Category Archives: beauty

The truth and diamonds

The truth is precious.  So are diamonds.

Both can shine brilliantly, sparkling in the light to dazzle your eyes, making young couples blush with happiness and pride.  Like the truth, diamonds aren’t nearly as rare as their market value would indicate.  Both can be found with ease when you know where to look.  Every once in a while, someone stumbles on a massive diamond in the plain light of day, just one more rock in the landscape until a chance encounter sets it apart. No small amount of truth is discovered in the same way.  What sets these discoverers apart from the rest of us is as often as not luck.

The truth and diamonds leave two trails, one of bliss and hope, the other of blood and cruelty.  More banal than ironic, this is the way of the universe.  The same truth that turns a God of peace into a God of war also turns simple assumptions about fairness into human rights.

What happens when beauty and ugliness form a bond so tight that they become inseparable?  The trouble with the truth and diamonds is that they can lead you anywhere.  What really matters is where you want to go.

Notes and Credits

The opening photograph of the Hope Diamond is by Chip Clark, who passed away on June 12, 2010, away after 35 years as a photographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.  Mr. Clark’s beautiful photographs of gems, animals, birds, and other things can be found all over the web.

The Hope Diamond is surrounded by legend.  It seems that most who have possessed it have come to tragic ends.  It is currently owned by the United States of America and is on display at the Smithsonian.

The playing cards were photographed by the author, from a miniature travel deck for Patience (Solitaire) given to me in 1992 by Professor Raymond Grew, a mentor of mine in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

It should be noted that the truth also grows more precious with time, the simple truths of youth seeming to appear ever more complex and enduring as time goes along, much like the songs of Neil Diamond and just about everything touched by Johnny Cash.

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The truth and fearlessness

Macha Chmakoff, Daniel et l'ange dans la fosse

My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.

Daniel 6:23

Of those who are fearless, there two kinds:  the reckless and the serene.

The reckless attract more followers, for they are dashing and dramatic.  Yet that which is dramatic is also sloppy and careless.  The reckless laugh in the face of danger, but only because doing anything else would seem lifeless and limp.  The reckless cannot appreciate the little things, nor can they understand the subtle, warm moments in between danger, fear, excitement and ecstasy.  They see and feel only in extremes and abandon all judgment in between.  They search out life at the margins where few dare to go or dwell and in this they seem like heroes, but they are not.  Heroes can understand triumph in sadness, and they always know where they are.  The reckless, by comparison, are lost.

I—I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)

Fearless Heroes

The serene can be heroes.  They know where they are and what they want.  They are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, and they do so regardless of the odds of success or failure.  They are not reckless because they endanger no one but themselves.  They accept the risk even as they try to minimize it because they are as simply human as the rest of us and they do fear death and pain and suffering.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds

Heroes who are fearless and serene become vessels for a love larger than they are.  They seek nothing from their actions but to be made even more whole in the act of giving to another.  St. Francis of Assisi—once a street brawler, solider, and libertine—found his calling in service to the poor and in love for the animals.  He became the friend of all those in harm’s way, the trampled upon, oppressed, and marginal.   The prayer of St. Francis puts all of this in simple verse.  We used to sing it in church when I was a child.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
where there is hatred, let me sow love
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope

where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy.

O Master, grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console
to be understood, as to understand
to be loved, as to love
for it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Modern Heroes

Padre Bruno Secchi and Pastora Rosa Marga Rothe—he a Catholic priest and she a Lutheran Minister—are both human rights workers in Brazil. I met them in 1992, as I was beginning fieldwork for research on social movements and politics.

Padre Bruno came to Brazil in 1964 and in 1970 founded the República of Emaús, a ministry with street children.  Emaús has just celebrated its 40th anniversary and is still going strong.  Padre Bruno’s work is dedicated to creating the space and opportunity for street children to grow into productive, happy people.  It is humble work, dedicated not to changing these children but to allowing them to find their potential and calling in life.  Emaús in Belem was a part of the worldwide movement that eventually resulted in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989.  The CRC is a milestone on the path to a better world, appointing the rights of the child in the world we would like to have, not the world we know right now.

