Reflections on 2017

Reflections on 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and while it is yet weeks from New Year, the office christmas party season is in full swing, and my mind is turning to an upcoming holiday. I am approaching the end of my current assignment and am going into my annual leave without knowing what I will do or who I will be working with next year. It seems I am very much in internal exile in the minor provincial bureaucracy on which I depend for my livelihood.

I have a crushing sense of defeat in what I suppose I may still call a career. All the qualities that I have seem unwanted, and I can only suppose that the consultocrats and courtiers who run my Castle have decided rightly that I will never be a loyal follower to them. I need to begin to look elsewhere, and to find hope and purpose in more nourishing lands.

So, it occurs to me this morning that one way I can reconnect with a sense of strength is to reflect on this year through the lens of my blog. In many eyes it has been a dark year, but events of the world and events in the life of the mind have different rhythm.

So today let me recap the topics of my posts this year, and next week allow me to reflect on the themes and stories of the year.

In January, I had returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia during which I reread the redoubtable After Tamerlane by John Darwin.

  • It led to a post on the unravelling of empires “adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence” that defeat beliefs in any unitary imperial order, as we see today, when America declines into narcissistic tantrums and China redreams the One Road of Tamerlane.
  • A post on massacres in history discovered a precedent for Islamic foreign fighters in Syria in the exodus of youthful enthusiasts for Hellenic and Christian culture to the Greek war of independence. Among these fighters was the original literary psychopath – mad, bad and dangerous to know – Lord Byron.
  • Then my failure to read Don Quixote, led me to reflect on reading ambitions, and the sheer impossibility of realising them all in our media-saturated world. But the attempt led me to pose the paradox: “In our madness is our truest dignity?”
  • By the end of the month, by now returned to work, I began my series Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, inspired by Wallace Stevens poem with the same perspectives on a blackbird. I described this series as “an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.”

In February, I wrote posts in response to stanzas I through to V of Stevens’ poem, each with a new subtitle: I vigilance amidst stillness; II the three-eyed raven; III the craft of the cameo actor; IV in unity is death; and V the beauty of the bureaucrat.

In March, I completed the series, Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, with VI through barbaric glass darkly; VII at the feet of thin men; VIII involved in what I know; IX servants of Utopias; X flight in green light; XI people who live in glass coaches; XII the thaw, the flight; XIII the long waits of winter. I felt the last few posts were rushed, more lapidary, more gnomic. I have since collected all 14 posts together, and may yet expand into a short book. But I am so wary of the publication industry; I may simply self-publish.

In April, I turned to more literary and cultural themes. In that month I was intensely preparing a secret government report on violence and mental illness, and what, if anything could be done, to prevent acts like the Bourke Street vehicular homicide.

In May, I experimented with writing posts late at night in bed in response to the daily prompt on wordpress and fragments composed on my daily commute. It was, I confess, a search for readers.

  • I reposted a series of older posts from my blog, like six asides about culture (and Havel), and going sane writing, which was prompted by a role model of sorts the British psychoanalyst and essayist, Adam Phillips.
  • I curated more of my content, linking to an essay and conference paper I wrote on “Why is alcohol policy difficult?” This paper I presented to a conference of public health scholarly zealots. At least one person came up to me after my talk and expressed appreciation for what I said.
  • I reflected on Hannah Arendt and her philosophy of natality, which “spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.”
  • I appreciated Kenneth Slessor’s poem, Five Bells, linking to a beautiful radiophonic performance, and continuing the thoughts on natality:”To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success… Only for those five bells”

In June, I returned to something of a more stable pattern. I reflected on Robert Frost’s practice of poetry and the form of the blog in Waste books and epigrams.

  • I wrote an essay “On Humility” prompted by one of my favourite quotes by Jung and likely prompted by still more humiliations and rebuffs at work.
  • I posted the complete paper that I had presented to a conference on children’s voices and the history of emotions. The paper was about how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse created a new way of feeling about trauma. I will return to this paper, and my reflections on this inquiry in the tradition of truth and reconciliation commissions, over coming months, since I am committed to writing a long essay on the significance of this public event.
  • I castigated the Nobel Prize for literature for awarding Bob Dylan the prize.
  • I explored the powerful metaphor of the infinite conversation, which emerged for me as an important theme for my writing, my recovery and my psychotherapy.

In July, I published two poems of mine – The state of politics, and Nouriel’s shoes.

In August, I turned back to themes of politics. I was struggling to find a new place role for myself, and began to reach out to the powerful men who I knew as mentors if not as patrons.

  • I wrote some starting hypotheses for a planned essay, Republics in Distress. “So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.”
  • I wrote on my long held view about the restrictions of freedom of speech and freedom of thought for public servants.
  • Then I wrote a darker piece, The death of the soul, prompted by debates in the press about the decay of culture and decline of religion, in which I asked: “How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts?”

In September, amidst work I was undertaking on lone actor terrorist attacks, I reflected on the return of sacred violence, and this was a kind of dissent against comforting progressive notions of the causes and responses to terrorism.

  • I commented indirectly on the debate on destruction of monuments to historical figures who are no longer as widely esteemed. Here I said: “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.”
  • And I posted more poems, with the best being Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel.

