Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

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The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:


I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”

Poem: Magheragallon

Poem: Magheragallon

A while back I posted a link to Non-Binary Review’s call for submissions for pieces inspired directly by Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately (or not) my own efforts in this line were rejected. So I will inflict one on my readers here. Perhaps I should have anticipated this rejection given that I have to explain that Magheragallon is a graveyard in Gaoith Dobhair, Donegal :

Magheragallon
E ‘l duca lui: “Caron, non ti crucciare:
vuolsi così colà dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare.
Inferno, Canto III.
Dúirt mo threoraí: “A Charóin, ná bí ina thinneas.
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.”
Ifreann, Dán III (translation Padraig de Brun)

Here we are, on the rocky edge of the edge of Europa,
Far from where what is willed is done and
Far from where the inevitable and necessary
Forge together; far from where the living
And the dead never meet, where the boundaries are
Never crossed, where the ferryman holds a hard border.

We are far from there. Here is a place of stone
And sea, of island and mountain.
A battered place, tattered rocks mark memory,
Memory that lies in ruins.

Across the waters there are islands that defy the census-taker;
Who knows if they are inhabited or not? Sometimes they are deserted,
Sometimes they ring with another language, not that of
This poem. The teanga echoes each fainter and fainter.
And still it echoes. Sometimes that echo is a roar.

Ruined, overgrown, overthrown,
Far from where what is willed is done,
An edgeland of sharp stones,
Of marram grass grazed bare, of sand-dune mazes.
Here ruins still shape a form,
The overgrowth is marked by the old shape,
Things seeming fallen are only resting.

Again, I step away, making a distance,
From where, in this world, what is willed is done.
I turn my back on our Babel of one tongue.
Faced with death, I speak with Virgil:
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.

Ricky Jay RIP

Ricky Jay, scholar of magic and mountebanks, “the greatest sleight of hand artist of his generation”, has died

Here is a 1993 New Yorker profile of this extraordinary man. It is worth noting that magicians do not seem to tend to have happy home lives. Some highlights:

Jay has an anomalous memory, extraordinarily retentive but riddled with hard-to-account-for gaps. “I’m becoming quite worried about my memory,” he said not long ago. “New information doesn’t stay. I wonder if it’s the NutraSweet.” As a child, he read avidly and could summon the title and the author of every book that had passed through his hands. Now he gets lost driving in his own neighborhood, where he has lived for several years—he has no idea how many. He once had a summer job tending bar and doing magic at a place called the Royal Palm, in Ithaca, New York. On a bet, he accepted a mnemonic challenge from a group of friendly patrons. A numbered list of a hundred arbitrary objects was drawn up: No. 3 was “paintbrush,” No. 18 was “plush ottoman,” No. 25 was “roaring lion,” and so on. “Ricky! Sixty-five!” someone would demand, and he had ten seconds to respond correctly or lose a buck. He always won, and, to this day, still would. He is capable of leaving the house wearing his suit jacket but forgetting his pants. He can recite verbatim the rapid-fire spiel he delivered a quarter of a century ago, when he was briefly employed as a carnival barker: “See the magician; the fire ‘manipulator’; the girl with the yellow e-e-elastic tissue. See Adam and Eve, boy and girl, brother and sister, all in one, one of the world’s three living ‘morphrodites.’ And the e-e-electrode lady . . .” He can quote verse after verse of nineteenth-century Cockney rhyming slang. He says he cannot remember what age he was when his family moved from Brooklyn to the New Jersey suburbs. He cannot recall the year he entered college or the year he left. “If you ask me for specific dates, we’re in trouble,” he says.

Michael Weber, a fellow-magician and close friend, has said, “Basically, Ricky remembers nothing that happened after 1900.”

Victoria Dailey, who, along with her former husband, William Dailey, deals in rare books from a shop on Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles, likes to refer to Jay as “our worst customer.” She hastens to point out, “He could be our best customer. He wants everything but can hardly buy anything.” Both Daileys regard Jay as “a true eccentric” in the English sense—part Bloomsbury, part Fawlty Towers. More than fifteen years ago, they sold Jay the first book for which he paid more than a hundred dollars. The first time he spent more than a thousand dollars for a book, and, again, when he reached the five-thousand-dollar threshold, the Daileys were also involved. The latter item was Jean Prévost’s “La Première Partie des Subtiles et Plaisantes Inventions,” the earliest known important conjuring book, printed in Lyons in 1584.

