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Thursday, February 23, 2023

Three Books For Those Lost in the Wilderness

[Note: This is a post I was working on over a week ago. It may not be "finished," but I'm tweaking it slightly and posting it today to clear the pipeline.]


Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, by David Abram (2011)


The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley (2015)


Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, by Susan Cain (2022)


Anyone who loves philosophy or has had any serious relationship with it at all is at heart, I believe, either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Neither of these ancients gave us a perfect philosophy: Aristotle defended slavery, and Plato believed philosophers should rule the people with lies. The history of philosophy, however, is usually seen as a gradual development, with each major philosopher in turn commenting on the thought of those who went before, accepting some parts of what they said and wrote, rejecting others, and building on what they keep. 

This oversimplified evolutionary picture of human thought reminds me of the oversimplified cartoons of the evolution of human beings, the ones that begin with an ape and gradually, as the ape marches across the page from left to right, more upright with every step, become what we recognize as our own species. We don’t see evolution as scrapping its work at a certain point and going back to the drawing board or going off on tangents, but I believe false starts, discards, and tangents are very much a part of the evolution of philosophical thought. 


Let me go back to my beginning today, only two paragraphs ago, and say this: I see philosophers across the ages, again and again, going back either to Aristotle or to Plato. That is, either recognizing that we are part of the natural world and find our truth there (Aristotle) or escaping into fantasies of disembodied, inaccessible truths presumed to be hiding behind the world of illusions in which we live (Plato). I see in the rejection of Cartesian dualism a return to Aristotle, who believed everything that lived had a soul. Even a turnip. Plato, infamously (as I see it), was uninterested in anything outside the life of the polis. Man in society: nothing else counted for him. His thought focused exclusively, that is, on man as separate from nature, as if nature were irrelevant. 


So you see where I come down, despite Aristotle’s defense of slavery (one of his worst arguments) and his unenlightened view of women (study of biology barely begun at the time). Now for today's books.

I’ve written already of Susan Cain’s Bittersweet, and I’ll come back to it later in this post, so I want to begin with David Abram. 

As I read Abram's accounts of hiking in the mountains of New Mexico, they are familiar to me from my daily walks here in the Arizona high desert, and at the same time his thoughts recall to me the thought of philosophers I have loved: he hasn’t mentioned Aristotle or Bergson (would no doubt object to the latter’s dualism), but halfway through the book I come upon names that had already been ringing in my head: Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty, Mark Johnson. 


Sentience is not an attribute of a body in isolation; it emerges from the ongoing encounter between our flesh and the forest of rhythms in which it finds itself…. Human awareness could not exist without a human body, true, but it could no more exist in the absence of ground, leaf, and flowing water. 


-      David Abram, Becoming Animal


Nothing in the natural world is a machine, not our body or anything else it encounters, and so we are always in dialogue, necessarily, even if unconsciously – with the slope of the hill, the rabbit that starts and bounds away, even, Abram believes, with the rocks and the air and the sun.


(Where I think Abram would find Bergson’s thought congenial is in the distinction between lived time and clock time and in Bergson’s rejection of intellectual analysis as a means of discovering ultimate reality, while he very much appreciated its use in practical problem-solving. Will Abram use the term ‘intuition’ as I proceed in the book? I am about halfway at present. People have called Bergson anti-intellectual, but that is a gross misreading and distortion of his work. Bergson saw intellect as practical and necessary; he rejected it as a tool for metaphysical understanding.)


When I love a book, I find myself wanting to quote whole pages – and almost every page – but I will move quickly now to Tristan Gooley. The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is less philosophical, more practical. Gooley teaches us how to find our way (in the northern hemisphere) by the stars at night and by numerous daytime methods. He calls our attention to shadows and to the wind, to fog and clouds and lichens and algae, to shapes of trees and what kind of wildflowers, weeds, and crops are growing around us. Even rocks have stories to tell us: their size, where they lie, whether sharp or rounded. Many of his examples come from the U.K., rather than the U.S., and he gives only common names rather than Latin names of plants, but the general lessons are transferrable.


