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I am not a religious man, but I have a ritual that I perform every day: I wash my breakfast bowl.

It doesn’t seem like much, especially in this age of dishwashing machines and takeout food on paper plates, but my ritual has a long and meaningful history.

There was a year in my life when I didn’t have a job. I lived with friends in North Carolina and did their cooking and cleaning. Every morning, after breakfast, I washed all the dishes.

To others, dishwashing may seem a boring chore, but to me, it was a time to regain contact with the eons. I could stand at the sink with my hands in the steamy suds and stare out the kitchen window at the leaves blown from their trees.

I stared out the window as I worked, mentally walking down the path behind the house past the tin-roof barn and the wide rolling field where old Mr. Price grew beans and tobacco. On the far side, there was a brook that meandered into a small ravine about a dozen feet deep, wet on its north, sunless side, and dry on the south.

And across the granite that forms the streambed as it cascades through this ravine was a long white stripe of quartz, an igneous dike where molten lava once inched up a joint in the surrounding rock and cooled into quartz bright and shiny against the black of the basalt streambed.

And standing at the sink with my hands glossy with detergent, I could travel upstream into myself the same way, finding, eventually, the glistening evidence of my own deepest thoughts: people I had long forgotten, places I hadn’t remembered being, songs I had sung with my grandmother, and sometimes even peace.

And so I rinsed the hot soap from a dish with scalding water and left it in the drain rack. I reached for the next dish and I thought about other times I have washed dishes.

I recalled the night my son was born. I had been at the hospital for his birth, in the delivery room as he entered the world screaming and miry. After I had taken the usual photos and Annie went back to her room for some well-deserved sleep and the kid was cleaned off and sent to the nursery, I drove home and found a kitchen full of dishes, greasy and smeared, waiting to be cleaned. Annie had been in labor almost two days and, though I had been with her through most of it, I also had gone home periodically for meals.

Those dishes and the ones left over from the dinner at which she started feeling her contractions were scattered all over the house. I filled the sink with hot water and divided up the dishes from the pots and set the plates and silverware into the sink to soak. Steam rose from the suds.

I remember that night; I was in knots, loaded with the new responsibility of a child and desperate with the empty feeling that my wife and I no longer could live together. I stuck my arm into the water and my guts began to relax.

I rinsed the first plate and my mind went blank – the blankness of meditation. My belly loosened and my teeth, which had been gnashing through the nights as I slept for months, relaxed. I rinsed the next plate, and it clicked against the first as I settled it in the drain rack. Soothing.

My problems were not solved, but I could look at the dilemmas I faced without the desperation I had been feeling. My frenzy abated.

Dishwashing became my mantra.

I recall camping with the redhead who succeeded my wife. We were staying in an abandoned farmhouse in a hidden valley of the Blue Ridge. Looking out over the balustrade, we saw the cliff across the glade, the rocky stream that poured down the valley bottom, the second growth in the old farm fields, millions of black-eyed Susans swaying in the breeze. As the sun dropped behind the cliff, I took our supper dishes down to the stream and washed them, scouring them with sand from the creek bottom and rinsing them in the icy water. Billions of fireflies made Fourth of July for us. I left the cold dishes on a large rock to dry overnight.

I recall once seeing a twisting globe of blackbirds rise from the trees and stretch out like the Milky Way across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of birds roosting took flight and spanned the evening sky. I dipped the last pan into the darkened suds and scrubbed it.

When the student asked Zen master Chao-Chou for instruction, the sage answered, ”Wash your bowl.” All philosophies else try to figure out logical ultimates, leaving us, at the end, only a useless ash.

No matter if Plato be right, or Whitehead, or Sartre, the one action that we all share is ”washing our bowl.” No matter if everything Wittgenstein ever wrote is absolutely true, we must act as if he never wrote anything. We still must wash our bowls. If everything is explained, nothing is explained, and we are back on square one. Better to wash your bowl.

So, as I wiped the final grease from the stove top and wiped down the counters and cutting board, I replaced the salt and pepper in the middle of the table and wiped off the tabletop.

All that remained was to rinse the dishrag and dump the greasy suds down the drain, setting the washbasin out to dry. That completed, I dried my hands on a fresh towel and began on one of the day’s other tasks.

Once, long ago, when I visited a friend, Judy Crawford, no longer with us, at her mountain house up near the Plott Balsam mountains of North Carolina, I cooked her a giant meal of coq au vin and I made French bread. We had several friends over and feasted, making such a pile of greasy dishes that we all agreed to let the mess sit overnight. ”I can’t look at the kitchen tonight,” Crawford said.

I woke early the next morning and dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was a little after 6, and the sun was hours from rising over the first peak. I filled the sink and started the dishes. Boonie, her cat, crawled around my ankle, looking up at me, squealing for milk. A few robins and a bluebird were scratching at the ground outside the kitchen window. It was quiet – calm and silent. I finished every last dish before Crawford woke up.

”Golly. You didn’t have to do that,” she said when she saw her shining kitchen. No, I didn’t have to, but I enjoyed it. I was at peace.

Most of what we do in our lives is frivolous – watching TV, fixing the car, reading books, waiting for the bus – but the washing of dishes is important: It is necessary. And it is something humans have been doing since before the days when Abraham lived in Ur. Washing dishes is part of being human.

marigolds“Ooooh, language,” Stuart said. “It’s why I hate Plato.”

