Monthly Archives: May 2013

Facts I argue

On Benedict; the great, not the traitor

The French claim him as well as the Americans but, to whichever country Santayana may belong, his words are for us all . This is an excerpt from, “American Religion” by George Santayana. His is an almost poetic analysis of the Ethics of the great Benedict Spinoza. What follows is one of my favorite passages about one of my favorite thinkers. Spinoza is said to have invented the atheist’s god. For this, he was excommunicated from the Jewish religion. And for good measure, the Catholics excommunicated him as well.

Spinoza believed that religion’s purpose was to explain the divine, not to create illogical dogma that would cause logical people to turn their backs on the very concept of religion. His logical, dare I say scientific, analyses of Medieval philosophies and their shortcomings forever put an end to such philosophies’ importance to humanity. His work is claimed to have directly influenced those responsible for the Enlightenment. He argued against the division created by Descartes between the mind and the body, though his point of view has not prevailed and the West has been suffering under the ills that logically flow from an adherence to Cartesian dualism for more than three hundred years.

Spinoza came to know. In knowing, he found solace; and love. If what follows does not make sense the first reading through, read it again. It’s point is fairly simple: harmony with existence creates a love for existence. Harmony is two-fold, physical and mental. When in the presence of such a truth, even if the truth threatens your life, you love your existence because you are in harmony with your existence. You are in harmony with the Universe when  knowing your place in the bigger picture and your love becomes, thereby, Universal. Truth is, then, Spinoza’s path to god, not faith. He was excommunicated because his god was an immanent god, not a humanistic one. As Santayana put it:


“Here we touch the crown of Spinoza’s philosophy, that intellectual love of God in which the spirit was to be ultimately reconciled with universal power and universal truth. This love brings to consciousness a harmony intrinsic to existence; not an alleged harmony such as may be posited in religions or philosophies resting on faith, but a harmony which, as far as it goes, is actual and patent. In the realm of matter, this harmony is measured by the degree of adjustment, conformity, and cooperation which the part may have attended in the whole; in a word, it is measured by health. In the realm of truth, the same natural harmony extends as far as do capacity and pleasure in understanding the truth; so that besides health we may possess knowledge. And this is no passive union, no dead peace; the spirit rejoices it; for the spirit, being, according to Spinoza, an essential concomitant of all existence, shares the movement, the actuosa essentia of the universe; so that we necessarily love health and knowledge, and love the things in which health and knowledge are found. Insofar as omnificient power endows us with health, we necessarily love that power whose total movement makes for our own perfection; and insofar as we are able to understand the truth, we necessarily love the themes of an intense and unclouded vision, in which our imaginative faculty reaches its perfect function.

Of this religion of health and understanding Spinoza is a sublime prophet. By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honoring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered into the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom, and declared himself supremely happy, not because the world as he conceived it was flattering to his heart, but because the gravity of his heart disdained all flatteries, and with a sacrificial prophetic boldness uncovered and relished his destiny, however tragic his destiny might be. And presently peace descended; this keen scientific air seemed alone fit to breathe, and only this high tragedy worthy of a heroic and manly breast. Indeed the truth is a great cathartic and wonderfully relieves the vital distress of existence. We stand as on a mountaintop, and the spectacle, so out of scale with all our petty troubles, silences and overpowers the heart, expanding it for a moment into boundless sympathy with the universe.”


Pounding away

An Immortality

Sing we for love and idleness,
Naught else is worth the having.

Though I have been in many a land,
There is naught else in living.

And I would rather have my sweet,
Though rose-leaves die of grieving,

Than do high deeds in Hungary
To pass all men’s believing.


-Ezra Pound


There are any number of reasons why TS Eliot would claim that Ezra Pound was the greatest poet of the 20th Century. To my mind, we can include the humility of  a person like Eliot not wanting to claim title to such an honor himself. Pound had no such compunction. I heard an interview with Pound where he claimed that by the thirteen (I believe it was) he’d decided to become the greatest American poet and that by twenty, the greatest poet of his age. The debate rages to this day about whom lays claim to that title. Eliot, whose English humility prevented him from choosing himself, would naturally quest for the greatest poet who was not himself. So, at the very least, if we think Eliot is the greatest poet of the 20th Century, we know he thought Pound was the second best poet.

Beyond this rationale, we can argue another point in favor of Pound. Eliot is read more often than Pound. As opposed to making Eliot more eligible for the title of greatest poet, hear me out about the opposite. As an historical average, never more than three percent of humanity regularly reads poetry. It has a small audience base. Pound is notoriously dense and obscure and difficult. In the Cantos, he wrote poetry to the history of Western man. Poems about medieval love and lore; about people few today outside of very learned historians would remember. This is part of his charm, in fact, and a part of my argument.

Pound went so far into the profession of poetry that, after he invented a style out of whole cloth, he pressed on and delved deeper. He never stopped moving forward. Pound wrote and wrote and wrote until there were so few who could read or understand him that he became an obscurity to all but those who shared his craft. If you read his Cantos, you will find need of several European languages as well as an understanding of written Chinese, for example.

Eliot was great. Eliot is more popular. Eliot is eminently more readable and understandable. If greatness is determined by these factors, Eliot wins without debate. But if we allow to vote only those qualified to have an informed opinion, we can at least admit the possibility that Pound will win. Viewed through this lens, I find Eliot’s choice of Pound as the greatest poet of his century to have the ring of a concession, not just humility. Knowing his craft, he can see in Pound’s writing things that mere readers cannot.

I would agree with Eliot. There are those who do and there are aficionados.  When those who do choose the best among them, we should take them at their word. They know, in a way we cannot, how challenging and difficult it is, what they are judging.


