first in a series of series of declared series

I am so frustrated I could file a class action lawsuit! If, you know, I had a lawyer. And money to pay them if they did not want to do all this work for free because I have a hunch the system is rigged and besides I am the most unreliable witness alive.

Ok maybe not the most unreliable. But my credibility and my credit are both shot. Probably it is no coincidence that they would go down together but if I start drawing connections too sharply I am going to look like I am psychotic or something and that would just–

well, underscore the “with psychotic features” portion of my vast collection of diagnoses. Which diagnoses will come up again if I get that far before I die but I am not sure how far I will even get before the coffee wears off or my eyes start aching so badly that I must stop typing and stare at my feet for the rest of the evening.

Personal responsibility. I have a lot of thoughts about that. Of course in late capitalism the persons saddled with personal responsibility are not those persons the Supreme Court saw fit to fashion out of the inherently lopsided autocracies that are corporations. They can do whatever they want; the invisible hand will guide and protect them in its boundless mercy for profit seekers.

The rest of us though. No such protection.

Still I can fantasize that everyone who espouses personal responsibility would actually be happy to take some on themselves and prove to the rest of us that they do believe this responsibility applies to everyone, not just to those other people who are not able to meet the free-market definition of worthiness.

I had the idea today to go out into the world. Because lately I have not been doing a whole lot of that because when I do what often happens is quite a lot like what happened today. I took my camera; I sort of made a new Gregorian calendar year resolution to go take pictures on my block at least once a week for the rest of the year and to try to see things that I have already seen a million times at least differently enough to take interesting pictures. Part of the resolution included posting them, somewhere, for anyone out there to look at. I hope to be able to get to that in between what may be called dystonic storms if what is going on with me is what I think is going on with me.

Really I think this was just an idea I had around the first of the year and I figured well this is a punctual moment so why not start and call it (one of) my project(s) for the year.

Looking up at an old building with columns and wrought iron faux balconies on the boarded-up windows

Today I took pictures of an old building that I am quite certain will soon lose its beautiful crumbling facade when someone buys it and decides that restoring said facade would cut into profits too much and instead they replace the facade with a facile quote of said facade. Because this has already happened to the two buildings adjacent to this one that were built in similar styles some time ago when architectural flourishes were not seen as excessive or if they were seen as excessive then it was still worth the time and money to carry them out in order to simply be excessive.

The point of my field trip was not necessarily the photography although I was aware this might be the only thing I was able to accomplish if I did accomplish anything at all. My general plan was to walk somewhere where there was a place to sit and then to sit there and maybe write a little bit about one or two of the million things that have occurred to me in the last couple of years and then gotten lost in the ceaseless clatter that is my central nervous system looking for itself or America or some other nostalgia-ridden peaceful ideal and that also makes starting andor continuing to write or think on any of these things into a challenge of modestly exhausting proportions.

I got as far as the parklet outside of a cafe over on Valencia just south of 22nd Street. I had thought maybe to try for the library at 24th Street but my back did not like all the standing still I had done while using my camera so I stopped here. I even got some coffee although I could not really afford it because why not go all out?

So I took my coffee to a parklet table and got myself seated which is itself an involved affair for reasons I do not fully understand except that it might have something to do with how I hang half of the things I think I might need from my bag and so they often get tangled up in each other and me and the dozen or so wallet chains I decorate myself wtih besides. Plus today a camera on a strap around my neck and you would think that carrying a bag would make organization easier instead of harder but no. It gets even worse if I put things in or on a backpack with carabiners and velcro and paracord. Backpacks are made to keep things out of reach until you Get There but I usually need things enroute and I should probably just get a toolbelt or something similar that could hold lots of things without using up my hands and neck.

Eventually though I was seated with my iDevice out and my coffee in front of me and I opened a note-taking app all ready to start. And then I realized that my eyes, neck, and head were all throbbing. At slightly different frequencies and also and this has been going on for a while but I do not notice that much here in my house because I guess I do not look down much at home if I look down that is if I bend my neck rather than, say, my waist in order to see something below my current horizon line then my head starts to ache or in this case ache worse. My neck muscles apparently do not like to be stretched that way because the ache starts in the back on one or both sides of my cervical spine and apreads from there to my temple(s) and forehead(s–oh wait. I only have one of those!).

This can be annoying when trying to use an iDevice without holding it up so that I can look directly ahead at it. Holding the iDevice up in that way makes my shoulder muscles angry if I do it for too long especially if the reason I am doing it is because the muscles in my face are angry because they will just spread the love on down to whatever part of me tries to do anything but remain still and as relaxed as possible which often is not at all possible but you have to try anyway if you want to be able to do anything at all the rest of the day.

My nose was twitching. Not so that anyone could see it but some nerve in my right-nostril-flaring muscle(s?) was unhappy or alarmed or something and so sending a repeated signal to a tiny bit of that muscle to contract and then shiver at about 70Hz or so for half a second. A half second of rest and then another signal. You might say it was on a 70Hz over 2Hz sort of signal. Or the other way around.

I don’t know which.