“Surely only one of the reasons,” I said. “Let’s not forget Plato was a fascist pig,” I said, only half jokingly. “But why ‘oooh, language.’?”Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato

“I can’t blame only Plato for this, but most of us habitually think of the world in terms of nouns; we name things and believe we have described existence. Plato’s so-called ‘forms’ are little more than sanctified nouns, nouns privileged as ultimate reality. But truly, nouns are only resting places for things in motion, as if a snapshot could be more real than a movie.”

“I’ve been writing about that for years,” I said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve reiterated, ‘Nature is a verb.’ The Heracleitan flux rather than the Platonic stasis.”

“Yes, yes.” There was a tone of impatience in Stuart’s voice.

“I mean,” I continued, “that Plato would have us believe in an ideal  marigold, say, and any real flower can only approximate the ‘real’ one. But I say, the marigold is not a thing, but a process. Depending on where you start, it is a seed, a seedling, a sprout, a plant, a flower bud, a flower, a fruit that bursts into seeds, which fall and start the whole thing over. A verb.”

“And that doesn’t even task Plato with the question of whether an ideal marigold is a red one or a yellow one, or if there are separate ideal forms for red and yellow marigolds, or whether that is different from an ideal flower, or from an ideal plant, or ideal living thing: Where do you take your category from when positing these damnable ideals?”

“So, nouns are only place-holders, parking spots for verbs. Being Greek, Plato has in mind an ideal human being, which is, of course, male, and young, maybe 20 years old. But a man, like the marigold, is always on the move — an infant, a child, an adolescent, a youth, a grown man, a father, a middle-age man, an old man, a geezer, a corpse. We move through it all. Panta horein.”

“Let’s not forget women, too, with perhaps their own verbal cycle, parallel, but often diverging from the man’s.”

“And let’s also not forget,” I added, “that the hangover from Plato’s noun-based reality is the demotic Christian sense that when we get to heaven we’ll be our ‘ideal’ selves, not the decrepit senexes we have become before we die. Heaven is full of beautiful people, in their ideal perfection — which is defined, as Plato would have it, as ourselves when we were, say 20. Maybe 25.”

“This is all well and good,” Stuart said. “But I have a quibble.”

Stuart always had quibbles. This explained the earlier impatience. He wanted to get on to what he was really thinking about.

“The view of existence — metaphorically of course — as a verb is existence seen objectively, as if we were gods looking at the universe and seeing a vast process in motion. But if we were to look at the cosmos subjectively, from our individual points of view, then the essential word-form is the preposition. The preposition and the conjunction.”

Now I knew the trolley had arrived in Stuartville.

“These tiny words, barely noticed as they whiz by in a sentence, are the key words that describe our place in the universe, and our relation to it. They are the most important words. They create whole plots, whole novels in two or three letters. ‘By,’ ‘over,’ ‘near,’ ‘but,’ ‘and’ — they force us to create at least two nouns — they give birth to the nouns — and make us see those two nouns in a relationship, and what is more, they imply movement, or at least imply a temporal situation.

“In the beginning was the word, and that word was a preposition.

“The Greeks recognized that certain sentence formations had meaning in and of themselves. Like, ‘on the one hand, blah blah, but on the other hand, blah blah.’ or ‘He says blah, but his actions prove blah.’ The sentences can be filled in with various content, but the structure of the sentence carries its own meaning, a description of a part of reality.

“But I am saying that the same thing can be said for the simple ‘but.’ You don’t need the whole sentence. Just a ‘but.’

“It implies a stop sign; a motion forward, but a redirection. There you are, a point in the universe at motion, under the rule of inertia, unstopping unless another force is applied, and suddenly, ‘but,’ and that force is applied. The conjunction has cosmic meaning.

“You can say something similar about ‘and.’ There is something in the universe, and suddenly, there is something else. ‘And.’ point in motion

“The prepositions do the same. You are that point, with no defined volume, mass or blood — at this moment, completely undefined except for your beingness, your awareness, and then, you are driven ‘under,’ ‘around,’ or ‘through,’ and with the advent of the preposition, you have a relationship to that cosmos.”

“It all sounds very, well, cosmic.”

“Yes, it is. Or at least, it is like a thought experiment. You don’t need to have a dog or a truck or a marigold to have the relationship. It is inherent in the ‘if,’ ‘and’ or ‘but.’

“Which is why I say that the verb is a description of the objective, divinely- observed universe, but the conjunction and preposition are the same for a subjectively sensibility-observed universe.”

“But — and I use the word advisedly — you are an atheist.”

“Exactly.”

 
 

Goldsmith whales 1horizontal
“What do we believe?”

Stuart said that with an emphasis on the “we.”

“Yes, I don’t mean ‘What do we believe?’ the way so many people question what our nation or society stands for, or if we anymore stand for anything. I’m not asking what we as a culture believe in, or if we have a common spine of belief to stiffen our civic polity. I leave that to the punditocracy.

“No, what I’m wondering about these days is what do we take so for granted we never even think about it, the way ancient people believed the earth was flat, or that the daytime sun moved in procession across the sky and ducked under it at night. goldsmith fish 1What we believe to be true without question, indeed, we don’t even recognize it as a question, or a possible question. What is the water we swim in?”

“You mean like the Medievals believed in a Christian god, or the 18th century believed in a rational order to the universe?”

