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.

Aftermath Inc.

The younger son of the Shah of Iran has shot himself to death. He was forty-four years old.

Pahlavi completed his undergraduate education at Princeton, where he studied music and ethnomusicology and earned a master’s in ancient Iranian studies from Columbia University. He was also working on a Ph.D. from Harvard in ancient Iranian studies and philology.


On West Newton street, a police cruiser idled as three men from the crime scene clean up company, Aftermath Inc., went back and forth from their van into Pahlavi’s house holding plastic buckets and hoses.

A remarkable valedictory…

… by Christiane Amanpour.

He was a very clever man, but in his work he also never lost sight of the moral dimension. He was not a moralist, not by a long shot; but he was a moral man, and he was genuinely committed to using American persuasion and power to lessen the cruelty in the world.

UD’s Pal Peter, on Richard Holbrooke

From a BBC interview:

‘He lived for being in government and doing things… He really put together all the elements of diplomacy. And he produced results…

[Tudjman was an] authoritarian and difficult figure. … [Holbrooke] understood that Tudjman had a very high opinion of himself and he used flattery – a lot of flattery – with Tudjman. Richard Holbrooke used all the tools of the diplomat…

Richard had a really strong moral purpose, and he followed through on that…

He was sympathetic. He understood people have difficulties.’


Tudjman, UD, and La Kid,

visiting Peter in Croatia, 1993.

Richard Holbrooke…

… with whom UD‘s old friend Peter Galbraith worked on the peace accord when Peter was ambassador to Croatia, has died.

Peter always described Holbrooke as so hard-nosed a character that UD wondered how the two of them – Peter and Holbrooke – could be in a room together without the room imploding.

Leslie …

Nielsen has died.

An opera singer, having vocal and professional difficulties…

… kills herself, leaving a last Facebook image of a bloodied hand from Madame Butterfly.

39 year old Roxana Briban chose to leave the world stage in a spectacular way, somehow inspired by the great tragic heroines she embodied on stage… One of the last messages Roxana Briban posted on Facebook is dated Wednesday four minutes before midnight and posts an image with a bloody hand, from Madame Butterfly, a part she … sang in 2008 for the National Opera.

The last messages Roxana posted online are [YouTubes of] Casta Diva from Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, and the staggering finale of Verdi’s La Traviata, where Violetta dies.


Roxana Briban sings.

What does it mean when you kill yourself on a busy morning in the middle of Harvard Yard?

It means you want to make an intellectual spectacle of yourself. You have something urgent to say to the world, a final truth, and you want the world to notice you and what you have to say.

Mitchell Heisman has accomplished this, somewhat. Before shooting himself in the head in front of tourists and students in the Yard, he emailed to hundreds of academics a long manuscript titled Suicide Note.

Although Heisman’s suicide was his own, with his own specific miseries and obsessions, he’s given us something broadly valuable in Suicide Note. Suicide is traumatic and mysterious for the rest of us; when someone about to do himself in writes at length about why, we can profit from it.

I’ve only read the last few chapters of Heisman’s note; they contain the core of his convictions.

I rage at the entire cosmos for having no ultimate meaning.

Heisman’s nihilism was acute, extreme. His super-rationalism insisted that in the absence of any obvious, overarching point to human existence, one might as well end things. He describes, quite tellingly, his experience of “reductionist collapses” – moments in his life when all of the emotions, faiths, myths, and attachments we generate to give ourselves pleasure and purpose crash to bits. With “my analytic tendencies,” Heisman explains, “I could take myself apart in some ways, but I could not put myself back together.”

In a desperate reconstitution-experiment, Heisman begins listening to Bach:

Bach bounds me to the earth enough so that I can function as a living human being. Bach is ground from outside of myself that makes up for the nihilistic lack of ground within myself.

The choice of Bach is significant: Heisman seeks order, narrative, feeling, in a disordered, fluctuating, emotionless cosmos, and Bach is the most ordered of composers.

But Bach – a deeply religious man – doesn’t last long. Heisman’s “unadulterated material objectivity” sees the crutch, the lie, in his consort with Bach. “The progress of reason leads to nihilism,” he concludes; “there is no fundamentally rational basis for choosing life over death.”

Heisman’s hypertrophic rationalism allows him no non-rational or even semi- or weakly-rational basis for existence. He is an intellectual fanatic, demanding all or nothing — a fully meaningful world according to strictly rational laws, or forget about it.

Places like universities – locations packed with people invigorated rather than depleted by analytic tendencies – must be unmasked as the contemptibly false consolations that they are. So you travel to the local pinnacle of human thought – Harvard University – and point your gun at both sources of your misfortune: the life of the mind, and your particular mind.

Until now, UD has never officially declared any American university….

… brain dead. She now officially declares the University of New Mexico brain dead.

Cerebral function slowed badly beginning in 2007, with the hiring of President Dave Schmidly; it deteriorated further a year later, with football coach Mike Locksley.

Surviving on-campus synapses were beaten to a pulp by Mistress Jade.

Ben Teague’s Essay on…

… translating physics is charming, smart, wonderful.

He was one of the three people killed near the University of Georgia yesterday.

UD thanks David for the link.

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