Sorrow

Sorrow

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  Shakespeare Macbeth

On a sunny afternoon I visit my mother in her residential aged care home. She has had a minor stroke. Speech and memory are difficult now. She struggles to complete sentences. Only a last desperate look from the whirlpool of memory reminds me of her love. Now all the pain, the madness of her days, the grief, the regrets, the loss, they are all imprisoned inside. There will be no final understanding, except in meeting her glance. Now habit and the simplest acts of caring, to wheel her through the aching sun, are all that we have left together.

Mr Cogito’s monster

lacks all dimensions

 

it’s hard to describe

it eludes definitions

 

it’s like a vast depression

hanging over the country

 

it can’t be pierced

by a pen

 

an argument

a spear

 

if not for its stifling weight

and the death it sends

you might conclude

that it was a phantom

a disease of the imagination

 

but it’s there

it’s there all right

 

it fills crannies of houses

temples bazaars like gas

 

it poisons the wells

destroys a mind’s constructs

covers the bread with mold

 

proof the monster exists

is offered by its victims

 

indirect proof

but sufficient

from Zbigniew Herbert, “Mr Cogito’s Monster”

Image source: http://loveheartministries.com/

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Dr Cogito regrets the futility of his existence

The next in my series of Dr Cogito poems, composed fresh this morning.

 

Dr Cogito regrets the futility of his existence

Do not believe your search will end

Only in salted bread

And a place as a stoker somewhere

The commanding heights will never know

The impress of your shoddy boots

You will die in this open plan

There will be no obituary for you

In our forgotten press

No flowers cast from famous hands

Only the well-known taste of clay

The executioners will gossip

At your grave your madness

Your uncomfortable squirming

When asked to lie

To play along with the latest

Comrade from the rainbow guard

Your dated learning

All those useless books

What help were they

When the judges took your eyes

As if the law could take your side

Only silence forgetting betrayal

You wandered blind prophet

Searching the way to the castle

And back you never knew all lies

Every last veil

Do not believe your helpless revenge

Will disturb the board as it meets

Your words became chains

Holding you against invented change

It was that they distrusted

Words that flowed too well

Bonds between mind and burning soul

Evidence of your jihad

The print on your weapon

Their last conspiracy

Will be to end your words

To make memory fail

To disperse the last rain cloud

And they will say

Do not believe.

 

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Here is another in my series of Dr Cogito poems

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Dr Cogito brought his mind to heel
And made a long list, a dark inventory
Of all the errors of his errant mind.

The unfinished manuscript on dark power.
The poems that returned formality
To its customary esteem.

His escape attempts,
breaking from his lifelong cell,
To reach into the charmed circle

Where the potentates dwell.
Broken diets. Failed regimes
That exercised his core strength.

Abandoned readings. Forlorn petitions
To those who do belong
In some salon or cafe in the great city

Where the infinite conversation
Proceeds in exalted time,
Somewhere beneath his daily dream.

The one time he interpreted Borges
As a fantasist of parthenogenesis.
The tears he spilled

On Boyd’s oils at Shoalhaven.
The winters – so many –
When the dim tide of his missing salts

Lapped the memory of a drowning child.
His ravings to the ethernet
On the latest thing he had read.

All the distractions from true purpose.
The fears that penned him.
His cravings for sweets.

The mentors he might have had,
If he were not like Parsifal
Lost and wandering through this crystal forest

In search of his once true name.
The longing for scholarship,
Its erudite footnotes and elegant forms,

So out of place in this hyper-linked world.
Songs of sorrow in memory of the dead
Whose suffering he sought to know.

Improvisation on a train

On a red sore train

I wonder what I will leave

Behind when I am gone

And only dead words

And the memories of others

Can breathe life

Into all I once knew

Once consoled myself with.

Consoled myself for burning time

An unknown trauma that has no photos

No documents. Only

A childhood of madness.

Tears in rain. No joie de vivre.

But I learnt about life

Inside the old asylums

All sold off now

Like the school I left

To dive without lessons

Into the blue of a shoreless ocean.

And I swam. I survived

If only to give this testimony.

Now like Tiresias

I poke the sacrifice in the flames.

In its ashes, augury.

Alone, I see the shame.

Turn away, but see nothing

But my errant mind.

Yet, it is enough.

Fragile identities, fragile memories

Fragile identities, fragile memories
It is justice which extracts from traumatizing remembrances their exemplary value, turns memory into a project, and it is this project of justice that gives the form of the future and of imperativeness to the duty of memory

Paul Ricoeur Memory, History, Forgetting 

Some years ago I was asked to prepare one of those profiles of myself that serve to introduce your more elusive character traits to colleagues in the workplace through a series of questions about life outside of work and reflections on work.  After questions like what were my memories of childhood and which movies had changed my life – to which I replied none, but several books had, including A la recherche du temps perdu – I was asked what kind of workplace I wanted to work in.

