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Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Self-Reliance in the Age of Pandemics

Into the Wild, 2007. Directed by Sean Penn. Based on Into the Wild (1996), by Jon Krakauer.

It was never the case, at least not in the modern world. Outside a few. Outside a few lone souls, able to live on grass and berries. Able to hunt and gather, make their own shelters, their own clothes, treat themselves when they got sick. Pull their own teeth. Make and fix their own modest tools. Having next to no layers between themselves and the earth. Right there. Being there always. Right on top of the earth, like mother and child.

And they better be beyond lucky. They better not fall and break their ankles, legs, hit their heads, catch pneumonia or worse. They better, in a word, or two, or three, stay perfectly healthy.
It was never the case, outside those rare few souls.

Humans are social animals. We need one another, obviously. And in the modern world, the degree of need and interconnection is beyond complex, far beyond ancient ideas of kin and village, with steeper hierarchies today than in any past worlds, arranged for us, not by us, prefabbed for us in ways both artificial and arbitrary — Potemkin-like — it’s a wonder this isn’t foremost in our thoughts at all times, as we make our way through life.

It is true that we brought some of this dependency on ourselves, as we spun out in all directions, expanded our sense of what was important to us, our sense of what we need each day, which meant a removal from the first ground of our being, a removal from the earth and any chance we may have had to truly be self-reliant to a point. Even back then, even at the dawn of things, it wasn’t possible, except for those rare few.
We listened too much to Sirens. We listened too much to ghosts in three piece suits.

We gave in. We gave up. Division of labor, division of expertise, division of the spoils, the allocation of resources decided by the few for the many.  Those Sirens and those ghosts. We’re close now to peak dependence, at the same time our personal agency, our personal control over our own destinies, may well be at an all time low. May well be peak inverse.

Year by year, generation after generation, we’ve been led down a pathway toward an existential crisis, a series of these crises, an acceleration of that series, for a host of reasons and rationales. But if we need to boil all of that down to just one, to just one reason why, to just one answer voice cause meaning provocation, it’s money. It’s “I think therefore I buy.”
For much of humanity, possibly most, almost all, our management of our consumer choices, our thinking through what, when and where we buy things . . . inanimate objects . . . stuff . . . makes us who we think we are, and this, in our mind’s eye, makes us believe we’re self-reliant. Because we can. Because we can buy stuff.

Not make it, grow it, maintain it, fix it, replenish it. Buy it. But in the Age of Pandemics, we’re quickly learning we can’t necessarily do or count on that any longer, and it’s time to ask ourselves why and how and beyond just that. It’s time to question the system we inherited and its effects, the one that spun us out this far from our home in the first place.

Integration at Four O’Clock

Integration at Four O’Clock

Bridge of Shadows

I wonder about the ideal all too often. I wonder if we were ever, as a species, supposed to attain something even close to an ideal. But that doesn’t stop me from wool-gathering, looking at clouds, staring at the darkness in my coffee cup, etc. That doesn’t stop me from questioning, endlessly, the way things are.

How should we raise our kids and ourselves? Because, of course, all the while we think we’re raising them, they’re raising us in a sense, too, and all the things surrounding us shape what we do, and are sometimes shaped by what we do, and so it goes, on and on and on. There is no No-Spot from which we can become who we really are, minus them, minus the environment, minus all that has ever arisen before we reached this place and time. And in the so-called Modern Era, it’s harder than ever before to separate the Dancer from the Dance, as Yeats showed us, and he never had to deal with Smart Phones, Texting and whatever will follow all of that.

To individuate in a crowd. To individuate in a crowded room, house, state, world, not of our own choosing. To form a self amidst all the noise, the competing cries of Look at me!! The competing scramble for clean water, air and land. The soon to be competing rush, onslaught, tsunami of eyes, ears, voices and bodies, seeking dry land, seeking fire-free zones, seeking, in short, habitability.

