Tuesday, November 10, 2020




Saturday, December 10, 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Election 2016: The Coming Fight to Reclaim Democrats' Populism

I interrupt my Summer Leave to make a required reading assignment.

I have just read the best article I've seen on recent political history.  If you want to understand what happened to allow the Democrats to trade away their signature role as defenders of the powerless, the workers (unions), the breadwinners, the victims of racism, sexism, and Big Capital, for a mess of bankers, corporate criminals, trade pact traitors, and media darlings, you'll do no better than to read Matt Stoller's masterful piece in the Atlantic magazine,  "How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul."

In it you will learn about the pivotal role played by Texas Congressman Wright Patman (1893-1976) as Jeffersonian guardian of the interests of the common people against Trusts, Big Banks, Big Corporations, monopolies, and so forth--displaced by the "Watergate Babies" of the Seventies, who redefined liberalism in terms of the counter-culture's anti-war (Vietnam) campaign, and battles against sexism, and racism, while giving a free pass to Wall Street, Big Banks, monopolies, and other barely disguised "trickle-down" theories of noblesse oblige.

Stoller is a prominent blogger for Progressive causes, and has worked for Alan Grayson and Bernie Sanders as economic advisor.

An unforseen  consequence of this historical shift is precisely the popularity of the fascist Mr. Donald J. Trump in most areas of the country traditionally allied with the Democratic defenders of the victims of the owning class--the agrarian South, the industrial mid-West, and the rural areas of otherwise blue states.

Hillary is a thousand times better choice in the current election than the ignorant and volatile predator, Trump, but the article recommended above should help you understand why I--born in the Dust Bowl depression-era 1930s--much preferred Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

There is hopeful talk about Sanders's success in helping Hillary understand the centrality and importance of such concerns. We'll see whether her conciliatory talk leads to a new stress on Progressive causes in her first term, though the makeup of the Senate and House will determine how successful she, or any Democratic President could be.  At least we shall have dodged the nightmare of Trump's Supreme Court nominations!!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Mud Season: the Viscous in Nature and Slime in General

Go for a walk in the woods. You enjoy the rustle of leaves, the sun filtered through the foliage, the call of birds. But stoop down and brush aside the dry vegetation underfoot, then scoop up a layer of mud beneath, and you'll find a very different "nature"--one of rotting, squishy substances populated by slimy worms, insects, and composting substances of unknown origin. You know that the former experience depends entirely upon the existence of the muddy handful, but there may still be a shiver of repulsion to color the experience. Psychoanalysis and philosophy visit this world of repulsion to bring back reports of the "deeper" levels of our sexuality and--for philosophy--new questions of ontology: the existence of the world of slime. It seems fitting here to add to these objects of inquiry some thoughts on politics, in this season of mud-slinging, "sliming," and "dirty politics." Politics has some lessons to be learned from the errors and insensitivites of our abstract and idealized myths of "nature."

"Nature"--like a beauty contestant parading before the judges--must conform to certain rules and standards to be considered for artistic attention and celebration, whether in poetry, painting, fine photography, cinema, or a descriptive passage in a well-reviewed novel. Like the beauty queen, nature must present herself at the proper distance from the optimal point of view, in the right costume, thoughtfully lighted, and free of any blemishes caused by disease, age, maltreatment, violence, or unfortunate genetic origins. Thoreau narrates it in comforting conformity:

"Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin. If it had lasted longer it might have tinged my employments and life." (Walden, 202)

John Muir gave us a West Coast version of the style:

"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail. When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. " (Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras, 110)

The transcendentalist assumes that we are one with nature, whose "job" it is to give meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, when we live in harmony with her systems--as awed participants in a divine universal organism.

Now and then a writer or artist notices that nature's "blemishes," like a beauty queen's rash or sweaty underarms, can't simply be ignored or air-brushed out of the picture--that, indeed, nature is chock full of violent, disgusting, and repulsive elements that require only a slightly different angle of vision, viewing distance, or enhanced attention to all but destroy one's romantic preconceptions about our harmonious role in the tapestry of creation. Worm in the apple. Sore on the lip. Mud, instead of garden. Here's Annie Dillard, our "20th century Thoreau," describing a pond event:

"...At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn't jump.

He didn't jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island's winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water; it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

I had read about the giant water bug, but never seen one. 'Giant water bug' is really the name of the creature, which as an enormous, heavy-bodied brown bug. It eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with those legs, hugs it tight, and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. That one bite is the only bite it ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs--all but the skin--and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice..." (Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 8)

We are instantly transported into the world of our sci-fi nightmares: The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon.

It doesn't take much: venture to the garden in late-March "mud season," bend down to inspect a pile of rotting black leaves, then plunge your fingers into the slimy muck beneath, pulling up the remains of dead vines, pulpy stems, and slimed-over remains of last year's crops. Mud season.

On the other hand, insufficiently "civilized," tamed, and repressed, kids love slime. Mud? Great for toe-wiggling, mud-pies, splatter wars. Infants will happily smear the crib with their own feces, whatever the Gerber Baby advertises to the new mothers at the baby shower, exchanging their colorful Calder-inspired minimalist mobiles, ruffled pink baby quilts, and sweet-smelling moisturizers. Infants seem to believe that oatmeal is great for the scalp, that applesauce is a fine candidate for tossing to whoever's nearest. Worms, silly putty, grape jelly? Couldn't be more fun. Later, as taboos get enforced, the joy changes inflection: now it is delight in the "Ewww" factor--joy enhanced by the recoil of the audience: what kid has not learned the pleasure and power to be had by a rousing vocal performance of:

"Great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat
Hairy pickled piggy feet
French fried eyeballs floating in some kerosene
And me without a spoon."?

This childhood ambivalence--the battle between the "Ewwww..." and the "Ooooh..."--is carried over with enhanced power into a multitude of adult preoccupations and structures: sexuality, artistic practices, psychopathologies, as well as religious and philosophical dogmas and categories. The taboos and attractions are multiplied in extremely powerful ways, right down to the deepest levels of our mythic and cultural architecture.

In the psychosexual domain the literature references blennophobia (fear of slime) and obsessive/compulsive rites of cleanliness and germ fear at one end of the spectrum. At the other extreme is obsessive erotic attraction to slime, filthiness, and "taboo" practices such as the originally Japanese bukkake orgies in which a great number of men--sometimes hundreds--ejaculate upon the nude body and face of a single woman. Examples are easily elaborated: pica (the obsessive eating of clay, plaster, or roadside dirt), coprophagy (the eating of feces), the ritual smearing of feces and urine on a sexual partner's body, and, in milder manifestations of these erotic proclivities, festivals of mud-wrestling, erotic massages with oils and jells, and so on for scores of variations easily imagined. As St. Augustine noted, "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur" -- we are born between shit and piss (and never seem to lose our fascination with the possibilities thereby offered, whether in bed or in the most serious works of art.)

$2.3 million was offered for Chris Ofili's 1996 portrait, "The Holy Virgin Mary," whose exposed breast is made of lacquered elephant dung, while her robe is made up of depictions of women's asses. "Piss Christ" is a 5' x 3' photograph by Andres Serrano of a small crucifix suspended in a plastic box filled with the artist's urine. A more refined variant of the fascination with viscous and psychologically freighted substances is to be found in the large-scale sculptural works of Matthew Barney (who made the epic Cremaster cycle of films, premiered at the Guggenheim Museum), which utilize hundreds of gallons of petroleum jelly--sometimes allowed to melt and slime over all the surroundings--his statement on the fossil fuel industry, as well as the antecedent use of whale oil as fuel. These artistic practices may seem bizarre: but imagine trying to explain to a visitor from a lost culture or distant planet the Christian doctrine of the eucharist, in which believers consume the actual body and blood of Christ by the miracle of transubstantiation of the physical substances of the wafer and the wine... theophagic cannibalism as a religious commandment! And recall that the Biblical account of our very creation involves God's playing in the mud, scooping up clay to form a creature in "his own image," then breathing into his mud-sculpture the breath of life, making of us immortal souls! It is all a bit complicated?

Twentieth century philosophy did not hesitate to dive into the issues raised by such matters (and indeed 2500 years earlier Heraclitus had divided up human souls into those that are "dry," and those that are "damp." The damp ones, drunkards, etc., are prone to sink, while the dry souls ascend towards the heavens to be purified in the fires of intellectual suns--a foretaste of Plato's division of the human soul into the appetite, the will, and the intellect above.) Armed with hundreds of years of theory, art, and psychological conjecture, philosophers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty tackled the issues treated here in ontological terms. Under the tutelage of phenomenology, these philosophers argue that objects in the world--things--have, as part of their reality, affective qualities: repulsivenss, and attractiveness, for example. These are not merely associated with the object by an act of the mind, but are really there, in the thing--as real as its mass, velocity, color, shape, or proportions. This can have revolutionary consequences for re-engineering our philosophical understanding of our lived world and its truth, since, among other advantages, it gives us an opening to understand the power and knowledge-status of the arts, which depend primarily upon these "affective" qualities of existing objects.