“I bought it unhesitatingly,” recalls Jay, for whom possession of the Prévost is a bittersweet memory; uncharacteristically, he parted with it during a fiscal crisis. “I bought it and then, with remarkable rapidity, three particular jobs that I thought I had went sour. One was a Johnny Carson special on practical jokes that didn’t pan out because of one of his divorces. Another was a tour of Australia that was cancelled by a natural disaster—in other words, by an act of God. This book was so fucking rare that people in the magic world just didn’t know about it.”

It is the Daileys’ impression—a perception shared by other dealers in rare books and incunabula—that Jay spends a higher proportion of his disposable income on rare books and artifacts than anyone else they know.

Here is the David Mamet directed “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants” show mentioned in the New Yorker Piece:

Ritchie’s Milky Mints van

Ritchie’s Milky Mints van

Made in Inchicore, Ritchie’s Milky Mints (and their other products) have a cheeringly straightforward design aesthetic which is blissfully immune, it seems, to rebranding. I was glad to recently see a van in Irishtown, Clonmel which showed the Ritchie’s Milky Mints “look” transferring to van form. Very effectively too:

Shrewstruck

From “The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names” by John Wright

 

It may sound extraordinary, but until recently the shrew had a most fearsome reputation. The creature’s bite was likened to that of a spider – araneus in Latin. Both Aristotle and Pliny wrote of its venomous nature, and this belief continued down the centuries, gaining momentum as time went by.

 

The general feeling was summed up neatly by the Reverend Topsell in his seventeenth-century History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents: ‘It is a ravening beast, feigning itself gentle and tame, but, being touched, it biteth deep, and poisoneth deadly. It beareth a cruel minde, desiring to hurt anything, neither is there any creature that it loveth, or it loveth him, because it is feared of all.’

Not that an actual bite was considered necessary for the shrew to do its evil work. Elyot in 1538 wrote: ‘Mus Araneus, a kynde of myse called a shrew, whyche yf it goo ouer a beastes backe, he shall be lame in the chyne’. ‘Chyne’ here means ‘spine’, so it would have been a calamity if it were true, which, of course, it was not. Horses were considered particularly vulnerable, but it was not just dumb beasts that were at risk.

Although there is much to be feared in the modern world, one threat at least is no longer a burden, and anyone attending the doctor’s surgery complaining of being ‘shrewstruck’ would not be received sympathetically. This fictitious condition was the result of having a shrew ‘goo ouer’ some part of your body, causing pain and even paralysis. Fortunately such imaginary ailments respond well to imaginary remedies.

Gilbert White in The Natural History of Selborne reported the destruction by a pious vicar of a much-venerated ash tree. The tree – a ‘shrew ash’ – was relied upon as a cure by the village people, who pleaded in vain for its survival. To make such a tree, a hole was drilled into the trunk, then a live (and very unlucky) shrew was placed into the hole and incarcerated there with a wooden plug, to the accompaniment of appropriately dramatic incantations (sadly lost to history). The branches were then available to be ‘applied’ as a cure, although precisely what this entailed is not recorded. With so many fine details forgotten, should you ever imagine that you have been ‘shrewstruck’, you will be in no position to imagine that you are cured.

Nan Shepherd on going barehanded and barefooted

From “The Living Mountain”:

 

The hands have an infinity of pleasure in them. When I was a girl, a charming old gentlewoman said something to me that I have never forgotten. I was visiting her country home, and after lunch, going for a walk with her niece, I picked up my gloves from the hall table where I had laid them down. She took them from me and laid them back on the table. ‘You don’t need these. A lot of strength comes to us through the hands.’ Sensation also. The feel of things, textures, surfaces, rough things like cones and bark, smooth things like stalks and feathers and pebbles rounded by water, the teasing of gossamers, the delicate tickle of a crawling caterpillar, the scratchiness of lichen, the warmth of the sun, the sting of hail, the blunt blow of tumbling water, the flow of wind—nothing that I can touch or that touches me but has its own identity for the hand as much as for the eye.

And for the foot as well. Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion since Jeanie Deans trudged to London, but no country child grows up without its benediction. Sensible people are reviving the habit. They tell me a tale up here of a gentleman in one of the shooting lodges who went to the hill barefoot: when he sat down for lunch the beaters crowded as near as they dared to see what manner of soles such a prodigy could have. But actually walking barefoot upon heather is not so grim as it sounds. I have covered odd miles myself here and there in this fashion. It begins with a burn that must be forded: once my shoes are off, I am loth to put them on again. If there are grassy flats beside my burn, I walk on over them, rejoicing in the feel of the grass to my feet; and when the grass gives place to heather, I walk on still. By setting the foot sideways to the growth of the heather, and pressing the sprays down, one can walk easily enough. Dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth; so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it, like food melting to a new flavour in the mouth. And a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment.