The blog in literature

There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.

I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.

The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.
Jane Austen

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
Jane Austen

There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
Mark Twain

We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
Mark Twain

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Charlotte Bronte

On day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Centre, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks. “What shall we do with them?” Her Majesty asked me. “The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the Records of the Historian.”

“Let me make them into a pillow,” I said.

“Very well,” said Her Majesty. “You may have them.”

I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.
Sei Shonagon

There is nothing in the whole world so painful as feeling that one is not liked. It always seems to me that people who hate me must be suffering from some kind of lunacy.
Sei Shonagon

Read you my epigrams? No, you burn
not to hear mine, but for your turn.
Martial (William Matthews, tr.)

If an epigram takes up too much space,
you skip it. It’s not substance you crave
but speed. I combed the markets for this spread
and you eat nuts and candied violets.
Fuss on your own budget, reader, and have
taste enough to salivate for bread.
Martial (ibid.)

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about.

He appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice. I couldn’t wonder at that, for it was mellow and full and gave great importance to every word he uttered. He listened to himself with obvious satisfaction and sometimes gently beat time to his own music with his head or rounded a sentence with his hand.

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water … Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot.
James Joyce

Yet he who grasps the moment’s gift,
He is the proper man.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

Only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things.


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Ice can do in one winter what it takes dissolved limestone centuries to achieve. Entering the mouth of the cave, we step gingerly between the brittle teeth.

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It’s like a strip show. Look but don’t touch, says the guide; this is a living cave. The formations are so sensitive, one touch of oily skin is enough to halt their slow dance of minerals forever.

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The walls have ears. Approximately 8,000 of them.

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Some of the bats wear a coat of condensed water droplets while they sleep. They glitter in the flashlight’s beam like pale geodes.

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Inverted as they are, we recognize many of these landscapes – or think we do. These are the long-legged peaks and the dark forests we know from childhood, from dreams, from Russian ikon paintings.

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With all lights extinguished, we take the measure of the place one drip at a time. How many generations would we have to live underground before we learned to echolocate as well as the bats?

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The stream that formed this cave was diverted elsewhere so tourists could flow through. At times, we feel like voyagers through our own viscera, inspecting the entrails of a future cut short by the very process of inspection.

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The usual flotsam of outlaws and Indians are said to have left buried treasures and unmarked graves. But these are no ruins. The columns are still barely half-built.


In the Bible, “forty” is a stereotypical way of measuring time: not sacred time, exactly, but the amount of time necessary for a complete revolution of some celestial wheel. David, Solomon, Jehuash and Joash are all said to have reigned for forty years, and the “judge” Eli died in the fortieth year of his leadership. Under Caleb’s younger brother Othniel, “the land had rest” – i.e. from war – “for forty years” (Judges 3:11). A little later (Judges 8:28), “The country was in quietness forty years in the days of Gideon.” This “peaceful forty” clearly differs from a sabbatical kind of rest, such as Leviticus prescribes for the land every seventh year and for the country as a whole in the Jubilee, or 50th year.

Forty can equally measure a time of peace or a time of pain and trial. Jewish tradition makes much of the fact that pregnancy among humans lasts approximately forty weeks; this was often cited to explain the importance accorded the number forty in the Bible. Under Mosaic law, the period of purification after birth is forty days. Moses fasted on the mountain for forty days, communing with God. Elijah survived for forty days on a single meal, traveling to Mount Horeb for his famous encounter with the “still, small voice,” and Jesus after him undertook a forty-day fast in the wilderness, wrestling with temptation. In the Noah story, the rain falls for forty days and nights to cleanse and reshape the world. A similarly harsh cleansing takes place during the forty years in the wilderness, when everyone with living memory of Egypt, except for the faithful Caleb and Joshua, must die, and a new generation, born in the desert, must come to maturity. In Judges 13:1, “the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.”

Moses was forty years old at the time of his revelation on Sinai, according to the Christian Book of Acts. At the age of forty, Isaac married his cousin Rebecca; Esau married a Hittite woman named Judith; and Caleb was sent to spy on the inhabitants of Canaan – an adventure that lasted forty days. Saul was forty at the start of his ill-fated reign.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, like the ancient Greeks, believed that forty was the age of reason and maturity. Kabbalists traditionally felt that a man wouldn’t be ready to begin studying any esoteric teachings until the age of forty – or some say 42. Mohammed was forty years old when an angel first appeared to him and revealed his divine selection as the Messenger of God. Huike, the Second Patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism – and thus the first East Asian Zen master – was forty when he received the transmission from Bodhidharma. Legend records that he had cut off his own arm in a desperate attempt to still the chaos in his mind during the crisis leading up to his enlightenment. He then went into hiding for forty years to escape an anti-Buddhist purge, and only began to teach at the age of eighty.