My hiking partner and I (and our dogs) climbed a new hill the other day, and since I’d been reading Gooley’s book I was much more aware of the clouds moving above us and the delight of walking through an invisible river of cooler air flowing over the hill. The Lost Art is not a book to read once but something to study so that the lessons have time to sink in. Here is a relatively simple lesson to apply to noticing wildflowers:


The first general rule is that if you come across two banks facing in opposite directions, one with a profusion of different wildflowers and the other with relatively few, then you have a strong clue that the popular one is south-facing.


-      Tristan Gooley, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs


As I say, that lesson seems simple. It’s the ones about stars and clouds and wind that I will need to review multiple times. 


These two very different books, for me, complement each other beautifully. There is so much to learn from Gooley’s observations and experience. And when I read Abram, happy tears often come to my eyes. 


And those happy tears (were you surprised by them?) are my reason for connecting these two nature books with Susan Cain’s Bittersweet. Cain writes of bittersweetness as being “an acute awareness of time passing” and the recognition “that light and dark, birth and death – bitter and sweet – are forever paired,” as well as a natural human longing for perfection and for union, which explains our searches for God, for romantic love, for utopias and transcendence and immortality. 


One early chapter of Cain’s book that focused on romantic love introduced a speaker (I had to return my library copy of the book and forget the name of the man giving the workshops) seeking to convince people that romantic love was a myth. I disagree. It isn’t that I think each of us is half a person, searching the world over for the only other half that can complete us. No, that makes no sense. But that if we are very lucky we may find a soul-mate? That I do believe, because it was my good fortune to experience that kind of love. But even so – and this will relate to experience in wilderness, also – the happiest of couples do not ride waves of bliss every waking moment. Ideally, there will be fun at times, contentment at times, and at times experience of transcendence and absolute union. And then we go to sleep or have to take out the dog (or the garbage) or get ourselves to work. Or we experience agonies of misunderstanding and resentment. Everything.


So it also with losing the talky, thinky self on a wilderness hike and feeling one with the wind. Or driving down the highway with my dog beside me when a hawk swoops in front of the windshield, and Sunny and I are together as the bird grabs our attention. 


And always I remember being with the Artist in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the two of us reunited after a five-year separation, and he behind the wheel, barely inching along a dirt road and playing sweet tones on a harmonica, bringing tears to my eyes. (Yes, then, too.)


To experience union and transcendence at all is a priceless gift that comes and goes. Like a rainbow; like the sight of a wheeling hawk; like a beautiful song that comes to an end. The earth itself is not eternal, let alone the short-lived mammals that we are, but life is beautiful, the earth is beautiful, it is all precious, and the beauty grips our hearts because we are part of it all. 


Much as I would like not to end this post on a mundane note, I’ll say that I was all set to take three minutes to answer questions for Susan Cain’s online quiz, and then the first question had to do with television commercials. I don’t watch television, so how can I say if I get choked up over certain commercials? Have I, in the past? I’m kind of resistant to commercials, suspicious of them to begin with. But when I read David Abram or Susan Cain or even at certain moments Tristan Gooley, then yes, I do have an emotional response. Does that count, Susan? You tell me. I didn’t go on to look at the rest of the questions.


Oh, but wait, wait! That mundane note won’t be the end of the post, because I remembered something else I wanted to include: As I was reading, thinking of Merleau-Ponty long before Abram brought in his name, I was thinking also of a friend from graduate school days whose specialization was phenomenology and his “main man” (as the Artist liked to say of Bergson with reference to me) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and I was thinking that I needed to e-mail Larry and ask him if he had ever read David Abram. I’ll remind you (or see my earlier post) that Larry, with his Ph.D. in philosophy, now makes his living as a stage magician. So imagine my absolute astonishment to come upon this memory of Abram’s:


Many years ago I journeyed through Southeast Asia, making my way as an itinerant sleight-of-hand magician, performing on street corners and at small family inns. 


-      Abram, op. cit.


What were the odds? I was gobsmacked! This surprise came in a beautiful chapter called “Depth,” something the author defines as “the dimension of closeness and distance.” In southeast Asia one day he had an experience of having the mountain that has been accompanying him on his hike all day long disappear into the fog.


It occurred to me then, staring across the boulder-strewn pass into the swirling vapor, that here was the truest archetype for my craft as a sleight-of-hand magician. I must strive to make my silver coins and my billiard balls vanish as completely as this cloud had coaxed the entire mountain to vanish…. To this day, whenever I roll a silver dollar across my knuckles, preparing to make it disappear, I bow subtly toward the remembered mountain and the monsoon clouds – an apprentice honoring his masters.


