Zest for Zen

Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor provides a most marvellous set of casuistic teasers.

Despite the theater manager's promise to Azazello never to lie again, he began with a lie. Although one should not judge him too harshly for that. After all, Azazello had forbidden him to tell lies and be rude over the telephone, but in the given instance the manager was speaking without the aid of such an instrument.

Ah the kind narrator ever attentive to details! Ever ready to set the readers in disarray...

It is, of course, doubtful that that was what happened, but we can't tell what we don't know.

Such is the power of telling to send us on a trip. In all the succession of states that a reader may traverse in a sustained encounter with this novel and tall tale, there is one that is inscribed within the narration almost as in invitation to mimesis. This last description of the Master is worthy of emulation.

He began to listen carefully and pay close attention to everything that was happening in his soul. His excitement, it seemed to him, had turned into a feeling of deep and deadly resentment. But it was short-lived, it passed, and gave way for some reason to a felling of proud indifference, which, in turn, became a presentiment of permanent peace.

The Epilogue presenting the fate of another character who is calm and well until the next full moon. Pick your ending and pay attention to the details.

And so for day 198

Dissipation Anticipation

It is fun to find traces of the French text (spelling Zhabotinski with a terminal 'i' in the caption to Figure 16 p. 168 and 'échelle' in the legend to Figure F p. 185). Fun because they illustrate marvellously bedevilling details still there after 4 printings and they have absolutely no bearing on comprehension and show a reader-tolerance for variation [fluctuation?].

The question of the limits of complexity has often been raised. Indeed, the more complex a system is, the more numerous are the types of fluctuations that threaten its stability. How then, it has been asked, can systems as complex as ecological or human organizations possibly exist? How do they manage to avoid permanent chaos? the stabilizing effect of communication, of diffusion processes, could be a partial answer to these questions. In complex systems, where species and individuals interact in many different ways, diffusion and communication among various parts of the system are likely to be efficient. There is competition between stabilization through communication and instability through fluctuations. The outcome of that competition determines the threshold of stability.

From Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Order out of chaos: man's new dialogue with nature based on the author's La nouvelle alliance.

Sign of another competition: the publication information claims trademark protection.

Bantam New Age and the accompanying figure design as well as the statement "the search for meaning, growth and change" are trademarks of [...]

Funny. The statement that accompanies the logo [figure design] reads "A Search for Meaning, Growth and Change" Does capitalization count?

No eluding the fluctuations.

And so for day 197


What is prized, what is praised ...

They [disciplines in the humanities and social sciences] are indeed precious heritages. [...] Like all responsible renovators, we should first check the foundations. Furthermore, we should realize that something of this challenge should (and if we have the wisdom to encourage it, will) come from our students, who are at the end of the day our most precious and enduring heritage.

From Ted Chamberlin "Tradition and renovation" University of Toronto Bulletin, January 21, 1991.

And so for day 196

Letting go, connecting

It is a pleasure to lift out a single sentence and savour it.

Alienation and mediation are conditions of agency.

From Susan Stewart "The Interdiction" Profession 89, Modern Language Association.

It is a sentence that so nicely captures the nature of the work of an engaged intellectual or a scholar. The words leave us. And we connect the words that have left others.

And so for day 195

Bushes of Constellations

Part of an endnote:

" [...] At its most literal and modest, hypertext is a computer-mediated indexing apparatus that allows one to craft and follow many bushes of connections among the variables internal to a category. Hypertext is easy to use and easy to construct, and it can change common sense about what is related to what." See Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM (New York: Routledge, 1997): 125.

Which word above would you begin to hyperlink? "Connections"?

The endnote references a passage in a question by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve which contrasts academic style writing with a theory of "hypertext poetics — that are not integral to the modalities of academic writing". The question is found in the "Cyborg Surrealisms" section of How Like a Leaf. The question and the endnote give rise to the thought that there is an "academic surrealism" or "surreal sim".