I replied in an instant, a flash of intuition – “one that respects human frailty.”

No one ever really asked me about this statement of philosophy. I do not know if many read my profile. A few made reference to it in the weeks it was on display as Get to know profile of the employee of the month. But none of the revelations in this profile, hinted though they may have been – my years of drinking, the fragility of my mind, my poetic stirrings, the madness of my family and childhood, not even my declared philosophy of the workplace – none of these hints at the broken shards of my identity ever led to an approach towards greater intimacy.

Still, even though this poem of the everyday dates from ten or so years ago, that orientation still defines who I am at work. We are all frail, and our projects tragically fail many times. Yet still we can move towards a good life, a just life if we live together as neighbours in each other’s frailty.

The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, once described a little ethics to guide the cohabitation of the divided self in a troubled world . This little ethics, perhaps another way to describe ordinary virtues, was “aiming at a good life lived with and for others in just institutions” (Oneself as Another, 1992: 172)

It is a simple statement, yet an enduring challenge. Its modesty is welcome in these days when identity politics is loud and proud, and forgets that it is both fragile and only ever lived through institutions. Much denounced, treacherous and frail institutions.

How though do we bridge the gaps between our frail identities, our limited capabilities, always melting in the sun like Icarus’ wings, and our hopes for more just institutions? I make my way in one of these institutions, government, and try to live a good life with and for others within it; but is the institution just? And if it is not just, what can I do about it? Poor, limited, frail and incapable me?

Only, I suppose, by practising a little ethics, of small intentions and ordinary virtues, can I bridge the gap between my private dreams of good government and the public poverty of the unjust institutions of government today, with its rampant clientilism and patronage, the competitive control of rival gangs, a surrender to vacuousness, a loss of public spirit and shared high culture, a fragmentation into a thousand hard brittle shards of shrill politicking.

And only by knowing that we are all frail – both self and other, both governed and governing, both oppressed and oppressor, both conqueror and vanquished – can we transcend the murky politics of both populism and identity politics. Only by knowing we are all frail, all past and potential victims at the sacrifice, can we avoid fusing identities with deadly beliefs about history.

Elsewhere, Ricoeur writes:

“A third cause of fragility is the legacy of founding violence. It is a fact that no historic community exists which does not have its origins in war. … The same events, therefore, signify glory for some, but humiliation for others. One side’s rejoicing corresponds to the other’s execration. This is how real and symbolic wounds are stored in the archives of collective memory.” Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting

There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.

Image Credit: ABC news photo of statue of Captain Cook vandalised after a call by indigenous Australians to remove monuments commemorating the day British settlers and navy arrived in Australia

The return of sacred violence

The return of sacred violence

“Central to both torture and terror is the political psychology of degradation”  Paul Kahn, Sacred violence: torture, terror and sovereignty

Violent imitation, which makes adversaries more and more alike, is at the root of all myths and cultures. Rene Girard, Battling to the end.

It is a characteristic of our time that as political authority disintegrates, political violence for a cause is resurgent.

This is a troubling phenomenon, but its difficulty should not lead us to avert our eyes.

Its most obvious form is in the appeal of Islamist terror to a small group of Western muslims.

But we have also seen acts of extremist violence from across the political spectrum. On one side, so to speak, Antifa and its violent protests, a Bernie Sanders supporter shooting Republicans at a charity baseball match, d a comedian pictured with a severed head of a democratically elected President. On the other, the spectre of white supremacists, nostalgic for the confederacy, shouting “jews won’t replace us,” and then driving a vehicle, the mobile weapon of choice in these times, into a crowd of leftist demonstrators.

Identity politics, in all its forms, from the rainbow coalition to the white supremacists shouting “you won’t replace us” , lives on the edge of violence. In asserting identity, it soon insists on the degradation of those who differ in their identity. Tolerance and respect are not values of importance for identity politics. They tend to be sneered as as the condescending gestures of a hegemony to be replaced.

And authority – the one essential attribute for the effective exercise of governing power – is despised. Yet authority alone can constrain violence.

Is the return of sacred violence across our world closely related to the cultural decay described in this blog? Here in closing this brief fragment are the thoughts of Rene Girard:

“I began to see the end of war as a subject in itself. The last days of an institution whose purpose was to control and restrain violence corroborates my central hypothesis, namely that for three centuries all rituals and institutions have been crumbling. War, through its rules and orders, also helped to create meaning by establishing new equilibria over an ever growing geographical area. It has generally ceased to play this role since the end of  World War II. How did the system suddenly disintegrate? How has political rationality finally become powerless?” Rene Girard, Battling to the end

 

Image source: Science News

The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper