“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Sunday, June 10, 2007

the divorce of wisdom and pleasure I

Li woke up with that Manu Chao song stuck in our head: me gustas tu. Who knows where the hell that came from? Perhaps because I heard on the radio last week they were coming to Austin…

But me gusta marijuana/ me gustas tu it seems wholly appropriate to today’s post, another in my interminable backasswards crawl towards my current obsession: the divorce between wisdom and happiness. And though I am sure that I have worn out the patience of all but the most hardcore masochists among you, I received a sweet email yesterday about the sage and the fool that made me think: all is not in vain!

So, let’s begin with death:



“Yama said: The good is one thing and the pleasant another. These two, having different ends, bind a man. It is well with him who chooses the good. He who chooses the pleasant misses the true end.

The good and the pleasant approach man; the wise examines both and discriminates between them; the wise prefers the good to the pleasant, but the foolish man chooses the pleasant through love of bodily pleasure.” – Katha Upanishad

The context for Death’s routine – Yama is death – is the following: Nachiketas is the son of Wajashrawas, a man who had reached that point in his life when becoming a sage took priority over all else. So he gave away his property. Nachiketas, like the young man in Lewis Carroll’s Father William ("You are old, Father William," the young man said,/"And your hair has become very white;/And yet you incessantly stand on your head--/Do you think, at your age, it is right?"), decided to bother the old man and asked “Father, have you given me to someone?” After being asked three times, Wajashrawas said yes, I’ve given you to Yama – death. Recall that Father William also became impatient with his young man after three questions ("I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"/ Said his father; "don't give yourself airs! /Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?/ Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"). Nachiketas then proceeded to go to Yama’s house, and spent three days there without eating and drinking. Threes, by the way, haunt this story, as they haunt all stories involving wishes. Sure enough, Yama, impressed by Nachiketas’ ascetic regime, grants him three wishes. Nachiketas’ first wish is to be reconciled with his father. His second wish is for Fire. But Yama balks at his third wish, for Nachiketas wants to know if there is something after death. To know what comes after death puzzles even the gods. But Nachiketas insists. Thus begins the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad, with the verses I quoted above, with death making a primary distinction between the wise, who chose the path of the good, and the foolish, who chose pleasure. In the translation made by Shree Porohit Swami and Englished by Yeats, the verse goes; “Who follows the good, attains sanctity; who follows the pleasant, drops out of the race.” I take this to be teasing us with a sense of paths, tracks, traces – something that lets us follow. But I also like the translation I am quoting: “These two, having different ends, bind a man.” In Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”, there is a nice passage about Ananke’s net – Ananke being necessity:

“According to Parmenides, being itself is trapped by the “bonds of powerful Ananke’s net.” And in the Platonic vision of things, we find an immense light, “bound in the sky and embracing its whole circumference, the way hempen ropes are gound around the hulls of galleys.” In each case, knots and bonds are essential. Necessity is a bond that curses back on itself, a knotted rope (peirar0 that holds everything within its limits (peras). Dei, a key work, meaning ‘it is necessary’, appears for the first time in the Iliad: “why is it necessary (dei) for the Argives to make war on the Trojans?” That verb form, governed by an impersonal subject, the es of everything that escapes an agent’s will, is traced back by Onians to deo, ‘to bind’, and not to dea, ‘to lack’ as other philologists would have it. It is the same image, observes Onians, “that, without being aware of its meaning in the dark history of the race, we find in a common expression of our own language: ‘it is bound to happen.’

Tracks do form nets. Reading this, I thought surely Callaso would then reference Vernant and Detienne’s wonderfully mysterious book on Cunning among the Greeks, which teases out a variety of binding, rope twisting and corded words to fill in the semantic field of the ruse – of metis. But he doesn’t. Myself, I am reminded of the fact that civilization has long been identified with metalwork – the bronze age, the iron age – rather than work with fabric. When the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they conquered a culture that had inherited another set of assumptions entirely, deriving from knots and nets. Charles Mann makes this point in 1491, going over recent discoveries in Peruvian archaeology that point to the privileged place of netmaking and weaving from the earliest times. And, of course, there are the khipu, the Incan knot language that was assumed, until recently, to be a form of accounting. Gary Urton, a Harvard archaelogist, is the most prominent recent figure to say, not so – there’s words encoded in those knots and filaments. But such a base for civilization, such soft technology, blindsided the Europeans, who couldn’t even see that it was a technology. Even though, of course, knots, strings, fabrics, weaving do have a lively underlife from the Greeks through the Renaissance witches, and of course every marriage is a knot tied. (Although there is a counterknot to prevent marriage – the noueurs d’aiguillettes were persecuted by Parliamentary decree in France).