In October, I wrote about sorrow in response to my aged mother’s declining health and cognition; the Red Nostalgia I observed at a lecture on the centenary of Red October, the Russian Revolution; and the meaning for me of Keats’ poem, When I have fears:

  • “In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.”

In November, I returned to reflections on major cultural figures with Conrad’s DarknessForgetting Foucault; and Self-portrait in a time of hunger, which was a kind of premonition of this review of my own work. This last post contained some reflections on my enduring purpose and abiding concerns:

  • “I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?”

Lastly, in December, I have written just last week’s post On revenge, stirred by images of Captain Ahab, and this long recapitulation of the year.

Such has been my year. Reviewing my words, my reading, my images from the year has given me new strength. The verdicts of courtiers and consultocrats should not bother me. They bring nothing to the infinite conversation. I will survive beyond their defeat of me. I will walk unburnt from the flaming archive.

 

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Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art

 

When I have fears

When I have fears

I have over the last year or so frequently relaxed in a meditative trance while listening to soft-spoken readings of poetry.  Set against moody electronic music, the softly but precisely enunciated words penetrate to unknown chambers of the mind. Who this poet trance reader is, I do not know, but I appreciate her readings, stripped of any theatrical reading of the kind famous actors sometimes make.

The readings I listen to most are those of Keats, Dickinson, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, and a reading from Rilke’s letters of advice to a young poet. But my favourite is the recording of Keats’ poems:  When I have fears that I may cease to be; To a Nightingale; Ode on A Grecian Urn; To Autumn; This living hand, warm and capable.

I did not know the poem, “When I have fears”, before I discovered it, read in this way. I had been searching for quality readings of poems, as a way to aid memorisation and to fill the well with things of beauty. Instead of showing me the way to famous actors rendering well known poems with their robust personalities, the world wide web pointed me to this anonymous lyricist of trance, who showed modestly how beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poem itself echoes in my mind. Here it is, before my thoughts:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

What writer of a certain sensibility has not feared they may never live to trace the shadows of the visions that come without fanfare, without announcement, yet fatefully deciding the inner life?

These fears are not resolved in the poem; and instead they are endured. The poet patiently waits out these fears, with their origins in the mysterious illusions of fame and love. He stands alone on the shore of the wide world, thinks, and waits for his fears to subside and for his dreamt illusions – the high-piled books of literary fame, the faery power of unreflecting love – to sink beneath the lapping waves. He is left alone to write, and to make things of beauty from this world, with no expectation of admiration, applause or recognition. These fears hold a cruel paradox – they are fears of not having things that cannot be. Beautiful, evocative, satisfying, alluring illusions. But these illusions also crush words of truth under the heavy weight of impossibility – huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.

In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it has, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

(From Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”)

 

Keats’ own inscription for his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

My inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ on burning paper.”

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.

Poem: The state of politics

Poem: The state of politics

Poetry and politics make for strained companions. The politics of poets is unreliable, inclined to the spree of metaphors that makes the overly confident practitioners of practical judgement uneasy in their thrones. The imaginative thought of politicians can be banal and conceited, if not downright oxymoronic.

Oil and water, maybe? Still I have one foot in both camps, which makes for an interesting life. But both sides of my world – both the part that writes and the part that governs – reels back in revulsion at the state of politics today in modern liberal democracies.

In the course of writing the Burning Archive, I have from time to time, put in prose the disappointment and despair I feel from time to time about our republics in distress. In my series 13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat explored many dimensions of this troubled familiarity with how we are governed – beginning here, in the seed of an idea on perspectives planted by Wallace Stevens’ poem, and ending here, in contemplation of the long waits of winter that I must endure until the season of our politics turns again to some ordinary virtues of governing well. I have written of citizenship as a spiritual experience, of democracy’s discontents, the unravelling of empires, and predicted both Donald Trump’s victory and his failure. Politics is for me an ongoing concern, however much I am distancing myself from it in more recent years,

But today, let me share a poem I have written on the state of politics. It was written against the background of serial leadership challenges in the Australian state, a self-destructive debate on a carbon tax, and a creeping loss of faith that we still have the habits and institutions to resolve our differences and so make a civil life together. Instead we are infected with a culture of gotcha journalism and spiteful twitter smart alecs. Amidst this ruin, the ghost of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito rises, and provides his own report from a corrupted city.

The state of politics

Dr Cogito is reborn

Amidst our gadgets,

Displaying pixelated ruin

For ceaseless fireside chats.

 

On a panel two figures say:

Disunity is death is inevitable

Is the pragmatic choice

Because we know

There is no alternative.

 

Dr Cogito jumps to the mike

But the queued questioners

repudiate reason

putting passion first

To complain of taxing the elements.

 

Every questioner must twit the panel

To try 144 characters of fame

To display their chosen name

To win the acid-tongued mobs

 

On the panel two figures say:

We hate our shrunken state

If only clear air would set us free

From all this aimless hate.

 

Dr Cogito taps his tablet – but too slow

The dark grieving for Lycidas begins.

Unforgiven. Blue bloody murder

Patrols these dark Scottish halls.

 

Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingolds opening note,

And so the story goes:

We still dig from deep water’s mud:

The ring, the ring, the ring.

 

Jeff Rich

Image Source: Seattle Opera staging of Wagner’ Das Rheingold, photograph Rozarii Lynch