Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I support marriage equality!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Man Of My Dreams

No, this is not about Jim. Of course, you'll know that by the tone. Just like the last couple pieces I've written, the seed of this poem was a dream.  I woke from it mentally composing the first several lines of this poem.

After the long dry spell I've had as a writer, I have now written three poems in a month! Also, I don't think I've ever written so many rhyming poems at one time. Maybe just getting back in the swing of things?

Man Of My Dreams

Might of a lion
speed of gazelle
What you desire from me
I cannot tell

Muscular arms
carry me away
as I'm penetrated throughout
by the gentlest gaze

I scent a mate
or perhaps I'm beguiled
by the musk of conquest
that returns to the wild

Might must be free
speed never tamed
and our word wary tongues
leave all unexplained

Animal instincts
see predator and prey
You never say "I love you"
I'm running away

- Peter Cholewinski

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Joris-Karl Huysmans - "Against Nature" (1884)

Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature (sometimes translated as Against the Grain) is the second of the two symbolist novels in my late Winter/early Spring reading list. The other is Bruges-la-Morte, which has its own posting on this blog. See also the post for The Symbolist Manifesto. I read Margaret Mauldon's translation, and found it very accessible.

If you're interested in symbolist literature, Against Nature is a must read. Otherwise, there's little reason to bother. The plot is virtually non-existent and what plot exists is all interior. It concerns a wealthy man named Jean Des Esseintes, who has been pampered all his life and is a bit of a fop (the technical term of the time was 'dandy'). He and his friends roam Paris indulging their sexual and sensual whims. This passage of his life ends with him literally burning out on life in the fast lane, and he becomes increasingly disgusted with society. He decides to retreat into a house where he can seal himself away from all human contact, sleep all day, and wake at night to read his books, revel in his art, and commune with his thoughts.

Interesting? What I described is just a small section of the novel. The bulk of it is given over to largely descriptive chapters that go into extreme detail over Des Esseintes meticulous efforts to create and enjoy his private world of illusion.  Imagine the first few pages of an Edgar Allan Poe short story such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Telltale Heart" in which we are acquainted with the perverse, neurosis of the narrator and now stretch that into the course of a novel, delving into the particulars of this kind of character. Against Nature can be very slow going; too slow to be recommended as a casual read (at just under 200 pages, it took me several weeks to get through it).

Giovanni Boldini,
Count Robert de Montesquiou (1897)
So what did I get out of this book? My reaction as I read it (and something I wrote in a margin) is this is a bible for the symbolist movement, a how-to guide for being an effete decadent. In many ways - as in Bruges-la-Morte - the ideal here is the popular image of Edgar Allan Poe: highly intelligent, self-indulgent, isolated, perversely melancholy, obsessive, eccentric and/or a bit nuts. The epigraph that leads off the novel is from a Flemish mystic: "I must rejoice beyond the confines of time...though the world be repelled by my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean." This encapsulates the idea of a retreat from human society into a world of fantasy and illusion. Throw in a big helping of dandyism (the Boldini portrait here should illustrate what that's all about), and you have the novel.

And my reaction is not far off. The critical assessment of Against Nature refers to it as a bible for the Decadent movement. There are entire chapters reviewing color in decor, literature, music, art, philosophy, and even flowers in terms of how they fit with the isolated, decadent life Des Esseintes builds for himself. This is punctuated by brief vignettes illustrating his eccentric dandyism. He buys a tortoise as a sort of pet, and then has its shell gilt with encrusted jewels he picks by hand to achieve the right aesthetic impact. Elsewhere, he meets a young hustler and exposes him to the pleasures of brothels as an experiment in "producing a murderer".

It's not long before the isolation affects Des Esseintes mentally and physically. He becomes increasingly neurotic and lethargic. It is the description of his mental decline that most loudly echoes the works of Poe, and in fact Huysmans has Des Esseintes repeatedly reference Poe by name throughout the text as a prime example of what he is after. Towards the end of the book when doctors are summoned to save him, Des Esseintes describes his mindset succinctly:

"The doctors spoke of amusements and distractions; but with whom, and with what, could they possibly suppose that he might amuse or enjoy himself? Had he not outlawed himself from society? Did he know one man capable of trying to lead a life such as his own, a life entirely confined to contemplation and dreams? Did he know one man capable of appreciating the delicacy of a phrase, the subtlety of a painting, the quintessence of an idea, one man whose soul was sufficiently finely crafted to understand Mallarme and to love Verlaine?"

