A Nation of Used Car Salesmen and Fractured Tribes With Guns

It’s that time of year again.  You don’t know what I mean – nor need you know.  I do and I remain faithful to the minor burden I laid on myself so long ago I really don’t recall doing so.

The “why,” the meaning, the seeming futility: “Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

“הֲבֵ֤ל הֲבָלִים֙ אָמַ֣ר קֹהֶ֔לֶת הֲבֵ֥ל הֲבָלִ֖ים הַכֹּ֥ל
הָֽבֶל:”

all of that – I do it to talk to myself, my Self, and HaShem, my G-D beyond all knowing.  Take stock, bear witness, lament, argue… to no point now, perhaps for ears not born (perhaps not) – I speak to the wind.  It goes where it goes and takes on its own life, its own meanings I cannot fathom.  There may be no home for these words, no understanding.  I do not know, so it is done for its own sake and value.

Hunter S. Thompson, in the age of Nixon, uttered some simple words, a judgment, that proved prophetic:

“The polls… indicate that Nixon will get a comfortable majority of the Youth Vote.  And that he might carry all fifty states.
“Well… maybe so.  This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes […], is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.”
from ‘September,’ Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1973

A note about “prophetic words”: The value of actual prophets — the Nevi’im — and lesser, everyday “prophets” is not in whether their messages come to pass.  Christianity, in general, misinterprets this, being unfamiliar with Judaism in general, and mis-instructs any culture it affects, even should that culture become secular, even agnostic or atheistic.

Prophesies, their value, does not lie in whether they come true.  That is not, in general, the standard nor is it why the message or messenger was sent.  No, prophetic utterances are warnings:  “This is what will come to pass if you do not change your path.”

Amos, for example, was sent to prophesy “against” Israel – to warn and deliver a terrible, terrifying message:  To call his people back from devastation and the abyss.

Yonah (Jonah) was sent to Nineveh — enemies of Israel, people whom Yonah (Jonah) himself despised, if not feared, to warn them of their doom.  The Ninevites were not Jewish, were cruel, and were at war with Israel: Yonah personally would desire nothing less than their collective death… hence attempted to avoid delivering the message.  But he wound up doing so… and the Ninevites repented and avoided being destroyed.  No, they did not convert, change gods, culture — they sincerely lamented the evil they did and stopped doing it.  That is all that was required of them… or anyone, really.

So, the prophesy did not come to pass.

Yonah (Jonah) was an effective prophet, a success in spite of himself, his ego, his own conscious preferences.  The message he brought was heeded; the terrible events predicted did not come to pass.   If the warning is heeded and the prophesy does not happen — well, that’s the main point of getting such messages.

Even if one has no religious beliefs whatsoever, does not even believe in the reality of such beings as Deity, thinks the scriptures of any and all communities are myths at best and stupid falsehoods at worst, I think one can grasp that “prophesies” as a metaphor are real things and meaningful.  A warning, one who speaks against his own people, not out of hatred, but out of care, out of a desperate hope for an unlikely but better future than the one obviously on the horizon — I think that can be grasped by any intelligent person from any background.

Hunter S. Thompson delivered such a warning.  Probably without seeing the depths hidden within it — that is the way these things go.  Truth chooses the strangest vehicles through which to make an appearance.

A nation of used car salesmen — an entire people who are liars and con artists — with enough money for weapons to murder anyone who bothers them, questions the legitimacy of their feelings, desires, their hustle, greed, hatreds, and prejudices.  That was his warning, his consistent warning.

His own generation failed to take it seriously enough being far too optimistic and convinced of their “rightness.”  And, so, The Boomers sold out, became little Nixons… and worse.  They put Reagan in office and the movement to laissez-faire capitalism, the worship of money and fame coated in the veneer of “Christian morality” – “family values.”  Until we finally ended with Trump, a cheap-suited, bloated Nero-wannabe.  A nihilist willing to support any and every group of white trash nationalists — even Nazis, even to the point of wrecking the institutions of a liberal democracy, this constitutional republic, hollowing out law, fragmenting the people further against one another based on little more than “identity politics” and the lie of race.  (Just take a genetic test to find out where your tribe came from to find out with whom you really belong, which gang to join.)

All for what?

So each group can fight like starving dogs in the streets to murder or subjugate the others while Trump and company loot the country, do as they please, and die famous with a tomb larded up in golden kitsch.  All intending to dispose of the others and seize power so that they, too, may “do as they please.”

A nation of used car salesmen and fractured tribes with guns.  Guns we will turn on one another in a massive spasm of violence, eventually.

A people who find nothing common among themselves, no unifying, truly valuable beliefs to rely upon, reject reason, dialogue (not debate – dialogue) — that people is damned to murder one another.

That is all that is left, followed by a military dictatorship to impose obedience.  Obedience to some monstrosity of an officer’s authoritarian commands.  Perhaps an officer or junta backed by a foreign dictator… called Putin, probably.

The end.

With humor.  We’ll doubtless laugh insanely as we cut our neighbors’ throats, this being the age incapable of seriousness.  The irony will not be lost on us; we will not care, as irony for its own sake is all that seems left to most of us, believing nothing exists apart from our limitless, aimless desires that is actually of value: standards to be lived up to, burdens to be voluntarily taken upon ourselves….  No, nothing except whatever we can get away with and dress up in some parody of a story.  Preferably a “morality” tale involving “victimhood” to rationalize each gangs’ vicious choices.

***********

I wrote more; it did not “save.”

You get the point. Or you do not.

6 February 2018

Richard Van Ingram

 

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I’ll Miss Your Voice

Everyone comes from somewhere.

That’s one of those things about human life we get no choice about whatsoever, though we do get to interpret what it meant or didn’t and, eventually, to tell our own story. Some of us write it down; some talk it out; yet others, a bit of both. What isn’t said is as important as what is… and our interpretation tends to change as we do.