But most of the muscles in my face twitch for short periods at about 70Hz and in the night when it is quiet I can hear them, you know, from the inside, through whatever bone is between the muscle and my inner ear. Because my jaw is trying to shut itself with great emphasis much of the time and with varying amounts of force fueling that emphasis, I can only tell if it is relaxed if I stop hearing it strain against itself. Sometimes this means my jaw can be fully slack, but it usually finds rest somewhere between clenched tight and teeth not quite touching. A point of homeostasis between warring muscle groups, always at a slightly different length of the arc that defines the full range through which my chin can move all by itself. “Slack” jaw for me actually requires continuous muscular effort against the contractive forces almost always exercising themselves. And this generates that same hum slightly higher in pitch than the familiar sixty cycles of AC power. Or wherever those sixty cycles come from. Wall socket I am pretty sure but don’t quote me on that.

My eyes do not hum. They just ache if I try to swivel them upwards or sideways. You know, in their sockets. Not moving my head. Not all the time but if my nose or cheek or eyebrow are twitching it is usually the case that my eyes are not wanting to do any work at all other than the heavy-lidded unfocused meditation gaze at forty-five degrees of nothing. And so that is what I let them do even if I am not formally meditating right that minute. In fact this whole symphony of muscular restlessness will sometimes relent of I meditate on the spot. Or at least I can keep it toned down a little for as long as I look down with my eyes half-closed and my neck absolutely straight or even bent back slightly. If I wait long enough I can say I was meditating even if I was just waiting for the storm to pass and trying to think calm relaxing thoughts to help it on its way as well as to retain my own composure for another few minutes.

Klonopin can help a bit too, so I took a quarter of one and washed it down with my coffee so as to maybe counteract its sleepier-making effects. Oh and also water. Especially if I have eaten recently, half to a full liter of water can hurry my face along towards placidity. Of course then I will be hurrying myself along to the restroom soon enough but I know where all the good ones are in my neighborhood plus if all else fails I can just use the one in my therapist’s waiting room I mean hallway.

And so once the Klonopin and water and coffee were administered I sat somewhat Buddha like in the parklet chair with my head facing forward and my eyes down. People walked past with great commotion of noise and light. They say that the eye thing–if dystonia is the cause or rather the effect become a cause of the twitches and contractions–is a slow spasm of the eyelid muscles, but that does not explain at all why sound becomes all clanky loud and light all knife-edged bright while I cannot look at anything that requires eye muscle movement of any kind not just lid-raising.

In any case. I managed to type two paragraphs into my iDevice eventually but that was all my body would let me do, so I got up and walked home after getting my bag and my jacket and my camera all tied on in the right places. I rifled through the things I keep in my head to write for the one that would be a useful tangent for the story I keep saying that I want to write which is my own story of which there are thousands if not tens of thousands or more and it hit me: fucking class-action lawsuit! The mess I have been in the last several however manies is one that others share and not one of us chose to place outselves here.

But against whom? I start to make a list:

Jack Chick, most definitely, or whatever he left of his little evangelistic comic empire.

The Southern Baptist Convention?

How far back into the multiple, ramified chains of events would one want to reach?

I think the statute of limitations has passed to try to find the dude who raped me.

Not my brother. I know where he is.

The other dude.

How about a class-action lawsuit against the whole of compulsory anatomically essentialist heteronormativity? Who precisely is responsible for that?

Billy Graham Industries or LLC or Incorporated or however his offspring continue to make money by threatening the masses with the Lake of Fire. Oh, sorry. This one belongs up there with Jack Chick. I would not say the Grahams are completely to blame for the heteroassumptions into which they were all born.

I am refraining from naming what might be the most obvious entity to sue if the symptoms that started as soon as I stopped taking Zyprexa and continue to this day are actually somehow even in the most tortuous of ways connected the drug itself or its method of discontinuation. I will just leave this here though.

OK this was going to be a short intro? And I was going to write the story of why Jack Chick is the first culpable party that sprang to mind upon imagining financial compensation for chronic daily annoyance? But probably I have lost most of my audience already so I will try that a little later with some luck and Klonopin and water oh and lots of just. breathing.

 

 

after Jackson

Jackson, a dilute orange tabby, looking to the right

Jackson in motion

Some short time after 24 Feb 2011: some short time after I looked at Jackson and decided that I could not ask him to live through the weekend to the following Monday as he crouched hunched up and obviously uncomfortable anywhere but in my lap with a puppy piddle pad to catch the constant urine leak which now went everywhere he did. Some short time after I brought him to the clinic that evening and talked to the attending vet and she and I came to the decision to end his life then rather than wait for doctor who had known him a long time but would not be in until Monday.

Afterward. Immediately afterward, after his head dropped in my hand and I laid it down on the towel and looked into his eyes and they did not look back: only nowhere, seemingly focused upon whatever distance a completely relaxed eye will focus but not focused upon that distance at all for all signals had ceased so that light fell without disturbing anyone or anything: it occurred to me for the first time: I just killed my cat!

There is no getting around it. Agonizing as the decision is every single time for everyone who has ever to make it, the essence of the decision is to take the life of an animal after having accompanied it for some significant portion of both of our lives. To save them suffering, yes. To relieve them of pain, yes. To give them the gentlest exit still possible at whatever time it needs to be done. Yes.

All of that is true. And it is also true that we take responsibility for their lives upon ourselves and ask for them to be put to death.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I found the weight of that responsibility so heavy as to be impossible for me, myself, to pick up. There was no way I could take it on, and yet, there I had just done so. It was immediately unbearable but I could not shrug it off, for his death was quite literally in my hands already. Ours was an inescapable quandary, his and mine, and it had been both necessary and impossible for me to assume control of his mortality.

