October 31, 2010 § 1 Comment
Yesterday was my first real foray into fiction since I took a class in 2007, as a sophomore. Then, my short story was about an elderly man who turns into a whale, or probably turns into a whale. My recent story, flawed and light, very obviously Hemingway-inspired and stripped to a kind of bareness I do not think is my natural state, was a nice experiment, but really I think that is all it was.
Already, I am finding out that writing publicly is a very weird animal. The experimenting I am doing with a form I do not quite understand is right here, for anyone to read, and for anyone to watch along as I sink myself into mires, veer into sentimentalism or obscurity, struggle with character or plot or pacing, replete my setting with cliché. I am nervous as I read my last post, more nervous than my pseudo-philosophical ramblings or my journaling of days in Cairo or my questions about citizenship, culture, etc. I am nervous because this is something I am creating, something I mean to be meaningful, and something I mean to be well-done, talented, perfect.
I guess there is a freedom in knowing these are drafts, and a freedom in knowing that the novel I am attempting to start tomorrow (!!!) is predestined to be an utter failure. I am excited to discover what a novel is from the inside out, through failing to make one, much like Maimonides’ via negativa, his belief that one knows God most by knowing what He is not.
As I think about what my novel is not, or hopefully will not be, I continue to run into the wall of realizing that, at some point, I actually have to create what it is, and will be, at least to start (knowing that work creates it’s own life, at some point). Who are the people I want to create and surround myself with over these next thirty days, my surrogate friends and family, my mental avatars, my inhabitants of a world which, too, I must create?
Yesterday my taxi driver spoke a good bit of English and chatted with me as Aysha and I rode home from a dinner with friends. He said he has lived in Cairo for all fifty years of his life. He said he is not just a driver. He is a teacher at a secondary school. Teaches philosophy. Salary is too small, so he drives at night. He likes German cars.
I want to write about him, want to relate the feelings I had conversing with this man, paid less than me while 30 years my elder and while teaching what I hope to teach some day, so little that he drives around kids who came to Cairo on a whim and will give him an extra 3LE for chatting with them. He may not be who my novel is about, but I want him in it, want him to appear somewhere, remake him somehow.
October 30, 2010 § Leave a Comment
“Do we have a limit here?” the young man wearing the tousled shirt and tie said. His right eye was ringed in black, and his sunglasses were broken.
“A limit?” his friend asked.
“A limit. Like, a breaking point,” he said.
“It’s only been half an hour,” she said. She was his age and cute with a baggy sweatshirt and a knit hat. She said she was a thug.
The middle of the line pushed forward and the front of the line did not move. The man and woman packed into those in front of them until they breathed only cigarette smoke and cologne with the sick sweet of alcohol occasionally cutting through.
“Your costume’s great,” she said, “Definitely a chick magnet.”
“Thanks,” he said and shifted his weight, looking into the fractured orange glow of a streetlamp outside the embassy building, one eye covered by his sunglasses and the other uncovered.
“Excuse me, could you move forward?” said a blond vampire behind them.
The man didn’t respond, so she repeated the question in Arabic.
“Lo samaht, —”
“No, no, I understand. What’s the point?” he said, “No one has moved up there yet.”
“Just go,” said his friend, and pushed him to an opening behind two Roman guards.
“Dressing as a soldier from an imperialist history to go to a Halloween party in an American Embassy in Cairo,” the man said.
“Relax,” she said, “Not everything has extra meaning.”
“I guess not,” he said.
“It’s a party. Can’t we just have fun?”
“Are you having fun?” he asked.
The woman dug into her purse and found her cell phone, tried calling a mutual friend who was coming later.
“Not picking up,” she said.
“I think we are the only actual Americans left in the line,” he said.
“If we leave, I will feel like we lost an hour.”
“Has it been an hour? Then I think we’ve lost an hour.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?” she said, removing her hat.
“Too tight to even smoke,” he said, “Feel like I’m going to start a fire on this guy’s toga.”
“So you want to leave,” she said.
“So I want to leave. It’s just an hour. We could live entirely new lives with the time we’ve wasted in lines and waiting rooms and traffic if we found it all and bottled it up and saved it for when this one’s done and over.”
“I just feel like this was worthless, if we aren’t even getting in.”
“Not everything has meaning,” he said.
“You’re being an ass.”
A part of the line moved and Zorro and his mistress wedged into the man and woman.
“Maybe I’m playing a part,” the man said in the pause.
