Friday, May 20, 2016

love the one you're with (a commentary on 1 Timothy)

Whoever wrote those letters to Timothy (not
Paul you can be certain) was
a worried man who saw

an Epicurean behind every bush or (worse)
a Gnostic. And he was pretty sure
more than a few

had their hands in both.
People, not things, had gotten
out of hand because his old master

was not inclined to think ahead
and let slip some ideas that had to be
qualified if you were planning to stick around

for a while and didn’t want the whole world
to go to hell in a handbasket. It is
a struggle for the soul

and, like it or not, this is a matter
of politics. That is to say
there is a city

to run, and when
people get out of line
it is sometimes necessary

(he thought) to be pitiless: someone
has to be the adult in the room.

This has me thinking that Jesus (like
Shelley and so many others)
died young. The old,

they say, cannot kill the young
forever. But we
can die

trying. What we need
to be is children

now. And
that bit the king’s men rendered love
of money has me thinking
what we mean

when we say we
and just

how radical
the soul can be.

In the eye of the king’s men,
the root is definite.
And they

do not give a second thought
when they say all

evil. Even a worried man
(like Luke, who knew
it was Paul who
invented this
city) can
play.

How is this day
(un)like every other?

He said the Pharisees were lovers
of money (or so the king’s men
say). But everybody knows
that is not what they
loved. It was

what the king’s men always
call the Law, and that is
a question.

A lover of money is a fool like every
other lover, and you know what they say
about a fool and his money.

It is true that as a rule
every poet is a fool.

So one fool to another: Hell,
Timothy, if you think you
are in charge, play

the fool. And take a long look
at that joke Luke told when
he misremembered

what the Pharisees loved.
Don’t get too close to money,
try a little tenderness, and go easy

on capitals. Make yourself
at home, and never
forget your neighbor is

the one who needs you (and
you have been are now
and ever will be
the one).

©Steven Schroeder

Sunday, May 15, 2016

a conspiracy of poets

Lost in private conversation,
a solitary walker shouts as if he were
a muezzin calling the whole city to prayer.

His handheld is a technology of distance.
I cannot help but think sacred space
is measured by unassisted flight,
the distance breath travels
on air before it is gone.

The collective term for poet is conspiracy,
and I am doing the same, silent,
without the engine of a phone.

©Steven Schroeder

Friday, May 13, 2016

in response to Rustam Singh's "Roots of Violence: Jīva, Life and Other Things"

This post was written in response to Rustam Singh's Roots of Violence: Jīva, Life and Other Things. Singh's article poses and responds to problems with which I have also grappled for a long time in my scholarly work, and I appreciate the clarity with which he addresses them. I encourage you to read his article first and keep it in mind as you read these comments.

1. Life and jīva are inextricably connected: one cannot exist without the other. Jīva extinguishes jīva in order to stay alive, and life extinguishes life to go on living. This, it seems to me, is where Singh locates the roots of violence -- and I find that promising. It doesn't imply (as is sometimes done) that violence is necessary or "natural." It does imply that the roots of violence lie in something that is necessary and "natural." I find this promising because it provides some insight into radical violence and may give some insight into how to uproot it. (I use the term "radical violence" in a way that is analogous to Luther's use of "radical sin." It points to what is at the root of violence and encourages us to get to the bottom of it.)

2. It also seems to me that Singh wants to connect life and jīva without conflating or confusing them. This is tricky, I think, because he seems to want to make both particular and plural. This is pretty straightforward with regard to jīva, less so with regard to life. But I think Singh offers a way forward to the extent that life is process while jīva is vehicle. The combination of the two is necessary for either to exist, and that combination is always particular: we encounter life in jīvas living.

3. That particularity, it seems to me is akin to embodiment (though I don't mean to say it is the same thing). Their kinship lies in being limited, which means that we experience life as a process of coming into being and passing away (even if it is not life but particular manifestations of life that pass away). One might speak of life living, life dying, death living, death dying... Life needs jīva, but which particular jīva is a matter of indifference.

