Friday, March 31, 2006

If you ever have doubts about the rhinoceros watch it eat and look at its tongue

On June 13, 1998, I was at the Berlin Zoo, and I wrote these words:
I’m sitting by the rhinoceros listening to what Germans say about bad smells.

Gypsies. One is poking around in the grass on the other side of the fence with a crutch, trying to find an animal.

A red/white spiral ice cream treat

Ready for a nap; if I were on the other side of those bars, I could easily go to sleep


Ab nachm. 4 Uhr: Grosses Militär-Konzert

BITTE RUHE: Tiere neigen zur Panik
It is reasonable to assume that I could have taken notes on different aspects of my experience at the zoo: this bird, that child, other paths, signs, kiosks, etc. This is because I was writing about something real. Real things are like that: there’s a lot more you could say about them than what you do say. They aren’t used up in a particular form of words. If the conditions are right, you can return to the thing, experience it again, and get more words.

Not all of my journal is like this; some entries seem to have permanently lost their referent; the mode of life that produced them seems no longer to exist. Or perhaps the world I wished to describe was not just one that’s since gone missing, but a hallucination, a feverish dream-event not so much ineffable as unreal. I imagine that a similar skepticism has been felt by many writers who have dared to return to a record of vision and feeling and found themselves disappointed.

All of this is intended as an introduction to a long passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience in which James suggests that Hegel wrote philosophy in more or less the same way I wrote about the zoo: by experiencing one complex particular object and noting some of its salient features. It is standard for commentators to insist that Hegel's “phenomenology” is the gradual stepping out of consciousness on the world-historical stage, but James suggests that Hegel is a phenomenological philosopher in the vulgar, 20th-century sense, that he is a writer of an autobiography that, if you thought about it, would be the same as your own.
Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself. This is a dark saying, I know, when thus expressed in terms of common logic, but I cannot wholly escape from its authority. I feel as if it must mean something, something like what the hegelian philosophy means, if only could only lay hold of it more clearly. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind.1

1What reader of Hegel can doubt that that sense of a perfected Being with all its otherness soaked up into itself, which dominates his whole philosophy, must have come from the prominence in his consciousness of mystical moods like this, in most persons kept subliminal? The notion is thoroughly characteristic of the mystical level, and the Aufgabe of making it articulate was surely set to Hegel’s intellect by mystical feeling.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Taking tubs

Today is the birthday of a childhood friend, from whom I learned the expression “taking a tub.” This is not a common way of speaking about bathing, I don’t think; most of us would prefer to say “taking a bath.” But I like the strangeness—it helps me hear a connection to locutions like “taking tea” or “taking drugs,” a connection that is not merely verbal. For the physical trauma of a hot bath succeeds in exciting the wildest trains of philosophical thought in such a reliable fashion that one can use it, as one might a toxin, to alter consciousness that one might discover truths. Late yesterday afternoon I sunk underwater listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and believed that I understood being. Today’s tub reading revealed that Harry Haller, a paragon of the contemplative lifestyle, was himself a tub-taker; on the first page of his narration he recounts a day on which he “had lain in the bath and soaked in the heat”; my book is mercifully unwarped by the vapors, my flyleaf notes on the nature of analogy unsmudged.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

How I got into an argument

Fort Leaf, Fort Nest, Fort Thunder—the fort is a common trope in contemporary pop culture, evoking overgrown, crumbling battlements one might have visited with one’s family on a Sunday excursion, couch-cushion bivouacs, and all manner of defended overlooks from which one might peep the world beyond before retreating into the warm, woolen imagination-spaces of privacy.

From its inception, Fort Kant has wished to situate itself in this poetic space, and last Friday, had I not cancelled plans to visit a friend, Chris, and watch him perform at another Chutney Flats house show, I would have heard him dedicate his final song to Fort Kant:
This fort was taken once
Ten thousand years ago
And once again every summer and spring
By the winds of Mexico
Like a hollow log with a message tucked inside
And set upon the ocean for a ride
I have a particular soft spot for forts in Maine, and it was in defense of one of these that I nearly came to blows with a couple of self-proclaimed anarchists from Detroit.

On Tuesday, I drove up to Lewiston to see my friend Jacob, whose band, Extreme Animals, was playing a show at a “collective” called Bangarang. (Aside from the fliers wheat-pasted to the walls, the anti-globalization slogans on the fridge, and the requisite Beehive Plan Columbia banner, I couldn’t tell what made the house a more interesting or noble experiment in living than any house shared by roommates, though the principle of charity suggests that tenants’ engagement in the community probably extends beyond wearing trucker hats with the names of industrial businesses in neighboring towns and attending Bates College.) After the show—equal parts dance party and performance art—when people were milling about the kitchen, some visitors from Detroit, E. and W., decided to impress the band with tales of their exploits that afternoon. They had taken the ferry out to Peaks Island (part of the city of Portland, my home) and graffitied Battery Steele, a WWII-era artillery post that is now open to the public.


W. produced a spray-painting stencil from her courier bag and offered it to the band as a gift. The image was a sort of devil face that she identified as something from V for Vendetta, a comic book and motion picture (starring Natalie Portman) that deals in some way with anarchist themes. E. and W. had just seen the movie (last weekend’s biggest box-office draw, according to a Yahoo! headline I happened to see), and they shared some choice quotes with the band; the principle of charity suggests that they might also have quoted Proudhon or Emma Goldman with equal ease. They promised to bring along some photos of their Battery Steele graffiti to an upcoming Extreme Animals show in Ann Arbor.

