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A New Beginning.

07-Apr-20

We have moved, as of October 21, into our new old house in High Falls, in the Hudson Valley.  We are told the kernel of the house was begun in 1803, and it passed through a period as the John Forbes Hotel.  It’s a little beat up – heat not functioning on one side, multiple failing chimneys, water in the basement, rot in various places, electric wiring questionable, water quality poor (I could go on) – but an absolutely delightful place.  And now we have three toddlers and an old house that needs everything and something seems wonderfully right about it all.

So Many Things Do Not Change

01-Jun-20

My father (who was a Roman Catholic priest) preached in the Church of the Most Precious Blood, Long Island City, on Palm Sunday, April 7, 1968. Here is how his sermon began:

“With the report of a Remington 30.06 we have written another tragic solution to a history filled with violence. The assassination of President Kennedy should have told us something. There should have been a lesson for this nation. We, obviously, have not learned it.

“When I heard the news on Thursday night, for the first time in my life I was ashamed to be an American. On Friday as I listened to the reaction of the people, people who looked like me, who came from the same background, I was appalled. They all talked of looting, the crime in Harlem and throughout Negro communities, the fires. Nobody talked of a man who had been shot to death, a man who was a prophet in his own time. He suffered the fate of all the Old Testament prophets. Death at the hands of his own people. This is the point. This is what is important, not the looting, not the fires. Do we shoot down our public conscience because we do not like what we hear? Are we so small and so insecure that we are afraid of a man whose life is dedicated to peace?

“This nation is in deep trouble. It is in danger of civil war, insurrection, fratricide.”

In 52 years, how much has changed?

I do not know whether this is a kind of fifty year cycle that humans must go through, or if there is something in particular about the Baby Boomers and their leadership which means we must replay the cultural wars of the 1960s, to make them feel that all is right with the world. It was no surprise to me that Trump, when he proclaimed, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” was borrowing a line from the 1960s. It is as if he had treasured up the line for half a century, hoping to have a moment such as this to use it for. I had my father’s old files stored up too, I suppose, a little treasure-chest of what living wisdom he got from his own era; different people, living at the same time, drawing different lessons from the same events.

Swift Observation on Adversative Coordinating Conjunctions

29-May-20

In the universe, there are no opposites and no contraries; adversatives are all a matter of interpretation, the operation of brain in the world. They are eloquent insofar as the interpreters share a common worldview, which links together certain traits. They are hence useful for interpreting a person’s worldview. Two different writers might write:

“She was a liberal, but a racist.”

Or:

“She was a liberal, and hence a racist.”

The two statements are the two bits of data: liberal, racist; the linkage is a matter of worldview. Different people can passionately believe the worldview of either sentence. Some writers like the subtle implications of “and” here:

“She was a liberal, and [hence?] a racist.”

But “and” is the neutralest word our language can offer. It’s the adversatives where the interpretation is clear. One hears this kind of thing all the time. “He’s a ____, but ____.” The implication is that the two traits are “normally” opposed. But the universe does not traffic in such oppositions; our brains do.

New Old Path

15-May-20

A new slate walk is going in… there was one here before, but it was only two feet across and was sunk below grade, turning into a long muddy puddle in rain and a luge run during the winter. It was so unusable we had to walk on the muddy grass in bad weather. This one will be the right size, designed to shed water, and of the right stuff: the plan is to double up some of the 2′ stones, use a few large old flagstones that are sitting on the property already, and add a few more bought from old Decker’s quarry up in the Gunks. Decker’s quarry is one of the crazy places in the area, a pretty mountain ridge which is now several hundred acres of broken rocks run by a very cool old grouch. I had been there once to pick up stone for a landscaping job and I was kind of amazed by it: we were surrounded by heaps of rocks in all directions, and just had to pick out any cool rocks we wanted. The old guy told us some rather off-color stories, as you might expect. He now seems to be kind of retired, but he couldn’t sell all that stone in a lifetime of trying. Now it just sits there, rain or shine; that’s all right, it’s not going bad. When I went to scout out stone this time around I brought the gemini.  We had to park at the locked gate and walk in. They jumped from stone to stone for about three quarters of a mile and we never found the house or anyone to talk to. But there was plenty of stone, none of it any kind of normal. All were broken and oddly shaped but they can be cut to size and they’re all good old handquarried stone.

Middle Age.

09-May-20

So much to do, most of it the necessary sort. Children, house, declining body. I think of the way Jung describes the middle of his career:

With my work at Burgholzi life took on an undivided reality – all intention, consciousness, duty, and responsibility.  It was an entry into the monastery of the world, a submission to the vow to believe only in what was probable, average, commonplace, barren of meaning, to renounce everything strange and significant, and reduce anything extraordinary to the banal.  Henceforth there were only surfaces that hid nothing, only beginnings without continuations, accidents without coherence, knowledge that shrank to ever smaller circles, failures that claimed to be problems, oppressively narrow horizons, and the unending desert of routine.

It passes into other things, of course. But I do understand why sensitive souls shrink from such a life.

So Mighty a Palace, And So Empty

06-May-20

Abu Yazid was asked, “How did you attain to this degree and achieve this station?”

