Wait, Can You Translate That For Me?

Tonight I had a chance to hear a lecture by Julia Kristeva, feminist, linguist, psychoanalyst, novelist, and general philosophical giant. I would say that she inflected my thinking during my brief forays into literary theory, but that would be to insinuate that I actually understood her writing enough to have an opinion. She was always one of those thinkers that I hoped to immerse myself in and understand – someday. This was my chance to do it, even though I had not picked up one of her books in years. Guess what? There is nothing like an hour of listening to incredibly long sentences uttered in a French-Bulgarian accent to make you feel like you an intellectual midget.

Most of the time I watched my brain flutter around, picking up a few sentences from the lecture and then despairing because I seem to have the attention span of a gnat. This woman was throwing around allusions to Kant and Heidegger and I was realizing that I could not focus on her brilliance for longer than 30 seconds at a time.

What has happened to my mind? Was I ever focused and attentive enough to be up to the task of fully comprehending a discussion of the existence of a unified European culture? Do I blame the Internet for shattering my consciousness into a morass of disconnected ideas, juiced up on sound bites and video clips, “cheat sheets” rather than newspaper articles?

I listened to Kristeva speak in a hall full of undergraduates. Some of them nodded as she mentioned the dead white guys they had probably just read for their survey courses. Some disrupted the ten people in their row to leave halfway through. As Kristeva talked of quadrilingual Europeans I wondered how many twenty year olds in that room could really read, never mind write, a poem in another language. I know that I certainly could not, and I wonder what the American intellectual climate will look like when people of my generation and those who follow us take up the intellectual reigns. Will we be able to truly bear witness to other cultures in the world or will we just teach our kids about this amazing global society that is almost completely navigable in English?

As our European counterparts begin to divide themselves into so many pieces that they are conversant in four languages, we seem to be slicing up our attention spans so that we can monitor four different windows at once. Is this just a different kind of schizophrenia? Is the Continental model focused on a valid multiplicity of identity while we are just swimming around in countless pools of English speaking triviality?

Perhaps I am being too hard on our country because it is so easy to be a critic of the world that nurtures me and just as easy to romanticize other parts of the world because, hey, I don’t speak the language!

It seems that at the very moment that the earth is becoming small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, it is growing stunningly out of reach. There is so much information in the world to absorb, we cannot possibly take in even the tiniest fraction. How can we figure out what to focus upon and how do we train our brains to be receptive enough for all that knowledge to matter?

Maybe I am mourning a hyper-intellectualism that we will not even miss. Perhaps we are moving to a more democratic discourse that does not demand a working knowledge of semiotics to gain entry. Is it possible I am just panicking because we are entering a new age when the academic signposts are changing and we all must get used to redefining nature and origins of wisdom?

Flow Through Different Worlds: Writing, Sharing, Loving

A couple of things you mightn’t expect when you first get to know me: I have a subscription to the Jesuit weekly magazine America and I check the entire college football schedule so I know how to plan the weekend.

My husband and I fell in love with versions of the other that were not totally representative of the sort of mates we would turn out to be. I partied a lot more and wrote a lot less and I lived in a cramped basement apartment without cable. Never did I realize what an autumn would really be like when I would have to share the man I love with a screen covered by giants in tight pants. Then again, he couldn’t realize the number of evenings I would spend with the door closed, constantly typing away.

In hopes of understanding my husband’s passion for watching sports on t.v., I opened the latest issue of America that is dedicated to “The Soul of Sports.” The article failed to enlighten me as to why someone can be so passionate about a game he cannot influence, but it did introduce me to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of Flow Psychology.

“Flow” is described as the “holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.” Csíkszentmihályi equates it with the Buddhists samadhi, or one-pointedness of mind. Though this article focuses on team sports and then turns to Ignatian spirituality, I thought about how I experience flow in my writing.

I write in two worlds, the pages of my novel and in this space. My writing group and select friends are great cheerleaders as my story progresses, while I rely almost exclusively on the comments of strangers when it comes to my blog. The delayed gratification and the lack of the dreaded blog stats page make crafting characters and plot seem like more like Flow, which is said to be marked by “egolessness.” In terms of this article, maybe working on my novel does fit the bill because it is meant to be about being in a space where the “explicit reflection on the self stops.” My experiences are wholly enmeshed with my fiction, but at least I feel like I am writing for the sake of the people I have cast on the page. The desire to write my way out of a day job is usually held at bay when the inspiration takes over and the words just come.

I cannot find an equal amount of selflessness in blogging, however (especially when I mention the word “self” at least once per post!). It’s more difficult to find that effortless movement of ideas in a genre that exists to be read and replied to immediately. Flow was the world of private journaling. Blogging is constant performance.

That said, I am making the connection: I read about Flow not as a commentary on the psychology of sport or writing, but in a religious publication. This piece puts the wisdom in Christian terms, which I still feel vaguely uncomfortable with, but I have to remember that Flow is yoga, Flow is the goal of meditation, Flow is something I have studied in so many different worlds. Flow could be sharing my thoughts with a simple goal of serving the reader with some ideas that may sweetly color her day.

I keep writing about my quest for wisdom, but I think it is time to remember that the process of writing and communication my vision of wholeness is an essential part of the journey.

What We Might Discover in the Heavens

Discovery of HeavenFor the past few weeks I have been making my way through a dear friend’s favorite book, Harry Mulisch’s sprawling novel The Discovery of Heaven. I have been away from my little world of epiphanies mainly because I have been so deeply immersed in sorting out the truly personal; it has seemed impossible to pull such insights into the broader context of these public pages. This hefty volume of fiction may also be partly to blame for my silence, however.

