Following the Qana disaster, a great many denunciations against the Jewish State were voiced for having killed nearly 60 innocent civlians, including 37 children, in its attack against a Hizzballa position at Kafr Qana, in South Lebanon.
Ben Kaspit, in the Israeli Daily Ma’ariv today, proposes that Israel’s Prime Minister make a clear and poignant speech, explaining in very simple, unambiguous terms the realities faced by Israel. This is just an excerpt:
A mammoth terrorist infrastructure was created by Iran right on our border, menacing our citizens, growing bigger and stronger in front of our very eyes, waiting for the moment that the Ayatollahs’ country becomes a nuclear power in order to bring us to our knees. Make no mistake; we will not be alone. You, leaders of the enlightened world, will follow soon after us.
So today let’s put an end to this carnival of hypocrites. I recall no such reactions from you when 100 civilians are murdered daily in Iraq, Sunnis murdering Shi'ites, Shi’ites murdering Sunnis and all are killing Americans. And the world stands voiceless. And I find it hard to recall similar reactions when the Russians flattened entire villages and set fires to large cities in order to suppress the Chechen insurgency. Or when NATO bombed Kosovo for nearly three months, decimating the civilian population. Then you were silent. So what is it about us, the Jews, the persecuted few, which stimulates all these cosmic justice glands? What have we got that the others haven't ?
The Contentious Centrist
"Civilization is not self-supporting. It is artificial. If you are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilization -- you are done." (Ortega y Gasset)
Monday, July 31, 2006
Following the Qana disaster, a great many denunciations against the Jewish State were voiced for having killed nearly 60 innocent civlians, including 37 children, in its attack against a Hizzballa position at Kafr Qana, in South Lebanon.
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Israel at War:
I'll try to bring a diversity of opinions from the Israeli Press, some of which I'll translate from Hebrew:
Yossi Beilin in Ma'ariv today:
Whoever thought that Israel could unilaterally lead its policy vis a vis Lebanon or Gaza was mistaken. Military steps have to be accompanied by relentless efforts to reach an agreement, because only an agreement ensures that there will be a recognized accountable address we can apply to…
The military campaign alone will not get us to the goals the government set for itself. Even a significant ground offensive will not get us there. It is essential to conclude a ceasefire agreement. ..The Olmert government must make every effort to bring about a ceasefire.
The government must put an end to the exposure of Israelis in the rear. We must try to make the best of the new circumstances or the world will never forgive us for harming civilians. Life must be returned to normal before the cost in blood gets too high.
(An excerpt, translated by Noga)
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Refelction on Responsibility
It is inevitable that in thinking responsibility, the question is begged; what makes responsibility? How do we arrive at a stage when we recognize that onus? What I wish to do is consider what makes responsibility, how it is stirred, taught, implanted or cultivated in our hearts and minds and why it is so important to keep this as a purely ethical term, with its own grammar.
Responsibility is a term, which is much knocked around these days, in newspapers, journals, popular literature, and scholarly studies. One would be hard pressed to find a day when the word responsibility is not featured conspicuously in editorials. No discussion of politics, art, economics, culture, religion, or ethics seems possible without dependence on responsibility. We hear a lot about “responsible leadership”, “responsible media”, “intellectual responsibility”, “individual responsibility”, “collective responsibility”. It appears to be a fashionably useful weapon in the arsenal of political debate. When one side disagrees with the other side, it’s the other side, which is highly irresponsible.
I’d like to state right away that I consider the inflationary spiral of such an important term as a crime against language. Why so harsh a verdict? Responsibility is a complicated word, a signifier, which ought to signify, point to, a complex philosophical and ethical term with a puzzling etymology and a solid, well-formulated denotation. Such a term should be applied with the utmost care and circumspection in order to preserve as accurately as possible its ethical relevance. When employed with flagrant and obsessive repetitiveness, a word can become so conventional that it ceases to be visible, loses its precision, its edges get blurred to the point of dissolution and before we know it we are into a kindergarten level of discourse: “Am not” “Are too”. This coarsens the discussion and renders it an exercise in futility.
“ Politics and the English language”
In his famous article: “ Politics and the English language” (1946) George Orwell writes:
“.. It is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything..our language… It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. … the English language.. becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
Orwell was a most conscientious thinker and writer. His expostulations about the cheapening of language in the service of shrill and mostly meaningless polemics is just as relevant today, if not more so.
“Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry”
Michael Ignatieff, in his book “Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry” looks at the depreciation of the term “human rights” from a similar vantage point as Orwell:
“Global human rights consciousness, moreover, does not necessarily imply that the groups defending human rights actually believe the same things. Many of these NGO’s espouse the universalist language of human rights but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes or persons… The problem is that particularism conflicts with universalism at the point at which one’s commitment to a group leads one to countenance human rights violations towards another group.”
Ignatieff is claiming here that a noble term which was supposed to uphold an ideal of universal justice, the kind that safeguards the equity and inviolability of all human beings, has been devalued by different interest groups to the point where it is nearly worthless. Politicization of an ethical principle can only lead to the kind of confused, dislocated application of the term “Human rights”, where some NGO’s use it to justify their support of terrorist activities.
