Posts Tagged ‘W.H. Auden’

Judgement Machines

February 4, 2018

From natural selection’s point of view, the whole point of perception is to process information that has relevance to the organism’s Darwinian interests — that is, to its chances of getting its genes spread. And organisms register this relevance by assigning positive or negative values to the perceived information. We are designed to judge things and to encode those judgements in feeling.

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

Like any paradigm, evolutionary psychology is an extreme oversimplification of our multifarious existence. Even if we accept the premise that human beings are shaped by evolutionary pressure, which I do, it does not automatically follow that everything we are is the direct result of “natural selection.” Many mutations and alterations in our genes are merely coincidental.

If, for example, a parrot with an efficient nutshell-crushing beak happens also to be blue, its descendants are likely to be blue despite the fact that their blueness does not foster their success like that marvelous beak does.

Human beings are not “designed” by evolution; we’re the product of happenstance. And nobody can say for certain what the “whole point of perception” is. But you needn’t be a natural selection determinist to appreciate Wright’s picture of human consciousness.

The Difference Between Berry and Toadstool

Wright is certainly correct to say that human beings automatically assign “positive or negative values” to “perceived information.” Every thought we have is wrapped inside a feeling. These feelings often had the benefit of keeping our Hunting Fathers alive long enough to pass along their DNA. That’s how we got here.

Determining the difference between berry and toadstool, lamb and lion, or friend and foe is an essential survival skill. Our ancestors survived and prospered thanks to the happy associations they made with the delicious berries that sustained them and the painful associations they made with frightening beasts that killed their friends and relatives.

The Old, Old Tale of Narcicussus

It’s natural for human beings to constantly analyze and reevaluate the world we live in. And, as social organisms, we evaluate ourselves in relation to others. That’s why we’re forever recalibrating our opinions of one another.

How we feel about others is a function of how they make us feel about ourselves. The world is our mirror, as W.H. Auden notes:

A friend is the old, old tale of narcissus.

Severing how we feel about others from how we feel about ourselves is not possible  we don’t exist in a vacuum. But we can examine our natural tendency to “judge things and to encode those judgement in feeling.”

Jesus commands: “Judge not.” But judgement-free perception simply isn’t possible. What we can do is listen to our thoughts and examine the feelings that ignite them.

Avoiding Misery and Masochism

Don’t squander your precious time on Earth trying to figure out who deserves to be happy. There’s always going to be people you can point to as undeserving of the gifts life has bestowed upon them. Should it really be your task in life to figure out who’s to bless and who’s to blame? By fixating on the unfairness of it all, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of misery and masochism.

I’m not suggesting that we should accept the world the way it is. On the contrary, fighting injustice and trying to make the world a better place is one of the best ways to find meaning in this crazy old world.

 

by Richard W. Bray

crooked crooked world

November 22, 2017

You shall love your crooked neighbour
      With your crooked heart

W.H Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

Anger and resentment
Will fill your heart with sand
Allow yourself to care about
Somebody you can’t stand

There’s a part of you that tries to love
Everyone you see
Pretending that it doesn’t
Makes you angry sad and mean

It’s a crooked crooked world
Filled with crooked souls
Love can make it meaningful
But nothing makes us whole

By Richard W. Bray

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016

zzwaking

Anthropologists tell us* that “some time between 75 thousand and 60 thousand years ago” homo sapiens underwent a remarkable change (194). This event occurred “somewhere on the African continent (most likely somewhere in its eastern or southwestern regions)” (193). Suddenly, our already impressive brains developed the capacity for symbolic thought. Our ancestors, who heretofore merely consisted of roving bands of uppidy carnivorous weapon-wielding bipeds, were transformed into artists, shamans, scientists, and engineers. World-domination was now only a matter of time.

These new-and-improved brains rendered representational art, handicraft, metaphor, music, dance, language and poetry essential to our existence.

As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to

burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities.

I’m seriously into words. I have argued that it’s ultimately impossible to separate language from poetry because our ancestors began playing with words as soon as they began to invent them. Uttered phonemes are automatically poetic just like every basket and every arrowhead homo sapiens produce is a work of art.

Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

A villanelle is a nineteen-line Italian form in which the first and third lines are each repeated three times. (I’ve written a few of them myself.) (A smartass once wrote on this blog that “the cool thing about villanelles is that once you’ve written the first three lines, you’re 42% finished.”)

Here’s the first stanza of Roethke’s “The Waking.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I told you the dude was prodigious, right? Anyhow, the first and third lines of a good villanelle must be firm and flexible as much heavy lifting is expected of them. Here are some examples:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

(First line of Auden’s “If I Could tell You”)

(I think I made you up inside my head.)
(Third Line of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Third Line of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

Now back to “The Waking.” If a reader must read the same lines four times in a nineteen-line poem, the poet should provide her with options about which words to stress. Here are seven ways to say line three of “The Waking”:

#1 I learn by going where I have to go

Learning is about destination rather than free will.

#2 I learn by going where I have to go

The essential lesson is in the destination

#3 I learn by going (pause) where I have to go

The journey, so to speak, is the destination.

