26 July 2016

On the Need for Beautiful Things

The other night, before falling asleep, I started reading Moby Dick.  Let me be more precise: while trying to fall asleep, I started listening to a free audiobook recording of Moby Dick.  (This one.) It was beautiful.  Having picked up the novel in bookstores and libraries perhaps dozens of times during the course of my life without ever making it past the first page, the unveiling of Melville's description of the "Island of the Manhattoes" and everyman's impulse to go to sea was stunning.

What other experiences of this sort have I had lately?  Little lines in Rilke: "Ich glaube an Nächte." or "Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manches mal in langer Nacht mit hartem Klopfen störe..." (Such meter!)

The harmony of a well-designed page with good fonts.

What is the beautiful? A tedious question, because it is too easy—better to ask what is beautiful?  Knowing in abstract what constitutes beauty enables us to find the links between things that are beautiful and their higher causes.  But because beauty in things is the manifestness of their interior order, which discloses to us what they are, while directing us to something higher than what they are—it is more enriching to learn by beholding what is beautiful than by thinking in the absence of beautiful things about the structure of aesthetic delight.

On the Notion of Soullessness

In college and after, i used to talk a lot about "soulless" diversions and professions.  If asked to define the notion, I would have said something like this: "Something is soulless to the extent that it detracts from the pursuit of higher things—philosophy, contemplation, and the ordered pursuit of the good."  In application, though, the notion of soullessness was more narrowly targeted.  Certain things were definitely soulless, because of their decadence or (more often) their materialism.  Finance and management consulting, economics and related subjects were all harshly condemned for their lack of "soul".

Lying in bed tonight, trying to fall asleep, I wondered what it meant to be soulless—I wondered whether, despite my best intentions and hopes, I am slowly becoming soulless, simply through the gradual transformation of my character over the past ten years.  The question is an echo of one of the great anxieties of the boomer generation—the fear of selling out, of being assimilated by "The Man".  But for me "The Man" isn't the concept of authority in general, it's the conversion of the mind into a tool.  Soullessness isn't obedience, nor is it cheating oneself out of the spontaneity of individual genius or talent—it's the instrumentalization of the intellect in such a way that the mind's habitual occupation is neither ipsum esse (whether merely esse commune or esse per se subsistens), nor the truth, but the accomplishment of tasks so minute that their ordination can exist in a state of perpetual suspension, without reference to the ultimate good.

One experiences a certain delight in accomplishing tasks.  There's the delight of accumulation (a materialist pleasure), and the delight of the imposition of will (Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή), but there is also a basic delight in the preoccupation lent to the mind by the process of accomplishment.  

Goethe's Mephisto warns that ars longa, vita brevis.  It is true, but also in a different way—work draws out and fills time, for better or worse, depending on the occupation.  Mann complements and completes this insight: Work that is truly ars fills time in a way that enriches it, slows and suspends it, drawing nearer to the eternity which is the plenitudo perfectionis.  But work which occupies the mind without directing it toward a higher end, which truly diverts the soul from its life, work which is too much for its own sake by virtue of being for the sake of who knows what invisible or undirected end—this work leaves time barren, and while it may leave one short of life, it does not fill it.

What is needed for good work is not merely a sense of the dignity of labor or the importance of perfection—what is needed is an orientation from the work one accomplishes to a higher end, not merely material, but transcendental—not simply quantifiable or relative or contextual in its claim to value, but stemming somehow from what is absolute.  In the absence of that, I think, soullessness sets in.

12 July 2016

Der blasse Abelknabe spricht...

The pale young Abel speaks:

I am not.  My brother did something to me,

Something that I did not see.
He covered up my light.
He drove away my face
with his face.
Now he’s alone.
I think he must still be alive.
Since no one does to him, as he to me.
All of my paths have passed,
and all now come before his wrath,
and all pass by him, lost.

I think my older brother watches
like a court.
The night remembered me,
but not him.

Der blasse Abelknabe spricht:

Ich bin nicht. Der Bruder hat mir was getan,

was meine Augen nicht sahn.
Er hat mir das Licht verhängt.
Er hat mein Gesicht verdrängt
mit seinem Gesicht.
Er ist jetzt allein.
Ich denke, er muss noch sein.
Denn ihm tut niemand, wie er mir getan.
Es gingen alle meine Bahn,
kommen alle vor seinen Zorn,
gehen alle an ihm verloren.

Ich glaube, mein großer Bruder wacht
wie ein Gericht.
An mich hat die Nacht gedacht;
an ihn nicht.

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

11 July 2016

Ich lese es heraus aus deinem Wort...

I read it aloud out of your word,
out of the story of the gestures,
which which your hands, around the things becoming,

rounded themselves, confining, warm and wise.
You uttered “live” aloud and said “die” soft
and repeated ever over: “be”.
But murder came before the first man’s death.
And thereupon a rip tore through your swelling circles
a scream broke out
and tore the voices forth,
which gathered only then
to say around you
to bear about you
the bridge of every chasm –

And what they since have stammered,
are pieces
of your ancient name.