There is what happened, who was involved; what it did to us, for us, and what we did with it — are we victim? victimizer? vengeful? insightful? Do we merely survive at all costs or come to see others as integral to our being who we must become? Do we drift, moved around on the current of events and others’ interpretations of who you seem to be to them, play a role in their drama, or do you create your own life — which is always dramatic, theatrical, roles thrust upon us or chosen or created?

Patterns, patterns, patterns — they repeat in all of us more than most notice, a needle stuck in a scratched groove on the record that becomes part of our approach to life. Some never jump the scratch or learn to incorporate it as a pop and crackle in the tune: imperfection rejected, not owned, embraced, even loved.

This, because perfection is not possible for a human being or desirable; a perfect imperfection, yes: becoming good enough, struggling with what one was handed to make the artistic achievement that becomes… each of us. Interesting or not; creative or stereotypical; repetitious in self-destruction, the use and destruction of others, or in slow, relentless spiraling, upwards, outwards, downwards, inwards… becoming more and more oneself a bare hair’s-width at a time.

Or just stuck in that scratch on the groove, repeating the pattern, repeating the pattern, repeating the pattern… refusing to choose and struggle a way out, or deal with it at all.

Addiction, complexes, bipolar disorder — all words, clinical and cold, for a certain way of life bearing deep scars and scratches. Carrie Fisher’s life had these. Oh, God, but so much more, eventually. She made great art and fantastic written and spoken autobiography from all this. A famous, talented self-destructive father and a famous , talented actress mother; a close brother; a daughter whom she loved. And many lovers… all passing through and passing by, or bypassed.

Drugs — copious, self-medicating; bouts of mania and depression, mood storms terrible enough to drive her from self-loathing to fantastically destructive plans.

She’s one of the few people I know of who volunteered for ECT to stop the depressions at the cost of her memory. So, in part, she wrote to remember, to interpret and re-interpret, to revivify what the darkness swallowed. One does not enter ECT lightly, not at all. Some never quite return from it… but that’s not the mission, to return to repeat what keeps happening, but to return and overcome, to jump the scratch in the record and keep going, keep spiraling.

Over the past six months, I worked my way through Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” and “Shockaholic” as read/told by her in recorded book form. Watched a performance of “Wishful Drinking” onstage on cable a couple of months back late one night. Bought her new book, “The Princess Diarist” two weeks ago and began that, reading on my own this time, an early Hanukkah gift to myself from the woman who was half in love with being “Princess Leia” and half despairing that role would forever overshadow her novels, her own work, and autobiographical explorations.

Since age 11, Carrie Fisher has wandered in and out of my life disguised as Princess, now General Leia Organa — the princess who did not need saving but was doing the saving — and as a novelist, scriptwriter, and spelunker into the depths of her own psyche and history… all with wit, irony, self-deprecation, yet… strength. Power, the real thing. Dignity.

And as one plagued with Bipolar I Disorder. Me, too. There’s quite a bit in her writing I “get” — the inside joke on all people suffering mental illness who learn to make the illness suffer from us. Yes, I’m classified Bipolar I, too, in case anyone forgot, and we were diagnosed around the same time, or the same ages. What she doesn’t say, the space between the lines, is as important for me as what she does, what she implies. So it is with all genuine people, I reckon.

There she was today, nine years older than me, done here. Gone on, work finished, heart literally broken flying between heaven and earth. The Baal Shem Tov taught that HaShem grants us only so many words in this world: when you’ve said your say, you are finished. The point: Be willing to speak in such a way that what is said is worth dying for once you’ve spoken. Make it count for something.

That Carrie Fisher did. She did so for many; and I am one who listened in on her conversation, who appreciated and valued her work and so, her. No, I never met her, but I met something of her, what she wished to share, no malice involved. Her story is now a part of mine, a great gift to me… so I’ve a burden to pass on what I received through her.

Ms. Fisher, I won’t say goodbye. You’re not gone — you’re just not here except in the form of those words and images that mean much to me, and in the example of riding the illness, making it sing as part of her own wild chorus, scratches, pops, and all.

But I will miss your voice.

27 December 2016
Richard Van Ingram
#CarrieFisher

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For All and For None

Trepidation — that is what I experience much of the time when I speak of anything important, make an image, write words.  The struggle with this, for me, is intense and often crippling: Is this a genuine fear of hubris — of trespassing on matters I am not called to explore?  Or is it a form of grandiosity — and, mind you, grandiosity resides in the strangest of locales?  I mean, am I afraid to speak because I “know” many will hear  and some believe?

Do I really possess that latter power?  People will be moved to action because of my words and drawings?

That, truly, is foolishness.

The power to speak, to a degree, is something I can perform; the power to speak rashly and with poor judgment, even incorrectly out of naivete or stupidity — that is a defect that often possesses me.  The desire to please: well, that is a wretched thing indeed and often lies behind the moments I’ve played fast and loose with truthfulness in favor of rhetoric.  A tongue may be golden because it passes on a genuine gift; or it may be but gold-plated because it is manipulative, seeking lesser things, seeking ultimately to receive, not share, not help, not mentor.

Those moments, the latter sort, are fewer and fewer as I mature, and haste born of passion is something I spend time in extinguishing.  Delay and consideration are not luxuries, not for a human being — they are among the necessities.

So, I can speak, I can write, I can make art — and these may emerge from deep meditation and consideration, restrained, or they may be extravagant and self-aggrandizing. Even the silence can be grandiose if not properly motivated… and no one, outside myself, can tell or judge my motivations in such matters without themselves attempting to substitute a manipulating fiction for my own story, the story that is my autobiography, is me in this world.

As for treading where angels fear to go… that is the birthright and responsibility of a human.  The world, this world, the world of life was no more made for angels than it was for monstrosities — morally stunted or deformed egomaniacs or zealots who never doubt themselves because “They Know.”

“They Know” what the Absolute Truth is, as if they were gods, and they know what they desire, and they will possess what they want or destroy any who get in their way or resist.  In such manner, people make themselves a living plague, something to be completely avoided or resisted.

Angels have no choice.  Monstrosities choose to serve the black depths of insatiable ego at any cost, rationalizing and creating whatever fiction suits them best in the moment and in the long-term.

‘Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” ‘ Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

I’ve considered this passage from the sage for a very long time.  Years.  In fact, I meditated on it before knowing Hillel (or anyone else) summed this very human crisis up as succinctly as he did.

Notice the three questions: One without the next is misleading.  And the first question has, itself, two portions, and if that question is not adequately faced with some humility, all is lost.  The error in interpretation will breed a deadly monstrosity called “egoism.”

The commentaries point out that, in the first question, two “I”s, not one, are referred to — The first is said to be the sacred, holy “soul,” my – and your – true self that has never departed from the presence of HaShem – The Ineffable One.  That “I” is pure and untouched by this world, in a deep sense — the sense of the prayer, “My soul within me, she is pure.”

Obviously, I am not pure in any really meaningful way — I am full of error, stupidity, foolishness, imperfections, even evil.  Part of me is stained black as night.  I have done wrong, many, many times.  But that other “I” — she has done no wrong and will not.  How odd.

Why?  How can such a paradox exist as a unified “me”?

Because, in part, the burning mystery of that Spark of the Divine — the “image and likeness” – is the “I” whom I must strive to bring forth within this world of history, circumstance, flux, through the vehicle of my actions and intentions, however limited.  The first “I” is my destiny, the one that I must choose to realize and make my vital project, that guides and gives form to my life in whatever time and in whatever place I am given to perform it.

If justice is to be here in the world, I must choose it, value it, interpret it, and become a just person by consistent and painful degrees.  If there is to be mercy, forgiveness, courage, thoughtfulness, carefulness, generosity, peacefulness, beauty, truthfulness, hopefulness… if there are to be qualities such as these, I must bring them into the world in my own way without departing from their standards, their requirements.

Thus, if I am not for me — if my deepest Self does not shine even dimly for me, guide me, orient me, direct me to true Light, and if I do not choose to “become who I am,” to actually perform my proper labor, my destiny, my work… no one else can force me, perform my work – however modest – in my place.  No one else can become me… or you, or any of us.

In the words of Ortega y Gasset, paraphrased, “We are each irreplaceable, each necessary,” all of us, each pursuing her destiny, all supporting her.  Human existence is a matter of “all of us or none of us.”

Perhaps human life has always seemed cheap to most people — I do not know.  We are faced, once more, with entire groups of people, majorities, who have decided those “unlike them” are “The Other”: and The Other is the object of fear and hatred, to be expelled, monitored, locked up, destroyed.  Instead of beholding an Alter-Ego, “another I,” when considering others, they take full possession of “I” for themselves and themselves alone, their tribe, their beliefs, their skin color, their fictions.  Anyone else, any dissent, any culture, individuality, creativity, belief, even tribe or color or any other form of love than the majority’s becomes threatening.

Threats, if taken seriously enough, get eradicated after being randomly defined as “unnatural,” “wicked,” “abominable,” “lies,” “leeches,” — any and everything except “human” and sacred.  Criminals by birth.

So – “If I am only for myself, who am I?”  Even HaShem “stooped” to grant humans existence out of nothing; The Divinity shared with us the great gift of being, and there was no necessity in it.  We did not have to come into existence — any one of us or all of us together, even this or any other universe.  Even the possibility of universes is not, in itself, self-explicable in the sense of metaphysical being.  The Divine began – as far as we are concerned – by sharing something beyond comprehension with us, out of a free, creative choice, out of mercy.

Out of an inexplicable love and friendship.

And what is given, then, is given to be shared, not hoarded up.  Not given here but refused out of disdain there.  We receive, we learn, we create in order to pass on, to share, not because it must be “earned” by the other, but because if I do not share, who do I become by my selfishness? How can I become myself, my true self, without acknowledging the other?

It is not as if I, myself sprang into being without others — in reality, first, there are the others: only afterwards and slowly is there the “I” who exists in the world, who begins to value and choose and create.  I emerge from the others and their labor.  They gave me language, they gave me beliefs, ideas, they taught me to think, to value, they gave me culture, they passed on to me certain valuable (and not so valuable) practices — and even where wrong or misguided, I cannot turn around and perform the labor — give the gift — of improving, reforming, or even excising errors from the culture for the future without, first, being brought up and given certain gifts.

“If not now, when?”

When will I choose to learn that I and other implicate one another, require one another?  When will I begin to doubt myself long enough in to hear my “True Self,” my calling, my vocation, my destiny?  When will I perform who I am — become who I truly am?

Now.  Or never.  You and I have a now that is ever-passing; soon enough, there will be no “now” that includes me, even as a memory.  Only a now that includes whether or not I did my work, did it well, did it poorly… and no one save HaShem will have any memory of that.

“…[I]s it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands. The people who praise us; how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region it takes place. The whole earth a point in space – and most of it uninhabited.”

Marcus Aurelius, THE MEDITATIONS

No, it is not that your life is meaningless: It is that your life and the lives of all other people are the only conduits of meaningfulness in this universe we know anything about.  Yet meaningfulness and fame, fortune, comfort, and other preferable situations — there is no link between these two sets of things at all except accidentally, in terms of “fortune.”  If one only lives for the “preferable” and falls apart when these depart — as they must, one will never strive for meaningfulness.  One will fail to value it.  One may even grow to find meaning repulsive and painful.

Hence, monstrosities are born, create themselves, serve themselves, demand service for themselves, all while ignoring and discarding… themselves.

And, so, we arrive at the end of all I wish to say for the moment.

Richard Van Ingram

20 November 2016

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A Few Words to a Few Students

The hour rolled ’round at last when I address my students and maybe three or four of them read my final words — the summation of the semester, my last thoughts to pass on.  I’m exhausted in every imaginable way and it probably shows in this, written at about 4:00 AM.  So now, I rest and go back at it in a week.

RVI

*********************

At this point in the semester — the final moment — it is my habit to say a few words to the class, a sort of summary of themes involving ethics, philosophy, life.