Short Stories

The Great Recession

Marjorie looked through the rear-view mirror of her white Dodge Caravan watching Craig descend into the parking lot of the construction site. All the while, please, please, please, please, running through her mind as she rubbed her crucifix. Craig had been unemployed for more than three months now since his unemployment insurance ran out; since the company for which he’d worked more than fifteen years had folded up shop two years into the recession. This summer was brutal in more ways than one. With only four days of rain in this area of New England over the last two months, every step Craig took in his steel-toed boots caused pillowy plumes of dust to erupt from the ground and swirl around his ankles.

Craig walked with determination down the hill and through the gate of the construction site, shoulders squared, back ramrod straight. He’d seen the job posting online first thing this morning and drove with Marjorie straight to the site to apply in person. His gait was uneven. Watching him, you could tell he had sustained a severe injury that rendered him incapable walking properly. His steps were similarly measured but he seemed to throw his left leg out in front of him based on the momentum of his body rather that by using his thigh muscles. He also seemed to sink slightly lower when landing on that leg. Odd walk though it was, Craig was lucky to be alive, much less walking at all. Six years ago he’d been pinned against a concrete abutment by a front loader’s bucket, crushing his pelvis on the left side and snapping his left femur in two places.

Ah, shit, Jim thought as he looked out the site’s management trailer. Another one? He turned to Matt, “Doesn’t anyone around here have a job?” When Matt looked up, Jim tilted his balding head toward the window and the figure bobbing down the path toward them.

“What’s with his walk?” Matt asked as he got up from his chair. “He looks like a puppet on strings.”

Jim grunted his laugh out. “I got this,” he said in his cigarette-etched baritone as he swiped his hard hat off the table and walked out the trailer to intercept the man.

Craig walked briskly, with purpose, straight up to Jim. “Craig Stevens,” he said, extending his hand. “I came by because of the ad you posted online this morning.”

Jim grabbed his hand and shook it. “Jim Pearson. Site supervisor. I’m sorry to say that job is taken already.”

A shadow danced across Craig’s face but he pushed on, “I see your laying down some HDPE over there,” and nodded at the men near the trench who were welding together forty foot lenghs of high density polyethylene piping. “I’ve got five years on that McElroy fusion machine.”

Jim eyed the man, toe to eye.

Craig pushed on before Jim could again tell him that there was no work for him. “I also got a Massachusetts hoister’s license, certified for hydraulics, and got my DOT. I passed my Connecticut MIG test and started out as a pipe-fitter. Anything you got going on here, I’m sure I can help,” he finished, looking over Jim’s shoulder at the welding curtains beyond the trailer.

Jim thought the man looked ex-military, the way he stood. As short as he was, coming only to Jim’s shoulder, Craig’s presence was still substantial. He was squared off, his head held high.

“Look, fella…”

“Craig,” Craig repeated.

“Right. Craig,” he paused. “I posted that ad this morning and you’re the fifth guy to come by and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I’m sorry but we can’t use you.” With that, Jim involuntarily glanced down Craig’s left side again as if trying to see the injuries that caused the man to walk the way he did.

When he looked back up at the man, Craig was staring at him with resolve. The stare broke into a smile. “Fair enough,” he said. “Do me a favor,” he continued, reaching into his breast pocket, “keep me in mind. I’m more than twenty years in, licenses and certifications for all over New England. Any job’ll do.”

Jim looked down at the slip of paper. It said, Craig Stevens with home and cell phone numbers and an email address. He looked back up at the near-crippled man. “You got it,” he said as he clasped the man’s extended hand and shook it.

Craig turned on his heel and began walking back up the slope to the waiting Dodge. Looking at the man with his shoulders squared and head held high, the thought occurred to Jim, near-crippled but not broken. He followed up with a, “good luck.” Without looking back, Craig raised his hand and waved in acknowledgment.

At the job site’s fencing, Craig’s attention turned to Marjorie. Even from this distance, he could see that she was watching the proceedings through her side-view mirror. He focused on his gait, trying to walk as normal as possible back to the minivan. He’d met Marjorie in the hospital after the accident. She was his rehab nurse after the accident. Marjorie could tell by the size of his limp how much pain he was in and so he focused on making his walk seem as normal as possible. She had enough to worry about, he thought.

That was too short, Marjorie thought as Craig turned from the man and proceeded up the hill. He didn’t get it. Another one. Tears welled in her eyes. Not for the first time, a shriek of outrage echoed through Marjorie’s mind that life was unfair. Craig was the best man she had ever met and he did not deserve what had happened to him. The man who had done this to him was a drunk and a drug addict.

She noticed that when Craig looked up and caught her face in the side-view mirror, he began to walk more smoothly. Trying to hide it from me so I won’t worry, she knew. The welling increased until a single tear rolled down her cheek. As Craig came around the passenger side, she wiped her cheek.

The grim determination on Craig’s face relented as he crested the hill and came upon the passenger side of the Caravan. He opened the door and fell into the seat, the only concession to his injury. Pulling the door shut, he forced a smile onto his face and turned to Marjorie, “Well, they’re all full up. Someone beat me to it. He said that I have a lot of qualifications and if they need someone else that he’d call me so I gave him my card.” At the lie, his smile flickered slightly. He hated like hell to lie to her but, really, she worried enough about him already. It was not a woman’s job to take care of a man but this recession had hit the construction industry particularly hard and most everyone he knew was living off his wife’s paycheck.

Marjorie saw the lie flicker across his face but let it pass. Craig was such a good man that he could not lie without giving it away. There was no reason to call him on it though. He was so bad at it that she always knew and there was no harm in his lying while trying to protect her. She let go of her crucifix she’d been rubbing and turned the key in the Caravan’s ignition as she smiled back at him, “That’s good. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”