Yes. I think it is time. That was what I had said while feeling so uncertain of the right time that even now I repeat to myself the veterinarian’s response: I support your decision. Not because I found reassurance in it–rather I saw that we were equally helpless, trying to attend to this cat in obvious pain, but we without means to relieve him of either his pain nor his obligation to die because of it–or of some other pain. At this or some other time.

So we did the best we could. And it was as inadequate as it was unavoidable.

Outside the clinic life went on normally as it always does which is to say that all things and all persons animal vegetable and mineral kept moving almost without deviating even a moment. And inside? Inside was no different from outside except that the routine there is familiar with its own disruption and deals with it methodically but not mechanically or without feeling: death is routine, or it shadows routine so closely that routine is routinely imperiled, suspended, and consulted for directions as to how to return to it while holding casualties to a minimum.

Shortly afterward, I wrote this:

The first anthropomorphic gods as adjudicators between the other and the self? That is, I cannot assume the responsibility of Jackson’s or anyone else’s life and yet I cannot protect them from death. To leave all matters in “god’s hands” is to ask god to forgive on the behalf of the other, with or without the permission of that other. If instead the divine is the relationship I have with the other or that the other has with me then I must face what I cannot face and what tears me apart in the face of the other: responsibility for an other’s vulnerability. Its absolute, irreparable, mind-blowing vulnerability. Perhaps this is where personal guilt emerges from original sin: our inability to keep the other safe from death–which is not the same as being unable to protect oneself from death–is where we perceive our fatal insufficiency, the one that will do us in before we can begin to do anything at all. The loose thread. The gap in the circle.

Fundamentalist Christianity reacts to this insufficiency by seeking to protect the self from death and disavowing responsibility toward the other by resigning all questions about death to a god who not only should be able to tame those questions well enough to protect his elect ones from their uncertainties, but who also is supposed to stand in for the other and forgive on the other’s behalf when the elect pronounce and/or enact that other’s damnation to separation and torment. But no mere god can do that. What is divine in our bonds to others cannot be abrogated by a mythical figure who somehow straightens everything out so that death does not in fact ever take its share. In seeking relief from our own mortality we also seek relief from responsibility for the mortality of the other, but there is no relief from either except to the extent that both destroy the self, leaving it unable to assume anything like responsibility. The death of the other destroys me–shows me my profound inadequacy–and calls into question then my ability to take responsibility for that death.

At that point whatever remains of me takes its place in death beside the other. My inability to save the other from death results in the disruption of my own being and lays me out beside that other in an adjoining grave. It is not that I die of guilt or responsibility but rather that I die of not being able to be relieved of that responsibility, which does not measure itself in guilt except when my ego insists on finding redemption for itself. Asking to be spared in the face of the death of the other is the beginnings of totalitarianism: an ego that dares to think itself immune from destruction, or deserving of such immunity. Death is not punishment but life’s radical vulnerability, and disavowing that vulnerability may be one early step closer to cynicism and egotistical fascism.

To face it, to face the impossibility of protecting the other from death and the subsequent disruption of egotistical mastery [I look into Jackson’s eyes as though to assure him one last time that suffering has come to an end but they no longer respond and I cannot reassure him or myself that this was the necessary action at the necessary time. My response does not arrive in time], is to lose the self in a kind of remorseless compassion: one that does not relieve us of responsibility for the other’s death but relieves us of ourselves and our demand for grace from some figure that could step onto the scene of mortality and usurp the other’s place there in order to restore ourselves to ourselves.

Instead we are left with our own disfigurement at the disappearance of the other, our own dissolution at the point at which we cannot assume this responsibility even under its inexhaustible insistence. It is a paradoxical moment in that what commands me also destroys me and renders me incapable of responding to it: thus irresponsible perhaps but also bereft of myself. One cannot have it both ways: the subject cannot persist after the other has perished no matter how long it denies that its only response is both necessary and impossible. The subject can only respond by relinquishing its perceived capacity to respond as an integrated, intact individual.

I found this in an odd spot for this sort of writing. It took me a moment to recognize it as something I wrote myself, as I do not recall writing this down, although I recall the thought process very well. Because I also remember very well how shocked I was to understand what I had done–or rather, to understand that there would be no simple way of understanding this or of reconciling myself–my self–to the deed of ordering Jackson to be killed. I had help. I had a witness; I even had a willing agent and assistants. I had been an assistant many times before. I can say with some accuracy that I have seen at least hundreds of animals euthanized, if not upwards of one or two thousand. All of them presenting as choices to be made where no adequate choice can be made out even while it must be determined. We are bound to answer even while the call itself is impossible to fulfill without overstepping our bounds.

The English language, at least in my opinion, does not offer an adequate word for that friend with whom we share absolute trust. What is worse, it does not offer a particularly easy way to name the relations we have and are with the life around us. All of it. Not just humans, not just primates, not just mammals, not just vertebrates, not just animals, and possibly not just those entities we recognize as alive: we are bound together in such a way that we are not even distinct from each other, but the language I know is somehow so clumsy it cannot bridge even the mythological gaps between mythological individuals.