Rosa Marga I have written about already, in the Tamba-Tajá stories.  She teaches and practices liberation theology, the interpretation of Jesus’s life and works as a message of liberation for the oppressed and marginalized of the world.  She has been a leader in the women’s movement in Brazil and Belém.  From 1997 to 2005, she was the Ombudswoman for the State Police in Pará, responsible for representing and investigating claims against corruption, brutality, or human rights violations by the police.  In this position, she received international recognition.  She and her family took me in as a friend.  There is always much joy in her house.

Giotto, "St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man"

In 2004, along with my colleague Sasha Abramsky, I once again interviewed Padre Bruno and Rosa Marga for my work as a researcher.  Afterwards, I reflected on what I had learned from them over all these years.  I was struck by their constancy in the face of overwhelming odds.  They work for the small victories and see joy in every one, rather than the long road left.  Serenity, I thought, is what makes them so effective and compelling.  Without serenity, they would not be able to endure the suffering that their struggles have brought them personally.  Without serenity they would not be able to bring young people into adulthood with hope, promise, and love.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer” at some point in the 1930s.  It has been widely adopted by many who struggle with changing themselves in a world that resists change.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

What is remarkable about people like St. Francis, Padre Bruno, and Rev. Rosa Marga, is that the “wisdom to distinguish the one from the other” leads them to take on the most enduring and difficult challenges of all.  That is real heroism.

Notes and Credits

The opening image is “Daniel et l’ange dans la fosse” (“Daniel and the Angel in the Pit”) by Macha Chmakoff (www.chmakoff.com), a contemporary painter who has an extensive set of works in Biblical themes and images.  The original painting is oil on canvas, 52″ x 39″ (130 x 97 cm).  Ms. Chmakoff is a psychoanalyst and painter who has been exhibited across France and has gained international noteriety for her paintings.  The image was provided by Ms. Chmakoff and is used here with her permission.  She recently had a reproduction of one her paintings, “Jésus, souviens-toi de moi,” exhibited between the columns of the Église de la Madeleine, the magnificent Greek classical church in Paris.

David Bowie’s song “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno, near the Berlin Wall. When guitarist Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass snuck away for a kiss near the wall, Bowie wrote them into the song and they became heroes.  The song is a masterpiece of experimentation that sounds so much less than experimental today.  Radical as it was in its day, it’s purely beautiful today, and its sentiment is timeless.

The images of “St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” and “St Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man” are from the series of frescoes known as “The Legend of St. Francis,” which can be found in the Upper Church of the Basilica de San Francesco in Assisi, Italy.  The frescoes date from 1297-1300 and are usually attributed to Giotto de Bondone, though they may have been done by several painters.  These images are taken from The Atheneum, an organization devoted to making tools for art, scholarship and community-building available over the Web.  They encourage people to post photographic images of art from around the world and then make it possible for others to repost and use that art in ways that will bring it to others.

St. Francis’s ministry to animals and to the poor are radical and enduring parts of his ministry.  St. Francis is a constant reminder of the simple fearlessness in Jesus’s ministry.

A Note on Heroes, Villians, and Justice

Not all who are serene and fearless can be called heroes.  I have chosen to dedicate this post to the heroes, but I have to recognize that villains, too, can be fearless and serene.  In this way, they are like heroes, even though they are not.  Let me clarify.

Only those who work for the cause of justice are heroes.  There are others who are equally fearless and serene but who are concerned only for themselves, their narrow interests, and personal pleasures.  They are sociopaths.  Those sociopaths who intentionally harm others are the criminals of sensational accounts in films, television, books, and magazine.  They are rapists and serial killers and destroyers.  Some find a legitimate outlet for their urges in mercenary exploits, military conquest, dogma, and institutional authority.  These sociopaths are dangerous and horrible, but they are not numerous.