“In what?” the woman asked.
“In this. In whatever. We are here, and we do the thing or we don’t do the thing, and we end up at home later on, or much later on, and it’s like it never happened.”
“Then why do anything?” she asked. “You’re being frustrating, and you know it.”
“I want to leave,” he said, “I’m going to leave. You can stay if you’d like, but I need to not be here.”
“Fine,” she said.
The man struggled out of the line and walked a few paces off. He lit a cigarette and tried to find the moon. A cowboy passed in front of him. The embassy was separated from the street, and so he could not see a cab. He walked back to the line and stood a dozen feet from it. He watched the woman climb out of the crowd and walk towards him.
“I’ve reached my limit here,” she said.
“I was waiting,” he said.
October 30, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Songs can fit a place pretty easily. Here in Cairo, the songs I am most drawn to have been the ones that unexpectedly match, the ones that take absurd turns and silly twists, the ones that use ridiculous genres hand in hand, the ones that make me rethink what a song, or a place, really is. Here’s one.
October 28, 2010 § 3 Comments
Today I was reading about Marcel Duchamp, French Dada artist in the late Modernist years most famous for his piece, Fountain, and I began thinking about art, about what storytelling really is, about why this stuff is important, and how it all relates to a urinal.
Of course, these are thoughts that basically lead into the entire field of aesthetics, and I can’t say I’ve got any definitive or even piecemeal insight here, and that’s probably for the best. At the heart of my artistic beliefs is that each person is the most important person in his/her/their artistic experience: while the author and creator is obviously important for defining the field and parameters of interpretation, and sometimes providing the clear interpretation on top (though I see this as detracting from the experience), the viewer/reader/perceiver is essential and authoritative in making any interpretation meaningful. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Just when the pieces fit, and it all sounds like it was meant to be, that’s when the guitar starts kicking everything to pieces.
October 26, 2010 § 2 Comments
If you want to learn how to write, you need to write. Every patch of mental blocks, every slump, every stretch I go where I can’t write more than a line a week – they all prove this statement. To improve writing, to get to the place a writer wants to be at, to really become a writer, you need to write, inspired or not, whether the result is cloying and sentimental and meaningless or whether it’s the seed of the great work that will define your year.
It might sound silly, but this was a large purpose for this, my latest attempt at cracking a blog. For the last two months, I’ve been unable to truly write the way I’ve been wanting to. At times I will jot down a fragment, or a word, or try to remember a picture, but I have been unable to get anything substantial until I started posting here. The time was right, and since then (I know, only a few days), I have felt refreshed and ready to take on the real writing challenges in my life: finishing a manuscript for MFA applications, writing the accompanying statements, revising a nonfiction piece for submission to a magazine, and adding to a screenplay that will be unfinished for my life, probably, but that I will mention casually at dinners (“Yeah, I’ve got a screenplay in the works… you know, nothing special. LET ME TELL YOU THE PLOT”).
Of course, that would be the natural course of things. Instead, I am going to overdo it, and very likely flame out in a wonderful, scorching crash. Each November hails National Novel Writing Month, or, NaNoWriMo, the designated month when writers attempt to finish a novel in 30 days. For NaNoWriMo, a novel counts as 50,000 words.
I just checked, and my longest sustained piece of creative writing clocks in at just under 4,000 words (my poetry thesis from my Senior year at NU). My 50 page philosophy thesis is around 12,500 words. Writing 50K in November is essentially finishing 1,667 words every day.
Yes, it’s absurd, and yes, it’s just as absurd (and probably a bad idea) that I am trying to do this while finishing applications to graduate school, but I’ve always wanted to try it, so this year will mark my first foray into NaNoWriMo. The last time I wrote pure, non-enjambed fiction was… 4 years ago?
Consider this an invitation to join me in trying out a ridiculously difficult but likely rewarding project (even if one finishes way below the 50K, the attempt is worth it I am sure), and a warning as to the coming future of the blog. I am planning to post excerpts of the un-revised fiction I will be shoddily crafting in order to share writing, to receive feedback, and to do a usually isolated activity in a public setting. The poems I share publicly are often boiled and stewed for weeks and months. Here, I will be writing in an uncomfortable genre, at a stupid pace, and it will not be good. I think the experience will be incredibly enlightening, mostly for myself and my own presuppositions of talent.
This post is 567 words, and it took me around 30 minutes to write… of course, I’m the only character. And there is no story. Well, five days to think about a plot and prepare. And five days for the rest of you to sign up.