Familial terms do not work for me at all but the explanation for that is already 500 pages long and counting. Worse, “brother/sister” only makes room for the two genders our particular culture chooses to assign on the basis of questionable criteria. Neither would even include me in the relation I would try to use it to describe. “Friend” does not do it for me. I do not know why, or that is I might consider why some other time. Losing a friend sounds no more or less serious to me than losing a dog or cat or bird or bunny or rat or goat or.. but none of them imply the rending sensation they try to name even if they are able to acknowledge that loss does not obey any hierarchical chain of being, great or otherwise. Is it shameful that I feel Jackson’s death as acutely as my Grandmother’s death? It is true that they took place within a year of each other and within another year two more people on the same side of the family had died so yeah it’s been a rough few years but Jackson’s departure is still very much Jackson’s departure and nobody else’s. I can line up their effigies and while loss includes every one of them they are each the mnemonic of a very specific moment within the procession of mortality as I am apparently bound to experience it.

What I can never find the right word for is the nature and extent of that bond. It is, to me, every alibi for passion that there is, and extends to so many relations it seems odd to me to try to line them up on some linear gradient, as though watching, say, capital’s daily assault on every form of exploitable embodiment within reach were not every bit as wrenching as leaving Jackson’s body behind when I walked home that night.

Unbearable, all of it.

He wrote, sitting as upright as he could. Which was not very. But still a bearing of sorts.

My way or the highway, and if you choose the highway it’s all his fault

My biorhythms were doing whatever it is they do when I strolled into Mad in America and read about Robert Whitaker’s presentation at NAMI. Or really, its aftermath.

Whitaker, as you may or may not know, is taking all sorts of flack for his research into the current state of psychopharmacological research and marketing, which you can find out more about in the books Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic. I have read both of them and although they are not without their rhetorical excesses (and of course I adore rhetorical excess but not usually mixed with science unless for artistic effect), the research Whitaker has put into them is thorough and very hard to argue with without resorting to very very tired canards about the plight and safety and whatever-tugs-your-heartstrings about the “mentally ill” as long as you don’t have to actually talk to any of them.

One day I will explain why I always put that term in scare quotes. Unless I already have, in which case I will probably do it again even so. But not just now. The short version of Whitaker’s message is something like: we–or those of us not involved in or with pharmacology industries–have no idea how little information we have been given about psychiatric medications, nor how much of what we think we do have is completely without empirical support. Whitaker has unearthed repressed research, inadequate methodologies, and a number of not-too-surprising instances where profit has short-circuited the scientific skepticism that is necessary to keep us from proclaiming that our knowledge is complete when it is in fact completely unmoored from any empirical observations because the money is nowhere near them.

Whitaker has made some enemies, of course. Many of them seem to think that the complexities of reality need to be hidden from some of us for our own good: specifically, those mental patients currently taking antipsychotics who truly need them. As you might suspect, precisely who needs their antipsychotics can vary depending on their relationship to the person you are asking.

A summary of this whole argument would take more energy than I want to expend at the moment, but Whitaker is currently living a snapshot moment that illustrates it, to my rickity mind, particularly well. So a link, and then the comment that those aforementioned biorhythms told me I had to leave after pouring one more cup of coffee, but with the part stuck back on the end that I cut out for the sake of not covering someone else’s blog page with my ranting. If you have time, read the comments (you can skip mine, I am reproducing it right here!); they shed quite a bit of light on the scene and had a great deal to do with whatever induced me to stop everything else I was going to do today to write what follows.

Whitaker’s post

My comment, plus extra bonus words:

No, you don’t have blood on your hands–and wouldn’t have even if Earley’s son had fared worse.

My very honest opinion, given the information given/linked here? Mr. Earley, I have no doubt, believes that he is trying to do the right thing for his son, and believes that “tough love” is a perfectly useful tool in motivating people to live up to their families’ and cultures’ expectations of them. But what I think I see is not at all unusual in the culture I live in (US, western, anglo-american–lots of names and none of them sufficient): our emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility often passes into brutality and abuse despite good intentions and in spite of every bit of love we believe we hold for those close to us.

Take your meds or get out of my house? It looks to me that Earley’s son was given a choice between two barely tenable alternatives, and the son took the one that he himself considered less painful, less risky, less likely to cause him great harm: he left home, alone, knowing what he surely knows about his capacity to handle difficult situations.

Being diagnosable with mental illness does not render us incapable of looking out for our own interests. Not knowing anything about Earley’s son, I can only speculate about why he chose to leave home rather than continue treatment when those were the only options available to him, but if I were going to analyze the situation further, I sure would want to know why he made that choice. I suspect the answer as to how best to serve his son could be found by listening to his son–for Earley, for anyone else.

Earley instead blames you for daring to uncover empirical facts and pointing them out where his son could see them. Controlling information access is a display of power. Possibly an abusive one. But it is endemic in our paternalistic culture and, for too long, has been an acceptable practice in caring for those whom we deem incapable of caring for themselves.

And yet Earley’s son did care for himself. He left home. This seems plain to me from here.

I suppose it might be a relief to be told that one’s child is suffering from a brain disorder and not reacting to, say, inhospitable conditions at home, using whatever means they can. But what I dearly wish could happen in public dialog would be for us to recognize that not only can no human behavior can be explained so simplistically, but there exists little evidence for those explanations we are given–or that we receive–as though they were studied, nuanced scientific conclusions.