4. I am fascinated by the idea that life is demonic. What I find most important about this is that it locates the demonic inside rather than outside the process of life. It suggests a philosophy of internal relations in which relations are the heart of the matter. Even more importantly, I think, is that it points to the insight (developed in the discussion of the "monstrous") that what makes us human is also what has the potential to make us inhuman -- to demonize. It's a bit like what Walt Kelly's Pogo said: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." (I think this is consistent with Bertell Ollman's reading of Marx as a philosopher of internal relations -- and of his analysis of alienation as a philosophy of internal relations -- but I'll save that conversation for another time.)

5. Singh makes a crucial turn when he asserts that humans think we are different from other jīvas and locates that difference in our ability to think, especially as embodied in language. It seems to me that he lays the groundwork here for his discussion of the "monstrous." What sets us apart as human beings is not thinking (which is something we share with other jīvas) but thinking about thinking that involves both thinking "we" and thinking we are superior. So the roots of violence appear to lie not in thinking ourselves at the center (that too may be common to jīvas) but thinking ourselves superior to other jīvas (who may also think themselves at the center). Everything here turns on what we mean by "we." While it is certainly important to ask whether it is enough to have the ability to think, I think asking it is important mostly because it is indicative of the fact that we do -- or think we do -- and that we think it is. More important, I think, is the question of what we mean by "we" and what that has to do with where we are vis-a-vis this complex structure we call language.

6. The idea that "nonhuman jīvas perform their functions more or less without thinking" speaks volumes about what we mean by "we." Presumably "we" think "they" don't. And we base that at least in part on our observation that they don't narrate their experience (at least in our presence). Given the long history of classifying other others (including other humans) as nonhuman, that is potentially explosive -- and I think we should keep an eye on it as we continue the conversation. (I would also suggest here a point of contact with Bergson's discussion of instinct and intelligence -- particularly as it relates to thinking. We might want to argue, for example, that individual bees don't think but hives do. What that probably means is that we think hives are more like us than bees are -- and that could have practical significance for the way we think about human behavior that is killing bees.)

7. What we do without thinking connects us with other jīvas while what we do reflectively -- with thought -- distinguishes us. But that distinction is not enough (perhaps in part because we may not be the only ones who think we do). What is important, Singh suggests, is "the kind of thinking we do and the direction in which this thinking takes us." In terms borrowed from Pato's Socrates, it is about turning the soul -- or the way the soul is turned.

8. This is entangled with the discussion of "drive" and "habit," which I think we would do well to disentangle. "Drive," it seems, is used to designate an inherent tendency (an innate structure). "Habit," on the other hand, is acquired. I would argue that, while it makes sense to speak of physical constraints, it is problematic to speak of innate structures (including drives). Physical constraints are givens, but tendencies are constructed. When it comes to something like violence, the challenge is to identify processes by which it might be deconstructed. The explicit distinction made here is between what is "natural" and what is "acquired," but I think that is a slippery slope familiar from natural law theory. More promising is the implicit distinction between what is simple and what is complex. Singh maintains that thinking that leads to complex (and "unnatural") acts of violence is disconnected from our life as jīva. It is not the complexity but the disconnection that is of concern -- and that condition of disconnection, it seems to me, is what he refers to as the "monstrous." The definitions of "monstrous" that Singh cites are problematic -- but the point seems to be that action (complex or simple) that is separated from the particularity of life is monstrous. That is interesting.

9. I think it is far too limited to say that a majority of humans carry the potential to become monsters, If Singh is correct in locating the monstrous in ways of thinking that separate action from life, all humans carry the potential. That potential may be as good a way as any to distinguish humans from other jīvas. It is interesting to contemplate the possibility that the "monstrous" is necessarily rooted in the human. The nonhuman, no matter how destructive, is something else.

10. I agree that the list of "ways in which humans behave in a monstrous fashion" contains things that should be condemned. But that is indicative that Singh is "preaching to the choir" when I read this list. It would be more relevant, I think, to identify which of the items on that list would provoke disagreement, with whom, and why. And I think it would be relevant to ask whether there are items on the list that approach universal acceptance. More relevant still would be to look for structural commonalities among the items.

11. And I think it is important to ask whether the increase in population is cause or effect. The point Singh makes is that increase in population exacerbates the monstrousness of these items, and that does suggest a containment strategy. But the experience of China with its "one child" policy exposes some of the limits of such strategies of containment.