For the first time since February 2015 I find I’ve little to say. It was a difficult semester for this class all the way around: we switched to a blended format and I had to switch up how and what was taught; several students decided they did not have to show up for physical lectures as long as they attempted the online content; many students did not read or respond to e-mails or speak with me; and so, in the end, my contact with the class as a whole was severely limited.

Additionally, I’m unsure most of my contact, as brief as it was, was understood and I had little chance to elaborate or explain. Usually,when the class was four days face-to-face, I had much time to convince, to argue, discuss, until most students could see my point. As it is, some here took their own interpretations from brief statements or concepts and ran with them — I’m unsure any further questions or observations I made, even in discussions, were read or grasped.

From my end, this is not the best class I’ve ever taught here. Partly because I could not reach many of you or sufficiently motivate the class to look more deeply or consider the relevance of thinking with clarity about moral issues — even attempting it. There is nothing more important to your life than this and a first encounter with the approach can be shocking, threatening, irritating; it provokes in some great resistance, a desire to run and avoid the subject entirely, take refuge in feelings (subjectivism); in a peculiar and illegitimate appeal to a version of religion (Divine Command theory); by hiding behind “we’ve always done it this way” (cultural relativism); or simply by demanding one’s unjustified selfish desires receive moral recognition as valuable in themselves (ethical egosim).

Anything except setting all these irrational tendencies aside and attempting to answer the moral question, “Why?” with only good evidence and principles that all humans can see and interpret, put to use in their own specific situations.

I watched a movie the other day called “Saint Vincent” with Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. Vincent is a crotchety old man, in debt, drinks too much, keeps company with a pregnant “woman of the night” who is not carrying his child, gambles, smokes, and is generally a seeming ne’er-do-well. He winds up taking care of the neighbor’s kid after school by accident as she is a working single mother — he charges her, of course. But he also cares for that boy as best as he knows how, protects him, teaches him how to fight bullies, teaches him to be a caring person, diligent, do his homework with discipline. Vincent listens to the boy, keeps trying in spite of his many imperfections.

Go watch it — I won’t tell you how it ends.

But beneath the corroded veneer of many years of bad choices and rough luck, Vincent has been caring for his wife, raising money to keep her in a good nursing home — she has Alzheimer’s and hasn’t recognized him for eight years. He visits each week, dressed as a doctor so as not to frighten her and talks with her. He is devoted. Part of the gambling is to make enough money to pay for her room because he is devoted and will do anything for her.

He is a Vietnam vet, a war hero, bronze star recipient, saved many men under fire. Doesn’t talk about it at all. His everyday life is combat of a sort and he faces it the best way he knows how — not necessarily with the absolute consistency that would have pleased Immanuel Kant or with a blind utilitarianism that Mill would have approved of, but he does practice virtues in his own way. An imperfect, human, but honorable way not easily seen from the surface. And he doesn’t do it for show or for praise: he does it because he must in order to be himself. He has to try.

Morality, in practice, often looks like this: an everyday “sainthood” — the word “saint” comes from the Greek word “hagios” which is a translation of the Hebrew “kadosh”: which means, “to be set apart, dedicated to a divine purpose.” Now, “kadosh” is a neutral term — it does not mean either good or evil, but capable of either: one can be set apart to accomplish either the good or the evil and that is the meaning in the Tanakh (The Old Testament). We are all called to be set apart and be dedicated to our mission — but it is up to us whether we will devote ourselves to the decent and virtuous or to the destruction of these values. That part of the matter is up to us, our choice. Whether that choice is to be based upon something worth serving or not… well, that is why we have been granted the capacity to think clearly.

Everyday sainthood of a sort. Being “good enough,” not perfect, but always seeking to be and do better as we are nothing more than what we do and why we do it.

Ethics at work — that’s nothing more than a specific application of general, universal ethics for living within the confines of the workplace and the laws and rules governing that situation, making choices in light of those circumstances.

None of this is easy. Hardly. None of you are so young or naive as to think life is easy, that life does not throw disaster and surprise atop disaster and surprise at us time and again, daily, weekly, yearly, for the entirety of our sojourn in this reality. Ethics, morality is nothing mysterious, though: it is the human skill for being prepared to meet disasters and surprises and walk away, if that is our fate, with our souls and integrity intact, regardless what anyone else may think or judge from the outside.

In the end, we will meet death, our universal fate. If we live well, we will meet death well — our final battle — and do so with courage and patience, or at least without utter surprise and regret. Even had this course been years long, I am not capable of giving this gift to you. It is one you must seek out and gain through your own search, your own journey and experimentation in life, hopefully dedicated to the better rather than the worse.

Someone like me can only show you the banquet table of ideas, well or poorly; it is up to you to eat, to desire to eat, to recognize you need nourishment for living as a proper human being.

Developing the desire is the first thing, not the ideas; only then will you go looking for the ideas, have any real desire for them beyond a grade.

My hope is that you stir up within yourselves that need, that discomfort, and go looking. Good fortune to you in your journey.

24 September 2015
Mr. Richard Van Ingram

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To Write or Not to Write?

Learning a new thing is uncomfortable and something about us flees from the uncomfortable preferring to live only where we feel at home.  This is the case even if “home” is miserable and squalid.

Isn’t that a strange thing?  A sad, strange thing.

Refusing to adjust oneself to circumstances, accepting them even while looking to influence, even change them as much as is humanly possible leaves us in a terrible state.  For things will be as they will regardless of whether I accept them: they will continue to impose themselves and seize me by the neck whether I believe they are doing so or not.

I cannot understand what I will not accept.  I cannot influence what I do not understand except in the most haphazard, awful manner.  For the worse, not the better.

One often does not understand how fortunate one has been until the situation changes significantly and one’s circumstances present a new feature or remind one of a constant feature one has been allowed to avoid for an extended period.  So… the world rearranges itself and I am left to make sense of it again and again or face things I imagined I’d escaped or overcome.

My primary mode of extended communication with most people is writing.  This may strike the reader as an oddity and I freely admit that it is not usual in this world.  Certainly people have taken to social media and texting and the 150 word summation of existence — little of that, for me, is what I call “writing.”  Writing is an extended serious examination of self and world in confrontation, both together, neither apart.  Perhaps all of the examination does not occur all at once; it’s more a process of feeling one’s way through reality, interior as well as exterior.

My interpretation of this process is always happening, an exertion, as I understand so very little and find my experience of reality has been narrow, hermetic, mainly interior and intensive.  And unshared.  Eventually it boils up and I attempt, again and again, to throw my version of the world into words, symbols, and images.  Each is a fractured piece or perspective that, when added together or overlayed, begins to present a sort of autobiographical record; not in the form of exhibitionism for its own sake, but as revelation of my peculiar encounter with being.

Otherwise, all of this would be pointless for me and I’d speak even more rarely.

I write to my students.  If you read this website, you see that I write to my students regularly, thoroughly, seriously aside from the day to day necessities of getting someone’s attention or handing out assignments.  There is something of myself and my struggles in those silly essays, hard-won truths, small but not insignificant.  Truth, inasmuch as a human confronts it and makes it her own, is never insignificant.

This semester, I find the situation in my classes shifted as the structure of my courses was changed: a new circumstance.

Part of that new circumstance is fewer students read my e-mails; thus fewer care to hear anything I have to say and expose before them to do with as they will.  It is dismissed without a hearing.

Not a new thing on planet Earth, certainly not a new feature of my life.  A common experience.  But what is the appropriate response?  In my circumstance, a great deal of the richness I add to my courses has suddenly been amputated, its effectiveness negated.  There is a feeling of injury and rejection in it on my interior as well.

Nothing pleasant in the least.  I’m not sure I fully comprehend it… but I never fully comprehend much of anything.  Certainly not all at once.

My normal action taken in the face of an uncaring audience is to go silent or stop sharing anything with that audience until a need for it from their side is demonstrated.  Not out of spite; not in the least, but partly out of self-preservation and partly to stop wasting time I do not have to spare.

I have spent much time in my life — an inordinate amount — writing to and for audiences that, truly, could care less.  What I had to say was a passing amusement for them, one among many, not better than others, and once the words ended, for whatever reason, I ended for them.

The fate of a writer — to never know if there is any lasting meaning shared between oneself and others through the sad, fragile medium of the word.

Worse is to know the words went unread, the message unheard because not needed and unvalued in the first place.

It is wounding to know that this may be because one is incapable of writing in the first place, ineffective; that one’s choices of terms are unshared by the reader, one’s style is difficult or laborious, or that the whole apparatus of the essay is not transparent but opaque and ungainly, a monstrous birth:  A horrible thing deserving of no attention and unfit to bear the weight thrown on it as its designated burden, a distraction in itself.

An artist, a writer, has at least one requirement: for the audience to meet him where he is at the time — but he owes the audience a clear path, as clear a path as can be cleared out, to come meet him.  The journey for others will be difficult enough — to go out of oneself to meet another is a grave difficulty if seriously pursued.  But the construction of the pathway — the writing — itself is all the more a labor, not that the labor is shown or noticeable at completion.

That, itself, is a significant fraction of the work: to hide the difficulty.

Does one risk the exhaustion such work demands in creating a thing that goes forth stillborn or poisonous, as far as the intended recipients are concerned? Many, many others before me have, but I am not of their calibre; yet, how will I even approach the worth of such people unless I try with no mind for “success”?

I do not know the answers here.  They will come to me in their good time and they cannot be forced.  That much I do know.

12 September 2015

Richard Van Ingram

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Intimations of Mortality

I perceive the change in seasons before others do, especially the change from summer to autumn which is often a time of devastation, death, or severe change. Fate linked me inextricably with the sun and lengthening or shortening of the shadows as the sun rises or falls by degrees in the sky — science calls this Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of light-linked depression. But that’s science and my life is more than science, deeper, broader, contains an interiority that science cannot know anything about as I experience it directly. It’s the same with you, all of you.

Leaves begin to dry up and fall, trees barely, almost imperceptibly change color, lighten a bit, even here in San Antonio where there is hardly any change in temperatures. But the sun does as it does as the earth tilts and moves and does her dance that I experience as the day star also sinking toward the horizon shortening the days.

Trees and plants, too, have my disorder. We are equally disordered.

But it’s the dread that begins to come along, the memories of all the disasters of autumn or the cataclysms, tragic and comic, and some just absurd. One is set up to expect more of the same.

Probably, from the interior of my life where no one but me and Deity and The Angel can see, that dread, the anticipation of “more of the same” is as much a cause of the depression that may or may not follow as the change by degrees of the sun. But the disasters and hilarity and absurdity are in the hands of fate. Things go as they go regardless of whether I approve or not and autumn is an inevitability, even if the heat remains like a bright lie in the midst of shadowy truth.

Perhaps we are not allowed to go from this place until our mission is complete, whatever it is, and once completed or we fail so badly the mission cannot be salvaged, it could be we may not remain. We must go on to the next thing.

Pure speculation that most people I like, love, and admire would find ridiculous, but they seem to accept my poetic ridiculousness. My coat many colors is just a beggar’s patchwork of seeming nonsense, anyway that replaced the original cloth or normalcy long ago, bit by bit.

But it could be that “reality” is such a patchwork, also; interpretations that serve us well or not, that allow us to plan ahead and live richer lives and accomplish something, some sort of fixing and repair in our day, our moment beneath the sky whether bright or smouldering with those jewels in what we call night.

We each leave something behind whether we are remembered or not and the something we leave behind becomes the raw material for what is called “the future.” Whether what we leave behind is of value to the others who remain or come along even many years after our departure is, at least in part, up to us. With care or carelessly, mindfulness or mindlessly, selfishly or in devotion to values beyond ourselves, we all leave behind a direction within our own ambit, a direction others will be left to deal with as a help or a hinderance.

