Monday, March 28, 2016

Seventy-seven

Why do we laugh? How can we laugh when we know, if we know anything, that this world we’ve created is filled with suffering and pain? To deny it, and look instead for joy and beauty - even worse, tell ourselves we've found it - is not to love this world. Love based on a denial of the beloved’s true nature ends in disillusionment and turns to hate.

Of course there's more to this world - and to us, the creators of this world - than we know. Some claim this proves we’re wrong about our world, and what in it seems to us evil is ultimately for the best. But knowing there's more to our world than we know doesn't prove it’s better than we know; only that it’s different. We don’t know enough to judge it, to love or hate it. We laugh at ourselves, at our foolishness in thinking that we could know.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Seventy-six

Last night I lay in bed reading, as usual; and as I fell asleep, as usual certain words from what I'd read stayed in my mind.   

These words aren’t seeds from which my dreams grow. They're planted in the conscious layer of my mind, and remain there. While I sleep they germinate, coming to fruition when I’m awake again, as conscious thoughts.

I'd been reading an article about an art installation in some New York gallery. It consisted of televisions playing documentary film footage of atrocities. The ostensible goal is to awaken the spectator, arouse his or her compassion for the suffering of others; the same suffering from which technology, including television, exists to protect middle class art patrons. It doesn’t require Nietzsche to appreciate the irony and recognize the Schadenfreude of this.   

The word I'd read in the article that stayed in my mind was involve. It reminded me of related words, revolve and evolve.

Yeats' words Turning and turning in the widening gyre were in my mind when I awoke this morning; but it’s not because the centre cannot hold that things fall apart. It holds them all too well. It’s because we do not wish to be involved with others that we turn in upon ourselves. What we call capitalism and/or the market is a solipsistic black hole that devours everything.

We are dreamers, restlessly turning in our sleep, troubled by the nightmare that is history. But better to remain asleep, we think, than wake and face reality.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Seventy-five

How to live? Why to live? What is life? Is it possible to know these things? If so, how? What would it mean to know them, to know anything? Why should I care? I’ll be dead soon (though not soon enough), then I won’t care. We’ll all be dead soon. Then there’ll be no one to ask these questions, and no one to care what the answers are.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Seventy-four

Justin telephoned me last night. I was so surprised that I answered.

He said he's now in Australia. He didn't mention our disagreement, and neither did I. I suspect he didn't think I would answer, because it was obvious he hadn't prepared a script. We just talked.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Seventy-three

Thanks to bad health and poverty, my social life has taken a turn for the better.

I’ve reached the age at which the body starts to fall apart. Nothing life-threatening (yet), only ailments that become painful if left untreated. If they were life-threatening – if, for example, my cancer returned – I wouldn’t do anything about it. I’d welcome death, but minor problems I attend to. I want to die in order to escape a painful life; but while I remain alive, I don’t want to live in physical pain as well, so I spend more and more of my time visiting doctors.

Now that I’m poor, the only doctors I can afford are those who run walk-in clinics catering to low income patients. They're mostly in the inner city, and that’s where I’ve been going.

These doctors are all black, and their patients are all black. I’m always the only white person in a waiting room full of blacks, and I’m always amazed by how comfortable I feel among them.

Instead of sitting quietly and avoiding each others’ eyes, as white people do in a suburban doctor’s waiting room, these people are eager to talk, using any pretext to start a conversation not only with each other, but with me. They always take care to include me in their conversations. 

I’ve been wondering, during the last couple of weeks, why I feel so comfortable being the only white person among all these blacks when so many white policemen, strong and healthy men half my age, are so terrified by the sight of a black man that they shoot and kill him out of fear for their lives. Of course young people, black or white, are often filled with rage because they don’t have what they think they deserve – and those who have the most think they deserve everything – while the black people in the waiting room with me are my age, resigned as I am to the fact that no one gets what s/he deserves.

Perhaps I like these people because the doctors’ offices are close to the neighborhood where I grew up. They would be my neighbors if I hadn’t left them behind.