We do not have to make a choice, when trying to explain emotional or neurological distress, between blaming refrigerator mothers and attributing it to well-documented brain disorders. Both of those figures are mythological and completely divested of any attention to the reality we ourselves live. But we do need to recognize that upbringing–and this is not a process confined to the traditions of any nuclear family, but a cultural and sociological process that continuously changes its focus–cannot be untangled from the physiological structures we inherit, in whatever shape, and which then develop in response to everything we ever perceive.

And, now apparently, we hear that we are shaped by many of the things our parents and grandparents perceived before any of us had begun to be iterated and reiterated by our own experiences. Take even the briefest critical look at our current understanding of neurological change and the mechanisms of inheritance: less comprehensive, less efficacious than our level of knowledge of these processes is only the degree of control we have achieved over any of them. We fancy ourselves master wizards when we are the neo-ist of neophytes.

My sense of what is called mental healthcare in the US is that, at the level of public discourse, it remains stuck in the positivist, enlightenment-era myth that not only will we be able to categorize and analyze any problem to complete resolution if we apply the briefest effort, but that we are always just on the verge of doing so, or that the last discovery finally put us over the top and now we have the magic key!

You know. Like Zyprexa, the wonder drug, showed us the way to cure psychosis. And a whole bunch of other disorders that we didn’t even know were disorders, much less similar enough to psychosis to be treatable with the same drugs!

I understand why we want these sorts of answers, and why we want them to be easy and without any implications for those considered normal, well-adjusted, and in need of nothing but their own self-sufficient selves. But as complex, intelligent, sensitive, and intensely social creatures, we are all implicated in each other and have been for millennia. Our relations are so complex we might never be able to name them all, but like our old Freudian unconscious, they will make themselves known whether or not we recognize them when they show up.

The desire to assign blame is tempting, I suppose. The more quickly the singular, locatable culprit can be found and punished, the earlier we can forget our own implications with what goes on nearby and return our self-image to its unblemished, untouched ideal. But it almost always leads us to overlook a great deal of detail and a great deal of what could be useful information.

And of course, a compassionate practice aimed at sorting out connections rather than offloading guilt onto the nearest neighbor might also stand some chance of making our multiple connections with our world much less painful.

It is apparent that many of us find those connections painful, is it not?

the four thoughts. the last thought, I promise.

ahhh. whatever other life forms there may be in this universe or in other universes, I hope they are able to experience something as unambiguously and uncomplicatedly Good as cool sparkling water.

someone somewhere probably thinks the same thing about boiling ammonia.

Because this is another post on the same topic but I want to keep them all cross-referenceable here is the name of the book that inspired this verbal onslaught: The Buddha at War: Peaceful Heart, Courageous Action in Troubled Times, by one Robert Sachs, formerly unknown to me. The topic is The Four Thoughts that Revolutionize the Mind and in a minute I will stop writing as though I were reading into a tape recorder or making podcasts.

Somebody needs to do “Krapp’s Last Tape” where Krapp is fumbling with podcasts using an ancient version of iTunes.

OK maybe not. Bad idea. Nevermind.

The Fourth Thought, which isn’t articulated in an easy-to-encapsulate form, is really a restatement of the other three in a more succinct phrase or two, or a conclusion to the argument they present, or perhaps both. Sachs’ section heading reads “Thought 4: No time to waste and nowhere to run,” and then a little further along he refers to Pema Chödrön’s book, The Wisdom of No Escape (50-51). Between these two headings seems to lie the sense of the Fourth Thought, although he doesn’t make it clear exactly what the Fourth Thought states in so many words, or that is it is this many words that state it but I don’t know what a direct translation of it would be.

(For that matter I’m not sure where in the Buddhist canon these Four Thoughts come from. He doesn’t really say, beyond stating that “these four notions are called by different names.” I’m not yet familiar enough with either the written or oral tradition of Buddhism to be able to say who might be doing the calling. He does include a bibliography, which is very unlike the Zen Buddhist texts I’ve mostly read. Funny thing about Buddhism: the origins of its precepts are often obscure. I’d read some significance into this but there isn’t time.)

For some reason this Thought reminds me of Giorgio Agamben’s statement in The Coming Community that the world is forever both contingently necessary and necessarily contingent. Sorry I can’t tell you what page number that occurs on but it is early on in what is a very short book anyway. Right now I cannot seem to locate it in the proliferation of stacks behind stacks behind stacks of books in my general vicinity. But without going too deeply into the Western philosophical notions of contingency and necessity, which in classical thought are opposed and therefore mutually exclusive, I’ll just observe that here they are combined as modifiers of each other when usually they occur as a dichotomy and I think that Agamben does this quite knowingly and deliberately. Briefly, what this statement means is that the universe is pulled together completely by random chance and yet it is determined through and through by those chance-determined relations. For Nietzsche, this is the divine dice throw: the opening gamble that is our world, and we in it, “thrown” here–if one doesn’t mind Heidegger too much to use that word once and never again mention him–completely beyond our own agency and against inestimable odds, and yet we are caught in the matrix of forces and actions that have unfolded ever since the very first thing went “right,” in a way that is both deterministic and unpredictable.

