Darwin’s insight

On Darwin’s birthday, here is his most famous quote, embodying his central insight. It is the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species (London, 1859):

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. … Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The Grey Thing that Lives in the Tree Tops

There is a gray thing
by Stephen Crane

(first published in Poems of Stephen Crane
Selected by Gerald D. McDonald
NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1964)

There is a grey thing that lives in the tree tops
None knows the horror of its sight
Save those who meet death in the wilderness
But one is enabled to see
To see branches move at its passing
To hear at times the wail of black laughter
And to come often upon mystic places
Places where the thing has just been.

Le temps scellé: Muchkine & A celui qui a vu l’ange

The Tarkovsky Quartet:

At Land (1944)

Le Corbusier said that Maya Darren’s work “presents our eyes with physical facts which contain profound psychological meaning; it beats out within our hearts or upon our hearts a time which alternates, continues, revolves, pounds, or flies away.  One escapes from the stupidity of make-believe. One is in the reality of the cinematic fact, captured by Maya Deren at that point where the lens cooperates as a prodigious discoverer.”

Sun Ra plus percussion

Sun Ra, Synthesizer and Drum Machine
Dance of the Cosmo Aliens
Live in Milan 1978
from Disco 3000



My Favorite Footnote of 2018

To keep up on our daily news we have to keep track of more Russian names than one of the big Dostoevsky novels. And those Russians are far less subtle and, dare I say it, civilized, than those who inhabit Le Carré stories. Deripaska, for instance, is far more sinister than Karla and the Russians’ mastery of trolling, hacking, infiltrating social media and making patsies of the right wing of this country is far more clever than anything in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Perhaps not more clever. After all, in Le Carré’s book, the Russians are dealing with sophisticated British intelligence agents. In our story they are only dealing with Trump and his hangers-on and Republican operatives generally. Yes, British intelligence has a history of being riddled with moles; but the Trump acolytes are afflicted with dumb. And dumb is no match for intelligence. By definition.

The Russians didn’t even have to use basic spy techniques to recruit Trumpsters. They were throwing themselves at the feet of anyone who claimed to have the ear of Vladimir Putin. All of them. Their unabashed enthusiasm almost makes the story look like a farce. But the story has unfolded more literary than spy-novel or spy-novel spoof. The underlying theme is how darkness becomes light. Thus, one month into the Administration, Trump held a press conference in which he was asked five times if his campaign had contacts with the Russians. Eventually, he answers, “nobody I know of …” Then over the course of the next 21 months 14 Trump officials are found to have had contacts with Russians: Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump, Jr., Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Felix Sater, George Popadopoulos, Carter Page, J.D. Gordon, Michael Flinn, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Michael Caputo and Rick Gates. And let’s not forget those who were in it just for the Tubmans, like Erik Prince, brother to our Education Secretary. And despite the inevitability of the disclosures, many of them, following the lead of their perjurer-in-chief, lied (and coordinated their lies with each other) about their conduct, earning them felonies for their trouble.

But this story is not simply a spy story any more than Crime and Punishment was simply a detective story. Thankfully there is a dose of salaciousness. Maria Butina plays the role that Natasha Fatale played in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Her US “boyfriend,” however, was no Boris Badenov; in fact, he was dumber than Bullwinkle (and, of course, more malicious). Visiting the Russian agent in prison, the smitten conman (according to those who knew him in South Dakota) GOP worm Paul Erickson showed nothing of his GOP toughness (which goes the back to the time he committed election fraud for Republicans in college in 1980). But that subplot will lead us too far afield.

What is remarkable about these encounters is that when the Russians offered their assistance to the Trump campaign, organization, none of them declined, none of them even acted reluctant. Of course we want it! We are Trumpster! We have no scruples! And if we lose, likely no one will go after us, because we are too insignificant!

All jumped at the opportunity to be at best useful fools for Russian intelligence and at worst Russian assets. All except one. And here is where my favorite footnote comes in. It’s from the Mueller sentencing memo for Michael Cohen. In it the Special counsel avers (and Cohen does not deny) that in November 2015 (before even the Iowa caucus), that “a Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who  could offer the [Trump presidential campaign] ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level'” wished to set up a meeting between Trump and “the President of Russia.” Unlike all the other patriots who Trump surrounded himself with, Cohen turned down the offer. But here’s the rub. Footnote 3 of the memo explains the reason:

“The defendant [Michael Cohen] explained that he did not pursue the proposed meeting, which did not take place, in part because he was working on the Moscow Project with a different individual who Cohen understood to have his own connection to the Russian government.”