Everything here is so old that it happened in your dreams last night, from the three wishes to the division between the wise and the foolish, the path of the good and the path of pleasure, and the bewilderment that came over you as you went down the path until a wolf appeared…

que voy a hacer - je suis perdu…

50 comments:

northanger said...

knocking screen
hello

roger said...

North! old buddy old pal! I thought (sob!) you'd forgotten me, and I'd have to get my tonies news from the National Enquirer, which is pretty much where I get all my news these days!

So what is the score! Is Spring Awakening sweeping the field? And most importantly, is Angela Lansbury not winning a Tony? I need to know!

northanger said...

i didn't know Miles could sing?

northanger said...

M should be N.

what is this Spring thing? it's won two already.

northanger said...

best line i've ever seen in wikipedia:

a triple threat: she can't sing, act, or dance (or remember when to say her lines)

northanger said...

surprised, i should be asleep! madly cleaning my apt all day for some kind of yearly inspection (fix the damn elevator already!!). dammit.

northanger said...

Roggie, go here for winners.

roger said...

Hey hey hey! Fruehlings Erwachen, as we like to say around the LI homestead, whilst adjusting our monocle.

Its the Wedekind play that, I believe, Berg created music for. It was part of the series that included the great Pandoras Buechse - which was made into a movie by the great G.W. Pabst and starred the great and bodacious Louise Brooks. See, I'm getting into awards ceremony speech. You've been a great audience, and this is a great comment. I'm thrilled to be making this comment. Okay, I've had a teenie drinkie this evening, here and there, but they were thrilling too. Oh, and I'm sorry that they put a ridiculous sound track on that sampling of Pandora's Box.

northanger said...

you can't guess who the very first choreographer was...

anyway, more Spring winning!

northanger said...

wait! i think all the winners are listed at wikipedia already. this is taped for the west coast. bummer.

best speech so far....Mary Louise Wilson

roger said...

it isn't live? where is this thing anyway, NY? and they are all in bed by, what, midnight? What happened to civilization, man? I remember it. It happened after midnight. I remember that distinctly.

northanger said...

ok, David Hyde Pierce wins for Curtains...just haven't seen him pick up the Tony yet.

is the west coast not good enough for LIVE THEA-tah? bum. mer.

northanger said...

the winners are all listed here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/61st_Tony_Awards

northanger said...

i was trying to figure out why it started at 8pm out here. it's taped.

bleech! ptui!

roger said...

Frankie Langella won for frost/nixon. Hey, my picks from last night are looking good. I would have picked Street sense over angela lansbury. Hmm, I just don't like that woman. If Swooshie Kurz won for Heartbreak House, I'm in the trifecta zone. Damn. I should have been on the phone to vegas.

northanger said...

Spring Awakening (Best Musical) won 8 & The Coast of Utopia (Best Play) won 7.

northanger said...

Roger, i want my money back!

roger said...

Swooshie didn't win. Shit. The judges couldn't give the award to a woman named after a Nike commercial. Ho ho ho.

So, the odds were running pretty heavy that Ethan Hawke would come drunk to the ceremony. Last surprise of the evening. Did he?

northanger said...

ah, Frühlings Erwachen

roger said...

I would love to see a good performance of Heartbreak house, by the way. My favorite play by Shaw. A beautiful piece. Have you ever seen it?
Instead, it is always tedious Mrs. Warren's profession, androcles and the lion, or that one with Cleopatra in it.

northanger said...

of course he was drunk!

northanger said...

me? i don't have a favorite play by Shaw.

roger said...

North, if I keep hanging out with you, I'm gonna become a gambler. I must remember that I am as poor as a bedbug! So, okay, who was wearing what, and more importantly - did these Broadway dames come with a little more flesh on them than Hollywood allows for? I'm starting to get worried about Hollywood stars - at least, according to National Inquirer, even Angle... AGNEL... angelina jolie is down to a whispy 90 pounds. Of course, they also say she is pregnant, so I don't quite get that.

roger said...

