My poem “A Mighty Fortress” is in the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal:
My poem “A Mighty Fortress” is in the new issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal:
Here are some more of my favorite bits from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.
On the dirty secret that philosophers, who pretend to base their theories on arguments, actually start out with beliefs and then make up arguments to support what they already think:
Every philosopher, in addition to the formal system which he offers to the world, has another much simpler, of which he may be quite unaware. If he is aware of it, he probably realizes that it won’t quite do. He therefore conceals it, and sets forth something more sophisticated, which he believes because it is like his crude system, but which he asks others to accept because he has made it such as he thinks cannot be disproved.
An aside in his discussion of Augustine’s City of God:
To understand Marx psychologically, one should use the following dictionary:
Yahweh = dialectical materialism
the Messiah = Marx
the elect = the proetariat
the Church = the Communist Party
the Second Coming = the Revolution
Hell = punishment of the capitalists
the millennium = the communist commonwealth
The terms on the left give the emotional content of the terms on the right, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those who have had a Christian or a Jewish upbringing, that makes Marx’s eschatology credible.
On Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome:
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the Dark Ages were concerned not with saving civlization or expelling the barbarians, or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants. Seeing that these were the preoccupations that the Church handed on to the converted barbarians, it is no wonder that the succeeding age surpassed almost all other fully historical periods in cruelty and superstition.
This passage is admittedly marred by the reference to ‘superstition,’ which is a slur without any real meaning that I can discern.
On Justinian and Theodora:
Both were very pious, though Theodora was a lady of easy virtue whom he had picked up in the circus. What is even worse, she was inclined to be a Monophysite. But enough of scandal—the emperor himself was, I am happy to say, of impeccable orthodoxy.
“I am happy to say” is the key here. So arch.
On one of the great power Popes:
Except in this instance, I do not know of anybody who ever in any degree got the better of Innocent III. He ordered the great crusade against the Albigensians, which rooted out heresy, happiness, prosperity and culture from southern France….
Sounding a bit like Mark Twain there.
On the Italian Renaissance:
French troops shocked the Italians by actually killing people in battle.
A deft swipe at traditions of morality:
Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.
Leibnitz sells optimism to the Queen of Prussia:
The world that resulted, although it contains evil, has a greater surplus of good over evil than any other possible world….This argument apparently satisfied the Queen of Prussia,; her serfs continued to suffer the evil, while she continued to enjoy the good, and it was comforting to be assured by a great philosopher that this was just and right.
Hegel, who owed much to Rousseau, adopted his misuse of the word ‘freedom’ and defined it as the right to obey the police, or something not very different.
Russell wrote the book during WWII, and the shadows of Hitler and Stalin sometimes darken the pages:
To frame a philosopy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power, and also with the apathy of the powerless, is the most pressing task of our time.
Would apply very nicely to our own time, except that I’m not sure that framing an adequate philosophy would do much good.
Not a big fan of Nietzsche:
Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siefgried except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.
His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip,” but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.
A friend once gave us a small whip as an anniversary present, but didn’t say who he expected to use it on whom.
Three of my poems have appeared this month. Enjoy!
“The Other Eye Goes” in Rogue Agent:
“Make Your Own Fun” in Stirring:
“Invasive” in Strange Poetry:
Philosophy, somehow, is not my cup of tea. I’m OK reading about it, and can even get into accounts of zany theological slugfests or mind-bending paradoxes. But none of my favorite writers are what you’d call philosophers, with the possible exception of Montaigne, and several of my all-time least favorite writers are: Derrida, Foucault, Hegel…and definitely Plato, working through his sock-puppet Socrates.
Maybe the biggest problem I have with philosophers is that they’ll say something obviously untrue (that writing comes before speech, or that we always cheer for the winner when reading about history) and go on to build an argument on it. As any mathematician will tell you, once you’ve made an invalid statement, you can use it to prove anything. But of course there’s nobody there to say, “Hey wait a minute, how exactly do you justify what you just said?”
What makes Socrates worse is that there is somebody there to call him on his whoppers,and they never ever do it. He’ll say, “Thus we have proved that only good men can have friends,” and instead of pulling him up short, his partners in dialogue play the role of infomercial hosts, saying the equivalent of “Tell me more!” Or comedy straight-men, saying whatever needs to be said to set up Socrates’ punch line. I end up not only feeling that Socrates is wrong, but that he is ever so pleased with himself, having put his friends in their place; he exudes the candor and humility of Ted Cruz.
