The Graves of Academe

The University of Mississippi keeps discovering mass graves on its property. They seem to have been the unmarked burials of various groups of people. For instance, inmates at a mental asylum that used to be on the land.

“[T]hose buried on the plot could [also] include tuberculosis patients, former slaves, and Civil War casualties.”

It’s a complex, delicate, and expensive problem. The university had wanted to build a parking lot on this land (that’s why they’d been digging); those plans are now shelved as administrators consider how to deal respectfully with the bodies.

In memory of Truman Capote’s best …

interpreter.

Jeet Thayil’s The Heroin Sestina.

***************

What was the point of it? The stoned
life, the chased, snorted, shot life. Some low
comedy with a cast of strangers. Time
squashed flat. The 1001 names of heroin
chewed like language. Nothing now to know
or remember but the dirty taste

of it, and the names: snuff, Death, a little taste,
H — pronounce it etch —, sugar, brownstone,
scag, the SHIT, ghoda gaadi, #4 china, You-Know,
garad, god, the gear, junk, monkey blow,
the law, the habit, material, cheez, heroin.
The point? It was the wasted time,

which comes back lovely sometimes,
a ghost sense say, say that hard ache taste
back in your throat, the warm heroin
drip, the hit, the rush, the whack, the stone.
You want it now, the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it. Itch this blind toad taste.
When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill? Why not leave it with the time-
keep, asleep at the bar? Try a little taste
of something sweet that a sweet child will adore, low

in the hips where the aches all go. Allow
me in this one time and I’ll give you heroin,
just a taste
to replace the useless stuff you know.
Some say it comes back, the time,
to punish you with the time you killed, leave you stone

sober, unknowing, the happiness chemical blown
from your system, unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time.

*****************

Let’s walk (drift?) through it, thinking about heroin.

First: a sestina! Note the repeated final words from stanza to stanza (with a few variations): heroin, taste, know, low, time, stone. Circling around again and again to those words conveys the obsessive ritual nature of the addiction dance itself, the getting-nowhere, time squashed flat, everything you know flattened to a thin white line recurrency of using. But also: Our sense as we read of the mental burdens the form imposes gives us access to the oppressive intellectual puzzle that generates the poem itself: Why would anyone inject heroin? Low, dirty, Death, junk, wasted…

Or, as Jeff Deeny writes:

The addicting substance is characterized as “cunning, baffling and powerful.” It sounds like a cliché until someone with more than two decades clean, with a beautiful family and a career that is the envy of the world trades it in for a glassine envelope of dope and a set of works.

The speaker of the poem, a former user still drawn – by the mere invocation of the word heroin – to the drug, poses the question. Why trade death for life? So the poem is a typical lyric in that it represents one musing consciousness questioning (insistently, repeatedly, and not very productively; hence the sestina choice) itself. Why did I do that? Why do I still want to?

The bizarre but familiar answer the poem provides is that a lot of people really like – adore – feeling dead. They find irresistibly seductive the idea of Stop the World I Want to Get Off. If you are astounded by something as massive as propofol – a drug “used exclusively by anesthesiologists” being in Michael Jackson’s blood, you should consider that fatal doses of propofol are the logical extension – given enough money and the capacity to find ways around rules – of the I Want to Be Dead idea.

Time squashed flat. Wasted time.

the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it.


… When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill?

Sisyphean life is one damn thing after another. Pushing the stone up the hill. A meaningless suffering that simply persists – deepens – until time ends it with our physical deaths. But if we end time? Heroin takes us into a strange micro and macro reality: It reduces everything in the world to itself, its thin white line, the immediacy for the user of the particular works he’s manipulating when he’s using. But heroin at the same time expands the universe out to infinity. It takes away our small painful one stone after another wretchedly individual lives and gives us instead a skull in which the flame of time and the self has been radically lowered, to the point where, subdued as specific suffering time-bound beings, our immortal souls (if you like) rise to the ether of the cosmic, the infinite, the non-human. Heroin isn’t death; it’s the glorious sensation of liberating oneself into non-being. As in Doris Lessing’s story To Room Nineteen:

delightfully, darkly, sweetly, letting herself slide gently, gently, to the edge of the river

So sweet is the thick amaze, the user risks being

unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time

Tom Perkins Was Just One Asshole Too Many.

Captain Kristallnacht kills Pete.

“Another issue was his use of a corporate plane to attend University of Georgia football games.”

Good ol’ Bert. University of Georgia through and through.

“I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”

MIT’s president sends an email to the school in the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s suicide.

It was at MIT that Swartz illegally downloaded millions of JSTOR articles; and while JSTOR itself chose not to press charges, “U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann, backed by Federal government, continued to pursue the prosecution of Swartz, with the tacit support of MIT behind them.”