And so for day 194

Journeys, Roads and Companions

A commonplace passage dedicated to anyone who served on a clean up crew after a community event:

It takes hours of hierarchy, mind you, to achieve minutes of community, but that may always be true. People who start off by defining themselves as very separate slowly, quietly, provisionally, and without much wanting to be reminded of what they are doing, allow themselves to be reabsorbed. And if you want a one-sentence history of the gay movement in this country over the last fifteen years, you missed it. That was it.

Concluding excerpt from Adam Mars-Jones, "Gay London 1984" reprinted in Blind Bitter Happiness. "Gay London 1984" first appeared in the Tatler.

And so for day 193

Lesbian and Gay Pride Day

Adam Mars-Jones, "Gay Rights and Wrongs" collected in Blind Bitter Happiness reviewing among others David Halperin's Saint Foucault

A man who could say (speaking to Gilles Barbedette), 'I think we should consider the battle for gay rights as an episode that cannot be the final stage', was someone for whom gay rights was not a category mistake but an insufficient agenda.

And so for day 192


Today there is a dyke march in the city. In honour of the marchers and the onlookers, “Epistle to Tasha” by Rita Mae Brown selected for inclusion in Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young.

The dead are the only people

     to have permanent dwellings.

We, nomads of Revolution

Wander over the desolation of many generations

And are reborn on each other’s lips

To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons

Hearalding dawn, dreams and sweet desire.

And so for day 191

Hyper Hypo

Somedays you just want to coin words.

Hypermulticulturalism: state sanctioned, endorsed and promoted multiculturalism that harnessed the production of difference for the umbrella of a tolerant nationalism.

hypoculturation (acculturation on the sly): process that may lead to the emergence of hybridity and manifestations of hypermulticulturalism.

And so for day 190

Folding Star

The summer solstice finds me remembering the narrator of Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star and the description well half way into the novel of the experience which explains the title.

My favourite time was soon after sunset, when I liked to catch the first sight of the evening star, suddenly bright, high in the west above the darkening outlines of the copses. It was a solitary ritual, wound up incoherently with bits of poetry said over and over like spells: sunset and evening star, the star that bids the shepherd fold, her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west . . . It intensified and calmed my yearnings at the same time, like a song. In one poem I'd seen that first star referred to as the folding star, and the words haunted me with their suggestion of an embrace and at the same time a soundless implosion, of something ancient but evanescent; I looked up to it in a mood of desolate solitude burning into cold calm. I lingered, testing out the ache of it: I had to be back before it was truly dark, but in high summer that could be very late. I became a connoisseur of the last lonely grading of blue into black.

The magic of the liminal inscribed in the very suspension marks of the paragraph. Catching on the shift from present ("bids") to past ("wound") and the curve back given the reference of "her" to either "star" or "shepherd" one enters the game of suspension. And by hornlight recognizes the function of the shade: to diffuse.

And so for day 189

Dipping into Perspective

I take it from the framing of the following case that the authors of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, are not vegetarian or Christian vegetarians.

Other cases may appear to us as trivial: the Council of Ancyra (A.D. 314), for example, required Christians who favored vegetarianism to dip vegetables occasionally into meat gravy, so as to show that their dietary practice was based on personal preference, not on any Christian principle.

For some reason (Eucharistic echos?), there appears to be a hint of the sacramental in the image of abstainers dipping morsels of food into liquids extracted from meat. The images come together in a kairotic effect.

Some chapters earlier in Jonsen and Toulmin provided a neat encapsulation of the meanings of kairos which it is timely to recall:

The Sophists thus put great weight on the timeliness of acts. Their word for "opportune occasion" (kairos) was a rhetorical term of art: a speaker must recognize from his audience's reactions the right moment (kairos) to introduce a fresh point. [...] It was used in theory of poetry, referring to the moment when the hearer recognizes the intimate connection between two images.

