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Rebirth Comes Soon Enough

Rebirth Comes Soon Enough

Spring Comes to Lake Shanghai, by Wu Li. 17th Century
Spring Comes to Lake Shanghai, by Wu Li. 17th Century

It’s been a long winter. Like winter would never leave. Ever leave. Even though it was fairly mild where I live, the mood was winter for a long time. The mind of winter. The soul of cold. Perhaps it’s the state of the world. The economy. The cultural and political fights. Endless and ultimately boring. Perhaps. That said, spring is here and just in nick of time.

By the way, who is this Nick character and what did he do with Chronos?

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We have two new sets of poems on tap: Doreen LeBlanc and Sean Howard grace our pages again.

 

Project for the Self

Project for the Self

Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin. 1887
Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin. 1887

What has it? What brings it? What gives meaning to our existence in the here and now? The afterlife? Paradoxes aside, the search for meaning has meaning itself, above and beyond any cleverness in the equation. To express that meaning, however, has become problematic in our late date — our cynical, jaded, post-post-guileless world. Post-guileless in the sense that we no longer can stop self-referencing or self-consciousness enough to just be. Enough to let be be the finale of seem, to borrow a brilliant phrase from Wallace Stevens.

It’s hip to search for meaning without letting others really know. It’s hep to mock the attempt. It’s cool to stand above the silly masses striving to do the right thing . . . Believe, believe in what they do, accept that life really does have a purpose in the here and now, beyond the here and now!

Perhaps those who stand above find meaning in standing above, mocking. Perhaps those who judge them find meaning in their own accusations. And so on, layer upon layer, meta meta, world without end.

Does the work have meaning, the place and time? Does a painting on the wall have meaning outside that wall? A tree, a rock, a bird, a mountain? A roar in the jungle, gulls on the shore? Does it mean something to see a beautiful girl, up on the shoulders of her mate, singing along with the band on the stage, her arms forming a joyous V? The crowd going wild, the girl transfixed?

Sean Howard examines, in brilliant fashion, more than one kind of search for meaning, or process, or project in the wake of Lev Tolstoy. Because of Lev Tolstoy. Below.

 

 

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

Meaningful Searches, Exits and Traps

 

The (Post-)Modern Search for Meaning:

Tolstoy’s Escape from the Trap

 

A Reflection by Sean Howard

 

For the last few years, a close friend has been complaining, with light touch but increasingly heavy heart, of a deep-seated creative malaise, an impasse in his search for an authentic voice and message. Among other sources, his depression can be traced to his intense and academically accomplished engagement with Wittgenstein, whose humbling exposé of the ‘language game’ – and, therewith, what my friend calls “capital-P Philosophy” – leaves him both full of admiration and “with everything – and nothing – to say”. Or, rather, with a desire to say ‘something true’ thwarted by sensitivity to the unrealizable nature of any such (language-based) project. Behind this blockage, we both suspect, lurks the Nietzschean dissolution of, indisseverably, our union with God and God’s with the Word. ‘The Word is dead, long live words’; Nietzsche was trying to open a door to ourselves, roll the stone from the tomb we’re inside, yet for many of his ‘last men’ (and women), the desire for self-expression still rubs (itself out) against the paradoxically definitive absence of modernity.

 

The vital clues to my own solution of ‘The Problem’ (the challenge set so bravely to us all (and himself) by Nietzsche) were provided by Carl Jung, whose work posits an entirely different kind of Grand Source – The Self – for both personal and transpersonal meaning. At the core of Jung’s own life-work was a struggle to shape a new ‘myth for our time,’{{1}}the resurrection from the ‘God’-grave not of a Creator transcending humanity but the self-transcending creativity of the psyche. For Jung, Nietzsche’s error, the ominous turn from depression to inflation, was to search for the new hero in the sphere of the ego: ‘God is Dead, Long Live Superman.’ Yet, I would guess, for every ‘Jungian’ – everyone, that is, who sees in the psyche the implication of a guiding, healing power – there are many more ‘Nietzscheans,’ or ‘last-landers,’ dismissing such ideas merely as metaphysics revamped, new clothes for a dead emperor.

 

In 1879, when Jung was an infant, the 51-year-old Leo Tolstoy stood at the dizzy summit of his life: a prolific and world-famous writer, a happy husband and father, in excellent health, immensely wealthy. From which height he fell, almost overnight, into the Nietzschean pit. Everything he had hitherto believed, or assumed he did, he wrote, could be summed up in one word, the most pervasive and pernicious of his age, ‘Progress’: “Like any individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better. I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind; without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question – ‘Where are we to steer?’ – by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere.’”{{2}}

 

As a “literary teacher” suddenly without faith in his secular god, Tolstoy was confronted with an “insoluble problem”: “how to teach without knowing what I was teaching.”{{3}} Whether writing, reading, managing his estate, spending time with his family – “I had to know,” he said, “why I was doing these things,” and “I could find absolutely no reply” except the insufferable “truth…that life is meaningless.”{{4}} This truth he found confirmed in the profoundest philosophical and spiritual works he knew. For Socrates, meaning is something “we move closer to…only to the extent that we move further from life”: “The wise man seeks death all his life”. For Schopenhauer, “this universe of ours” which seems “so real, with all its suns and galaxies, is itself nothingness.” “Vanity of vanities,” the Book of Solomon cries, “all is vanity.” And the Buddha: “We must free ourselves from life and from all possibility of life.”{{5}} There have been ‘last men’ around for a very long time, it seems, and their worst and most ironic torment has always been the pointlessness of knowledge. We “cannot cease to know what we know,”{{6}} Tolstoy wrote – yet the one thing we need to know, how to live in meaning, can never be known. In art, too, irrespective of form or medium, only the unnecessary is expressible; and yet, like Tantalus, we can no more stop thirsting, wetting our lips to say more, than we can ever hope to find relief.

 

There are “for the people of my class,” Tolstoy noted, “four means of escaping” this “terrible situation”. The first is “ignorance,” mercifully “failing to…understand that life is evil and meaningless.” The second, “fully aware of the hopelessness of life,” is “epicureanism”, “enjoying for the present the blessings that we do have” – gifts provided, as Tolstoy concedes, by the hard labour and suffering of others. The third ‘escape’ is suicide, or “strength and energy” as Tolstoy calls it, “destroying life once one has realized…the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us.” And the fourth is “weakness,” “continuing to drag out a life,” knowing “beforehand that nothing can come of it.”{{7}}

 

From this tempting menu, Tolstoy ordered ‘No. 3’, suicide, only to be served, again and again, with what he took to be the perennial house-special, cowardice. In retrospect, however, he saw “that if I did not kill myself, it was because I had some vague notion that my ideas were all wrong. However convincing and unquestionable the train of my thoughts and the thoughts of the wise seemed to me, the ideas that had led us to affirm the meaninglessness of life, I still had some obscure doubt about the point of departure of my reflections.”{{8}} Sociologically, this ‘point of departure’ was his class, an utterly atypical and profoundly parasitic position of privilege and excess. And in reflecting on this artificial, constructed aspect of his crisis, Tolstoy began to meditate on its opposite, the still-natural (‘unprogressive’) ways of being human in the world:

 

I would not be speaking the truth if I were to say that it was through reason that I had arrived at this point without killing myself. Reason was at work, but there was something else at work too, something I can only call a consciousness of life… This force led me to focus my attention on the fact that like…others of my class I was not the whole of humanity, and that I still did not know what the life of humanity was.{{9}}

 

The question of meaning, recast in this way, invites an ethical – that is, a lived – response, a participatory mode of inquiry far broader than the compass of philosophic investigation. “My straying,” he now saw, “had resulted not so much from wrong thinking as from bad living. I realized that the truth had been hidden from me not so much because my thoughts were in error as because my life had been squandered in the satisfaction of lusts, spent under the exceptional conditions of epicureanism. I realized that in asking, ‘What is my life?’ and then answering, ‘An evil,’ I was entirely correct. The error lay in the fact that I had taken an answer that applied only to myself and applied it to life in general…”{{10}}

 

What, then, was this ‘hidden’ truth? For three years, Tolstoy sought it in the strict ritual observance of the Russian Orthodox faith, keeping any doubts he had even from himself. “At that time,” he wrote, “I found it so necessary to believe in order to live that I unconsciously hid from myself the contradictions and the obscurities in the religious teachings.”{{11}} It took a moral absurdity, the Church’s support for the Czarist state in the Russo-Turkish War, to break the spell and open the road to the radical political stance of the last thirty years of his life; an advocacy, in word and deed, of pacifist communalism, or ‘Christian anarchism,’ as it became known. The Church, he acknowledged, contained a real “knowledge of the truth”, but “in these teachings there was also a lie,” and even among the most devout believers this “lie was mixed with the truth.”{{12}} To see this blend, Tolstoy realized, to acknowledge both shadow and sun, the light of reason was required; just as the severe limits of reason require illumination from outside, the ‘other worlds’ of heart, faith, spirit and dream. Here is his conclusion:

 

I shall not seek an explanation of all things. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain hidden in infinity. But I do want to understand in order that I might be brought to the inevitably incomprehensible; I want all that is incomprehensible to be such not because the demands of the intellect are not sound (they are sound, and apart from them I understand nothing) but because I perceive the limits of the intellect. I want to understand, so that any instance of the incomprehensible occurs as a necessity of reason and not as an obligation to believe.{{13}}

 

This position, I think, resonates powerfully with Jung’s view of the conscious ego, the rational self, as a ‘storm lantern,’ the “little light”{{14}} of consciousness assisting human passage through a fiercely beautiful, far more than meaningful, world. It also accords with a defence of philosophy by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. We “are not enriched,” Borges said, by the “solutions” of philosophy, its metaphysical claims to truth, as “these solutions” are unavoidably “doubtful” and necessarily “arbitrary”: “But philosophy does enrich us by demonstrating that the world is more mysterious than we thought.” Philosophy as an interface between reason and mystery, the demonstrable and the ineffable; and is this not also the liminal ‘home’, the porous border, of poetry? Borges thinks it is, that philosophy “is exactly the same as poetry, although the syntax is from two distinct places,” and that “philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics.”{{15}}

 

In exploring this comparative syntax, as he intends to, I hope and believe that my friend will trace his own way back to what Borges’ calls ‘The Sea’{{16}} – Jung’s ‘Self’, perhaps – that both answers and transcends our calling:

 

Before our human dream (or terror) wove

Mythologies, cosmogonies, and love,

Before time coined its substance into days,

The sea, the always sea, existed: was.

Who is the sea? Who is that violent being,

Violent and ancient, who gnaws the foundations

Of earth? He is both one and many oceans;

He is abyss and splendor, chance and wind.

Who looks on the sea, sees it the first time,

Every time, with the wonder distilled

From elementary things – from beautiful

Evenings, the moon, the leap of a bonfire.

Who is the sea, and who am I? The day

That follows my last agony shall say.

 

Library Cards, by Sean Howard

Library Cards, by Sean Howard


(taken from cape breton university)


i. the technique of oil painting

colors mixing
in the square. straw-

board fields. the buckram
coat. saucepan; stirring

sand to sun. corner-
ed: students pain-

ting…

***

the canvas
leaves. distant verid-

ian. the ochre stage. the
touched sky. (picasso: blue

tumblers.) the
wind, flak-

ing…

ii. testing: its place in education today

marks-
ism. learning

to score. strange fruit; pre-
pared minds. (the Ameri-

cannery…) waste pro-
ducts; fresh out of

school?

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Coincidence in Cape Breton

Coincidence in Cape Breton

Belle Côte Wharf. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Photo by Doreen LeBlanc
Belle Côte Wharf. Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Photo by Doreen LeBlanc

 

 

We have new poems from Doreen LeBlanc and an essay from Sean Howard on tap. Both authors hail from Cape Breton, though Doreen splits time between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts now. This is her first publication, and we look forward to more poetry from her in the future.

Sean’s work brings together a host of subject fields — psychology, philosophy, linguistics, science, poetry and poetics — to startle us into reading new bridges, new metaphors between them.

 

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I have some of my own poetry on display in Private, an international review of photography and text. You can see them by clicking here.

 

Poetic Synchronicity, by Sean Howard

Poetic Synchronicity, by Sean Howard

Poetic Implications: Synchronicity and The Language of Meaning

A Personal Reflection by Sean Howard

Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Cape Breton University

November 2008

 

A few months ago, I began work on a project I’ve been putting off for over a year: an account of my time in the clutches of what Jungian analysts call the ‘puer aeternus’ complex, or neurosis; an inflated sense of the self as a precious, creative but foredoomed ‘eternal youth,’ destroyed, to quote Jung’s colleague Marie-Louise von Franz, by a chronic “unadaptedness,” which “frequently results in early death”{{1}} if not shaken off by the sufferer’s mid-twenties – the age, incidentally, I told myself as a teenager that I (like two of my heroes, Shelley and Keats) would die. After struggling through a long, difficult section on the central dilemma confronted (and shirked) in the complex – ‘how to truly be yourself,’ or ‘how to not be someone else’ – I tried to relax with a novel – The Black Book, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk – and read, almost immediately, the following:

 

For by now I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that none of us can ever hope to be ourselves: that the troubled old man standing in that long line, waiting for the bus – he too has ghosts living inside him, ghosts of the ‘real’ people he once longed to become. That rosy-cheeked mother who’s taken her children to the park on a winter’s morning to soak in some sunlight – she too has sacrificed herself, she too is a copy of some other mother. The melancholy men straggling out of movie theaters, the wretches I saw roaming along crowded avenues or fidgeting in noisy coffeehouses – they too are haunted day and night by the ghosts of the ‘true selves’ they longed to become.

 

The major recurring dream of my childhood – from the age of about five until my early teens – was of waking up, as a young man, alone in a high Tower: in a room, or cell, with no door. This ‘dream-me,’ I felt sure, was the pale, noble youth – the captive ‘prince’ – I was bound to become. The novel continued: “Yes, once upon a time there lived a prince who’d discovered that there was one question in life that mattered more than any other: to be or not to be oneself…”{{2}}

As a shock went through me, I was reminded of the time, a few years ago, I was working in the Cape Breton University library. Or, rather, not working, but pacing the aisles, feeling (not untypically for me in libraries) suddenly depressed and panicky; at, I think, the sense of something – the only thing that matters – missing from all the millions of words around, and within, me. Without looking at the title, I pulled a book off the shelf; a volume of the Collected Letters of Sir Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century British politician – something I would never have dreamt of reading. Flipping it open, I went straight to this sentence: “I wanted you with me extremely; you would have liked what I have seen.” Who this ‘you’ was, I couldn’t say. As a summation of – and outlet for – my feelings, though, the phrase was perfect; I, certainly, could not have expressed myself so well!