12. The comments on consumption seem more promising. There would, of course, be an argument about what constitutes consumption "in excess." But that is an argument worth having, because it might lead to useful ethical and political actions. But the claim that the tendency to consume in excess is a "tendency in human nature" and that the emergence of this tendency is "the most fundamental event in the evolution of human nature" is more problematic. Singh concludes this section by saying the tendency is "almost like a drive." Almost is a crucial qualifier. If it is a "drive," if it is "a tendency in human nature," then it seems our only recourse is containment. If it is "like a drive" or "almost like a drive," we may be dealing with a persistent social structure that has the force of habit -- and that, as John Steinbeck's tenant farmer said of the Dust Bowl, is "a bad thing made by men, and that is something we can change."

13. The discussion of knowledge is equally problematic. The kinds of knowledge we pursue and the aims of "acquiring" knowledge are indisputably important. But it is not at all self evident that knowledge that could be put to destructive use should (or could) be restricted. And the claim that "the desire to acquire knowledge incessantly and indiscriminately" is a "habit" that "looks like a drive" doesn't help -- unless one wants to claim that the desire for knowledge (or "knowledge as desire" as Hans Furth titled his study of Freud and Piaget) is what gives us the potential to become monsters. If that's the point, though, I think we're well on our way to saying that every jīva (or every organism) has the potential to be monstrous. And that may be exactly what we need to say.

14, Here again, the question of what is "natural" and what is "artificial" or "acquired" is problematic -- and the question of what is "excessive" or "not required" even more so. Who makes such a determination? I wonder if Yājñavalkya or Gautama meant to forbid pursuing purposeless knowledge when they forbade misplaced curiosity. Curiosity, they say, killed the cat. But I would suspect that a cat who is not curious is not a well cat. It seems to me that this circles back to the interconnectedness of jīva and life -- and of both with death. What makes us human (to speak of one jīva among others) is what kills us. That may pave the way to thinking more seriously about both limits and direction, both critical questions in addressing violence and dismantling it.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

head and heart

Two things my mother told me
the day before she turned eighty four—

she woke up on her seventy second birthday
with “A Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old”
in her head and five years ago when we
thought she was going to die she
heard a song she did not know
playing again and again.

She could not call it to mind, but
I asked her to hum it if it comes back
to her and send me a recording
so I could write it down.

It will, but she won’t, because
she does not talk to machines.

Her heart doctor asked her if she remembered
when she was bleeding in the hospital and
she said no. She said she remembered
going in and she remembered
waking up: she asked
what that music was we’d been playing.

He thought she’d forgotten, but she told me
she wasn’t there. She was in that song,
and a doctor of the heart (of all
people) should understand
that. He asked about bleeding
because he was changing her medication,

but he had memory in mind, counting backward
from a hundred by threes or some such thing.

One would think where the heart was would matter
most for one who cares for them and what song
is in it when. She says she always has a song
in her head and had always wanted
to work in a flower shop and make hats.

My sister and I drove twenty four hours between us
to bake her a four layer lemon cake
with buttercream icing

and another day in opposite directions
back to our distant lives—and now

in the middle of it, a message on a machine,
word of another death in the family,
and I think I can hear that song.

©Steven Schroeder
[from the moon, not the finger, pointing. Lamar University Press, 2016]
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Sunday, May 01, 2016

revolution now

and then, in medias res, I am
walking meditation on city pavement
and a proliferation of uncertain Springs.

A car heading due north pulls over to the curb and I hear
a woman’s voice say excuse me sir I need to be
going south
through the open window
on the passenger side and, leaning
so I can see the speaker, I say
you need to turn around.

She says I need to get to 55th and Western
55th and Western, right?
and I can see
the question is for the guy sitting
in the back seat while what has
the form of a statement is
an urgent request

for direction directed to me.
I tell her again you need to turn around
and point to 55th Street, two blocks south.
Turn right there and point again to make sure
she sees which way – and drive west. You have
quite a way to go, but it will take you to Western.
Good luck.
The guy in the back seat says thanks and

she drives off and I walk away thinking
I should have told her the road would wind
through a park and cross an expressway and she
would probably think she was lost but
she shouldn’t give up hope.

But having left that unsaid,
I hope they make it. And I am again
walking meditation on city pavement.

Spring is everywhere, it seems,
since some journalist writing about Tunisia
thought to make a cipher of Prague and 1968. Here,

it comes with a stutter step and can scarcely
keep its feet when it steps over cracks
and fissures left by a long winter.