This brings us to the theme that may exist in this pile of description and obsessive fantasy. The core idea is about the man of depth and intelligence who sees the world around him slowly rotting intellectually. This decay is brought about by the standard 19th Century demons: the rise of a middle class who are crass and vulgar, who buy art for show not because they understand it, who attend plays for base entertainment without expending thought as to the meaning of what they experience, etc. He describes it as leading to "the crushing of all intelligence, the negation of probity, the death of all art."  He also blames the rise of capitalism and it's incessant focus on money and acquisition ("the vast whorehouse of America, transported on to our continent").

Joris-Karl Huysmans
I believe Des Esseintes's (and by extension Huysmans') views on these topics are apolitical despite their vitriol. He is really concerned with the beauty and aesthetics of art, literature, and music being trampled by the rise of a shallow, materialistic new order. Being the kind of person he is, this transformation is repellent to him and it is what leads to his retreat. The title of the novel, however, and the ultimate end of the story suggest that this retreat is a futile effort. This creates a heightened sense of alienation, isolation, and even nihilism in an educated, intelligent mind.

Huysmans wrote an Appendix to Against Nature twenty years after the novel was published. By this time, he had rejected his decadent ways and become a full blow Catholic. He essentially apologizes for his novel and suggests that the theme he surfaced in Against Nature can only be solved through a choice "between the muzzle of a pistol and the foot of the cross".  Suicide or mysticism.  He chose mysticism, claiming religion gives man hope. However, the alienated state of mind he - and other writers of the time - presented is the precursor for the rise of modern literature in the 20th Century in the form of Camus, Sartre, Kafka, etc. They chose neither option and, instead of clinging to what they would consider a cotton-candy kind of hope offered by religion, advocated embracing the absurdity of life directly.

For me, this is the most interesting aspect of Against Nature, Bruges-la-Morte, and other novels of this period. It's the preliminary thinking that would lead to the explosion of revolutionary creativity in the first half of the 20th Century.

Monday, March 18, 2013

More on Everyday Zen

I believe in a few other posts I've touched on the idea of everyday Zen. Everyday Zen is a term I use for the ability to extend the mind state achieved during zazen into normal life. It's the idea is that someone who is truly enlightened should be able to stay in the moment and avoid delusion constantly. Eventually, such a person might be able to exist within an enlightened mind state all day, everyday.

Here's one of the experiences that led me to the concept of everyday Zen.  Years ago, I was meditating on a warm day with the windows open. I was enjoying the sound of the wind and the birds singing. So peaceful! Suddenly, one of the neighbors started blasting some lame music. At first, I was totally annoyed. I was about to get up and shut the window when I thought: "Wait a minute! If I'm really in zazen, why should this music bother me? If I'm in the right mind state, shouldn't I should be able to sit in zazen even with someone blasting death metal music right in my ear?" The idea made a big impression on me, and I left the window open.  Sure enough, I was able to get into zazen again. Not easily and not for long, but then that just means I need more discipline.

To be able to exist in the right mind state in all situations obviously requires tons of discipline, and I am nowhere near being there.  However, as I've thought about this idea and tried to bring what I've learned in zazen to my daily life, I find I have learned how to summon right-mindedness. It isn't everyday Zen; it's more like a sign that I'm learning what the right mind state feels like and to change my behavior when I'm in the wrong way of thinking.

For example, the other day I was on a conference call where we were debating over a topic. During the call I realized I was very tense, and I did not feel comfortable with myself or the way I was coming across at all. I recognized I was in a bad mind state. Since I was alone and dialing in from home, I had the freedom to mute my line and check out of the conversation for a moment. I closed my eyes and, in a matter of seconds, cleared my head as if it were a blackboard that I'd run an eraser over. I was relaxed and my thinking much clearer. I got back into the conversation and was amazed at the difference I heard in my voice. I sounded calm and assertive.  Also, while I hadn't stopped caring about the conversation, I'd disconnected myself from the outcome. I made my points, offered my ideas, debated as necessary but also let myself go with the conversation. There was a peaceful detachment that - I think - made me more effective, less stressed, and much happier overall.

Another example also came from a day when I was working at home. I'd finished lunch really quickly and was about to go back to work because "I had nothing better to do". Instead, I made myself take the full hour off. I just kicked back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling not really thinking about anything. Afterwards, I realized that - impromptu - I'd achieved something of the emptiness I can achieve in zazen. When I went back to work, I was fresh and much more relaxed. "Nothing better to do" indeed!

Naturally, working at home is a much easier place to make such observations and the related corrective actions. Everyday Zen would require much more skill and awareness. Perhaps if I can keep learning, I can eventually get to everyday Zen...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spring is Here!

