Monday, May 15, 2017

Thomas Traherne 1636-1674

Last week I discovered Thomas Traherne, the English priest, poet, and essayist.  If - and its a big if - there is a new consciousness being born on the edge of ruin, he is one of its most luminous and strange ancestors.  


It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable. For he hath a Benefactor so prone to give, that He delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours? Do you not covet all? Do you not long to have it; to enjoy it; to overcome it? To what end do men gather riches, but to multiply more? Do they not like Pyrrhus, the King of Epire, add house to house and lands to lands; that they may get it all? It is storied of that prince, that having conceived a purpose to invade Italy, he sent for Cineas, a philosopher and the King’s friend: to whom he communicated his design, and desired his counsel. Cineas asked him to what purpose he invaded Italy? He said, to conquer it. And what will you do when you, have conquered it? Go into France, said the King, and conquer that. And what will you do when you have conquered France? Conquer Germany. And what then? said the philosopher. Conquer Spain. I perceive, said Cineas, you mean to conquer all the World. What will you do when you have conquered all? Why then said the King we will return, and enjoy ourselves at quiet in our own land. So you may now, said the philosopher, without all this ado. Yet could he not divert him till he was ruined by the Romans. Thus men get one hundred pound a year that they may get another; and having two covet eight, and there is no end of all their labour; because the desire of their Soul is insatiable. Like Alexander the Great they must have all: and when they have got it all, be quiet. And may they not do all this before they begin? Nay it would be well, if they could be quiet. But if after all, they shall be like the stars, that are seated on high, but have no rest, what gain they more, but labour for their trouble? It was wittily feigned that that young man sat down and cried for more worlds to conquer. So insatiable is man, that millions will not please him. They are no more than so many tennis-balls, in comparison of the Greatness and Highness of his Soul.


Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.

Centuries of Meditation

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Rojava update

Rojava is probably the most fascinating, unlikely thing going on in the great big world right now.   I can hardly believe that it's a real thing, and not a fairy-tale - a scary, amazing fairy-tale of women taking up arms against ISIS amidst all the danger and destruction of Syria. 
Here's the latest from the Guardian.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Cloud of Unknowing

Look up now, feeble creature, and see what you are.  
- The Cloud of Unknowyng, anonymous, 14th c.

What do we know?
Honestly, almost nothing really useful.
We know a lot about exploiting each other and the environment, how to make war and entertainment, how to construct bubble worlds and get lost in them.  We know a lot about all of that and it's all short-term stuff.
How to live honestly, clear-sightedly - we know almost nothing about that.
It's making us crazy.
If we've made any real progress at all (and it's very uneven), it's that we know that we don't know, even if we don't want to admit it.
It's making us crazy not admitting that we don't know how to live.
It's hard to remember, to keep clear about, because we just get carried along.
To succeed in the short-term, forget about the long-term.
Doesn't that sum it up?  The trap that we keep falling into.
Almost everything we think we know is just rubbish.
"mistaken ideas that were preventing man from using his brains."
A whole lot of that.
It's pretty funny.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Obscure Charm of Civilization: Rene Magritte on Descartes

Descartes's work, exciting as it was when it first appeared, is now merely used as an antiquated reference system for academic philosophers, when it is hardly more than an elegant example of the art of writing. But Descartes did have the audacity to try to rid the human mind of mistaken ideas that were preventing man from using his brains.  Descartes made use of the "material" of his times - i.e. God and the existence of the real physical world - as subjects for intelligent meditations.  While on the one hand exerting the intelligence was valuable, on the other, the unsatisfactory "material" at his disposal could only produce a miserable result, such as the logical proof of the real existence of the physical world.   Rene Magritte, Selected Writings, trans. Jo Levy (2016)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On migration, invasive species, and the concept of enough

I am the product of two very different economic-cultural-political migrations of people meeting in Ka'u.  My mother, who is from upstate New York and of Northern European descent (mostly English and Dutch), came to Hawaii as an elementary school teacher.  As the single mother of a mixed race child, she was very consciously searching for a multi-cultural, tolerant place in the United States where she could raise her child.  Here she met my father who is the descendant of people imported by the sugar plantation from the Philippines as agricultural labor.  His parents had worked long and patiently in field and mill to provide college educations to their children.

Of course both of the migrant groups represented in my parents moved into a physical and cultural space of decimation.  The native Hawaiian culture and its people that had existed here for centuries had been nearly destroyed by aggressive economic and political forces that came with European explorers, missionaries, and whalers, and by the Old World epidemic diseases that they carried with them. If the native Hawaiians or other native people had been more suspicious of outsiders could they   prevented some of the destruction visited upon them? Perhaps, but it might have meant succumbing to the worst in themselves - aggression, violence, hate.

