Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Meditation: On Meditation as a Public Act (Montaigne, Kathleen Stewart, Ta-Nahisi Coates)
And the only things I treat of adequately are nothing, the only knowledge I deal with is no-knowledge.
Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
At once abstract and concrete, ordinary affects are more directly compelling than ideologies, as well as more fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable than symbolic meanings.
I'm thinking of a problem. It goes like this: the tradition of meditative writing that I participate in as poet and essayist seems ill-equipped to our era. The meditative writer, from Montaigne to Stevens, takes himself as subject. While Montaigne asserts that, "Every man carries in himself the complete pattern of human nature," very few of these men [sic] have the luxury to mine that pattern in themselves. When I teach meditative poetry in my classes, I often meet resistance. It's white-guy writing. It comes of privilege. Only they have the time and the means. It's individualistic. It erases history. The meditative tradition is that of individuals who hope that their experiences might be significant to other individuals, though in some ways it doesn't matter. It's not a communal politics. I both agree and disagree with this diagnosis, hence this meditation.
Meditation moves on a transom from detail to meaning and then back. This is not to say that these meanings are symbolic; rather, they move and float and dissipate, refusing to fix themselves. Meditation is an activity, not the means to an end. In that sense, it follows the same graph as our emotions, gathering and then evaporating, but leaving behind clues to their having happened.
Can there be such a thing as a public meditation? Can meditation cross from the "I" to the "We" without simply asserting that it has? Is there a place for meditative writing now, when our needs are so immediately political: economic injustice, racism, a degraded environment? You know the list. And, if so, how might a meditative practice create community, without enforcing its boundaries, like the Oath-Keepers "protecting the Constitution" with semi-automatic weapons? What might be the loose parameters of these meditations?
First, what are the strengths of this tradition? Aside from the joys of introspection, I mean. Aside from the fascination to be found in chance relations: "I have no other drill-sergeant but chance to put order in my writings," notes Montaigne. Aside from permission to know less, and feel and think more? To craft an education that has less to do with test-taking than with making a self to meet the world? And a death that is the full expression of our life, an idea Montaigne keeps returning to? To pursue a spiritual practice that releases us from the most intense of what Kathleen Stewart would call our "surges": anger, violence, self-destruction. "Life," writes Montaigne, "should contain its own aim, its own purposes; its proper study is to regulate itself, guide itself, endure itself." The joys are also aesthetic: writing that meanders, that takes the long route home, that improvises, those are the ones I want to follow. Not those that offer a package to take home and put on the shelf. I want Emily Dickinson's shelf (the one where her life is) to fall, and I want to be its witness.
But the primary strength, in the context of my problem, is that meditative writing cannot be ideological. Or, perhaps more to the point, meditative writing--at its best--is non-judgmental. It forces the question of complicity, or mirroring. "A hundred times a day, when laughing at our neighbours, we are laughing at ourselves," Montaigne notes. Or, as Tacitus taught him: "All general judgements are weak and imperfect." For Montaigne and other writers in this tradition, the incident is more significant than any rule according to which the incident occurred. Detail is more valuable than the law. "We are all wind. . . It does not desire stability or solidity, qualities that do not belong to it." Or, as Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects: "The closure of 'the self' or 'community' or some kind of 'meaning' is something dreamy that happens in a moment of hope or hindsight. But it's not just ideology or irrelevant fancy, but rather an actual fold or texture in the composition of things."
Even "self" is an ideology: "It's a dream, hovering, not-quite-there thing." But if the self is evanescent, then how can we connect it to other selves in community? Stewart does this by moving her meditation from self to others; she even calls herself "she," rather than "I." Mostly letting drop the vocabulary she uses as a scholar, she writes vignettes about ordinary persons' lives. She doesn't write much about people in her own socio-economic class (academics) but about less well-educated and -heeled people in West Virginia, Texas, Nevada, like the man she goes to a diner with who confesses that he doesn't know what a "D" looks like (and wants to marry her). There are a lot of trailer park stories here, and over-heard diner conversations, and travel narratives gone bad. There is a lot of suffering here, even when ironies are registered. Many of these ironies have to do with Stewart's position as participant-observer: "The 'we' incites participation and takes on a life of its own, even reflecting its own presence." The reflection isn't always pretty.
Nor is the world she observes. It's a sad and pained world of under-employed, over-reactive, and put-upon people. It's a community, but one that is relentlessly falling apart. It's telling that one of her finest meditations on community has to do with self-wounding. She's quoting Alphonso Lingis, who describes the workers in a mine at the Arctic Circle. The first miner he sees puts out a cigarette on his own hand, which is covered with scar tissue. Then Lingis sees that other miners carry scar tissue on their hands. Lingis refers to this scarring as "'the fraternity signaled by the burning cigarettes.'" Stewart notes this sign of "collective identity" as "an extreme trajectory." And then notes a leap from the observer as solitary to something larger: "Ordinary affects highlight the question of the intimate impacts of forces in circultation. They're not exactly 'personal' but they sure can pull the subject into places it didn't exactly 'intend' to go." The "not exactly personal" involves, if not a community formed between observer and observed, then at least a moment of recognition and empathy.
Is this yet a politics? Stewart thinks so, but in typically halting fashion. "There's a politics to being/feeling connected (or not), to impacts that are shared (or not), to energies spent worrying or scheming (or not), to affective contagion, and to all the forms of attunement and attachment. There's a politics to ways of watching and waiting for something to happen and to forms of agency" [.] This is not a politics for miners, but for writers. While that is not the politics one might wish for, one that joins intellectuals with workers, it still has import. It acknowledges what we cannot do, even as it suggests there's a role for us to play. As a recent tweet on my feed (more or less) reads, "we don't want white people to act black, but we want them to support us." Part of the meditation's contingency is this awareness that you can see something without trying to make it your own. Meditative practice does not appropriate.
The problem with this politics is its virtue. It's rooted in the present, in presence, rather than in a possible future. Stewart's vignettes are more symptom than promise. She knows that. Toward the end of her book she writes: "This is no utopia. Not a challenge to be achieved or an ideal to be realized, but a mode of attunement, a continuous responding to something not quite already given and yet somehow happening." When I sent a recent small book of my poems, many of them about the homeless I see on O`ahu, to a friend, she suggested I make them into a public project. To the extent that I sometimes wave signs (HOUSING NOW) or testify before the City Council, my practice is public. But the writing is what Stewart calls "attunement." It represents a self-fashioning such as that Montaigne describes: "The conduct of our lives is the true reflection of our thoughts." May that be so.
"But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming in consciousness," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son (and to us) in Between the World and Me. "Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live--and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else's country, but in your own home." He meditates on the life and the awful death (at the hands of police) of his college friend, Prince Jones: "That was the love power that drew Prince Jones. The power is not divinity but a deep knowledge of how fragile everything--even the Dream, especially the Dream--really is." Coates's sense that life's fragility is part of what makes it beautiful is one that I want to hold to. That doesn't mean we don't try to make the world better, but it does mean that we (yes, the collective pronoun) can't afford to give up. But we also need to give in to the world. "Pay attention!" as Stewart writes (doubtingly, as always). The cat's rummaging in the closet; I need to shoo her out.
Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me. NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Michel de Montaigne, Essays. Trans. J.M. Cohen. London: Penguin Books, 1958.
Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke UP, 2007.