Oh, here's a brief film about how hungry Angelina has been getting lately . She's been attacking pesticide trucks. Poor thing.

northanger said...

i think in Hollywood you weigh as much as your publicist can get away with.

northanger said...

who played in Dawson's Creek? she's pregnant again too.

northanger said...

Roger, are you implying your quality of life has gone down since you've known me?

roger said...

Hey, are you trying to start a rumor to break Brad and Angelina up? He had nothing to do with the Dawson Creek incident. He was in Tijuana at the time, at a fish fry. Besides, he just gave her a friendly kiss. A friendly pat. He was trying to see if she was carrying any concealed weapons. He is all about protecting his family, that Brad!

roger said...

North, au contraire! I have provisions for a whole month. But you do bring out the oddsman in me.

northanger said...

just remember, you brought up Paris first. Brad got the apple.

northanger said...

i do so not bring out your zest. don't blame me.

roger said...

Well, damn. I gotta blame somebody!
Hey, here's an add for Coast of Utopia. A whole lotta namedropping going on - sorta like a dramatized wikipedia!

northanger said...

oh. what were people wearing?

o.O
clothes.

northanger said...

wouldn't it be something if there was a pop-up wikipedia? scratch-n-sniff?

northanger said...

don't blame me!

roger said...

No garment ravished your senses? Made you think of getting the designer on the hopper tout suite, and ordering up a set of threads?

northanger said...

Roger, i wear a kahki hat with micky mouse on it. garments do not ravish me. but if you want to know whose boobs were more likely to fall out..

roger said...

Of course!!!! Don't tease me with the three dots. As long as it wasn't angela landsbury or the gal with the nike name.

roger said...

Well, the last comment disappeared. As I was saying, I am seen, quite often, wearing a paintspotted red baseball cap. But if I had the scratch, I'd go for the understated elegant look.

northanger said...

sorry. i forgot her name, she was w/ Taye Diggs & i found myself looking at the middle of her chest admiring how she kept all that fancy architecture ... up.

northanger said...

Roger, you're you. old paint is the understated elegant look.

roger said...

Ah, Idina Menzel. Looked it up on the times slideshow. Quite the dish, and a nice rag she's wearing, too.

Old paint is nice. I've nothing against it. But one does need something for tea dances and such, n'est-ce pas?

Although actually my wardrobe is in terrible shape. I went to a thrift store the other day to get a few things, and among them I wanted some swimming trunks, since I discovered, embarrassingly enough, that my old swimming trunks were not giving me any ... um, support any more. So I pick some up, but they are all, like, in some kind of metric numbering system. I couldn't figure it out. So I take the 27 up to the bored clerk, ask her opinion, and she assures me it will fit. Get home, and these swimming trunks would be wide on the haunches of a mule.

I'm against using the metric system on swimming trunks. It goes against everything I stand for.

northanger said...

that's her. sorry Idina.

do not make me tell you Roger how holey my shorts were. but i got two new ones & reserved the last Harry Potter. yea!

it was my birthday. wish me something!

roger said...

North? I guess it is time to go to bed and read the new Ha Jin novel - gotta review that sucker. Good night!I'm sure you will be humming some award winning show stopper in your dreams tonight.

northanger said...

there's tea dances & then there's tea parties.

northanger said...

g'night!

roger said...

Damn! Your b-day!

I will wish you - I will wish you a year's worth of foolish choices that come, by the most improbable coincidences and sheer good fortune, to happy ends!

northanger said...

awww. thanks. that should cover not flossing & not enough oven cleaning.

roger said...

Oh, north, dont waste wishes on oven cleaning! I was thinking more like, say you made the foolish choice to join a band of robbers for the perfect bank heist, and were given chase to the Mexican border by the cops. The wish would be that even if your companions don't make it, you do, with the stash, a la Steve McQueen at the end of the Getaway. Hmm, or am I misremembering? He does make it, doesn't he? ... Anyway, grander and more audacious foolish choices, like that, without perhaps involving the cops in some automotive style pursuit.

northanger said...

i'm not planning a bank heist! {wish} ahem.