Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Everyone who rides the subway inevitably sees a lot of odd stuff go down. People who file into their cars at the end of day have no concept of what they are missing, whether for the best or the worst. After a long enough period of time on the train, if you travel without companions, public transportation is somehow transformed to a semi-private form of mobility--you no longer fully acknowledge the other people on the train--or if you do, they are more like the scenery you would train your eyes to look past as you speed down the highway. Sometimes in the mornings, you vaguely recognize the same people who get on your train daily, but often at night, if your schedule is at all varied, you never really see the same people, and this provides a comfort level of anonymity. You might, and probably never will, see these people again. And that's the beauty of it, isn't it? You could pass your trip under the radar, unobserved and at peace, or you could make a total ass of yourself by accident, and either way the incident passes into the vacuum of things that really don't matter. Even if other people on the train remember you, or you them, there is no outlet for significance (except perhaps a blog post). But that is not entirely true. Although the people may not be particularly significant in terms of personal relationship, the education you get from riding might just be worth the exorbitant monthly ticket price.

M.Snowe is always struck by the surprises that commonly arise in course of a subway ride. Here are a few of the enlightening summaries that one new to subway riding should be aware of:

1. Expect the unexpected.
This means that anything can and will occur. But usually, these feats of unbelievability take on a more mundane yet no less profound aspect. Example: A dirty, grungy guy schleps into the train and plops down next to you. He's wearing some fancy kicks and has a bandanna. Everything about him says hardcore thug. Then, he whips out a copy of Aeschylus' plays and digs in. Lesson: Never judge a person by their cover, the cover of their book is much more telling in terms of their theory of mind.

2. Be ready for some singing.
People with and without Ipods will sing, hum, scat, a cappella, and rap. Sometimes they are looking for money. Other times they are completely unaware that anyone else is listening, or cares. While some people find this burdensome, M.Snowe believes it to be the final breaths of our collective consciousness, which with the advent of ipods, mobile phones and other isolating devices, has been ailing so long it is in its final death throes. So please, listen to the swan song of these "crazy" and inconsiderate simple folk.

3. Your mood dictates the quality of your ride.
This is less subway info than a general commentary on the nature of travel. For instance, while in a good mood, even the most annoying fellow travelers can be passed with only mild irritation, or the disagreeability of others in response to annoyances seems to be drastically out of proportion. You wonder "why is everyone getting so bent out of shape by something as small as public urination?"

more to follow...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Aristophanes' Story (As told by Socrates), while reading Bellow

Back in political philosophy class, M.Snowe read Plato's Symposium. Thinking it was fairly good, we remembered most of the lessons taught along with it. This weekend, we were forced to begin reading Ravelstein (and when we say "forced" it's implied that it's required reading, not that M.Snowe would ever pass up an opportunity to at least start reading something new). Ravelstein, published in 2000, is a novel centered around a political philosophy professor of much renown who's best-selling book propels him to wealth and fame. So naturally, the Symposium must be cited somewhere in the book--it was only a matter of time. The narrator, a friend of Ravelstein, talks about perhaps the most hilarious, serious, and memorable part of Plato's discourse on the nature of the human condition in the Symposium. It is Aristophanes' myth on the nature of desire.
Note: This is not actually Aristophanes, but Plato writing about the character of Aristophanes within the Socratic story. Aristophanes' actual writings, such as his play, Clouds, are wonderfully funny, satiric, and worthy of a read--but this story is meant to be something that Aristophanes might say--not what he actually did.
So here's the brief synopsis:

Aristophanes, when it is his turn at the symposium to explain his beliefs on the nature of the human condition with special emphasis on desire, tells a story of the gods and the original state of humans. He claims that people once possessed two pairs of legs, arms, and two heads, etc. They were "rollie-pollie" people--they rolled around, and also possessed two sex organs--some with a male and female, some with a pair of the same organs. They were intelligent and happy, and completely whole. They required nothing, and therefore set their sights on the one thing they did not have: god-like status and power, unlike their rulers on Mount Olympus. Their ambition was fierce, and the people began to try and roll up and overthrow the gods. Seeing this, Zeus threw down his lightning bolts upon the people. It did not kill them, but it split them all into two--making them beings exactly as we are today, with two legs, two arms, walking upright, and with one sexual organ. It is because we as humans remember our previous state as "whole beings"--perfectly joined to one another--that we cannot be satisfied, and seek out our other "half." The gods then threatened all people that should they seek to overthrow again, we would be split again, and continue to be less whole and more desirous of completion than we even are now.