“Economy of the Unlost”
In her book of essays “Economy of the Unlost”, Anne Carson tries to locate, as far as she can, the meaning, source, energy of poetry, its possibility of being and what that possibility means. She does it by comparing two poets who lived 25 centuries apart, Simonides of Keos (5th century b.c.e) and Paul Celan (a Romanian Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust).The “economy” of the title refers to the spareness of poetic application of language. It would seem that one of her suggestions is that at times when parts of language and meanings of words have been appropriated and deformed, thereby lost, it is the duty of the poet to use what is left economically. Simonides’s notorious stinginess with money was mirrored perfectly in his language-sparing poetry. It was as if he tried to illustrate the total and overwhelming importance of the word by using money in the way he used words. Keep a small portion of the gifted commodities to himself, sell the rest, for money. For Celan, this reality is not of his own choosing. The German language, into which he was born and upon which he grew up, was hijacked at a certain point for a national “deathbearing talk”. Once the 15 minutes of the Thousand-Year third Reich were over, language survived, but badly beaten, warped, crippled, decimated, terribly fragile. That’s what Celan had to work with, decided to work with, but with great care and frugality, to preserve what is unlost that is still usable. In other words, to use language with extreme economy.
Paul Celan was extremely anxious about the erosion of meanings in language.
“ He sometimes saw language-death as a more universal problem: The tendency of meanings to “burn out” of language and to be covered by a “load of false and disfigured sincerity” is one that he here ascribes to ‘The whole sphere of human communicative means”
It’s this kind of anxiety that animates my concern over the bowdlerization of the term “responsibility”, that it is drained of its moral import and relevance by being associated all too freely and cheaply with a-historical analogies. It is my belief that intellectuals ought to adopt this pristine ethos of linguistic economy, to be particularly mindful not to squander the precious meanings of moral terms in the service of some short-term political thesis.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Noga notes that she is fully aware that she has yet to say something about herself and for herself. It's just that Noga doesn't yet have a handle on this blogging thing. The technical stuff as well as the maintenance of motivation when every post she writes hardly makes a reverberating splashing sound. So far it's been like throwing pebbles into a dry well.
The only response she got were these fragrant words from an anonymous reader:
my tongue, awkward;
in awe of your speaking heart,
can only agree
Much appreciated the thought, the effort, the elegance. No tongue could be any less awkward.
Silence,Violence, language, Being
In reading the following quotes, please consider the questions:
How does the verb "to be" render language violent?
Predication, after all, is agency, action, movement of one object in relation to another. Can we use language in a world which is constantly dynamic, changing, fluctuating, without inserting selfhood into it? Am I correct in assuming that the verb to "be" is about "self" (I, you, he..)? What happens when the "self" is removed, completely, from a text? If there is no "to be", then there are no selves.
What are we, then?
Without selves, there are no subjects, and without subjects, there are no objects.
What would we be, then?
Ghosts in a world that happens around us? A kind of Borg, absorbing and absorbable into one huge entity? And how can there be responsibility without the "being", the self?
Any system as a system implies a beyond it by virtue of that which it excludes. Language as a system exists through a regulated process of re-iteration, so that all signification takes place within this frame of compulsory repetition. Every concept gains significance through a process of exclusion, as language in its attempt to represent reality simultaneously homogenizes it.
Beware, my friend, of the signifier that would take you back to the authority of a signi-fied! […] "Common" nouns are also proper nouns that disparage your singularity by classifying it into species" (Cixous 1976: 892).
Thus, language itself produces silences since every word, every concept run the risk of violence through the exclusion or assimilation of multiplicity. Critical discourses (like feminism and postcolonialism) seek to focus on this beyond that exceeds the limit of a system of representation that is persistently sought to be assimilated to the system by violence. According to Derrida all discourse is originally violent, whereby "a speech produced without the least violence would determine nothing, would say nothing, would offer nothing to the other […] it would be speech without phrase" (1978: 147). For Levinas, Derrida tells us, "nonviolent language would be a language which would do without the verb to be, that is without predica-tion. Predication is the first violence", whereby "violence appears with articulation" (ibid: 147f.). This raises the question of whether a non-violent responsiveness to that which remains irreducibly 'other' to any structure of representation is possible? Or is violence inscribed in the very mode of discourse as assimilation of alterity? To open the possibility of a non-violent relation to the other demands responsibility."[…] by the ethical relation I mean to indicate the aspiration to a nonviolent relation to the Other, and to otherness more generally, that assumes responsibility to guard the Other [sic] against the appropriation that would deny her difference and singularity" (Cornell 1992: 62)
A critical and utopian perspective on non-violence explores possibilities of overcoming the 'internalised' violence that structure socio-cultural relations. Responsibility, for Derrida, is composed of 'response' plus 'ability', that is, the ability to respond, to hear, whereby it is a play of listening and speaking. This would entail listening to that which has been silenced in speech
Here is this poem ( from Normand de Bellefeuille's "Categoriques 1 2 3" and istranslated by Doug Jones) :
The father. The predicate.
Sometimes, the shambles."
Nouns only. No verb "to be" anywhere in sight. Instead, we have an explicit naming of the verb action in language: The predicate. The agent of action.
Who is the agent of action?
There is the father who is the law. Then there is the mother who is the predicate of the law. Who does she act upon? The family. And families are often the scenes of butchery.
So, can we say that a text without the verb "to be" is always non-violent? Or maybe the verb "to be" is hidden somewhere, concealed from the naked eye of the reader. It is concealed in "The father". The father is. The mother acts. The family suffers.
Is this what they mean when they speak of the violence of silence, when it is between words? Is violence more violent if it is muted, silent, concealed?
Thursday, July 27, 2006
And now for something light-hearted, for a change...