In both these cases, the ‘meaningful coincidence’ occurred at a moment of psychic vulnerability, a wounded openness: a disturbed version of what Keats called, in a famous letter to his brothers, a “negative capability” to sense other presences, to be without being your customary, interposing self:

 

At once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…{{3}}

 

In an earlier letter, Keats argued that, quote, a “man should have the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world.”{{4}} This ‘point’ is, I think, the ‘mature’, self-conscious ego; the developed negative, so to speak, of the uncapturable, unframeable Self. For Jung, the healthy ego is a ‘storm lantern,’ the ‘little light’ of awareness; a limited revelation of the far vaster world around, and within, us. Consciousness, that is, is useful as a mode of experiencing, not explaining, reality; just as, perhaps, Wittgenstein sees philosophy as a revelatory, rather than reductionist, mode of thought, modestly illuminative of mysteries that can’t be dispelled, simply said or thought away. For babies and young children – incapable of yet putting ‘too fine a point on things’ – experience is the only explanatory framework available; if something is marvelous, or terrible, that’s what it is: why or how (or whether it ‘really,’ positively, is) is beside the (blurred and diffused) point. And poetry is, on this reading, a state of relapse to this condition: at once the place you meet the world (without egotistic preconditions), the gesture you greet it with (the raising of the ‘storm lantern’) and the response you receive – the messages you have the ‘negative capability’ to record.

In his book Honoring the Medicine, Kenneth Cohen talks about the religious, and I’d say philosophical, significance for all Native American tribes of the ‘fontanel’, the “soft spot” or “membraneous space”{{5}} at the junction of the four parietal bones in the skulls of human infants. “The Great Spirit’s breath – the soul,” Cohen writes, is understood to enter “the body at birth through the fontanel” and leave “at death through this same point, now hardened. The Hopi believe that the fontanel, kópavi, is a vibratory center that communicates with the Creator. In the Lakota language, the fontanel is called pe’wiwila and peówiwila, ‘little springs on the top of the head,’ suggesting the sacred springs through which spiritual powers can enter or leave the earth.”{{6}}

Keats, I believe, thought of poetry as – or, rather, felt it to be – a ‘soft spot’, an interface or opening, of this kind. Certainly, his idea of ‘negative capability’ resonates strongly with the ‘poetic ecology’ of Native American science: the decisive commitment of indigenous natural inquiry to the primacy of experience over explanation; the exploration of implications rather than the pursuit of explicit, definitive accounts. The ‘laboratory’ of Native science, to borrow a word coined by the Chickasaw scholar James (Sákéj) Youngblood Henderson, is the “langscape,” the place where words and world, things and thoughts – cosmos and microcosm – meet, the common ground of expression and experience. In his essay ‘Empowering Aboriginal Thought,’ Henderson explores the ‘langscape’ of the Míkmaq people, the juncture of no less than eight ‘realms’: the Deep Earth Lodge; the Root Lodge; the Water Lodge; the Earth Lodge; the Ghost Lodge; the Sky Lodge; the Light Lodge; and the Ancestors’ Lodge. Each of these levels is “interconnected” with, and transformable into, the others; all, in fact, are themselves lodged in the Sacred Realm, envisaged as a mandala or sphere – a circle, like the fontanel, open at the centre – which the Míkmaq claim not to understand but rather stand within. “These realms,” Henderson writes, “are not outside each other but are interactive,” and it is this “interaction” that is “important, rather than the different parts them
selves.” “Thus,” he continues:

 

[T]he sacred space is considered as a transforming flux that constitutes an indivisible web of meanings. The Míkmaq can perceive the web, and occasionally they can experience reflections of the realms. The total order, described as an indivisible world, can best be understood in English as the implicate order. Traditionally, the Míkmaq have translated this order into the English words ‘the most’ or the ‘great mystery’ or the ‘great silence.'{{7}}

 

The term ‘implicate order’ was introduced by the American physicist David Bohm in his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Shortly before his death (in 1992), Bohm met Henderson and other Native thinkers and saw in both indigenous epistemology and languages a beautiful way of ‘capturing’ (or, rather, enacting) the creative relations between whole and part, form and flux, central to ‘his’ vision of the unity of nature; his “new notion of order” which he belatedly but happily realized had been appreciated by many peoples for many millennia.