And so for day 188

Another F-word

Indulging again in the prose of Adam Mars-Jones. As an introduction to the anthology Mae West Is Dead, Mars-Jones is doing a close reading, a dissection, of the protagonist from Nathan Aldyne's detective novel Vermillion (and other characters too).

Daniel's collecting urge verges on the obsessive; it leads him to break hygienic taboos (picking up a torn and filthy ten of spades from a storm drain) and even infringe property laws (stealing the joker from a Monte Carlo casino pack in a bedside table drawer). He has his choice examples framed or embedded in a coffee table.

He hates card games, and never plays them.

The full extent of the irony of this mini-portrait of a collector is appreciated best with its preceding paragraph describing the protagonist's apartment.

So how does Daniel express his personality, in an apartment full of magically surviving plants, where the ringing of the phone can never announce an unexpected caller, where the build-up of dirt can never announce the passage of time, where the murmuring fridge keeps the stimulants in tip-top condition and the vegetable shortening waits under the spotless sink for the next successful applicant? He collects playing cards.

Description or re-description is an art and there is more in "Taking the Yellow View" collected in Blind Bitter Happiness and holding up very well over time.

And so for day 187

The F-word

Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built Chapter Six "Unreal Estate" proffers a marvellous piece of pastiche:

Form follows failure.

It closes a paragraph

Building's can't learn if they don't last. Most building code systems are a manifestation of the whole community learning. What they embody is good sense, acquired the hard way from generations of recurrent problems. Form follows failure.

So much of Brand's book also plays it the other way: form leads to failure.

And so for day 186


Adam Mars-Jones's "Cinematically Challenged" collected in Blind Bitter Happiness is particularly caustic about the Penny Marshall film based on the book by Oliver Sacks, Awakenings. With steady tongs one can lift this bit out without danger to the overly sensitive reader. It is

Of this complex human being virtually nothing survives into the film, certainly not the twin enemies of sentimentalism, the intellect and the libido.

A few days later I am reading Oliver Sacks remembering his friend the poet Thom Gunn (Brick Winter 2005) and grow to understand that the respect for complexity present in the book and missing in the film comes from a lot of living and thinking. Sacks quotes from a letter from Gunn who is commenting on Awakenings

[...] And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn't see how one could be taught such a quality. . . . Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of observation. . . . What I didn't know is that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed until one's thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. [...] I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love [...]

Maybe there will be a remake of the film. Certainly the film has sent people to the book. Some of us are glad to be warned off. We might never reach for the book: sentimentalism induces slumber.

And so for day 185


There is on the spine of Brick (Winter 2005) a quotation from Jim Harrison's "Food, Fitness, and Death" in the same issue of Brick. This is the quotation:

How feebly the arts compete with the idea of what we are going to eat next.

Almost transcribed "freely" for "feebly".

At first blush this appears to be an observation about the demands of the body before the needs of the spirit or soul. Or alternatively there is a hint of gluttony lurking in the thoughts of the next bite. Much depends upon scarcity.

And so for day 184

Able Metaphors

Adam Mars-Jones "Cinematically Challenged" collected in Blind Bitter Happiness

So when cinema wants to show a state of mind, it tends to show a state of body instead.

Films with a blindness theme tend to be about trust, films with a deafness theme tend to be about isolation. Both genres express the simultaneous fear of and need for other people. Films with a theme of wheelchair-boundness tend to be about a metaphorical powerlessness.

Trust, isolation, metaphorical [which I almost transcribed as "metaphysical"] powerlessness. There's a gradation here.

And so for day 183

3 limbs of levity

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi translated by Raymond Rosenthal has a marvellous tricolon.

Prometheus had been foolish to bestow fire on men instead of selling it to them: he would have made money, placated Jove, and avoided all that trouble with the vulture.

A wry comment found in the story under the rubric "Cerium", an element, as Levi points out, deriving its name from an astroid named for the Greek goddess Ceres and discovered in the same year as the element.

