Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The starting point for critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as the product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, with out leaving an inventory.
Antonio Gramsci, The Study of Philosophy

It is common, in some Christian traditions, to begin any treatise with a confession. Usually a confession of faith, this serves as both an invocation of divine favor and a statement of purpose – an anchoring of the author in both tradition and belief. It is also a purgation – an ‘outing,’ as much as is possible, of the author’s conscious and unconscious prejudices.

I am a product of my age and station. I am a construct of history, reflecting in my thought and action more historical processes than I can imagine. Consciously anchored in western thought, the child of classical, modern and postmodern worldviews, I carry in me the thoughts, values and prejudices of 21st century, middle class America. It’s a funny heritage; an odd, if common, complaint.

Almost a year ago, I was riding the 71 Bus to work when I realized I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. Sure, I was only two blocks from the Job I Now Hate, on time, even, for once. But my life, at twenty-six, was already shaping into something I had never intended.

I sat on the bus, trying to comfort myself. Many people are unhappy with their jobs, I reasoned. Surely, the sheer number of boring, dead-end jobs in the world is proof of that. And why should I feel that I deserved different? I had made the choices that led me here, dropping out of school again and again, disengaging from my studies when I was enrolled, flippantly and jadedly acting more like a rebellious teenager than the serious scholar I purported to be.

And that’s the idea that stuck in my craw: I had chosen to be there. Every choice I’d made, consciously or un, had put me on that bus. I don’t mean to sound as if I was truly lost. My life was not, whatever Thoreau might think, being lived in ‘quiet desperation.’ Overall, I had a happy, almost idyllic life. I had just moved to San Francisco, a city I love, with a man I love. We spent our weekends lolling in parks and reading, or exploring the city. My quality of life, though economically poor, was good. I was happy, in spite of being miserable.

But my feelings of discontent lingered. I felt in some essential sense unfulfilled. And I started wondering: how could my life be different? I accepted that choices I’d made had set me off a path I’d thought I was on. But what should that path have been? If my life was not where it should be, it followed that there was such a thing as where it should be. And I so decided to find it.

In a sort of natural progression I started to wonder about the purpose of life. Or perhaps more accurately life’s process – the way in which life should unfold. I knew in some essential way that the life I was living was not the life I intended to live. But how could I know the purpose of life, or of my life, if from where I was sitting, all I could see was that this was not it?

There are really only two weapons in the perpetual undergrad’s toolkit, and I called on both of them: I called in sick, and I turned to the Classics.

‘The Classics’ is obviously a pretty bread category – and while I would venture that the entire category is worthwhile (by its very definition, a classic is a book that is universally accessible and infinitely re-readable), I have chosen only two authors as my main focus for this particular endeavor. The choice of authors will seem odd no matter how I preface it, so I will declare my companions for this journey straight out, and explain my choices, rather than trying to justify them at the onset. So, without further ado, here are my travelling companions in this search: Dante Allegheri and Sigmund Freud.

I know: odd. But these two – whether you choose to call them philosophers or psychologists or poets - are both at least in part on the same journey I am. Both sought to define the parameters of a good life while exploring both the light and dark sides of the human psyche. Both endeavored to understand the mystery of human actions and desires, and the way these desires play out in the world of human endeavor. Both authors were educated in the same tradition as I (although I cannot claim to be as educated as either), and both represent in a very real way the progression of that tradition through the modern age. Finally, Dante and Freud both deal in a very real way with one of the essential prerequisites to living a life with purpose: knowing oneself.

If the Classics have taught me anything it’s that the purpose of life – even the process by which life should be lived – is too huge a question to confront without a systematic approach. So, in the Socratic spirit, let’s try and imagine how one might make the question smaller. What do we mean when we talk about life having a purpose?

While the question may seem large, the fact that we can speak of ‘the purpose of life’ would imply that there is a common definition. Now, just as when I say ‘dog,’ you may think of a Great Dane even though I am thinking of a Chihuahua, my definition of life’s purpose may differ significantly from yours. But the common tongue we use ensures that while our definitions may vary in specifics, the general meaning is the same; if I say dog, you will not think I am talking about a banana.
So, life’s purpose must in general be something that we can speak of with some assurance. But how can we go about defining it?

What might it mean to know oneself? This is not nearly as pleasant or noble a venture as one might believe at the onset. Seeking ourselves, we are thrust, like Dante, into a frightening underworld, teeming with the worst that is in the world and us.

I didn't go to work today, hurrah! Now to bang on the drum all day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Bluh. I really just want to walk out. I hate this job.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Augustine, in the course of hisjourney towards God, had a bit of a hard time. Not the least of these was love - or more accurately, the difficulty of learning to love properly.

"I cared for nothing but to love and be loved," he writes, "But my love went beyond the affection of one mind for another, beyond the arc of the bright beam of freindship. Bodiliy desire, like a morass, an adolescent sea welling up within me exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of love from the murk of Lust" (Augustine, Confessions, Pine-Coffin trans., p 43).

Augustine, in other words, has found himself in Oscar Wilde's classic quandry: mind in the gutter, eyes on the stars. Love is the near-perfect embodyment of this paradox. It calls upon both the spiritual and beastial sides of our natures, driving even the most sainted to distraction, making philosophers of us all.

In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates argues that because we desire the good things we do not have, and because love is a manefestation of this desire, the object of ove is, by virtue of its being loved, good (I'm missing a trick in there, but its late & I'm free-associating). He further argues that the trick is to recognize the true object of desire - not perhaps the pretty face or the charming smile, but the echo of divine, eternal truth that lies behind it (this argument is getting Epicurian).

Anywho. Augustine recognizes this. "The life we live on earth has its own attractions . . . because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with the rest of this earth's beauty." However, "all these things and their like can be occasions of sin because, good as they are, they are the lowest order of good . . ." (Pine-Coffin, p 52).

So what is sin here? Not - perhaps - not doing good, but rather not seeing good when it is before us. The great 'morass' that Augustine struggled with is the first obstacle towards loving properly. Once that is recognized, however, there is the further difficulty of learning not to love, wheather through friendship of admiration, andything for its material, temporal value alone.

In Dante's Inferno, we see this process played out. In Canto V, Dante finds himself in the company of 'those who sinned in carnal things/ their reason mastered by desire." There, he meets Paolo and Francesca, who's desire - and the manner in which it played out - brought perdition (apologies to anyone who's read about this passage in my blog before - I tend to get hung up on it). Dante asks Francesca te relay their story. She tells how one day they read the story of Sir Lancelot, alone:

Sometimes as we read our glances joined

Looking from the book to each others eyes


'This one, who now will never leave my side.

Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!

And so it was he who wrote it; that day we read

No further." All the while the one shade spoke,

The other at her side was weeping; my pity

Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack:

Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.
(Pinsky translation)

Dante faints after hearing Francesca's story, overwhealmed by the tragic lovers' story. And well he should be. He is himself on a journey, literally through hell, goaded by Beatrice, his lost love. His journey mirrors the spiritual quest that both he and Augustine share - through lust and worldy desire to divine love and true transcendence.

A lover or a romantic poet (as Dante was in his youth) might argue that Paolo and Franscesca should welcome their fate - after all, what ardent lovers wouldn't choose to spend eternity anchored to one another? But what the swooning Dante (the pilgrim of the poem) was beginning
to recognize was that this paralizing, soul-tossing force is as constrictive as it was liberating.

Francesca's line, "that day we read no further" echoes Augustine's conversion in his Confessions. Augustine, having taken up his book & read, has a revelation that finally - after a lifetime of seeking - allows him to turn towards God. Francesca, by contrast, is brought down while reading - carelessly - of love. She is unable to move beyond her lust for Paolo, and is relegated for eternity to the hurricaine of Hell, bound to her lover, but unable to move forward. Is it any wonder Dante should swoon?

In Canto V, Dante is closer to Paolo and Francesca than he is to Beatrice and any Divine Truths. Later, in Purgatorio, Beatrice chides,

When from the flesh to spirit I ascended,
And beauty and virtue increased
I was to him less dear and less delightful
And to ways untrue turned his steps

Persuing false images of good
That never any promise fulfill
(Canto XXX, line 125 - Wordsworth translation)

Dante failed to realize that her beauty increased after death as she was freed from earthly trappings of beauty. Had Dante loved her for her true worth, he'd have saved himself a trip.

OOf. Moral absolutism is exhausting. Off to bed.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Look I made links.

I can't sleep.

Today was really pretty. Sun, flowers, green hills, the works. But I just had this, I dunno, shadow all day. Do you ever just have that feeling that the world just barely tolerates you? That everyone you encounter is just smiling woodenly at your no-longer-amusing antics, wondering when you got so bitchy and started sporting that lousy haircut?

I dunno. I'm just having one of those 'everyone hates me’ days. And as usual it’s a self fulfilling prophecy - the worse I feel the more distant and scowly I act. It's so self-centered. I'm grouchy, and I create the world in my image.
Look I made links.

I can't sleep.

Holy manifestation-of-subconscious, Batman. Second post down. Wrote it, saved it in word. Never meant to publish it. Went to blog tonight. There it is.


Saturday, March 27, 2004

Oh, some days I just hate everything.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

It was maybe three months before my grandfather died. He'd been showing signs of Alzheimers since I was a freshman in college, and although we didn't know it at the time, a brain tumor was wedging itself between him and the world, furthering the distance between his inner life and the one we could see.

I'd gone up to visit with my dad. We lived a good eight hour flight away - far enough that we didn't really visit as often as we ought - and I'd been meaning to visit my dad's parents for a good year or so before we finally made it out. I was scared, flying out, that they'd be horribly old - that I wouldn't recognize them. But when we finally got there, they seemed just the same - maybe a little older. And while grandpa was definitely a little off, he seemed at times almost normal. He knew right off who I was, and joked that soon I'd be taller than my dad, just like my dad now seemed taller than him - something I'd never noticed before.

That night I woke up to my grandfather in my room. He walked around, moving one thing and another, finally leaving a northwest coast stylemask on my bedside table.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

I've got a headache. Ow.

I need a way to write on a crowded train, or a longer commute. I keep having these great ideas - or at least they seem great on the N train from Embarcadero to Duboce Park - but by the time I get home, >plub< they're gone.

Working and schooling just don't mix. I'm not concentrating well on either.

Sheesh. I just did something totally out of character. The phone rang, and the caller ID said '800 Services' -which is what it usually says when its a telemarketer calling.

Now usually, I just don't answer. Or if I'm feeling frisky, I pick up the phone and start reciting the Illiad in Greek (hey - it sounds foreign, I can do it ad nauseum, and it gets some funny responses).

This time, I was going to let it ring. But something came over me - some weird improv instinct. So I picked up the phone and *yelled* "Love don't live here anymore, aiight?"

My housmate was scandalized. His boyfreind amused.

I don't know myself anymore. Heh.

Every morning, Brian makes me a latte and sends me off to work. And every other evening, I forget to take my coffee mug home with me. So every other morning, Brian sends me off with a different cup (the mathemeticians among you will have figured out by now that I have two).

Heute morgen, I was absorbed in my work and reached over to take a swig from my latte. But it was yesterday's latte, and it was not good.

There's a lesson in that.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Know who I wish I was? Wil Wheaton.

I mean, what's not to love?
Ok, since Miss Trixie asked so nicely, I'm gonna write soimething. But I really have nothin' to say.

I'm at work right now. I don't even want to get in to what I'm doin' for a living right now, 'cause its just depressing. And why is everyone I work with so Gd%&$ long-winded, anyway. Just talk talk talk talk talk all the livelong day. It's probably karmic retribution for all the ears I've talked off.

I kinda envy people who are actually having midlife (or mid twenties) crisises. I mean, I experience the odd bout of dicontent, but it never amounts to any sort of CRISIS. More's the pity - maybe I'd actually DO something.

Wanna know my biggest fear? Well, remember how on word, there used to be this auto-summarize function, where the computer would pick out your most oft-repeated or important seeming ideas, and create a paragraph out of them, thereby ;summarizing' your paper? Well, I worry that's what the afterlife is like - you're read a summary of your most overused ideas and phrases. And then Jean-Paul Sartre writes a play about them.

Actually, the ads up there at the top sorta provide that function, reflecting and refracting what your blog might buy, if it were really you.

Anyway, back to avoiding phone calls and working slowly.

- Nora

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Extroverted (E) 51.28% Introverted (I) 48.72%
Imaginative (N) 70.27% Realistic (S) 29.73%
Emotional (F) 60.53% Intellectual (T) 39.47%
Easygoing (P) 66.67% Organized (J) 33.33%
Your type is: ENFP
You are an Inspirer, possible professions include - conference planner, speech pathologist, HR development trainer, ombudsman, clergy, journalist, newscaster, career counselor, housing director, character actor, marketing consultant, musician/composer, artist, information-graphics designer, human resource manager, merchandise planner, advertising account manager, dietitian/nutritionist, speech pathologist, massage therapist, editor/art director.
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Monday, March 08, 2004

At the top of the built-in bookshelves in our living room are two books: The Figure of Beatrice and The Poems of WB Yeats. I've had them four years now. Every time I move, they're carefully packed away, usually in their own box, thereby minimizing jostling and tearing. When I unpack, they're put back on the top shelf, usually with a sigh and a mental note that I really should do something about them.

It wouldn't be too hard really - they belong to an old professor of mine, Geraldine. She still works at Marlboro, I have both her work and school addresses. Heck, I could even mail 'em out for free from where I work (dishonest, yet frugal). But I don't. And I haven't, for four years now.

In my last entries, I was wondering how one lives with a past that makes them unhappy. In my case, I know: I don't. Those books are a constant reminder that I didn't finish at Marlboro. That I left, thinking and saying that I'd come back, and that I never did. That, most likely, I never will.

I keep those books because, other than moving day, I can pretty much ignore them. Because the dead, inactive guilt I feel, knowing that they aren't mine and I've kept them, is easier to bear than the active aknowledgement of that guilt. Because leaving them up there and scolding myself for forgetfulness is easier than mailing them back and knowing that I'm not forgetful. Bluh.