Of course, Aristophanes' story is flawed in that it does not explain the origins of desire--if the "whole" people weren't pushed by desire to overtake the gods, then we would still all (according to fictional Aristophanes) have four arms and legs each. But the story does try and explain the desire of us two-legged, single-sexed people. The most tragic part of Aristophanes' story, and Plato's Symposium is the irretrievable completion and simultaneous human striving for wholeness, for any scrap of it that we can grasp, knowing full-well that the possibility of fulfillment is a momentary hold at best. But that is the nature of desire--without the absence of something, there is no desire for it. And without an absence to strive for, our condition would be more tragic than our current reality. And that's why M.Snowe doesn't understand some people's hopes for a heaven (usually religious people).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Poetic Reflections (M.Snowe graffatis poems she's been pondering lately)

T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919) (It's best to start with a favorite) (--commentary in italics--)

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,

Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

--m.snowe wishes she could say/do some things, and then as soon as appropriate, wipe away the memory of her words/actions from the minds of all who saw/heard, just so she could feel the effect and weigh the choice of her full-disclosure--

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

--Lately, overwhelmed seems like an understatement. Something happens, and your world is changed. It could be anything, but most likely it is a mundane event, something that perhaps has happened to you many, many times before, just at a different location, or with different people. Suddenly, you've made a revelation. And it is sudden--sure, you may have seen it lurking, slouching towards Bethlehem if you will, but faint anticipation has nothing on the full-force of combined realization and emotional impact--it's like being pummeled from all angles in the brain, and physically being pummeled to the ground, with a slowed and achy after-effect. The funny part is you are hyper-functional: things get done. But you can't eat, you can't sleep, you can't carry on an extended thought farther than the corner of the next avenue before you are pulled back into the fray of your overwhelming revelation.--

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michangelo.

--Time passes, but you don't want it to. You only relive all moments connected with your revelation-that is more real than reality, as far as you're concerned.--

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

--you've been transformed-you are no longer that participatory being, but the surveyor, the outer one who effects no change and wishes no change except the overwhelming revelation.--

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

--you try to fool yourself with waiting-but you know better-the waiting is a necessary evil, the delusitory front of action in your self-determined path of non-action--

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

--more time, nothing changes--

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

--these questions, all these questions--none are answered, and none have a home outside your head. Do people really know each other?--

For I have known them all already, known them all:--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

--Already knowing and simultaneously hating the end of the plot, how do you bring yourself to live out the story?--

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all--
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

--How are you yourself when what you say and what you think is diametrically opposed, or at least deceitful to your thoughts? It's one thing to lie on purpose, but it's quite another to lie for a noble or unshameful purpose.--

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
And this, and so much more?--
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic latern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

--How are experiences judged when you have no idea what the other is thinking? What really happens?--

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

--You can deny all you want, but we are all our own keepers.--

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

--Amazing how we stay afloat when overwhelming thoughts are bearing down, against our untold judgment--

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jane Austen Project

Anyone clever, witty, and imaginatively rich, with the comfort of being able to read for leisure and a happy disposition would do best to emphasize all these qualities by reading a little bit more Jane Austen. When reading her work, all that vexes you can easily slip away--for at least a few "delicious" moments. (either that, or your emotions are heightened and aggravated to the acutest sense, but we hope they aren't.)

People seem to think that writers like Austen have lost most of their relevance. This is simply not true. Yes, we play sudoku, not whist, and we dash off emails, not long involved letters in cursive. We're more impressed with sports cars and SUVs than with chaise and fours, and it's debatable whether anyone can have a good tete a tete anymore. But what Austen did, that many writers, if not most, can and could not, was to not only encapsulate the spirit of the age, but she also captured the spirit of the human condition. Underneath all the 18th Century finery lays a picture stripped bare of all the outer pretension. There are just people: sensible people, vain people, silly people, innocent people, conflicted people, horrible people...and the list goes on. The outer aspects/attributes of them all might change, but the inner drives and motivations are remarkably unchanged from age to age. Pick up any Austen story, and you'll find the emotions you felt when you were this age, or the exact sketch of your best friend or worst enemy at that age. And the absolute notion that we all exist in a world commonly shared, and yet individually experienced rings true--we all know the world, but we can only surmise how each and every one of us relates it to ourselves. The ability to have and understand human relationships is what Jane Austen writes best, and it would be best if we made ourselves amiable, and took up her lengthy volumes of advice.