Of course this is no place to even sketch out the elaborate, decades-long arguments for this position (Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, DeBeauvoir, and many others). It will have to suffice here to make a few points concerning some findings of this methodology regarding the matters at hand--the roots of our contorted relationship to the nausea and attraction of such substances as slime, mucus, phlegm, sexual juices, and extending even to foods, organisms, bodily functions, as well as qualia, textures, smells, and so many of the imagined objects of classic science fiction/horror/comic books, movies, hip-hop songs, poetry, novels, paintings, and other human cultural productions, whether pathological or "normal."

Sartre provided an extended meditation on the roots of existential disgust and repulsion in his Being and Nothingness, as well as the novel, Nausea, thereby provoking the anger of feminists, who easily identify Sartre's characterization of the feminine-viscous as misogynist. In Sartre's play, The Age of Reason, the protagonist wrestles with his repulsion and horror of female anatomy in its admixture with human embryogeny--pregnancy. Hollywood horror films have made abundant use of this nexus of extreme feelings in such films as Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, The Alien, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Rosemary's Baby, Species and literally hundreds of others, most of which identify the fluids, orifices, and organic functions of (especially) the female role in reproduction as horrifying, and threatening.

Recall my former point that phenomenology insists on the "objective" or "really real" status of affective qualities in the things of the world. Studies show repeatedly that we make confident and surprisingly accurate judgments about people in a matter of seconds on first meeting--say in a job interview or at a party. Furthermore, a questionnaire asking subjects to name the personality types, and emotional states of inanimate objects (tea kettle, candle, clock, shoe, or whatever), elicits answers of amazing uniformity: people on the whole perceive the world under categories untouched by geometry, physics, and measurement. According to the phenomenologist, this is not at all an operation of pasting or attaching an imagined or "mental" association to a bare perception; rather we get a "bare" (scientific) perception only by abstracting qualities from a too-rich bodily encounter with a quasi-subjective object in our experience.

Roquentin, in Sartre's Nausea, suffers from an ontological malady; he suffers from the very paste and "thereness" of things in the world. It is their existence that he finds insupportable and nauseating:

"His blue cotton shirt stands out joyfully against a chocolate coloured wall. That too brings on the Nausea. The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the cafe, I am the one who is within it." (Nausea, 19)

For the early Sartre, consciousness (For-itself) is Nothingness (nihilating activity)--it is another name for freedom, the human ability to assign meaning to any object, and, thereby, to change any situation. The objects/things of the world (the In-itself) are inert, existing in space and time as objects for consciousness and operating under laws discovered by the sciences. Science, or knowledge, is about these things--an operation of consciousness. But consciousness exists in a state of continuous anxiety, since "it" alone has no existence, no definition, no fixed identity. Knowing that it can be anything, it lapses into "bad faith," the attempt to assume a stable identity and fixed definition: "I am a Republican, a Catholic, a Father, a Banker, a Husband, a Hiker." Now, I have no need to take responsibility for my choices, since they all flow from my fixed definitions. In my anxiety I try to forget that I could choose at any moment to be an unfaithful, atheistic, runaway revolutionary. But I can never hide from my consciousness this scandal that belongs to the core of consciousness in its being: I am Nothing fixed, nothing definable. I am responsible.

In a metaphorical leap of representation, Sartre says that this framework is the basis of our queasy response--our nausea--in the presence of slime--a "substance" that refuses to be either liquid or solid, that refuses to be pinned down, just as I, myself, cannot be defined in a fixed identity:

"At this instant I suddenly understand the snare of the slimy; it is a fluidity which holds me and which compromises me; I can not slide on this slim, all its suction cups hold me back; it can not slide over me, it clings to me like a leech. The sliding however is not simply denied as in the case of the solid; it is degraded. The slimy seems to lend itself to me, it invites me; for a body of slime at rest is not noticeably distinct from a body of very dense liquid. But it is a trap. The sliding is sucked in by the sliding substance, and it leaves its traces upon me. The slime is like a liquid seen in a nightmare, where all its properties are animated by a sort of life and turn back against me. Slime is the revenge of the In-itself. A sickly-sweet feminine revenge which will be symbolized on another level by the quality "sugary." This is why the sugar-like sweetness to the taste--an indelible sweetness, which remains indefinitely in the mouth even after swallowing--perfectly completes the essence of the slimy. A sugary sliminess is the ideal of the slimy; it symbolizes the sugary death of the For-itself (like that of the wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it).

To touch the slimy is to risk being dissolved in sliminess. Now this dissolution by itself is frightening enough, because it is the absorption of the For-itself by the In-itself as ink is absorbed by a blotter..." (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 609)

Passing over the misogynist overtones, and abandoning here any ambition to show in any detail how Merleau-Ponty, attacking the quasi-Cartesian dualism of Sartre's analysis, breaks through to a fruitful and novel ontology of the Flesh (le chair), which as for-itself-in-itself, allows him to describe our primary world of experience as bodies--as essentially the very "paste" of interconnectedness.

I can rub my fingers together and touch myself touching, living alternately in the "subject" finger and the object finger, while at all times being the body that makes this simultaneity possible. And by extension this view makes sociality possible, since we are both bodies, alternating like my two fingers as subjects and objects, but never losing our rootedness in the bodied world. flesh of our flesh--involved in our shared carnality.

A book-length essay would be required to follow up the consequences of this radical re-focus of the categories of existence, and another book would be needed to spell out the practical consequences in the world of political and social struggle.  It is easy to extend our disgust with slime metaphorically to the excesses of media coverage of the current presidential election campaign. Mud in the garden, mud-slinging on the networks, muck-raking in the journals, and slime left on all of us--as if "Slimer" in Ghostbusters had left its ectoplasmic calling card as it slithered through all our orifices and vulnerable faculties.

Suffice it here to note that this view casts a new light on the claim that "all politics are local." We have had enough of the abstractions and systems of the neo-conservatives, libertarians, utopian socialists, and even garden variety Republicans who cloak racism, misogyny, greed, and simple cruelty in the high-flown language of liberty, states' rights, market "corrections," constitutional originalism, American exceptionalism, corporate personhood, weapons system sanctity, standardized testing, and campaigns against political correctness, and rational gun-control,  environmental skepticism, calls for border and voting "safeguards," and a thousand other trickle-down fallacies and ideological smoke-screens.  Aristophanes would have had a wonderful time satirizing these "head in the clouds" theorists and apologists for our victimizing class system--these politicians, who mask their own greed and psychopathology in the language of standard abstract defenses of corporate and upper class "rights."

Slime Ichthyology

In 1971 the experimental film maker, Stan Brakhage, made a half-hour, silent, 16mm film, The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. The subject matter is mostly of standard autopsy procedures in a morgue. It is common for the occasional viewer to become sick, or even pass out, when confronted with this ultimate portrait of the human condition as embodied--all a matter of fluids, slimes, faces peeled back, exposed brains, and so on. This, too, is the truth, perhaps the "deeper" truth of the same body celebrated in poetry and painting, the same face that invites our deepest instincts for attraction, repulsion, and grounds the barriers to aggression and violence, that we celebrate in art, advertising, personal experience, and myth.

This sort of experience is one of the best arguments I know for grounding politics in the mire and muck of actual embodied lives, rather than the abstractions of deluded politicians, theoreticians, and campaign strategists, Politics is local--down to the cellular level, from the bottom up, and all politics in the best sense, are "dirty." A hungry child huddled in an unheated apartment owned by a rich absentee landlord will tell us much more about our system of power and privilege than all the position papers ever published by the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, or the Free Enterprise Institute. The Republican establishment's fear of "populism" is, at base, a fear of the "dirty" truths of the inequalities of social and economic organization. (2016 has a great deal to teach us in such matters.)

We need never to discard our "nostalgie de la boue," our longing to be back in the mud. From the primal ooze of life's first appearance on earth to truth's appeal to seeing the flesh of the world "with one's own eyes," we fool ourselves when we think we can survive and thrive together in the sterile, minimalist, super-clean environs of Platonic Forms, or right-wing myths of racial and cultural purity. Only in this revisionist sense of the term, my vote is strong for dirty politics.

[NOTE: Unless I change my mind again, this will be my last essay here. Thanks to all of you who have read what I've written, and have a good Spring.]

Friday, March 11, 2016

Boredom, Writing, Subjectivity, "Struggle"

"The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line." --H. L. Mencken

"I don't pray because I don't want to bore God." --Orson Welles

"Bores bore each other too, but it never seems to teach them anything." -–  Don Marquis, author of  archy & mehitabel (1927)

March, not April, is the cruelest month.  The drama and adrenaline of the heavy snow and ice cover are gone, and the explosions from the green fuses of April's spring are not yet.  All is gray, brown, or grayish brown: even the sky has a beige filter over the relentless, close, gray cloud cover.  The old, all-white neighborhood tom cat, Piper, never stinting in his single-minded predation, stalks the birds, patiently as usual, but he is obviously embarrassed and mournful to have suddenly lost the advantage of his full-body snow camo--now stark against the dark brown mud of the neighbors' back yards and damp fences.