“Yes, that sort of thing. I’ve been wondering because it is such a tough question. It is asking to see the invisible, to step out of the zeitgeist and look at it from above, like we were watching rats in a psychology lab wander in a maze. Can we even begin to see what we don’t recognize as the ether of our universe?”

“Maybe what we’re talking about is a slow dawning,” I said. “I mean like slavery. At one point in history — actually, in most points in history — slavery was seen as right and proper, the order of the universe, even sanctioned by God. In Greece and Rome, slavery was as much a part of everyday life as bread and wine. In America when they made the Constitution, slavery was accepted by a large segment of the population as being the natural order. But there were those who saw it differently. Slowly, the majority began to see slavery as an evil and nowadays, we unquestioningly assume slavery to be indefensible.”goldsmith fish 2

“Of course, that hasn’t stopped slavery, but only changed its face: Slavery is still accepted in parts of Muslim Africa and the sex trade is hardly anything but slavery.”

“Yes, but the issue you have raised is whether slavery was at one time the water we swam in — that for most people, there was no issue at all. The sky was above, the earth below, kings ruled the domain and slaves had their eternal link in the Great Chain of Being. It was only the exceptional person who asked if the scheme were moral or just.”

“This is true, but it is also such a hot-button item that we may fail to grasp what I’m really asking. In the case of slavery, we can now feel superior and look back on our forefathers and judge them for their failure to see the obvious. But I’m certain we are no less blind today than they were, but in other areas. What are we going to be judged for a hundred years from now?”

“Animal rights, perhaps?”goldsmith fish 3

“Maybe. Certainly, there will be those who wonder why we didn’t do anything about carbon dioxide or overfishing or nuclear proliferation. But in part, these are political failings rather than what I’m asking about.

“I’m asking rather, what do we not even question. The issue came up when I started rereading Plato. God, I hate that man. But it was the Greeks in general I’m talking about. They had a peculiar relation to their language. They had what we now take as a naive belief that language and existence were one: If there was something in creation, there was a word for it, and likewise, if there was a word, it described something real in the world. There was no disjunction, no sense that language had its own structure and limits, and they were different from the structure and limits of existence. No sense that if there were a word, it might describe something false, something that doesn’t really exist, or really happen. The fact that there was a word was proof that the thing existed. They could not see outside their language. This led to some kinds of absurdities, like Zeno’s paradox. The language describes a problem: Achilles and a tortoise are in a race, but with the latter given a head start, Achilles can never catch up to it, and hence can never win the race.”goldsmith fish 4

“Yes, I remember: Before Achilles can catch up to the tortoise, he has to go halfway to catching up with the tortoise, and then before he can close the gap, he has to cover half the remaining gap, and then half that, and half that, onto infinity, and therefore, never catch up.”

“An obvious absurdity if you set the experiment up and see what happens. The problem is only in the language, not in the reality. ‘Half’ and ‘half,’ and ‘half’ are merely concepts, not observable, not physical.

“There are many versions of this problem: It is the essential problem of Plato, who sees his ideals in terms of language, in terms, more specifically, of nouns. His ideal forms are ideal verbal forms. Being Greek, he cannot transcend that constraint. Language is reality, reality language. That is all they know and all they needed to know.”

“Sometimes, I think we’re not much better,” I said. “We still seem to believe words more than experience. Politics is rife with such things: Welfare mothers, for instance, or trickle-down economics. Make the verbal classification and you have proved that such a thing actually exists. Maybe you can’t really find any out there, but you’ve set up the idea with the word.”goldsmith fish 5

“My favorite has always been the international conspiracy of Communist Jewish bankers. Communist bankers — have they thought this one through?”

“Of course, philosophy these days — especially in America — is practically nothing but philology, a study of in how many ways language obscures reality or is at least in serious disjunction with it.

“So, what is our equivalent of Greek language blindness?

“I can think of a few things that might count, but I despair of being able to escape my own swimming water.”

“We still have the language problem,” I said. “We cannot always separate the language from the experience.”

“Certainly. But what do you mean?”goldsmith whales 2 horizontal

“Take a sentence like ‘Whales are mammals, not fish.’ It seems to most of us that this says something about cetaceans, but in fact it is a statement about language, not biology. It says ‘We have created a language class — a noun — that we apply to some sea creatures and not others. ‘Whales are mammals not fish,’ is a statement about language.”goldsmith crustaceous fish

“God, yes. I have a copy of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature, from 1825, and he divides fish up into ‘spinous fishes,’ ‘cartilaginous fishes,’ ‘testacious fishes’ — that is, shellfish — ‘crustaceous fishes’ and ‘cetaceous fishes.’ A whale, after all, is shaped like a fish, swims like a fish, has fins like a fish and lives in the ocean. Like the old saying, ‘If is looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…’ goldsmith shells 1But nowadays, we accept the Linnean classification system as describing reality, while in fact, it is merely one way — one very useful way in a scientific and technological society, I might add — but only one way or organizing reality. The Bible doesn’t say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but by a ‘great fish.’ We naturally make the leap, because a whale is, in some manner, a big fish. Just one that breathes air and gives birth to live young. There are many ways of organizing experience, but we assume the primacy of only one.

“Genius is being able to shift from one to the other seamlessly.”