My life and your life and the lives of us all are intertwined and intermixed, even while none may be substituted for another and one interior perspective cannot be exchanged with others. But we may share, reach out, make the attempt. And we do change the small portion of reality that we touch.

For good or ill. For good and ill.

My dread will remain close but I’ve learned to go on living and doing as I must and attempt to figure out how I should act, what I should choose, who I should be and become. Keep at the work.

Richard Van Ingram
20 August 2015

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Just a Man

I suppose that some days I am “more human than human.” Memories are all we have of the past and they are always reconstructions that we make anew each time we call them forth — how many of them are fully what they seem? How real? How many are “more human than human”?

They are, in their effect on me, real enough.

They are always colored by where I am and who I have become and are expanded, contracted, reinterpreted, edited, changed by this and more… my feelings — the part of me I understand the least, trust the least — who knows how much they color and affect memory? All I know is that memories summon up feeling, even memories of theories and ideas and discovering or creating these.

I recall sitting at desks reading and thinking and considering, pushing hard to gain an understanding of myself and my world, years of it; years of reading, sitting alone in many places, some academic, some domestic, some underneath trees on campuses, some in the wild, some on the steps and porches of old buildings built in the fashion of Roman temples.

Anywhere I’d be alone with the old ghosts of dead people, communing, listening intensely, questioning them, often hearing silence but sometimes hearing their words, their answers, and their own questions.

I remember reading and walking streets of my “hometown” alone — more town than home where I was an alien in familiar territory; reading and sitting alone thinking, thinking, thinking in the abandoned homes of my great-grandmother and then my great-great uncle Charlie… a man I never met who died a decade before I was born but more real to me than my own parents, me and his ghost in communion in that old house, that photographer and tinkerer and man of technology who was more akin to me than my living relatives.

I have memories of him, too, and he was present in his absence, in the stories my great-aunt told me, my grandmother told me.

And the people I knew, grew up with… they are always in my memory, close to me, and people I’ve met and learned from along the way, many with no knowledge I learned anything from them, noticed many things, collected their words, their styles and mannerisms, their habits of belief and expression, their approaches… they are all there in my silence, my deep interior. Some were close to me in life, others not close at all. Some appearing close but forever away, dreams… some within my dream world, my fantasies, my guesses. Some enemies, some who opposed me and gave me something to avoid or push back against with all my limited abilities.

Some fully aware of their status as friend or enemy, some never conscious of it in the least. The judgment was within me and my choice. Most who’d not care at all what I thought and felt.

How odd.

The judgments toward myself… sometimes I’ve been my own enemy, less friend than others have been, less caring for my self; I’ve hated and abused myself more than many on the outside, or I replayed the small slights from the outer world, the harmful messages, or the physical and mental abuses, the terrible, barely tolerable situations I thought would never end, over and again until they became everything, became a reality I wrestled with constantly in my own self-constructed hell — the dead and gone returned to drag me to the depths within my own Inferno.

I heard the preachers I grew up with telling me I deserved my hell and more to come in a never-ending afterlife where God Himself would cast me down for my questions, my doubts, my interests in the beauty and wonder of women.

My memory is filled with pulpits and sermons and screaming.

I remember walking with a girl at school on the playground, admiring her intelligence and humor and how pretty and unlike — yet like — the Caliban she’d chosen to spend her time with, in her own exile; in later years I’d wonder about her interior world, too, too late to know much about it. But I was quiet and ashamed, never good enough for her in myself — part of it they call “introverted” to a maximum degree, part of it is shyness, a persistent loneliness and terror of reaching out for fear of rejection and the pain… too much for my young companion who needed a companion, the girl who would grow to womanhood and required a real companion, not a devoted worshipper and idolator. I became her brother, not companion, and we remain forever like those stars that remain circulating side by side but never touching, never, forever, and travelling a parallel path through space and time.

That is as it had to be.

And she faded into the dreamworld with time.

Fate.

Fate is a large portion of my reality, and I learned to accept her, too, as neither friend nor foe, but just the ever-present. She goes through her life as I go through my own, and her life is not mindful of a small thing like me. She was not made to care but to act.

And I must act in return and build a life from what I am given to work with, not rail against it. If my choices are not good and affect others poorly, if they do not make for me a good life and of me a good person, the fault is my own, inasmuch as I had choice. This much my thinking and worrying and the life in communion with history and the dead has delivered up.

Regret… will remain ever-present. Another companion of my own construction. Regret at poor choices in the past. It reminds me not to squander the present. To show care to the people I love, to be a companion and friend to my wife, to be as much of a friend to people who care for me as possible, to be a good teacher and guide to my students, to make art of some effectiveness, to labor at it and not make shoddy things, though none of this is ever quite good enough… but at some point, some days, I must be satisfied with the “good enough.” Aiming at perfection I will never attain cannot stop me from arriving at the “good enough” I can accomplish for today, and the “a little better” I might get to tomorrow.

But all of this, for me, requires a greater measure of solitude than for most people. My life includes my fate, and my portion of fate is to spend the greater part of life on the interior before I can come outward in action and do anything of worth.

My angel, my destiny, is inside me, and there I wrestle him for my true name.

I am only good for some at a great distance. My habits of life are not for many or most. not tolerable, not interesting. Not many can bear the intensity of me when I come “out” into the world from my interior of contemplation, study, and self-torment. I must shield them from it in carefully chosen words and images, like the burning sun passing through stained glass — no one can “look into the eyes of the sun” but most can tolerate the eyes of the sun looking at them through a lens of subdued colored glass silently whispering a story.

It is not my superiority to my fellows that make me intolerable and difficult, but my inferiorities and flaws, the stuff from which I’ve made myself. One’s weaknesses and defects can be exploited to advantage, given time and labor, the way the Greeks made their rough coastal world a marvel or the Irish monks those forbidding little islands like Skellig Michael a place for protection and a rich, beautiful life. Complex cultures and and even civilizations have, with time and labor, been built up in even the least life-affirming portions of the world.