When my New Yorker subscription fortuitously delivered its usual preview blurbs to my email box yesterday, my attention was grabbed by a link to Karl Ove Knausgaard's "At the Writing Academy"--a fifty-page excerpt from the not yet published "Volume V" of his monumental 3,600 page autobiographical "novel," My Struggle. I have only read bits and pieces of his work, translated from Norwegian--an essay on "Necks" (intro to a photography collection), his multi-part essay for the New York Times Magazine, "My Saga: Travels Through North America," and a couple other excerpts from My Struggle, a work-in-progress since 2009.  I call the link "fortuitous," because nobody I've read has done a better job of reproducing the quotidian details of human inner life--not Proust, not Woolf, not Kerouac, nor Faulkner, Beckett, or Camus.  Karl Ove's "struggle" is dailiness itself: crumbs on the floor, a walk to the corner, masturbation, a nap, self-doubt about an assignment, betrayal by a friend, remembered fear of his father, postponements, small victories, humiliations, a cracked cup... So easy to refer to him as "Karl Ove"!   Everybody seems to say, "He's writing my life!"  (Even if they were not born, as he was, in 1968 in Norway.)  The daily "struggle" of small plans, strategies, schedules, avoidances, successes or failures--all meaningless to everyone but me--these ARE my life,

As if on cue, my inbox delivered the lastest post by Doug Bruns from his blog, "The House I Live In," which he devotes to an evening alone here in Portland, sorting and packing books, in preparation for a long trip--"on the road" looking for America via Airstream Trailer.  The urge to be on the road again, to simplify, to find Answers (or even, answers), has ruled my life, as it seems to rule Doug's, though on a different scale and schedule.  Twenty years older than Doug, and more than thirty years older than Knausgaard, I have had more time to explore. Indeed, I have visited every state except ND, AK, and HI, many times, and by many conveyances--starting in the mid-1950s.  I read Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, and Kerouac's On the Road, early and often.  On the other hand, unlike Doug, I have had only limited travel outside the US--mostly in Western Europe, and especially France.  (See www.taylorlink.com for travelogues.)  And unlike Knausgaard, I have no fame, no millions of readers, no budget OR time left for grand plans and adventures.

Yet, like both, I share an inner life of small struggles and daily banalities, and dreams the scale of the modestly possible, however different mine from theirs.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

Is my "desperation" really despair, or simple boredom?  Clinical depression? Or just spring fever on an undramatic day without plans?  Or maybe it can be explained by possession of a reduced reward system in the operation of my neuro-transmitters, brought on my having stopped drinking 10 months ago, after half a century of daily wine consumption?  Blame the dopamines?

Piper, the neighborhood tom cat, would not have made any therapeutic difference, one supposes, to Don Marquis's Mehitabel, for whom a life "devoted to her art" has become, instead, "just one damn kitten after another."

"it isn't fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom"

No kittens here, so no excuses, I suppose.  But.........there are always "kittens" in one form or another. People who consider new lives, dream of following new stars can always find reasons to keep the status quo:  responsibilities, empty pockets, irrational fears, schedules poorly synched, illnesses, "required" commemorations, political and geographical disgusts or dangers, bad timing, unexpected weathers, simple fatigue, lost chances, changed relationships, revised tastes, "counted blessings," separation anxiety, waiting for enough money for the right boat, partner, or visa, working longer to amass enough in the retirement fund, inertia or ....laziness.

Would I be less desperate, less bored, walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon?, drinking coffee in our cockpit at anchor in Tahiti?, playing the flâneur from my cafe table in Nice?, buckling on my skis after a gondola ascent to Pila, above Italy's Aosta?

Probably not: kittens are always checked through with your luggage.

So, is Knausgaard bored?  Are his struggles just Mencken's "standing in line?" broadcast to a few million (bored) readers?  Am I bored?

Time to sort out subject and object here, noetic and noematic, flashlight and mirror:  who's asking?  who's being asked?  As soon as I ask, "am I bored?" I am aware that I have blundered into a down-market cousin to the old Paradox of the Liar, or of the Coward.  Say I ask you, "Is your answer to this question a lie?"  If you answer "Yes," then your answer, being a lie, is true. If you answer, "No," then, in answering truthfully, you are lying.  Similarly, if I ask, "Are you a coward?" and you answer "Yes," then you are answering courageously, and are thus no coward.  We'll leave the consequences of such knotty linguistic issues to the likes of Tarski, Russell, and Whitehead.  But what of the person, sitting here now, who writes, "I am bored."

That person, moi, is tapping away on a computer keyboard, a glass of iced tea nearby--a person who notes that the morning cloud cover has given way to glorious warm-on-the-face sunshine, and flocks of birds at the feeder, chirping in accompaniment to the clattering keys beneath my fingers, as I vaguely compose the rest of this paragraph, designed to illuminate a dull corner of my consciousness--and maybe yours, too--concerning issues of no pressing urgency, and comporting hints of satisfaction in finding connections between people, ideas, and projects heretofore unsuspected.

If I were truly bored, would I be doing this?  More likely I'd be sitting dull-eyed, staring at the clock, waiting for F. to wheel into the driveway, so we can make plans to go to dinner somewhere.  I conclude that I am not bored, and that Knausgaard, through the whole slog of writing 3,600 pages of the minute details of his struggle, his life as struggle,  was never bored in doing it.  I am reminded that Camus concluded his Myth of Sisyphus with: "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 2 (Life in Maine)

"Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds."
       --Adam Gopnik

We live in Portland, Maine.  Our home's latitude is exactly 300 miles north of the mean latitude of Highway 80 from the George Washington Bridge in New York City to San Francisco--not far in the global sense, but a great distance, culturally, from the urban vibe of NYC or SF. We are the urban center of Maine, but our tallest building is 16 stories, and our population is 66,000--exactly the population density of one square mile in Manhattan. Portland is "urban" only in a Maine way.  Mini-urban?  Mainely urban. Almost 30 years in the area, we've seen the town change in radical ways.  As always, some changes are welcome, some not.

I begin here  with an orientation for those who know little of Maine and have not often visited. Then expect some "pros" and "cons" about life as a Mainer--my view from this little crow's nest up country.

Don't expect the standard portrayals of Mainers and of Maine--the magazine fluff pieces about lobster and wizened fishermen, stolid New Englanders, launching their wooden dories into raging North Atlantic gales, quaint bean suppahs and ice-fishing, wilderness trekking and trapping on snowshoes, intrepid moose and deer hunters, buzzing the logging trails on their snowmobiles, returning to hot chowdah dinners made on wood stoves by strong-faced tight-lipped women, carrying rosy-cheeked toddlers on their hips, and worrying about an overdue library book on the dust-free mantle--and an overdue brother aboard a fishing vessel steaming home from Georges Bank.

New England's small scale makes me think of Maine in a distorted lens--Maine is 38th in population density, and 39th in geographical area of the 50 states, though I tend to think of the state as vast forested wilderness--true enough if you discount the strip of coastline east of Interstate Highway 95, where most of the people have clustered in a few small municipalities like Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor. Only 8 towns in the state number more than 20,000 population.  Maine can be diagrammed as a kind of 4-circle "Venn" diagram, labelled "Mainers," "from away," "coastal," "inland."  Antagonisms and partnerships can be mapped onto this diagram in overlapping ways that help one understand how Maine--traditionally liberal, tolerant, centrist, and mildly Republican--ended up with a governor, Paul LePage, who is clearly the stupidest, most-divisively ideological right-wing tool of any in the country, save, possibly Scott Walker, of Wisconsin. Specialty license plates can offer some clue about self-selected identities to a visitor: "Vacationland," (default chickadee with evergreen spray), "Support Wildlife," (with moose and fish), "Lobster" (with lobster graphic), "We Support Our Troops," and so on.  Along the coast you'll spot more lobster plates; inland, the moose wins.

Being "from away," I know little of the Maine interior--the woods.  If you'd like to get the flavor of that, you could try We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich, or, maybe,  My Live in the Maine Woods: A Game Warden's Wife in the Allagash Country, by Annette Jackson.  This Maine jokes that the state bird is the black fly (mosquito, in some versions).  For the "upscale" version of this Maine, search YouTube for "The Humble Farmer,"  sobriquet of Robert Skoglund, or go to his website at www.thehumblefarmer.com for audio versions of his long-running radio broadcasts that feature his Maine-spiced stories, and savvy programming of classical jazz (as well as a beginning lesson on the proper accent and speech cadences of the natives.)  There's also "our" Maine comedian, Bob Marley.  You can see him on YouTube, or catch his standup show at the Skowhegan Opera House? At the least, try to learn the correct uses of "wicked?"

On the other hand, Maine--especially Portland and Lewiston--carries a full load of dysfunctional, occasionally predatory,  and damaged people--street beggars, addicts of every stripe and level of desperation, high levels of domestic violence, homeless encampments down by the Fore River,  drunks and bar fighters, prostitution, charter school ripoff artists, political fraudsters, corruption, abandoned properties, greedy developers, sexual abusers, con artists, and clueless hangers-on. It is, after all, America.   And this is an America turned brutal by Republican governors like Bobby Jindal, Paul LePage, Sam Brownback, and Scott Walker, who have dissolved safety nets, slashed medical options, "reformed" welfare into a sham, and spent money on quasi-military policing and prisons, instead of problem-solving.