Judges in the Spanish Inquisition had to be at least forty years of age. Perhaps in reaction to this sobering fact, the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground rails against his attainment of the same age:

I am forty now, and, mind you, forty years is a whole lifetime. It is extreme old age. It is positively immoral, indecent, and vulgar to live longer than forty years. Who lives longer than forty? Answer that me that – sincerely and honestly. I’ll tell you who – fools and blackguards – they do! I don’t mind telling all old men to their face – all those worthy old men, all those silver-haired andambrosial old men! I’ll tell it to the whole world, damned if I won’t! I have a right to say so, for I shall live to the age of sixty myself. I’ll live to be seventy! I’ll live to be eighty!
(David Magarshack tr.)

I guess I don’t need to dwell on what it means to be forty in American popular culture. It symbolizes the end of youth and the prime age for the mid-life crisis, a rite of passage for American males. A movie called “Forty Year-Old Virgin” was one of this past year’s surprise hits. The general societal expectation is that one should be well on the road to success by the age of forty. By the time George W. Bush was forty, for example, he had earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale, an MBA from Harvard, and had run two independent oil companies into the ground. By contrast, his fellow Texans the Austin Lounge Lizards extoll the Gen-X slacker ideal:

She wants me to act like some middle-aged man
I used to think she knew me, but she can’t understand
That it’s hard to make a living doing watercolor and collage
That’s why I’m forty years old and I’m living in my Mom’s garage

So today I turned forty. Things should start getting interesting any moment now.


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Nursing a head cold, I brood over books and email, unable to write. Outside the sky is overcast, but shortly after 8:00 a rift appears in the east and the sun pours through. I hurry outside with the camera, thinking to try and get a few landscape shots. But when I look at them later, they’re as blurry as the thoughts running through my head these past couple of days (see yesterday’s post).

Then I focus on the frenetically active birds, and my hands grow steadier. An American goldfinch in the wild apple tree, an eastern bluebird above it on the wire: they each pause. I pause. Two, tinny sneezes of the camera and the sun goes in. The clouds slowly lighten, the transformer box darkens, and soon they are the same dull white.

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Notes for an idiolecture

My one year-old niece refutes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on a daily basis. What do I mean by “refute”? In the Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell famously describes how Johnson responded to the philosophical solipsism of George Berkeley:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”

Though generations of Western philosophy students have derided this “refutation” as obtuse (see here, for example), I think they are the ones who are guilty of obtuseness for failing to appreciate the Zen-like adroitness of Dr. Johnson’s swift kick. Like a koan, it is best appreciated not as an isolated, universal statement, but as a spur-of-the-moment response to the student’s (Boswell’s) state of mind. They had just come out of the church, whose central drama reenacts the mystery of incarnation, however the bishop may try to resolve the paradox of Word-made-flesh. In Christianity, as in Buddhism, pain and suffering are awarded a quasi-ontological significance. The difference, I think, is that if Dr. Johnson had been a Zen master, he would’ve kicked Boswell; Christian charity dictated his choice of a stone scapegoat.

Buddhist philosophy includes a very Berkeleyan school called Vijñaptimí¢tra, “Representation-Only.” It was popular for a while in Tang- and Song-Dynasty China, and the Record of Master Yunmen (Ummon in Japanese) describes several instances where students question this most formidable of Zen teachers about it. Here’s one of them, in Urs App’s peerless annotated translation (#77):

Someone asked: “What is it like when [one realizes that] the three realms are nothing but mind, and the myriad things are merely [produced by one’s] cognition?”

The Master replied, “Hiding in one’s tongue.”

“And what is that like?”

The Master said, “Su-lu, su-lu.”

“This spell was among other things used for fending off evil spirits,” says App’s footnote to the last line. Thus can apparent nonsense be invested with a higher, non-symbolic sense.

My niece Elanor is what they call pre-verbal. But in fact she verbalizes constantly, and often quite loudly and insistently, accompanied by hand and head gestures. For example, last Friday afternoon she was sitting on her Grandpa’s lap while he read one of her favorite books to her. When he finished and closed the book, she turned it over, jabbed her right forefinger at the cover, looked him in the eye and let out a loud stream of syllables some ten seconds long, with falling intonation. We all laughed, and Grandpa read the book again.