Stuart got up and left the room, looking for his copy of the book. He came back with it and opened up to the chapter on fish.goldsmith fish 6

“This is one of my favorite passages,” he said. “ ‘Our philosophers hitherto, instead of studying their nature, have been employed in increasing their catalogues; and the reader, instead of observations of facts, is presented with a long list of names, that disgust him with their barren superfluity. It must displease him to see the language of a science increasing, while the science itself has nothing to repay the increasing tax laid upon his memory.’ ”

I took up the book and leafed through it. The illustrations were exceptional. I thought they might be worth showing off in borders of this discussion.

“I have another good example,” I said. “Anti-abortionists say that abortion is murder. But murder isn’t a fact, it is a legal class. And we change laws all the time. Taking of life comes in many forms, some which we justify and others we criminalize, and different people draw the line at different points. Would it have been justifiable to kill Hitler in 1933 to prevent the millions of deaths in World War II? Would it have been justifiable to suffocate the infant Hitler in his crib? There is homicide, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, and, of course, war. Eichmann maintained that the Holocaust was merely the justifiable death of war, but we have chosen to draw the line differently. And what now of those we kill by drones in the Middle East. So, is abortion murder? It is killing, but for some it is justifiable, even necessary. Many on the anti-abortion side nevertheless justify executions for some crimes, but for that, they don’t use the word, ‘murder.’ For some it isn’t. But ‘murder’ is a verbal classification, not a fact.”goldsmith fish 7

“It is hard to recognize what is mere language and what is genuinely out there, existent in the world, divorced from the language we use to describe things.

“Perhaps one thing — and this is related to the Greek problem — is our belief, unexamined, in the permanence of certain things.” Stuart went on.  “We have a tendency, not only to believe, but to actually create wars to defend the idea that national borders are something other than temporary lines drawn by powers that be. Just look at Poland: It moves around the map like a ball of mercury in a dish. First it’s here, then it’s there. It grows, shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether. There’s an idea that national borders depend on ethnicity, but that clearly isn’t the case. Poland, when it has existed, included Polish speakers, German speakers, Ukranian speakers, Lithuanian speakers, Yiddish speakers and Czechs, among others. Yes, most French speakers live in France, but some live in Quebec, and others in Belgium, where half the population doesn’t speak French at all, but Flemish …”

“‘In France they speak French; in Belgium, they speak Belch.’”

“… and just look at the shifting borders of the United States through the 19th century. Nationhood is always a momentary thing. Yet we think of it as heaven-ordained.”goldsmith fish 9

Stuart considered this a moment and then brought up his own.

“I would offer the belief in opposites and pairs. We think opposites exist, but it is really just a trick of language, enforced by habit. There is the lit end of the cigar and the end we draw smoke from, but there is really only one cigar. Hot and cold are thought of as opposites, but they are really only sliding marks on a single thermometer: Sunspots are ‘cold spots’ on the sun, but they are hotter than anything normally found on earth. Hot and cold, rather than being opposites, are relative.

“The corollary is that we think of many things that are not really opposites at all as fitting into the brain-slot we save for opposites.”

“Like salt and pepper,” I said. “Like chocolate and vanilla.”

“Exactamente. It is habit alone that gives us these pairs. We swim in an ocean of conceptual habits that we seldom give any thought to. Like our expectation of a beginning, middle and end. We want that in a play we watch or a song we sing. But there is no beginning, middle and end in our existence: It is all just flow. ‘Panta horein,’ Heraclitus has. ‘Everything flows.’ But the idea of beginning, middle and end is how we think of our own lives, not just that we are born and die and have a few years in between, but that each step in our life is a story that follows, episode on episode, in a coherent pattern that we recognize as our ‘self.’ We tell stories about our lives as though we were writing novels or short stories. The connection we make — the through-line — is something we cast over events, not something inherent in them.”

“Experience, like the stars in the heavens, is a welter, a chaos of instances, but we make constellations out of them to be able to make sense, but if we take the constellations as something ‘real’ — like astrology does — then we mistake the pattern for the substance.”goldsmith fish 8 horizonntal

“The other example I can think of is hierarchy. This is perhaps beginning to be exploded, but we reflexively think of things in hierarchy. The real world of experience doesn’t provide immutable hierarchies, but in our thoughts, we make them line up in marching order and pretend there is this rank and file. Where once we had kings, knights, yeomen, vassals and serfs, we still have this idea that some organisms are “higher” on the evolutionary scale than others. The vestigial concept of the ‘great chain of being’ remains in our culture, even when the full-blown version has disintegrated into a confetti of vestiges.

“We decry the ‘patriarchy,’ or at least some of us do, while a good part of the population unthinkingly assumes as the default that the husband is head of the household. Real families are no longer like that.”

“And the internet is stuffed with ‘top 10’ lists. As if one movie were provably better than the number two choice. ‘Ten worst dressed politicians.’ ‘5 most influential bloggers.’ The scalar nature of these is another mental figment, a meme, that gets reproduced like DNA.”

“Don’t get me started,” Stuart said, but the horse was out of that barn. goldsmith shark horizontal

“The number of things we accept without thought is probably infinitely more than those things we do think about. Seven day weeks? Any real reason for that? Weekends are such a part of our experience, yet, I doubt cavemen ever thought about constantly recycling work weeks. And the decimal system. A duodecimal system would work just as well, or even a system based on 8 or 15. The 10 is just a convention.”