And so for day 182

No 4 Y

From How to talk so kids can learn — at home and in school by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Especially unsettling to a child is the question that demands the answer to why he feels what he feels. The word "why" requires him to justify his feelings, to come up with a logical, acceptable reason for having them. Often he doesn't know the reason.

Seems like a word to reasonably proscribe from many an adult-to-adult conversation too.

And so for day 181

Crossing overflowing

Michael Ondaatje Handwriting "Death at Kataragama" evokes for me the sculptural qualities of rice paddies:

The way someone's name holds terraces of character […]

The containment of name is here poised on the verge of overflowing into the adventures of the body.

The place bodies meet is the place of escape.

The cascading invites the reader to contemplate with the poetic voice the chance to be transmogrified. "I would give everything away for this sound of mud and water, hooves, great wings". To dwell upon this further is to come to the realization that the sound becomes inscribed in a name, the signature, sign of character, being in a body at a particular set of moments.

And so for day 180

Double Pick (once again)

Harvey Schachter "On time, and time management" reviews for Canadian Government Executive (April 2006) some books. A key sentence from the review:

The ancient Greeks recognized a difference between chronos, the form of time we measure through clocks, and kairos, which is 'the right time' — the point at which everything changes [...]

The mention of turning points is preceded by a section on 'Leadership Time Travel' where one finds the injunction to learn from history:

You need to use the past as a powerful ally, setting the agenda for today and allowing learning opportunities from the mistakes that were made.

The past is a key and the key to the past, a passage.

And so for day 179

Double Sortes

Ephemera comes in many guises. Consider offprints used as packing materials. Such a one came across my way one day. The text so delivered by chance occurences served as a most suitable pretext for a parlour game. Long after playing the game, basing myself on the pagination and title in the framework and conducting a bit of full text searching, I have been able to track down the complete reference. Gordon Shrimpton reviewed Andrew Wolpert, Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens and Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens in the Phoenix the Journal of the Classic Association of Canada Volume LVII No 3-4 (Fall-Winter 2004).

A friend and I played a game. Pick a sentence.

The present is shaped by how we remember the past, but it is also true that our recollections are shaped by our understanding of the present.

Invite a friend to pick another sentence.

The truth is you cannot really decide to forget, only to ignore.

And marvel together at the snug fit of the lifted bits.

And so for day 178

Candied Chestnuts

Ephemera entrances. On the inside cover of a box of Motta Marrons glacés one finds a beautiful silhouette (gold on blue) of castanea sativa, the chestnut tree, and to the side of the illustration is a passage from Robert Bourdu, Le Châtaignier that ends on this sentence:

Son fruit, autrefois appelé le pain des pauvres, est devenu un trésor gourmand, le marron glacé.

Captivating, to consider the role of sugar (and empire) in transforming pauper's food into luxury item.

And so for day 177

Taking Tea

"Talking Tea" is a Jim Thomas poem, found among other places in Ukula Volume 3 Number 1. It is a poem whose addressee is an at times intimate:

I love it when you talk tea.
I love your lips upon the rim,
your fingers around the handle

And at times inanimate but made alive by the verse for the poem also chooses to apostrophize the tea that talks:

and you, dry leaves between perforated sheets
of cotton, are dangled

The poem ends with a voice uttered sybil-like from the position of the teacup:

into empty cups
stained with tannin
and soggy leaves,
you seize me and turn me upside down

for a fortune reading, a telling talk.

And so for day 176


From the introduction by Charles Taylor to the Tapir Press bilingual edition of Ernest Renan's Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? What is a Nation?

Precisely because it is so inextricably linked to the idea of the sovereignty of a people, the idea of the nation reaches beyond itself to the idea of a concert of nations.

L'idée de la nation, justement parce qu'elle est liée inextricablement avec celle de la souvraineté du peuple, nous renvoie au-dela d'elle-même, à l'idée du concert des nations.