I've been pondering Johnny Cash's song "Walk the Line" where he declares: "I find it very, very easy to be true". I'm wondering why this needs saying and emphasising by a double "very" on the "easy". Shouldn't it go without saying that when you love someone, you are true to them, effortlessly?
I'm also wondering whether men, ultimately, are more romantic than women. Here is a short short story that illustrates my point (via Normblog):
Constant (by Mark Whitaker)
Under a moonlit sky he says, 'My love for you is as constant as the North Star.'
She shrugs. 'You're only saying that because you heard it in a song.
''No I'm not. Look at it, it's beautiful. Always there. Something you can rely on.
''It looks a bit flickery to me.
''Oh come on, you know what I mean.
''I think so: that your love is like a ball of hot air that's going to evaporate in a few million years.
''Isn't a few million years enough for you?
''Well it's not very constant.
''OK then. I'll be as constant as... pi.
''You old romantic.'
'I tried the stars but they weren't enough, remember?
''Anyway, pi keeps changing.
''Don't be ridiculous!
''It does. It was in the paper last week. The Germans keep adding bits on to the end of it.
''They're not adding bits. It's not changing. It's fundamental! It's the basis of everything.
''So you say.
''So everyone says!
''No, but that's because you...
''I what? I'm not clever enough?
''Stop tricking me like that. Look, why is this so difficult? I'm only trying to tell you I love you.
''Well maybe you should stick to things we both understand.
''OK then, like what?'
'What's wrong with just being constant? Full stop. Nothing's as constant as that.'
'Right. I'll be constant. Full stop.
''Me too. Come here. I love you, Robert.
''I love you, Constance. But you're a pain in the arse at times."
I read this story four times in ten minutes when I first encountered it and then a few more times afterwards. And it always makes me smile. I'm quite infatuated with it.
Does anybody else get the feeling that this couple is not going to get bored with one another for a long, long time, maybe even millions of years?
. “There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge. To indulge, for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed."
From: The Imp of the Perverse, by E.A. Poe
Poe’s mind seems to be much disturbed, full of demons and pitch-dark fears. And yet, his writing never reaches to invoke in me the emotions he wants to convey. There is a certain shift in the way he chooses to express these primary forces from the affective to the scientific. A critic described him as a mechanic of chemical emotions. I've never encountered such a way of describing an author before. And it might be more suggestive of the critic's own imps that he sees Poe as he does. Still, the fact that Poe is so "mechanical", yet fully cognizant of the "chemical" elements that construct our soul, does present a challenge to meet him on his own terms. He seems to understand analytically the workings of the human mind, yet he is always strangely detached from what he describes. Poe is quite adept at figuring out the mechanics of our human interactions in a scary and mean world, yet somehow his tales of horrors have that detached tone of the laboratory report. It is a remarkable combination.This finally could explain more clearly what Harond Bloom means when he says that greatness of an author or a work is to be found in his or its "strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange". How do we know, discern, we are in the presence of such poetic transcendence? When strangeness is added to beauty, when we find ourselves hovering between the human and the divine, teetering on the brink between ultimate knowledge and the drive for life.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Modernity has taken away the sense of the close-knit community and strong mutual bonds that characterized erstwhile societies and still characterize many traditional ones. This sense of community could hardly be defined as "intimacy" in the way we consider it today, but it did offer a reliable support system to its members. This very rarely exists these days in modern cultures. People do not feel beholden to each other. Alienation is a mark of the modern emphasis on the individual. Intimacy between individuals is how we compensate for the loss of that "belongingness" (sometimes known as "tribalism").
However, in our society, individuals who value their individualism find that true intimacy with like-minded people is getting harder to find. And when found, to establish or consolidate. Too much suspicion and distrust mark relationships. Even when you feel you have somehow been fortunate enough to encounter such a kindred spirit, you are being too bogged down by the anxieties that our modern life has taught us, to give yourself fully to that encounter. There is nothing like the seed of distrust to ruin friendships with the potential for the best of intimacies.
Due to this alienation, we have come to look to these intimate friendships (they are friendships even when they take place within a family) and cherish them. They are the supports of our life now. But they are hard to find and to establish. They are much more demanding in as much as they require going out on a limb, entrusting your weaknesses to the care of someone else. And when they are broken, they can be very painful. Which is why we become even more careful next time around and may miss therefore opportunities to enlarge this circle of amity in our life.
My friends always tell me that I have too great expectations from these relationships that I must learn to be more careful in how I give my heart. But then, I don't see it this way at all. First of all, these very friends who urge me to restrain myself are the best reason why I shouldn't. Because they are proof that my opening up can be and is fully reciprocated. And secondly, my expectations are never greater than what I'm offering. If I'm not willing to risk, then I cannot expect others to. I happen to put huge emphasis on intimate friendships. They are like a chain, and so far I've noticed that the intimate friends of my friends are nearly always people I would have chosen for myself, so that means that something is being sustained, a grid of sorts. But it does require a lot of work and maintenance, especially when these are not next-door dwellers but living in the four corners of the earth.
I find that it is easier to establish a friendship with spiritual people, who have faith in greater powers. They seem more inclined to dispense with the need to withhold trust. They give the relationship all the credit it needs in order to flourish. But they are rare, again.
