absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

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fleet week, blue angels

It is a perfect October day: warm, blue-green-and-golden light poured over every scene like a potter’s glaze.

The long, green strip of the Panhandle is dotted with people at leisure: couples in each others’ arms, men and women pushing babies in strollers, drummers, cyclists, athletes, bench sitters. The constant roar of traffic is a dull and distant backdrop.

In the midst of this comes a shattering sky-filling scream, a sound that momentarily seems to take all of the surrounding air for itself, leaving you gasping. Then the jets are visible, flying like shaftless arrowheads through the air, or as if the sky were flesh on a body inside which we lived, and we could watch as some unexpected knife pierced through and ripped it open.

Through the gash left behind by the Blue Angels’ passing, other things come into view: a filthy man in rags, muttering angry curses, a child bombarding a squirrel with rocks, a wall-eyed girl beating futilely on the arms of a man pinning her down.

The screaming machines that a moment before seemed an absurd intrusion in the idyll have forced their logic on us. Once you accept that logic, you are in its sphere and you will close your eyes to anything.

What the Blue Angels’ roar eliminates, what their presence really protects us from, is the impermissible idea that our life in this world might have been wholly otherwise.

the door

This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.

Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.

It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.

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reassurance and empire: a litany for january 20, 2017

I am not reassured by the idea that life might have been different.

I am not reassured by the idea that life is exactly as it should be.

I am not reassured by human imagination and creativity.

I am definitely not reassured by human adaptability.

I am not reassured by the solidity of the built environment.

I am not reassured by loyal animal companions.

I am not reassured by the vulnerability of children.

I am not reassured by algorithms.

I am not reassured by the fact that I am healthy, fed and clothed.

I am not reassured by the idea that everything will go on without me.

I am not reassured by the idea of individual or collective agency.

I am not reassured by the meaninglessness of the individual or the species in the great scheme of things.

I am not reassured that we have made it this far.

In the swirl of clouds sweeping off the ocean, and the smatter of rain from the oncoming squall, i saw how active and many were the birds in the untended wall of flowering broom growing beside the concrete stair. I would have called them happy, if i dared. Let us just say lively. I watched them till they dispersed, and then looked far out to the slice of cliff-bound shore i could see from there, and the ocean waves in motion at its base, white and tremendous, though they were miles away on the other side of the Golden Gate.

Then i started back. And just as i turned the corner of an empty street, there was the rainbow, vaulting over all i could see. I laughed out loud at the aleatory kitsch, knowing it wasn’t there for me, or for anyone, at this moment or any moment, knowing its shimmering indifference was precisely its monumental promise, was the only message human beings were meant to read in it, that we lived in a world that made such things for itself, and would ever as long as there was air, water, and light in it – and so to love it, as it was, love a world of such marvels that exists without love or hate for us, and yet is us, all we are and (i hope) will ever be. The house we have not built has no love or hate for us either, but in it we live. But of course, we are constantly tearing down well-built houses and trying to build better ones. I withdraw the analogy.

This rainbow shone on and on, its colors at the base fat and glossy beyond any i could remember seeing anywhere for years. It spanned the city that tried to take those colors down from the sky and brand itself with them forty years ago, making me laugh harder, if somewhat bitterly. With no one else in sight, i felt dared to succumb to pathetic fallacy by something that seemed like a great, clownish wink.

I was not exactly reassured by the rainbow, though i loved it, and it made me laugh. I was reassured by the rain-filled wind in my face as i walked, the tangled complexity of a tiny patch of soil at my feet at the top of the stair, and that tumult of bright, dark and singing birds. I was reassured by the momentary feeling of being immersed at every point of my being in a shared medium with them, and even though some day it would dim and die for me, everything i was would remain in intimate participation in that medium, without even the illusion of isolation anymore, unconcerned forever by its unconcern.

the saddest prison in the world

Today I got my release papers from the Castle. Twenty years I served behind its shimmering walls, day after beautiful day, eating the finest food, drinking the best libations. Walking the silent parks under the great, dark trees. Each long, quiet day was an eternity. I was filled with dread and despair, and yet somehow I felt I would not die here. But I had begun to fear that the reason was that I had already died, and forgotten it somehow. And this was the afterlife, what some called “heaven,” and it was forever. Or perhaps I had never been alive.