Rather than – as in reductionism – a process of violent (and violatory) penetration, mental and experimental, into the ‘heart of matter,’ Bohmian physics, and Míkmaq metaphysics, celebrates the interpenetrability of different levels of being, or different aspects (explicit forms) of the same underlying reality (Jung’s transcendent, and thus unapprehendable, unus mundus). For Bohm –

 

space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the explicate or unfolded order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality…{{8}}

 

And for the Míkmaq (in Henderson’s account):

 

The realms of flux create a flowing, transforming existence. … [E]lders and thinkers relate each realm to the entire movement. They describe each realm only to understand the overall process of change. Energies or forces of the realms change with transformation. These transformations do not always cause physical changes; they often cause changes in the manifestation or behavior only of those who are aware of the subtle changes. If there is no change or renewal, then the energies or forces waste away.{{9}}

 

Is it possible that synchronicities can be seen in this light as sudden, dramatic exceptions to the rule of “subtle changes” – as “transformations” which do “cause physical changes” as they become explicit, reveal the implications of the crisis shaking us loose from our customary, ‘positive’ selves? And, if this is plausible, might we not also view metaphors as synchronicities of a kind: momentary (mercurial) illuminations of the ‘secret’ connections, the intimate relations, between people and places, mind and matter, physics and psyche?

[[1]] Marie-Louise von Franz, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, Inner City Books, 2000, p. 7.[[1]]

[[2]] Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, Trans. Maureen Freely, Faber and Faber, 2006, p. 204; originally published, 1990.[[2]]

[[3]] Letter to George and Thomas Keats (his brothers), December 21, 1817; quoted in Andrew Motion, Keats, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 217.[[3]]

[[4]] Letter to J. H. Reynolds, November 22, 1817; Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, p. 430.[[4]]

[[5]] Oxford Canadian Dictionary.[[5]]

[[6]] Kenneth Cohen, Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing, Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 51.[[6]]

[[7]] Henderson, op. cit., pp. 258-259.[[7]]

[[8]] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark, 1983, p. xv.[[8]]

[[9]] Henderson, op. cit., p. 258.[[9]]

 

________________

Sean Howard moved to Nova Scotia from England in 1999. His poetry has been published in Canadian journals including Geist, Other Voices, Quills, Prairie Journal, The Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review and Prairie Fire as well as zafusy (UK) and 4AM Poetry Review (USA). Sean holds a Ph.D in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK, and is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University, pursuing research interests in nuclear disarmament and the philosophy of science. A recent paper – ‘Very Different Butterflies’: The Scope for Deep Complementarity Between Western and Native American Science’ – was published in ‘The Pari Dialogues: Essays in Science, Religion, Society and the Arts’ (Pari Publishing, 2007). To view some more of Sean’s poetry on-line, visit www.zafusy.org/poetry/seanhoward.

 

Copyright ©2008, by Sean Howard and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.

 

Poems by Sean Howard

Poems by Sean Howard



shadowgraph 1: imagining the earth
(poetry detected in hendrik lorentz’s nobel physics lecture, 1902)





the present day? ‘in the mind’s case…’ the programmed air. the outshone sun. end-
less study: the room’s must… the corresponding silence. science investigating
its own circumstances? the magnetic can. (men raising triplets.) light grain, beam
splitting. search narrowing: ether in mind. language succeeding who? math: talk
cut short. (rapid typing…) liquid bodies. the X-rayed page? scientific method: nature
bound to say. (‘the enlightenmentTM axiomatic…’) small world: thought’s negative. life’s
long way to come. don’t panic? drawing back the light… titanic: the mind’s tip. after-
math: the trampled earth. ‘nature’? ether clearing… the runaway street. sat-
isfied equations. the indexed breeze. iron rainbows. ultraviolets. pretty picture? horse-
drawn men. all time local. building blocks? atomic foundation… (body: parts) key-

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