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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Good Ol’ Days (Are Trying to Tell You Something)

It’s likely, in this psychologically-literate age, that most people know about the “rosy-retrospection bias, if not by name than by some colloquial equivalent. It is the tendency to remember past events with more fondness than they deserve. For example: I have a memory of playing soccer in the rain with my dad and older brother when I was around seven or eight. I was certainly miserable and cold—but what good times! (To be clear, this is not nostalgia but something more primordial; nostalgia, let’s say, is when a person wilfully embraces the rosy-retrospection bias.)

Now, is this only a mis-remembering, or is Time trying to teach us an important lesson?

Recall a memory—the more distant and the more mundane the better for this experiment. I have recalled a time, some six years ago, when I worked at an IGA supermarket as a shelf-stocker. Every Saturday morning I woke up at 5:50am in order to arrive at work at 6:00am. The same ten pop songs harassed my day, and my lunch break was long enough to read perhaps six or seven half-absorbed pages from a novel. I was miserable. Only, in my memory, I—well, I just am. I don’t feel any of those little ego-caused feelings of impatience, worry, or annoyance that would have typified my moment-by-moment consciousness in those days at IGA.  

Ok, your turn. In your memory, are you vexed, self-conscious, embarrassed? Perhaps you are able to surmise such feelings, but does the memory itself give them to you? Is there, waiting for you in your past, any angst for the future, any self-esteem issues, any regret? Or are you, like me, just there, facing shelves in the supermarket, an ego-less thing gliding through time and collecting experience?

It was in Schopenhauer’s treatise The World as Will and Representation that I first encountered this strange observation. It is, in a sense, the “rosy-retrospection bias” that psychologists have observed, but Schopenhauer thinks about it differently. Our memories, he writes, seem to occur by means of a “will-less perception,” and it is that which “spreads so wonderful a charm over the past”:

“For by our conjuring up in our minds days long past spent in a distant place, it is only the objects recalled by our imagination, not the subject of will, that carried around its incurable sorrows with it just as much then as it does now. But these are forgotten, because since then they have frequently made way for others. Now in what is remembered, objective perception is just as effective as it would be in what is present, if we allowed it to have influence over us, if, free from will, we surrendered ourselves to it. Hence it happens that, especially when we are more than usually disturbed by some want, the sudden recollection of past and distant scenes flits across our minds like a lost paradise. The imagination recalls merely what was objective, not what was individually subjective... We are thus able to produce the illusion that only those objects are present, not we ourselves.”

In other words, memory gives us an idea of what it would be like to exist without will—by which Schopenhauer means that aspect of our subjectivity we call ego. You know ego. It’s that servant of ours who, in his overzealous performance of his duty, leads us not just to keep food in the fridge and watch out for oncoming vehicles, but (alas) to bite our nails over promotions and glance worriedly in mirrors. Schopenhauer’s point is that ego doesn’t live well in memory; the atmosphere is toxic to its kind.

Could it be that Time, by removing our ego from our experiences and leaving these traces we call memories, is giving us a hint at how it is done?

Try another memory. Are you wanting, worrying, wasting time—or are you simply existing? Is your experienced characterized by what is subjective—a desire, say, or distaste, or anger? Or is it characterized by something else, something simpler, something more essential to who you are? Can you feel now, perhaps, that thing you could not feel at the time, that thing that you crave in the present, that thing that is very much like... happiness? And is it possible that this is not a deception, not a mis-remembering, but something in a certain sense actually truer (gasp) than the way you experienced the memory when you were in it?

This is why the metaphysician in me cannot abide the psychologist’s glib “rosy-retrospection bias.” For if something is falsified in memory, something is also clarified. Something is given for us to use—a hint, if you will, on how to achieve detachment from petty willing. For isn’t it the case that when we immerse ourselves in times gone by, in our own personal version of what the Romans called the memoria praeteritorum bonorum (The memory of the good pasts), that there is a part of us that wonders: why can’t all of life be like this? To experience life as we experience a memory—that, it seems to me, would be a thing like contentment.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

In the Tiergarten, Late October

Above the falling leaves stands
the angel of victory: something
great has been conquered
for the walkers in the park.