But that’s what the Castle does to your mind. You stop being able to tell the difference between the living and the dead. There are others all around you, but most of them can’t see you most of the time. If you try to speak with them they frown and wince, as if there were a whining insect in their ear, or some other unpleasant thing. After a while you stop looking at them, because the blankness in their eyes is impenetrable. You stop trying to get any acknowledgment as you pass close to them in the street. I began to fling out my hands to ward them off when they came straight toward me, but my hands just passed through air.

I once read a story of a scientist who tortured a dog that he kept in a laboratory: every time it tried to leave its cage when he opened the door he would give it an electric shock. Finally when it had been shocked a thousand times or so he could leave the cage door open all the time, and the dog would simply lie inside the cage, its head on its paws, looking at the door, and never move. He left it for days without food and water, still it would not move. He had broken it. (I believe the scientist received some kind of military award for his work.)

The people in the Castle act in that way upon one another. They make you give up. Love, companionship, even the mildest amity – you can look and look but you won’t find it among them. You might as well try to befriend a rubber ball.

Whatever else you want, though, you can have. The Castle provides many pleasures. Every vista is a feast for the eyes. The air from the sea is sweet and fresh. And those pleasures are free. There are pleasures available at every price in the Castle, from low to infinite. The pleasures are all as light as air, and do nothing to make you feel alive.

I had long ago forgotten how or why I had come to the Castle. You never intend to come; you just end up here. I don’t remember now how old I was or what I was doing. The trick is that from the outside it just looks like a pretty place, where anyone might want to live. You wander in, intrigued, not realizing the Castle is built like a Venus fly-trap, and once inside you won’t find it so easy to leave again.

But I knew I would be able to leave one day. I understood it was a question of money; it’s always a question of money.

I served, I endured; I knew better than to seek release in pleasure, and so did not waste my time trying to alleviate the dullness of my existence with drugs or purchases. Every empty second yawned into eternity, but I piled them up, second after second, hour after hour, day after day, for twenty years. I grew older; everyone grows older in the Castle, although perhaps more slowly than outside. You don’t notice much outward change, you simply wake up one morning and realize that the time is gone – the time for romance, love, adventure, whatever you might have imagined life would bring. The Castle takes your time away so gently you don’t even know until it’s gone, as if your blood were being drained so gradually that all you felt was a slight fatigue that increased incrementally over time.

Then just the other day, the message came: we’ve gotten enough from you; you can leave now if you want to. Expect your papers soon.

I felt an indescribable sensation of pure joy, for one brilliant moment. And when I felt that, I knew I was still alive.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, the terror set in. Leave and go where? To do what? I knew the Castle, and how things worked here, and I was comfortable in every physical sense. I knew what each day would bring. I worked, and my work was dull, but I didn’t have to work very hard. Other than the pain of loneliness, my life was free of pain. Who was to say I wouldn’t be just as lonely outside, and suffer physical pain and deprivation too?

What would I find out there? Where would I live? How would I survive?

And today the papers arrived. I have them in my hand, and I know that if I’m to leave, I’ll have to walk away, just walk away from this place I’ve lived for twenty years, leaving everything behind, never to return. Just walk away with nothing, into an unknown world.

Now I’m standing in the doorway, with my freedom in my hand, but I can’t bring myself to step outside.

I feel only a surge of hatred for the scientist, and pity for the dog.

Or is it the other way around?

 

biophilia as extreme sport

This review first appeared on the CounterPunch and Dissident Voice webzines. 

The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson gave us the term “biophilia,” which he defined as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” As the world’s human population goes on expanding and walling itself up in cities, and the Sixth Extinction gathers steam, this urge is often expressed as an increasingly desperate kind of nostalgia. It drives support for conserving wild places many will never visit, as well as pastoral landscapes in which most will never work. Not to mention the proliferation of pretty floral, animal, and landscape images on our laptops and phones.