It may boil down to the old stand-by: it’s complicated. But I don’t want it to. I don’t want to hang my hat on that potential cop-out. I want to find the impossible, and in more than just Art. In life itself. The impossible in life. Because Art without life is like life without Art to me. They need integration too. And more. Much more. They need a kind of — to risk a cliche for a moment or three or seven — nurturing that abides, that lasts, that is sustainable for the longest term. They need a natural synchronicity that becomes second nature for all inputs, for the teachers and students who switch back and forth between the two, forever.

The other switch is, of course, creation and reception, creator and audience. Can there be a human that only inhabits one or the other? Not likely. No one is so lofty, indifferent, or isolate. No one is so passive or parasitical. Unless. Unless damaged. And that damage generally comes about in course of, in the realm of, in the range of integration with the all.

And there’s the quandary of quandaries. The endless push/pull of Alone or Come with. The endless stream of fighting it or riding the storm. And all things in between. Perhaps the answer is there, at least part of it. Not in “the middle,” per se, which only exists in the abstract, within the frame, relatively speaking. The middle as in, what we see, all of what we see, our view of things, as we think they are.
A sad voice in my head, one among so many, shouts (with obvious impatience), “Integrate that!! Individuate that!!

On the day after. On the day after!!

Original Zen

Original Zen


Shadow Garden

When Einstein was asked
Do you believe in God?
He replied
I believe in Spinoza’s god

And who is that, one wonders?

All that is and ought to be
Now and forever
Blue waves without end
Stars and green mountains and red rivers

Dark roiling matter without end


The eternal reunions and disbursements of Nature
As it is and ought to be

Though we can’t see it
Blinded by this and that
Preset premade chain/anchor
On rational thought


Augustine poisoned us all
By saying we were all already poisoned
From conception on
By a toxin he felt and universalized

Save us from all individuals
Who seek to make their own experience
The law of the land
The world



The Impression of Peace

The Impression of Peace

Carcassonne. 2007. Photo by Douglas Pinson

It’s something we really don’t know much about at all. In our own lives. The absence of war. Even to the extent that we’re not involved, we see it elsewhere, hear about it, note its presence on the news, in books, in history, on film. It surrounds us, this absence, this lack of the presence of anything remotely akin to peace — again, whether or not we’ve ever experienced its opposite.


In. The. Air. It’s with us wherever we go. Perhaps it’s like the knowledge of an impending storm we know is ready to dump flotillas of hard rain on us from above. Dark skies. More than that. We’ve internalized this and it’s why we do whatever we can not to think about it and escape.

Escape into buying things. Stuff. Escape into, ironically, stories and films and documentaries and songs about war, violence, overwhelming aggression, death. In many ways, this escape is really an indirect confrontation with the thing itself, and acts as a prophylactic for us, takes us as close as we can go, while still being safely distanced from death and destruction. If we confront it this way, something inside us says, we won’t ever have to do so in reality. But few people are likely to ever be much convinced by those little voices, which spurs yet more escapism.

We find peace where we can. Everyone has their own way. I go to the mountains. Stay quiet, or listen to music through the headphones as I take in the landscape, the blue skies, the many-colored mountain ranges, the dark brown and green shadows dancing on their tops, close enough to me to make me believe I can touch them, though I can’t, without falling to my . . .

And I think tonight what this all must be doing to humans, even the “safest” among us — and I’m not by any means forgetting the millions who actually do experience its horrors, directly, immediately, and sometimes for year upon year. They, of course, don’t have the luxury of pondering things in the same way I do here. They’re too busy burying the dead and trying to stay alive themselves, to avoid quick or slow death and destruction to the best of their abilities.

What does the thought, remote as it may be, that war is right around the corner in time and space, in a myriad of forms, do to us as a species? And what would it be like to flip this on its head in a sense, to expect peace, to live within it, to know it intimately, close by, far away, the past, the present, the future? What would it be like to be human and see violence, war, murder, rape, pillage and environmental destruction as the mother of all aberrations? What things could we do with our short time on earth if that were our foundation? What art, music, literature and so on would we make?