          - Abram, ibid.


And yet, I have to admit that these days, this particular time of year, late February into the beginning of March, there is very little that does not bring tears to my eyes, whether sights or songs, music or words....


Gooley’s book is lessons, Abram’s is magic, Cain’s is you and me, and all three are all three. And there is a road for each of us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Getting Through the Anniversaries


I will have more tales to share in future, adventures outdoors with dogs and indoors with books, but need to take a break for some difficult days right now. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

“We did it, Sunny! We did it!”

But it was just the beginning --

I only meant to go as far as the Old Pearce Cemetery. Stopping at the library in Sunsites to return a book, then making a short cruise through the adjacent FOL bookstore, I wasn’t ready to turn around and go home yet, not quite ready to take Birch Road across the Sulphur Springs Valley and then the Kansas Settlement Road to familiar Hwy. 186, so I drove first to the Mustang Mall to get a cup of coffee and then back to Old Pearce, another mining “ghost town” like Dos Cabezas, aiming for the peace of the cemetery, a place to sit quietly and drink my coffee before it cooled, maybe look into the pages of a new library book (Becoming Animal, by David Abram). Wind fluttered little American flags on many of the graves, and as always Cochise Stronghold drew my eye off to the west. 


Maybe it was that view of the Stronghold that wouldn’t let me sit still for long. I thought, I’ll just go a little way up the road. Middlemarch Road has always intrigued me, especially as I’d seen the other end of it on every trip to Tombstone, letting me know that it went all the way across the mountains! I’d asked neighbors about the road, but the Artist and I had never taken it, and I didn’t plan to do the long drive last Friday, either. “We’re not going far, Sunny,” I told her, “just a little way.” I stopped by the plank bridge to photograph the deep-sided, red gulch…


…but couldn’t stop there, not just yet, with the Stronghold luring me on. Signs like this hold their own allure.

And then! This sign!

Well, now I have to keep going, don’t I? 

The terrain changed as we went along. After a while there were mountainsides dark with trees, like the Black Hills of my native state, South Dakota. 


And soon Sunny Juliet and I, having left private land behind to enter a section of the Coronado National Forest, were winding our way along an ever-narrower road amidst oaks and junipers, and somehow I had committed myself to going all the way. It was like that day last spring when I hadn’t planned to drive up over Onion Saddle to Portal but found myself doing just that, after going far enough into Pinery Canyon that it would have been absurd to go back.

I pulled over as much as I could for an ATV coming from the opposite direction. He stopped, too, and I asked, “Will this road take me to Tombstone?” (I didn’t want to go to Tombstone but did want to get to the highway.) He told me yes, “about 8 or 10 miles.” (Remember, those are mountain miles!) I asked about snow, and he assured me there was no snow “at the top” and that it was “good road” all the way.


The hairpin (above) near the top of the pass was not my idea of “good road.” It could have been much worse -- it wasn’t gullied or falling away at the edges -- but there were several stretches with very loose rocks, and many that looked sharp, but I put the thought of a flat tire out of my mind. No sense “borrowing trouble,” as my mother used to say.


Opposite the hairpin was this sign: 

No, I am not turning around to go all the way back to Pearce, and I don’t want a dead end, either (and I don’t know anything about Soren Pass). We’ll just keep going on Middlemarch, thanks very much! 

See that snowy mountain range in the far distance? Those are the Chiricahua Mountains, and we are looking down over the flat expanse of the Sulphur Springs Valley from high in the Dragoon Mountains. I was careful keep my eyes either on the road or looking off to the distance, not right down over the edge of the road, but Middlemarch Pass was not as scary as Onion Saddle. Really, not scary at all, and the views were thrilling.


Around a bend, one particular mountain view took my breath away. Reminiscent of the tumbled rocks of Texas Canyon, a scenic stop on I-10 between Willcox and Benson, this peak is one I knew the Artist would have loved. 

He would have loved the long, smoky vistas, too, distances that held, somewhere out there, the town of Tombstone. “Be with me, sweetheart!” I said aloud, standing in the road with my camera. 

We were through the mountains now, the pup and I. Besides mountains and trees, we had seen a creek with a trickle of water, and we had seen a very broad, very dry wash. Lots of birds. It had been a beautiful adventure. 