I guess these three and a half thoughts are related to each other in that they describe our “irreparable” condition of being caught in an infinite web that we cannot untangle and yet for which we are responsible insofar as whatever we do will send waves through this web and will change it just as irreparably as we are changed by the waves that roll through us. Between these thoughts and the thought of impermanence, it seems as though we are short on both time and space in a certain way, those metaphysical dimensions so dear to Western existence: the moment is all we have to act in, and we are so tightly bound to other beings that, not only is our absolute distinctness from them questionable (trust me on this one for now), but whatever we do will have an effect on everything else, forever. In a way that we cannot predict.

There are lots of questions about free will begging to be asked here but I’m not going to ask them for now, as I think the distinction between free will and the lack thereof is another dichotomy whose paradoxical dimensions have not been thoroughly explored by anyone I’ve yet met. And although I do have thoughts on the subject, ultimately they are tangential to what we’ve been looking at. But perhaps I should say this much: I think it is entirely possible that we can believe we have free will even while suspecting that we don’t, really. And I think that it is possible that the notion of free will is one that arose according to certain necessities. That’s as much as I think I can quickly say on the subject without stopping to interrogate this dichotomy as to its absoluteness. So. If you want to do this I’d love to read it.

But you do see how this Fourth Thought gathers the first Three together. Or perhaps the First Thought is the one we have to go back and read after we’ve read the Fourth: to love this life, to love the place in which we are caught, to love that we are caught, responsible yet entirely without our own consent, in a space where nothing is certain, few things are predictable, and every moment is crucial. And to love it with the “peaceful heart” in the title of this particular book. But I haven’t quite gotten that far yet, so I can’t say for certain what this peace consists of, but I think it might have something to do with a conversation I had earlier today in which it was offered that growing older yet becoming less and less sure is itself a way of becoming comfortable with our existence, jammed up as we are against the unknown and the unknowable. So much so that we are on intimate terms with what we cannot know. For psychoanalysis, what we cannot know is sometimes the unconscious and sometimes death; for Buddhism, what we cannot know is, among other things, the source of compassion.

If you would like, think about that for a little while.

the four thoughts that revolutionize the mind: thought three revisited. then four?

I had meant to come back and finish the fourth thought last night but I ended up doing something else. what was it? oh. I shaved and showered. wo0t!

I need to finish The Buddha at War because I think it might have some more interesting things to tell me. I just looked at the Third Thought, though, and I realized that there was not a lot in Robert Sachs’ account to explain my reaction to how he explains karma and responsibility, as he does so in a fairly simple manner: one reaps what one sows. I think, though, that reading a few pages later that he views Craving as an attachment to bias, or truth–that provisional “immutable” truth that we construct to protect us against the predations of impermanence–caused a chain reaction even before I got to that part. It may be that his apparently simplistic rendering of karmic responsibility is at odds with his more subtle analyses of loving one’s life and the nature of desire/craving, and that if one reads along with those analyses, one comes to karmic responsibility with all sorts of unruly notions flying about, ready to challenge this principle of Buddhist thought.

Or maybe I’ve just reached a point where I want to kill the Buddha of karma and responsibility because the Nietzsche in my head is quick to point out that here is an “immutable truth” rising in the middle of a system of thought whose central tenet of impermanence implies that the number and variety of “truths” are infinite and thus any single truth is provisional and transient. That and I cannot bring myself to take a reincarnation confined to individuals on Earth seriously in a time when it seems fairly certain that there is, was or will be life elsewhere in the universe and that it might be so different from the life we know here as to be unrecognizable.

That is, life itself may be infinite in variety and individuals themselves infinite in number. Even life “itself” contains no “self” for life: it emerges as already heterogeneous and multivariant to a degree of complexity so high we cannot compute it, and may never be able to, if that degree is an infinite one. But so what I’m meaning to say here is that I don’t believe that individuals are reincarnated: I think that the events that are habitually recognized as an individual, the intersection of energy and matter that results in a compartmentalized, relatively discrete being or creature, do not recur in such a way as to produce the “same” individual “within” a different body. Even with infinity in front and behind us, there is no reason not to suppose that individuating events are also numberless. Who “I” am now is a highly improbable and yet quite singularly determined sequence of events. Any relationship between future individuating events and the individual who currently speaks itself as the “I” of this body is non-essential–and by that I mean that the essence, the unity of being supposed of the “I,” is not only illusory, but the illusion itself is fleeting and non-continuous with any other “I,” past, present or future.

On the other hand, for there are always at least three hands to anything worth thinking about, karmic responsibility underscores the interconnectedness of all beings, which, though it may also be a contingent truth, makes more sense to me in the here and now, so I’m going to take my metaphor and run with it. The short version of all of this is that for me, karma is not about regretting the past or trying to figure out what “bad” actions in a past life or even a past phase of this life are responsible for the mess I am in now; with Nietzsche, I do not want to leave my actions in the lurch. Whether they were always wise or not, they were always the best I could do with the knowledge I had and the circumstances I found myself in. Especially having been brought up under the sign of Original Sin, in which humans, especially young humans living in my house, were responsible for every evil in the universe, I find that responsibility is generally overplayed in Western culture.