I have no direct experience with this Maine, either: my best source of information are the regular features and special articles published in Chris Busby's free monthly magazine, available online at www.thebollard.com.
Read the articles by Robin Rage about his life on the margins,  the "fishing journal" by "Tackle Box" Billy Kelley, the feature articles of Elizabeth Peavey, and the occasional photojournalistic contributions of Doug Bruns.  Or, do your own exploring, starting, perhaps, with a stop at the Preble Street Resource Center, and/or a visit to their website: www.preblestreet.org.

You can add a couple circles to our increasingly complex Venn diagram--the "Haves"/"Have-Nots."  Class society is expressed in especially egregious ways in Maine.  After browsing in The Bollard for a day or two, spend an afternoon paging through  the slick magazines published by Kevin Thomas, with his team of Susan Grisanti, Steve Kelly, Rebecca Falzano, etc.--Old Port, Maine Magazine, Maine Home + Design, and several others--all devoted to the high-gloss promotion of Maine for the "haves," the young, the hip, the well-connected, the tasteful, the cool, the New Mainers.  This consortium sponsors a variety of magazines, public festivals and events, a pay-to-exhibit art gallery, several social media sites, and it lobbies for developers, business-friendly zoning, and high-end retailers (and advertisers), envisioning a Maine that did not exist when I moved to Portland in the late '80s: one somewhat indistinguishable from similar enclaves in Brooklyn, Miami Beach, Portland, Oregon, Silver Lake, CA, Wicker Park,  IL, or East Austin, TX.  Add in the highly competitive foodie/concept restaurant component, and the new wealthy-retiree peninsula-based condo market, and you'll have America as seen by Forbes Magazine--right here in this little town by the bay!  Ah-yup...

Neither of these two Maines seems to be a place that feels right for us.  And after 25 years of truly brutal Maine winters (skipping over this year's mild el niño "winter"!),  and the usual issues with work life, social life, distance from family, and other issues, some of which are just part the general human inheritance, it HAS occurred to us that we should consider another move--maybe back to the NY area, maybe Savannah, maybe Delray Beach or Sarasota, Florida, maybe Cape Breton peninsula, NS, maybe France.  (Of course, the Trump/Cruz/Rubio Republican threats push us to consider moving to other countries...or planets.)

And yet  every time we get serious enough to go exploring in a quasi-serious way, we come back saying, "No, thanks. No way."  Our reasons are as varied as the "shopping" that occasioned them, but I'll hazard a few generalities, at the risk of pissing off readers from the great "not-Maine."  Why do we reject the Big Move?

* Lack of access to the arts and culture:  of course Maine can't compete with New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or other major centers, but Portland is Paris, compared to 95% of other US towns of similar size: well-stocked museum of art, symphony, several theater companies, art/photo groups, independent community radio, community magazines, furniture makers, unparalleled restaurant scene, vibrant rock/bar venues--and so much of it all can be walked.  Access to good colleges, art schools, etc.  So much atmospheric charm in the cobblestone streets and fish just off the boat on a pier at Harbor Fish Market.

* Distances between things--and the traffic.  When I think of Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Long Island, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, etc., the first image that comes to me is a 6-8 lane thoroughfare with turn lanes and traffic lights every quarter mile--all moving at 50+ mph past one strip-mall after another, filled with characterless cookie-cutter stores and undistinguished chain restaurants.  Worst is that my little errand to pick up a few groceries and get a hinge to repair the screen door requires driving 50 minutes at these speeds in this traffic past all this ugly, nondescript "convenience" shopping construction.  (Not to mention one fenced, gated, cul-de-sac, ticky-tacky condo development after another, filling all the gaps between the strip-malls...)

* This unpleasant scene above follows naturally from the fact that there is so often no town center, no waterfront, no historical district, no 19th century buildings or housing, no truly walkable ways to explore--and worse, nothing worth exploring.

* Water!  The Maine coast and Casco Bay, the Penobscot and offshore islands in the hundreds, a fishing fleet, first-class marinas and anchorages second to none--all make for one of the premier world sailing grounds.  And still very little congestion and crowding on the water (no 50-foot sport fisherman machines throwing up a 9-foot wake, while passing your little boat at 35 knots!)  And CLEAN water AND air!

* Most of the country seem to think that a vacation is the chance to go to one of two places: Disneyland or Las Vegas/Atlantic City.  Mainers do these things by the thousands, of course, but you are more likely to hear about camps, hiking, skiing, biking, boating, crafts, art-making, fishing, hunting, and cottages, than Epcots and Bellagios.

* Mainers read more than most.  And take cooking more seriously. Mainers have gardens. Most of the country seem to believe that the only things that matter are pop music, TV shows, Rush Limbaugh, and blockbuster movies.  I'm talking averages, not the shining exceptions.

* Politics.  OK, we are stuck with Gov. LePage, but he is the first Neanderthal to hold major office in Maine.  Maine tends more to people like Margaret Chase Smith, Susan Collins, Tom Andrews, Ed Muskie, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, and Bill Cohen--most of whom held opinions far from my own, but not one of them is an idiot, racist, anti-feminist, ideologue, right-wing screamer/tool, or thoughtlessly corrupt hack.

* Natural disasters and pests. We do have Northeaster storms, black flies and mosquitoes, bears, traffic danger from deer and moose, 2 or 3 days over 90 in summer, But we do not have earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, mud slides, population-threatening forest fires, sharks, alligators, zika mosquitoes, fire-ants, months at a time over 90 degrees with 90% humidity,  tornadoes, dust storms, kudzu, flying cockroaches, large populations of poisonous spiders and snakes, openly expressed racism, Scott Walker, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, David Duke, Ted Cruz, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump. Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter, (though talk radio and TV bring most of these blowhards to Maine in destructive ways.)

Soooo, what are Maine's "cons" after so many "pros"?

Frigid, long winters. Messy, ugly early springs, New Englandish buttoned-up culture of prudishness.  Very old population.  Very old housing stock (peeling paint, rotting clapboard, smallish rooms).  Exaggerated distance between rich and poor--crushing poverty.  Too many pickup trucks with snow plows.  Too many white people, proportionately.  Insane parking rules in Portland. Summer tourist invasions. Rough employment options.  High rental costs. Condo cost bubble on the peninsula. Too many "pot-luck" events. Difficult barriers in social mobility. Centralization of social services in a few Portland neighborhoods, making the town a magnet for the sick, troubled, addicted, poor, and under-educated.  Loss of shopping venues from town centers to malls.  Such COLD water at the truly great beaches (though climate change is "repairing" that!?).

For the record, we don't own Bean boots (though it would be fine, if we did). We have lobster only a couple times per year.  So a transition to Anyplace South might be relatively easy.  Stay tuned.  Maybe next year I'll be blogging about our 80 degree beach day in mid-January and that wonderful mahi-mahi lunch?  Don't count on it...

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Society of the Spectacle: Notes Towards a Syllabus for a Class on Superheroes, Movies, Video Games, and Donald Trump

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,...illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

--Ludwig Feuerbach, "Preface" to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity, and used as Epigraph for The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord

On Super Tuesday, as votes are cast in presidential primaries in a dozen states and a territory--an event that may all but guarantee that the Republican party will nominate Donald Trump for the November election--I am thinking about how I might organize a college class of the sort that I taught for many years as Philosophy 105 / "Film and Politics," with the goal of exploring the ideological mechanisms that brought us to the brink of this result.

Film List:

Fritz Lang, Metropolis
Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator
Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will
Sidney Lumet, All the King's Men
Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd
Thomas Schlamme, Kingfish (TV)
Sidney Lumet, Network
Orson Welles, Citizen Kane
Ken Burns, Huey Long (TV documentary)
William Wellman, The Oxbow Incident
Frank Capra, Meet John Doe
Hal Ashby, Being There
Sidney Lumet, Twelve Angry Men
Michael Ritchie, The Candidate

Assigned Readings:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Erving Goffman, Asylums
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
David Eggers, The Circle


Completion of all readings and viewings.  Voting responsibly.

Since I know nothing of the last 20 years of blockbuster film-making, super-hero comics, and movies, video games and other examples of the fantasy/sci-fi/super-power/super-villain genres, with their super-human protagonists and simplistic plots of good guys/bad guys myth-mongering, this course will have to be team taught with a person at least 50 years younger than I am, who has lived her/his entire life thinking that movies are special-effects-all-action-all-violence-all-explosions all the time--someone who can explain to me the attraction that such productions have for the producers, makers and viewers of current cinema and for video game addicts of every persuasion.

We may be witness to the first generations who find no clear distinction between Reality and Fantasy--who live out entire lives in imagined UNreality.  Reality has died, now replaced by a spectrum of Virtual/Reality of varying degrees of practical impact.  Of course, I'm overstating my case, but not by much. I imagine a class using my syllabus of  "old media" exploration of "new media" issues, and supplemented by the other half of the syllabus to be provided by someone who knows the terrain.

