Archive for January, 2009

The Buzz

January 29, 2009

Ever wonder what a fly-bottle is? Wittgenstein mentions one rather casually, like it’s obvious. What is your aim in philosophy? He asks. To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. But, you know, why would a fly have a bottle? What’s he doing in there in the first place? What, in point of fact, does one do with a fly-bottle? Turns out, showing the fly the way out is the last thing you want to do. The fly-bottle’s purpose, its whole reason for being, its raison d’être, is to capture, confuse, and kill flies. A fly-bottle was used for pest control.

“Ludwig, how many times do I have to tell you? Leave the flies alone. They’re supposed to die in there. Go outside and play.”

It’s seems there’s two models of fly-bottle, one prevalent in Asian countries and the type they used in Europe. The European model looks a little more sophisticated, with an opening at the bottom that allows the flies to crawl in, rather than fly in the top, but the idea is the same, you lure the fly into the bottle with a succulent, fatted calf—or anyway a pile of sugar—and the fly, once inside, can’t figure out how to get back out. Your common house fly is phototropic; he will fly towards light. He doesn’t understand that while the glass lets light in, it won’t let him out. Confusion and repetitive action sets in. Often at the bottom of a fly-bottle you’ll find some sort of poisonous liquid; when your fly finally tires of buzzing the glass, he falls down and drowns. So much for phototropism. It’s an easy death.


One of the implications of this idea, though, is that once out of the fly-bottle, the fly has no more need of philosophy. He won’t have any moral issues to ponder; he won’t need to think about his place in society (such as it is for a fly); he won’t have any nagging epistemological problems, wonder about consciousness, other minds, the good life, virtue, justice…. He’s free, man! The examined life is not worth living.


The phrase ‘the examined life’ comes from the Apology where Socrates, who is apologizing for nothing, explains: I say that the greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue…and that the unexamined life for man is not worth living.

So it’s a big claim: the greatest good. Socrates prefers to die rather than to live the unexamined life. And he proves it too. Over the years the examined life has become synonymous us with the practice of philosophy, with philosophy as a lived discipline.

The Examined Life is also the name of a new film by Astra Taylor. I haven’t seen it yet. It will be in New York in February, but the trailers are intriguing: Cornell West comparing the philosopher to a bluesman, a jazzman of ideas; Peter Singer bringing down the shoe industry with a deft, entrapping example. The list of names is impressive; in addition to West and Singer, there is Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler and of course Slavoj Zizek, who it seems, will give us a discourse on garbage and why we need to pay attention to it—perhaps because it attracts flies. Read the rest of this entry »

The Day of the Dawn

January 19, 2009

Picture a lone figure out on the cliffs. It’s still dark and he is worried he might misstep—badly—you could fall off the edge out here and no one would know. Below is the sea, but also rocks and a cove that gets washed by the tide. It’s forty, fifty feet down. Fall and you’re dead. So he’s careful. Above him is a parchment of clouds, and beyond that, truly, the heavens. It’s cold, and as the sun starts to rise, so does the breeze…

I caught this morning morning’s minion,

At least that’s the picture I’m drawing: A black cassock against a black sky. Father Hopkins out on a precipice seeing God in a falcon’s flight

the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

throne1It’s always been one of my favorite poems, The Windhover. Subtitled: To Christ our Lord. And it seems fair to examine the vocabulary of a poem—a minion in the kingdom of daylight’s dauphin. O my chevalier!—though I guess it’s not surprising to find European heraldry in the way people talk about a god that grew up in the European middle ages. After all, the bumper sticker proclaims ‘Jesus is Lord’, not ‘Jesus is Vice-President’.

So, hovering on the edge of the sun, sea, clouds and sky—in the king-dom of daylight’s dauphin—is a bird, a falcon drawn by the dawn and the icy sea, a falcon who is supported by—of all things—the atmosphere.

…in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air

Day is in sharp contrast to night, one of the simplest of oppositions known to man, at least until the invention of the light bulb. “It’s always night, or else we wouldn’t need light.”—as Thelonious Monk states the case (see the superscription to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day). Look up ‘dauphin’ and you’ll find a direct link to the eldest son of the king of France, a prince, waiting in the wings to take over the throne, so the dawn and the ensuing daylight must be the kingdom of Christ, the savior of mankind, the one who is next in line to that sun rising amidst a bust of rays and cloud-reflected light: the sunrise is beautiful, isn’t it? Of course, the bird is a mere minion in the picture, with Father Hopkins and the rest of mankind in the middle of the Great Chain of Being—a worldview which we probably think of today as being ‘poetic’, which can be a polite way of saying ‘not true’. Night is against the day.

Read the rest of this entry »

In Praise of Limestone

January 6, 2009

A Theory of Poetry

Words are not stones and very few of them are carved into marble; they last, when they last, on perishable paper pages and in the fallible minds of men and women. So when you get a chance to write an epitaph, you’d be advised to consider carefully. One of the best is Yeats’—Cast a cold Eye/ on Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by—who put it in a poem and on his grave stone. The best intentions, though, don’t guarantee you’ll get what you want. Keats asked for a simple nameless stone that read, Here lies one whose name was writ in water, and what he got was: This Grave/contains all that was Mortal/ of a/ Young English Poet/ Who/ on his Death Bed/ in the Bitterness of his Heart/at the Malicious Power of his Enemies/ Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone/ “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”


Shakespeare presumably got what he wanted when he wrote (to modernize slightly)—Good friend for Jesus sake forbear/ To dig the dust enclosed here!/ Blest be the man that spares these stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.—though it does seem unworthy. Even the Bard can get trapped up in a bad rhyme scheme.  Sure ‘stones’ rhymes with ‘bones’, but why not write: He’s a good man who spares these rocks/ and she’s a good woman who darns my socks?

An epitaph is the time for your best writing. Will, you can do better than this!


When Gary Snyder starts his poem “Riprap”—Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.—he’s on to something. Writing is like laying stone—stacking stone for a wall, building a cairn, defining and strengthening a riverbed—and the rhythms of both poem and prose might be seen to mimic the huff and puff of a man shifting stone—a translating of the body’s movement to the words. I am a little worried by the manliness of the activity, however. Writing can also be likened to weaving or cooking. While the men folk were out building the Acropolis, Arachne was at home weaving an impiety to the gods. Riprap of things/Cobble of the milky way…Each rock a word/ a creek washed stone/ Granite…all change, in thoughts/ as well as in things. Yes, it sounds like a man’s work, but let’s do the manly thing here and admit women—and the subterranean—to the practice.

Besides, cobble is such a good word; it would be a shame to give it up; very lapidary; it feels like stone—at least as a noun it does. As a verb, though, it’s a little more problematic. While you can cobble a road or a pair of shoes with considerable skill, cobble together a plan at the last minute and you’re likely in the process of bungling things. There has always been a potential conflict between the sound of a word and its meaning; I wonder what the meaning of ‘to cobble’ is when the object of the verb is ‘the milky way’.

Lay down these words before the mind. All change in thoughts as well as things. There is an old Zen koan, which Gary Snyder was surely aware of:

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.”

The other said, “The wind is moving.”

The Sixth Patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”


Koan’s work as poetry, don’t they? The same concision; you could put one on your gravestone quite successfully—though it might be appropriate to say that a good poem works as a koan too, that this stone has two sides. Suppose the monks were arguing—“The granite is moving.” “The earth is moving.”—would the passing Patriarch say, “Not granite, not the earth. The milky way is moving.”?


  Read the rest of this entry »