After visiting a doctor yesterday, I decided to drive through the old neighborhood and see how it had changed. 

It was silent and deserted. The houses were in ruins, charred and blackened by fires probably deliberately set. Surely it's the worst slum in a city of slums. But it was beautiful. The grass was waist high, full of wild flowers, and the tree branches met overhead, enclosing everything in green shadows. It was like being deep in a forest. If this is the city dying, I hope I die as peacefully.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Seventy-two

We can’t help others. We can’t even help ourselves. Especially not ourselves.

It’s easier to help others than it is to help ourselves, because we know them, and what is good for them, better than we know ourselves and what is good for us. Knowing others is the way we avoid knowing ourselves.

But we don’t want to help others.

Socrates said we all want to do good. If people don’t do good, it’s because they don’t know what the good is. But we all know what the good is. People can't or won’t do what is good for others because they can’t or won't do what is good for themselves. Why would they help others when they can’t or won't help themselves?

We tell ourselves that we do what we have to do, or we tell ourselves that what we do is by definition good because we are good. These are the most common excuses for not doing what we know is good. But the real reason why we don’t do what we know is good is we don't want to do it. At best, we want to want to. What we really want is to seem good, to others and to ourselves, without doing anything to deserve it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Seventy-one

When I was seventeen, I went through a crisis from which I don’t think I ever recovered.

Dr. Brané later told me I was the sanest person he’d ever met - I had to be, he said, to have survived what I did – but survival is not enough. I knew I wasn’t insane (about that he was right), but neither was I sane. I wasn’t what I should be; but back in those days psychiatry did not yet have a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder to describe what I was.

When I was a child, I resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn't live to see my twelfth birthday. One day my grandfather would attack me in a drunken rage, my mother wouldn’t be there to fight him, and he'd kill me. But my twelfth birthday came and went, and I was still alive.

When I was sixteen, it finally happened. He attacked me when she was working late.

I was older now, bigger and stronger; and I fought back. I hit him over the head with my drawing board. It split in two and he fell, blood gushing from the gash in his head.

I knelt beside him, to see whether he was dead or just unconscious. 

I hoped he was dead. I was ready to go to prison, but I couldn’t go on living like this.

To my surprise and disappointment, he was still alive. I'd hit him hard enough to split the board in two, but it wasn’t hard enough. 

As I watched the blood flow into his eyes, wondering what I could use to hit him harder, I saw him blink. I was astonished. It’s logical for someone to blink when blood is flowing into his eyes, but I’d never known my grandfather to do anything logical.

As his eyes filled with blood, mine filled with tears for him. I'd tried to save him many times before I finally gave up and tried to kill him. Perhaps it wasn't too late, after all.

I called an ambulance, and they took him to the hospital. I went with him. 

To my surprise, he told the emergency room doctor that he had accidentally fallen and hit his head. 

I'd finally stood up to him, and he respected me for it. Things were going to be different between us now, better. Or so I thought. 

He never again attacked me. Now he followed me from room to room, telling me I must now stop pretending to be better than he was. I was a killer, just as he was. 

For years I’d wondered whether he'd been involved in the killings. Now I knew.

Everyone knew uncle Alec had killed cousin Eparty and his half brother Andre, but everyone pretended not to know, just as they pretended not to know that Alec had raped my mother. She rescued me, but there was no one to rescue her. Certainly not her father, who was in thrall to Alec.

When I was a child, I wondered what hold my uncle Alec had over my grandfather. When he grew tired of one of his mistresses, Alec passed her on to my grandfather; but that didn't explain why my grandfather was in thrall to Alec, because neither of them cared much for women. They used them and cast them aside. Sharing women didn't create a bond between Alec and my grandfather. It strengthened a bond that already existed between them, a bond I suspected was homosexual.  

Alec was cold and ruthless. He killed only for money, never out of passion. To everyone, and I’m sure to him as well, Alec seemed a Nietzschean superman. Everyone was in awe of him, and feared him; everyone except my mother and me.