Most things I have read about Socrates, though, range in tone from admiring to orgasmically admiring. So it was refreshing to read the following in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Having conceded that S was admirably calm in the face of death, he goes on:
He has however some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him which reminds one of a bad type of cleric….Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins.
What he said.
So, a woman in my poetry class wrote a poem in the voice of “Mrs. Prufrock,” giving her husband what for in no uncertain terms. Mr. P is, in her view, an arrogant bossy prick, expressing disgust at her arm-hair and criticizing her makeup, and she doesn’t for a moment buy his whole fake-humility routine. Plus, she doesn’t want to hear his stupid question.
(Here’s the poem, for easy reference: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html )
The feedback from fellow students cheered on Mrs. Prufrock for finally standing up to her despotic mate. I found this all rather puzzling, until one of the comments referred to Prufrock as ‘the great poet,’ and I realized that everyone thought Prufrock was the same person as T.S. Eliot. That explained at least some of the rage, if not its specific grounds. Then the teacher chimed in, saying that Prufrock is clearly a front for Eliot and his misogyny in the same way that Stephen Dedalus is a front for Joyce. And Eliot was a weenie (I paraphrase) for not daring to eat a peach.
My first thought was, doesn’t everybody know it’s a satire, that Eliot is making fun of Prufrock?, the poor schlub who is so terrified of rejection? But of course what everybody knows is not necessarily true…who knows, maybe it stopped being true in the years since I left grad school. So let’s see.
First of all, do people think the ‘you’ in the poem is Prufrock’s wife? That had never occurred to me; one reason, I suppose, is that ‘love song’ traditionally means a song of courtship. From Catullus to the troubadours to the sonneteers of the 1590s, you don’t see a whole lot of “Our 20 years of marriage have been super” poems. This may be a serious flaw in the Western literary tradition, but surely part of the satire in Prufrock is the hero’s failure to assume the role implied in the title.
Prufrock’s exaggerated fear of rejection also strikes me as more typical of a person on a date than of a spouse, though if she’s as rageful as in my colleague’s poem, his anxiety might be justified. For that matter, I always thought JAP was excited by the realization that she has light-brown hairs on her arm…he does use an exclamation mark, after all. Where’s the disgust?
Eliot had many unattractive qualities, but he was not a complete idiot. If he really was afraid to eat peaches, or quaked at the disapproval of servants (“I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker”), would he have told us about it?
The comparison to Joyce is interesting…he gives his alter ego the name of a mythic hero, a man of superior intelligence and craft, Daedalus. Eliot gives JAP a name that suggests a prude in a frock coat…is that really how he would have chosen to represent himself? We know that Stephen is basically Joyce because he has Joyce’s life, from Clongowes Wood School to the Martello tower in Sandycove, where his roommates are obviously Joyce’s roommates under pseudonyms (e.g., the overbearing medical student Buck Mulligan is the overbearing medical student Oliver Gogarty). They have the same favorite obscure writers, such as Giordano Bruno. One could go on.
Does Prufrock have anything in comon with Eliot? Is he from St. Louis, or even the States? Is he a writer, a student of Sanskrit, and admirer of the theology of Cardinal Newman, does he prefer Coriolanus to the plays everybody else likes? Not so’s I can recall.
If you’re still here, you’re probably wondering why I even care so much. Some of it is just the feeling of being gaslighted, having a teacher who has a PhD believe something that seems so crazy. But I should also admit that I like Prufrock and feel sorry for him. Having been, at times, a shy person terrified of rejection, I am willing to concede that such people are mockable, but it pains me to see them hated and reviled rather than pitied.
Like Apollinaire says,
Car il y a tant de choses que je n’ose vous dire Tant de choses que vous ne me laisseriez pas dire Ayez pitié de moi
Four of my poems (“Sublunary,” “Hello Kid Me,” “Post-Punk,” and “Our Vegetable Love”) are in the new issue of FRiGG:
One of the characteristic genres of our culture is the roadkill poem. The Old English elegists had life as a journey through bitter winter weather, the Minnesinger had their seductive nightingales and the trovatori their unwelcome dawn, and we got roadkill. There is (or it feels as though there were) at least one homage to roadkill in each edition of The Best American Poetry, and on the whole, I cannot say I’m a big fan. I do like this one, though, partly because it turns against some of the standard ways of poeticizing the deer/squirrel/opossum in question.
I don’t really have an opinion on the title.
Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”