogated in the office of the police chief. One of the men had snatched the bag of the other but, when the victim called for help, the thief claimed the bag belonged to him. Both men claiming ownership of the bag, and calling the other man thief and liar, the police must determine the truth of the matter.

The Chief towers over the two men and says: “If the bag really belongs to you, you’ll be able to tell me what’s inside!” And he turns to the Thief and says: “You first! You tell me what’s inside the bag.”

The Thief is a small and thin man, and his eyes glisten and mouth waters as he stares at the bag, as if seeing through its material and eyeing the contents he hopes to make his own. He begins:

“Inside are many purses of gold, and gems scattered loosely about, and a suit of fine clothes for myself, and more clothes for my wife and children, and a chicken that will lay many eggs for us.”

The Merchant, his victim, snorts in disgust at the brazen lies of the Thief. “Such modesty!” he scoffs. “Why stop there? You know that the bag also contains a fine palace built of white stone, and many guards for the palace, a drinking fountain and a row of pleasant houses, and a wide valley that is pleasant to look down over as the sun sets.”

The Thief appears not to notice the sarcasm in the Merchant’s voice and is spurred on, speaking again as his hungry eyes once more seem to pierce the bag: “Inside this bag is a mountain, beneath which lies a secret treasure. And there are many servants, coming down the mountain in a great procession, who will attend to my wife and children’s every need. There are still more clothes, and a wide river in which to wash them. And there are many comfortable beds, so that my family and I will sleep peacefully every night, free from care.”

By now the Chief is twitching with rage. “Silence, both of you! What is this, some trick to make a fool of me? One of you must know what is inside this bag, unless you are both either thieves or comedians!”

“Oh yes!” shouts the Merchant, in a frenzy of his own. “I know what is inside the bag. It contains the sun and the moon, and all the seasons, a river of gold and a sky full of emeralds. It contains a vast city filled with people who never work, but sing and dance all day and hold me in high esteem as their blessed ruler. And I give it all to you, Thief!”

And so saying he leaps up, grabs the bag from the desk and hurls it down at the Thief’s feet. He turns and storms out of the room. The Chief hesitates a moment and then follows his suspect into the corridor, to urge him to return and remind him he’s in police custody. The contents of the bag have spilled out onto the ground. Three loaves of bread and a handful of olives.

It’s more than the Thief could have hoped for. He stuffs everything back into the bag and climbs quietly out of the window.

(I’ve been reading Malcolm C. Lyons’ translation of The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. The story I’ve told here is a retelling of the story told on Nights 295 and 296.)

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Kalganov and Karamazov (Notes on Book 9)

Mitya says: I am guilty of murder. Not because I have killed; I have not. But because I am capable of killing. And we are all capable of cruelty. While there is any crime in the world, each and every one of us is guilty of it.

There’s no use squirming to avoid blame because we are all to blame.

Kalganov sees it differently. Convinced of Mitya’s guilt, he despairs. If one such as he could be guilty, what does that say of the rest of humanity?

Both Mitya and Kalganov believe in the universality of guilt. But while Mitya includes himself in this judgement, Kalganov excludes himself, believes himself the only innocent, and despairs.

(I’ve been reading Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers, translated by Constance Garnett.)

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Image is from Pixabay

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age” writes Dylan Thomas. The same force that makes a plant grow flows within me and makes me alive. To be young is to feel close to creation, to nature, to the source. And “my youth is bent” by the same force. A poetic genius, as all young people are, Thomas can sense the force of nature move through him, and change him. He knows it’s not entirely him who acts when he writes, when he laughs and sings, but something that acts through him.

Getting older, such thoughts take a more macabre turn. I am here just for a moment, a single lifetime, as an individual, then the “clay” that I am made of returns to nature and I am again just part of that force. But this is a strange use of “just”, to say you are “just” a part of everything, once again at the centre of the creative force of the universe, as if that were something that would limit you. The macabre, looked at in the correct light, brings back those youthful vigorous sentiments again: it’s not that we’re going to die but that we’re already dead, because death is a part of life, and from the beginning it’s just a journey back to the creative centre. It’s just easier to remember this when you’re young, because you so recently came into the world as an individual that you can almost remember what you went through to get here, how you became limited to this single form, and what a varied and limitless expanse you left behind when you entered the world.

And “left behind” is misleading too, as if death were something to yearn to return to. No: remembering what it was not to be born, life itself can be opened up a crack to let in that dream of chaos and the void, that richness and boundlessness, to open up the real possibilities of life.

Rilke has his own green fuse: he has our dreams drawing their force from the “giant stem” of the living human body, from the “sap” of the life we have been living in the daylight hours; and these dreams flower like orchids, and wither and fade the same way upon waking.

Dreams, ephemeral, are to the human body what those same bodies are to nature: flowers that spring up, bloom, fade, and die.

You are nature dreaming. When you remember this you recall that knowledge of youth, that life is eternal. You’re not going anywhere. The whole of nature is lived through you, immanently, and nothing can ever be lost.

(I’ve been reading “The Dreamer” in the Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland; and “The force that through the green fuse” in the Collected Poems: 1934-1953 of Dylan Thomas.)

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