#4 I learn by going where I have to go

The lesson is in the doing.

#5 I learn by going where I have to go

The important thing is that the experience is educational.

#6 I learn by going where I have to go.

It’s imperative to take a certain route that is nonetheless educational.

#7 I learn by going where I have to go.

I find out what I’m supposed to do only by doing it.

Art inevitably pops up wherever you have people and it’s our sacred duty to make it available to our children. (But this isn’t another jeremiad about those sick, sad losers who think our children are merely their test scores).

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

Bleak

September 30, 2016

zzzedwardhopper


In headaches and in worry
    Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
    To-morrow or to-day.

W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

Walking down the street
Going nowhere
Nothing to look forward to
Nobody to care
Big cloud of empty
Hanging in the air

Life is just
A rotten stupid
Maggot-breeding scam
I’m tired and I’m sick
Of everything I am

Can’t stagger through
Another dragging day
None of my plans
Ended up this way
Days bleed into weeks
And life drifts away

Life is just
A rotten stupid
Maggot-breeding scam
I’m tired and I’m sick
Of everything I am

by Richard W. Bray

Walking Makes Humans What We Are

June 12, 2016

WWHUNTERS

I have never hunted animals. And I used to wonder how hunters walking around lugging heavy guns could ever get close enough to their prey in order to shoot it. Most animals can easily smell/see/hear humans long before the hunters get into firing range and then they could simply run away. Meaty mammals tend to be much faster runners than humans. What I didn’t realize is that human beings are designed to walk and walk and walk until our prey is too exhausted to continue. Then we use our weapons to kill it. And then we cook it and eat it.

In Masters of the Planet, an excellent introduction to human evolution, Ian Tattersall describes how the ability to walk great distances was key to the hunting prowess of homo ergaster, “an extinct ancestral form on the evolutionary scale of the genus Homo” that “lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, that is, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago.” Tattersall explains that “although homo ergaster would hardly have been fast compared to four-legged predators, its newer slender hips and long legs would have made members of the species exemplary distance runners.”

This evolutionary innovation gives homo sapiens a huge advantage over our prey because, unlike humans, “most mammals do not have the capacity to shed the heat load acquired and generated during sustained activity in the tropic sun, except by pausing in the shade while it slowly dissipates, largely through panting.” That’s why hunters will eventually catch their prey.   “In the heat of the day, the human ability to simply keep going would have allowed these lucky bipeds to single out, say, an antelope, and to keep chasing it, until it fell from heat prostrations” Or we can just kill it with our weapons when we get close enough.

Our ancestors made the remarkable transition from prey to predator.  Human beings are designed to vanquish by walking and running after animals until we get close enough to kill them.  This evolutionary history remains a major component of our collective psyche whether we like it or not.  And we should never forget this, even in an age when, for most of us, meat comes from the back of the supermarket.

So, Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, in addition to being a marvelous parable on the efficacy of slow and steady diligence, is also the true story of how Our Hunting Fathers survived. Human beings are designed to “simply keep going” and going and going.

And simply trudging along is how our species came to inhabit and dominate so much of the planet.

I’m really glad that I exist as a human being; I wouldn’t trade in this particular vehicle of consciousness for anything in the world.  But our evolutionary success has had ominous ramifications for many of our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

As novelist Kurt Vonnegut notes, the human tendency to simply keep on walking and consuming has a dark side:

humanity itself had become an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again.

Soldiers drilling, refugees fleeing, shoppers shopping, children strolling to school. Walking. It’s what we do and it’s one of the most essential things that makes us who we are.

Final word to Fats Domino:

By Richard W. Bray

 

 

 

 

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

May 22, 2016

wwhauden

The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

Wow. That’s pretty depressing. In fact, I wrote that listening to Auden read “The Dead Echo”* from The Voice of the Poet series makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

Is our human existence, as Auden suggests, so meaningless that we would be better off without it? No. Because Love.

In his famous soliloquy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow Shakespeare’s Macbeth complains that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

As an ardent nonbeliever, I don’t see how human existence signifies anything beyond itself. But our existence is nonetheless pretty awesome when considered on its own terms.

I’m pretty sure that there isn’t any anthropomorphized God up in outer space listening to all our prayers, a god who cares about every little thing that happens in the universe, including the death of every sparrow.   Yet I see reason for hope in this terrifying realization because it informs me that human beings must rely upon one another instead of inventing a god in order to assuage our cosmic loneliness.

However, Auden makes another claim in “The Dead Echo” which haunts me to the core of my being:

A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus

In other words, our hunger for Love is merely a manifestation of ego since we are only capable of viewing the world through the prism of our own interests and our own self-perception. As Auden explains in his collection of essays called “The Dyer’s Hand” :

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both partners run out of good.

This is true, of course. But it hardly renders Love meaningless.  The act of caring about others is selfish and selfless at the same time.  It’s one of life’s many paradoxes.  Our lives are full of paradox not because that’s how the universe is designed; we see life as being full of paradox because that’s how our brains are designed.

