"Far Away From It All..."

Without stirring abroad

One can know the whole world;

Without looking out of the window

One can see the way of heaven.

The further one goes

The less one knows.

Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,

Identifies without having to see,

Accomplishes without having to act.

 

-- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

 

Everyone has known a day or two on which the thought of leaving a profession, a job, a spouse, a locale was irrepressible, when any change at all seemed incomparably better than moping around the corridors of routine. There are times when we're disposed to action, adventure, risk-taking, enterprise; other times when we prefer nothing but silence, tranquillity, rest. We know not quite what to do when neither the compulsion to act nor the desire to recline presents itself to us. We're usually left fending off the onset of ennui.

Perhaps monotonous routines and bouts of boredom would little disturb us if we made the most of our leisure and vacations. But here, too, our imagination fails us. We see any flight from home, any shuffling of the objects of consciousness as a salutary diversion. We're too often inclined to think that the action is happening somewhere else, rather faraway, that not a shred of vitality is latent within us. The images of the tourism industry are too seductive not to be believed. Who are we to doubt the existence of that exotic island, with its sparkling vistas, curvy women, first-class hotels, slavish attendants, and promises of fun 'round the clock? The advertisement is larger than life, after all, and we're pathetically diminutive; the images are poignant, but our own ideas and feelings are completely irrelevant. The notion of a transient utopia is perfectly credible because it is something outside of us, and therefore, naturally, quite real.

Concealed by all the sophisticated imagery of exotic islands and spectacular divertissements is the fact that the ever-encumbered self follows us wherever we go, and that the very elements from which escape is so desirable are often abundantly manifest in our many trips and respites. Among these are mental passivity, superfluous consumption, the experience of others not as friends or congenial acquaintances but as bland, faceless, anonymous forces in the system of production. 

I can be a few thousand miles away from home, reclining on a bed in an expensive hotel suite, completely unmindful of the problems of my life, and yet be very much grounded in the center of so much that is dispiriting today. Across from me in the suite, the ubiquitous television and remote --- the sine qua non of society that requires nothing from the viewer and serves as an emotional factotum for us all, providing variously cheap laughs, bland punditry, vicarious sex, plenty of violence, the illusion of connectedness, and a familiar cast of (mostly dull) characters.

Down the hotel hall, ever close by, a raft of servants and maids whose job is to clean up after me, change the linens, make my bed, put new soap and cologne on the bathroom counter, maybe drop a couple of chocolates near my pillow. I always act awkwardly polite around them, feeling embarrassed, sometimes ashamed, that they are catering to me, that this instance of depersonalization (I get enough depersonalization in a supermarket, in a pharmacy, in a bookstore: I don't welcome it when I'm on vacation) is colored by the absurd distinction of class.

No matter what hotel I'm in, no matter what town or city, I can always count on the contiguous presence of corporate chain stores, corporate fast food, department stores, malls, and innumerable people keen on buying something.

On a plane, I can count on someone pulling out a notebook computer, glancing at a Palm gadget, beholding a Gameboy. I can count on seeing a magazine or two in front of me, full of ads, full of tips and suggestions on investing money and saving for retirement, full of happy, smiling people holding up a product or touting a service.

These are the things from which I seek refuge when I contemplate time off. Not for nothing is such escape called a "vacation": the word comes from the Latin verb vacare, meaning "to be empty." Lao-Tzu might well have finished his stanza by saying, "Has fun without having to buy anything," or "Thinks without having to work."

Perhaps our lives would be immeasurably richer if we could see the interior world as vibrant and as full of possibilities as the exterior world, if instead of settling comfortably into the role of the passive idiot we made our mind even more alert, more discriminating when it was relieved from the imperative of work.

There is something close to us all that engages the mind, invites many flights of fancy, takes us away from all the frivolous tasks and worries at hand, appeals as much to our reason as to our emotions, opens up so much additional experience, and won't dilute the budget. Could I be referring to anything other than a really good book?

A good book is one that parades my stupidity and ignorance before me and leaves me with every incentive to take corrective action. It jogs my conscience and flings open wide the doors of understanding and insight.

Below is a short list of titles very well worth the time of the reader. I present them not in the manner of the stilted academic who has an unflagging belief in the holiness of "great books," but as a friend of the site visitor who, like any other friend, would call to his or her attention something really good. The list here doesn't follow any order of ascendancy.

1. Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Rules of Influence: A Careerist's Guide To Success, Status, And Self-Congratulation. Lapham is the editor of Harper's Magazine and one of the finest social essayists around. This is a work of satire and remorseless blasphemy against our national religion, money-making and career-advancement. The rules are expressed with such fine irony that there's a chance that a random, ass-kissing sycophant will take them literally. A few of my favorites (they're all spectacular):

The Trap Of Friendship:

"Do not burden yourself with the luggage of false sentiment, and bear firmly in mind the distinction between a connection and a friend. A connection is an asset and a temporary convenience, like a rented car. A friend is a liability and a permanent obligation, like alimony. When discussing a friendship with a fellow careerist, refer to it as the mud that clogs the carriage wheels of high ambition."

Gravitas:

"Careers rise on the appearance of gravity, sink with shows of levity. Remember at all times that you bear the burden of inside information, which is very heavy and not to be thrown around like confetti. When sitting at a conference table, think of yourself as a speech by Alan Greespan or a trunk by Louis Vuitton."