Far more pernicious are sociopaths whose violence is exerted at a distance under the cover of ideology and reason.  They kill without ever coming close to the trigger.  They command armies and industries.  They tell us we need them in order to live our own lives and that without them we would not have jobs or homes or food to put on the table.  They are serene.  They are fearless.  They are all around us and hidden in our midst.  “Sometimes Satan,” Bob Dylan sang, “comes as a man of peace.”

As for justice, there are many definitions, but I prefer to keep it simple.  That which reduces needless suffering and cruelty is just.  The definition of needless suffering and cruelty usually is apparent by sight alone, without words.  Once people start to bring words into play, the cause of justice is damaged.  This is a cruel irony for those of us who are writers and seek to paint beauty in words.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the UN’s landmark accomplishments.  It is a form of aspirational justice, more a signpost on the way to the world we would like to live in than a description of the world we have.  All member-nations of the UN have signed on to the CRC, except for two:  Somalia and the United States of America.  Serenity now.

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E/F – The glass of writing

“… let no mournful yesterdays
disturb thy peaceful heart.”

Ellen M. Huntington Gates, “Sleep Sweet”

“Of the making of many books there is no end,
and in much study there is weariness for the flesh.”

Ecclesiastes 12:12

When the glass is empty the writer searches, at times desperately, for some truth or experience to put on the page.  The writer writes to make life real.  It is an alchemy that turns nothing into something.  Without writing, the writer is hollow, small, almost nothing.

When the glass is full the writer becomes like a god, though not so much a god of creation as one who reorders worlds that already exist.  The writer recreates what he or she has known in order to say something about it.  At the end of the day, it is a gratifying act.

Reverie

In 1967, Gloria Steinem interviewed Truman Capote for an article that was published in McCall’s.  It was a candid interview.  She asked him how he would like to be described as a writer and as a person—adding “without false modesty,” just in case.  Capote replied with grace and clarity.

“As a writer, that I’m a good artist, a serious craftsman; that my writing gives pleasure in itself, regardless of what I’m writing about.  I spend a great deal of time with that object in mind.  Because to me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

Early in his career, Capote was praised for the beauty of his sentences.  His prose was impeccable and his writing almost alone brought him into social circumstances the likes of which he never could have dreamed as the model for Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a lonely child of divorce in a small Alabama town.

But Capote flew too close to sun.  In a terrific irony—the exception that proves the rule, it seems—Capote’s downfall came when he tried to write what he (thought he) knew.  The serialized chapters of his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, hewed too closely to the real lives of his New York socialite crowd.  Scandalized, Capote’s supposed friends abandoned him and he learned how far, indeed, Monroeville, Alabama, was from New York’s Upper East Side.

Capote had abandoned the “inner music” of his words for a cloying attempt that was less writing what he knew than writing what he both coveted and hated.  Such is vanity.

Vanity

To write is to be like a god, one of those fundamental acts of hubris that always results in a fall, whether in the Garden of Eden or Greek mythology.  The “inner music” of Capotean reverie was to Franz Kafka a siren call to vanity and self-worship through the admiration of others.  To his close friend and ally, Max Brod, Kafka wrote in 1922—

“Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but a reward for what?  Last night it was as clear to me as the catechism learned in childhood that it is a reward for devil worship. This descent to the powers of darkness, the dubious embraces, and all the other things that doubtless occur down below and which we know nothing about up here when we write our stories in the sunshine.  Perhaps there are other kinds of writing, this is only one I know…”

The writer was oblivious to this affliction, mindlessly scribbling away beneath a penumbra of vanity that surrounded the sun itself.  Like sex, writing was at once a sensual and gratifying pact with the devil that was utterly essential to living experience—and at the same time, an act that obscured and defamed the very essence of love itself.

“It is the vanity and the hedonism, which flutter around and around either one’s own or another’s form in a ceaseless search for pleasure until in the end, by this constant repetition, a whole planetary system of vanity is created.”

