Ground or Air or Ought

If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”

During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.

She spoke from experience:

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

 

In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”

I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.

Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?

Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.

Undergraduate Existentialism Circa 1973

Rick Borstelman 2003

Rick Borstelman 2003

Existentialism was all the rage in the 60’s and ‘70’s when I intermittently attended classes in high school and college. The philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus must have hit its peak then, because the authorities allowed students to smoke — in high school in certain outdoor designated areas, and in college, right there in class. If existentialism is about anything, it’s about the rights of the individual, as we shall see.

kierkSøren Kierkegaard

Where I went to college each desk in the Humanities Building had a disposable cardboard ashtray. Students bogarted their Marlboros as they took notes, scrawling as best they could the professor’s explanation of Kierkegaard’s exegesis of the Abraham and Isaac story, scrawling (in my case, illegibly) observations like

Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but superior—yet in such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought. And yet faith is this paradox…

The fact that you couldn’t follow the argument, that you couldn’t figure out what the fuck the subject of the third “is” was wasn’t* important because professors didn’t test you on the material; they had you write essays just as unintelligible as the texts you couldn’t understand, which represented a triumph of subjectivity over objectivity because who has the authority to tell an individual that his reading of the text is incorrect. That would have been so fascistic.

For example, here might be my undergraduate explanation of the passage I quoted above:

See, the individual smoker who is superior to the rest of the class who doesn’t smoke gets to smoke because the smoker’s subjective universe is paradoxically the only universe because if it weren’t for him, the individual smoker, there would be no universe, the way there was no universe as far as he was concerned in 1492 because he was not as yet a sentient being who possessed the autonomy to light up a Marlboro, despite that the individual who sits behind him, who, once again, would not exist for him if not for his being able to perceive her, or, in this case not perceive her, as she suffers an asthma attack because of the smoke that would not exist except for him.

You got A’s for this type of shit — at least I did.

Meanwhile, next door, in the poetry class you might have students reading this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told—
Isaac was an Urchin—
Abraham was old—

Not a hesitation—
Abraham complied—
Flattered by Obeisance
Tyranny demurred—

Isaac—to his children
Lived to tell the tale—
Moral—with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Now, this poem, despite its implicit criticism of the All Mighty, poses dangers for the existentialist because it doesn’t exactly offer a multitude of defensible readings. The poem rather obviously suggests that Abraham agreed to kill his beloved son Isaac because Abraham was afraid God was going to sic a big ferocious dog on his ass.

These were the types of classes existentialists should avoid because the professors tended to dismiss the right of the individual to spell words whichever way he wanted. These fascist bastards took off points when you spelled “p-a-i-d” “p-a-y-ed.”

*Verbs of being rule in existentialism; the fact that I strung three in a row suggests I get it.

new-nietzscheFredrich Nietzsche

In the progression of existential philosophers, Nietzsche comes next chronologically, and back in 1973, he was a lot easier and more fun to read than Kierkegaard. Plus, Nietzsche was quotable, the king of the aphorism. You’d even heard of some of his sayings before, like

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

All things are subject to interpretation.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

God is dead.

The problem with Nietzsche, though, is that these killer quotable quotes are imbedded in long, rambling essays that lack structure and sometimes seem to contradict themselves, so by the time you get to the end, you’re not sure what his main point is.

Once you got to Nietzsche in your 1973 existential survey, all that was necessary is that you kept your mouth shut if you were a Christian and not try to exercise your first amendment freedom-of-speech right because chances are your professor was an atheist who would rip you to shreds because, after all, the universe would not exist except for him.

In other words, he’d sic his rhetorical Mastiff on you.

Jean Paul Sartre

sartre-jp-728x485Although Sartre’s masterpiece On Being and Nothingness makes Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling read like a Hemingway story in comparison, the ideas themselves are not that hard to understand.

What you got is a consciousness and whatever the consciousness is perceiving, and because this consciousness has a negative power of nothingness that can create a lack of self-identity, you, the individual, need to exercise your freedom by bringing into being and acting upon your individual spontaneous choices, and if you fail to do so, if, say, you decide not to run off to Best Buy and purchase a TV monitor the size of a drive-in movie screen and instead grade those sophomore essays, you have committed “bad faith,” which leads to “nausea,” which is really stupid of you because life is meaningless, and you’ll be dead in no time and therefore kiss good-bye the universe that only exists because you perceive it be.

On on that happy note, it’s DVD time.

Half a Sin

Bells toll inside my head as I reach for my Alfred Lord Tennyson outfit. It’s Victorian black with matching cravat, mourning cape, matching hat. There’s even a beard, luxuriant and curling, that came with the costume, but I can’t find the whiskers anywhere. Been three years since I’ve donned this get-up, a Halloween present from sweet deceased Adelaide, who passed away in a Hampton’s Inn all alone in the not-so-new millennium.  Actually, she made the costume and bought the beard from Hocus Pocus.