Perhaps my teaching partner can provide some arguments against my view that the constant barrage of this form of mass culture is very much involved in the success of the all-explosions, good guy/bad guy, spectacle-violence of the current Republican Party, and its current front-running candidate, The Donald?


Thursday, February 25, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 1 (Plato and Don Corleone)

Interstate Highway 80 runs between the George Washington Bridge over New York's Hudson River across the entire country to San Francisco, California.  I've repeatedly traveled many lengthy segments of it (ditto, 70 and 90, and the old Hwy 66), and have now lived for the past 25 years well north of that latitude in Maine.

But then what I also mean by "north of 80" is not just spatial fact, but also temporal metaphor--sailing "north," past my 80th birthday. I'll use this Part 1 to explore the "view" from this age, and devote Part 2 to some perceptions about my current geographical home--my view from Maine's northeast corner.

The "view" in both cases includes a sizable component of melancholy grandeur, as I stare from my office window across the gray piles of snow towards warmer climes to the south , and as I look back on decades of sunny experiences and feelings from the vantage point of this sometimes cloudier age.

Are there satisfactions in advancing age that I never imagined when I was 40? Have I become wiser?  Better qualified to advise, decide, think things through? Am I happier?

Such questions gain a certain ghastly poignancy in a week when F. and I watched all three parts of Francis Ford Coppola's monumental Godfather trilogy, that trace generations of the Sicilian Corleone family from Brando's (and DeNiro's) "Godfather," Vito, to his son and successor, Michael (Al Pacino), bookending these two with briefer stories of Vito's father in Sicily, and Michael's children.  (I amuse myself by noting, irrelevantly, that Michael and Kay could have driven almost the entire journey between mob headquarters in New York and the family compound at Lake Tahoe, CA....on Highway 80!)

Michael Corleone never stops answering--in murderous particularity--Montaigne's question: "how to live?" Of course the question is as old as civilization and beyond.  Michael's answer seems to be: Put family first. Provide for your family in any way necessary. Providing always involves amassing wealth and power.  These can be had by courting those who already have wealth and power--with respect and money. Know your enemies, and keep them close to you.  Show no mercy in disposing of those who challenge your power or threaten your family, even when it means killing other family members. Justice is surviving.  For the family.

It bears notice that Michael, by these means, always ends up...alone. (And dies alone in a courtyard in Sicily--with two puppies--sitting in the sun, in the last shot of the trilogy.)  So much for the joys and rewards of family.

I won't be trying to say what the "good life" is in this brief essay. I am as puzzled as everyone has always been about that question.  I'm merely hoping to say how the question seems to me now--starting my ninth decade.

The Greek philosophers had their answers: the good life has happiness as its aim. No one seeks to live well as a means to a "higher" goal.  There are no higher goals, since health, wealth, power, aesthetic and romantic intensity, wide travel and deep knowledge, etc., are sought only for the well-being they can promote, not the other way around.  Aristotle's finer point on the question argues that happiness is an activity in accordance with virtue--an answer with a great deal to recommend it, though it leads immediately to the question: "any activity in sync with virtue?"  And "what is virtue?"  I could set out to dust and redust every object in my house in an OCD paroxysm lasting decades.  This would be an activity, and it harms no one (virtuous!), but it would hardly guarantee happiness and a good life.  And what is virtue? Is it promoting the greatest good for the greatest number? Following the categorical imperative of acting so that I could will that the maxim of my act be made universal law? Following God's will (and how would I know that)?  Maximizing pleasure, both in myself and others?  Each answer generates its own characteristic new questions, and all are, alas, ...finally unanswerable.

The Corleones got the activity part--always expanding their "businesses" in narcotics, prostitution, kickbacks, protection rackets, political corruption, fraud, and other items from a shopping cart just exiting Dante's nine circles of hell--all accomplished in violence, betrayal, and treachery.  They fell short just a bit, however, shall we say, in the matter of virtue?

Perhaps Michael does have an inkling of that element of the equation lurking in his Sicilian inheritance--Sicily was, after all, at the heart of the birth of the "Greek miracle," the site chosen by Plato as ideal for his perfect Republic, and locus for some of the best descriptions in Homer's Odyssey. The Don must live by the code--which implies, however distortedly, a "moral" dimension. Whatever the truth of his motive, Michael does abide by "the code" enough to serve his country with valor in the war in the Pacific, and to write a check now to the Church for $100,000,000 to further its "good works."  In exchange, he gets a nice necklace from the Pope, giving him membership in the Order of San Sebastion--(and parenthetically lubricating the deal that will give him a controlling interest in a vast real estate consortium, Immobiliare, in which the Church had held an inconvenient 25% interest.)

Aristotle's eudaimonistic ethics, based, as it is, on the search for human flourishing into happiness, led to the famous doctrine of the "golden mean"--virtue as the mean between two extremes (courage, the virtuous mean,  falls between cowardice and foolhardiness, defined as deficiency and excess in the domain of action in danger.)  The Greeks, thereby, merge the aesthetic notions of proportion, balance, and harmony, with the ethical notions of right and wrong, building the foundation for the proverbial Western idea that Beauty, Truth, and the Good are intimately, and internally related.

BUT...uh...how does that work out in practice?

What about the "real" world of us animals in competition, inhabiting, as we do, psyches mired in our irrational urges for dominance, bodily pleasure, full bellies, revenge, laziness, and acquisition--especially since we live, cluelessly, our short lives of desperation for survival, heir to illnesses of mind and body, and tainted by our shared genetic past?  How does a child ever mature into a functioning, moral human person, when abilities and circumstances vary so horribly: how can we expect a brain-damaged youth, born in a war zone, scrambling to avoid starvation and violent death, to think about the Golden Mean and "human flourishing," when all the forces of that young person's environment are arrayed in a perfect storm of destructiveness?

Here's where some of Plato's stranger ideas in The Republic had their genesis, and where my preoccupation here with age comes into play.  Plato recognized that time as history--the "original sin" of his "timeless" utopianism--makes every generation a hopeless candidate for beginning his just Republic.  Parents, historical circumstances, and psycho-sexual flaws and pathologies ruin each generation by adolescence--by the time they could be asked to create the needed institutions for a better society. So he had to envisage a system of education that would prepare the ideal citizenry. Skipping the lengthy details, the system (available to anyone who cares to read The Republic), involves a lengthy apprenticeship in life and at the Academy, which is governed by the Philosophers, whose duty it is to tell the kids a "Noble Lie" about their origins and reality, in order that each child be put in their correct class and stratum of society--as workers, military warriors, or philosophers, so that justice is achieved by each class's "minding its own business." This mythic lie is meant to avoid having philosophers being asked to cut stone, and carpenters being asked to teach philosophy, or either being asked to defend the country in war.  The captain of a ship should know something about navigation, not take command by a coin flip, or a brawl on the foredeck. (Origin of the Civil Service exams.)

There are a couple shocking little details in this grand scheme: to get the first generation of uncorrupted students, the philosophers have to kill everyone in the city over age ten, after taking them outside the city. These killer-philosophers can then return to start telling the Big Lie to the sub-ten-year-old population to get the generational ball rolling for a perfect State.  This means that the transformative generation of philosophers must be killers and willful liars, prompting the question whether things have changed much in 2500 years (consider Pol Pot's Cambodia, Idi Amin's Uganda, periods of Chinese history, Russian purges, Hitler's Germany, American slave-trade and genocide, the French Revolution's descent into the Reign of Terror...and, come to think of it...just about any society's actual history!)   Don Corleone's business practices were, by comparison, quite benign and enlightened--he was an amateur.  In Plato's Republic there was to be no private property. In addition, the State would supervise all breeding, and the Big Lie included abolishing all knowledge of one's parents, carefully engineered eugenics, and the myth that the State was responsible for one's birth and heritage: no family loyalties and competitions, no mother-in-law jokes, no passing down of family dynasties, no family reunions--sort of a kibbutz gone off the deep end.  (On the other hand, Plato was a feminist of sorts--specifying that girls be given the same exams and having the same opportunities as boys in the climb towards philosophically informed rulership! Souls have no gender.)

Plato reserved the serious study of philosophy to those men and women suited by nature and ability, until age 50, and then only after an enriched experience of the world in travel, conversation, work, social projects, and a rich resumé of qualifying preparation. By this measure I did it all somewhat backwards--studying philosophy intensively in my youth and up to age 30, then setting out to experience the wider worlds of travel and erotic exploration, the arts, sailing, and so on, retiring from "Philosophy" at age 55, having followed Socrates's example only in my refusal to publish during my long teaching career. (Don't try this in today's universities!)  Now 30 years past Plato's prescribed age for studying philosophy, I am even less certain that I am ready yet to say anything significant to the Seeker of Wisdom.  Age seems not to convey wisdom, except in one Socratic way: as I said in my former essay here, I now know that I know nothing. At age 40 I was pretty sure that I did--though not enough to publish any grand summation of insights.  Rather, you should read Juvenal, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, DeBeauvoir, Marx, Barthes, Balzac, Zinn, Carlin, Marcuse, and others who actually have had a few new and true things to say about human life on this planet, though each of them, if pushed, should admit to puzzlements similar to mine. We see through a glass...darkly.