Memories are real enough. Good enough. I either build something from them or fate will take and work them into something that does not care for me or anyone else. They are not hers to play with until I am gone and only then in the form of whatever evidence I leave behind, for good or ill.

More human than human.

Not the Overman, but just a man.

Richard Van Ingram
15 August 2015

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To My Students, 30 July 2015

Students and scholars,

 

We are at the end of this portion of your journey through one area and one approach to knowledge called “philosophy.”  I have barely shown you a glimpse, and a whirlwind one at that, of the history of the subject and have attempted to raise for you both some central themes of this approach – this life that is not quite living, but theorizing so that we may live better – and have given you as much context for each central idea as was possible.

 

Why the contextual material?  To help put you in the place of each individual philosopher that created the theories they did because each was in a time of crisis: A crisis of having the ground drop from beneath them in some essential sense, a moment of deep and radical doubt, and each had to search for something true and solid from which to begin because the earlier way had failed in some way.  The thinker could no longer place any vital faith, a faith they could live from in whatever ideas had held sway previously.

 

For Descartes, for example, the older Aristotelian version of knowledge and reality would no longer do – it did not support the advent of modern science as Galileo and others had discovered.  So he set about pulling into himself to locate something indubitable, a solid piece of “ground” from which he could stand and work his way back, clearly, without doubt, to what is knowable.

 

From there, philosophy moved on in a conversation with the earlier versions of reality and Descartes new version and modern philosophy became what it is now.  And your world changed in ways you cannot imagine as yet… it became the place in history you live.

 

And, yet, there is more to be done… evermore there will always be more to say and do and learn and you are a part of that, willingly or not.  I have given you some tools for the task, or shown them to you, suggested more than recommended.  Because history, your circumstance, your time and place has imposed a destiny upon each of you; and within that destiny, you must choose who to become, who you will be, must be in this very strange moment that, itself, is another moment of crisis in history.

 

Moments of crisis are dangers and opportunities, simultaneously (the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of two other characters: “danger” and “opportunity” to show its double face – your choice between the two paths).

 

Who you will choose to become is not provided – you must choose it for yourself; you must, as the poet Pindar wrote so enigmatically in ancient times, “Become who you are.”  The limits to the choice is provided by your historical circumstance against which you must push, be creative, write out your autobiography in actions and choices, in what you choose to value, what you struggle against and reject.

 

No one may choose for you.

 

Many of us grew up in circumstances that, if we allowed others to make our choices – first, they will choose poorly; secondly, they will choose whatever is convenient to them, what will give them the most benefit; and they will dispose of you as soon as you are no longer useful.  Slavery by another name.

 

The liberal arts – and philosophy is a liberal art – is one of those things widely misunderstood in our age, if not dismissed and devalued.  Partly, this is because of the changes in the interpretation of words over time.

 

“Liberal,” in this sense, does not mean that practicing these things will turn you into a political liberal (but it may have that effect for some).  “Liberal” means “freeing” – the practice of freeing you from enslavement from to the hidden chains your circumstance and culture laid on you as a child: ignorance; a fear of asking questions; the acceptance of popular mythologies and lies taken for reality; common opinions and prejudices.

 

The “art” part is it is a method of introducing you to a genuine culture, a healing of soul, of deficiencies, teaching you how to teach yourself; it introduces you to a tradition of inquiry and curiosity and questioning in the search for truth, goodness, beauty.

 

The “liberal arts” are the arts that free you to perform your mission in life which you must choose and arm you to perform it, perform it well, to be good at the task of being human, to change your world, transform your fraction of history, to work together and understand you have allies around you now and people from a distant past you are as yet unaware of… go seek out your allies.

The “job” you do for money may just be a means to the end of performing your mission; if you are fortunate, it will itself be a part of your mission itself.  Aim for that latter goal and use the other jobs as a bridge to get closer to being an effective agent in changing your world.

 

My time in this age is passing.  I am a relic of a past age; my time, in a certain way, as an effective agent of change by action, has come and gone to some degree – this time is yours. My mission is to prepare you, to place my bets on you.  No matter where you came from, your background, what people expect or don’t expect from you, how they judge you, look down at you because of your past – that is pure unadulterated foolishness.  You are who you make yourself.

 

I came from similar circumstances and achieved far, far more than anyone ever would have or could have expected.  I have changed parts of the world – at least a little – that people thought were unchangeable.  If I, of as little worth and background as I have, can do this, you can do better, go further, do more, and work together to make this age closer to something worth living in.  I have this faith.  It is why I teach.

 

This will require patience and a great deal of labor; it will require you to believe in yourself and one another more than you ever have; and it will require you to teach yourself many things college cannot.  A degree from college means you are now ready to learn, not that you have much by way of genuine knowledge.  You have the skills to teach yourself, to read, to travel back in time through books or search around for people who make sense, and to sort the better from the worth, the more likely true from the probably false.

 

Effort:  Nothing worth doing is achieved by any other means.  It will not fall into your lap.  Should you have the great good fortune for it to do so, you still will not know what to do with your windfall without the effort of preparation.  Look around you at the many famous people who ruin their lives because fortune smiled on them and gave them a great deal of money and power: How many of them actually live good, exemplary lives?  What will they be remembered for in future ages?  What will future ages be like because of their actions?

 

Do better than that, in your own ambit, your own sphere of influence.  If you do so, you will be worth more than all the wealthy wastrels of our age combined – because you aimed at something more serious and difficult and tried.

 

Trying your best is all any human can ever expect of you, including yourself.  Take yourselves seriously.  You are of infinite worth and your point of view and your mission cannot be provided to this world by anyone else.

 

And patience:  You labor will require a lifetime – sometimes it will bring joy and sometimes it will require pain.  But if done in the service of genuinely valuable standards and goals, you will become a living example of what it is to live a good human life.  And there is, in this entire universe, nothing better we know of.  If you fall or fail, stand back up.  If you are perplexed, return to the battle and find what you seek even if you never quite lay hold of it.  That is success in the most intimate sense.