“Well, we have 10 fingers…”

“And 10 toes, so why not base it all on 20? In fact, I’ve seen this — in some cultures the counting is based on 12 because if we use our thumb as a counter, we can reel off a fast dozen, by first counting the fingertips of the remaining four fingers, then the second joint and then the third, adding up to 12. And with the other hand, we can keep track of the groupings of 12, and count quite efficiently on our fingers up to 144. You can see the foremen doing this on South American rivers as they load bales onto the boats. Inventory is kept on the knuckles.

“I’m sure there are so many more things we accept without thought. But my original point is that it is so hard — nearly impossible to discover what you don’t know to be mere convention.”

Genevieve called from the other room. “Dinner is ready, if I can cut through the chatter.”

What awaited us was a pork roast, crispy with a rind of fat across the top, Brussels sprouts in butter and a rice pilaf and salad.

“This is the real stuff,” she said. “It’s not words.”

Dog and cat battle dan kincaidDrawing by Dan Kincaid


“It’s Je-Ne-Vee-Ev, not Jeneveev,” said Stuart, introducing his live-in, Genevieve, the viola player. She is 50-ish, stylish and thin, with a shock of white in her hair, like Susan Sontag. She was born in Belgium and takes the same offense as Hercule Poirot for being assumed French. She has a throaty voice in the same register as her viola, although her instrument probably didn’t spend a lifetime smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

We were having dinner, the four of us: Stuart and Genevieve and my wife and me. Stuart did the cooking; Genevieve poured the wine. And oh, how a little Beaujolais can get Stuart talking.

“It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not. But I’ve never met any of those.”

And Stuart was off to the races.

“Everybody and his brother-in-law splits the world into two categories: male and female; conservative and liberal; Gene Autry fan and Roy Rogers fan; those who get it, and those who don’t.”yeats

Stuart had just finished reading A Vision by William Butler Yeats. Stuart had an epiphany, he said.

“Yeats divides human personalities up into 28 ‘phases,’ like the phases of the moon. It’s really brilliant, if a little loony. Ideally, there is no Phase 1 or Phase 15 — the first and middle phase of the moon’s monthly round of waxing and waning: The new and full moons; these are too pure and unmixed to exist in the real world. But all the phases are defined by their ‘tinctures’ of two essential personality engines, which Yeats calls the ‘primary’ and the ‘antithetical.’ Simply put, the lumpy and the poetic.

“He gets quite lawyerly in parsing the bits. And I had this vision of my own, although it is somewhat simpler to understand.vision phases

“It is that underlying every other distinction is this basic, fundamental one: between dog and cat. You can have your phases of the moon, but really, but all those personalities are either canine or feline.”

“You mean, like a dog-person or a cat-person?” my wife asked. “I’m a cat person; we gotta have cats around the house.”

“No,” said Stuart, “not a question of which animals you prefer as pets, but rather, which you are in your cor cordium, your self of selves. We are all one or the other. You can see it in the faces of everyone around you.

“But it goes beyond people. As I now see it, every animate being on the planet is one or the other.

“They are opposed personality types. They function in the world differently and see the world differently.

“For the dog, the world is essentially simple. Truth is truth, up is up and down is down. The dog has a direct relationship with the things of the world: They are what they are.

“A cat, on the other hand, sees the world metaphorically. Things may be what they seem, but are never only what they seem. They can mean one thing Monday, and something entirely different on Tuesday.

“When dogs read poetry, they like to read, ‘what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ They can be scholars and critics, and they can be quite discerning and bastions of good taste, but their world view is essentially single-tracked. Their vision is clear, if not very imaginative. Their word is their honor and they have 30-year mortgages.woman in the dunes

“Cats love Japanese movies with subtitles and long shots of shifting sands. Dogs like Adam Sandler and Kristin Stewart.

“Cats enjoy the jostle of ideas. Dogs talk about wines.

“You may think I’m tipping the scales in favor of cats, but that is only because I am one. There is downside to either class, and dogs really are important for the continued functioning of the society that makes cats’ lives possible.

“Cats never decide on a college major and fritter away their parents’ money taking courses in Incan pottery and creative writing. Dogs stick to their curriculum and go to Career Days.

“Dogs become Eagle Scouts and join the Rotary Club. Dogs dream of a house in Syosset and a Bill Jr. to take to the zoo. Cats dream of pirates, scoundrels, military heroes and Tamerlane.

“There are many kinds of dogs in the world. Some are bureaucrats and some, the more stylish, wear whatever is touted in Esquire. Hell, the Playboy Advisor was written for them. Some are noble and become doctors or missionaries; others bring my slippers at day’s end.

“It is plain, especially to dogs, that the world functions only because of them. And truly, we couldn’t do without them.

“But cats have eyes that change as the moon changes. They live by their own rules and amend them as their mood shifts. They are filled with prevarication and treachery. Their minds shuffle like a gambler’s deck of cards and we never know what face will show, or what suit. ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’

“When it comes to poetry, cats often prefer to write their own.”

Stuart noted that my wife writes poetry. He explained that cats don’t only write bad poetry, but rather, all poetry, no matter what the quality.

“Well, there are exceptions,” he admitted. “Edgar A. Guest and Ella Wheeler Wilcox are woof-woofs. But you get the gist.”rust sings

(My wife’s poetry has been published in a book, called Rust Sings. I recommend it.)

“There can be little meaningful dialog between the dog and the cat,” Stuart continued, “because they mean different things when they use the same words.

