Tag Archives: love

The truth and letting go

Исповедь_берн_собор

Penance

Like a cat caught chasing her own tail
I ought to shake you off. After all
these years the betrayals seem less wrong
than part of who I am. We both know
we knew and still know now, though we haven’t
spoken for years and probably never
will. Our life remembered roams this place,
troubled heart sleeping in doorways on
streets that look empty to those who lack
empathy. They don’t know what it’s like
to endure sadness for sadness’ sake.
How did I wake up here? The simplest
answer is not enough. It cuts to
the soul, a death-wishing admission
that I was and will always be less
than I wanted to be—for you, for
me, and any who comes after. The
hard penance is to forgive yourself.

New York and Orlando
April 2015

Notes and Credits

I took this painting from the Wikimedia Commons.  In Russian, its name looks like this: Исповедь. Бернардинский собор во Львове (Церковь Святого Андрея УГКЦ). Google translates it as “Russian : Confession . Bernardine Cathedral in Lviv ( Church of St. Andrew Church).” I can’t find a painter’s name or year in all my trying on the Net.  Yet of all the things I encountered when using search terms like “confession,” “penance,” and “forgiveness,” this is the most sinteresting and haunting thing I found. Mere commons photographs of confessionals would not do. The pain and loneliness of confession and absolution are captured here, and that is what I sought. The poem itself is my own journey. Not sure how far along I am in my own forgiveness, but with hope I will get there one day. It’s the only way I can begin to return the love I have, so I need to work on it.

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The truth and love, again

tilda24f-3-web

Love, Again

I ran to love but hid from its embrace.
I looked at it instead through windows,
where love so deep took its place besides things

out of grasp, too expensive, too precious
too good. To want but never have was
perfection, to hold yet be restless, bet

nothing while everything rested in dreams
that replaced what we did with a stream of
desire till life crashed in. Glass spilled the day

I broke your heart, but the heart I crushed was
my own. It lives now behind glass with things
that never took place while the Furies’ buzz

kills forgiveness and fans faint embers of
loss. All I have is there, too precious,
too good, too gone, and I can’t remember

why or how. In a weak moment I
imagine a word that might bring us back
when a voice cries “No! Love is not selfish.”

Love claims and love lets go, one easy as
the other, remorseless, beyond joy or
pain with no thought to please—but only to

be. Behind the glass is nothing now but
empty space. No door, no window, no vent,
no way through or round but to feel the rain

of a thousand shards fall to the ground. I
try not to howl or jump when I am cut,
for cuts heal. And love lives like this: patching

over scars and new skin, sometimes clear and
others deformed but always relentless.
You cannot hide from love; love tells me this.

For love always tries again, not to get
it right, but just to love, again.

—New York, April 5, 2015

 

Notes and Credits

The opening photograph is taken from the NY Daily News piece, “Tilda Swinton sleeps in a glass box for surprise performance piece at Museum of Modern Art,” by Margaret Eby, March 23, 2013. No photographer was attributed. The piece is a strange play on celebrity that makes me thing of Goop. But it still seems a good photo for the poem, which puts the experience of love into museum boxes in order to dissociate from the pain while keeping the experience alive with false hopes. Writing the poem made me consider that love is not so sentimental as automatic. We bring sentiment to love that isn’t there and needn’t be there. Love will never be more than what it is. Never build a life around love, but around what you bring to love. And as for love itself, let it be what it is. My first love post was one of the early TRS posts; looking at it now it feels like life has changed so much. And love is here, again.

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The truth and resilience

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2010

The Thin Ice of Heartbreak

You smile when your heart is broken,
life wringing joy from bitter
darkness in this lowest hour.

The honest baring of teeth
against desire, mocking hope,
a face skids on the ice

looking down, looking in, cut off
cracking, cracking, crackling.
Beneath the brittle surface

oxygen is scarce, sounds weighted down.
Senses grow numb, your body cold,
yet it will last not seasons nor the

passing of time, melting slowly
to the bone, where truth is spun.
There was, there is, and there will be love.

The Scene

Across the church, I saw her big, toothy grin. It made her face expand and inflate. She was chasing after her son, a puffy toddler loose in the church, racing to the altar steps with all the abandon of a baby bull in a sacred store. She grabbed him and brought him in with one swooping motion that parents know how to do without trying. I remembered the Wednesday service, when she cried in the pews. The Reverend Mother sat with her quietly, holding her and this child whose father now lived halfway across the world. Her mother told me what happened and how it happened and wished her daughter could let the anger go. And today, chasing the boy down, she couldn’t help smiling when she picked him up, just like she can’t help the anger. I know that feeling. There’s nothing you can do about it but trust it and hope that the boy, and the smile and the joy, are bigger than the heartbreak. There was, there is, and there will be love.