Radiant microseconds of
Silk tipped arrows
an incandescent globe
Friday, July 21, 2006
On the intelligence of our emotions:
Emotions and reason have always represented a duality in human nature of much interest to thinkers of any colour. In the ancient world, philosophers maintained that emotions involved judgment, response and value. According to Martha Nussbaum, the Stoics, walking in the footsteps of these philosophers, went even further and stabilized this quivering formula by identifying an emotion as a judgment of value. Positing emotion as a judgment of value, it is then distinguished from reason by the stoics as an unstable and unreliable source of ethical thought. Emotions are undependable instructors to a moral order. Children and animals have no emotions. Nussbaum agrees with one part of the Stoic account of emotion, the part where it is characterized as a judgment of value. She disputes however the Stoic argument that these judgments are all false, and goes on to prove that children and animals do have emotions, as we all know albeit an only partly developed sense of judgment.
Since emotions in Stoic ethics were so false, the stoics consistently focused on how to contain and control them, so as to allow reason, a superior value, to maintain its own truthful evaluations of the good life. Nussbaum wishes to persuade us that reason and emotion are not as incompatible as the stoics believed. Neo-stoicism is an elaboration upon stoic way of thinking that includes our modern day understanding of emotions. Her ultimate goal is for us to recognize the intelligent elements in our emotions because they can and must serve as guides to ethical judgment.
She means two things: one, an emotion “involves judgments about important things”. Two, value judgments are transformed into emotion at the very nexus of the emoter’s perception and neediness. We may recognize empirical knowledge as important and valuable, but its importance and value will only affect us emotionally if we are personally impacted by it. Nussbaum is at some pains to point out that this fact alone is not a statement on man’s basic selfishness, although it can mean that as well. Ego-centrism is essential to all the emotions, and it is a futile exercise to urge against that fact.
“I do not go about fearing any and every catastrophe anywhere in the world, nor (so it seems) do I fear any and every catastrophe that I know to be bad in important ways. What inspires fear is the thought of damages impending that cut to the heart of my own cherished relationships and projects. What inspires grief is the death of someone beloved, someone who has been an important part of one’s own life. This does not mean that the emotions view these objects simply as tools or instruments of the agent’s own satisfaction: they may be invested with intrinsic worth or value. They may be loved for their own sake, and their good sought for its own sake . . .. [Nonetheless], the emotions are in this sense localized: they take their stand in my own life, and focus on the transition between light and darkness there, rather than on the general distribution of light and darkness in the universe as a whole.”
Nussbaum wants us to develop finer tools for figuring out, or unraveling, our own emotional upheavals. By managing a better understanding we create a certain ironic distance from the turmoil. We thus gain a needed clarity about what these emotional upheavals tell us about our relationship with the world. For Nussbaum, emotions are a form, so to speak, of smart thinking:
“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature; they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.”
Reason and emotion are of a piece. They are not separate units of cognition within the psyche but rather interpenetrating constituents of the units that are the building blocks of our human essence, our responsive capabilities. As constituents, the two elements grow and contract, according to individual cases. Emotions are intelligent and intelligence can be emotional. The intelligence in human emotions has memory, memory being what I earlier called empirical knowledge. The emotional component impacts the reason, the intellect, but the reason eventually guides the emotion in a truly ethical human being.
Quotes are cited from: Upheavals of thought
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Aspects of Love:
From Robertson Davies novel: "Murther and Walking Spirits":
“Listen to me. Every marriage involves not two, but four people. There are the two that are seen in the altar, or the city clerk, or whoever links them, but they are attended invisibly by two others, and those invisible ones may prove very soon to be of equal or even greater importance. There is the Woman who is concealed in the man, and there is the Man who is concealed in the woman. That’s the marriage quaternity, and anybody who fails to understand it must be very simple, or bound for trouble”
Gil’s best friend, Hugh, makes this observation. He is also one of the few men who actually recognize and embraces the woman in himself, so much so, that he has avoided marriage because he’s “never met a woman who would have me whom I felt I could trust in the same house and in the same bed with my own woman”.
This is wisdom. In my opinion, and I am disposed to be a little biased in favour of women in this matter, women are much more attuned and accepting of the man inside them. Gil’s wife, Esme, demonstrates how that is: she “had to call on powers that carried her over a rough patch, and gave her strength to bear what she thought she might not be able to endure”. She was an ambitious woman and had to resort at times to being “coarse and domineering” in order to get the successful career she craved.
Self-empowerment in women comes, I think, mainly, from recognizing and taking up those tough, traditionally male, qualities in them, that they have to utilize in order to get ahead in society.This recognition of the Man inside a woman has been suppressed for a long time. Western culture has encouraged women to be feminine, supine and pursued. This trend still lingers to some degree in our society.
We can cast this duality in sexual terms. Women, classically, in literature and culture, have been viewed as the object of desire. Men desire and pursue actively. Women are supposed to be merely reactive and desired. But women authors, even in the rather sexually repressive nineteenth century, wrote novels about heroines who were desiring subjects.
A famous example is, of course, Jane Eyre. In this novel, we get a full demonstration of the “quaternity” we encountered earlier. Mr. Rochester’s vulnerability and nurturing care for Jane are as feminine as Jane’s sturdy resistance to him is masculine. She desires him fiercely, so that she is no less the pursuer than the pursued in this relationship. It is hardly a wonder that the figure of Jane Eyre created such a dislike for her. She was described by contemporary women as coarse and unladylike. Even D.H. Lawrence hated both her and Charlotte Bronte for “emasculating Rochester”. D.H. Lawrence would not accept the “quaternity”. In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, the heroine was a helpless, mainly hormonal creature. There was nothing masculine or even energetic about her behavior. Her lover is all male. I read the novel many years ago, so I may be reconstructing something here. I hope not.