She loathed him, of course. I pretended to loathe him, too, for her sake; but I didn’t. I’m still not sure, after all these years, what I thought of Alec.

He seemed to like me. I’m sure he would have killed me if uncle Andre had left me the money, as he said he would; but fortunately for me Andre’s will was never found, so Alec had no reason to kill me. No reason to like me, either. 

I wondered if he liked me because I was his son. He had, after all, raped my mother. 

Perhaps he liked me because we were alike. Both killers. My grandfather told him, as he told everyone, what I'd done.

I thought then, and still do, that Alec involved my grandfather in the killings not in order to strengthen his hold over my grandfather, but merely to amuse himself. And despite the guilt that tormented my grandfather, I was sure he was only an accomplice, not an actual killer. I doubted even Alec could have made my grandfather kill someone. My grandfather was too weak to kill someone, and too weak not to confess if he did. But I wasn't.

I did what needed to be done, and keep silent about it. I  kept all their secrets.

I thought things would change between my grandfather and me after I tried to kill him, and they did. For the worse. He tormented me, daring me to finish the job and kill him. 

For years I'd tried to save him, but he was determined to destroy himself. He was destroying my mother and me as well, so I gave up trying to save him and tried to kill him instead, to prevent him from destroying us. But again I failed, so I went to bed and lay there for a year. I don’t remember eating anything, although I must have; but I ate so little that my clothes would no longer stay on my body. 

One night Alec came to our house and insisted on seeing me alone.

I’d lain in a stupor for a year, but I came out of my bedroom now because I heard Alec outside my door and he was obviously afraid. I'd never seen him anything but supremely self-confident, and I was intrigued.

He confessed everything, of course. They always did, although usually they waited until they were dying to do so. But Alec thought he was dying. Or rather, he thought Sam was going to kill him. 

I knew my grandfather had been only an accomplice because if Alec had wanted someone to kill for him, my cousin Sam was willing and available. Sam had always done everything Alec told him, and Alec had rewarded him by giving him some of the money he’d inherited from uncle Andre. 

Sam had never had a wife or a mistress (I assumed his and Alec's relationship was also homosexual), but now that he was rich he was attractive to women; at least to women who were attracted by money. 

Sam had married, Alec told me; and his wife completely dominated him just as Alec used to dominate him. Alec was convinced Sam had told his wife that he'd killed Andre on Alec's orders, and she'd had persuaded Sam to kill Alec as well so together they'd have all Andre's money, not just the part that Alec had deigned to give Sam. 

To protect himself, Alec told me, he had made out a will in which he left all the money to me. It was only right, he said, because I had been the sole beneficiary of Andre’s will (which Alec admitted he’d destroyed). He'd shown the will to Sam and his wife, so they knew they would inherit nothing if Alec died; and now he was giving the will to me. He said that as long as Sam and his wife didn’t know where the will was, they couldn’t destroy it, as he had destroyed Andre’s will.

I took Alec’s will and promised him I'd keep it safe, even though I knew it was worthless unless registered with a lawyer. 

I thought of telling Alec to take his will to a lawyer instead of giving it to me. That would prevent Sam and his wife from killing him for the money. It would also ensure that I would inherit the money when Alec died. But I didn’t want the money. Too many people had died for it. I also didn’t care whether or not Sam and his wife killed Alec. He deserved to die.

And he did.

Less than two weeks later, my mother and I were summoned to Alec's house. I was amused by how vividly Sam, the sole witness to Alec's fatal 'accident', described it to the policeman. Alec had taught him well. Or perhaps the policeman, who had a bad cold and was sniffling and coughing constantly, was too sick to care.

A month later it was Sam’s turn to die.

I was alone in the house when I heard banging on the front door, and Sam's voice yelling my name. My clothes no longer fit me, so I wrapped a towel around my waist and opened the door.
 