Notes

The story is true. The smile was huge and beautiful. The photograph was taken by the author at Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in 2010 during a snow storm. Only the birds cross the ice on Lake Prospect.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

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The truth and miracles

Miracle

Why do you need a miracle?
Miracles don’t pay your rent,
Pulse your nerves, light the dark,
Still the Earth, or make you well.
Miracles do nothing on their own.

Miracles don’t feed your heart.
This only blood can do, be it
Yours or mine, flesh to flesh
Dried in place.  Stained like rust,
Blood never lets you go.

Miracles live on air
Because they are nothing
New or old under the sun.
Borrowed or blue, nothing at all
But dreams too afraid

To cross that line and cut your skin.
Miracles are cheap excuses for love
Deferred, leaving hope for dead.
They are God-machines grinding down
Your sharp edges until you are dull.

I am no miracle, but I am more
Than you deserve.  Now as then,
Your treadmill grace beats your brow.
Too humiliated to save face,
You struggle for something else to save.

You wear this miracle like a shield
Of dreams.  Proud behind it, you have no fear.
That wish protects, but at a price
You know so well, and so do I,
Every time we go to sleep alone.

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The truth and dreams, 1: Lost

Women, photograph by Lara Wechsler

I dreamt that we were around each other, but not really together.  Our recent split was a wound still open, and I was trying to follow you, to get back to you, to make you see me again as yours.  I knew that I had pushed you away in the first place and then raised the stakes for a reunion.  I never claimed to be the complete master of my emotions.  And you, being your locked-down self, said the same thing over and over, which in this case was like saying nothing at all, since I didn’t believe you wanted it to end.

All this was in the air around us when I saw the child, a young girl maybe two or three, walking around, uncertain perhaps where she was.  She was small, dressed in a pink Hello Kitty onesy, carrying a stuffed animal.  She bore a vague resemblance to you.  It looked as if she would begin to cry at any moment.

I didn’t know whose child she was, and there were no other adults around.  For reasons I don’t really understand or remember, I thought the child was with you, or that you knew where the parents were.  I pursued you with the child, and I told you that we need to find the parents.

I don’t remember that you said anything, but you took the child from me.

Then we got into a car and you told me to drive.  The car wasn’t yours, but I couldn’t figure out if it was stolen or rented.  On the way there—a “there” that only became clear as we got closer, since I didn’t know where we were going and was only following your periodic directions—the air between us was frosty.  Not much was said.  You held on to the child.

We pulled into the parking lot of a drug store, one of those chain stores that all look and feel the same, regardless of the name on the sign out front.  It was very white—the aisles, the light, the coats that people were wearing.  You took the child back behind the pharmacy counter and began speaking to someone amid shelves of pills and ointments and jars.  I couldn’t hear what you said, but you did something to divert me, something involving the car, and I left.

When I got back to the pharmacy, you were gone.  I shouted into empty space, “We have to return the car!  Whose is it?”  Then I saw you running away.

I followed you into a massive, dark parking lot, the kind of multi-story affair you see next to stadiums, shopping malls, and airports.  By the time I reached the spot, the car was gone and so were you.  I thought: I must call you.

I awoke shaking and covered in sweat.  I reached to the nightstand for the telephone, and that’s when I realized where I was.

Notes and Credits

This posting is fiction, but the dream was real.

Photography credit to Lara Wechsler, who let me use this photo for this posting.  Lara’s work can be found on flickr, and on her own website.   Her work is on exhibit with other local artists at 440 Gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Her work is street photography, which mainly involves photos of street scenes and, in Lara’s case, photographs of people.  The photograph I used in this posting is the rare one in her collection not of people (or even one person).  In this case, it’s a shot that evokes a persona, the perfect image for this dream that made me think, over and over again, what do I want?

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The truth and broken glass

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
—Anton Chekhov

Glass can reveal you and other things in the world.  Glass can challenge you.
Glass can cut you.  Glass is a magical substance.  Glass reflects things as truly as it distorts them.

Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.
—Alice, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Stained in small pieces, it can create images and stories that tell us how God lived and died, saints turning sunlight and suffering into colored mists of other-worldly atmosphere here on earth.

You could be known as the most beautiful women who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal.
—Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You”

Broken, glass becomes a metaphor for struggle laced with pain and suffering, love destroyed, the end of things that once were.