Now the dirt road gradually broadened again, and there was even a paved stretch before the highway -- where we turned right in the direction of Benson rather than left to Tombstone, as I said aloud to Sunny -- four or five times -- “We did it, girl! We did it!”


Times like these, though, I can’t help thinking it isn’t fair that the Artist should be missing these adventures with us. He would have loved the road, the thrills, the views, the vastness of it all! Then I remember – and this is true, too, absolutely – he loved the life he had. He loved our adventures together (as well as adventures he had on his own), our cozy times, our dogs, and our families and friends. He was deeply satisfied to have made his living as an artist. Books, movies, music! Long talks with friends! The two of us holding hands. “We live in a beautiful place,” he said so many times in northern Michigan, and at the end of a day in Arizona, coming back to the ghost town cabin, he would often say, “It’s good to be home again.” When we traveled across the Great Plains, he would exclaim over and over, “What a country!” He lived with joy and enthusiasm and gratitude. 


And that’s what Sunny and I have to do now, without him, though I miss him every day. He would want the pup and me to go on living.

So Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone, from the girl and me. We wish you love!

Friday, February 10, 2023

“No, how are you, really?”

Recently I wrote, in two consecutive posts, about feeling “crabby” one morning -- the same day, written about twice, because the hours had divided themselves into a morning of outdoor adventure and afternoon of indoor reading. Now, in light of a book I devoured in two days of intense reading, I want to revisit that day briefly before getting into the book. 

Saying I’d been “crabby” when I first got up wasn’t a falsehood, but the word was not as accurate as another I could have used. Initially the word that came to mind that morning, without my having to search for it at all, was abandoned. I felt abandoned. 

But when I wrote about the day, I didn’t want to name my feeling so bluntly-- didn’t want to sound pathetic or self-pitying and discourage people from reading any further – the risk I’m taking today. After all, abandonment was, and is, hardly an objective fact of my life: I have family, friends, neighbors, dog; I see people and receive phone calls and text and e-mails and even postcards and letters in my physical mailbox down the road. To feel abandoned, then, was not a logical, rational thought. The feeling, however, was real and deep. Abandoned. Bereft. Because absence is a constant presence in my life now and can demand to be recognized when I least expect it.

Days before, I had started a very different post, a brutally honest one, thinking it the beginning of a draft for next month. “The Cruelest Month,” I titled those paragraphs, writing that the cruelest month wasn’t April for me, as the poet would have it, but March: Since my husband died last year in March (nine days after his February birthday), last year’s “cascade” of medical issues, beginning in January and ending in death, now repeats itself as a cascade of unavoidable memories, with the anniversary of the end looming ever closer.

Thus the feeling of being abandoned -- although I need to explain further that feeling abandoned does not necessarily correlate to being alone. Sometimes I am perfectly happy alone (as when reading that paper by Georges Poulet), while other times (not always!) with other people I can feel like a sad little island, abandoned in a sea of grief. Because widowhood is not all one color. Every day is not grey and rainy and dismal. 

And speaking of weather, I have always found my moods affected by weather (and used to tell the Artist, “I’m a very shallow person” for that very reason), but grief can make warm sunshine seem pointless, whereas a rainy day can give the perfect excuse to curl up alone, contentedly, and read a book. People, weather – sometimes they encourage certain feelings, and other times the feelings are completely at odds with what’s going on in the “outside” world – that is, outside one’s own head, heart, and skin.

In her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) explores the tendency of some of us to what Aristotle called ‘melancholy,’ those feelings of 

…longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death –bitter and sweet – are forever paired.

From sadness, creativity, seeking unconditional human love or divine love, and the American gospel of positive thinking to grief and loss, “getting over it,” immortality, and intergenerational pain, this book goes broad and deep. There is the story, perhaps apocryphal (and maybe you’ve read it before, as I have), of Franz Kafka giving, to a little girl heartbroken after losing her favorite doll, a new doll with a letter he wrote as if the old doll had written it: “My travels have changed me.” For everyone who has ever lived, change and loss are inevitable, and when they come, life will never again be what it was. 

(Typing that last sentence, the one just above, I first typed “For anyone who has ever loved….” Has anyone ever lived without loving? Such a life would not keep one safe from change and loss. It would not be much of a life at all.)