Soooo,  I'll opt out of advice-giving.  It is tempting (always for a career teacher) to pontificate a bit.  Indeed there are opinions of mine that I consider to be both quite unusual and true, controversial and powerful, very useful to many people on their way through adulthood towards their own vaunted senior citizenship--ideas about solitude, work, friendship, family, bodily pleasures, aesthetic epiphanies, groups, sports, political priorities, possessions, travel, God, death, risk, goals, habits, cruelty, ambition, self-expression, hobbies, fashion, beauty, class society, pretension, ethnocentrism, music, work, schedules, writers, fire, water, earth, and air. But a few minutes thought kills all desire to convey these notions.

Why?  When I read my journals, consult my memory, admit past actions, test my pet theories, judge my predictive successes, compare current needs to past obsessions, or perform any act that could confirm or disconfirm any opinion of mine, I see that Plato was right about part of the equation: as a product of a particular society, in a specific century, in a unique culture, with a non-universal (or even standard) biography, in this body with its specific traits and imbalances, biological and psychological maladaptations, and so on to near infinity, I have no way to suppose that MY opinions should carry any special weight or status. And I believe that he was blindly wrong about the other half of his thesis--that a group of men meeting in the agora in Athens, adept with language and logical argument, even with years of such training in dialectic, could ever erase or neutralize the specific effects of their embodied particularities in time and place in such a way as to arrive at universal truths. Self-correcting science does a hell of a lot better job at allowing us to crawl towards enlightenment and truth than any other means that has yet been put to use.  But science, too, is pursued by people with the same unavoidable faults born of finitude, embodiment, and historicity as those men in Plato's Academy assenting endlessly to Socrates's stand-up performances.

I have reached an age 30 years beyond the suggested apogee of suitability for philosophy.  But before saying more, I think I'd like a little nap.  And when I return I would gratefully accept that comfortable chair over there,...if offered.

<to be continued>

Photography and Art (Revised Modest Manifesto)

Anyone can make a photograph and the result is a commodity like any other that can be sold. The fate of such commodities depends, like others, on cultural fads, advertising, celebrity endorsements, and other forms of marketplace ideology of the moment—almost always in the service of profit, whether corporate, institutional, or personal. The trick to selling “art” is to give the customers what they want—to divine the current eros operating in the marketplace and meet the market “need”—no different from “stainless appliances and granite countertops” in current real estate ads.

Almost all “art” offered in “galleries” in every country of the world today belongs in this category: marketed commodities to meet current market demand: “Art” for interior designers, corporate offices, rich bored upper-middle-class consumers, “educated” in well-marketed, branded universities, speculative investors, and so on. Think of “critics” in the local media as enablers and lobbyists for their friends, and you’ll be getting close to the way the system actually works.

The question should be: “what uses of photographic technology generate ‘art,’ or more to the point, ‘fine art’?” This question requires an answer to a prior question not really addressed in most discussions of this topic: What makes fine art fine? It is assumed we know it when we see it. History suggests that we do not.

At this stage of my life and practice, I have concluded that no one has ever bettered Roland Barthes in answering this vexing question. In The Pleasure of the Text (67 pp. in translation), he deftly distinguishes between texts of pleasure (plaisir) and texts of bliss (jouissance). If we extend “text” to include photographs (“drawing with light”), then I can paraphrase his definitions, as follows:

Pleasure: the photograph that contents, fills, grants euphoria: the photo that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of “reading” it.

Bliss: the photograph that imposes a state of loss, that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), and unsettles the viewer’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with visual representation.

This approach  is not entirely new: the surrealists and others in the modernist tradition preached, as Ezra Pound put it, “Make it new!”

Viewing photographs of “pleasure” (landscapes, seascapes, lighthouses, old boats, ruins, children’s portraits, voluptuous nudes, sunsets, …you know the drill) gives a pleasure akin to making love to a long-time lover, who knows your every need, and meets it comfortably and predictably, just as you do hers.

Photographs of “bliss” are more akin to the enhanced orgasms (“jouissance” in French, and very much what Barthes had in mind) that one might associate with a wrenchingly disruptive erotic event that would never fit in a Valentine’s Day verse.

In my view most commercial and gallery art is of the “pleasure” variety, while fine art blissfully disrupts our zone of comfort and redefines the assumptions we hold concerning the effects of viewing in general, often redefining an entire genre: portrait, still life, landscape, abstraction.

Of course this disjunct (like any apocalyptic erotic event) has a relatively brief shelf-life. The scandal of Impressionist painting quickly became the cliché of every schlock painter selling on the street in New York, Paris, or Des Moines--or reproduced in greeting cards at the corner drug store.

To be clear, I would prefer to withhold judgment on the question whether an art of "bliss" is to be considered more aesthetically/experientially valuable than the art of "pleasure."  In fact, in most cases, I prefer to experience an accomplished work in a familiar genre, and evoking confirmation of former aesthetic pleasures with long-treasured associations and connections, than taking on the work of trying to accommodate the shock of the new, the provocative, the in-your-face boring work that is veering into new territory, challenging my ideas of what's ugly, what's banal, what's bereft of content.

Nevertheless, the existence of such work remains the source of my hope for the future of photography (and the arts in general): there will always be new clichés to smash.

This will not happen, culturally, in Portland (or Des Moines or Atlanta). It only happens in the big centers—Manhattan, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, and so on. That is, even the most revolutionary break in the photographic tradition needs the massive cultural apparatus of museums, billionaire collectors, social networking, art magazines, and other power-brokers to launch a truly revolutionary vision into the historical culture.  Andy Warhol would not be Andy, if he had stayed in Pittsburgh.

So “fine art” is finally coopted by the market and turned into an art of pleasure. The trick is to be available to live in the moment when the experience is still disruptive—or if your motive is to make sales in the market, to be in the right place, the right age, the right gender, have the right friends, and a hell of a story (or resumé) to sell.  Bon voyage!

Coda:  READ Arthur Danto!

If questions like these have any interest for you, then you will probably do no better than to rush to buy or borrow books on art by the late Arthur C. Danto, who began his long teaching career at Columbia University as a philosophy professor with special expertise in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and ended it with several decades of remarkable work on the philosophy of art--while serving as art critic for The Nation. See, for example, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art.  Danto tackles the most vexing questions about what makes the difference between art works and commonplace objects with no discernable differences--without resorting to questionable appeals to internal subjective states and intentions.  Danto studied in Paris under Merleau-Ponty, whose essay, "Cezanne's Doubt," by the way, constitutes my other French touchstone (along with Barthes) for any constructive theory of art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Que sais-je? On knowing nothing, more or less...

I saw a YouTube video of college students in Texas who did not know who won the Civil War, the name of the Vice-President, or the enemy in the American Revolution, though, to a person, they knew the name of Snooki's TV show, and the names of Brad Pitt's wives.  Despair ensued.

But then I started thinking about my own ignorance--near universal in scope and depth.  Google tells me that Mogadishu is capital and largest city of Somalia, and fronts the Indian Ocean on Africa's east coast well north of Mombasa, similarly placed in Kenya to the south.  I was not aware of these simple facts, though our town has a great number of immigrants and refugees from Somalia, and though I'd have no such vagueness and puzzlement in discussing the location of, say, New Orleans and Galveston in this country, or Marseilles and Cannes on the Med in France.  My knowledge of science and math is rudimentary to the point of shame--maybe high school level, at best.  I never took Calculus, and could not list the chronology or names of standard geological epochs.  I never read War and Peace, nor most of Shakespeare's plays.  I do not know the names of the monarchs in the House of Tudor, nor their dates, much less the names and chronology of the emperors of China.  This is something of a scandal for a man who just passed his 80th birthday, and who spent his life in largely intellectual pursuits--a 30-year veteran of a career teaching in some major colleges and universities.

What kinds of things DO I know?  How to build stuff with shop tools. How to get around in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.  A general outline of some major philosophies from the 17th to the 20th century.  A little about films from the French New Wave, films noirs, and a few classics directed by Hitchcock, Lang, Renoir, Bergman, and Fellini. How to roast a chicken.  A bit about sailing and navigation for boating. How to type, build a computer from components, use Photoshop. How to speak and write in English.  Grammar, sometimes. A bit of French. Laundry. Finding (sometimes) weaknesses in other people's arguments.   Some things I used to know better than the average person: skiing, radio circuits, darkroom procedures, art history, jazz--I could go on, but I come quickly to realize how paltry the list would be, even if complete.

Am I then so different from the ignorant Texas students?  Not really.

I seek refuge in identifying with Socrates in the Apology, who is truly wise, according to Plato, since "true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing." The Bible (Micah) gives us, "what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"   Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly do not constitute a call to knowledge/education, but to moral intentions.  My father, who stopped school with the 8th Grade, had only a smattering of knowledge of farming and household maintenance, yet in  many respects he met the requirements outlined by Micah, the ancient prophet, and contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea.