At the same time–the third hand if you will–what karmic responsibility is good for, in my opinion, is keeping us watchful over our present actions. As mentioned in the first post regarding reincarnation, the past is the past and unchangeable. We can only mourn it, suffer it, regret it, or let it go. What we do have right now is the responsibility to act in the present in a responsible way: a way which, given all that we know and to the best of our ability, will result in circumstances that reduce suffering. All suffering–not just “mine,” or especially not “mine”–the eternity in which a decisive act reverberates will surely be visited by so many beings that “I” will no longer matter, except to the extent that my actions contribute to the overall web of circumstances that inevitably affect one another and will continue to affect one another long after “I” am a faint memory of the shadow of an anonymous speck of dust.

This is how impermanence and the abandonment of immutable Truth is amoral yet deeply ethical: the fragility with which the universe is invested as a literally inconceivably complex causal mechanism, the fleetingness of all that might be thought of as good, should, if one thinks as a Buddhist, lead one to extreme care over one’s actions in the present, even though one, and one’s present, is finite and relatively insignificant in comparison with the infinitude with which one interacts. I will disappear, completely and irreversably and forever, but what I do will have effects which cascade outwards from my current time and place for as long as there are times and places. My acts will work in concert with a host of other acts to determine the future–and although the vastness of the whole (which is not a whole but a whole broken open where infinity shoots through it–see Emmanuel Levinas for an ethics that arises in response to infinity rather than to the unity of being) is so great as to make my estimations of those effects abjectly inaccurate, I am still responsible for them.

I’m beginning to venture outside of strictly Buddhist territory here, but I just want to mention that I am at one and the same time abjectly unable to predict the effects of my actions and abjectly responsible for them: that this is paradoxical is reflected in the tension between irresponsibilty and responsibility, a dualistic conception that, in Buddhism as in postmodern ethics, would be reinterpreted so as to cause the two terms no longer to be mutually exclusive, but to be in intimate and intermingled communication with each other.

Now, the edict to act so as to prevent suffering in the future (or whatever dimension might stretch out from one’s current coordinates) can certainly be seen as arbitrarily chosen. That may be Buddhism’s particular aesthetic choice in constructing ideal relations between beings. Once one removes the inevitability of reincarnation from the equation, self-interest won’t even assure that one acts to prevent suffering. And yet there is something deeply compelling in the coincidence of self-abnegation and working to end suffering in Buddhist thought: that if the ego is no longer the arbiter of ethical thought, then it is not a huge leap to consider that preventing the suffering of other beings would become almost an instinctual imperative, if one considers suffering to be the result of egoistic attachment to Truth, and if one takes seriously the application of non-dualistic thought to the very “opposition” between “self” and other.

I’m going to leave that as is, for I could go further into the paradoxical relations between self and other in a situation where the distinction between self and other has been called into question, but I’m not trying to rewrite my dissertation. Or, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. For now, I think that might be enough food for thought simply to consider what would happen if egoistic acquisitiveness were abandoned as a motive for action.

Are we There yet? If you’re still listening I’d be most appreciative of a wink or a cough. I’m saving this file and taking a short break. Go get yourself some coffee or some nice cold sparkling water. Oh dear. OK I’m going to the store. Hold on.

the four thoughts that revolutionize the mind: second and fourth thoughts. maybe.

So I got some sleep and some coffee and reread the third chapter of Sachs’ The Buddha at War (and that apostrophe at the end of Sachs indicating possession? that used to be grammatical. I was taught that with names ending in “s,” one could either add an apostrophe-s for possession or just the apostrophe. Sometime in the recent past some organization or other that thinks it has the power to legislate grammar in a language still in use and therefore always evolving stated that the only legitimate form of possession was apostrophe-s. But I think it’s sloppy both in appearance and pronunciation: Sachs’s is both too much to say and too much to write. So I’m sticking with the old-fashioned Sachs’, and will continue to do so until something even neater comes along.

I was going to add a lengthy treatise on using the third-person plural pronoun to avoid the sexist use of “he” to indicated the generic individual, but I decided it was too pedantic. I’ll just say that I think it is fine to use “they,” “them,” “their,” etc in place of either “he” or “she,” as it is probably the least cumbersome solution to the problem. The end.)

and anyway it seems right off the bat that I have less to say about Thoughts Two and Four than I did about One and Three but with me I never know until I start writing just what is going to come out and since at the very least it might be somewhat enlightening just to hear what the other two thoughts consist of I will say that much and then see what happens.

The Second Thought that Revolutionizes the Mind is that of Impermanence. I guess one could say that, for Buddhism, impermanence, suffering and desire are the central di–er, trilemma in human experience, so rather than focus on just impermanence, I’ll also go into a little of what Sachs says about desire, or Craving. He has a slightly different take on it from what I have heard in the past but it turns out to make a fair amount of sense to me especially approaching it from a Nietzschean angle like I do pretty much everything because Nietzsche was quite simply Right. Even up to the point where he says that his most faithful followers will not follow him at all but destroy what he said–much as, I’ve heard, that if you meet Buddha on the road, you should kill him.