October 26, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Reflecting on my Location of Spirituality post, I was embarrassed to realize an obvious reason as to the lack of the physical world in my Protestant faith – namely that one of the key tenets of the Reformation was the uprooting of idolatry the reformers found growing within the Orthodox church.
Luther, and later Calvin and a bunch of other guys, saw the Catholic and Orthodox use of iconoclasts, healing water, etc in worship and life as heretical and akin to idolatry, akin to attributing a kind of magical and supernatural power to something that is not itself God. And maybe this was true at the time, maybe the iconoclasts themselves were gods to their worshippers, I simply don’t have the historical understanding. What I find important, however, is what appears to be the typical reactionary response that this critique led to, and the damage it may have had a hand in creating (by which I mean more damage than the destruction of countless pieces of beautiful art).
To do this, I want to make a distinction between two explanations of the term dialectic as it is often used today. Chances are you’ve heard the word, or the idea, and potentially even heard its attribution to Hegel. It’s Hegel’s use of the term that I am interested in, particularly because it bridges exactly into interpretative philosophy.
What we more commonly hear is that the dialectic method is a sort of argument/resolution framework where a thesis is proposed, its antithesis held against it, and a synthesis is then formed taking pieces from each. This makes sense, and we can think of how this works itself out in normal conversation, it’s even clear how I could use this explanation of the dialectic to talk about theologies of idolatry in the Reformation. But it’s not what I am after.
I think Hegel’s explanation is more to the point here. His framework is Abstract, Negative, Concrete. Ok, it’s more simple than it might seem at first: a view or idea or belief is first held abstractly, as all of those things are in themselves. “Thou shalt not lie,” for example, would be a good abstract statement to start with. You believe it, you even understand why you believe it, why it would be wrong to lie. Now you get the negative, which comes from actually working this out in experience. You believe you shouldn’t lie, but then a small child asks you if Santa Claus exists. Or in a more dramatic scenario, you believe you shouldn’t lie, but it is 1850 and a slave owner is asking if you really aren’t hiding one of his slaves in your house.
The negative mediates the abstract by placing a belief into the reality of existence and real-life situations. The negative counters the “THOU SHALT NOT” with, basically, “you can.” But rarely do we stop there, we do not give up the idea if it is simply proven intricate or non-universal. What we do next is make it concrete: we modify our initial belief until it is something real and achievable in the varied and diverse reality of life (this offers a pretty cool critique of a part of Kantian ethics, as well, namely of the universally acceptable Categorical Imperatives where my belief of not lying is believed in all cases true – thus one could simply say Kant never concretized his ethics).
Back to the Reformation. Luther and company (though Luther did not hold this as strongly as Calvin, for example) saw any sort of holiness attributed to objects as heretical. Scripture, however, would have provided a strong negation to this abstract belief, as Acts 19:11-12 reads:
11God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.
The former THOU SHALT of belief is negated here by an exception, a piece that doesn’t fit, a “but wait, what about this?” Would it be too much to say that the most dangerous beliefs, more often than not, are the ones untouched by negation?
A concretized approach perhaps could have been something of the following: God is god, and nothing else is, but God appears to be able to infuse Himself into his creation, into the fabric of existence.
While the reformers surely acted out of an appropriate motivation to place the power of salvation, healing, and miracles squarely into the realm of God and out of the realm of humanity, out of the realm of superstition, out of the possibility of warping these potential actions for selfish gain by selling indulgences, for example, I think their passion for revising the course of Christianity pushed the path too far. I think the reformers, or perhaps the generation after the reformers, created an abstract idea that failed to take into account a world with still very divine and spiritual possibilities. I think they created an abstract idea of divinity where, very unfortunately, divinity is only abstract.
I know not all of my three readers share my spiritual beliefs, but how different from the God we think of, disconnected and separate from a world He condemns, is the picture of a God threaded within the planet, coursing through this mountainside or that highway, working beside all of us to create the best possibility for human- and planet-thriving? How different from a God invisible and incomprehensible is a God who, though darkly and incompletely, though only in the fragments we are conditioned to perceive, we can see in the parts of the world, both human and natural, that stir in us something passing the borders of conceptualization?
October 25, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Sometimes it’s enough to watch an escaped convict dance in a field and drink from a flask he found in a river.