My whole life has crashed, won’t you pick the pieces up
’cause it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass

—Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass”

Yet broken glass is more than this.  Sometimes, what is broken becomes better than it was before.

Now it’s just like the other horses . . . ” says Laura in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, when Jim knocks her glass unicorn to the floor, breaking its horn.

Breaking the glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding reminds of the fragility of human relationships, which need the greatest care.  The broken glass is the world the couple came from, forever and irreparably changed by their union.  New joy must live alongside the pain and suffering of the world.

Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. She started, jumped up, and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table.
—Anton Checkov, “The Looking-glass”

The mirror reveals only what it is shown, and what it means to the looker can be something different altogether.  The looking-glass is only one more opportunity to warp the matter of the world into shapes that suit deception, plotting, and retellings of post-hoc truths that matter now more than the time to which they refer.

Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion

—John Lennon, “Glass Onion”

All that ends must be followed by something else.  So it is with broken glass.  The broken vase pictured at the opening of this essay was bought by a lover to whom I had sent roses after some transgression that I have long forgotten.  She, too, is gone, though the vase remained with me after she left.  It’s been filled by the flowers of other lovers who have come and gone, each one leaving a mark on my heart, life by a thousand cuts, as it were.

Then one day last year, my cat jumped up to the window sill in the middle of the night and the vase came crashing to the floor.  The sound woke me and I went to look, shaking my head as I plodded back to bed, thinking that in the glint of that broken vase there was a story to be told.  I will miss her.

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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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The truth and Brasília, 2: Torsos of Steel

brasilia-trespoderes

The Dream

From 1956 to 1960, Brazilian architects, engineers and peasant laborers called candangos built a new capital, Brasília.  This was the realization of a dream first voiced in 1827, just 5 years after the country became independent, when an advisor to Emporer Pedro I suggested that he move the capital from the colonial city of Rio de Janeiro, on the coast, to a new city in the interior.

Brasília, as it eventually came to be called, was a Brazilian version of Luso-Manifest Destiny.  The new city was built on the legacy of the Bandeirantes, slave hunters and prospectors whose journeys into the South American interior in the 16th and 17th centuries extended Portuguese holdings – Brasil – at the expense of the Spanish crown.

President Juscelino Kubitschek asked Oscar Niemeyer to head up the team that would create the new capital.   A native of Rio de Janeiro, Niemeyer was already an internationally renowned architect, his design for the United Nations Head Quarters in New York an immediate icon of post-war modernism.  His designs for Brasília’s government buildings, plazas, monuments, and National Cathedral created something of a modernist theme park in Brasília, and in 1987 the city was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For Brasília, Niemeyer collaborated with another celebrated Brazilian designer, Lucio Costa, whose plans for the city took the national dream into the air itself – from above, Brasília’s layout looks like a giant bow, loaded and aimed at the heart of the continent.  Costa’s Brasília conformed to the modernist Athens Charter of 1933 almost to the letter, creating a city of functionalism and (for many) modern alienation.  Landscaping was done by Roberto Burle Marx, another of the generation of Brazilian modernists whose work defined an era in South American history.

In the Plaza of the Three Powers, Bruno Giorgi’s sculpture, Os Candangos, memorialized the northeastern Brazilians who built the capital.  In the national discourse of the time, these impoverished peasants were living symbols of Brazil’s colonial and agrarian past.  By coming to Brasília and building the city, they were transformed into new pioneers who would settle the vast empty spaces of the country’s interior, from the dry plains of Brasília through the vast green desert of the Amazon.  Unlike the North American slaves who built the White House and the U.S. Captiol buildings, the candangos were memorialized as part and parcel of Brasília’s futurist vision.

The architect must think that the world has to be a better place, that we can end poverty . . . . it is important that the architect think not only of architecture but of how architecture can solve the problems of the world . . . The architect has to always be political.

—Oscar Niemeyer, 2009

Hard Winter

Meanwhile, in London, Sylvia Plath was pregnant again.  Her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair with another woman, and they were destined to separate soon after the birth of their son, Nicholas.  In the 13 months after Nick’s birth, Plath wrote most of the poems in her second collection, Ariel, and published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  Then on February 11, 1963, Plath left her children sleeping in their room, sealed the door with wet towels, and committed suicide with oven gas in the kitchen.

Among the poems she wrote in this period was Brasilia, which was not published in Ariel.  Like Zweig, Plath was thinking about the past and the future and the trouble with seeing it through.