I’m getting into character, reading “In Memoriam”:

I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

I’ve taken to panhandling.

No, it’s not a lifestyle choice, but part of my thesis, a paper I’m writing on selling-and-psychology, a study in which I report on my experimentation with different modes of panhandling, comparing the hourly wage of me playing a wheel-chair bound Iraqi war veteran ($12.34) with the hourly wage of me playing a shyster hipster holding a sign that reads “Haven’t been high in two days ($4.56).[1]  I’m hoping to shed some light on what makes people part with their money in situations of charity, combining my love of acting, my interest in marketing, and my curiosity about how the human mind works.  So today I’m going out begging in the guise of Alfred Lord Tennyson.  It’s a dreary, leaden day, very Tennysonian.

I consider brain chemistry to be sort of like weather – sunny, rainy, partly cloudy, partly sunny.  Part of it, of course, is genetics — look at the Hemingways — but life events can affect brain weather, too.  Maybe if Tennyson’s best friend Arthur Henry Hallam hadn’t dropped dead Tennyson might have been a cheerier poet, like EE Cummings or Maya Angelou.  Who knows?

happyperson copy wilburlowell1 copy

 

 

 

I’ve decided to set up shop, so to speak, North of Calhoun in the bar district, which you might think is unsafe, but I’ve never had a problem, and anyway, I’m packing a Smith & Wesson. 22 LR Rimfire, not gun enough to kill someone but big enough to chase off a knife wielder or unarmed thug.

alfred-tennyson

The one thing that’s bothering me, though, is the lack of a beard. I’m only 26 years old, and a beard would help. Of course, I wear make-up. Thanks to the College’s Theater Department’s make-up department, I’ll be sporting a gray complexion and those woeful looking, sympathy-spawning bags under my eyes that made Tennyson look like the saddest creature that ever crawled across the face of the earth:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”


[1] The minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25


It was through theater I first met Adelaide, a student production of Chekov’s Three Sisters.  She played Irina, I Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony.  It wasn’t bad as student productions go.  The only problem, though, is I had this thing for Adelaide/Irina, but she had a boyfriend, a spoiled preppy entitled piece of shit, so I didn’t make it verbally known to Adelaide that I had this thing for her, though from what others tell

Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris

me it was as obvious as Cyrano’s nose or Chuck Norris’s toupee. I kept waiting for her to make the first move, but she never did.  It goes without saying neither did I.

Kristopher my make-up man has done his magic, including providing me with a real enough looking beard, so I’m walking rather self-consciously from the parking garage to King with a folding lawn chair strapped to my back, a bucket for the proceeds, a book of Tennyson’s poems, and a sign that simply says “alms.”

I find a spot on the corner of King and Morris, put my sign out and start to read Tennyson, finding snatches of verse ripe for memorization, little ditties like

Me rather all that bowery loneliness,
The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring,

and try to ignore the occasional rude comment about beggars and street performers.  Of course, I could whip out the Rimfire and cap one of them, taking my performance art to a new level, but that’s not, as Adelaide used to say, the Buddha way.

Finally, after 4 minutes and 32 seconds, I get my first score, two single dollar bills dropped.  I say,

And if ever I should forget

That I owe this debt to you

And I for your sweet sake to yours,

O, then, what shall I say? —

If ever I should forget,

May God make me more wretched

Than ever I have been yet!

At the one hour mark, I start reciting Tennyson as I see people approaching, though I avoid eye contact.

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street.

At the two hour mark, I start making eye contact before chanting the quote, straining to counterfeit that stare dogs give when they think you might have a treat for them.

Since we deserved the name of friends

And thine effect so lives in me,

A part of mine may live in thee

And move thee on the noble ends.

So here I sit in this Halloween costume, chanting Tennyson in the name of soft science.  My thoughts return to that Halloween party three years ago.  Adelaide dressed up like Emily Dickinson, hair parted in the middle, a white dress, for she was the Empress of Calvary.  No one got the joke, two depressive poets on a date.  Perhaps she should have worn black because that’s what people picture when they imagine Emily Dickinson.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

Ring out the old and all that jazz.  Adelaide OD-ed in a Hampton Inn in Conyers, Georgia, and that’s about as unromantic as it gets.

It’s time for me to move on, I guess.

Good, God, now I’m even starting to think in slant rhymes.  I get up, abandoning the role, take off the itchy beard, and look for some ragged someone I can pass the cash off to.

$14. 75.

Alfred_Tennyson,_1st_Baron_Tennyson_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17768