Jane Austen created a desiring heroine in her novels. Anne Eliot from Persuasion is a perfect example. Her object of desire is Wentworth, and one of the first indication that Anne has a Man in her, is her recognizing this in herself. She becomes active in bringing about her own happiness. Such energy and conviction would have been insupportable in women in her own time.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
"We are our stories, we are the lives we tell." ( Anonymous poet from Seattle):
Isn't it the other way around? My life tells me. I'm born into a set of circumstances from which several stories may issue forth. Each choice takes me into a different story. If I am lucky, it is the story, which I created for myself. Often it is the story that others created for me. When the two stories clash, it's crisis time. The Chinese sign for crisis combines two symbols: danger and opportunity. Or, if you wish to intensify, or universalize, the contrasts, terror and beauty.
Terror surrounds us, beauty beckons. Terror defines us. Beauty revives us.
The story we tell of our life is that of terror, crisis, suffering, punctuated by rare moments of beauty. Terror is the life we live. Beauty is the life we could have lived. Beauty is the narrow bridge. It is so narrow, it is no more than a filament. But its power sustains, nourishes our starvation, hunger, sorrows. As we walk on that bridge, so flimsy, swaying over the chasm, we do not tell a story. We are too occupied coping with our terror to tell a proper story.
A story happens when our experience of terror is turned into beauty. Why does this transformation occur? Because the story gives meaning to our travails. Beauty is the meaning we attach to our life in the hope of defeating terror. That's when we tell the story of our life and imagine there is some grand scheme to it.
Is the opposite of terror really beauty? Or are they both companions on the same journey?
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
“Questions about human needs are questions about human obligations. To ask what our needs are is to ask not just which of our desires are strongest and most urgent, but which of our desires give us an entitlement to the resources of others. This natural pairing of the idea of need with the idea of duty and obligation is what distinguishes need from desire. Need is bounded by the idea of the necessary or the essential. Desire is unbounded even by the idea of utility. It is possible to specify the duties, which follow from an obligation to meet someone’s needs. But the duty would be boundless, and therefore meaningless if it extended to a person’s desire.
Need is vernacular of justification, specifying claims of necessity that those who lack may rightfully address to those who have. Without the language of need, and the language of right that derives from it, the human world would scarcely be human: between powerful and powerless only the law of hammer and anvil, master and slave would rule. The pathos of need, like the pathos of all purely verbal claims to the justice and mercy of another, is that need is powerless to enforce its right. It justifies an entitlement only if the powerful understand themselves to be obliged by it.”
(The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on the Philosophy of Human Needs, by M. Ignatieff)
It is taken for granted that compassion flows from those who have to those who have not, from those who are imbued with a sense of power to those who are perceived to be powerless. Ignatieff’s essay takes this popular interpretation of compassion and turns it around a bit, to illuminate the equation from the other end, that of need. While compassion is understood to be a voluntary surge of human feeling towards another, less fortunate being, need is described as a hard lack of subsistence or well-being. There is nothing voluntary about need. Want is undeniable. And it’s this very undeniability of the deficiency or scarcity of some essential commodity that gives need its ethical claim on other people’s resources.
So we have juxtaposition between compassion and need, wherefore the one, a relatively full vessel abounds towards a relatively empty vessel. But of course, compassion is not at all as simple as that, nor is need just a lack of something. Taking down this duality a notch, it can easily lurch into pity and entitlement.
How is compassion related to obligation? How can we keep our sense of obligations towards other from deteriorating into pity? How can we demarcate the line between the need and the sense of entitlement?
The ancient Chinese sage Mencius (4th century BC), much admired by Voltaire, once wrote:
This is why I say that all men have a sense of commiseration: here is a man who suddenly notices a child about to fall into a well. Invariably he will feel a sense of alarm and compassion. And this is not for the purpose of gaining the favour of the child's parents or of seeking the approbation of his neighbours and friends, or for fear of blame should he fail to rescue it. Thus we see that no man is without a sense of compassion or a sense of shame or a sense of courtesy or a sense of right and wrong. The sense of compassion is the beginning of humanity, the sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness, and sense of courtesy is the beginning of decorum, the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Every man has within himself these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs. Since everyone has these four beginnings within him, the man who considers himself incapable of exercising them is destroying himself.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
FULL MOON / Alison Pick
A portal. A circular door –
to eternity, maybe, where existence goes
to die, to be reborn again. A hole to crawl through
leaving failure behind. Call the place we land in
heaven, although it’s dark: the moon does not shine
without the sun. The two-faced sky
sees both sides, its single eye
trained on absence: words not said,
the back of a mirror. The stars’ mirror image
held on the sea. We paddle through
our own reflections, full moon above, that watery
gate. The shape of you, the shape
of me. The infinite distance to be crossed.
Why do I like this poem?
It's because of this:
" The two-faced sky
sees both sides, its single eye
trained on absence: words not said,
the back of a mirror."
It's the negative film, which we tend to diregard, forget, ignore, because the positive picture is always so much sharper, fuller, congruent with what is easily identified and known. Absence, silence. lacunae, non-reflective surface - what are they to us? Can emptiness have meaning? Can we ever know words that remain unspoken? Yet, meaning is created in the gap between words, within the very silence that separates them from one another.
I woke up this morning to a fretful day.
Was reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre today. Maybe it’s my subconscious longing for some moral clarity and unambiguous conviction that sent my mind that way.