Will they occur,
These people with torso of steel
Winged elbows and eyeholes

Awaiting masses
Of cloud to give them expression,
These super-people! –
And my baby a nail
Driven, driven in.
He shrieks in his grease

Bones nosing for distance.
And I, nearly extinct,
His three teeth cutting

Themselves on my thumb –
And the star,
The old story.

In the lane I meet sheep and wagons,
Red earth, motherly blood.
O You who eat

People like light rays, leave
This one
Mirror safe, unredeemed

By the dove’s annihilation,
The glory
The power, the glory.

It was one of the coldest winters on record in England, and Sylvia Plath’s life was falling apart even as she was bringing new life on.  How long she had intended to take leave of this life is not something we can know.  She had attempted suicide before, and she was troubled by deep emotional struggles that went back to childhood.  Her relationship with Hughes held some high points in her life, but now he had left her for another woman.  What is clear, however, is that once she made her decision, she executed it with consummate intentionality.  She meticulously protected her children as she took her own life.

Like Zweig, she left two works for posthumous publication, one pointing backwards, one pointing forward.  The Bell Jar was on its way to publication; in this, her semi-autobiographical novel, she exposed a world she knew in the past, a world she tried to leave once before.  As she died, the manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, her masterwork, lay on the desk, each poem typed and left in the precise order she wanted for the book.  The first word of the first poem, “Morning Song,” was “love.”  The last word of the last poem, “Wintering,” was “spring.”

Like Zweig, Plath thought she left a book pointing to a better future, but that wasn’t to be.  The Ariel that was published under Ted Hughes’s editorial guidance was not the same book.  The poems were reordered, others added, and a few, like Brasilia, removed.  This Ariel was darker, seeming to foreshadow Plath’s end, but whatever the critics of Hughes’s intentions, this Ariel made Plath who she is today.

Cold War

On March 31, 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the democratically elected government.  As the military took control, they created the model for the “bureaucratic authoritarian state” in the developing world.  Niemeyer and Costa’s modernist visions were perverted into symbols of Latin America’s dark period, the capital’s bland functionality and order representing the kind of control that the military celebrated in its culture, the kind of functionality they wished to instill in the rest of the country.

Behind the gleaming white façades of Brasília’s futuristic vision, the Brazilian military contributed to the “dirty wars” against the left in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.  These regimes took the lives of tens of thousands of people who dreamed of a different kind of democracy than the region had known.  Beyond those killed, many more were tortured, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.  Niemeyer, a Communist and therefore enemy of the state, went into exile in Europe.

When the opposition movements eventually took power in the late 1980s and 1990s, the world was a very different place.  Brasília was a bigger city, showing some age, surrounded by “satellite cities” and large favelas – the squatter settlements that the military tried to eradicate in Rio de Janeiro with less than efficient results.  Costa’s rationally designed city had its flaws, its ups and downs, and its critics.  For some, it seemed as if Brazil, and Brasília, had turned Zweig’s book into a joke:  Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be.

The future that Brasília promised, that Plath saw in her mind and in her children, didn’t work out according to the original plans.  Yet life goes on.  I will continue these themes in the next posting on the The truth and Brasília, 3:  Faroeste Caboclo.

plath-tat

Notes and Credits

The critics of Brasília’s ambitious design and lofty principles are many.  I am not one of them.  I am writing to explore what Brasília means, not its shortcomings, and my approach should indicate that I believe the city’s meaning far outshines any of its shortcomings.

Lauro Cavalcanti provides a beautiful guide to Brazil’s modernist architecture that places Brasília in perspective.  In Brasília, the government sought to “turn the state into a spectacle,” and Brasília is indeed the enactment of a dream.  If you can’t go to Brasília but can find your way to New York, go to Lincoln Center, and you can witness Neimeyer and Brasília’s influence on one of the great cultural centers of the world.

Photo of the Praça dos Três Poderes, with the statue of Os Candangos, is from the Flickr site of Shelley Bernstein, aur2899.  She works at the Brooklyn Museum (according to the Flickr “about”) and has a lot of pictures from Brasília and elsewhere.  Her Brooklyn Museum blog posts are here.

The candangos are publicly memorialized in Brazil, in marked contrast to the North American squelching of the slave labor employed to build our own White House.  Without suggesting that Brazil is any less racist than the U.S., or that either country has a better social model for dealing with its racial legacy, I point this out as a matter of historical interest.  The reader may regard these facts as he or she wishes.

Niemeyer and Costa’s designs were political statements.  They expressed political beliefs in modernity, order, and democracy in the layout of the city.  Niemeyer himself was a Communist, whose architeture reflected his beliefs in a world of collective and individual democracy, the triumph of working people over the old regime and the capitalist governing class.