“This frustrates the dog no end; he cannot pin the cat down, while the cat delights in the ambiguity, and will even do what he can to amplify it.

“Dogs are trustworthy. A dog will be on time; a cat will be late, cancel or forget.

“A dog joins the Rotarians; a cat never does, unless he can use his membership toward the end of world domination, or something else he thinks might be fun.

“Among women, cats can wear too much eye makeup; dogs put too much mousse in their hair, like a TV news anchor. The difference is total and complete.

“For instance, a dog can certainly be selfish, but it takes a cat to be egocentric. A telling difference.

“Dogs have faith in the basic goodness of the world, and although they make a place for evil, they nevertheless believe it is something that can be overcome. A cat may or may not believe in evil, but whatever else, he believes in the relativity of goodness and truth.

“This isn’t just people: All animals are also dogs or cats. Think of a sea otter. Cat or dog? There can be no question. Anything that can sleep floating on the ocean surface so curled up that its head rests comfortably on its own belly, is a cat. Sturgeon are dogs. So are bears, horses, elephants and cows — ungulates as a class are dogs.fox cheetah dyad

“It is interesting to see this play out in nature. Don’t be confused by taxonomy. It is not names that define dogness and catness. Foxes, for instance, are classified as canines by the doggy scientists, but they are nevertheless cats. And cheetahs — you only have to look at those stiff, tensioned legs to recognize their essential dogginess.

“The main physical difference is in their bendability. Pick up a dog by his middle and what do you feel? The beast is stiff as a two-by-four. He is uncomfortable off the ground. He whimpers. Put him back down and his tail wags.

“Pick up a cat, and it drapes over you, form-fitting and at ease. I know a man who used to wear his big orange cat as a kind of living Davy Crockett hat. The cat sagged over his skull and down his neck and never wavered. The cat just purred.

“You can tell the relative caninicity or felinicity of a person when you dance some old-fashioned thing like a waltz. If your partner’s spine is rigid, he or she is a dog. A cat-partner will swing and sway with the rhythm like an willow in a gust.

“Does anyone remember seeing archival TV film of Richard Nixon attempting the Twist? The very definition of a dog.

“That is because a dog is all of a piece; he is one thing, head to tail. A cat is a loose concatenation of impulses, a pile of multiple personalities. When a dog dances, every part of him has to move in the same direction at the same time. A cat is syncopated.

“This pervades their world views. A dog is regimented and feels most comfortable when most conventional. A cat is individual, and often takes little notice of what is expected of him.

“Cats and dogs have been eternally at war. The dogs think the cats are kooks, hippies or commie sympathizers (although most communists are as doggie as the board of directors at General Motors). They have difficulty conceiving of anything not established by precedent. Community standards actually mean something to a dog.

“And when it gets down to battle, the dogs, like the redcoats of the American revolution, fight according to the book, in lines standing and kneeling, firing volley after volley on command.

“The cats, rather than being organized soldiers, find the dogs a nuisance and, like American Minutemen, take potshots from various convenient hiding places.

“Groucho Marx, taking his potshots, is the quintessential cat. If a canine becomes too officious, a cat is always there to flick his cigar and wiggle his eyebrows. Although dogs do not understand cats, cats understand dogs all too well.

“Interestingly, although almost all politicians are dogs, the most effective religious evangelists are cats. They don’t actually believe the piffle they spout, but get a great deal of pleasure from persuading listeners to line up behind them, cheering (and sending money).

“Or rather, the cat believes what he is saying as he says it. It is just that tomorrow, he can say something else. I’m thinking of Marjoe Gortner, for instance, or Lyndon Larouche. ‘A foolish consistency,’ they rejoinder.

“A true cat will really enjoy making one argument now, then switching hats or podiums, proving himself wrong in the next breath. The pleasure is in the arguing, not the results. Strife is the natural order of things.

“This makes dogs very, very uncomfortable. For the dog, arguments are proof that the world is out of balance. Equilibrium must be restored: The two sides in a dispute must work it out, so the truth will prevail and peace — the dog’s natural order of things — will reemerge.

“The dichotomy is at the bottom of some of the most familiar cultural pairings we know. Benjamin Franklin, with his “early to bed, early to rise,” was a dog; Thomas Jefferson, with his house filled with maps and stuffed elk, inventive contraptions and lack of heat, was a cat. It takes a cat to say ‘All men are created equal,’ while owning slaves and fathering children with them.hemingway faulkner dyad

“Tolstoy was a dog; Dostoevsky was a cat. Hemingway went woof woof; Faulkner, meow.

“If you have ever wondered why some old sayings seem to contradict others — ‘Opposites attract’ vs. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ — it’s because one is true for dogs, the other for cats.

“Even the proverbs that cats repeat, sitting around a cracker-barrel in an old Vermont store, bear this out.

–”The dog sees not the same tree the cat sees.

–”The hours of a dog are measured by the clock; but of a cat, no clock can measure.

–”If a cat would persist in his folly he would become wise; a persistent dog becomes the village idiot.

–”One law for the dog and the cat is oppression.

“Cats have a built-in sense of the ultimate void and how much fun it can be.

“The very earliest organized philosophies broke down along these lines. Plato was a cat. Even now, you can never know for sure when he actually believes some of the hogwash he comes up with. Aristotle, on the other hand was the very model of a dog. ‘Let’s make lecture notes.’