When Samuel Goldwyn complained that a script she had submitted “ended on a sad note,” Dorothy Parker noted

“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

So what should we do about this whole being alive thing?  Well, in addition to depressing the hell out of us in “The Dead Echo,” Auden provides us with some practical advice:

Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

And as another poet notes, between birth and death, It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

So the loveliest and most courageous thing we can do is acknowledge the hurt and ugly in our lives and still manage, somehow, to face the music and dance.

* Auden elsewhere refers to this poem as “Death’s Echo”

by Richard W. Bray

The Ringer

May 8, 2016

wwringer


The greater the love, the more false to its object

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I found a hole
To crawl inside
I starved my soul
But I survived

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I drank up a distillery
I puked up blood and bile
I crucified my crazy heart
Because I missed your smile

You said you liked me for a friend
And I was sure my life would end

I put my body through the ringer
I’m lucky I’m not dead
Playing out a melodrama
All inside my head

by Richard W. Bray

Here is Who I Am

June 8, 2014

Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

W.H. Auden

Life pushes “Play”
We get a dance
We can shimmy
We will slip
We don’t get a
Second chance
It’s a one-way trip

I took a road
It got me here
A stack of choices
Make a man
Don’t make no sense
To shed no tears
Here is who I am

My life’s been good
And it’s been bad
But it’s the only
One I get
It would be stupid
And so sad
To waste it with regret

by Richard W. Bray

A Few Thoughts on Virtue and Vice

May 17, 2014
Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Many vices have corresponding virtues. Consider the following pairs of adjectives.

Confident/Cocky
Trusting/Gullible
Audacious/Impudent
Candid/Indiscreet
Gallant/Foolhardy
Deliberate/Dithering

In each of the above examples, there is a point where excess converts virtue into vice.

Consider the Wooden Paradox from basketball coach John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry. In other words, give maximum effort without losing control. Expedience is good; reckless haste is not. Thus we excel by straining a virtue to the edge of the border where it becomes its corresponding vice.

Controlling our appetites is a key to maximizing virtues without rendering them vices. As philosopher Phillipa Foot* notes, “Virtues belong to the will” (13).

For example, there is virtue in Hamlet’s impulse to redress his father’s murder; however, the mindless barbarism of Hamlet’s hunger for retribution obliterates a guiltless family—Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Enraged recklessness is the vice which transforms Hamlet’s valor into senseless carnage.

To his credit, Hamlet is aware of such folly. That’s why he salutes Horatio’s staid and sober equanimity:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee

It is not good enough simply to act upon justifiable impulses because, as Foot notes, “almost any desire can lead a man to act unjustly” (9). Like Hamlet’s ill-fated quest for justice, much death, loss, and destruction is perpetrated in the name of love, charity, temperance, and security. Alexander Pope warns us to be wary because

The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

It is difficult to discern the corresponding virtues for “moral failings such as pride, vanity, worldliness and avarice” which “harm both their possessor and others” (Foot 3). Pride is a fundamental flaw bred in the bone of humanity. Excessive self-satisfaction puffs us up; it distends the ego and smothers benevolence. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (Proverbs 18:12)

Whether we credit our existence to God or evolution, there is no such thing as a self-made man.

Let’s imagine a man who comes into the world with a massive endowment of skill and will who also happens to be born at that right time and place to garner great fortune and esteem during his lifetime. Shouldn’t this man be immensely grateful for his fortuitous circumstances? Why does pride so often trump modesty in the solipsistic hearts of the fortunate?

Compassion and humility are the best antidotes to our capacious appetites and our rampant self-love.

*All Philippa Foot quotations from Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

by Richard W. Bray

The Little Toil of Love

April 13, 2014

new-zeland-zealand-the-free-spring-meadow

I had no time to Hate—
Because
The Grave would hinder Me—
And Life was not so
Ample I
Could finish—Enmity—

Emily Dickinson

The human mind is capable of generating rational thoughts, but thinking is not a rational process. Our thoughts are the fruit of our emotions. The poet Theodore Roethke points out

We Think by Feeling

Our perceptions are limited and transcendence is an illusion. Wallace Stevens reminds us

Your world is you. I am my world

It’s not my task in life to figure out who the good people are
. There are people that I admire; there are people that I enjoy being around; there are people who annoy me; there are people that I don’t enjoy being around. But people are not what I think about them. And whatever fraction of my life I spend evaluating the overall worth of particular human beings is a waste of my precious time on earth. Life is not a contest, and even if it were, no one appointed me judge.

We see others through the prism of how we wish to perceive ourselves. W.H. Auden explains

A friend is the old, old tale of Narcissus.

It is easier to feel compassion for others when I am feeling good about myself. And forgiving myself for my imperfections makes it easier to accept the imperfections of others.

My cruel and petty and spiteful impulses are the excrescence of my inadequacies. I cannot make these impulses go away. But I can endeavor to check myself whenever I fantasize about seeing bad things happen to other people. It’s a perpetual struggle.

by Richard W. Bray