Oscar Niemeyer is 101 years old, and he is still working.  The quotation in this posting is taken from an interview he did with Santiago Fernandez-Stelley for Vice magazine online, at some point in 2009.  The interview can be seen on video at VBS.TV.  The video of the interview is simply inspirational.

The photo of the Sylvia Plath tattoo is from a photobucket listing from PaperCuttt.  I found it first on this site for literary tattoos.  You can also find material from the same person at another livejournal channel.  She notes that she altered the original slightly (“As I listened to the old bray of my heart….I am. I am. I am.”) but that it contains the same spirit.

I have long been greatly motivated by the poetry and writing of Sylvia Plath.  As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of posts, her Collected Poems was one of two English language books I brought to Brazil in 1992 for my year of doctoral reserach in Belém.  Over my life I have read many books on her and her life.  These resources include:  the poems themselves. Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame; Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath; Linda Wagner, Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath; and Erica Wagner, Ariel’s Gift.  I’ve tried to read as much as possible, and to work through the thicket of political controversy around her work and life.  I also read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and have some to a deeper appreciation of how Sylvia Plath affected all those around her.  The tragedy of her son’s suicide last year brought me a several days of stark reflection on emotions, depression, and the struggle of human consiousness and life against itself.

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Another year, and we remember

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This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

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My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

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The truth and mirrors

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The eye of the beholder sees many things, and the beholder alone is the judge of what he or she sees.  The beholder sees beauty, or ugliness, or truth, or lies, and the beholder knows something.  The thing about eyes, however, is that they look out, not in.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, wrote that the solitary person “could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.” The solitary person, in other words, can know little of himself – and so we need others.  “Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted [i.e. lacked] before.” This was key for Smith, for he believed that by considering the judgments and opinions that other people have of our actions, we achieve the basis of a moral society.

For Lou Reed, the mirror held the promise of love for those who couldn’t see their own beauty.

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know …

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind …

I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty that you are
But if you don’t let me be your eyes …

Michael Jackson took this a step further, hoping that the mirror could help a person look inside.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways …
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Jackson’s use of the mirror was a kind of solipsistic (or maybe just plain lonely) version of Freud’s:  “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.”

But mirrors are tricky.  They are passive reflectors.  Place a lie in front of a mirror, and you will see only a lie.  Mirrors confuse and when combined with smoke, serve to hoodwink and swindle people out of the truth and what is real.  The mirror, a hoped-for source of truth, gives the world to magicians and con artists.

In the Middle Ages, ambitious politicians and intellectuals wrote books called Mirror of Princes, in order to curry favor and win state positions by writing about how a real prince could reflect the qualities of an ideal prince.  An elaborate form of flattery, it was a way to get a job, but the Mirror of Princes literature was a corrupt thing, the falsification of what mirrors were supposedly created for.

Machiavelli exploited the lie of the Mirror of Princes to write the definitive satire of political philosophy, The Prince, seen only in its reverse-mirror image of “Machiavellian” self-interested intrigue, deception, and cruelty.  Machiavelli wrote his satire only too well, and his republican and democratic self has been lost to history (except for the community of political theorists, who are a small community indeed).  Machiavelli was a good guy, who survived torture and other awful events for his commitment to democratic republicanism.  Such is the danger of playing in front of mirrors.

In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles created the classic mirror scene, in which his central characters meet in a fun-house mirror maze and proceed to have a shootout amid the dozens of reflected images of themselves.  Just who would kill whom is a matter of luck, but both Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth are mortally wounded, and their stupidity allows Michael, played by Welles, to walk away free.  The beauty of the scene consists in the way that the mirrors only serve to reflect the hubris of everyone involved, amplifying the conclusions that one might have hoped to see.

Mirrors can show us only what we put in front of them.  Our fun-house mirrors create images that satisfy and mollify at the expense of the truth.  We use mirrors to convince ourselves that we can see objectively, when we’re only seeing what we want to see.  Francis Bacon observed that “… human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”

IMG_1601There are mirrors, and then there are fun-house mirrors, and then there are false mirrors.  Mirrors can’t solve our problems or help us find the truth.  Only honesty can, and that’s a thing apart from mirrors.  Don’t seek the truth in a mirror.  Close your eyes and seek the truth within.  You may not see it, but you may find it.

Credits

Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, in The Essential Adam Smith, ed. R. Heilbroner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 101.

Lou Reed, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” recorded by the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967.

Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror, Bad, 1988.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 41.

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