Although relatively light compared to the impact of Western culture, the arrival of the Polynesian explorers and settlers with their canoe plants and animals also caused serious environmental impacts and was responsible for the extinction of many species. Even before that, in the time before humans ever found these remote islands, there were earlier species of plants and animals that were over-run by later arrivals.  On a long enough timeline our human self-obsession vanishes in a puff of insignificant smoke.  We're no different than the little fire-ants or purple miconia or coqui frogs that we love to lament and decry and attempt to exterminate.

Today the French are holding the first round of a presidential election in which the issues of cultural and ethnic purity and priority are a defining factor, as they were in the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump.  Who gets to migrate where? Who gets to define what borders? Who gets to live where?  Who makes the decisions and on what criteria?  What is the carrying capacity of an area and who gets to decide that? These are the brutal questions that are being asked at this moment.

On the one hand this brutality is un-necessary at this point in time because with even a slight decrease in wastefulness we can well afford for any of the seven billion humans on this earth to find a place to live away from war and drought.  On the other hand, even if we were to make that slight change in how we do civilization there will come a day when there are flat out too many humans everywhere.  We are a very aggressive invasive species.  We reproduce too easily and we live too long and we consume too much.

We in the US especially have forgotten the concept of Enough that older, less technological cultures, especially those on islands or in arid environments, had to learn.  What is enough - what are the limits?  How do we live and work within those limits?

Instead we always want more.  More money, more stuff, more beauty, more time, more power, more influence, more business, more market-share.  This is not to say that the older cultures were perfect and that we must "go back" to their ways, as if that were even possible.  It is simply to recognize that they do have something to teach about finding the place of enough.

In a sense, the concept of enough is at play in todays election in France in that it is a referendum on migration.  But whether or not we can hold artificial nation-state borders with walls, weaponry and deportations is a brutal, simple-minded and temporary formulation of the concept.  Whatever walls we built on our borders will be built inside ourselves as well.  Whoever we exclude becomes a monster in the dungeon.  Enough should not be about closing doors.  Enough should be about learning to live within the limits of place and planet. That is the long, difficult, perilous journey in which we are all migrants no matter who we are and where we live.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Rosa Brooks, Badass Defense Policy Chick

Little wonder, then, that “the international community” struggles to respond effectively to the challenges posed by “failed” states. From the perspective of an alien observer from another planet, the “international community” of the planet earth would surely appear like a failed state writ large; it has proven consistently unable to control the violence of powerful actors (whether states or non state entities such as terrorist organizations), control environmental catastrophes such as climate change; remedy astronomically large economic inequities between individuals and societies, constrain the devastating scramble to exploit the earth’s dwindling natural resources, or address crises such as global epidemics.
Just as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are fractured into numerous competing ethnic and religious groups dominated by warlords and other regional power brokers, the international order still better resembles a Hobbesian struggle for survival than a coherent system of governance. If there is some sense in which all the world’s people constitute a society (and why not insist on that, in this era of globalization and human rights?), it is hard not to conclude that the international community is simply a failed state on a global scale.

Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2015)

Rosa Brooks just kinda kicked me in the butt. I have to admit that when I read about the Middle East/North Africa there's a part of me that says: "Well, thank whatever, I don't live there, it's far away, they've been fighting at least since the end of WWI and what can I do?" But Rosa Brooks says: "Wake the hell up, hello? Airplanes? Internet? Global trade networks? It's one world and we just have to deal with that fact whether or not the mere idea of a global government gets your panties in a twist or not."
Being an American rancher, I do know quite a few people, who, although fine individuals on a person to person basis, do get panicky at the mere idea of a global government. And I understand some of their fears: a global government evokes visions of more urbane suit-wearers and "cultural creatives" who don't understand the brute realities of agriculture or the other lowly extractive occupations and who are basically living off the sweat of our brows while making up all the rules and norms (and accumulating all the QE money.) I get it.
But that kind of resentment is short-sighted, to put it nicely.
"It's never to late to be brave." Rosa Brooks again. Brave enough to look straight at the fact that we are one society and have been for some time. And the sooner we act like one society, the less of a failed state we'll make for ourselves and our kids.

It's an excellent book, that I never would have read if I didn't have a completely awesome though tiny (about the size of a shipping container) local library.  Which, right there, is a small, mundane, miraculous example of what a successful society looks like.

Friday, March 31, 2017

I almost missed March all together

I've been tangling with weird post-concussive after-affects.  My taste and smell have got all messed up.  For most of March I've had the taste of gasoline and ashes in my mouth.  At random levels of intensity.  Which is distracting.
At first I thought there was something wrong with my mouth, like I had a gum infection maybe.  But it would come and go.  And was worse when I was under stress, for instance sleep deprivation.    So I realized it was my brain.  I checked the internet, and, yup, it's a thing.
Most all intense smells and tastes get translated into that one taste/smell: somewhere between ammonia, gasoline, and ashes.  My daughter postulated that I'd got banged out of the Matrix and so was taste/smelling the world as it actually is.  Which is not true's not that kind of world.  At least not yet. It's still riotously multi-smellular.  Hopefully it will always be.