“Of course, just as with Yeats’ A Vision, there are wheels inside wheels, all spinning on their own doggie-cat axis. Yeats expands his vision to include not just personality types, but all of history. Well, my dogs and cats does the same.

“The ancient Greeks were cats, proving with logic, when it amused them, that it was impossible for anything to exist. Romans were dogs: They invented concrete and designed plumbing.

“The Renaissance was a quintessentially dog era, the Baroque that followed it was all cat. Modernism barked, Postmodernism meows. wayne-nicholson dyad

“Nothing makes my case better than concrete examples. Think John Wayne and Jack Nicholson. Both fine actors, each in his way — think of The Searchers — but I think there is little doubt who is the dog in this pair. Your reaction is instantaneous. You don’t need to explain: It just is.”

“Yes,” said Genevieve. “Like Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

“Of course,” said Stuart, “That’s why Biden will never be president.”

“What do you mean?” asked my wife. “A cat can never be president? What about Bill Clinton?”

“You got me there,” Stuart said. “But that is a reversal of the pairing. Clinton was a cat and Al Gore was pure dog. These pairings make clear the dog-cat dyad, the paradigm.Martin Luther King

“Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Dog and cat,” I said.

“It can become a party game,” Stuart said. “Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.”braque picasso dyad

“Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso,” Genevieve said.

“Perfect.”

“Mahler and Bruckner,” she said.

“For years, the nation divided between doggie Jay Leno and cat-man David Letterman,” Stuart said.

“Well, until Letterman lost his cat license,” I said. “He’s gotten kind of doggie in his later years.”

“See, what a profitable lens this is for understanding the world?” Stuart said.

“It explains the difference between Obama and Putin,” Genevieve said.

“And between Andrew Wyeth and Andy Warhol; between George Burns and Gracie Allen…”

“And between Fidel Castro today and Castro 50 years ago,” Genevieve said.

“Between Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau.”

“When it comes to marriage, a dog can be happy married to a dog,” Stuart said. “But a cat can be happy married to either a cat or a dog. There is fun either way. matalin carville dyadThink Mary Matalin and James Carville. But you see, there is a built-in paradox. How many marriages do you know where one party is happy and the other isn’t? The reason, I tell you, is always the same: One dog, one cat.

“Two cats mated can be happy briefly. But such marriages don’t tend to last. Think of a Hollywood marriage and you pretty much get the picture. Variety is not just an ideal for a cat, but a way of life.

“Of course, the arts are heavy with cats, just as the field of accounting is not. You don’t last long at H.&R. Block if you believe arithmetic is a matter of opinion.

“At bottom, we need both animals in the world. You need the dogs to make life possible; you need cats to make it worth living.”

Stuart brought out a flan and a well-used bottle of amontillado and asked if anyone wanted a cigar. Genevieve was the only taker, but then declined. She said she was giving up smoking again. Ninth time. One more and she got a free sandwich at Subway.

Dore chaos
My friend Stuart sent me a letter:

You can learn a great deal from a springer spaniel. For instance:

Total order and total chaos are the same thing. Identical. Not a dime’s worth of difference. And neither is very helpful.

Think of it in terms of the Linnean metaphor. I’ll get to the spaniel in a moment.

At one end of the spectrum is chaos, a totality that is unordered, a cosmic goo. This is not the current chaos of the eponymous theory, which is merely a complexity beyond calculation, but rather the mythic chaos out of which the gods either create the cosmos, or arrive unannounced from it like Aphrodite from the sea. It has no edges, no smell, no shape, no parts, no color, no anything. Inchoate muddle. john martin chaos

So, in the beginning was the word: Or rather, our ability to organize this chaos through language. The universe exists without form and void. Then we begin the naming of parts to help us understand the welter.

And so, god created the heaven and earth, dividing the parts. And this division of parts is in essence what the Creation is all about. Ouroboros

Of course, the incessant need to divide and name is only a metaphor, but it will help us understand the conundrum of order in the universe, and how the ouroboros of Creation begins and ends at the same place, no matter which direction we go in: The law of entropy and the law of increasing order both have the same final destination.

When we look at the world around us, we immediately split what we see into two camps: That which is living and that which isn’t. It helps us understand the world we live in and we make many of our biggest decisions on this basis: Ethics, for instance. We have no problem splitting a rock in half with a hammer, but would feel rather evil doing the same to a dog.

But the living things fall into two large camps, also: Animal and vegetable (again, I’m simplifying. I haven’t forgotten the bacteria, but we can ignore them for the sake of the metaphor).

Some of us have a problem eating animals but not eating vegetables. So, again, our ethical world depends on how we sort out the chaos.

Let’s take the animals and subdivide them, the way Carl von Linne did, into classes, orders, families, phyla, genera and species.

Each level makes our divisions less inclusive, more discriminatory.

Let’s take the dog, for instance. It is classified as a chordate, which means it has a central nervous system stretched out into a spinal chord. This is different from, say, a starfish or a nematode. But there are many chordates, so, if we want to differentiate a dog from a shark, we have to look to its class. It is a mammal. That makes it distinct from birds and fish.

But there are lots of mammals, too. Some of them eat other animals; we call them carnivores. A dog is a carnivore.

Notice how each level of nomenclature narrows our definition down to a smaller and smaller group of initiates. When we had only living and non-living, there were only two groups; with each level, we add dozens, hundreds and then thousands of other groups disincluded in our catalog.