He lay on the porch, begging me to help him. As I knelt beside him, the towel fell off. Fortunately it was night, too dark for anyone to see me.

Sam made the same confession they all made to me when they were dying, telling me what I already knew, what I assumed everyone knew. He said he'd killed Eparty and Andre on Alec's orders, and then he'd killed Alec on his wife's orders. Now Sam's wife and her lover had poisoned him.

I later told the coroner what Sam had told me. It may be true, he said, but there was no way to prove Sam had been poisoned. He'd been a drug addict, and had so many drugs in his body that he had in effect poisoned himself.

Later, when I was visiting Dr. Lansky, he asked if I was related to another of his patients, who had recently died, because his last name was the same as mine. It was Sam.

Lansky said he knew things about my cousin that I couldn’t imagine, things that would shock me if I knew. But of course, he said, smiling coyly, he couldn’t tell me what they were because of doctor/patient confidentiality.

I smiled, too.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Seventy

In order to survive, I had to know them better than they knew themselves. I had to understand why they wanted to destroy themselves, because in destroying themselves they would destroy me too.

Freud said we all want to destroy ourselves. We all want to die, but only in our own way. This isn’t wrong, but neither is it right. 

His theory of the death drive is one that even Freudians find difficult to understand, and most refuse to try. Why would anyone want to die? And yet it’s obvious we do. 

We all destroy ourselves sooner or later. Those who know this have what we used to call a tragic sense of life, something we no longer understand, or claim not to understand, and even claim no longer exists. Freud didn’t understand it, either, but at least he knew it exists.

No one wants to die, but we all kill ourselves sooner or later because what we fear more than death is a life unlived. We want to feel we’ve accomplished something in whatever time we have. Most people feel they’ve wasted their time, and they’re usually right. Most people do what they must in order to survive, not what they know they should and could do, but mere survival isn’t enough. And in despair, they destroy themselves.

It’s not enough to understand the world, said Marx. The goal is to change it. My family, good Marxists all, thought they were changing it for the better, and found they had changed it for the worse. 

Everything we do nowadays only makes what’s already bad worse. Better to do nothing at all, and wait for the fire.  

God gave Noah 
the rainbow sign
No more water
the fire next time

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sixty-nine

When I was a child, I had moments of clarity (they were far more common then than they are now; and I suspect that, when I seem to have them now, I'm only remembering the ones I had then); and in those moments, I wondered why I am who I am.

It seemed to me then, and still does in those moments of what still seem to me clarity, that who I am - or rather who I seem to be to others, and sometimes to myself - is not an illusion, as some mystics claim, but an appearance I assumed in order to enter this world of appearances. One can’t enter this world naked any more than one can enter a room filled with strangers naked. One can be naked when alone, but one must put on a self to be with other people.

This self is not who I am. It is only the self I assumed to enter this world. Just as I could put on different clothes to enter a room, I could have assumed a different self to enter this world.

This self, like my clothes, belongs to me, but isn’t me, who I am. Why did I assume this self, and not some other, to enter this world?

Everyone dresses for the company s/he expects to meet and/or the task s/he expects to perform. What task was I to perform in this world that I could only perform with this self? I wondered that as soon as I was old enough to be aware of my self.

My earliest memory (which I suspect is only the memory of a memory) is of lying naked on the brown blanket my mother had taken from my crib and spread on the green grass beneath the apple tree in our back yard, so she could watch me while she hung newly washed clothes on the line to dry.

She handed me my grandfather’s aluminum clipboard, presumably to occupy me. I remember (or rather I remember remembering) thinking she was doing something wrong. First, because I didn’t need anything to occupy me. This was the first time I had been out of the house, and the infinite blue sky overhead awed and fascinated me. Second, because one doesn’t give a clipboard to a baby to play with.

I had seen my grandfather open and close it, so I handled the clipboard apprehensively. But of course I closed it on my fingers, just I feared I would.