But: What is justice?  What is mercy?  And humility? Plato wrote The Republic in a sophisticated attempt to answer the first of these questions, and we are no closer to a convincing answer 2500 years later, as we watch the deliberations and decisions of our judicial institutions right up to, and including, the Supreme Court and The Hague's International Court of Justice.

My mind drifts back to those Texas students...Oh, my god, they VOTE. They put people with power over life and death into office!  They choose the person with a finger on the atomic trigger and the assassination drones.  On what basis???  It is pretty obvious that they decide in much the same way they'd decide who to cheer in a TV reality show or which celebrity to listen to for fashion tips, makeup secrets, and advice on sexual relationships.

But what of my educated friends?  More or less the same.  They watch Faux News, read the editorials in the Wall Street Journal, "Like" the pundit's Facebook page, and forward stupid, fictional articles to each other promoting whatever prejudice or hatred is burning inside them that particular weekend.

My father, who walked humbly, and tried to act justly and love mercy,...was also a racist.  After his death, my mother, newly married to a wealthy man, and serving as an officer in the National Women's Banking Association, gave a great deal of money to the "ministry" of Pat Robertson, and other televangelists, who prey upon the naivety of otherwise good people in the name of religion.

My old philosophy teacher in college, Doc Hennigar, used to say, "Democracy is the distilled stupidity of the masses."  Maybe more to the point now, 60 years later, in the age of media, marketing, and post-modernism? H. L. Mencken once said, "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."  And: "Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary."

Mr. Mencken, meet Mr. Trump!

And yet, there's no path better than democracy.  It's not democracy that's the problem, it is the wholesale purchase of voter perceptions, and the systematic subversions set in motion by redistricting, restricting voting rights,  lying commercials, dirty tricks, and a press that is slave to their corporate owners.  It is crooked banks, corrupt deal-makers, ignorant believers in anti-science falsehoods, religious/political duplicity, and criminal mixing of deal-making and public programs.  There is no greater arena for human arrogance, thoughtless group-think, faddist enthusiasms, and exploitative malfeasance than the underbelly of politics--a cheapened model of all nine circles of Dante's hell working at full and evil efficiency.

Human beings are a sick species, made combative, neurotic, violent, and irrational by accidents of evolution and unfortunate social practices.  Inflicting--and watching the infliction of--pain, is a major source of entertainment (consider boxing, rubber-necking expressway delays, crowds at hangings, Roman circuses, etc., etc.) Conservatives are right to mistrust people, and to see the need to set limits on their rapacious instinctual excesses.  But conservatives are wrong in exempting themselves from that analysis, adding arrogant self-misperception to the idiocies that they see in Others.  Leftists are right to identify the cruelties that follow from the concentration of wealth and power in the privileged few, but underestimate the beastly irrationalities that live in the pathologies of all humankind, even those victimized by class systems and criminal political organization.  What's needed is a Nietzschean Marxism, a Freudian socialism, that makes science, rather than ideological and religious nostrums the basis of social organization of power and privilege, with the overarching goal of reducing human misery and increasing human happiness.

But then I may well be wrong.

Those Texas students keep coming back to haunt me.  They know things--maybe they "get" contemporary culture in ways that I do not.  Am I just another old man, transitioning into senility?  I go to gallery openings and museums and shake my head, literally having no idea why those objects are there with those price listings. I go to movies and don't get the jokes or follow the plots. I watch the Superbowl commercials with awe--what the hell is the point of that "puppymonkeybaby" dancing and licking the faces of the couch potatoes in the Mountain Dew commercial?  Kardashians? I can't understand much of any pop music, and never get more than a couple words of rap/hiphop "classics," and turn back to my Cole Porter favorites or albums by Nina Simone and Sinatra.  The academic journals are full of juried articles that seem to me to be pure gibberish (though I do understand some of the more arcane segments of Hegel's  Phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty's theory of la chair, and Husserl's Epoché--that others have called nonsense.) I listen to a speech by Donald Trump, and stand aghast that he is clear front runner for the Republican nomination for President in every demographic. I watch the Supreme Court slap down Obama's climate initiatives, rule for money as protected "speech" in Citizens United, and interpret corporations as "persons" in decisions upholding the rights and advantages of the wealthy, but not the voting rights of the poor. (WTF?, as they say...)

We know nothing, not even that we know nothing.  Our actions and decisions flow from reptilian urges, biological imperatives, pre-cognitive impulses, and murderous struggles for dominance, recognition, and blood-lust.  What a piece of work is man. What is left, but to laugh?  Time, once again, to go read through the Satires of Juvenal, and click on those YouTube videos of monologues by George Carlin. Though I haven't read it, I nominate as best literary title of all time, Wallace's Infinite Jest. "Alas, poor Yorick..."  He knew us well.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home"

Besides the Psalms, Song of Solomon, Job, Ecclesiastes, and other books in our well-worn Bible, I remember only one book of "poetry" in my childhood years at home in Kansas: the folksy, kitschy verse of a transplanted Brit, Edgar A. Guest, who spent 40 years in Michigan writing thousands of poems for books, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and even TV.  His most famous line is quoted above as title of this piece, and is taken from his best loved poem, "Home."

My relationship with housing has been exceptionally promiscuous.  I was born at home, not in a hospital.  And in the course of eight decades I have made my home in small and large houses, condos, coops, and apartments--in cities, suburbs, and countryside.  I have also lived in a dorm room, a mobile home, 2 basements, above a garage, in 2 garages (made into an apartment), 2 boats, a treehouse,  in Maine, Manhattan, France (Paris, Nice), Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Long Island, Flushing, California, Maryland, and, given the boating adventures, every state between Maine and Florida.  So where/what is home?

Though I have lived in scores of houses, from one point of view (the bucolic-Romantic construals of Gaston Bachelard and Martin Heidegger), I have mostly been homeless.  Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, which is assigned in many schools of architecture, argued that a "home," properly so called, requires a house with three levels, set in nature.  The basement, locus of the irrational, fears, and alimentary provisions, is balanced at the other pole by the attic, which provides a long view, an assessment of the grounds and building as a whole. These poles sandwich the main floor, where living, effort, work, and sociality reign.  Plato's social anthropology is thus echoed with its tri-level division of lower appetites (irrationalities), "thoracic" willful action (heart, lungs, arms), crowned by the sublimity of the soul and its Reason--just as the State is best organized by a hierarchy of the appetitive workers under the courageous military class, both governed by the rational dictates of the philosopher-king. More than two thousand years later, Freud proposed his own three-level analysis of the person as an ordering of unconscious drives under the supervision of the dictates of the ego, and both checked by the conscious strictures of the superego "above." Anyone with a passing knowledge of Western culture could immediately supply myriad parallels in Dante, Milton, Wagnerian operas and children's fairy tales--not to mention contemporary movies, video games, and travel guides.

I come honestly to my own default preference for this topomythology: my birth-home, and those of my grandparents and neighbors in Kansas and Oklahoma were--or were intended to be--of this sort, though many had only a root-cellar, and most had no second story, though there were aspirations when budgets (rarely) allowed.  Our current house is a small Victorian with full basement, main floor (living/cooking/socializing), second floor (sleeping/bathing/offices), and an attic floor (art studio). I am always more comfortable seeing "nature" from my windows: in Kansas it was our Victory Garden, livestock pens, and weedy fields. Now it is our gardens, lawn, the many trees that line the streets, and the large wooded park across the street.  Heidegger--as one might have anticipated from his monumental Being and Time, and his patrimony of southern German peasant stock and agricultural preoccupations--carried aspects of such meditations into some core ideas of his later work, in his  Building, Dwelling, Thinking (1954), in which "dwelling" comes to assume the central role in the "unfolding of Being."
"[H]uman being consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the earth...But ‘on the earth’ already means ‘under the sky.’ Both of these also mean ‘remaining before the divinities’ and include a ‘belonging to men's being with one another.’ By a primal oneness the four—earth and sky, divinities and mortals—belong together in one."
Dwelling is being at home, where one "has a place." This sense of place is what grounds Heidegger's notion of spatiality.  In dwelling, then, human existence is located within a set of practices that are "familiar,"   Being has us in unfolding within the "four-fold" of earth/sky/gods/mortals, and the poet and "thinker" can be our only real guides in this risking by means of language.  By a scandalous oversimplification, I'll risk saying that this simply means that we have no access to the world apart from our situation:  Dream as we may about knowing God, nature, ourselves and others by access to the Absolute, history, science, revelation, reason, or intuition, we are still, always in the limited here and now of living as experiencing bodies standing on the earth and under the heavens.

It seems obvious to me that a major weakness in the views of Bachelard and Heidegger stems from their ethnocentrism.  I would be surprised to find that people from non-European cultures, and people from epochs at great remove from the 20th century, would find any recognition of these definitions of "home." Eskimos? South Pacific islanders? Brazilian jungle dwellers? African tribal peoples? Native Americans--from the 6th, 12th, or 18th century? Such people could hardly respond to the mythic structures indicated with any sense of resonance! Children from tower coops in bustling New York City would likely find Heidegger's beloved peasant hut in Bavaria a prime candidate for representing hell. Circumnavigating sailors find "home" on the high seas: Vita Dumas, leaving the turmoils of Argentina felt comfort in returning to the rolling oceans, as did Moitessier as he began his second consecutive circumnavigation, passing the point of turning northward towards "home" to finish the race in England, in favor of sailing on to eventually reach the south Pacific islands.