Here’s Sartre on two favourite interests of mine:
On defeating anti-Semitism:
“The cause of the Jews would be half won if only their friends brought to their defense a little of the passion and the perseverance their enemies use to bring them down.In order to waken this passion, what is needed id not to appeal to the generosity of the Aryans- with even the best of them, that virtue is in eclipse. What must be done is to point out to each one that the fate of the Jews is his fate. Not one Frenchman will be free so long as the Jews do not enjoy the fullness of their rights. Not one Frenchman will be secure so long as a single Jew – in France or in the world at large – can fear for his life”
It has a nice, contemporary ring to it, doesn’t it? Too bad the honourable Frenchman de l'Elysée can’t seem to recall these august sentiments.
On the condition of love:
“An infant plunging its hands into a jar of honey is instantly involved in contemplating the formal properties of solids and liquids and the essential relation between the subjective experiencing self and the experienced world. The viscous is a state halfway between solid and liquid. It is like a cross-section in a process of change. It is unstable but it does not flow. It is soft, yielding and compressible. Its stickiness is a trap, it clings like a leech; it attacks the boundary between myself and it. Long columns falling off my fingers suggest my own substance flowing into a pool of stickiness. Plunging into water gives a different impression; I remain solid. But to touch stickiness is to risk diluting myself into viscosity. Stickiness is clinging, like too possessive dog or mistress”
Anne Carson explains Sartre's idea of romantic love. The subjectivities he talks about are very much in line with Buber’s I and thou, mentioned earlier in my blog (though Buber applies them to all human experiences and not just romantic love) and the way he describes the relaying of the surrendering selves between the lovers is somewhat Austenian, as well. But you can't overlook a certain panic in Sartre's formulations, such as: "clings like a leech" or "clinging, like too possessive dog or mistress". I think he is more of a Plato man in his attitude then an Aristotelian.
"For Sartre, the ideal of romantic love is a prolonged state of mutual subjectivity — a state of mind enjoyed by two persons which involves each of these persons seeing the world "through the eyes of the other." An ideal lover "puts himself in the shoes of his beloved" in abandoning his outlook on the world for hers. He thinks as she would, sees, touches, and feels as she would, and affirms as valued all the principles and goals to which she is herself attached. As such, he renounces any critical standpoint with respect to his lover — any standpoint from which she would be constituted from without as an object having such and such properties; e.g., as basically honest but not without some self-delusions, pretty but not beautiful, open but yet not altogether uncomplexed, and so forth. Such properties are discernible only from a point of vantage which our ideal lover, in loving, has left behind. He now tastes of her subjectivity, and no longer of his own. However, an ideal love is not unrequited. In affirming the other as subject, a lover affirms a subjectivity which is in turn affirming him, as subject, and so something like the normal situation with which we began is re-established. The lover subjugates his own consciousness to that of his beloved in constituting the world through her eyes, yet finds (since she is reciprocating) that the world so constituted is his own. She has returned the gift, as it were — unopened, yet bedecked with her ribbon and seal. Fitting enough, she would avow, since on her account of things she was only responding in kind to the return of her gift, unopened yet personalized. Much like Kierkegaard's Abraham, lovers have first to give the world away in order that they might receive it back again, enhanced. Sartre would talk easily in terms of the metaphor of the returned gift, adding that the nature of the gift is that of freedom — not the freedom by which we choose, say, between A and B, where A and B are two alternative courses of action, but rather the more basic, constitutive freedom by which we let there be a world of choice to begin with. For his, romantic love has for its ideal the permanent exchange of two such freedoms — each freedom affirming the other, which is in turn affirming it, and so forth. Love thus becomes that primordial partnership which all other partnerships have for their ground, or basis. It is the partnership by which a God would enter in contract with another God, or with His mirrored image."
From: Anne Carson “Eros, The bittersweet”.
Saturday, July 15, 2006
Fear and Hope:
"Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we swept --not with any uniform movement --but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet --sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible. "Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity, which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious --for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. 'This fir tree,' I found myself at one time saying, 'will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,' --and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all --this fact --the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more. "It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-strom. By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way --so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters --but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed --that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb, as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean, without undergoing the fate of those that had been drawn in more early or absorbed more rapidly. I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent; --the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere; --the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.
From: A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM by Edgar Allan Poe
At the climax of the story, a triad of human conditions are played out one against the other: fear, hope and curiosity. Fear is all consuming, very palpable, with the certainty of death. Up to a point, the hope that they will survive the vortex lingers. Once the narrator lets go of his hope for life and gives himself over to the knowledge of his approaching end, he is no longer afraid. Instead, in what he must have known were the final moments of his life, he is filled with great curiosity and a joy, that probably now he will discover the secret at the bottom of the whirlpool. He becomes acutely aware of the way things behave in this seeming anarchy of nature. He then realizes that there is a pattern to be perceived, which, applied correctly, might help him survive after all. Hope returns and with it, the great fear.
The movement described by Poe begins with fear of the unknown and death. Hope is part of the fear. Rational observation dictates giving up hope. With hope gone, so is fear. Rational thinking and discernment take over, eventually leading to a reintroduction of hope and fear. The narrator's brother, overcome with fear and unable to relinquish hope, goes insane, makes a fatal decision that propels him into sure death.The narrator's abandoning of hope leads to a temporary suspension of fear, enough to keep his clarity of mind that will end up saving his life.Hope and fear constrain him, working against his life interest. Once he accepts he has nothing more to lose, his spirit is set free and a path opens up, leading back to life.