Kafka’s life was filled with deep and vital relationships, with both women and men.  His Madonna-whore complex notwithstanding, he knew how to connect with others, recoiling only from those women he thought of marrying.  Writing was Kafka’s only salvation, the only thing that made him seem real to himself.

As a writer, however, Kafka was a failure in his own estimation.  His work remains for us mainly because his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, famously chose to ignore to Kafka’s request to destroy all the remaining manuscripts, which included his novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika.

Prayer, a writerly cup

The photo of the cup of tea at the beginning of this post was given to me by a friend, Maghan Lusk.  She is from South Carolina.  In 2008-09, she wrote a blog called “[a creative writer’s] life, uncensored.”  On the blog, she wrote about writing, managing seamlessly to intersperse her own experiences with topical matter.  Her writing and point of view suggested a very thoughtful person who took the time to understand why people were doing what they did, rather than judging them and tossing off opinions.

In 2009, she shut down her blog to work on her first novel, which she has now completed.  Of her desk and cup she wrote—

“When I sit down to write, I make a pot of Ceylon orange pekoe (2 tbsp of loose tea, 1 tbsp of lemon curd, 1 tbsp of honey).  And I warm the pot before I add the boiling water – it’s a highly methodical process.  I like the color, so I always drink from a glass tea cup.  The pot in the back belonged to my mom before she married my dad (27 years ago).”

Before Maghan turned the pot to the support of her writer’s craft, her mother used it to warm the water she soaked her feet with.  Behind the pot, on the edge of the chest-of-drawers, is a framed poem, “Sleep Sweet,” by Ellen M. Huntington Gates.

The desk itself is piled high with the artifacts of Maghan’s life and work.  In the stack of books are admired pieces, atop which sits Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the much-celebrated novel set in Iowa, in which the Rev. John Ames writes out a family history for his young son.  The Reverend’s wife calculated that all the sermons he had written across his life of preaching would come to 67,500 pages of prose, or 225 books by the Rev.’s own calculation, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.”  In Robinson’s prose, Rev. Ames takes us to a place in writing so much finer and wonderful than Kafka’s, less self-involved than Capote’s, more human and more in touch with the real reasons we write—to reach out to someone else.

“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone.  I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean …”

Feeding the Wolves

There is a famous Cherokee fable that goes like this.

An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.  The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”

The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Capote fed both wolves, with his life and with his words.  He was as destroyed by writing as he was acclaimed for it.  The same thing happened to Hemingway.  Kafka—and possibly Faulkner—fed the wolves with words alone, leaving their lives to become shambles of unrequited desire.

Sylvia Plath fed both wolves.  She fed them with her words and her flesh.  She married a man, Ted Hughes, who believed that a writer had the duty to live beyond all morality, to use his or her own life to build the experiences that would come to life in words.

To be an artist is a dangerous thing.  It is a special role, a special calling that cannot be resisted.  From the beginning of time—Lascaux to the Bible to Pynchon and Picasso and Joe Strummer—artists have helped us know who we are and how we live.  Some of them handle the role better than others.

Notes and Credits

I owe thanks to Maghan Lusk for sharing her photos and story for this posting, as well as for insightful correspondence over issues of writing, spirituality, and living in the Deep South over the last year or so.

Capote’s interview was by Gloria Steinem, “‘Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything.’  (And So She Did) An Interview with Truman Capote.”  McCall’s 95 (November 1967), 76-77, 148-52, 154.

Kafka from: Letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922, in Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive:  Autobiographical Writings, ed. N Glatzer (New York:  Schocken, 1974), p. 223.  An interesting source for Kafka information (though not the only one I used, of course) and condominiums in Miami can be found here.

Gilead quotation:  p. 19 of the Picador, 2004, edition.

The Cherokee fable of the two wolves is widely known.  The version posted here was taken from a website called “First People, The Legends.”  The story is the much the same in its various posting around the Web.