It's too early in the year to know if Bittersweet will be the most important book I’ll read in 2023, but I know it is one I will be recommending to others and will re-read again and again myself. It is much, much more personal than Cain’s earlier work, and the pieces of memoir, which come along unexpectedly in various chapters, enrich the author’s themes. 

A couple of pages very meaningful to me personally had to do with writing when we are sad. She cites the work of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, who stumbled on something when he was suffering from depression and began writing down “the contents of his heart,” as Cain puts it. 

…And he noticed that the more he wrote, the better he felt. He opened up to his wife again [he had been drinking; they had been fighting], and to his work. His depression lifted.

The psychologist went on to make the phenomenon he experienced the basis for decades of study. He asked groups of people to write about their personal troubles, directing others to write about mundane facts in their lives.

Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about their troubles were markedly calmer and happier than those who described their sneakers. Even months later, they were physically healthier, with lower blood pressure and fewer doctor’s visits. They had better relationships and more success at work. 

Those who did the exercise of “expressive writing,” Cain reports from Pennebaker’s work, were not wallowing in their troubles but deriving insight from confronting and facing their pain.

P.S. 2/16/2023: Oprah picked this book! It's her 99th Book Club pick!

A couple weeks ago, before I’d even seen this book, I sat down to write a long letter. (I write letters, as well as blog posts, but letters I write by hand, on paper, with pen.) I began writing in a rather “pitiful” state of mind, going on and on about my reasons for feeling blue, somewhat as I admitted in my post the other day to feeling “crabby” but with a lot more honesty. By the last page of my letter, though, as I noted before the closing line, I had written myself into a cheerful frame of mind! I’ve noticed before, more than once when drafting blog posts, that I often sit down feeling sad and then somehow write myself into gratitude.

Writing isn’t a silver bullet or a magic potion and doesn’t always banish the blues. And they do come back. But that’s life: sometimes it’s an emotional rainy day, and then the sun shines again, and predicting how we’ll feel on any given future day is never foolproof. But if, as another friend says of me, I am a graphomaniac, I guess that’s one more thing to be thankful for in my life, because now and again writing gets me out of some dark places and back into the light.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Omigod! Another BOOK???

View from the first juniper --

My previous post told of a climbing adventure Sunny Juliet and I had on Saturday morning after I admitted that, before our adventure, I had “gotten up on the wrong side of the bed,” as my parents used to express morning crabbiness. Returning to the cabin post-adventure, then, with no possibility of a coffee house visit in town, would I also return to crabbiness? That was the big question! I had no social plans for the day, and no plans for further adventures, so the danger was real. I busied myself by starting to cook a pot of lentils to stave off bad temper, but the success of this plan would depend on the success of the lentils….


Ah-ha! Suddenly I remembered that the day was Saturday, not Sunday, and that meant there might be something in my mailbox down the road! Purposely stretching out the period of anticipation, however, I chopped onion and carrot to add to the lentils, adding also dissolved tamarind paste, Better than Bouillon (chicken flavor), and plenty of curry powder. Swept the floor. Picked up a book. 

I love USPS, and they do an excellent job here!

Because, you see, if the mailbox is empty on Saturday, all hope must be deferred until Monday; but until my key unlocks the box, hope can imagine a happy outcome. Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or alive? Is my mailbox empty, or does it hold a surprise to gladden my heart? Possibilities exist, if only in the mind, until a box is opened, so why hurry, since one possibility is always disappointment? 


(Please note I do not say the mailbox was both empty and containing a surprise, any more than I say the cat in Schrodinger’s closed was both alive and dead until the box was opened. This frequent interpretive error of a famous argument in physics is made by those who do not recognize the argument as a reductio ad absurdum. Thank you very much!)


Cut to the chase. Waiting for me on Saturday was not emptiness but a book I had ordered from Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Note: When I order online, I always try to order from real bookstores.) Carry the package back to the cabin. Remove brown cardboard. Next, open the book! Again, a range of possibilities presents. Will I be made happy? Disappointed? Left indifferent?


Flashback. One or two friends had posted links on Facebook to the personal home library of the late Dr. Richard Macksey, humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University. Seductive images of the library made me want to know more about Richard Macksey, and after I’d read about his life and work, naturally I wanted a book he’d written, which is how this particular volume came to be in my mailbox on Saturday. 


Not one you would have chosen?