 

I will miss each and every one of you and have valued my time with you.  You each taught me more than I taught you, but you will never know how… and that is as it should be.

 

I leave you with the words to an old Kate Bush song to think about – poetry often says far more than a loquacious old man can get out in prose:

 

I see the people working

And see it working for them

And so I want to join in

But then I find it hurts me

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that knowledge is

Something that you never have

I see the people happy

So can it happen for me?

‘Cause when I am unhappy

There’s nothing that can move me

Some say that knowledge is

Something that you never have

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that heaven is hell

Some say that hell is heaven

I must admit, just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king, I must admit

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

I’ve been doing it for years

My goal is moving near

It says, “Look! I’m over here”

Then it up and disappears

Some say that knowledge is

Something sat in your lap

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho ho

I want to be a lawyer

I want to be a scholar

But I really can’t be bothered

Ooh, just gimme it quick

Gimme it, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho

Some say that knowledge is ho ho ho

Some say that heaven is hell

Some say that hell is heaven

I must admit, just when I think I’m king

(I just begin)

Just when I think I’m king, I must admit

(I just begin)

Just when I think everything’s going great

(I just begin)

I get the break

Hey, I’m gonna take it all

(I just begin)

When I’m king, just begin

In my dome of ivory

A home of activity

I want the answers quickly

But I don’t have no energy

I hold a cup of wisdom

But there is nothing within

My cup, she never overfloweth

And ’tis I that moan and groaneth

Some gray and white matter

(Give me the karma, mama)

I’m coming up the ladder

Hey, I’m coming up the ladder

(A jet to Mecca)

Up the ladder

(Tibet or Jeddah)

(To Salisbury, a monastery)

(The longest journey)

Across the desert

Across the weather

Across the elements

Across the water

KATE BUSH

“Sat in Your Lap”

30 July 2015

Richard Van Ingram

 

 

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Where Am I?

I’m old and I’m tired. Don’t look as old as I am nor do I look nearly as old as I feel. I’m afraid, as someone far wiser and observant said to me the other day, “Richard, you were born in the wrong age.” As a feeling or suspicion, this has been my experience for the majority of my life, being out of place in time. But I’ve never really been certain at all if I was born too soon or born too late. Maybe either would do. Living anachronisms have no choice in this.

If too late, I’m pointing backwards to something I find valuable in a bygone time that, perhaps, would provide some antidote, or an element in the antidote to the secret poisons at work in this time — and I do that. Not well and from no great position of influence, but I do that work.

If I am too early, I’m announcing the possibility of a better moment in history, a moment we could choose something better, a time that will come long after me. I don’t mourn that I won’t be here to see it, only that it may not be chosen and probably will not. It is only a possibility — and I am rather pessimistic by inclination.

That part of the task depends upon others and my part in things is to persuade a tiny few to pay attention to the injustices, the sloppy morality, the carelessness of the times, the wild-eyed extremism of this particular time… the urge to split into tribes as no overall effective values (good or bad or mixed) hold the people of my country or world together. Nothing beyond some utterly vague desire to “survive” (as what? as whom? at what price?) and to accumulate worthless trash.

To live by lies and off conspiratorial mythologies of the basest sort. To live without actual philosophy while science, as powerful a tool as humans have ever constructed to deal with physical reality, is mistaken for the entirety of the knowable mainly because it gives a basis for our magical, ubiquitous technologies.
And the technologies — a “technosphere” – substitute for the raw reality we call “nature” humans can no longer live within with any assurances. If we ever could.

.A power-driven nihilism — valueless, except beyond whatever is expedient, whatever gains more power, pseudo-values abandoned when no longer useful.

In the end,if pursued far enough, it will cut off even science at the knees and make it an impossibility by destroying or starving out the values and freedom of thought required for science to even function or exist. Science does not give us, guarantee, or explore these values, much less theories of knowledge… it is the task of philosophy, history, the arts, even proper theology to provide these and safeguard them.

Can you imagine a region ruled by ISIS producing a genuine science? Certainly, technologies of control and destruction based on old scientific advances, but no new theoretical imagination required to look into the unknown about the physical world. No peace or civilization required for such, Or our country ruled by religious evangelical fundamentalism which would effectively accomplish the same by misuse of law under theocracy and an economical libertarianism that makes all subservient to the wealthy, to the grim grip of gold and the need for immediate profit?

No planning for the future: Future ages have no meaning for a people who have no plans to be around for them or care for their unknown, unknowable progeny.

My face forward, that’s what I dimly see coming our way, in outline. Rough and shadowy, that’s the Beast slouching towards Bethlehem out of the night into dawn.

Were I in the past, I could have sounded the alarm and done a small portion of the labor, perhaps, to give us a better present. If I were born in the moment of the aftermath of the disaster I guess at here, I could work to rebuild. As it is, I am a child of this moment, someone whose voice is small and drowned out in the din of louder, brasher, more aggressive calls to politics and action without forethought, enthusiasms of all sorts, violence, makeshift immediate responses to long-term problems that are akin to patching up a dam that will burst eventually without actual replacement of the entire structure by something designed with the future in mind.

That would require a collective, sustained work of effort and cooperation between all disciplines and seriously reviewing, reconciling as many varied perspectives as possible. That requires tolerance, even curiosity and a sense of mystery and a willingness to suspend belief in one’s pet prejudices to see the past and present living accomplishments, expert or not, of many with fresh eyes.

As is, I am Janus, a face to the past and face to the future, out of place in time, a doorway, a liminal being. Neither here nor there, but something that might allow a passage.

A passage for whom? I am unsure… me, maybe, anyone else who might listen or care to add to my near-insignificant body or work, my students – or a few of them, no one. I do not know. I am in an odd place temporally, uncomfortable with it, and my attempts at philosophy, writing, and art derive from the discomfort.

There is no grandiosity in this; just a solemness, taking stock of where and who I am, partially, and I have to take stock occasionally to find my location.

26 July 2015
Richard Van Ingram

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