The order carnivora is one of many orders in the class of mammalia, which is one of many in the phylum chordata, which in turn is one of many in the kingdom animalia.

The order separates our subject, but lets us see in relief that it is just one constellation in the heavens populated by many other constellations.

The same poor pup is in the family canidae, which includes all the dog-like animals, from fox to coyote to jackal. Among them, it is in the genus Canis, and species lupus, which makes it brother with the wolf.

But our wolf is a friendly one, as long as you aren’t the postman. So, now we call it Canis lupus familiaris, or the family dog. And our particularization of the beast means we are conversely aware of all of creation — each in its own genus and species — that makes up the non-dog, and each of them is like the billions and billions of stars that make up the many constellations in the night sky.

Yet, this isn’t far enough. For the dog I’m thinking of isn’t just a dog, but a spaniel, which is a type of dog which isn’t a poodle and isn’t a terrier. It is a dog with “a long silky coat and drooping ears.”
Sylvie

Each time we subclassify, we are adding to the order we impose on existence, and each classification adds to the proliferation of categories just as it reduces the members inside each class.

So, there are also different kinds of spaniels. The dog I’m thinking of is a springer spaniel, which come in two forms, with a brown-and-white coat and a black-and-white coat.

My brother’s dog is a brown-coated springer spaniel named Sylvie. She is getting old now, and her backside — very much like humans — is getting broader.

And now, by classifying things to the level of the individual, we have as many categories as there are things in the universe, which is effectively the same as nothing being categorized: It is all primordial goo and might as well not be cataloged: Total order and total chaos are the same thing. QED.

blake dante

I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.

Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially  your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”

That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.

Heidegger

Heidegger

German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.

Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.

Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.

That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.

Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.

In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.

An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.

The analogy of love and language is nothing new.

When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’

In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.

But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?

Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.

The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”

Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.

Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”

For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.

“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”

Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”

The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.

The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”

Pirsig writes:

“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after  you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”

Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”

And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.

All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.

Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.

But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.

Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.

But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.


It is a commonplace that America is materialistic, that it grasps after money and wealth and lacks the spiritual values it used to have.
Of course, that nostalgic view ignores that Americans have always chased wealth: It’s built into the Constitution.
But more importantly, it ignores the fact that America isn’t really materialistic at all, and in fact, is largely indifferent to the material world.
If we were really materialistic, we would never tolerate walnut-woodgrain plastic.
No, the physical composition of their existence is simply not a high priority for most Americans. Yes, they are after wealth, but wealth isn’t a material value, but a spiritual one.
When we say Americans “worship the almighty dollar,” we aren’t saying that they value material objects over spiritual ones, but rather that they place worth on one set of spiritual values instead of another, more worthy set.
Money, after all, isn’t a physical object. It isn’t material. It is no more physical than an inch or a pound. It is a measuring item, to measure wealth.
Real wealth is the possession of useful or meaningful things. To own land, or to grow 40 acres of artichokes is to possess wealth. You can eat artichokes; you can’t eat money.
Money cannot be worn, it cannot be used to build with. It must be translated back from its symbolic existence to a material existence by spending it.
I’m not saying that money isn’t nice to have around. But that it is a mental construct, not a physical reality. If we want money, it isn’t because sewn together, dollar bills make a nice quilt.
Even the things Americans spend their money on tend to be owned for spiritual rather than physical reasons. If we want to own a BMW or a Lexus, it isn’t because these are better cars than a Honda or an Ford — though they may be (I’m not convinced) — but because they are status symbols that let other Americans know where we rank on the totem pole. Armani suits and Gucci bags are not something most Americans really enjoy on a physical level. They are the civilized equivalent of the eagle feathers the chief wears, or the lion-ruff anklets worn by the Zulu leader: They confer prestige and denote status.
These are spiritual values.

As a matter of fact, America would be a whole lot better off if it were more materialistic. The planet is bursting with stuff: It all has a texture, a feel, a smell, a taste, a sound. If we were materialistic, we would be aware of how much richness the material existence affords, and we would revel in it. We would be mad — as Walt Whitman says — for us to be in contact with it.
And what is more, the deeper we involve ourselves in the physical world, the more spiritualized we will become — that worthy spirituality. It is because we are so unmaterialistic that our environment suffers so. We don’t value the physical world we live in. It doesn’t bother us that there are fewer birds singing in the morning, or that codfish are disappearing.
In part, this is a remnant of the contempus mundi that was fostered under Medieval Christianity. It is that suspicion of the physical world that the Old World monks felt would seduce them from the righteousness of prayer and ritual.
We have inherited the contempt, but without the prayer. It leaves us in a hollow place.
As an adult I have come not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the physical world.
I don’t trust him to make policy choices about oil drilling or lawn seeding. I cannot imagine how it is possible not to fall in love with the things of this world, but I see just that happening all the time.
I pick up the lump of spring earth and squeeze it in my fist to judge whether it is time to plant my potatoes. I listen for the birds globing and twisting as they rise from the trees in the morning. I look for the light caught in the cholla spines and the twill in my gabardine. There is velvet in heavy cream and scratchiness in wool blankets.
The physical sensations make us more aware, more awake. The love of the physical world keeps us from becoming dullards. Living in a world of symbol and status dulls us. At its worst, it leads to ideology.
Would that America really were a materialistic society.