In other words, Cohen was already being served! There were more than enough Russian influence-peddlers to go around at the end of 2015. 2016 would bring more demand as the Trump campaign staffed up.

Still you have to wonder: with so many Russian intelligence operatives looking for Republicans to collude with that they didn’t even know that certain marks were already taken, were they running this operation like a multi-level marketing scheme? (Perhaps that’s more literary irony: the perpetrators of Trump University and other scams meet their Slavic matches.) And how with this much manpower committed to such a simple target as the Trump organization were they able to afford to run operations in Ukraine, France, Eastern Europe, the UK, and other places? Have they learned to monetize foreign government meddling? No wonder Trump is fascinated by the Russians.

Two of Kafka’s Parables

The Sirens

translated by Clement Greenberg

These are the seductive voices of the night; the Sirens, too, sang that way. It would be doing them an injustice to think that they wanted to seduce; they knew they had claws and sterile wombs, and they lamented this aloud. They could not help it if their laments sounded so beautiful.

A Chinese Puzzle

translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins

Once there was a Chinese puzzle, a cheap simple toy, not much bigger than a pocket watch and without any sort of surprising contrivances. Cut into flat wood, which was painted reddish-brown, there were some blue labyrinthine paths, which all led into a little hole. The ball, which was also blue, had to be got into one of the paths by means of tilting and shaking the box, and then into the hole. Once the ball was in the hole, the game was over, and if one wanted to start all over again, one had first to shake the ball out of the hole. The whole thing was covered over with a strong, convex glass, one could put the puzzle in one’s pocket and carry it about with one, and wherever one was, one could take it out and play with it.

If the ball was unemployed, it spent most of its time strolling to and fro, its hands clasped behind its back, on the plateau, avoiding the paths. It held the view that it was quite enough bothered with the paths during the game and that it had every right to recuperate on the open plain when no game was going on. Sometimes it would look up at the vaulted glass, but merely out of habit and quite without any intention of trying to make out anything up there. It had a rather straddling gate and maintained that it was not made for those narrow paths. That was partly true, for indeed the paths could hardly contain it, but it was also untrue, for the fact was that it was very carefully made to fit within the paths exactly, but the paths were certainly not meant to be comfortable for it, or else it would not have been a puzzle at all.

From Nahum N. Glatzer (ed.), Kafka: The Complete Stories and Parables (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, {1983]).

Closely contemplating living food

The Fish

from North and South
(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1946)

by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels — until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

The Heteronymous Disquietude of Fernando Pessoa’s Dreamworld

The pulverization of the personality: I don’t know what my ideas are or my feelings or my character … If I do feel something, I feel it in the visualized person of some creature who appears inside me. I have replaced myself with my dreams. Each person is merely his dream of himself. I am not even that.

The Book of Disquiet §54 (“How to dream metaphysics”)
edited by Jerónimo Pizarro; translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New York: New Directions, 2017.

Perhaps this is the epistemology of the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa. Or perhaps it is not. In the first place, it’s difficult to tell if this is what he finally intended to say. Nearly everything Pessoa wrote was never submitted for publication. The manuscripts show signs of incomplete revisions even when they were arranged in the intended order. His major prose work, The Book of Disquiet (from which the extract above was taken) was begun in 1913, abandoned  in 1920, taken up again in 1930, and remained unsorted, unedited and incomplete at his death in 1935. But the state of the work was even worse than that. Pessoa had written the fragments on unconnected sheets of paper, which he kept in several trunks. No page or section numbers were put on the pages to indicate the order in which the fragments were intended to be arranged.

New Directions last year published an edition of this monumental prose work as part of a three year project with Jerónimo Pizarro to render in English the major works of Pessoa. Pizarro spent 15 years studying the manuscripts in order to arrange the fragments into a “complete” version in presumed chronological order. Other much shorter editions have appeared in English before but they were arranged on different assumptions of the “intended” order and contained considerably fewer of the fragments. I hope to review in some detail in a later essay this peculiar, and largely unknown (at least in English), work of Continental modernism.  Here I simply want to introduce Pessoa through several poems that he published during his lifetime. The excerpt above illustrates how Pessoa has to be approached. What he says seems plain enough—a sentiment that could have been uttered by a Symbolist or later decadent anywhere from France to Russia. But while the sentiment may be Symbolism, the scaffolding is quite jury-rigged and may not even support the ideas—or it may actually illustrate the brittleness of the thoughts themselves by making plain the artificiality of the narrative voice.