The book. What I found at Midtown Scholar was a paperback edition of the proceedings of an international symposium on structuralism convened at Johns Hopkins in 1966 – not only papers presented but discussion following each presentation – with, thanks to Richard Macksey, an all-star multidisciplinary cast: René Girard, Richard Macksey, Charles Morazé, Georges Poulet, Eugenio Donato, Lucien Goldmann, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland Barthes, Jean Hippolite, Jacques Lacan, Guy Rosolato, Neville Dyson-Hudson, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Nicolas Ruwet, to give the names in the order in which they appear on the book’s cover. The book itself is The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism & the Sciences of Man.


Reminder and disclaimer. I was never an English major, please recall. Reading literary and art criticism can put me off, and writing it (I learned early on, when given such an assignment, not to choose work I loved!) I found downright painful. One graduate class in Philosophy of Literature and a semester as a teaching assistant in Philosophy of Film, with another in Philosophy of Art – that is the extent of my formal background in criticism. Graduate classes in philosophy in the late 1980s, however, introduced me to Foucault and Derrida, structuralism and deconstruction. But that’s all, and it was not a road I traveled very far.


Back to the book. Richard Macksey’s opening remarks to the assembled group bore the title “Lions and Squares.” It was – I suppose predictably and appropriately – academic, historic, and jargon-studded. It was fine. It did the job. My heart was not set on fire, but neither did I regret having ordered the volume. I read on….


I should probably re-read, “Tiresias and the Critic,” presented by René Girard, and before doing that should re-read Oedipus Rex, but as there was no discussion following that short piece, I moved on to Charles Morazé on “Literary Invention,” in which he proposed to question “the relationship of literary invention to invention in general.” Both the paper and the discussion following leaned on a distinction between invention and discovery, and I found myself smiling at the discussion, so familiar from my graduate school years. I was reading happily, crabbiness banished.



Then came “Criticism and Interiority.” At first the paper’s title gave me a sinking feeling, a feeling that could be named the “Anticipation of No Fun at All.” How wrong that prediction was, and how glad I was to have been wrong! Why was I never introduced before to Georges Poulet? Here is how he begins:


At the beginning of Mallarmé’s unfinished story Igitur there is the description of an empty room, in the middle of which, on a table, there is an open book. This seems to me the situation of every book, until someone comes and begins to read it. Books are objects. On a table, on shelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility. When I see them on display, I look at them as I would at animals for sale, kept in little cages…. They wait. Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others. 


This man is speaking my language! And while his position becomes increasingly complicated as he proceeds, I was with him all the way. He speaks of how, when we read, the mind of the author enters our own. We think the writer’s thoughts – or they think us – but we are not thereby invaded. No, in the intimacy of reading, “I begin to share the use of my consciousness…” as the author and I “…start having a common consciousness.” From his personal experience, Poulet says,


Thus I often have the impression, while reading, of simply witnessing an action which at the same time concerns and yet does not concern me. This provokes a certain feeling of surprise within me. I am a consciousness astonished by an existence which is not mine, but which I experience as though it were mine. 


Haven’t you felt this, too, at times? “Lost in a book,” now and then you remember that you are reading, that you are not the character with whom you identify or the author of the characters, that you are holding in your hands a physical object, a book, and that the words on the page are creating visions in your mind. Really, it is astonishing, is it not?


I will not attempt a complete exposition of the ideas in Poulet’s paper, as I’ve probably lost 95% of my readers by now, anyway, and you few stalwarts hungry for more can treat yourselves to reading his works firsthand. But first, just a little more, because I find this so delicious. Poulet draws a contrast between two kinds of critics, one who loses their [you see? I can use current pronouns, though it still goes against the grain!] own consciousness in that of the writer, the other who refuses such identification altogether. The first kind of critical thought (I might say ‘reception) he calls ‘sensuous,’ the second ‘clear.’


…In either case, the act of reading has delivered me from egocentricity. Another’s thought inhabits me or haunts me, but in the first case I lose myself into that alien world, and in the other I keep my distance and refuse to identify. Extreme closeness and extreme detachment have then the same regrettable effect of making me fall short of the total critical act: that is to say, the exploration of that mysterious interrelationship [my emphasis added] which, through the mediation of reading and of language, is established to our mutual satisfaction between the work read and myself. 