On Jane Austen in the present.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


After less than a few days of voracious reading, The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton was placed reluctantly onto my bookshelf, right near The House of Mirth, and a rather extensive collection of V. Woolf collections... Before starting to read the book, reviews were consulted, and many reviewers of the book, when comparing it to Mirth, decided that it was not, in fact, tragic. And yes, if your definition of tragedy is the rather barbaric definition that squarely says: "Everybody Dies", well then, you'd be spot on target. There is a place and a time for the argument that death is needed to make a tragedy both painful and painfully exquisite (search Shakespeare for those examples). But sometimes, the most exquisite tragedies are in the monotony of life lived in an unwanted attitude, beyond will, yet the alternatives are beyond the reaches of possibility. Henry James was perhaps the best practitioner of such stories, with characters who may not die, but live lives of self-inflicted and yet utterly unavoidable cerebral entrapment. For the characters to veer from their rather undesirable, long-lived fates would be a breach of their own personal human condition. Edith Wharton also understood this tragic set-up that made stories so powerful.

In The Age of Innocence, the protagonist, Newland Archer, is skirting the brink of social ruin with the Countess Olenska. Archer is married to the beautiful yet (as he considers) simple-minded and society-molded May. While the reader might detect a flicker of brilliance or self-possession in May, Archer is too blinded by Ellen Olenska to notice. Ellen, married to an abusive Polish Count, has traveled back to NYC where her family remained, hoping for solace and relief from a horrible marriage. Of course, in that time, the woman, despite the amount of abuse inflicted upon her, was just as scandalized by leaving her rotten husband than the Count himself. She remains married, and so it is doubly impossible for Archer--he is married, and could never leave his wife to marry an already married Ellen. Ellen and Archer barely touch hands throughout the book--and the reader is never given the satisfaction of a loving embrace--just as the characters never get one either. A few years of Archer's young life are spent in pursuit of a pittance of time that could be contained within the length of a longish movie, at most--and yet his entire being, his methods of thought, his actions and illusions--all surround this one object of affection. And truly, he fetishizes her with unbounded imagination, an imagination being the only real place where people of the early 1900s could freely contemplate their "heathen" natures or thoughts. The end is similar to what many misguided people consider the plot of a Jamesian novel: nothing happens. There is an epilogue of sorts, where we fast forward to show an older Newland Archer, one who stayed committed to May, and at the last refuses to see Ellen Olenska when he gets the chance 20 years after their last parting. Despite Archer's own refusal to find what he thought was happiness and his acceptance of the mundane reality of his marriage, he still holds on to the memory of a better age, an exciting time, despite its lack of a true climax (either ideologically or sexually). It is at once the best and most horrific tragedy--one held up to the closest point of a culmination, and yet it never quite gets there, it just dissipates, as if the action were quickly scaling a cliff, only to slowly, with regret, turn back from whence it came, without getting a view from the apex. It is the wish for that resolution, that final look, that keeps the book afresh, and keeps the readers coming back. It is the Keatsian image of the lovers in Ode to a Grecian Urn, forever bidding adieu.

Let's switch the gears a bit, from literary to the political...
To any of those who were holdouts for the Hillary campaign, you can look at her legacy (at least right now) in a similar way. It is an exquisite tragedy to her supporters, to come so close, and yet be so far away from what would have surely been the apex of her career. Women and the nation as a whole will remember her campaign as the first legitimate reach for the white house for a woman, and that's something to say. Clinton, like Ellen and Archer, tried her luck starting with the politics of New York, and was angled out by a world that was not ready for her just yet. Many were ready for Clinton, it just wasn't enough. So for those in mourning, at least take comfort in the fact that the tragedy was beautiful, and memorable in ways that many other campaigns in the past have not been (Howard Dean, for instance, does not conjure up any comparisons to good literature, although I'm sure some might have a suggestion--probably something post-modern, or existential).