“But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years.”

The suicide of a 26-year-old principled hacker (if you can be that) has people speculating. They speculate that because he was facing prosecution for hacking into JSTOR and liberating scads of academic papers he became fatally depressed. No doubt being incredibly young and facing a serious trial whose outcome might be jail time undermined him; but he had a history of depression as well.

*********************

From the New York Times:

In 2007, Mr. Swartz wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from the emotion of sadness. “Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.” When the condition gets worse, he wrote, “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.” Earlier that year, he gave a talk in which he described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career.

A Kafkaesque Suicide

Serbia’s ambassador to NATO had reportedly been “chatting and joking with colleagues” at Brussels Airport when he “suddenly strolled to a barrier, climbed over and jumped over, one diplomat said.” Apparently no one saw any evidence of depression or anxiety.

In “The Judgment,” George Bendemann has an upsetting conversation with his elderly father, after which

He leapt out the front door, driven across the roadway to the water. He was already clutching the railings the way a starving man grasps his food. He swung himself over, like the outstanding gymnast he had been in his youth, to his parents’ pride. He was still holding on, his grip weakening, when between the railings he caught sight of a motor coach which would easily drown out the noise of his fall. He called out quietly, “Dear parents, I have always loved you nonetheless” and let himself drop.

The suddenness, and of course the phrase the way a starving man grasps his food, account for the disturbing surreality of the passage. With his other story, “The Hunger Artist,” in mind, one is brought to consider the possibility that it’s death after which one hungers. Paul Valery, in his poem, “Graveyard by the Sea,” talks about “the wild addiction not to be.” There are more of these seemingly motiveless suicides than you might think.

In the case of Branislav Milinkovic, as in many other such cases, something will perhaps emerge: A hopeless alcohol addiction; looming bankruptcy or other even worse legal problems; the recent loss of someone deeply loved; having recently been told that you’re suffering from a terrible disease… Or a sudden overwhelming psychotic break, whatever that might mean…

There’s one other possibility, and this goes to the way he chose (if we can speak of choosing) to kill himself: In front of his colleagues, including senior colleagues. Had one of them just told him he was fired?

Obviously, to traumatize the people you’re standing with suggests hostility, vengeance…

***************************

UPDATE: He had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

Like Tim Russert, Lisa Johnstone…

… is becoming a symbol of the American propensity to work too hard. Recall what Ted Koppel said of Russert’s sudden heart attack:

“I think we need to learn something from this. You can’t work people 20 hours a day, month after month after month after month, without some kind of consequences,” Ted Koppel, the former “Nightline” anchor, said on CNN Friday night. “I don’t know what it was that was wrong with Tim. I don’t know why Tim died. But all I can say is that man worked too hard.”

Johnstone, a young lawyer who reportedly worked 80 and sometimes 100-hour weeks, was found dead a few months ago at home, in the midst of long hours of working. Autopsy results are inconclusive, but a sudden heart attack is a possibility, and plenty of observers are speculating that she worked herself to death.

It’s rare that a university president inspires a Shakespearean quotation.

[T]hanks to reporters at the Star Tribune, we get a glimmer of how tax dollars get spent at the University [of Minnesota]: stories of $2.8 million of executive salaries given by departing President Bob Bruininks to administrators on leave who never intended to come back. And we now learn that Bruininks himself is entitled to a 12-month $455,000 salary while on leave “for the purpose of assisting him on his return to the faculty.” Parting is such sweet sweet sorrow.

***********************

UD thanks Michael.

His prophetic soullessness

“I’m just going by my gut. I shook the guy’s hand, looked him in the eye and he has no soul. I don’t see a conviction. I don’t see a leader. I feel like I’m talking to a robot. I’ve talked to all the other candidates and none of them gave me the vibe that Gingrich did. He is not a guy you want to go have a beer with.” – Judd Saul, a Tea Party member and GOP activist from Black Hawk County.

Are the eyes the window of the soul? Even National Review this morning is warning its readers off Gingrich.

Yet what does this man mean by soul?

His use of the word robot suggests that for him soul is the vital, authentic essence, the human core, of a person. It’s Kane’s Rosebud – a radical innocence that survives worldly corruption.

UD’s Blogpal, Tenured Radical…

reflects on the tenth anniversary of September 11.

For UD, mindful of Iris Murdoch –

For most of us, for almost all of us, truth can be attained, if at all, only in silence. It is in silence that the human spirit touches the divine.

– days like this are about attending to the drawn-out si…….lences of Henry Purcell.

But UD is also moved by this:

Elijah Portillo, 17, whose father was killed in the attack, said he had never wanted to attend the anniversary because he thought he would feel angry. But this time was different, he said.