Another sometimes overlooked flaw in the view of domesticity as a peaceable kingdom was developed, after Bachelard, by Foucault, who rightly noted that not all "homes," reflect anything like "dwelling in the harmonic fourfold."  Rather, many such spaces can be wrenching, disruptive, victimizing and illusory. Prisoners under surveillance are not dwelling, as Erving Goffman's heartbreaking analysis of life in "total institutions"--the military, hospitals, prisons, residential schools, and, indeed, patriarchal families--spells out in his catalog of the defining behaviors and rituals of institutions of 24-hour control.

But this is hardly the place to explore further the range and depths of this detour into Heidegger's work. Nevertheless, if one can get past the uncomfortable echoes of Nazi ideologies of blood and soil (Blud und Boden), it can be instructive to spend some time with Heidegger's texts on this matter--which do go beyond the simple germanic mysticisms of the 19th century.

If I read the European etymology correctly, however, there is a nice irony in the choice of "dwelling" as the core idea of one's thinking about the notion of "home." (This point is my own pure speculation.)

"Dwelling": Old English dwellan "to mislead, deceive," originally "to make a fool of, lead astray," from Proto-Germanic  dwaljanan (cf. Old Norse dvöl "delay,"dvali "sleep;" Middle Dutch dwellen "to stun, make giddy, perplex;" Old High German twellen "to hinder, delay;" Danish dvale "trance, stupor,"dvaelbær "narcotic berry," source of Middle English dwale "nightshade"),from PIE dhwel-, from root dheu- (1) "dust, cloud, vapor, smoke" (and related notions of "defective perception or wits"). Related to Old English gedweola "error, heresy, madness." Sense shifted in Middle English through "hinder, delay," to "linger" (c.1200, as still in phrase to dwell upon), to "make a home" (mid-13c.).   [!]
Perhaps human development from nomadic hunting/gathering societies into animals who communicate, cultivate, and construct in a fixed place (who dwell), is unconsciously portrayed in linguistic changes as the result of a series of errors, mistakes, and confusions.  Born nomads and travelers, the species becomes confused, unhinged  (perhaps by means of herbal drugs and stress), and start to wander in circles, falling into trances, losing their minds, and finally "settling," putting down roots, building permanent shelters, adopting laws--and make themselves "at home"?  Such a hypothesis might shed light on the human desire to travel (think of all those songs about "ramblin'," rolling stones, the billions spent on travel and transport, the horrors of "cabin fever," the punishment in imprisonment and "time-outs," as well as the fascination with space travel, jet-men, star treks, and "cruising."

The astronomical dimension of travel obsession is perhaps an echo of a darker meaning of "home."
"This world is not my home.
I'm just a passin' through.
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me 
From heaven's open door,
And I can't feel at home
In this world anymore."
For millions and millions of people of religious conviction, home=death.
"Goin' home." "God called her home."  Such people see themselves crossing the Jordan, passing into the comfort of sweet death to rock in the bosom of Abraham.

As I said earlier, "I have been homeless for a good part of my life--IF home is staying in a fixed place, a place with a proper natural surround, a basement, an attic, etc.--and if Edgar Guest is right that one must stay there long enough to accumulate a "heap o' livin'," by which he means marriages, births, deaths, illnesses, crises, triumphs, shared epiphanies, gardens kept, generations established. In spite of lacking so many of its "markers," I have always felt "at home," in so many different dwellings and circumstances--trailers, boats, one-level flats, cramped rooms, spacious multi-level villas, garden apartments, urban tenements, alone, in pairs, in groups, en famille.

We are torn, ambivalent, nostalgic, homesick for ..something else...(saudade, sehnsucht, eleutheromania, ecophobia, resfeber), yet we dream always of getting home, when we are "away."  We picture the "cottage small by a waterfall," a fire in the hearth, our loved ones around us, food smells from the kitchen, sturdy shelter from the cold and storm, and rush out to buy the nearest god-awful painting by Thomas Kinkade, choose equally awful greeting cards to lie to each other about our feelings, and put up hundreds of photos on Facebook to make a branding, communal "selfie" depicting the endless series of victories and perfections that have blessed us and our domestic progeny.  On one hand, we fetishize home, by advertising home-cooked, home-made, home-spun, "make yourself at home," "no place like home," and refer to friends as "homeys." On the other hand we speak of an unattractive person as "homely," and are advised by realtors to stage our houses for quick sale, by erasing all "homey" touches, and emphasizing clean, slick, hard, and technological surfaces.  We're told to avoid, "quaint," "cozy," "unusual," in ads and told to talk about stainless steel, granite, and sleek. Perhaps LeCorbusier's definition of a dwelling as a "machine for living" has won the culture wars? Perhaps it is a Freudian fear of animalistic contamination?  Or perhaps it is the longing for a jet or rocket to carry us away (with a suitably re-manufactured partner) to a simpler, faster, joyous, speedy life, without the travails of illness, cleaning, death, schedules, lists, and eternal sameness.  All of this makes for the possibility of a new nostalgia.  Families 40 to 50 years ago, after an evening sitting in front of the TV,  mourned the loss of the family table and hearth, where shared stories brought the brood together. Now families text one another while watching commercial programming on 6 different device screens in separate rooms or vehicles, to mourn the loss of the family gathered around the TV to watch "All In the Family" or "The Ed Sullivan Show."

I grew up listening to "O, give me a home, where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play," and had no trouble imagining "home on the range."
I chose a life of always moving.  At my retirement ceremony, a colleague and old friend noted that anyone who knew me had learned to enter my name in their address book in pencil, since it changed so often.  Later I synthesized the two poles of home and travel by the not-so-simple solution of living on a boat! Home on the range became home on the waterways.  Like turtles, tortoises and mollusks, we took our home with us, cruising in comfort from port to port to anchorage, snug in the familiar confines of cabin, cockpit, galley, and vee-berth, but blown next day by wind (or diesel engine) to a new town, new people, new seascapes and challenges.  It was the closest I ever got to a solution to this human dilemma.  By suffering the intellectual and physical confines of early life in Kansas and Oklahoma and Indiana, I absorbed the subliminal message that moving always made things better.  And the bonus was a palpable sense of freedom.  "I can always just leave." "Start over."  Much later, Sartre and DeBeauvoir provided the theoretical armature I needed to rationalize these obsessions: consciousness IS freedom.  Even the prisoner chained to a wall can always to some extent recontextualize his plight.

Having a home is then, in my view, nothing more than being embodied.  "I" am all the relationships that bind me to my "surroundings," including those of fantasy, memory, hope, and imagination.  I carry my home in my (extended) body, in a way somewhat analogous to the sailor in his boat.  Having absorbed the efforts, distances, motions required to navigate my house, my neighborhood, my decade, my fellow human beings, I am "at home," thus embodying all those cliches of dwelling peaceably: familiarity, safety, affection, satisfaction, emotional attachment, and sharing--a domain that extends from the erotic to the cosmic and back again.  There may never be anyone truly "homeless" in this sense (though no one denies the tragedy of human beings without shelter--especially in rich, industrial countries.)  Sometimes it is quite enough to have one's "clean, well-lighted place," a "room of one's own," a wild duck in the attic, or a vee-berth after a hard day's sail.

However, there is that lurking shadow of having finished my 70s, and approaching the inevitable end of consciousness, of living.  Death awaits us all. That death is bodily death, so there is no place, no need, for a home after death, though we are sold (by religion, and various death industries) the idea of making ourselves comfortable in our "eternal rest." and have to cope with offers of paying to have eternal Muzak piped into our well-appointed mausoleums.  My eschatology can be summarized by the great philosopher, Rodney Dangerfield: "A girl phoned me the other day and said... 'Come on over, there's nobody home.' I went over. Nobody was home."

So what are we to do before that day?  Keep moving, even if "in place." The grim reaper will always win the race, eventually ("Always at my back I hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near...") But he occasionally stumbles, gets the address wrong, has second thoughts, so I remember that he can't really run that fast with that stupid hoody flopping around his knees, and carrying that heavy and inefficient scythe.  Besides, as the Stoics knew long, long ago: "Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not."

* * *

Coda: so here I AM, where death is "not yet."  And where I am truly "at home." We have now lived more than ten years in this little haven in Portland; home has manifested itself in deep ways in the feel, views, smells, and familiarities of this house with its hearth and books, its busy kitchen, its gardens built and tended by F., its stairs, offices, and studio, its shop, tools, garages and fencing, its art and computers, its stained glass and music hanging in the air.  It feels like home, perhaps most of all, those cold winter evenings, after a good dinner, when we sit for a few minutes by the fire in the library, almost ready to climb the stairs to bed.  And, again, next morning, when I have started the coffee as first sunlight streams into the kitchen through the giant oak branches next door.  For me, home is a day well-lived with my love, and us in our place at the day's center, as it opens to unknown paths.