Which is not really at all tangential to the cycle of impermanence, craving and suffering, for both Nietzschean and Buddhist thought finger impermanence itself–the ceaseless restlessness of the universe, change as the only constant in life–as the source of much human agony, precisely because we crave permanence, security, and above all, Truth. See this is where things get interesting in Sachs, because it seems that he might have read “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (“Extra-” here means “Beyond-” rather than, you know, extra: intensified or redoubled) before he wrote about this craving for the things we have and know to remain the things we have and know. But he skips over the whole metaphysical story that Nietzsche outlines there and says simply that what we crave, or what we are attached too, are our own biases.

“You have to understand that you suffer from your biases,” he writes, because they obscure not only the infinite number of ways in which the world can be, act, do, happen, proceed, be interpreted, etc etc ad infinitum, but also the infinite number of possible consequences of every act, no matter how small (55-57). Thus we suffer from unforeseen results, among other tricks that infinity plays on finite beings. What he leaves out of his explanation is the story you can find in the Nietzsche essay: that biases themselves, our assumptions about how reality is put together, our received and devised (but they are all devised–we’ve just forgotten that) truths, are all responses to the anxiety that change and impermanence, the only inevitables in this universe, create in us. Think about religion itself: presumably we have been telling ourselves stories about deities and spirits and the moral proscriptions they hand to us for millennia, out of our need for something foundational upon which to base our worldview, for a platform which supports us in our fear of change and tells us that this, finally, this truth that we ourselves have devised, is the one permanent feature of life that guarantees all the others that we are so afraid of losing.

And then we take our truths and make sure that everyone else agrees with them, or else. Sound familiar?

If there is one thing the “religion” of Buddhism is not allied with, it is fundamentalism. Of any kind, including Buddhist fundamentalism, which is why we are instructed to kill the Buddha if we meet him. See this is interesting to me, because it follows quite perfectly from the proposition that we suffer from impermanence and the desire we feel in reaction to impermanence, but I hadn’t thought it out to this extent myself. “Attachment” is not love–that is, we are not supposed to struggle against our love for other beings–quite the contrary. Rather we struggle with our attachment to Truth, which, as peculiar as this might sound, often makes it impossible for us to love other beings as they are.

Now, I can see the Analytic Philosophers jumping up and down in the back because they’ve caught us all: Buddha, Nietzsche, Sachs–and even me, that is, nobody–in a performative contradiction, in which we claim that it is true that there is no truth. Well, for one, that’s an inadequate summary of this argument: there are truths, for certain–it’s just that they are fabricated. “Truth,” as conventionally defined, is a convention. The question of correspondence to some metaphysical reality “beyond” human perception itself postulates a convention: that there even exists a metaphysical reality independent of human perception–and so it doesn’t escape the convention of truth to ask about something more fundamental.

Turtles all the way down. There is no escape and the question of “what is the case” always already refers to a convention: the question of truth is self-referential and ungrounded. Even that statement conforms to the conventions of language. And that one. And the one just before. One would need an infinite amount of time to reach the ground, using language, and one would never arrive. This is language’s shame: its nonsense.

And its tendency to run off in all directions. Where was I?

Nietzsche, as well as Socrates, recognized that in order to have a sensical conversation, certain assumptions had to be agreed upon, or the conversation would get nowhere. At a profound level, truth is a function of language and the desire to communicate: without shared meaning, language would be useless and we could not communicate a single thing. Language, however, is limited in what it can convey–or at least the languages I am familiar with are–because they rely on a bipolar, or negative logic for meaning. That is, a thing or concept is defined by what it is not. A tree is not a cow. A tree has certain characteristics that differentiate it from everything that is not-tree. This is the basic premise upon which meaning and logic rest in Western reckoning.

I think, though, that a mini course in linguistics is not the direction I need to be going in here. My basic answer to Analytic Philosphy is that a symbolic system that relies on bipolar logic is simply–or complexly–inadequate to express the “beyond dualism” that Buddhism tries to indicate, and that Nietzsche also struggles to indicate from within a language that relies on just that sort of logic for its meaningful distinctions. If we can allow that the universe might be more complex than a logic which must choose between “true” and “false,” that there may be “things” floating around–events, occurences, happenings–that correspond to neither truth nor falsehood, then we can proceed.

See? Even here we have to find an assumption and go with it, even if only for the sake of argument. Language–at least, prosaic, propositional language–is funny that way. Otherwise, to be true to the spirit of Buddhism is to distrust its claims to truth, and to understand this deeply, at the level of experience, is to experience a vertiginous dropping away of everything that keeps us anchored to some sort of concrete assurance about–something. anything! And this is an experience that tends to elude language even as it is intimately caught up with our being linguistic beings, for it calls into question our ability to articulate anything, and demands of the faithful a commitment to infidelity.

Needless to say, this sort of thing drives fundamentalists batshit crazy. As well it should: it’s dangerous stuff, absolutely amoral but deeply ethical, and quite possibly the step we will all eventually have to take to avoid killing each other off in the name of Truth.

The vertigo, I want to say, is a profound experience of radical impermanence. I mean, to speak like a Buddhist. And what it does in the service of ethics, but not morality, is to point up exactly how exquisitely fragile we are, how fragile is everything we think we know, and thus how exquisitely careful we need to be in order not to make some very, very big mistakes and end up breaking everything. This exquisite care would be mindfulness, if one were to talk like a Buddhist.

That’s right. I had very little to say about the Second Thought. I haven’t actually said anything about it at all, but nonetheless I’m going to move on. I think though that I should put Thought Number Four in its own post.