Ich lese es heraus aus deinem Wort,
aus der Geschichte der Gebärden,
mit welchen deine Hände um das Werden

sich ründeten, begrenzend, warm und weise.
Du sagtest leben laut und sterben leise
und wiederholtest immer wieder: Sein.
Doch vor dem ersten Tode kam der Mord.
Da ging ein Riss durch deine reifen Kreise
und ging ein Schrein
und riss die Stimmen fort,
die eben erst sich sammelten
um dich zu sagen,
um dich zu tragen
alles Abgrunds Brücke -

Und was sie seither stammelten,
sind Stücke
deines alten Namens.

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Ich lebe grad, da das Jahrhundert geht...

I live just there, where the century passes.
One feels the wind from a great page,
that God and you and I have written on
and which is turned in strangers’ hands.

One feels the glint from a new side,
upon which everything has yet to come to be.

The quiet powers prove each other’s breadth
and look upon the darkness in each other.

Ich lebe grad, da das Jahrhundert geht.
Man fühlt den Wind von einem großen Blatt,
das Gott und du und ich beschrieben hat
und das sich hoch in fremden Händen dreht.

Man fühlt den Glanz von einer neuen Seite,
auf der noch Alles werden kann.

Die stillen Kräfte prüfen ihre Breite
und sehn einander dunkel an.

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre...

If only just for once it were so still.
If only chance and guesswork would fall silent
and the laughter of my neighbors,
If the noise, which my own senses make,
did not prevent me so from watching – :

Then could I in a thousandfold reflection
approach the edges of you with my thought

And own you (only for a smile’s length),
In order then to give you to the living
as an act of thanks.

Wenn es nur einmal so ganz stille wäre.
Wenn das Zufällige und Ungefähre
verstummte und das nachbarliche Lachen,
wenn das Geräusch, das meine Sinne machen,
mich nicht so sehr verhinderte am Wachen -:

Dann könnte ich in einem tausendfachen
Gedanken bis an deinen Rand dich denken

und dich besitzen (nur ein Lächeln lang),
um dich an alles Leben zu verschenken
wie einen Dank.

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)

Du, Nachbar Gott...

You, neighbor God, when now and then
in dead of night, with heavy knocks I wake you, –
It’s so, because I barely hear you breathe,
and know: You are alone in the hall.
And when you have a need, there’s no one there,
to bring a drink to satisfy your fumbling.
I’m always listening.  Give a little sign.
I am close by.

Only a narrow wall divides us two,
By chance; since it could be
that, but a call from your mouth or from mine,
And it caves in
without any fuss or din.

It is built out of your images.

Those pictures stand in front of you like names.
And when at times the light in me burns out,
by which my depths perceive you,
They waste themselves like glints upon their frames.

And my senses, which are quickly tired,
are homeless and apart from you.

Du, Nachbar Gott, wenn ich dich manches Mal
in langer Nacht mit hartem Klopfen störe, -
so ists, weil ich dich selten atmen höre
und weiß: Du bist allein im Saal.
Und wenn du etwas brauchst, ist keiner da,
um deinem Tasten einen Trank zu reichen:
ich horche immer. Gib ein kleines Zeichen.
Ich bin ganz nah. 

Nur eine schmale Wand ist zwischen uns,
durch Zufall; denn es könnte sein:
ein Rufen deines oder meines Munds -
und sie bricht ein
ganz ohne Lärm und Laut.

Aus deinen Bildern ist sie aufgebaut.

Und deine Bilder stehn vor dir wie Namen.
Und wenn einmal in mir das Licht entbrennt,
mit welchem meine Tiefe dich erkennt,
vergeudet sichs als Glanz auf ihren Rahmen.

Und meine Sinne, welche schnell erlahmen,
sind ohne Heimat und von dir getrennt.

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch. Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life." I am currently working through it from the beginning.  I have translated this poem at least once before.)

Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an...

The hour bends down and touches me
with a clear, metallic blow:
My senses tremble. I feel: I can—
and I take hold of the moldable day.

Nothing was finished before I perceived it,
Every single change stood still.
My glances are ripe, and like a bride
To each comes the thing that he wills.

Nothing is so small but I nonetheless love it
and paint it against a golden field, and large,
and hold it high, and I do not know whose
Soul it may set free. . .

Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an
mit klarem, metallenem Schlag:
mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fühle: ich kann -
und ich fasse den plastischen Tag.

Nichts war noch vollendet, eh ich es erschaut,
ein jedes Werden stand still.
Meine Blicke sind reif, und wie eine Braut
kommt jedem das Ding, das er will.

Nichts ist mir zu klein, und ich lieb es trotzdem
und mal es auf Goldgrund und groß
und halte es hoch, und ich weiß nicht wem
löst es die Seele los...

(From Rilke's Stundenbuch.  Several of my favorite poems are from the book's first part, "Of Monastic Life."  I am currently working through it from the beginning.)