You’d think we’d take a good hard look
at what this pavement was meant to cover
before we called in a crew to smooth it over,
consider the dandelions, how they neither toil
nor reap nor for a moment think money
is speech but hold each other in the light
that slips through every crevice that follows
a change in the weather. They hold each other
in the light, and light themselves, a body of light,
they dig deep in dirt. Like water, they

turn and do what they must do to make a place
where they are standing now, a barricade
of flowers. And then

they die, sure-footed. And then
they come again, like light when
pavement breaks and yet another
Spring comes stumbling over them.

©Steven Schroeder

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ada, Oklahoma

Walking in the middle of the middle
of America there are so few gaps
I mind them with care when
I cross where there is no signal.

South on Texas, no sidewalk. I take a right
and the gutter disappears. I am,
as I know I must be,
in the street.

Young guy in a black Mustang
passes fast, stops on a dime, shifts (still
fast) into reverse, stops beside me,
rolls the window down,

and says, sir, do you want a ride?
I find this touching but say no, I’d rather walk.
He says it’s a beautiful day and adds God bless you.
I say yes it is—and you too, then carry on.

Steps later, I pass a dog on Francis
for the third time, and that is all it takes
for him to consider me no stranger, routine
enough for a silent greeting.

Campus is an island where a bird sings
it’s true it’s true it’s true it’s true again and again
like a tent preacher closing the deal when
it comes time for an altar call.

Back in the street, I cross some invisible barrier
and the houses and the lawns grow larger.
There is a walk wider than Texas
that leads to a park.

Gray goose with a broken wing
waddles over to speak to me
when I sit on the first bench,
but he is distracted
by a raucous crowd
on the other side of the lake
that speaks his language. He shouts back
and they carry on about something
that sounds urgent for a time.

Walking the walk again,
I pass clusters of young girls
speaking Chinese and imagine
I am circling the Jade Lake in Kunming.
All the world is Zhongguo now, John.

Mockingbird lands on the rail
when I cross a footbridge,
looks me in the eye,
says nothing.

Seems, for now, we
may both be,
on the way,
home.

©Steven Schroeder

Thursday, April 21, 2016

just politics...

Politics is worn as thin by mindless repetition as by abstraction. We are awash in practices that go without saying, up to our ears in theories that do nothing but. When something goes without saying, it is safe to say it goes unchallenged. While it is safe to say it goes unchallenged, challenging it by saying may not be. To say it goes unchallenged is to theorize an other’s practice—or one’s own practice as the practice of an other—a practice itself, that places what an other does, puts an other in his or her place. To challenge, which takes place, one must take a stand. Both take place in placing...

It is the word that is worn thin by repetition—both the repetition of the word and the repetition of the practice (which is, by the way, a repetition of an act) it names. Repetition of the name of the repetition of the act wears the name, the practice, and the designated act repeated thin.

When someone says “that’s just politics,” it strikes me the same way as “he’s only human.” I think I understand the idioms, but I always want to say “if only she were more human, if only it were more just...”

In writing, I ended with an ellipsis. Did you hear it? And I might have chosen to stress only, or to stress more in both cases...

Ellipsis indicates something unsaid, something that will go without saying. Because it will go without saying, it will, in practice, mean saying nothing. And that, as John Cage reminded us, is poetry, if we say it now.

And therein lies a clue: here, the plot thickens.

When I say politics (both the word and the practice it designates) is worn thin, I mean that it too narrowly circumscribes both the semantic range of the word and the sphere of the action it designates.

Together, if only he were more human, if only it were more just, rivet our attention on the sphere of human justice—which we know from our reading of Greek literature as the polis. Our encounter with Greek thinking leads us to think this the place where humanity is possible. In this place, we may be human. In this place, humanity takes place. It is the place of which we speak when we say “political,” and it is the place wherein we act when we do politics. This is properly circular: saying is a kind of doing, and doing is a kind of saying.

If Plato’s Socrates is correct, we must ask whether and when this saying and doing is just politics. When we draw the circle too close, we wear politics thin. Poetry, on edge, is in the right place to thicken it...

©Steven Schroeder
[from What's Love Got To Do With It? a city out of thin air. Lamar University Press, 2016]
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