“One night when I was a child,” he answered, “I came out from Bestam. The moon was shining, and the world was at rest. I beheld a Presence, besides which eighteen thousand worlds seemed but a mote. A deep emotion possessed me and I was overmastered by a mighty ecstasy. ‘Lord God,’ I cried, ‘so mighty a palace, and so empty! Works so tremendous, and such loneliness!’ A voice from heaven replied, ‘The palace is not empty because none comes to it; it is empty because We do not desire all and sundry to enter it.'”

This is from Farid Al-Din Attar’s Memorial of the Saints, the Arberry translation, which I found on the J train when I was sixteen and have never been very far from ever since. It doesn’t lose its value in my eyes.

Raphael and the Bonds Formed by Great Art

06-Apr-20

Today marks five hundred years since Raphael’s death; and a further tradition states that April 6th is the day of his birth as well.  I’ve always loved School of Athens, and the Disputa, but really the piece by Raphael that moves me most is a preparatory sketch, one he executed for his final painting, the Transfiguration.

I saw this sketch at the Ashmolean Museum, while a student at Oxford.  One of my (many) pleasures while there was to visit the print room at the Ashmolean; you request a folder – say, “sketches by Raphael” – put on gloves, and take your seat in the print room. A curator brings the folder out, and sets it on a stand in front of your seat, leaving you to the pleasure of going through the folder admiring the sketches.  The curator lurks, to make sure all is well, but there is a lingering sense in the place that all those who request a folder of Raphael sketches are gentlemen, and to be trusted with such things.

I enthused about this print to my mother, and when she came to visit me at Oxford she made a trip to the museum and saw it for herself (I had something or other to do – write a paper or something like that). From that trip she brought me a print of the sketch, which traveled with me from place to place for years. I may well have it here at the house, but I’m sure if I have it it has suffered over the years: it was tacked up at first in my room at Oxford, then it traveled to the United States, graced my room at Princeton, then wandered to New York City. It never got framed, and acquired some dirt and creases and became unpresentable eventually.

But I never tired of looking at it.  Now it makes me think of my mother; I think she saw, in Raphael’s old and young apostles, something like herself and her son. I was so forward, so intense in my interests, so curious, as the young St. John in the sketch; but also held back somehow; I desperately wanted to, but did not put my hands to the things I desired. Whereas old James sees something else; he does not thrust himself into the action, but merely watches with feeling; his curiosity has been satisfied already, he knows what he is seeing, and the track of a tear is visible on his face. His hands spread slightly though, as if he has to calm himself and keep himself in.

In the painting, these two figures are not to my eye especially remarkable, so much less feeling is in the painting, than in the sketch.  I think this is generally true of Raphael: I find myself often unmoved by his paintings, but his sketches, his lines, seem to have a depth beyond all other artists.

And that sketch for me is not only great art, but deeply personal.  I am thankful for this – thankful that she had such a relationship with great art, and thankful that she shared it with me.  It feels like something deep and lasting, something that means something to me twenty years later, and will still mean something in twenty years more, and even be to some extent communicable and shareable with others.  Fine, beautiful things are like this: they take our love and interest and hold them, like heat held in a stone, such that others can feel them long afterward.  Someday perhaps my own children will discover Raphael the draftsman, and I will be the one with the tear in my eye, hands slightly outstretched, while they peer with curious beauty at the life of the world.

Shakespeare, In Praise of More Babies.

10-Mar-20

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

“Breed” here seems to function as a noun – “offspring,” or infinitive, “to breed, to make babies.” And “him” I suppose is death more than God. Or of course “breed” could just be the Venereal deed, as that only by its full fructification seems to stand against Time’s scythe. The world as I have known it is running down; the youthful faces I knew are lined and careworn, and are not as I knew them. But my children are still this day’s creation, and the world is all new to them.

Consequences

28-Feb-20

“Order says there is no wrong or right. You just reap what you sow.”

Centuries of Meditations

26-Feb-20

How is it that no one ever told me about Thomas Traherne before?

Do not wonder that I promise to fill it [this book] with those Truths you love but know not; for though it be a maxim in the schools that there is no Love of a thing unknown yet I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the centre of the earth unseen violently attract it. We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us. As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?

“… With the Hippo and the Flamingo.”

24-Feb-20

“Berkeley Cole and I, in a private jargon of ours, distinguished between respectability and decency, and divided up our acquaintances, human and animal, in accordance with the doctrine. We put down domestic animals as respectable and wild animals as decent, and held that, while the existence and prestige of the first were decided by their relation to the community, the others stood in direct contact with God. Pigs and poultry, we agreed, were worthy of our respect, inasmuch as they loyally returned what was invested in them, and in their most intimate private life behaved as was expected of them. We watched them in their sties and yards, perseveringly working at the return of investments made, pleasantly feeding, grunting and quacking. And leaving them there, to their own homely, cosy atmosphere, we turned our eyes to the unrespectable, destructive wild boar on his lonely wanderings, or to those unrespectable, shameless corn-thieves, the wild geese and duck, in their purposeful line of flight across the sky, and we felt their course to have been drawn up by the finger of God.

“We registered ourselves with the wild animals, sadly admitting the inadequacy of our return to the community—and to our mortgages—but realizing that we could not possibly, not even in order to obtain the highest approval of our surroundings, give up that direct contact with God which we shared with the hippo and the flamingo.”

From Karen Blixen’s Shadows on the Grass.  What a glorious human being.