“Time to be a big boy,” Elijah said. “Time to not let things hold you back. Time to just step out into the world and see how things are.

Be silent. Then step out and begin to talk.

The sprightly violin. The distinctly speaking flute. Tis sympathy you draw.

Amy Winehouse has died.

A gifted writer and singer, she tried but failed to overcome drug and alcohol addiction.

UD thanks David for letting her know.

*************************************

From a Jon Pareles essay:

Ms. Winehouse has often sung about harmful appetites, not just in “Rehab” but in “Addicted” (about a freeloading pot smoker) and in “Back to Black,” in which she sings, “You love blow and I love puff/And life is like a pipe.” Back when the album was released, it sounded as if she already had some wry perspective. She didn’t have to get any more “real” than that… [Why did Winehouse let] someone shoot video, in a private setting, of her puffing [a crack] pipe …? Maybe it’s some version of “keepin’ it real,” the fallacy that insists art must be autobiographical to be worthwhile, as if art were documentation rather than storytelling. Maybe it’s obliviousness, although, since the camera followed her around, she was likely to know it was there. Maybe she mistakenly trusted that whoever made the video would resist another temptation: the potential profit to be made providing it to a tabloid.

Perhaps Ms. Winehouse misunderstood what should be clear in the age of the Internet: Everything recorded can be duplicated and distributed. And possibly the video was, in its own bleary way, a kind of performance. She is keeping her audience informed if not exactly entertained.

Boxed Treat

A puzzled Protestant in James Joyce’s “The Dead” tries to understand the morbid ways of monks:

He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.

“That’s the rule of the order,” said Aunt Kate firmly.

“Yes, but why?” asked Mr. Browne.

Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all. Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear for Mr. Browne grinned and said:

“I like that idea very much but wouldn’t a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?”

“The coffin,” said Mary Jane, “is to remind them of their last end.”

This phrase, their last end, returns in the final sentence of the story, as its main character suddenly feels, in a way he never has before, the reality of his own, and others’, deaths:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Or say he feels not so much the physical immediacy of personal dissolution as the snowflake-like delicacy, the fragile tentativeness, of any life… So that the coffin-lying monks don’t seem all that odd, acquainting themselves in this way with the quiet dark that underlies our lives.

I thought of Joyce’s story this morning as I read about a Korean professor who offers classes in therapeutic coffin-lying. She explains:

“The top cause of death for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s [in Korea] is suicide. These people are the working age group … [The seminar] can change the meaning of one’s life and give a chance to know oneself.”

Indeed Korea has a very serious suicide problem… And since it does seem to be the case among some young suicides that they do it because they don’t really believe death is death, as it were, it might make sense to get them closer to its reality… If lying in a coffin for a few moments does anything like this…

But Professor Kang Kyung-ah clearly has a greater epiphany in mind here, a moment of clarity about the meaning of life which allows you to climb out of the coffin and live joyously and authentically.

There are other versions of therapeutic, or spiritual, coffin-lying, almost all of them carrying this same assumption that descending into being dead is a way of reascending into being alive.

It’s an intriguing literalization of Heidegger’s being-towards-death idea, the idea that we can’t live authentic lives until we’ve come to authentic grips with our last end. Simon Critchley summarizes it:

[F]reedom consists in the affirmation of the necessity of one’s mortality. It is only in being-towards-death that one can become the person who one truly is. …[T]he acceptance [of] one’s mortal limitation [is] the basis for an affirmation of one’s life… It is only in relation to being-towards-death that I become passionately aware of my freedom [and am thus enabled to live an authentic life].

The Buried Life, Part Two

See Part One, here.

Prompted by the recital of part of Matthew Arnold’s poem, The Buried Life, at a memorial event for Richard Holbrooke, I wrote earlier about one way of defining a meaningful life. A meaningful life would be one you’ve made meaningful, in your own way; and one you’ve understood in terms of the coherence of those self-generated meanings.

Although Arnold’s poem begins as the speaker’s plea to his lover to stop, for a time, their fond but empty chatter, and get serious –

Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

– it’s really his own inmost soul the speaker’s after. The rest of the poem traces the poet’s frustrated attempts to unearth his own “hidden self,” his “soul’s subterranean depth,” so that he can know the truth of his being, and thus know the motive and shape of his life.

*************************************

But what’s the profit? Philip Larkin poses this question in one of his most famous poems, “Continuing to Live.” So you’ve been able, with stupendous effort, to uproot your deepest self. You finally, as the days wane, perceive who you are, and why your life was the way it was. You’ve illuminated, for yourself, your particular character and fate story. So what?