When I realized that calling the police wasn’t really an option, I decided to confront the vandals myself, challenging their action as arrogant, aesthetically and historically destructive, and insensitive to a community that they, as visitors, ought to have treated with respect. I also totally lost my cool and called them poseurs, etc., which I deeply regret, and which, moreover, is never very persuasive in an argument, though it is certainly the case that E. cut a poor figure defending his act as a strike against imperialist aggression while he opened the fridge to bag up the remaining cans from his Pabst Blue Ribbon 12-pack.

It’s hard to believe that the vandalism of E. and W. could have been intended as a political event, for a long disused fort on an island in Maine is a fairly absurd venue, and spray-painting a fairly meager statement. Nor should we see their action as mere posturing, akin to sewing an anti-WTO patch on one’s jacket or affixing a bumper sticker to one’s bike helmet. Rather, we should recognize their action as an advertisement for the motion picture V for Vendetta. Battery Steele has been branded. In this sense, they have succeeded in a political action: recasting a public good as corporate property.

Each crack in the concrete, each weed and patch of moss, each running stain of rust, its particular fade, makes a subtle claim to communication and rewards care with the discovery of something that exists only one place in the universe, gently; blazing above these, communicating with literally graphic violence, is a devil face, its edges determined not by an inner course of vitality, like a leaf’s edge, but by a distant original whose lines are transmitted through corporate channels to the X-ACTO knife of the deluded crust-punk whose stencil says, among other things, that its user has no idea what it would mean to DIY. The devil face that burns itself into brain after brain—this is the original sense of branding: a scar that can be recognized immediately, and whose coercive knowability functions to erase the particularity of its bearer. Communication, if it hails its addressee as a person, must leave her the space to dissent, to recontextualize, and to reinterpret, for you cannot understand or embrace as your own something you are not allowed to refuse. A stylized image rarely leaves its addressee this freedom; a declarative sentence sometimes does; natural and historical objects almost always do.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Recalled to life

A friend of ours is an amateur Portland historian/collector, and on Friday he showed me and Hilary his latest acquisition: a deck of playing cards, each bearing the image of some library, theater, park, or municipal building prominent in the life of the city at the time of the cards' manufacture. He found this rarity through a well-known electronic auction site, which fact Hilary considered a tremendous disappointment, and later, privately, she expressed surprise that someone might take pride in having advanced his collection by such unpoetical means. I was initially inclined to defend the collector, but I came around to Hilary's opinion on the influence of the provenance of artifacts on their aura and charm. The chain of events leading to our encounter with some object matters greatly to its power over us. Awe and wonder are reserved for the object that shows up by accident. An improbable object may arouse our interest, but an improbable discovery excites our feeling of life. (And if you set out looking for improbable discoveries, you may skunk the whole thing in advance.)

Perhaps it is a mark of the collector that he has abandoned concern for the object as an individual. However the object may be distinguished from others—as monophonic, pre-CBS, bound in signatures, or whatever—the collector values it not as a singular, inexplicable event in an experience of the world, but as a member of a kind, whose worth is determined by its place in a system of objects rather than by the unique grace of its arrival in a life. A collector may hope that some strange feature of the new acquisition will shock him as his old, original favorites once did, before he replaced his wonder at them with knowledge, but it is fruitless and contradictory to attempt to prepare such shocks for oneself. A true discovery presents itself not as so much fuel for a dying passion, but as a sublime discontinuity, announced with all the force of the recognition that there is something rather than nothing.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I’ll write my ideas on every page

So proclaimed a three-year-old girl as her mother was being rung up for a pocket-sized notebook at the art supply store downtown by the art college.

Writing ideas on every page has been a theme among my friends lately. One carries a new notebook of ideas to beat forgetfulness; another, who is wild about notebooks for purposes practical and impractical, bought a miniature graph paper pad for a third; a fourth is a notebook artist who fills spiral-bound notebooks with bars of neon color in every other ruled space.

Last Friday, on harrowing drive through the Berkshires, I had Hilary take dictation as I vocalized the few language-shaped thoughts that emerged involuntarily out of my white-knuckled concentration as I attempted to keep my car, purportedly “Made by Trolls in Trollhättan” but woefully unsuited to wintry conditions, on the road. Either the snow or the extreme topographical dynamism of the mountain pass would have been nerve-wracking enough on its own, but the combination elicited fight-or-flight nonsense repetitions, mantras related or unrelated to my alpine drive, placeholders to block the flow of propositional thought and to allow the brain’s deep predictive algorithms of physical nature to guide the hand without mediation.

Other notes of Hilary’s, factual/descriptive in nature, allow me to reconstruct sight-seeing highlights of the drive: the town in which Brigham Young was born, which, you can see why Utah landscapes might have had a certain appeal; Lill Tugan, a sort of depot or trading post whose name recalls “Grande Tuge,” a corruption of Beethoven’s “Große Fuge,” a supremely mind-boggling set of sounds of which a contemporary noise musician would be proud, had he or she composed it, especially while deaf; a housing development aptly named “Alpenwald”; LOGGING TRUCKS ENTERING; STEEP GRADES SHARP CURVES; BEAR XING; the town of Charlemont; “Hail to the Sunrise”, the name of, or an imperative issuing from, a sort of park of bungalows built around a sculpture of a green Mohawk Indian with his arms up, presumably hailing to the sunrise.