I am again reminded of Rabbi Nachman's poem about the narrow bridge and fear. Fear impedes life. Fear gets us closer to the chasm and darkness. Letting go of fear means having a chance at life.The beauty of the vortex, the horror of death it spells, the promise of knowledge beckoning from its very bottom. The inextirpable drive to life that can dictate the exact moment in which we are to relinquish hope.
Friday, July 14, 2006
It is prudent to be equally wary of Percy, Laurence and Augustin. Laurence recites poetry, Percy lectures and Augustin tells truths. A frank person – that is the latter’s title, and his profession is that of being a true friend.Augustin comes into a salon; verily I tell you, be on your guard and never forget that he is truly your friend. Remember that, just like Percy and Laurence, he never comes with impunity, and that he will not wait for you to ask him before telling you a few truth about yourself, any more than Laurence waited before delivering a monologue before you, or Percy before telling you what he thinks of Verlaine. He does not let you wait for him or interrupt him, since he is frank in the same way as Laurence is a lecturer, not in your interest but for his own pleasure. To be sure, your displeasure intensifies his pleasure, just as your attention intensifies the pleasure of Laurence. But he would forego it if necessary. So here we have them, three impudent scoundrels to whom we should refuse all encouragement, all indulgence, and anything, indeed which feeds their vice. Quite the contrary, for they have their own special audience which they can live off. Indeed, the audience of Augustin the sayer of truths is quite extensive. This audience, misled by the conventional psychology of the theatre and the absurd maxim, ‘who loves well chastises well’ refuses to recognize that flattery is sometimes merely an overflow of affection and frankness the foam and slobber of a bad mood. Does Augustin exercise his spite on a friend? His audience draws a vague mental contrast between Roman rough justice and Byzantine hypocrisy, and they all exclaim with proud gesture, their eyes lit by jubilation at feeling themselves to be morally better, more down to earth, altogether rougher and tougher. ‘He’s not someone to spare your feelings out of affection!…. Let’s honour him: what a true friend….”
From: Pleasures and Days, by Marcel Proust
I browsed a little to find what great people say about the relationship among flattery, frankness and friendship. Apparently, there is a relationship. Shakespeare says that friendship is a kind of flattery. Socrates says that flattery is like friendship in show, but not in fruit.
So there seem to be connections extending each way. Friends can be frankly flattering, with the best of intentions and affection. Isn't that why we like to mention our friends? As some sort of an affirmation, that for those people, we matter? Isn't that what flattery does to us? Tells us that we are special in some way, some noticeable way? I think this is where the nexus is, between these three terms.
I recently had to occasion to ask: is this friendship? The answer was: why do you care what it's called? What if I am your friend but I'm a lousy human being? I am honoured to be your friend, but remember, it is only I. Flattery, (I am honoured); frankness (if I'm a lousy human, then this friendship doesn't say much about you, right?). But in this case, both the frankness and flattery join together to flatter a friend. A friend, apparently, who is worth the trouble of an answer.
Of course having such a friend flatters my ego. Would I be telling this story if the answer was: of course we are not friends, you silly cow, friendship with you would be like having a constant pain in the proverbial. No way. I would be licking my wounded amour-propre somewhere out of sight.
What I want to say is that I probably agree with Proust that flattery can be seen as an overflow of affection, especially when it happens between friends. And that flattery between friends has many subtleties to it. But still I wonder: Is there, underneath it all, a jousting for power, somehow?
An etymological perspective:
"flatter c.1225, from O.Fr. flater "to flatter," originally "stroke with the hand, caress," from Frank. *flat "palm, flat of the hand" (see flat (adj.)). "
My friend Sue says:
“Someone cares enough to think one is at some level of one's being."
Indeed. I think Sue captured perfectly Proust's meaning of the overflow of affection. But I also happen to believe that friends who are really close to us are always good looking in our eyes. It is a fact that it is very easy to be generous in that respect towards our friends. Maybe that's what Proust was actually aiming at expressing when he talks of flattery between friends. Something that is more like a welling of generosity.
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Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Who Dares Wins
.. or "Chi osera ci sincere" is the motto of five special forces elite units: the British SAS, the Australian SASR, the Greek Special Forces, the Cyprus Tactical Group (pronounced: "O tolmon Nika") and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal (in Hebrew: Ah-meh-ez – menatzeach). The motto represents the importance of courage, resourcefulness and the willingness to try new ways of successfully accomplishing missions that are thought to be impossible.From: Wikipaedia
Is this a battle cry or an avowal of faith? An audacious boost to flagging self esteem? An attempt to get out of the dark pit, Munchhausen style, by pulling oneself by one's hair?
In order to deal with depression, one has to acknowledge and accept that one is suffering from depression. My own experience tells me that the acknowledgement part comes when the peak of the depression has been scaled. We cannot know it while we are still fully submerged in it. It's only when we begin to surface back to clear air again, that we realized how dangerously close to drowning we were. The ordeal is far from over yet, but at least we can identify it for what it is. Knowing something is wrong means that the way to fix it must, or can, be found, somehow.This is where the daring comes in. Because the last thing you want to do when you are depressed is to dare to do something. But when you are already over the worst, that's when you can start to think about it. Daring to do what, though?