Would a life of true peace and the deepest understanding of interrelated existence set the ground for the greatest explosion of creativity we could possibly imagine? Or would it be the death of the arts? Are they born out of the swirling tumult of endangered life and existential dread, as so many writers, philosophers, artists and musicians have claimed throughout history? Or would that art just morph into something we’ve never seen and, from the looks of things, never will?

I wonder. I truly wonder what would happen to the thing that means more to me than life itself. Would it survive if we could destroy the endless destruction that surrounds us? Could we make art in the midst of endless happiness as far as the eye can see?

Sharps and Flats


More From the Grand Hotel Abyss

More From the Grand Hotel Abyss

Some quick comments upon further reading . . .

The author brings in Kafka’s own battle with his father, as I thought he would, discussing both his famous letter to his father and his short story, The Judgment. And he makes the connection work well between this and the family dramas of the rest of the Frankfurt school. But he adds a fascinating twist. Jeffries talks about Eric Fromm’s interest in Bachofen:

“As an adult, Fromm became steeped in the work of the nineteenth-century Swiss Lutheran jurist Johan Jacob Bachofen, whose 1861 book Mother Right and the Origins of Religion provided the first challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy that patriarchal society represented a natural state of affairs, and thereby validated capitalism, oppression and male hegemony, as Fromm’s biographer Lawrence Friedman argues. Reading Bachofen also encouraged Fromm to reflect that the mother-child bond was the root of social life and that in a matriarchal society there was no strife, conflict or even private property, reflections that were decisive for his developing socialist humanism. In Bachofen’s description of matriarchal societies they functioned as what Fromm called ‘primitive socialist democracies,’ in which sociability, generosity, tenderness, religiosity and egalitarianism prevailed.”


Moving from Bachofen to Max Weber, the author adds the Protestant Work Ethic to the mix, and from there poses an opposition of unconditional motherly love to conditional fatherly acceptance — and the matriarchal versus the patriarchal. The latter is at the heart of capitalism and the cause of the rebellion against the fathers.

To achieve that fatherly acceptance at that time meant continuing the previous generation’s business success, or at least the attainment of some other kind of widespread recognition. The father of the household almost merging with capitalism itself. The rejection of capitalism being a rejection of the father and so on. Which leads to this thought, not yet suggested in the book: What would have happened if women had led socialist revolutions instead of men? While it’s essentialist to believe yin and yang are that clear cut, and there are too many cases to count where gender lines blur, back and forth, both on the micro and macro levels, it’s at least interesting in a speculative sense to ponder the what ifs. Would the revolutions of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1917 and 1918 have turned out differently if women ran the show?

To be honest, I can’t see how they wouldn’t have, and, I’m guessing radically and for the better. But we’ll never be able to answer that, tragically.

More musings on the book to follow . . .




Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries

Grand Hotel Abyss: by Stuart Jeffries

Stuart Jeffries. 2016

Just beginning this already fascinating group biography of the Frankfurt School. The author, Stuart Jeffries, is sketching out the foundation for this group portrait, primarily through a concentration on one generation’s battle with the previous generation — mostly set in Berlin. I imagine that further reading will see this expand greatly, and that he won’t remain there, in “anxiety of influence” territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would be reductive to base the amazing work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and the rest of the critical theorists in this “school” solely on the clash of values between fathers and sons. I don’t think that’s what Jeffries is trying to do, and that he’s really just setting the context for more detailed exploration, but some authors might be seduced into such a formula. 

(BTW, I respect Bloom’s work greatly, so this is no knock on his scholarship. I’m a fan.)

Regardless, it is important to note how pervasive and spontaneous this was, especially for many Jewish intellectuals at the time — late 19th through the early 20th century, until the rise of Hitler. Much of Kafka’s work falls into this deep and desperate rebellion against the father, and against that father’s “values.” In most cases, it was a rebellion for a second or third generation of assimilated Jews, who thought their parents had assimilated a bit too much. That they had chosen wealth and prosperity through business over other possible ways of life, be it keeping faith with their faith, or faith in the Arts. And this seemed to be primarily a phenomenon of Mittel Europa overall, not just Germany. Austria, Bohemia and much of the Austro-Hungarian empire, though as Jeffries reminds us, there were divisions here as well. It was common, for instance, for some Jews in Mittel Europa to see Jewish exiles from Eastern Europe as “the Other.” Joseph Roth, in my pantheon of greatest novelists, was one of the most astute chroniclers of this divide.

What makes this rebellion, this break with the fathers especially interesting, even profound, is that they took their critique beyond the individual actions themselves. It became the foundation for a much larger critique of the entire capitalist system, which is something novelists like Kafka only hinted at, indirectly. The men of the Frankfurt School were interested in showing how the economic system in place created mass conformity, compliance, and commodified human beings. So their criticism went far beyond a revolt against their parents’ assimilation as Jews. One’s religion, ethnicity, gender or any other group identity wasn’t really the issue for them. It was the power of the capitalist system to seduce, make people forget, make people lose their individuality in a mass culture without realizing this had happened to them.

Am looking forward to the rest of this study, which is presented (mostly) in chronological order. I’m just under way in Part I: 1900-1920.




Colors are Heroic.

Colors are Heroic.

Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983
Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983

When I was very young, I didn’t see this. I didn’t see the heroism of color, or the way we make colors ourselves, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye, or the bravery of Nature’s way, or its tremendous courage in painting as it does.

Yes, Nature paints, and that’s not just a Romantic notion. It’s not some pseudo-poetic way of describing the ineffable. It just paints. Nothing comes close to the skill set of Nature in regard to — well, everything, really. Especially shadows, colors, light, polarities of darkness and light. And nothing can reach its sublime power in making opposites cohere, mesh, harmonize, complement. In a sense, wash away. In Nature, they become one with the All. But for humans, they mean war.

For us, they mean conflict, battles and war. For Spinoza’s god, they meant the universal orchestra, the mother of all choirs, the pallet of the cosmos. And we don’t even know how many senses might be involved with the orchestra, the choir, the infinite color range — six, thirty, one thousand and one? We don’t know, and likely never will, because we’re human, all too human. It escapes us and our instruments, even after centuries of advancements.

Goethe's Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809
Goethe’s Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809

Goethe said, roughly translated, “Colors are the deeds of light.” Aside from being a great poet and novelist, he was a scientist who developed his own theories about color, the way we form and interpret them. Few men have tried so hard to merge the poetic with the rational, the rational with the poetic.
From his Theory of Color:

Let a small piece of bright-coloured paper or silk stuff be held before a moderately lighted white surface; let the observer look steadfastly on the small coloured object, and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved; the spectrum of another colour will then be visible on the white plane. The coloured paper may be also left in its place while the eye is directed to another part of the white plane; the same spectrum will be visible there too, for it arises from an image which now belongs to the-eye.
In order at once to see what colour will be evoked by this contrast, the chromatic circle may be referred to. The colours are here arranged in a general way according to the natural order, and the arrangement will be found to be directly applicable in the present case; for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands purple; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versâ: thus again all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

We demand certain things: structure, a certain kind of logical connection between elements surrounding us. We form beauty this way, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye. And beauty, the courageous collection of disparate things in context — this may be the highest height humans can reach. If something isn’t quite symmetrical, we strive to make it so, or, perhaps, get angry. And by pulling this and that out of context (sometimes violently) of what we may consider in that moment asymmetrical or not beautiful . . . we create turmoil, and that can be beautiful too. Or, it can destroy.

