Grasses and Bans

It’s been so busy that I didn’t realize it was Banned Books Week until yesterday, when there was but one day left (today).  I usually make a point of reading a banned book during this week, but I suppose I read so many of them normally that the observance might lose its edge.  But that’s just an excuse—in this world of uber-corrupt governments, preventing censorship is a sacrament.  We’ve seen just this week how dictators try to silence those who expose them.  Banned books, whether we like what they say or not, should be available for reading.  This is an amazingly bipartisan holiday.  Some places have banned the Bible, to which true believers in the principles of Banned Books Week would respond “Even books we might disagree with should be made available.”  Censorship seeks to cut off discussion.

Although I won’t finish in time, after work yesterday I quickly grabbed my unread copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to begin to make up for my oversight.  Leaves of Grass has been called America’s homegrown Bible and it has an almost religious following, as it has for decades now.  Poetry has a way of moving people that frightens autocrats.  It taps into something that skirts around our conscious mind at times, opening up possibilities that censors would rather keep closed.  Over the past couple of years books of poetry have again begun to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.  People read to be moved.

One element banned books tend to have in common is that they’re honest, even when they’re fiction.  Honesty is a source of great anxiety for many.  We don’t like to let our true selves be seen because, truth be told, we feel vulnerable.  Banned books take us into uncomfortable places.  And sublime places.  Not all books are great literature, of course.  Even I have been known to part with a book after reading it because it simply didn’t speak to me in the way I like to be spoken to.  Still, I’m loath to give such a book a negative review.  It didn’t speak to me, but it spoke to the author and the publisher, obviously.  It is a voice that deserves to be heard.  That’s what Banned Books Week is all about—defending the right of human expression.  I may not finish my banned book by the end of today since weekends tend to be busier than many work days.  Still, I’m looking forward to my encounter with America’s other Bible.

Plumbing Depths

This past week we had a plumber here for a day.  Our house has been owned by a succession of DIY weekend warriors who had more confidence than ability when it came to things like electric and water (which, I’ve learned, you want to keep apart).  Somehow our home inspector failed to spot these costly fixes, and I try to think of them all as investments—a concept foreign to a guy with my background of living paycheck to paycheck.  In any case, all this plumbing has me thinking deep thoughts about water.  And depth.  Things are seldom what they seem—there’s more below the surface, and those who struggle with the depths often come up with sayings we call profound.  And they often express them in poetic form because, when you get deep enough, words themselves break down.

I often consider this in the context of science.  Physicists break things down into formulas.  There’s a certain uniformity, they tell us, until you reach the quantum level, then the rules change.  I sometimes see this as an analogy with the staid nature of scientific prose versus the depth of good poetry.  Or even, dare I suggest it, profound fiction.  These sometimes explain our world better than the accepted facts of mundane existence, such as water always seeking the lowest point.  There comes a profundity, however, at which down becomes up.  The behavior of water, which we want in our houses but only in controlled locations, is somehow indicative of this.  “Deep calls unto deep” as one ancient source says.  And the plumber walks away with a good chunk of your cash.

Learning about science in school, I was always taught that good science is elegant—there should be beauty in a theory that explains the world.  I’ve often wondered how this fits in with a reality that is often messy—chaotic even.  Ancient peoples from the area that produced our Bible believed water to be chaotic.  It had to be controlled by the gods.  It is vital for life, we need it and yet it wreaks havoc on dry land as those who experience hurricanes know all too well.  The world into which I was born was one of indoor plumbing.  Once water gets in, as our leaky roof attests, it introduces chaos in a place we want to stay dry.  When water won’t behave like we want it to, however, we no longer call on the gods.  We call a plumber and pay our offering with profound reverence.

Young Dr. Wiggins contemplates chaos

Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

So Long, Marianne

fullsizeoutput_122f“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen has died. But can you blame him? This seems to be a week for losses. I came to appreciate Cohen’s work long after his best-known songs had been and gone. The interviews with and news stories about him that I’ve read convince me that he was an extraordinary man. Spiritual and sensual, he was a true contemplative. He strove to experience what it means to be human. I sometimes fear we’ve lost that as a goal. I see headlines proclaiming that we can now have chips implanted in our brains—we can become part computer. “You held on to me like I was a crucifix,” he once sang. Who believes in crucifixes anymore? Salvation doesn’t come from above. It comes from self-interest. From business and bank accounts. And that chip in my head.

My wife taught me the value of music therapy. When the forces of darkness gather, listening to music can help you through. Many artists have covered Leonard Cohen’s songs. So much so that some have forgotten who it was that wrote them. A true artist, I suspect, doesn’t mind. Those of us who delve in creativity know that we are more like receivers than gods. It takes worshipers to make a deity. The songs that Cohen wrote were messages to the world. Poetic and deeply personal, they are reminders that being human is okay. In fact, it’s what we’ve evolved to be. I have a feeling we’re going to be needing more poets in the days to come. Someone has to shine the shoes of those who work in Trump Tower. My mind is singing “Chelsea Hotel.” Everybody knows.

Cohen was a reminder that sacred and secular are not so far apart. In fact, they are often difficult to distinguish. There may be a problem when you discover that in seminary, but if you can put it into a song perhaps people will listen. Eras, it seems to me, ought to have anthems. F.D.R., one of the truly great Presidents of the century past, proposed “Happy Days Are Here Again.” I wonder what songs we’ll be associating with the presidency over the next four long years. Will there be any music at all? Far be it from me to proclaim any man a prophet, but can you listen to “First We Take Manhattan” and come to any other conclusion? Go to iTunes, or that chip in your head, and listen. You might just end up singing “Who by Fire” as well.