All is equal to my desire;
the trees ache with the color
of my heart. The ghosts of all
past summer suns are here, haunting;

here a chill wind blows just so
to sweeten the loneliness;
and here, like a warm body through
a curtain, I can feel my secret—

the one we have by existing and hide
in our existence, where it is safe
from every mind, angel’s or mine,
because it cannot be whispered.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

A Creation Story

God made a person. Also, God made a cave, because he needed something in which to set the person.
        “I hate it here,” said the person. “I want to go out there.”
        God wondered at these first words of his creation. “You wouldn’t like it out there,” said God.
       “Still, I want to.”
So God took him outside of the cave.
“But,” stammered the man, “it’s just like the cave. Only more so. How can I live here? There’s nothing.”
And so God said, “I suppose you are right. How about I make another of your kind. You can play games together, and things.”
“Ok,” said the person.
And God set beside the first person a second person, and the two recognized each other as man and woman.
The second—whether it was the man or the woman does not matter—said, “You have given my partner a gift; now what gift will you give me, oh God?”
“Well, I suppose it is only fair,” said God.
“Please give me a child, so that we may be a family.”
This God granted. The child, however, saw that he too was entitled to a gift and, not one to be cheated, said, “Please, God, I would like a stick.”
“A stick?” said God.
“Yeah, something long to whack things with.”
“Ok,” said God. “I suppose I’ll need first to make—”
“Yes, something that produces sticks,” said the child.
And so God made a tree.
“You too?” said God, for the tree was giving him a considering look. The tree wished for something to caress him by day and night, and so God made wind. Wind wanted something to sculpt and mold, so God made clouds, and when clouds submitted the tricky request for something to do—well, God was busy for days making all sorts of plants for them to water. These wanted what in essence was best approximated by sunlight, and the sun wanted companions (but of a smaller sort so as he could remain superior), and so on and so on until somehow in all this, something—no one knows what, and it was right to keep itself hidden—made a problematic demand, and God had to pause. “Well,” he said, “I am a Just God and I suppose I can’t stop now”—and he made mosquitoes. That, perhaps, was the moment God truly committed to the project and no longer worried himself over what strange thing he had set in motion. Soon cats were wishing for mice and mice for cheese and cheese for only God knows what, and the world began to look very much as it does today.
         But they say—and who knows?—that the wishing must still be going on somewhere, in some peculiar corner of the universe for which we have no conception. If so, we at least know this about it: God, vexed beyond measure, is giving gifts.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Writer and the Sock

The writer is perfect. All people are perfect, it is circumstances that are not—so the writer believes, and it is the basis all his work. Once, he thought otherwise; once, he attempted both to create a character and to solve his life in its entirety. But he grew to know stories so well and know himself so well that he began to discern, in turn, what sort of things he could do in his stories, and what sort of things he could not do—and one of the things he could not do was solve a person. At most he was able to solve a single problem for a person; it may have been the most important problem at the moment of the story, but this was a very different matter from being that character’s “life problem.” And so the writer has come to believe that one should not try to perceive problems on the level of personhood, on the level of entireties, but only on levels that can be dealt with directly and in a dramatisable manner. Yes, when it comes to his limits, and the limits of reality, the writer is wise. The writer is perfect.

But today the Doubt comes.

The writer is at his desk. His coffee is beside his computer mouse, where it steams and waits, like a companion. The writer drinks the one cup of black coffee every morning. He acknowledges that without it he would find the beginning difficult, yet it is his habit to glance down at his steaming, waiting companion once or twice before taking a sip, as though it was a temptation. This is his only stimulant, for—read no pride in it—he does not smoke. Though perhaps one may count the modest library of classics next to his desk: a glance in its direction enlivens him. As for counter-stimulants, this is easy: when he does not want to be disturbed by his wife of children, he hangs a sock on his office doorknob. But the writer does not often need to use the sock. Only once, in fact, when he wanted to be sure to get a thought down—a thought which turned into a story and which this morning, just now, he has discovered is missing from his computer files. Perhaps it was never saved in the first place. Not to worry. He drinks his coffee, sets his fingers on the keyboard. The writer is perfect.