We know we’re missing something – we just don’t seem to have the time or inclination to get out there and look for it in the natural world. We turn instead to extravagant machine-made sound and light shows and other pseudo-experiences to replace the sensory and cognitive richness of the biological affiliations we’ve lost.

Charles Foster, the author of Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, is thus a something of an atavism. An English gadabout and veterinarian with Oxfordian university credentials, he has written a memoir of his gonzo-naturalist attempts not just to observe wild animals, but to live like them, to experience their world from the inside. He is not nostalgic by temperament, but his book is likely to be read by people who are. His personal antidote to our increasing disconnection from the biosphere is not one it would be likely – or beneficial, especially to the other animals – for many of us to follow.

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life after wartime

This piece first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Burned all my notebooks
What good are notebooks?
They won’t help me survive
My head is burning
Feels like a furnace
That burning keeps me alive

You haven’t been to war until you’ve learned to flinch at the sound of a traffic helicopter overhead, as your body waits for the pop of machine gun fire spattered on the crowds below.

You haven’t been to war until you fear having your back to the street as you turn your key in the lock of your own front door, because of how easy it would be to take you out from behind as you stand there.

You haven’t been to war until you look into the shit-filled toilet bowl before you flush and imagine a hand on the back of your neck forcing your head down into the filthy water. Holding it there until your lungs burst, and you gasp for air and swallow shit and piss instead. Until your fingers curl periodically with the sensation that someone is about to pull your nails out with a pair of pliers.

You haven’t been to war until you transpose any loud sound in your dreams to a pounding on your door as the troops storm in to drag you from your bed and fling you into a waiting van.

You haven’t been to war until you wait, behind the thud of distant fireworks at the ballpark, to hear the scream of the diving planes, the shriek of the guided missiles, the rumble and roar of the tanks as they roll in.

You haven’t been to war until you look around guardedly in a crowded street and know without a shadow of a doubt that anyone you see, anyone, could be about to kill you.

And because you haven’t been to war, you cower at the images on the TV screen and you say to everyone you know (all of whom, who haven’t been to war either, will nod supportively and say, yes, of course, that’s true): the police, the soldiers, they have to do whatever they must to protect us. Who are we to judge them? We are not in their place.

But if you have been to war, all of this is waiting for you, all day every day, lurking in the silence of the suburban streets where your neighbors are invisible hostiles, or the clangorous city streets where no one looks anyone else in the eye, where the suit on his phone bumps into you and moves on past without breaking his stride, in the plastic-coated food, and the gas-soaked pavement and the cheesy, piped-in music everywhere – so one day you flip out, you say no more terror, no more dread, no more waiting for the ax to fall. Not enough to go for a drive and blast the car stereo till your gut shakes. Not enough to drink yourself stupid and beat the wife or girlfriend bloody when the rage takes hold.

You plan your operation; you assemble your weaponry (so easy, that part!) Then you head for the highway, for the demonstration, for the shopping mall. You know exactly what to do, because we gave you the best training in the world. We built you, we sent you out there. Ambush. That’s how we roll. Catch the enemy by surprise.

And because we taught you what justice is: it’s kill the other guy, the one who wants to kill you. It’s as simple as that, the justice we taught you, our military justice. You don’t have to ask why he wants to kill you, what made him that way. Just take him out. Make him pay for making you afraid for your life. It’s him or you. If you learned nothing else during your stint, you learned that.

You know it’s a hopeless mission, and you will probably die in the attempt. But what kind of life can you have anyway, now that the war is everywhere?

Others will come after you, and finish what you started.

Rolling Stone, July 11, 2016: Micah Xavier Johnson, thanks to his military training, knew what he was doing, targeting and dispatching police officers with ruthless efficiency. Footage from the attack showing Johnson weaving in and out of pillars and shooting one officer from behind is a brutal testament to what powerful weaponry in skilled hands can do in the right environment, against even well-trained and armed opponents.