There be dragons!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

What binds the atom?

What binds the atom to us?
Or us to the atom?
Where in the molecule’s matrix
Resides the eternal me?
When in the sun’s perpetual burning
Did my mortal flesh emerge
To tread the earth and make a noise

And interact with you?

I caught a raindrop
Slipping from the wet awning.
It was you, my love.

The maples’ golden glory,
So many bare of leaves.
Do our memories similarly stay?

Against the grey sky
A uniform wet canvas
You were the blue brush stroke.

When the sun’s long, langorous rays
Gild the wet parking lot in russet gold
I think of your laughing face.

Heaven must be a fiery place
A swimming in light and warmth of love
Heaven must be a beating heart
A return to the cocoon of the womb.

I ran my hand along your silky forearm
Bare, there, upon the morning pillow.
And each sweet soft silvery hair I touched

Sang of your gentle sleeping.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Bull Leaping

Last night I was considering the myth of the Minotaur. Surrounded by the labyrinth, darkness, down there in the cold; isn’t he a bit of a dragon after all? Flesheater? Unhuman? Half man half bull? If the bull is a divine creatures wouldn’t Pasiphae’s lust for it be a lust for a god, not bestiality? Why if they worshipped bulls would lust for the bull be “wrong”? Not the human thing, perhaps? But Zeus raped Leda in the form of swan; was that “wrong”? It seems it was wrong but more b/c of the terror of man joining with the divine. The bull is the divine power, potency, masculine strength. To “leap the bull” was the avoidance and flirtatious playing with that power; a power connected to the divinities of Orion and Taurus. Pasiphae’s lust for the bull and her subsequent hideous sexual union with the bull conceives a creature of both worlds; divine and human. But a monster. A cannibal that has ice for veins. He lives in the darkness and never gets out. So what is the myth saying? The labyrinth, though constructed by Deadalus to contain Minos’ monstrous bullchild, twists, turns, snakes about like the sinewy rills of the maze; the labyrinth of the mind; the gnomonic spiral of existence. So what? Do we not travel down that spiral in order to find truth? Spirallic structure is representative of the mind’s twists and turns in the search for the truth. What is the truth? That at the heart of things is a monster? Or is it that if we go searching in the darkness we might find a monster; a demon; some realization about ourselves as mortal/divine cannibals of each other which might not be easy to handle; a terror that threatens to consume us while we’re down there in the dark. And the only thing that gets us out is the thread of connection to the light; the clue laid down by one whom we love and who loves us. Ariadne’s concern for Theseus saves him from a cold and lonely death. Rosie’s love for Sam saves him from despairing at the loss of Frodo. We must come out from our dark and sinewy speculations on things and see the world in its wholeness through the prism of love; like in the last scene of the movie Pi; maybe there is no truth in the fragments of mathematics that make up the world; there is only truth in the wholeness of numbers together which walks the earth as incarnate man.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Et in Arcadia ego

Loss. I'm struck today by the idea of loss. Why do we as men need to lose in order to learn? I once had a nubile young filly of a student ask (after one of my more lugubrious lectures on the sorrow of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) why we couldn’t just be happy? Why were loss and pain necessary? Couldn’t we just go through life being happy and cheerful and kind? A good question. Wrong. But a good question, and perhaps more profound than she conceived.
When I was a freshperson in college I failed my first class. I was an arrogant goober at the time (not that that has changed too much) with ridiculous visions about college as a place of higher learning, where intellectuals equally concerned with virtue, thought, and looking good would sit about sipping cappuccinos in the sunny vestibules of the Georgian windows of the Wren building and discuss the forms of Plato. What a dope I was. Anyway, this math class I was taking began at 8AM. And interesting? If you can imagine a bowl of old socks you get an idea of how exciting this class was. I was number 382 in the class, I believe, and well, I stopped going to class. After about 3 weeks of not showing up to class I jokingly asked a classmate of mine “So, when’s our next test?” “You mean when was our last test?” he replied. The next morning, after my skin had recovered from the alabaster shade it had acquired from this conversation I raced down to the class and tried to explain to the teacher that I had been sick yesterday when the test was taken. I needed to have a note from the nurse to confirm that. But I was too sick to come to the class so how could I have gotten to the nurse? Too bad. Rules is rules. So I trucked over to the registrar to drop the class (it being the last day for drop/add). You need a signature of the professor from whose class you are dropping, by the way. After hoofing it to the math building to find the professor whose coveted signature I so craved I climbed the three flights to his office and found him gone home early for the day. So I made it a point to attend every class after that even if I fell asleep in each one (which I didn’t; only 85% of them), to take every quiz even if I didn’t do so hot on them, and to turn in every assignment (both of which I was able to complete). My plan seemed irreproachable and guaranteed of success. As a note to anyone reading, when your jaw hits the floor after reading your posted class rank at the end of a semester, it’s best not to try to walk out the door before you pick it up lest you tread on your own incisors and put a hole in your foot. There’s a giddy sort of feeling that sets in as you walk out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the math building knowing that you have ruined your entire career as a mathematician in college and will now be condemned to aeons of remedial math 101 classes. It was particularly hard to walk past the Wren building where hordes of good-looking J.Crew models hung out in the Georgian windows sipping their cappuccinos and laughing at me behind their Plato texts. That was particularly hard. The odd thing about failing a class; it completely liberated me as a scholar. After I failed that first class I thought I could do anything. That loss turned my vision of learning completely around; without it I wouldn’t think or act about education today nor have any of the lenience I have on students currently struggling under my tutelage to aspire to some level of rhetorical eloquence.
But enough of me. What do you think of me?
Seriously, I am intrigued by the idea that, as humans, we don’t learn without loss & pain. Studying itself is a form of loss & pain (anyone taking a physics course will agree with me on this). We learn from physical pain. We learn from the loss of loved ones. We learn from tragedy and horror and sorrow. We don’t learn near so much from happy stories, or happy experiences, or happy moments. Life isn’t about the moments that take your breath away; but maybe it’s about the breaths that take your moment away. In other words, maybe our learning must be through pain b/c we’re such naturally arrogant beanie-weanies. It’s always our moment, our popularity, our thoughts, our desires, our needs and wants. To hell with anyone else. I want what I want. The world will bend to my will; and you poor slobs that think you’re important will just have to love me and despair. Learning, true learning, comes not through the gratification of our vision of the world, but through a molding of our vision of the world to conform with that which really is; the truly real. So in order to effect such conformation we have to have the ego stripped away like onion layers; battered, beaten, shaken up, not stirred. Our knowledge of the truth is only made real when we stand without armor in the immensity of the real and perceive our own smallness and insignificance. We are no more than number 382 and our petty little sicknesses and whinings matter little in the classroom of the truth.
But my real amazement at this phenomenon is not so much at the how but at the why? If it is pride that necessitates the learning through pain, why would we be made such? B/c of fallen nature? But even that term “fallen nature” is a language by which to talk about something inherent in our being as humans. What is that thing? Pride? That too is a way of talking about this thing inherent in us as humans. Why is it that we can’t “all just get along” or we can’t just be happy and kind and cheerful? I know the end mechanics of such a Donna Reed education (by the way, Donna Reed kicks tail on any beautiful woman popular in cinema today. Look at her! She was a beauty in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” All the longing, desire, hope, erotic draw about which Plato rhapsodizes is there in Donna Reed!!!)... the end mechanics of continued prosperity, or the how, is that we become complacent, more desirous, insensitive to the world and its suffering. But the why? Why are we this way? What miserable beings we must be that we can’t even answer the reason why we can’t answer this question.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Arma virumque cano

Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem.

Unlike the poet of The Iliad Virgil is not proposing to be a medium by which the goddess sings. Indeed he invokes the muse further along in the passage, but the very opening of the epic, different from The Iliad, does not suggest to be a work of the god through Virgil. Here man is the actor and creator. Man himself is the one who labors to establish something (molitor in Latin). Thus Virgil is the Aeneas of his epic, founding a way of looking at the world which is radically different from the vision of the Greek epic.
The Iliad proposes that man is at the mercy of the gods and that the gods work their will through man often regardless of man’s individual will or desire. Aeneas, though fated by the gods to found the new Troy of Rome, experiences a fate for the future rather than a fate from the past. He does not suffer due to the poor judgment of his ancestors, nor does he suffer because of the whimsy of the gods. Rather, he has the weight of vision, conscience, the expectations of his own gens propelling him to do something great for the future. It is for this reason that the poet is singing about warfare but also about a man of war.
Indeed, a song of warfare is important; life is warfare, chaos, sorrow, constant defeat. Coupled with the experience of warfare is the experience of realizing one’s own smallness, weakness, failings, knowing the damage and ruin that one individual can cause and simultaneously knowing how insignificant one is in the midst of that ruin. This is the theme of The Iliad and Virgil parallels the thematic power of The Iliad in singing about such arma. Warfare makes a man come to know himself. For the Greeks such self-knowledge and the acceptance of fate was key to becoming fully human. But for the Greeks, man’s whole purpose was to die. Not so for Virgil who, in attempting to craft the imagination of a Romanam gentem, seeks a new paradigm for human existence.
The purpose of human existence, in the Roman mind, was to stand up to the enemy in battle and create something wonderful in the midst of that chaos. War is a monumental reality, so much so that the ancient world thought of life not as “peace with occasional war” as we moderns do, but as “war with occasional peace.” Thus, Virgil begins the work with arma, but the individual is a factor even in this world of uncertainty and violence. The Greeks conceived that the individual was insignificant, a single point in a maze of patterns, and that each action which the individual did was merely playing out the pattern already laid down for him by Clotho, Atropos, and Lachesis. In the great work of Virgil the individual can make a difference; one man can change the course of history. Thus the purpose for man’s existence is not just to die, but to give the time that he has in this world to the establishment of something of value, a tantae molis.
Ultimately, Virgil is converting an entire people to see the world in a new light; a light that will be known by later generations as Western Civilization. This great effort, this founding of a novus ordo saeclorum called the Roman people, will overcome the opposition of Juno, the natural opposition which hearth and home has to warfare, and accomplish the Herculean task of establishing a safe and long lasting protectorate for the hearth and home. Being the heirs of this great vision, it becomes incumbent upon each of us to remain eternally vigilant in its preservation lest by our lackadaisical negligence we allow in the Trojan horses of our own destruction.