The writer produces something every day on principle. The writer has not produced anything of significance yet, but the writer knows that if it will come then it will come and does not bite his nails over it. He has a realistic sense of his work’s value: to him, it is the most important thing he can do, but he knows that politicians, engineers, school teachers, and so on, have equally important work. The writer has no illusions that beauty, or at least beauty alone, will save the world. He is not taken in with his colleagues’ talk of art being “essential”; his stoic soul knows that nothing can be essential, not in the way that they hope. He thought differently once, to be sure, in those years he had tried to create those “problem characters.” But it had only led to suffering—such suffering that whenever the writer remembers this past, he is only glad to be out of it. Too much a mess of cravings and confusions, youth—this will come of the habit of making a project of everything, even the self. His flat in Berlin had been a romance: a mansard room of hardwood floorboards and windows that peeked above housetops, with the Berliner Dom just visible in the east. Here he had committed himself to “the Task.” His philosophy was this: certain moments, as soon as they are born, have difficulty; they struggle, they are the delicate runts of time’s litter and must be saved. Moments of insight, of joy, of Weltschmerz: it is to catch these, to bottle-feed them, that artists were invented. He would be one; he would be an artist. His characters would recall forgotten truths, rare exhilarations buried by the quotidian, and thereby fix the muddles they had made of their lives. But that was not all. Perhaps something analogous would happen to his readers. Perhaps by being a saviour of moments, he would be a saviour of more than moments... Ah, but precisely here the Doubt had come upon him—indeed, for a time, overcame him. The suffering began. Two years it lasted, during which nothing he wrote was good enough and only condemned him from the page. The project, quite simply, was too great, and weighed down by its immensity he could never quite gain leverage over his despair, could never get an objective glimpse of it. Everything became a searching for a way out, and so one day the Bhagavad Gita said to him, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working”—and he was cured. He saw himself for what he was: mood-dependent, unable to say from one day to the next whether the world was headed towards universal salvation or whether it was merely composed of bog and things sinking down into bog. What needless drama! Anyway, he had no need for it. He craved peace and the benefits of complacency. To produce without hope or despair, without commitment: this was the way, and the writer has stuck to it ever since. He is thirty seven years old now; he has lived eight years in this suburban house; he has great fondness for his wife and three kids. Yes, he has achieved balance, rhythm, the necessary quietude of soul, and the Doubt comes seldom. Today is an exception.  The writer is perfect.

The writer pauses to look at the dimples of shadow made upon his coffee mug by the sunlight. No words written and already it is empty. But, as we’ve said, the writer drinks only one cup a day. The writer is perfect.

The writer has learned to discern the various guises that the Doubt takes on, even when the Doubt is crafty—such as a certain period during which the Doubt did not appear and he began to wonder whether that was a bad sign, until he realized that that itself was the Doubt. Today it is the spectre of his lost word document, the one he had put the sock on the doorknob in order to write. Could it have been his breakthrough? Is his chance gone? Is it over for him? These are the thoughts that the writer, one by one, dismisses from his mind. The Doubt is tempting him to look upon his life, his own life, instead of the lives of his characters. It is tempting him to characterize himself as though he were in a story—and worse, as though his life, in its entirety, were a problem. Just what he has taught himself not to do. There is only darkness in this direction; only an endless muddle. The writer takes a breath. He returns to what he believes, namely, that everything may be boiled down to this: a character and his problem. They are two things, not one. People are perfect; circumstances are not. There is, in the difference between them, the writer’s salvation: all clarity is achieved in achieving the separation of the character from the problem. No, there need be no "quiet desperation" in the writer’s life, no spiritual condition at all. There need only be this: the writer and his problem. What is the problem? The Doubt. What is the Doubt? The thought that there might be something more than the writer and his problem. And so there it is, the solution already. He thinks to himself, in the whelming joy of conquest: I am glad to have had my chaotic youth, and even my Doubt, for it all gives me something to write about. The thought gives him further momentum. Such a thought has power, for in it all of life, even the Doubt, is subsumed: it turns reality on its hinge, and suddenly there is nothing in life that cannot be written about. The writer’s life is again organized. He may create characters and their problems. He types a word. He types another word. His excitement mounts. Perfect.

The writer hears a knocking on the door. That’s his wife, wanting something. He listens. Okay, he thinks, and gets up. But then he frowns. He reaches down and he removes one of his socks. Yes, people are perfect, circumstances are not. There is only the writer and his problem. He opens the door; he glances apologetically at his wife. Her face is distressed. He slips the sock over the doorknob and closes it again. There. The Doubt is again conquered. He will keep to his work. He will write a little every day, without investment in the outcome. So long as he’s writing. And he is. Look, even now. Does not matter what about: he is writing! The writer is perfect.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Oak

I like to sit beneath the oak
in autumn—there’s peace there,
with shade and shrunken leaves
and acorns dropping through the air.

But it’s the one unfallen yet
that keeps my peace profound,
the acorn that will crack my head
wanting this very ground.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Sitting on a Park Bench, 9 AM

Why does the hummingbird take off
after so long in hover?
And why did I like the things I liked
when I was younger?
The clever posturing, the lesser games,
and doing nothing in the summer—
The need for statements always strong
and silence without power.

How often did I wonder (did I wonder?)
about what I wonder now?
About how to say something and not be cheated
by the habits of myself,
About hummingbirds and flowers
and the different kinds of hunger,
And why I liked the things I liked
when I was younger.