The photographs of books were taken by the author, on his own desk.  Disclosure:  I have not read Gilead, but I will do so shortly.  I have not read In Cold Blood, but I saw the movie with Robert Blake a long time ago on late-night tv.  I have not seen the movies of Capote’s life, neither Toby Jones’s nor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s.  The copy of In Cold Blood in the photograph was found on the sidewalk in Park Slope one day.  I have read much of Kafka’s writing—novels, stories, and letters, and I saw the movie.

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The truth and spring-time

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

These, I, singing in spring, collect for lovers
Collecting, I traverse the garden, the world—but soon I pass the gates,
Now along the pond-side—now wading in a little, fearing not the wet …

Everything here is yellow and green
the ground, that winter nightmare,
has cured its sores and burst
with green birds and vitamins

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

I took a broken root to fling
Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,
Taking delight that he could spring

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above

Notes and Credits

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ll. 1-4

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, #38, These, I, Singing in Spring, ll. 1, 4-5

Anne Sexton, It is a Spring Afternoon, ll. 1, 30-32

Sylvia Plath, Wintering, l. 50

W. B. Yeats, An Appointment, ll. 2-4

Robert Frost, A Prayer in Spring, ll. 1, 13-14

All the photos were taken by the writer in Prospect Park, Brooklyn – except for the white roses, which bloom every year in Tom and Laura’s backyard in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  The squirrel is the most recent, taken as he chopped up and dropped leaves and twigs and flowers on all of us baseball parents while our children were at practice last week.

For the W. B. Yeats poem, I credit Jim Tolstrup, who posted on this poem and squirrels and anarchy a couple months ago.

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The truth and every purpose

February 10 , 2010

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

April 21, 2010

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

October 31, 2009

A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.

A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

December 21, 2009

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

April 29, 2010

Notes and Credits

The photos of the tree at the beginning of this post were taken by the author from my dining room window on Caton Avenue in Brooklyn, 11218.  The tree is in the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.

The photos of the trees forming an arch over the sidewalk were taken by the author at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Caton Avenue sidewalk, 11218.

The story:  Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

And a time to sing whilst riding on horses …

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The truth and money

The truth is that money is often a divisive influence in our lives.  We keep our bank balances secret because we worry that being candid about our finances will expose us to judgment or ridicule—or worse, to accusations of greed or immorality.  And this worry is not unfounded.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007), p. xi

Brooklyn Reading Works:
The Truth and Money

On April 15, 2010, the Brooklyn Reading Works will present its monthly writers’ program on “tax day.”  This happy accident, observed last summer in a casual conversation over coffee with Louise Crawford, resulted in the idea for a panel called “The Truth and Money,” a reading and Q & A with three authors whose work has taken on money in some significant way.

Our three panelists are:

Elissa Schappell, a Park Slope writer, the editor of “Hot Type” (the books column) for Vanity Fair, and Editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House. With Jenny Offill, Schappell edited Money Changes Everything, in which twenty-two writers reflect on the troublesome and joyful things that go along with acquiring, having, spending, and lacking money.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, a best-selling writer and poet whose work crosses fields of history, philosophy, and religious studies.  In The Happiness Myth, she looks at what’s not making us happy today, why we thought it would, and what these things really do for us instead.  Money—like so many things, it turns out—solves one problem only to beget others, to the extent that we spend a great deal of money today trying to replace the things that, in Hecht’s formulation, “money stole from us.”

Jason Kersten, a Park Slope writer who lives 200 feet from our venue and whose award-winning journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and Maxim.  In The Art of Making Money, Kersten traces the riveting, rollicking, roller coaster journey of a young man from Chicago who escaped poverty, for a while at least, after being apprenticed into counterfeiting by an Old World Master.

Please join us for the event at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, which is located on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, between 3rd and 4th Streets, behind the playground.

Read about all the Brooklyn Reading Works events at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and the BRW website.  For info on the Old Stone House and its role in the Battle of Brooklyn (1776) and contemporary life in Park Slope, go here.

Many thanks from all of us at Truth and Rocket Science to Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, for making this possible.