"Concert" it's a verb too.

And so for day 175

On or at the edge

I am fascinated by where the claims of poets might carry the reader. Take for instance the following view from Don McKay, Griffin Poetry Prize nominee, as reported in The Toronto Star Jun 04, 2007

My view is that poetry is the point where language is humbled by the sense that it realizes that it isn't able to adequately describe the world […] There's something that eludes it. And so it's language pointing beyond its own capacities.

A place beyond pointing. That is where the humility lies. Situated in the vicinity of pointing at its own powers to describe its own position in the world. Poetry bends where language waves break. The words unravel into sounds or glyphs. Order reshaped. And in the reshaping still ordered.

And so for day 174


"Micromelismata" by Michele Leggott graphs quantities and quantities of little kisses and its layout on two side by side pages (in DIA) (re)traces lip to lip contact. Having dwelt in that poem it is perhaps no wonder that I see in the layout of the first lines of "Phrases from Orpheus" by D.G. Jones the picture of a key. A symbol not unrelated to the poem’s theme:




     pardon guaranteed

behind the eyes

     by death

Look at from the side one almost sees a key with its handle and its teeth.

And so for day 173


A commonplace blog is like the tape recorders described in The Ticket That Exploded by William S. Burroughs.

Here are some excerpts spliced into a new ordering:

A tape recorder is an externalized section of the human nervous system.

You are to infiltrate, sabotage and cut communications [...] A camera and two tape recorders can cut the lines laid down by a fully equipped film studio [...] And always remember you are operating under conditions of guerrilla war — Never attempt to hold a position under massive attack [...] The operation of retreat on this level involves shifting three-dimensional coordinate points that is time travel on association lines

listen to your present time tapes and you will begin to see who you are and what you are doing here     mix yesterday in with today and hear tomorrow your future rising out of old recordings     you are a programmed tape recorder set to record and play back

who programs you

who decides what tapes play back in present time

who plays back your old humiliations and defeats holding you in prerecorded preset time

Word evokes image does it not? —— Try it —— Put an image track on screen and accompany it with any sound track —— Now play the sound track back alone and watch the image track fill in —— So? What is word? —— Maya —— Maya —— [...] a Morse code of color flashes —— or odors or music or tactile senstations —— Anything can represent words and letters and association blocks —— Go on try it and see what happens —— science pure science

Just what does it mean to be held in "rerecorded preset time"? To be held in time? How would it differ from passing through time?

And so for day 172

On the Reanimation of Tradition

In Confucius — The Secular as Sacred Herbet Fingarette paints Confucious, Jesus and Gautama Buddha as men who have “genuinely and profoudly and self-consciously reanimated their traditions” and there is a hint, for me, of Martin Buber in the affirmation

Shared tradition brings men together and enables them to be men. Every abandonment of tradition is a separating of men. Every authentic reanimation of tradition is a reuniting of men.

This seems almost tautological after the sentence the precedes it:

Only as we grow up genuinely shaped, through and through, by traditional ways can we be human; only as we reanimate this tradition where new circumstances render it otiose can we preserve integrity and direction in our life.

Given a tradition of reanimation, I might be tempted by this only path of being human. Being a social and political creature, yes. Being human: tradition is an insufficient ground. Not a wonder that the prose moves from consideration of being human to the union of men. There is something incommunicable in being human. Still we strive, we the wordsmiths, to make it known and sharable.

And so for day 171


Sometimes lines come to you

lizard skin (of) lychees
dusted with clay

aching for the context of a larger poem.

And so for day 170


First stanza:

We are fooled by the map.

Because of the map

we are tricked into setting out.

Last stanza, also in a sense the first:

We are always setting out, as if

to discover where the map ends

will allow us to begin.

Both stanzas from "[hornbook G]" in The Hornbooks of Rita K by Robert Kroetsch. And the middle stanza hints at the journey interrupted in media res.

And so for day 169