… [O]nce you have walked the length of your mind, what

You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

We’re at the place Wallace Stevens called the palm at the end of the mind, the place you get to when you’ve walked the full length of yourself; or, in Arnold’s metaphor, when you’ve dug down to the very bottom. But you’ve disinterred a purely contingent object, applying only to one man once, and that one dying.

***************************************

Richard Rorty thinks Larkin has made a fundamental mistake:

[Larkin's mistake is to want a] ‘blind impress’ which applie[s] not only to ‘one man once,’ but, rather, to all human beings. Think of finding such an impress as being the discovery of the universal conditions of human existence, the great continuities, the permanent, ahistorical context of human life … [These conditions would be] necessary, essential, telic, constitutive of what it is to be a human. [If they exist, they will] give us a goal, the only possible goal, namely, the full recognition of that very necessity…

Traditional philosophers, Rorty writes, were “going to explain to us the ultimate locus of power, the nature of reality, the conditions of the possibility of experience. They would thereby inform us what we really are, what we are compelled to be by powers not ourselves. [The point of our lives would be] the … self-consciousness of our essence.”

Rorty goes on to say that philosophers in the wake of Nietzsche have seen “self-knowledge as self-creation…. [A] human life [is] triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingencies of its existence and finds new descriptions.” Larkin’s churlish conclusion, then, derives from his demand that there be universal and established, rather than contingent and new, truths.

***************************************

As to the value of those contingent truths to a larger world of human beings, here’s what Alexander Nehamas, writing about the centrality of the experience of beauty for the creation of a self and a life, argues:

[I]ndividuality and distinctiveness presuppose coherence and unity; without them, nothing can stand on its own as an object either of admiration or of contempt. If there are discernable in my aesthetical choices, in what I have found beautiful, in what I have in turn found of beauty in it, in the various groups to which my choices have led me, in what I received from them, and what I in turn had to give them – if my choices both fit with one another and also stand out from the rest, then I have managed to put things together in my own manner and form. I have established, through the things I loved, a new way of looking at the world, and left it richer than I first found it.

The Buried Life: Part One

In his remarks at Richard Holbrooke’s memorial ceremony today, the President said this:

Like the country he served, Richard contained complexities. So full of life, he was a man both confident in himself and curious about others, alive to the world around him with a character that is captured in the words of a Matthew Arnold poem that he admired. “But often, in the din of strife, there rises an unspeakable desire after the knowledge of the buried life; a thirst to spend our fire and restless force in tracking our true, original course; a longing to inquire into the mystery of this heart which beats so wild, so deep in us — to know whence our lives come and where they go.”

It’s a curious choice of poem for Holbrooke, a man of incessant action, with little time for the hushed introspection Arnold’s evoking. Holbrooke’s premature death, rather like the death of Tim Russert (“That man worked too hard,” said Ted Koppel.), seems the almost foreordained end of a tense, hard-charging, public life. He spent his fire and restless force tracking the course of wars. Arnold’s poem, titled “The Buried Life,” is about what’s under public life and global events, what lies beneath one’s public persona and activities; it’s about being very quiet and trying very hard to figure out who you, in particular, authentically are.

If, Arnold writes, we can attain “the deep recesses of our breast,” we can perhaps perceive the otherwise “unregarded river of our life,” the silently pulsing deepest reason for our being. (“[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”)   If we can turn fully away from the distractions of social life, to a place where the “eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,” we might be able to see the truth of who we are, the foundational sources of our particular selves, as well as the truth of why we are the way we are, why we are living – have lived – our particular life:

… A man becomes aware of his life’s flow…

And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

*****************************************

In his memoir, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean takes Arnold’s unregarded river and runs with it. He makes the lines I’ve just quoted from Arnold his book’s epigraph.

Maclean’s entire life, his deepest, buried life, takes place along the shore of a river in Montana; his life consists of him standing on the river’s edges, or wading in, in various fly fishing attitudes, with his brother and his father.

Recognizing that this is his core identity, Maclean spends most of his book regarding intensely, again and again, the ecstasy, grace, and enigma of that true original watercourse, that life-defining setting. He is fully aware of his life’s flow, the way in which everything in his life stems from that river. And so his memoir persistently returns to the river whose backdrop is the hills where his life rose.

We can be more precise about the course of Maclean’s life as he perceives it: All of the bends in his existence have in some important sense been efforts to recapture the purity, clarity, passion, and perfection of that original river, that baptismal, vivacious, blessing. His death – the sea where his life goes – will be the oceanic dissolution of his river.

Maclean’s memoir is beautiful because it is hopeful; and it is hopeful because he has been able to sink inward and see what he was, what he is, and what he will be. He has been able to confer coherence on his life by finding a language and an imagery and a narrative that fully contain it.

We can put this more simply. Maclean has achieved a meaningful life, and that meaning is his own, discovered by him, through the process of living.

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