So much of the inspiration for this blog comes from the various spiritual texts that I have been exploring. For months I have neglected reading and writing fiction almost entirely, nourished by narratives that seemed to describe the plot of the entire world. Characters and a storyline seemed too constrictive, and, dare I say it, unnecessary. Then I read a book like this, so full of philosophy and Big Ideas (with an extra large capital “B” and a really big “I”) that I know I cannot possibly be absorbing it all, seeing as I am distracted by the lives of a handful of Dutch intellectuals living through the legacy of Hitler and countless other dramas of modernity. I am mute in the face of all that this book achieves, generally unable to add more words to the tapestry Mulisch has created.

I struggle with some aspects of this novel: its hyperintellectual acrobatics (conversations between an astronomer and a linguist? oh my) and a sexism so pervasive that you barely even notice the cloud it casts. (Oh, wait, that’s just reality of their world that I can ignore, right? For now I reserve commentary on how applicable that description may be to this world.) At the same time, I cannot help but be entranced by a story that is framed by two angels discussing the ways they manipulate the creation of humankind – what accidents of history became necessary so they could bring certain individuals to life at exactly the right time in accordance with “the Chief’s” plan. In a time when religion and science clash over the origins of this universe a book about Heaven’s indignation at the earthly power of science seems more than timely.

One idea that has really struck me is steeped in much more astrophysics that I could possibly understand or do justice, but I must try. Muslisch take us to a complex series of telescopes have been built on the grounds of was once a camp that held Jews before they were transported to Germany. The inordinately wise and sensitive boy named Quintin states:

Max once told me that we see the stars as they used to be. So on the stars they see the earth as it used to be. If the people on a star that is forty light years away from here look at us with a very powerful telescope, then they must be seeing what happened here forty years ago, mustn’t they?

I am not sure how well this quotation encapsulates what it is much longer conversation, but what I hope to convey is way that his question touches on the simultaneous nature of time. Every moment that has ever been lives on in a constant journey deeper and deeper in space. The earth is surrounded by concentric rings of history. All events exist into infinity. Nothing that has happened ever truly disappears if one stands at a certain perspective far away from this world. Isn’t that exactly where we have placed God for so long?

In some ways this makes me shiver, to realize that every heinous aspect of humanity and each shame filled moment of my life I’d love to forget still reverberate through the cosmos. At the same time, however, anything that still echoes through creation like that might yet be able to be redeemed. Perhaps this is a great argument for forgiveness and that nothing cannot somehow, eventually be transformed by love?

Nature, Ignored, Still Red In Tooth and Claw

Or, black in growl and hiss.

Today I started reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. The first sixty pages are heavy with my underlining and marginalia as I considered phenomenology and allowed myself to sink into his beautiful aesthetic, communing with condors and spinning with spiders. Phenomenology, to my limited understanding was first developed by Edmund Husserl as a “science of experience” rooted in the body’s direct interaction with other entities. The intention is to locate ourselves in the “real world” and realize that we can never be truly unbiased or unaffected because everything we observe is filtered through the experience of our own existence. Husserl feared that modern science was driving the West into crisis as a complete separation from the experience of being human was idealized in the pursuit of objective “truth.”

Others have taken up the thread of this philosophy so that it seems to validate the belief that everything we encounter is another universe in and of itself. We can never truly observe something in its entirety because we can never experience all planes of another’s existence. What I take from it at this point (admittedly without even finishing this particular chapter) is the inherently interconnected nature of all things because, to quote Abram’s rhetorical statement: “Does the human intellect, or ‘reason,’ really spring us free from our inheritance in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?” Judging this book by its cover, I am thinking we are building to the recognition that we are an integral part of this world’s ecology obligated to work for its salvation and that observing and empathizing with the living creatures around us is only the beginning.

unhappy kittyBut really, this is a post about my cat(s?). (Just this once, I swear I am not turning to stupid pet tricks.) Our beloved four-year-old former alley cat who only drinks out of pint glasses always seemed desperately lonely when left alone for a weekend or even a workday, so when the opportunity came to adopt a homeless kitten we decided to see if Banshee wanted a pet. It has been a disastrous seven hours that has involved a lot of dueling dust bunnies to reclaim our quaking feline from beneath the bed. She is hissing and groaning and hiding and looking as miserable as any furry black faced mammal could without being caught in a trap or stuck in a well. But, you see, the book said that cats live longer when they have a companion and that if you follow these instructions for introducing a new kitten (not that we actually involved a neutral third party and performed a for-our-pet-only pantomime, but we read the page aloud and considered engaging in such absurdity) all will be assimilated nicely. And well, this is our domain and we are only looking out for Ms. Kitty’s best interest with our massive largely homo sapien cerebral cortices and we really must know best, so what if her first reaction is despair? The book also says we have to ignore the new little soul until alpha kitty tells us it is time to recognize her, so there is a four month old kitten hiding in a closet somewhere wondering who these giants are who seem so generous with the food but so stingy with the affection.

And so it goes that one can spend the morning reading about integrating with the brilliance that is the natural world, but still play dictator at home when it comes to the surrounding non-human life (I gleefully sucked up a bunch of spiders with the vacuum today too) – and play it badly. Because we lack the faculties to understand what it is that either of these quadrupeds is thinking we traumatize them both and inflict a mix of human morality and cat handbook logic (written by a biped, mind you) upon them. You see, I was all set to believe that Abrams really was able to chat with a squirrel, but I have to call this cat woman a lunatic because she contends Banshee can tell if I am even looking at the interloper while in another room. It seems we love nature in its place, safely within the pages of a book; it’s completely different in one’s living room. How can I hearken to the pulse of the planet if I cannot make my own cat purr?

If you’ll excuse me, I have to obsess over whether to try to touch our new pet and marvel at the burden of my sweet minded hypocrisy. They’re just cats, after all.

Right?