some “proper spring”
snow at the gate
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
“What is a university for?”
“Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?”
“Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.”
“Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.”
The Practical University April 4, 2013
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 CE)
This calligraphic version of “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit” — with black ink on rice paper — is by Rong Shang of Bejing, China, and San Francisco, 2006.
“Every one, noble or base, brilliant or dumb, clings tenaciously to life, which is nothing but a delusion. Therefore, I have given voice to Substance and Shadow to express their grief, and let the Soul or Spirit resolve their problems by following the course of Nature. Those who are concerned with this matter understand my intention.”
Substance to Shadow
Earth and heaven endure forever,
Streams and mountains never change.
Plants observe a constant rhythm,
Withered by frost, by dew restored.
But man, most sentient being of all,
In this is not their equal.
He is present here in the world today,
Then leaves abruptly, to return no more.
No one marks that there is one man less —
Not even friends and family think of him;
The things that he once used are all that’s left
To catch their eye and move them to grief.
I have no way to transcend change,
That it must be, I no longer doubt.
I hope you will take my advice:
When wine is offered, don’t refuse.
Shadow to Substance
No use discussing immortality
When just to keep alive is hard enough.
Of course I want to roam in paradise,
But it’s a long way there and the road is lost.
In all the time since I met up with you
We never differed in our grief and joy.
In shade we may have parted for a time,
But sunshine always brings us close again.
Still this union cannot last forever —
Together we will vanish into darkness.
The body goes; that fame should also end
Is a thought that makes me burn inside.
Do good, and your love will outlive you;
Surely this is worth your every effort.
While it is time, wine may dissolve care
That is not so good a way as this.
The Great Potter cannot intervene —
All creation thrives of itself.
That Man ranks with Earth and Heaven,
Is it not because of me?
Though we belong to different orders,
Being alive, I am joined to you.
Bound together for good or ill
I cannot refuse to tell you what I know:
The Three August Ones were great saints
But where are they living today?
Though P’eng-tsu lasted a long time.
He still had to go before he was ready.
Die old or die young, death is the same,
Wise or stupid, there is no difference.
Drunk every day you may forget,
But won’t it shorten your life span?
Doing good is always a joyous thing
But no one has to praise you for it.
Too much thinking harms my life;
Just surrender to the cycle of things,
Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change
Neither happy nor yet afraid.
And when it is time to go, then simply go
Without any unnecessary fuss.
Translation by Angela Jung Palandri, “The Taoist Vision: A Study of T’ao Yuan-ming’s Nature Poetry.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy. 15 (1988): 97-121.
“Travel books or guidebooks are about as ‘natural’ a kind of text, as logical in their composition and in their use, as any book one can think of, precisely because of this human tendency to fall back on a text when the uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity.”
“Many travelers find themselves saying of an experience in a new country that it wasn’t what they expected, meaning that it wasn’t what a book said it would be. And of course many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is more colorful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”
– Orientalism (1978)
There’s no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
You were born to this middleclass life
As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.
From Shorris’s NYT Obituary (6/3/12):
While education policy has leaned in recent decades toward giving students work skills, Mr. Shorris’s idea was to teach what he considered the ultimate skills: reflection and critical thinking, as taught by the humanities. “If the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection,” he wrote in 1997.
“And that is a beginning.” The study of the humanities, he said, is “in itself a redistribution of wealth.”
It was while researching a book published in 1997, New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy, that Mr. Shorris happened upon the vocation that would occupy his last years. He was interviewing inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, N.Y., asking for their opinions on why poor people were poor. One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked “the moral life of downtown” — meaning, she said, exposure to “plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”
“You mean the humanities,” Mr. Shorris replied, surprised by her answer.
“Yes, Earl, the humanities,” she said.
“Ms. Walker’s words triggered an epiphany of sorts, Mr. Shorris wrote in a 1997 Harper’s essay: Poverty was an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money. It was comparable to the experience of people chained to the wall of the cave in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he said: They see shadows on the walls, and assume that is all there is in the world. At the first Clemente Course meeting, “’I passed out their reading assignment. Of course, it was the Allegory of the Cave,’” he wrote.
I only have a few intellectual heros–Adrienne Rich, Ntozake Shange, Robert Hass–and Earl Shorris was maybe the only one who kept me up at night, thinking. I wasn’t raised to have intellectual interests and wasn’t familiar with the “moral life of downtown” until I went to college later (than most) in life.
I treat as a testable claim Shorris’s assertion that ”if the multigenerational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking — reflection … plays, museums, concerts, lectures” and critical thinking, but I’ve yet to encounter a better alternative.
How Shorris launched his presentation to twenty potential applicants for his newly developed humanities course directed toward the poor and disenfranchised in New York City:
You’ve been cheated. Rich people learn the humanities; you didn’t. The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you. I think the humanities are one of the ways to become political … if you want real power, legitimate power, the kind that comes from the people and belongs to the people, you must understand politics. The humanities will help.
From “On (Digital) Photography: Sontag, 34 Years Later”:
Photography is a kingdom of glamour and banality. The photograph, whatever its cultural pedigree, does not so much exalt the everyday as establish the aesthetic parameters, the peaks and troughs, of everydayness. The camera may record astounding events or reveal shocking truths, but always within the context of the ordinary, the literal, the real.
As Roland Barthes put it in “Camera Lucida,” his graceful and disarmingly poignant meditation on the nature of the art, the photograph always says the same thing: “That has happened.” Which means that every photograph is equivalent even as each one is distinct, and that they all capture a precise present and register its conversion into an irretrievable past. Photography is the definitively modern, technologically relentless engine for the mass production of nostalgia. Video may be live, instantaneous, perpetually current, but a still photograph takes up instant residence in the archive. It gives you not the gratifications of immediacy, which moving pictures deliver so readily, but rather a teasing and endlessly seductive sense of distance.
[Barthes] was less troubled by this prospect than Sontag, whose prose, in the final pages of “On Photography,” ripples with alarm. “Images are more real than anyone could have supposed,” she wrote. She warned that our consciousnesses, individual and collective, were in danger of being overwhelmed, our aesthetic and ethical senses dulled and muddled, by an ever-intensifying blizzard of mechanically produced pictures. How would we be able to sort through them all, to decode their messages and judge their merits? How would we know what was real? “We consume images at an ever faster rate,” Sontag observed, and the more we do, the more “images consume reality.”
|“The real subject is yourself facing the world” – Thierry Girard|
Susan Sontag: Ecology of Images
“Images are more real than anyone could have supposed. And just because they are an unlimited resource, one that cannot be exhausted by consumerist waste, there is all the more reason to apply the conservationist remedy. If there can be a better way for the real world to include the one of images, it will require an ecology not only of real things but of images as well.”