A few years ago I found myself just in that situation. I had a good reason to be depressed and I'd just realized, a year later, that this was a year about which I remembered nearly nothing. In my desperation to get in touch with my mind again, I joined a discussion group in an academic institute. The course was "Aspects of Love. 20 participants and two discussion leaders who were the embodiment of kindness and wisdom. For six sessions I sat there and said nothing. I was enchanted with the reading material, which encompassed every discipline in the humanities. I had lots to say. But I just sat there, mute. Afraid to open my mouth. And then I began to work on myself. I said; next time, I'll say just one thing, one little sentence. I won't mind whether it is a clever sentence or if anyone responds to it. I'll consider it an achievement if I just managed to utter that sentence, once. It took two more sessions for me to get that sentence out. It was not a big deal, and I didn't think I made the leap yet. But in the next session, the leader opened the discussion with a question directed to me. I realized he had given that question some thought and tried to tailor it to me. l appreciated the thoughtfulness. This time I provided a whole paragraph. The others wanted to understand better. It became, finally, what it was supposed to be: an easily flowing conversation. After that, the joke went, that there was no shutting me up.
So, who dares wins. A big dare there. I dare you. I dare you to dare a little. Like taking this item from here and placing it there. Like, understanding your fear and being kind to it by not trying to chase it all away, with one fell swoop. Great heroes can achieve great things by one fell swoop. But in my own life, I'd rather be a little hero, who dares little things and wins.
Right now I'm in the mood for a little daring. But I do have one caveat: a little daring is like dropping a coin into a fountain, or a pebble into a deep well. The reward for doing that is nothing much, or a great deal, depending on one's personality. I enjoy doing that, dropping little pebbles into a well, because I like the sound of the pebble hitting the water and reverberating back up to me. That's my reward. There is something that delights about this exchange, the pebble hitting the water, the water responding by sound… splash….
But if you know the well is dry and you still drop that coin, then don't expect any rewards. Daring should not come out of desperation, or emotional drought.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
In Translation Review (Number seventy 2005) I encountered this poet/translator Cid Corman, who passed away in 2004. His minimalist poems captured my attention right away. The poem I'm quoting here seems to illustrate Buber's philosophical principle of I and thou to perfection. What is intuitively grasped suddenly emerges as a real possibility.
By myself I am just someone, like any other someone. What makes me special is you. When I'm with you (the other), I come into being, I become myself. I guess that's what's meant when we say some bring out the best in people, some bring out the worst. It's in the interaction between I and thou that our essence, good or bad, bubbles up from the raw, amorphous matter we are made of.
You may not get it
but I'm all there is
offered here. And what
that amounts to
won't be clear until you
offer yourself too.
(More poems here:
Here's the etymology of "offer".
O.E. ofrian, from L. offerre "to present, bestow, bring before" (in L.L. "to present in worship"), from ob "to" + ferre "to bring, to carry" (see infer). Non-religious sense reinforced by O.Fr. offrir "to offer," from L. offerre. The noun is first recorded 1433, from O.Fr. offre (12c.), verbal noun from offrir. The native noun formation is offering (O.E. offrung), verbal noun from offrian.
"I" occupy a certain physical space with a shape to it, that would be given a special meaning at the moment of mutual recognition. It's like, maybe, someone writing the most beautiful poem in human history. Unless that poem was read by someone else ("thou"), what would be the value of it?
Egos are good.
Without egos, there can be no loving.
There is no "I love you", without the "I".
The "I" is essential in the "I Love you".
Imagine one lover asking the other:
-Do you love me?
And the answer is:
-Love is directed at you.
-Yes, but do you love me?
How long will that relationship last?
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Why “The Contentious Centrist”?
The blog’s name was proposed by a poet friend of mine, the same “Anonymous” responsible for the two- line vindication above. The idea suggested itself when we were discussing the philosophical theory of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, during which we came across this charaterization of her by one of her intellectual admirers. Why was she thus described? Because “ She takes on conservatives and cultural radicals alike, a “contentious centrist,” who takes plenty of heat from the pundits as a result.”
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
As a refugee of one of the (alas, no longer) best message boards on the Internet, I decided to strike out on my own and create this blog. This is my page, on which I can trumpet my joys, my woes, my steadfast opinions, my unapologetic positions on this and that, without being heckled and jeered at by anybody who does not like the colour of my eyes or the shape of my mind or the insistence of my identity. It feels odd, this surge of rebellious energy. The “rebellious” modifier, in this context, does not imply any inclination for revolutions on my part but rather is used to imply defiance of an anxiety. Like a child whistling in the dark.
In starting this blog, I’m trying to dispel a certain feeling of loneliness and alienation. Hoping that what others, and I, say on these pages will somehow touch other minds.
I once imagined what it must be like to spend a night alone on a mountain. You can't sleep for fear of the night noises and the solitariness so you sit up and light a little candle, to chase away some of the darkness. And as you sit there, you suddenly perceive from afar other tiny flickering lights, there and there and there. So you may be alone on that mountain but you know you are not alone in an absolute way.
There is a song by Bruce Cockburn (“Loner”) which speaks to this lonesomeness:
"Wild shadows, acid verbs
Eyelids opening dans mon coeur
Tu me touche comme la pression
Des etoiles sur les tenebres*
In the elevator and the empty hall
How am I ever going to hear you when you call"
(You touch me like the stars
press down on the darkness)
What can stars do? They let out faint light that can hardly be of any use (except inspire poets and painters) but they do touch us in a tender way. A touchless touch. Just like these conversations on the Internet.
More about me and I and other Contentious Centrists, in the following days and weeks.
To all Americans, everywhere, Happy Birthday, America!