The section quoted above is not”written” by Pessoa. Instead it is one of many bits of writing by a man called Vicente Guedes who the narrator of the first half of the book met in a cheap restaurant above a respectable tavern in Lisbon. The unnamed narrator takes an interest in him and eventually discovers that Guedes is one of the very few readers of a modernist journal that the narrator publishes (just as Pessoa himself briefly published an obscure modernist literary journal). Indeed Guedes, each night after leaving the restaurant, spends the night writing alone in his small apartment. After this short introduction, the first half of the book is simply the writings of Guedes which the narrator says “is all that remains and will remain of one of the most subtly inert, the most dreamily debauched, of beings the world has seen.” The writings reveal a man who rejects the world in a very profound way, so profound that he seems to deny his own individual existence. It’s as though he mentally traces the intellectual climate of Europe backwards to the Enlightenment and then denies the material reality of Newton and the cogito of Descartes.

But Guedes is only one of the personalities that Pessoa uses to express his poetry (or in the case of Guedes, his prose poems). Indeed, Pessoa spent his entire writing career writing only through the characters of constructed personalities. He called them heteronyms. His heteronyms were not one-time narrative voices; he created “personalities” with names, specific characteristics, all of which interacted with each other. One, for example, wrote the introduction to a book of poems of another. They debated each other, negatively viewed the worth of the others and criticized each other.  A Portuguese literary magazine in 1928 called the heteronyms’ interaction as a “drama in people instead of in acts.” But on a deep (metaphysical?) level they all agreed; their view of life was otherworldly. Pessoa, however, distanced himself from his heteronyms while at the same time vouching for their “sincerity” just “as what King Lear says is sincere, that is not Shakespeare … but a creation of his.” (Letter to Armando Cortez Rodriguez, in Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Edward Honig (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971), p. 167). But what is “sincerity” to Pessoa? He, after all, wrote in the poem “Autopsychography” under the name Fernando Pessoa (which he called his “orthonym”): “The poet is a faker / Who’s so good at his act / He even fakes the pain / Of pain he feels in fact.” (Translated by Richard Zenith.)  Pessoa tells Rodriguez insincere things are those things that “are made to astonish, and things likewise—note this, it’s important—that don’t have in them a fundamental metaphysical idea: that is, through which doesn’t pass, like a wind, a notion of the gravity and mystery of life. That’s why everything I write under the names of Caeiro, Reis, Alvaro de Campos is serious. In any of them I put a profound conception of life, different in all three, but in all gravely attentive to the mysterious importance of existence.”

So let’s see one of each.

Num dia excessivamente nítido

from The Shepherd (1911–14). XLVII

by Alberti Caeiro

Num dia excessivamente nítido
Dia em que dava a vontande de ter trabalhado muito
Para nele não trabalhar nada,
Entrevi, como uma estrada por entre as árvores,
Q que talvez seja o Grande Segredo,
Aquele Grande Mistério de que os poetas falsos falam.

Vi que não há Natureza,
Que Natureza não existe,
Que há montes, vales, planícies,
Que hã árvores, flores, ervas,
Que há rios e pedras,
Mas que não há um todo a que isso pertença,
Que um conjunto real e verdadeiro
É uma doença das nossas idelas.

A Natureza é partes sem um todo,
Isto é talvez o tal mistério do que falam.

Foi isto o que sem pensar nem parar,
Acertei que devia ser a verdade
Que todos andam a achar e que não acham,
E que so eu, porque a não fui achar, achei.

On a terribly clear day

translated by Edwin Honig

On a terribly clear day,
A day that made you wish you’d already worked very hard
So as to be free to do nothing at all,
I caught a glimpse, like a road through the trees,
Of what might after all be the Big Secret,
That Great Mystery deceitful poets talk about.

I saw that there is no Nature,
That Nature doesn’t exist,
That there are hills, valleys, plains,
That there are trees, flowers, grasses,
That there are streams and stones,
But that there’s no one great All these things belong to,
That any really authentic unity
Is a sickness of our thinking.

Nature is simply parts, nothing whole
Maybe this is the mystery they talk about.

And this, without my stopping to think about it,
Is just what I hit on as being the truth
That everyone goes around looking for in vain,
And that only I, because I wasn’t looking, found.

Se recordo quem fui, outram me vejo

from Odes

by Ricardo Reis

Se recordo quem fui, outram me vejo,
E o passado é o presente na lembrança,
Quem fui é alguém que amo
Porém sòmente em sonbo.
E a saudade que me aflige a mente
Não é de mim nem do passado visto,
Senão o instante, me conhece.
Por tràs do olhos cegos.
Nada, senão o instante, me conhece.
Minha mesma lembrança é nada, e sinto
Que quem sou e quem fui
São sonhos diferentes.