I could relate many such incidents about her. A couple weeks ago, I did something to tease her – I forget just what. She got a stern look on her face and lectured me vociferously for a couple of minutes while everyone looked on. The gestural qualities of spoken language are evidently very appealing to her. Her mother gave her an old cell phone to play with, and she tells us that Elanor quite often holds it up to her ear and holds lengthy “conversations,” toddling back and forth from one end of their apartment to the other.

Her choice of syllables seems fairly arbitrary, though she gravitates toward some, such as dada and lalala, apparently because the sounds are agreeable to her ear. She has clearly grasped the link between speaking and self-assertion. At family gatherings, she often attempts to join in on supper-table conversations from where she sits like a potentate in her high chair. In her serenity and sovereignty, she brings to mind the Daodejing’s example of a (male) infant as the very embodiment of virtue or character (de). From the Ames and Hall translation, Chapter 55:

He screams through the entire day
And yet his voice does not get hoarse:
Such is height of harmony.

Though Elanor was never a screamer like that, I think it’s important to remember that her “pre-verbal” utterances and gestures are not an imperfect anticipation of “real,” systematic language. Rather, they constitute expressions of her state of mind closer to music or the songs of birds, which, though they rarely obey the laws of harmony, cannot fail to harmonize with the bird’s internal and external state, and thus sound pleasant to a third party.

In their commentary on Chapter 55, Ames and Hall make a point of some relevance to Johnson’s common sense-based “refutation” of representation-only:

The baby, unconsciously and without motivation, is the embodiment of harmony and equilibrium. Vitality, then, is sustaining this kind of balance in the rhythms of the day. Common sense – insight into the ordinary and everyday – is the relatively uncommon ability to maximize one’s quantum of life-energy by using it up in a measured way, remaining ever responsive to the cadence of one’s experience.

How does this refute Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein, as you may recall, was anointed by Time magazine as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. He was a very serious man who liked to number his thoughts, and tried to give them an air of cohesion and importance by grouping some of them under a grand, Latin title – a practice which the author of this website heartily deplores. But it’s his later work, collected posthumously as Philosophical Investigations, that I want to call attention to here. As the Wikipedia article points out, this work permits a variety of interpretations. According to one of them, Wittgenstein maintained that “everyday language functions for the most part unproblematically and does not require correction by philosophers.”

Well and good! But it’s one of Wittgenstein’s subsidiary arguments – his famous digression about the possibility of a private language – that I think my niece’s behavior refutes. A private language is one in which “The words … are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.”

This translation is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which goes on to explain that

This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one’s experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.

Immediately after introducing the idea, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that there cannot be such a language. The importance of drawing philosophers’ attention to a largely unheard-of notion and then arguing that it is unrealizable lies in the fact that an unformulated reliance on the possibility of a private language is arguably essential to mainstream epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics from Descartes to versions of the representational theory of mind which became prominent in late twentieth century cognitive science. […]

[S]uch a so-called language would, necessarily, be unintelligible to its supposed originator too, for he would be unable to establish meanings for its putative signs.

You can click on the link and read about the debate Wittgenstein’s cryptic statements engendered if you wish. To me, the entire argument is flawed by the assumption that language is, at root, an intelligible system of signs – rather than, say, an endless flow of sounds and gestures, sense and nonsense, a river that constantly reshapes its bed. The earliest human language, like the languages of many non-human animals, has not yet become narrowed into the channel of representation-only, but floods and rushes wherever the questing mind wills. Its reach regularly exceeds its grasp, as the semiotically naive mind seeks intimate involvement in a world rich in numinous energy. Only at rare moments of great intensity in our adult lives are we reminded that what we call “meaning” was once pure gestalt.

The other thing I forgot to tell you about my niece is that she regularly interrupts whatever she is saying and doing to seek out physical contact with the nearest adult. A brief hug every five minutes or so seems to provide a kind of fuel for her explorations. And of course there’s no fooling a small child: any falsehood during such contacts would be detected almost immediately. It is on this template that the shared, “common sense” truth-assumptions of all social languages are built, I think. Soon enough, an escalating addiction to such physical/emotional response will lead to the standardization of her private language and its assimilation into the narrower but more powerful linguistic currents of her social milieu. Her favorite, all-purpose syllables dada will become less Dada and more Dad. Nonsense will become increasingly uncommon as she strives to make a commoner kind of sense. With time and luck, she may come to compete with her father or uncle for the title of fastest bullslinger in the West.

Bí¤ume lebens

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How we waste our afflictions!
We study them, stare out beyond them into bleak continuance,
hoping to glimpse some end. Whereas they’re really
our wintering foliage, our dark greens of meaning, one
of the seasons of the clandestine year . . .
RAINER MARIA RILKE, Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow (10th Elegy)

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Look: the trees exist; the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly. Only we
pass by it all, like a rush of air.
And everything conspires to keep quiet about us,
half out of shame perhaps, half out of some secret hope.
Ibid. (2nd Elegy)

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is what it is. O childhood hours,
when behind each shape there was more
than mere past, and before us – not the future.
Ibid. (4th Elegy)


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So I go to a planning meeting for an environmental group I’m active in. At one point, someone says, “What if, by some miracle, a piece of legislation is introduced which,” etc.

“Part of the planning process is writing out the miracles,” the chair responds.


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An old railroad trestle from an abandoned spur line crosses the Little Juniata River right where our access road joins the highway on the other side of County Bridge 45.

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I had to meet a ride down there yesterday morning around sunrise, so I brought my camera along.

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It was the coldest morning of the year so far – 2 degrees Fahrenheit. This was a bit of a shock, coming right after several days of unseasonable warmth. But it meant that the air was as clear as it gets, and the river had a thin layer of freshly-knit ice along the shore.

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When the sun rose, the surface of the water came alive with swirls and streamers of rising mist.

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I took dozens of pictures, most of which completely failed to capture the beauty all around me. In the same way that writing poetry forces one to confront the limits of language, taking pictures makes one appreciate the gulf between icon and vision.

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Last summer, some of the local kids turned the river below the trestle into a swimming hole. They climbed all over the trestle, too, and fought boredom by vandalizing the railings of “our” bridge. During the colder months, the area around the bridge becomes much quieter – a good, out-of-the-way place for a variety of illicit transactions, most of which occur after dark. People seek transcendence in all kinds of ways, most of them as fruitless as my attempts to cling to ephemera through words or pixels. As for the trestle, it ends abruptly at the far side of the river, the victim of a highway widening project some fifteen years ago. Not even a ghost train could cross it now.

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Lost in thought: poems of Lady Izumi

This morning, for no particular reason, I thought I’d try my hand at some translations of tanka by the Japanese court poet Izumi Shikibu (fl. ca. 1000 CE). I included versions of the first two tanka in earlier posts, back in January and February of 2004.

UPDATE (Feb. 22): I’ve revised the first of these in response to the astute critique and observations of reader Hari Prasad (no web address) in the comments [subsequently lost]

If the one I wait for came now,
what would I do?
Gazing at my garden,
I’m loathe to see anything spoil
its trackless snow.


We hold the flowers
in our thoughts
after we pass,
entrusting ourselves completely
to the oblivious horses.


If I could see you one more time,
even if only by lightning flash
in a night-time storm –
visible, invisible –
it would ease my longing.

(Mourning a deceased lover.)


Once we’re beyond this world,
there’s nothing to cling to –
so thinking, I imagine
you here once again, your reply,
that give-&-take.


Which of us
would she miss the most?
She would miss her children
as I am missing mine,
my own dead daughter.


To be here to find
your name freshly written,
instead of moldering beside you
under the moss –
it’s hard to bear.

(After receiving a piece of mail addressed to her dead daughter.)


Lost in thought,
watching a firefly rise
out of the marsh
as if from my own body,
as if it were me.


This entry is part 40 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’ve been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. This is the twenty-fourth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or two to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

The Taking Away
by Paul Zweig

The close-fitting sleepless night,
Everything still: the woodchuck in its hole
Under the rock pile, the apple tree outside my window.

* * * *

Outside In

A night of wind
& the smell of thawed soil,
rustle of nightcrawlers
tugging leaves down
under the earth,
rapid footfalls of rain.
At the woods’ edge,
a constant creaking
& groaning, as if
from doors swinging
loose on their hinges,
which are stiff with rust
from a lifetime in
the open air. I sleep
without dreaming,
wake without waking up.
Two more hairs turn white
according to schedule.
The house shakes
with the effort to keep
from flying apart.