He then suggests – perfect, I say! – combining the two methods “through a kind of reciprocation and alternation,” and I am delighted! Well, there is much more about subjects and objects, subjectivity and objectivity, but I leave it to you who are interested to follow up with primary sources. 


The first question asked of Georges Poulet in the discussion that followed his presentation was how, if at all, reading was to be differentiated from understanding another’s speech, and while acknowledging the fundamental similarity in the two cases, Poulet pointed out that in conversation, two or more participants are not only listening but also themselves speaking,


…and when we speak, we don’t listen. Thus very often, conversation, instead of becoming an inquiry in which someone who listens (or who reads) strives to identify himself with the thought of someone who speaks (or writes), becomes instead, quite to the contrary, a sort of battle….


Here, now, re-reading, I pause. [Pause. What do you think?] Because when I read history or opinion of any kind, I read not to lose myself (as in reading a novel or a poem) but as if I am a participant in a conversation, agreeing and disagreeing, questioning, objecting – in short, definitely keeping my distance. As when I read this very paper! But this is not a major disagreement….


Only one more bit that I can’t stop before including: In response to a philosophical question from James Edie, Poulet addresses an implied side issue: 


Am I “for” or am I “against” structuralism? I simply do not know; it is not for me to say; it is for the structuralists themselves. For my own part, sometimes I feel rather alien to the abstract and to the voluntarily objective way in which these structuralists express their own discoveries, and sometimes I am even shocked by that position. Sometimes I am shocked especially by their air of objectivity (I think particularly of one of them whom I consider a friend). I am particularly shocked when he claims to arrive thereby at scientific attitudes. I must confess that, to my own mind, very clearly, very definitely, criticism has the character of knowledge, but it is not a kind of scientific knowledge, and I have to decline very strongly the name of Scientist. I am not a scientist and I do not think that any true critic when he is making an act of criticism can be a scientist. [Again, the emphasis added is my own.] 


Well, my love only deepens with the statement quoted above. Not all knowledge should be called science, and science does not exhaust all the possibilities of knowledge. Thank you, Monsieur Poulet, for knowing so clearly where you stand and for allowing me, in reading your words, to stand with you!


And, once again, I echo fervently the words of the fictional Roger Mifflin, “Thank God I am a bookseller!” Magic and mystery are on every page of every book!


Postscript on Wednesday


State of the Union address: I listened and was very, very proud of President Biden, both for what he said and how he said it. At the same time, I couldn’t help remembering that last year David and I listened together, and that brought tears to my eyes. Several times the president made a joke, and I thought of how important a sense of humor was to David, in his friends and in anyone who intersected with his life. I also noted times when we both would have said, “Yes!” to the president’s statements. (Unlike me, my husband always listened quietly to political speeches, saving his comments for afterward, so with him I tried to do the same.) I remembered how David’s opinion of the president (make no mistake: we both voted for him!) rose considerably after the State of the Nation address. This year again, the president showed dignity, strength, and resolve. He did not avoid controversial subjects, either. The office of the president is strong and honorable under this president.


Throughout the year, President Biden is not always in our faces from one day to the next and acting like the “great and powerful Oz." No, he is a team player -- but he is also a strong leader, and when he does speak out, he speaks out strongly. 


David, I miss you! I wish we could have listened together again this year! Hope for my country, hope for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren — that’s what I got out of President Biden’s State of the Union address, and I know I am not alone. 

Keep calm. Carry on.

Monday, February 6, 2023

She Took No Books!

On Sunday I woke up crabby. The heater had gone off in the middle of the night, and the house was cold. Getting up to deal with that, I remembered another reason to be crabby: my coffee house in Willcox is closed. Not “on vacation,” but closed, its future dim with mystery. Source of Coffee, my David place in Willcox! The name, Source of Coffee, soon had me thinking about the Marcel Pagnol character Jean de Florette and his back-breaking and ultimately fatal trials in  Provence [movie review here but note an error in the telling: Ugolin is not Papet's son but his nephew]: When conniving neighbors block up his spring and all his farming efforts fail, he rages against God. It was, after all, the livelihood of his family, he had struggled manfully to succeed, and then, to be deprived of his source (spring)! All right, I know, I know – his deprivation and mine are hardly equal, but it was not yet 5 a.m., and I’ve already admitted to crabbiness.

With heat back on and fresh, home-brewed coffee in mug in hand, my livelihood not facing any new or unusual threats during seasonal retirement (just for the winter: I’ll be back at work in late spring), I felt better when I took Sunny Juliet out on her leash in the dark and saw a perfect moon preparing to set in the west and heard, at the same time, a mockingbird singing in the dark, not even waiting for sunrise to begin rejoicing in the day. 


It was early. I was up. But not in a reading mood. Scanned through a few Facebook posts, listened to a little news on the radio. I was probably as impatient as Sunny on Saturday to get outdoors for our morning walk, so once the sun was up, we started out east on the range. East from the cabin means uphill, then down into what I call Peasy’s Gulch. Then we usually go north to the wash and follow it east. 

It’s a fine walk, one that can stretch to an hour easily, what with investigations along the way (mine mostly visual, SJ’s mostly with her nose). But I was in the mood for a change of scenery, and Sunny is always amenable to a change of plan, as long as we’re still having a good time.



See the arrow in the image above, pointing to a little tree on the distant slope? Doesn’t look very high, does it? Not much of a challenge? Actually, there is no simple and direct path, and while the tree is much higher than it looks from afar, I’d always had it in mind as a destination “someday.” This, I decided, would be the day. 


My morning preparations for the walk had been nothing more than the usual list: leash, treats, water, keys, phone, hat. That’s it. I added gloves, since it had been chilly when we started out, but camera stayed home, as did all field guides. No books on hikes! One thing I learned about field guides when I hiked the Dragoons years ago with a friend is that they become increasingly heavy with every step. I can’t live without field guides – don’t get me wrong – but I’ve learned to photograph whatever I want to identify and look it up in my guides afterwards. Sometimes I carry a camera, as on New Year’s Eve for the Town Hill climb; otherwise, my phone has to serve camera duty.


In Dos Cabezas, in the mountains, foothills, and the ghost town itself, everything (as my hiking partner noted one day as we were driving the straight, flat Kansas Settlement Road) is “up and down.” In summer, when monsoon rains come to the Southwest, water floods the washes and carries downstream rocks, trees, and anything (or anyone) else that it catches up in its torrential flow. On lower ground, the washes in winter are broad, sandy, and relatively clear of obstacles, as if designed for walking, whereas on higher ground and steep slopes, the story is vastly different. There a wash originates as a gully, and there will be several gullies to every slope. Moreover, there is loose rock everywhere, along with shrubs with thorns and spines. -- And I'm coming back to add that there are also gopher holes, holes made by rooting "pigs" (javelina), and now, another neighbor warns me, abandoned mine shafts!

My destination that small dark tree to the northwest

Dark shade is first gully, from the destination side.


Having gone farther east than necessary before making the decision to climb, I had two major gullies to clamber down into and up out of on my way to that tree. Sunny negotiated them easily, but then, she has four legs and four feet and is only a year old. The second gully, in particular, gave me pause. (No, not paws! Please!) Could I do it? Without falling? I put on the gloves I’d taken off when feeling too warm in order to be able to grab handy branches along the way. On the upside of the gully, there was a cow path (quite surprising how good cows are at climbing steep slopes), and I made cautious use of their bovine wisdom. 

For reference: cows on a different hillside on a different day

For scale: same cows as above without the magic of zoom

On Saturday: my cowpath, up out of the second gully

My report, in brief: The climb, la montée, ça en valait la peine! Definitely worth the effort! The view of my little ghost town down there in the distance – even, between two local hills, a view out across the playa to the Dragoon Mountains and Cochise Stronghold – was worth every cautious, foot-dragging step that got me there, and it was very satisfying to stand under a tree I’d been looking at from my winter back door and imagining meeting “in person” since 2015.

View attained.

Tree up close.

From my new, lofty vantage point, I could see an easier route to take down than the one I’d used coming up. I’ll remember that for the next time I climb to the tree. I have also installed an altimeter on my new phone now, so when I make the climb again I’ll know exactly how much higher the tree is than the cabin down below, which stands at a mere 5,030 feet above sea level. – Not quite a mile high, the cabin, but that almost explains our freezing temperatures during these winter nights. 


Yes, a very satisfying adventure – and I rationed the water supply carefully so that a certain energetic little doggie would not have to go thirsty, either. We had a terrific time!