Recalling who I was, I see somebody else

translated by Edwin Honig

Recalling who I was, I see somebody else
In memory the past becomes the present.
Who I was is somebody I love,
Yet only in a dream.
The sadness that torments me now
Is not for me nor for the past invoked.
But for him who lives in me
Behind blind eyes.
Nothing knows me but the moment.
Even my memory is nothing, and I feel
That who I am and who I was
Are two contrasting dreams.


from Poems

by Alvaro de Campos

A minha almas partiu-se como um vaso vazio
Caiu pela escada excessivamente abaixo.
Caiu das mãos da criada descuidada.
Caiu. fez-se em mais pedaços do que havia loiça no vaso.

Asneira? Impossível? Sei lá!
Tenho mais sensações do que tinha quando me sentia eu.
Sou um espalhamento de cacos sobre um,\ capacho por sacudir.

Fix barulho na queda como um vaso que se partia.
Os deuses que há debruçam-se do parapeito da escada.
E fitam os cacos que a criada deles fez de mim.

Não se zanguem com ela.
São tolerantes dom ela.
O que eu era um vaso vazio?

Olham os cacos absurdamente conscientes,
Mas conscientes de si-mesmos, não conscientes deles.

Olham e sorriem.
Sorriem tolerantes à criada involuntária.

Alastra a grande escadria atapetada de estrelas.
Um caco brillha, virado do exterior lustroso, entre os astros.
A minha obra? A minha alma principal? A minha vida?
Um Caco.
E os deuses olham-o epecialmente, pois não sabem porque ficou ali.


translated by Edwin Honig

My soul came apart like an empty jar.
It fell overwhelmingly, all the way down the stairs
Dropped from the hands of a careless maid.
It fell. Smashed into more pieces than there was china in the jar.

Nonsense? Impossible? How should I know!
I’ve more sensations now than when I felt I was all me.
I’m a litter of shards strewn on a doormat about to be swept.

My fall raised a din like the crash of a jar.
The gods that exist lean over the bannister,
Staring down at the shards their maid left of me.

They aren’t mad at her.
They indulge her.
After all, what was I—an empty vase?

They stare at the shards, absurdly aware,
But aware of themselves, not of the shards.

They stare dolwn and smile
Indulgent, they smile at the careless maid.

The big star-carpeted staircase spreads out.
A shard lies shining, polished side up, among the stars.
Is it my work? My one and only soul? My life?
A shard.
And the gods squint at it, not knowing why it still lies there.


from Uncollected Poems (1930–35)

by Fernando Pessos

Dizem que finjo ou minto
Tudo que escrevo. Não.
Eu simplesmente sinto
Com, a imaginação.
Não uso o coração.

Tudo o que sonho ou passo,
O que me falha ou finda,
É como que um terraço
Sobre outra coisa ainda.
Essa coisa é que é linda.

Por isso escrevo em meio
Do que não está ao pé,
Livre do meu enleio,
Sério do que não é.
Sentir? Sinto quem le!


Translated by Richard Zenith

They say I lie or feign
In all I write. Not true.
It’s simply that I feel
Via the imagination.
The heart I never use.

All I dream or live,
Whatever fails or dies,
Is no more than a covering
Over some other thing
Where true beauty lies.

That’s why I base my writings
On things that are remote,
Freed from my reality,
Serious about what isn’t.
Feel? That’s up to the reader!

The Meaning of the Blues

from There Comes a Time
(Bluebird: RCA)

Gil Evans, conductor.
Lew Soloff, Ernie Royal (t, flugelhorn, piccolo t); Peter Gordon, John Clark (Fr. h.); Peter Levin (Fr. h., synth.); Tom Malone (trom., tuba, synth.); Bob Steward (tuba); David Sanborn (as, fl, ss); Georege Adams (ts, fl.); Howard Johnson (b. cl, bari); David Horowitz (organ, synth.); Paul Metzke (synth.); Ryo Kawasaki (guitar); Hannibal Marvin Peterson (koto, perc.); Herb Bushler (b); Anthony Williams (d); Sue Evans (tymp., congas, d, mallets, perc.); Warren Smith (perc., marimaba); Brace Ditmas (snare d, tabla, perc. ); Joe Gallivan (perc;., sunth., stell guitar, bells).

Recorded: Apri 11, 1975 (post production until June 13 1975). RCA Studio NYC.