May not seem like it. We have 30 degree highs, and there's still snow on the ground. But this is northern Illinois, kids.

The harbinger I depend on for predicting the arrival of warm weather are the appearance of snowdrops. These little clumps of flowers are hardy enough to precede even the tulips in breaking out of the ground.  Snapped this pic of a clump that comes back every year just outside our back door.

Bike riding weather is not far away!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wind and Stone

I'd previously posted a poem I wrote a while ago called Ghosts. In this poem I compared writing poetry to being 'a spellcaster'. Part of me has always found something supernatural or magical about the creation process, and poetry - especially when it has rhythm and rhymes - can have the cadence of a spell being chanted. This poem came to me as an image when I was either falling asleep or waking up. Of course, this just fires my imagination as these 'in between' times are associated with magic and witchcraft in mythology.

Wind and Stone, which I just finished today, has nothing to do with either magic or witchcraft. Instead, it's one of the few times I've been able to work a concept from my Zen studies into a poem. That, and the fact it's the second poem I've written in less than a month, makes me happy.

Wind and Stone

Saharan winds
carry the scent of burning feathers,
promising rebirth
where the sand and sky blurs

Wary of mirages,
I built my oasis upon this crag of stone;
amid the sand and grit,
I need not crave nor atone

Decade after decade,
caravans cross the landscape
like dunes seduced by the wind,
forsaking permanence and shape

Sun burnt and leather-cracked,
they exalt in an endless journey,
while I mistrust visions
which as mirages ever fly before me

Departing at dawn
they quicken their pace,
unaware that we are destined
to find ourselves in every place

- Peter Cholewinski

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Signs of Zealotry?

Okay. Just to forewarn you, this post could easily be filed under "Dude, really? Just chill out!"

I have learned a great deal from Zen Buddhism, and I love how it's impacted my outlook and the way I respond to things. However, there's a thin line between zeal and zealotry.  While reading Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature (my current read), I questioned whether I was potentially showing signs of the latter.

sumi painting depicting nen
As usual (at least in my paperback books), as I read I was making notes in the margins. As I was reading a passage in chapter nine of Against Nature detailing the chaotic mood swings the main character, Des Esseintes, has within the illusionary world he has created for himself, I realized my notes were commenting on his state of mind by referencing the Zen concept of delusion. I was also thinking about him in terms of the famous sumi painting that reflects the concept of first, second, and third nen (see picture). Semi-translation: I was thinking about how Des Esseintes had backed so far away from direct perception of reality that he was lost entirely in delusion. Lost to the point of going a bit nuts.

It occurred to me this was not the first time I'd reacted to art, music, or literature from a Zen perspective. For example, one of the reasons I love Mark Rothko is because his paintings are like visually experiencing samadhi. My entry on Laura Nyro's song "Trees of the Ages" and my post on Zen Buddhism and Existentialism display the influence of Zen in my reactions to music and literature. I even asked myself: "Since there are schools of aesthetic criticism for feminists and socialists and objectivists, why not a school of Zen Buddhist literary or art criticism?"

That thought gave me pause. Do I really want my perceptions colored so deeply? Maybe I'm slowly turning into a 'born-again Zen Buddhist', someone who can't experience anything except through a narrow lens? In other words, was I becoming overzealous about things? As usual with thoughts like this that can't be answered in the moment you have them, I shrugged and pulled out my Scarlet O'Hara routine: 'I'll think about that tomorrow". Except I actually do think about it tomorrow! LOL!

Long story short, I think the definition of a zealot isn't that you let yourself be deeply influenced by something. A zealot is someone who is closed to abandoning what they believe in the light of evidence that it's wrong and, worse, who condemns anything that doesn't fit or agree with the truth they think they've found simply because it doesn't fit or agree. Since that's not what I'm doing, I'm okay.

That's a relief! Because I kinda like the idea of a school of Zen literary criticism!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Pacific

Sometimes I take photos with my phone and forget about them for months. It's fun to discover them when I end up checking my gallery for some reason. Today I found this photo. It's not the best picture of me, but it certainly captures the essence of the moment for me.

I took the photo about a month ago, during a business trip to Santa Monica. It was the last evening of the trip, and I spent it walking along the ocean. Since it was an evening in January, the beach and pier weren't crowded at all and it was very peaceful. I was walking and watching the sun set over the ocean.

Looking back, it occurs to me that in poetry and literature travelling to the Pacific Ocean is sometimes an allegory for life coming to an end. In my case, maybe it's a phase of my life coming to an end.