If that destruction is just on canvas, or in the dark room, or on a piano, or hammering rocks into certain shapes, if it is sectioned off and made functional for itself . . . But what happens when we take our projections of what should be just so about the world away from Art? What happens when we see our fellow human beings and our environment as definitely in need of sculpting and remaking?
There really is no universal answer. Taoism, thousands of years ago, had some answers that work and work still, but not in all cases, and not for all time. The realization that when we tear something out from its context, sever it from, separate it from, and say it’s “beautiful” — the revelation that this creates conflicts where none existed can take us a long way. Discrimination can be a hateful thing. But without it, we would be less than rocks, never noticing if the wind touching us were cold, warm, wet or dry. But desperately seeking this all the same.

Colors are heroic because they knew this before we knew them.

Necessity and Inevitability

Necessity and Inevitability


It’s almost inevitable that the conversation continues. About Art. About the way we humans structure things, because our brains were built that way. About the way we choose to structure poems, plays, novels and such. The rocks we use to get to something else. The fire inside that rock. The spirit of stone the best sculptors find and exploit. It was there all along, they say. And the best don’t just say that, they feel it with every fiber of their Being in the World.

The best art is inexorable, inevitable. I first bumped into that idea, at least in that form, in William Barrett’s Irrational Man, a book I’ve discussed in Spinozablue now and then. There are, of course, many ways to think about the inevitable — in life and art, within our brains, outside them, the connections we invent and those we miss. And we miss so many.

Knowing only this culture first hand, growing up only here, I can’t speak to what others assume across the seven seas. But here, I think “results” mean a great deal. “Winning” means a great deal. So if we move from the Arts into Sports, the inevitable takes another turn. That championship season, in basketball, football, baseball and so on, only appears inevitable after the fact. Then the talk becomes destiny, fate, it was written and therefore . . . . But was it? Was it ever a necessary thing that couldn’t have happened any other way?

The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert James Draper. 1898
The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert James Draper. 1898

The meaning is different when it comes to paintings, novels, musical compositions, poems. Primarily because they are made things, shaped, composed to be whole things. By one person more often than not. Not by a team, with coaches, staff, fans. One creator, in a specific time and place, with unusual levels of control when it comes to anything in our chaos-driven life-world. Not total control, of course. No one has that. No one is immune to forces beyond their five or six senses, their eyes and hands and heart. No one has any control over what came before, their birth lottery, the place and time they fell into this moment of Being. All of that is like a tsunami for the lot of us. To think we have even one iota of a say about our conditions is to make Icarus look humble in comparison.

But, I think it’s safe to say, most of us fall for that self-deluding drug again and again. That we do call the shots, now, here, and that what came before us doesn’t matter, didn’t help us or hurt us enough to matter.

Perhaps music is the purest art when it comes to both creation and reception, at least when it comes to the idea of necessity and the inexorable. The frame of the work allows for this. The notes following notes allow for this. The temporal stream gives us a chance to feel what must come next, and if it doesn’t, if we get that off-note, that bitter discordant surprise, and if the composition doesn’t make this work within that frame, it’s not whole and it didn’t have to be just as it was.

A poem comes close. It, too, has that compact space to work within, so we can follow each word, each sound, the sense of the whole almost all at once. But, unlike music, the sour and the bitter isn’t so immediately apparent, and poems don’t bypass our intellectual circuits the way music can. Written works don’t break through our shields, our analytics so easily. Paintings can, at times — the visual can silence us instantly. But I think there is more latitude for them to play with light, shadow, space and form, so the viewer has more of their own space to feel without thinking something’s wrong, something’s off here.

For most serious artists there comes an epiphany in due time, and for some it never goes away: that we desperately want our works to contain all the arts as One, so they have the immediacy, the rush, the power to break down all barriers, to provoke first emotions and last, and that they strike chords with the intellect at the same time. The impossible. Artists seek the impossible. Necessity and inevitability follow their works as long as they carry that task with them, honor this, never let that go.