Lies:

"Always more welcome than the truth. The word is ugly, but the service never fails to please. People blessed with extraordinary talent can remember which lies they've told to which persons in what sequence and for what reasons; the beginning student should not attempt to deceive the same individual more than twice in the same afternoon. With steady practice the duplicitous response becomes as natural as a good golf swing."

 

2. Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts On The Information Highway. Stoll is a scientist and government consultant who was an early pioneer of the online world. This book, a deep meditation of sorts, is perhaps the first to challenge the many touted claims of the Internet --- those, for instance, which say the medium is indispensable for learning, that it is instructive, that information is easily accessible and vital, and so on. "I can't turn my back on the network," he writes in the introduction. "Or can I? Right now, I'm scratching my head, wondering. Perhaps our networked world isn't a universal doorway to freedom. Might it be a distraction from reality? An ostrich hole to divert our attention and resources from social problems? A misuse of technology that encourages passive rather than active participation? I'm starting to ask questions like this, and I'm not the first."

He continues: "They [computer networks] isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They undercut our schools and libraries...It's an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness. While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowldge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where --- in the holy names of Education and Progress --- important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued."

A fantastic book whose conclusions may not be congenial to some, but whose lines of argumentation are very engaging and stimulating. Stoll is to the World Wide Web what Lewis Mumford was to modern ecology and social planning.

 

3. John Ciardi, How Does A Poem Mean? An outstanding work which an old mentor of mine passed along many years ago. A trip to a local library will be needed to retrieve it, but the effort will be repaid handsomely. Ciardi was a poet and academic best remembered for his translation of Dante's La Commedia. His work is directed at all those (all of us, really) who mistakenly hunt for simplistic morals and messages in poems. What in the world, he asks, is the "meaning" of these famous lines?

High Diddle diddle

The cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon;

The little dog laughed

To see such craft

And the dish ran away with the spoon.

What do children care for meaning? The "meaning" here is the performance of the poem, its musical quality, the juxtaposition of words, the images or feelings it evokes. Better always to ask, Ciardi says, "how" a poem means rather than "what" it means.

The work is chock full of well-known poems. One of the entries, Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica," iterates the point Ciardi takes pains to make:

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit.

 

Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb,

 

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown ---

 

A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

 

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs,

 

Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

 

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,

Memory by memory the mind ---

 

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs.

 

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

 

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

 

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea ---

 

A poem should not mean

But be.

 

There are playful poems in Ciardi's collection, such as Langston Hughes' "Early Evening Quarrel". What modern woman wouldn't sympathize mightily with the last four lines of this poem?

Where is that sugar, Hammond?

I sent you this morning to buy?

I say, where is that sugar

I sent you this morning to buy?

Coffee without sugar

Makes a good woman cry.

 

     I ain't got no sugar, Hattie,

     I gambled your dime away.

     Ain't got no sugar, I

     Done gambled that dime away.

     But if you's a wise woman, Hattie,

     You ain't gonna have nothin to say.

 

I ain't no wise woman, Hammond.

I am evil and mad.

Ain't no sense in a good woman

Bein' treated so bad.

 

     I don't treat you bad, Hattie.

     Neither does I treat you good.

     But I reckon I could treat you

     Worser if I would.

 

Lawd, these things we women

Have to stand!

I wonder is there anywhere a

Do-right man?

 

In addition to the colorful, the playful, the offbeat, one can find the eerily pensive, as in Robert Frost's best-known poem, "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening":

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep.

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

"Note," Ciardi says, "that the poem begins as a simple description of events, but that it ends in a way that suggests meanings far beyond the specific description. This movement from the specific to the general is one of the basic formulas of poetry."

(Questions to consider: Could the dark and the snowfall symbolize a death wish? The horse sort of knows that something's wrong, but what, exactly? What does the word "But" mean in the second line of the last stanza? And why the repetition of "miles to go"? Is the first utterance descriptive while the second suggestive of a postponement of suicide?).

 

4. Albert Einstein, Ideas And Opinions. An admirable compendium of the great man's thoughts, with famous essays such as "Why Socialism?" and many others on wealth and society, the Jewish Question and Arabs, education and learning, science and humanity. There's even a simplistic distillation of the theory of relativity for those of us who struggle to visualize and conceptualize physics.

 

5. Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings Of The World's Great Physicists. Ever wonder what geniuses like Einstein and Planck, Heisenberg and Eddington, Schroedinger and Pauli thought about God and religion? Ever hear an atheistic or theistic ideologue say something that didn't sound quite right? This volume consists of excerpted chapters from the work of these notable thinkers. Especially intriguing is Heisenberg's chapter, "The Debate Between Plato and Democritus." 

 

6. Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Including The Letters, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. In college and graduate school I read and studied at least a dozen of Plato's dialogues and thought I had a very admirable grasp of his philosophy. This work, which contains everything philosophy's greatest star ever wrote, serves as a reminder that I was decidedly wrong. The dialogues probe every facet of the human condition, from friendship and love to truth and justice, from the state of nature to the ideal political state, from education and learning to the very meaning of life. The work is published by Princeton University Press.

(Tim Ruggiero, October 20, 2001)

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