October 24, 2010 § Leave a Comment
From the end of my Junior year of college on, I became heavily invested in contemporary hermeneutic philosophy, a kind of philosophy that deals with interpretation as integral to our being and understanding. I don’t mean to be jargony with this, so hopefully what I mean will come out clearly, or at least more clearly, through the rest of the post. Important in contemporary theories of interpretation is Heidegger’s philosophy (all of it really, but I think it can be encapsulated by the thrown being, something I mentioned in the previous post).
Just as philosophers like Descartes and Kant shaped the culture of the Enlightenment, where the human was the autonomous thinker, the rational being, and the perceiver of truth, Heidegger shaped the culture of post-modernism which understands the individual enmeshed in a number of webs of meaning and culture that ultimately lead to unconscious prejudices in understanding.
I say all of this to introduce a post which is ostensibly on physical location and spirituality because studying hermeneutics (theories of interpretation) greatly impacted my faith and beliefs in a number of ways, some of which I felt but had no concept for believing before I knew how to relate this feeling.
One of these feelings involved the spirituality of a place. From my early childhood, nature was a cosmically spiritual experience, and one that often frightened me. I would watch clouds break apart in shafts of sun and feel a deep dread, a dread that, would I ponder on it, would lead to cold sweats and an intense anxiety. High places and deep places and rocky places, thunderstorms and strong winds, a sky blank like paper – all of these things in nature we codify as sublime – they all frightened me, and if I am honest, they do still (I wonder what I will feel during the eventual sandstorm here…).
I remember one night on vacation with my family in Miami, Florida. I was young, perhaps 14 or 15, and I could see out of our hotel room high above the city lightening flashing like the spiderwebs across broken glass from the sky to the skyscrapers, like fluorescent roots from something planted in the clouds. And I remember quiet days in the Pennsylvanian summer where nothing at all would be in the sky except the hazy sun, how I would imagine being caught up, all at once, into the blue, blue, blue, and then black of space.
These daydreams and feelings were mesmerizing, and I had no concept for them. My faith at the time was built on immaterial things: simply the belief in Christ was what was important, and what I learned of God was that he is waiting to destroy the things around me, so I understood that he wasn’t in these things.
I guess you could say I had incorporated unconsciously a form of gnosticism in my faith, and I think I could safely say the same about some prominent forms of American Protestantism. The “American” part here is important, because I think my gnosticism was very culturally bound. My experience of Christianity growing up was always focused on the future, always on eternity and heaven, and rarely on my everyday situation with a body that was sure to flake away in time, and though I am not tracing the lineage, I think this came more from my culture’s interpretation of Christianity than from the faith itself (if there is such a thing as “the faith itself,” that is, a faith outside of culture that we can point to from within culture).
Reading about hermeneutics helped me see that what I experienced as a child, and continued to strongly, was a sense of spirituality in the natural world, an alignment of the super-natural with the discretely-natural. In fact, a year before beginning this study, I went through a strenuous period of self- and faith-questioning that led to my revoking my faith for a period of time. Immediately after I did that, I remember walking through Millennium Park in Chicago, staring at leaves, amazed at the veins and shapes while thinking, “This is here. This is here, existing, with nothing else attached to it.”
Becoming conscious of my place within a tradition that has definite thoughts was important to my acknowledging the tradition and, in parts, coming out of it. The summer I was studying interpretive philosophy, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel through South Dakota and North Dakota for six weeks. In South Dakota, I read of the Lakota tribes still in the state, visited a reservation, and then lived in the Black Hills for about 2 weeks. The Black Hills are holy places to the Lakota, and young boys would hike through them alone during their initiation into adulthood, sleeping under the stars until they received their spirit-animal in a dream from the Great Spirit who lived in Paha Sapa, the Lakota name for the hills that marked the Center of the World. Later in North Dakota, I stayed in a monastery for a few nights. The abbey I was at, Assumption Abbey, was beautiful – all the more so because of its relative aloneness, set in the middle of stretching farmland.
The times I spent in these places were deeply spiritual, and they were some of the first of such times where I was aware of this spirituality while feeling it. The locations, the geographies and buildings I was in were beautiful places, but there was something else about them. Something more. There was a connection to something so human, and also inhuman.
I was reflecting on this this weekend as I stepped into my first mosque in Cairo, Al Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo. The courtyard in the mosque is white marble, and silent, with the prayer hall all the darker from this whiteness. Standing in the prayer hall, I felt almost waves of what I can only call a spiritual presence. I would say more, but fear I cannot quite put it into words.