My mother heard me cry out and came running to rescue me, which was reassuring. But I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t have needed rescuing if she hadn’t given me the clipboard (I remember this as the first time I became aware of myself as a thinking self, thinking of and judging others).

This is a memory of a memory. It was not my first, but it’s the one I chose to remember out of all the others because, in hindsight, it seemed significant. It was my first clue that adults, even when they mean well, can’t be relied on to do the right thing, the thing that common sense would seem to dictate. It took me a while longer to learn that adults seldom do mean well.

When I was a child, it seemed obvious to me that adults lack common sense. I assumed this was equally obvious to other children until I found that not all children considered adults irrational, as I did. At least they pretended, even to themselves, to believe that what adults said and did was rational. I thought then, and still do, that most people pretend, even to themselves, that what authorities say and do is rational not because they believe it, but because it’s easier to pretend than to deal with the truth.

Perhaps living with a grandfather whom everyone pretended was rational, but obviously wasn’t, prepared me to live in this world in which most people pretend to be rational, but obviously aren’t.

When I was a child, I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably not live to see my twelfth birthday. One day my grandfather would attack me, as he always did when in one of his drunken rages; but on this day my mother wouldn’t be there to rescue me, and he would kill me (She meant well, but she wouldn't have had to keep rescuing me if she had left him, as I kept telling her to do).

Everyone knew my grandfather beat me, but everyone pretended not to know. I knew, from the other children, that violence was as common in their families as it was in mine; but we were all respectable families living in a respectable neighborhood, so we all pretended not to know what we knew, as adults do.

I didn’t believe, when I was a child, that I had entered this world with a mission, a task to perform. But I did believe I had to find a mission to justify my being in this world where my grandfather obviously did not want me to be. So I made it my mission to save them. First him, and then them.

I wanted to show them I could be of use to them, however much they longed to be rid of me. I knew they were dangerous not only to me, but to themselves. They wanted to kill me, but they wanted to kill themselves more, and I was afraid they would harm themselves more than I was afraid they would harm me. After I resigned myself to dying before I was twelve, I was never again afraid of dying.

I wanted to rescue him as she rescued me, stop him from destroying himself even if it meant he might destroy me along with himself. But in order to do that, I had to know him better than he knew himself, know why he wanted to destroy himself.

It seemed to me, when I was a child, that in order to know anything, one must be a thing: that thing people call a mind, a soul or a self. But being a self limits what one can know. I therefore felt trapped in my self, just as he was trapped and  unable to save himself from himself. 

Philosophers used to distinguish between things with minds or souls or selves, and things without it/them. What we can know about things without minds or souls or selves is limited because they are limited. They are things, and nothing more. But what we can know about things with minds or souls or selves – things like us – is also limited because, as things, we are limited.

When I was a child, I knew the only way to know another mind or soul or self, instead of merely knowing about it, was to be it. I was attracted to mysticism because it seemed to say almost the same thing.

Mystics used to say that the thing we call the mind or soul or self is an illusion. We already know the other, which some call god, because in reality we are the other. Tat Tvam Asi. It seemed clear to me that, if this is true, it's not true in this world.

If what we call the self is an illusion in a world of illusions, the only way we can know reality is to leave this world.

Like mystics, those whom we used to call religious said we live in a world of illusions. They differed from mystics in claiming that we are real.

The religious said there is another world, the real world. When we die in this world of illusions, we wake to another life in the real one.

Mystics knew illusions live only in a world of illusions. For us illusions, reality is another word for death.

But now we’ve forgotten not only everything we knew, but even the things we thought we knew: our illusions. We're dying because we no longer believe in ourselves. 

I’m dying because I failed to accomplish the task I set myself.

I tell myself that no one could save a man determined to kill himself, or a world determined to destroy itself. I tell myself that I’m still alive because I still want to understand this world. Only understand it, and nothing more, because there's nothing more I can do. But that’s not true.

I’m still alive because as long as I'm alive, I can still hope to find a way to save this world from destroying itself. That is the last illusion.