Money, It’s a Gas

The subtitle on the cover of Elissa Schappell’s book says everything you need to know about the stories within:  Twenty-two writers tackle the last taboo with tales of sudden windfalls, staggering debts, and other surprising turns of fortune. “The last taboo” is how Schappell and her co-editor, Jenny Offill, characterize our behavior when it comes to money, because nobody really wants to talk about it.

People are secretive and embarrassed—for having too little, or too much, or something to hide about the reasons either way.  In a country where everyone seems to have a story of how they, or their parents or grandparents, used to be poor, any personal narrative but “hard work” is out of the question.  Even hardened criminals revel in detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their “work.”  No one, it seems, can sit back and say with no embellishment or apology, “I got lucky, that’s all.”  Money is the measure of what we deserve, and in our society what we deserve is in some sense who we are.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht seeks to disentangle why things that are supposed to make us happy frequently don’t.  To the notion that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” she shows that it does, to an extent.  For most of human history (and pre-history), people have lived in conditions of terrible, frightening, life-threatening scarcity that money in no small part has eradicated for all but a very small fraction of Americans.  (In line with Schappell’s notion of money-taboo, I now feel the urge to apologize and state something statistical about hardship and inequality in America, but I won’t.  We deserve ourselves and all of our money issues.)  Hecht writes,

“We need to remember that most people through history have been racked by work that was bloody-knuckled drudgery, the periodic desperate hunger of their children, and for all but the wealthiest, the additional threat of violent animals.  Nowadays a lot of what we use money for is a symbolic acting-out of these triumphs.”

Once out of poverty, in other words, what we do with money—or more precisely the things we feel when using money—have a lot to do with ancient urges and inner conflicts that endure in our minds, bodies, and culture across time and without, so it seems, our self-conscious awareness of them.  Money does buy happiness, up to the point we’re out of poverty, and then the real problems begin.

Like the craving for fat and things that are sweet, the urges we satisfy with money are deeply embedded in our being, fundamental to the way we evolved in the most far-away places and times.  It’s all fine and easy to understand or forgive, but we all know what happens when you eat too many doughnuts.

Doughnuts to Dollars

Yet money is not like a doughnut.  This we all know—money isn’t some thing, it’s just some non-thing you use to get doughnuts or whatever else you think you need.  The economists’ word for this quality is fungible.  Adam Smith introduced money in his great book on wealth by reviewing the things that societies have used for exchange measures over time, including cattle, sheep, salt, shells, leather hides, dried codfish, tobacco, sugar, and even “nails” in a village in Scotland that Smith knew of.  All this was terribly inconvenient, and Smith noted that the use of precious metal as a stand-in for things of value constituted a considerable advance—

“If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.”

Money in this sense becomes nothing but a means of measurement, and it would be perfect indeed if money’s effects on the world ended there, but we all know that they don’t.

Money—as Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, Cyndi Lauper and conventional wisdom tell us—changes everything.  Money’s magical qualities go well beyond simple notions like greed.  Money’s powers are existential, transformative, and really weird.  Money makes us into things we are not.  Karl Marx was pretty blunt about this—

“Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers … what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.  I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women.  Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.  I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.  Therefore I am not lame.  I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor.  Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.  Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest:  I am therefore presumed honest.  I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”

Marx may have fallen short as an economist, but then again so do most official economists.  In terms of money’s most basic ontological properties, however, it’s worth noting that he got money right.

The Glow

In the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams, Jason Kersten tells one such story of how money changes people, their values, and the truths that bind them together.  Art’s counterfeit was of an extraordinarily high quality, and its effect on people was fascinating to behold.  Art called it The Glow—“They would get this look on their face … a look of wonder, almost like they were on drugs.  It was like they were imagining the possibilities of what it could do for them, and they wanted more.”

Like the anonymous subjects of history in Hecht’s writing (note:  that’s us), Art wanted something that money, or the lack of it, had apparently stolen from his life.  Art’s “pursuit had very little to do with money, and the roots of his downfall lay in something impossible to replicate or put a value on.  As he would say himself, ‘I never got caught because of money.  I got caught because of love.’”