Religions like Islam and Judaism and the Catholic part of Christianity have, I think, a more visceral approach to God within places (and as my friend Read points out, European Protestantism can probably be included in this). For the American Protestant, faith is too often an individual and silent, meditative thing. What matters is belief, and the only belief that you can control is yours, so the world sometimes, and unfairly, takes a back seat.
Though philosophy has given me a language for why this happened to me, and how I can come out of it, other religions give me the kind of content I can pursue now while retaining my Christianity. There are ways to experience the world as a divine object, just as much as a human object and a natural object. Worlds apart and yet overlapped, worlds grafted into each other, worlds shining into existence and hiding in shadows. I am excited to explore both worlds.
October 23, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I moved to Cairo equipped with a number of justifications, reasons, and goals, many of which will likely be documented in these posts at some point or another. They ranged from the rational to the spiritual, from the internal to the universal, from the admirable to the selfish and petty. Almost all of them were, whether consciously or unconsciously held, ideas and thoughts, concepts unconnected to intimate experience (the spiritual one was different, but that is for another post).
One of these reasons was an acknowledgment of my failure to see past my comforts and Americanness, and the concomitant goal was to break pieces off of who I am, that is, the parts of who I became that were created before I chose who to become and without my understanding of incorporating them. I recognized that I am deeply indebted, positively and negatively, to my American heritage and my white, Western Protestant culture, but recognized also that I do not know this debt’s final bill.
Coming to Cairo, I thought, would fix this by providing a backdrop foreign enough to make glaring and obvious these parts of my unknown America in my skin, and time and time again, this has been very true. However, in conjunction with a trip yesterday to Manshiet Nasser (known also as Garbage City), I have been grappling with the impossibility of ever finding the bottom of my Americanness, and the inherent limits this poses in connecting across cultures and classes.
Garbage City is a slum town sitting on a limestone ridge on the outskirts of Cairo. A large number of the city’s Coptic Christian population live here and are known as the Zabbaleen (lit. Garbage People) as they take an estimated 1/3 of Cairo’s trash daily. As opposed to most waste management systems, the Zabbaleen recycle something around 80% of the trash they collect. They do this by working directly in piles of garbage, and it is common to see children playing in the trash heaps. Garbage is not strewn about the city here: garbage is the city.
I have walked through slum areas before – it’s hard to avoid them here. Aysha, my friend and usual travel companion, and I will be walking nowhere in particular, look around, and see we are traveling through a slum. This experience, though – perhaps because I am beginning to get my bearings here – was my first truly looking into the heart of poverty-tourism, and the guilt that encompasses everything about it. This guilt is nothing so admirable as a sadness for the people in Manshiet Nasser; my guilt was self-focused (after all, who am I to universally align sadness with degrees of wealth?). My guilt came from seeing the emotional weight and reality of thrownness, the concept that began this processing.
Being thrown, in Heidegger, is our starting point as humans. We are not blank slates who learn concepts freely, who “think for ourselves” and rationally weigh each option in decision making. Instead, we are already who we are before we know who we are: in other words, we have very little control over the pieces that make us who we are, we were instead thrown into a number of circumstantial environments that have shaped us.
This does not mean we have no control ever, but it does mean that by the time we are fully sentient and things like self-actualization appear as options, by the time we can analyze, decide, and change, we are already beings with full histories of prejudices, concepts, and cultures. We have a way of thinking about something before we think about something.
I was built to experience class and wealth in a specific way. And not these concepts only: I grew up in extreme comfort, privilege, and almost full reign over my future. What struck me in Garbage City was that no matter how much I devoted my life to living in Garbage City, I could by the limits of my existence never fully connect with its residents. I will never be able to interact with the Zabbaleen on a one-to-one level, there will always be an unjustified superiority (not an evaluative superiority, but one of believing to “know a better way”) involved with my thoughts and actions – a superiority that would work itself into any kind of charity, empathy, pro-social work, or altruism. I could work in and for Manshiet Nasser for my life, and were I even to be instrumental in reshaping the area for the better, I would still be left with a collection of the impossibilities in connecting with them as I would another American.
What I will never know is a position in life that breaks my thrown-culture enough to see a human, just as human as I am, in the face of the Zabbaleen.I will never know what it really means to grow up with the stench of garbage and not be repulsed, to find a toy hidden in others’ refuse like a gift under a tree, to feel the difference in my bones between salvageable and unsalvageable trash,
or to watch a white man take photos of my home.