So where does money get us?  It’s easy to tell stories of money and doom, but we all know that without enough of it we’d be unable to do anything we need to do, let alone the supposedly unnecessary things that seem to make up for the drudgery of a life built upon doing the things we need to do.  Is the grubbiness of money as it comes off in the Pink Floyd song all there is to it?  Or is there more?

Join us on April 15, after affirming the give-away of twenty-eight percent (for most of us) of your annual harvest.

Questions:  jguidry.7@gmail.com or 212.729.7209.

Credits and Notes

Many thanks to Louise Crawford for inviting me to curate the Tax Day BRW panel, through the Truth and Rocket Science blog.  A sincere debt of gratitude, not to mention late fees, is owed to the Brooklyn Public Library, for enabling my research and inquiry into this topic.  The BPL’s copies are indeed those photographed on my dining room table to lead the blog post.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007).

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper One, 2007), p. 129.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, in Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 173.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 103.

Jason Kersten, The Art of Making Money (New York:  Gotham Books, 2009), p. 152 (first quotation) and p. 4 (second quotation).

Photo Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetary, London, taken by the author in January, 1994, while on layover on the way to South Africa and its historical elections later that year.

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E/F – the glass of knowledge

halfglass-apple-1

E.  “. . . the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked . . .”   Genesis 3:6

F.  “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism,” ll. 215-18

For some, knowledge leads down the path to hubris, a “revenge of the intellect” as Susan Sontag warned (ironically, some might say) in “Against Interpretation” (1966).  For others, knowledge is the source of enlightenment.  Know thyself:  as inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and lived by Socrates, for whom the knowledge of anything was only as good as its limits.

However we look upon knowledge or follow where it leads, it’s almost certain we’ll wind up somewhere never intended, with consequences for good or ill that we may barely understand.  Such is the way of truth.

The glass and St. Rita’s Church

The tumbler is half-filled with Apple and Eve apple juice, all natural, no added sugar, of unknown yet possible relation to the juice of the apples of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At least that’s what I take away from the company’s name.

The etching on the glass is of St. Rita’s Church, Harahan, which was founded in 1950 by Monsignor Roy Champagne, who was a young priest at the time.  The tumbler was part of a larger set created in 2000 for the parish’s 50th anniversary.

I went to St. Rita’s school from the fourth through seventh grades, and Fr. Champagne (he wasn’t a Monsignor yet) was still walking the grounds with the children and saying mass on Sundays.  I attended church there until I left my parents’ home in 1986.  For many years, I performed with, and then led, the youth choir.  My son was baptized at St. Rita’s.  I now attend St. John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but St. Rita’s is a cherished part of my life.  It is a place I return to from time to time, to walk in the past and present, and to reflect on the lessons of knowledge and ignorance in my own life.

The desk and a dual journey from Michigan to Illinois

The tumbler was photographed on my desk, a sturdy workshop piece in the Mission Style, dating from the 1920s or 1930s (I am guessing here).  I bought it in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1997 for $100.00 in rough but usable shape.

IMG_3245

a sturdy writing companion

The desk was made in Michigan, by the Wolverine Manufacturing Company of Detroit.  The company was organized in 1887, according to the tag, and at least this one desk is still going strong.  Wolverine Manufacturing was one of the historical suppliers of parlor and other furniture in the Arts and Crafts style.  I wonder sometimes at the happenstance (some might say magic) by which I took a similar route from Michigan, where I obtained my doctorate in 1996 from the university in Ann Arbor, to Rock Island, where I began my first teaching appointment the same year.

Almost everything that has been posted in truth and rocket science was written at this desk.

Notes and credits

The photos of the tumbler and the desk were taken by the author.

This image of the Wolverine Manufacturing Plant was taken from the State of Michigan’s Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics (Lansing, 1903), as found on Google Books.

Geotag: St. Rita’s is at 7100 Jefferson Highway, Harahan, Louisiana, 70123.  St. John’s Episcopal is at 139 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, New York, 11217.

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