If you love someone, set them free

August 24, 2019 at 10:13 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Heavy fare for a summer Saturday night . . . but hey, freelancers don’t know from weekends or vacations.

This is Kierkegaard on free will. It’s actually very advanced Christian theology. I’m neither qualified nor motivated to debate its provenance, its truth, or its craziness. I just find it beautiful and thought-provoking.

“. . . goodness is to give oneself away completely, but in such a way that by omnipotently taking oneself back one makes the recipient independent. All finite power makes [a being] dependent . . .

“It is incomprehensible that omnipotence is not only able to create the most impressive of all things—the whole visible world—but is able to create the most fragile of all things—a being independent of that very omnipotence. Omnipotence, which can handle the world so toughly and with such a heavy hand, can also make itself so light that what it has brought into existence receives independence, Only a wretched and mundane dialectic of power holds that it is greater and greater in proportion to its ability to compel and to make dependent. No. Socrates had a sounder understanding; he knew that the art of power lies precisely in making another free. But in the relationship between man and man this can never be done . . . only omnipotence can truly succeed in this.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard

It’s just this to the nth power.




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depressed prosepoem

August 24, 2019 at 8:52 pm (By Amba)

I don’t want to get online. Right now I feel cheated by the fool’s-fire of Facebook. The mirage of a life. A minuet of phantasms. We’re all working our holographic puppets, projections on a dimensionless stage. They can be withdrawn or extinguished at the flick of an eyelid. Disembodied Bunraku. Our smiling, painted selves strut their stuff while our unsmiling bodies, swaddled in black, twitch the strings to distract discovery away from our den full of bones.

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The Old Healer

March 27, 2019 at 8:50 pm (By Amba, Uncategorized)

Bob Chapra, a Feldenkrais Method practitioner in (I think) Philadelphia, posted this on Facebook. I thought it worth sharing, not least for the beautiful photograph.

Old Healer

The old healer to the soul:

It’s not your back that hurts, but the burden.

It’s not your eyes that hurt, but injustice.

It’s not your head that hurts, it’s your thoughts.

Not the throat, but what you don’t express or say with anger.

Not the stomach that hurts, but what the soul does not digest.

It’s not the liver that hurts, it’s the anger.

It’s not your heart that hurts, but love.

And it is love itself that contains the most powerful medicine.


(Author unknown)

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#metoo THIS

October 11, 2018 at 9:29 pm (By Amba)

A Brief for the Complexity of Experience

Reading this psychoanalytic article on how an ambiguous past experience can be retrospectively recognized or reevaluated as a trauma (such a revelatory change is an emotional reality, the author claims, not some opportunistic rebranding to jump on an angry-victim bandwagon), I started thinking again about the time my boss made a pass at me.

That scene sprang to mind immediately when #metoo arose, of course, and I have thought of it often since. I cannot honestly say it was traumatic at the time, though it was disturbing, and I cannot call it traumatic even now, though it remains vivid in my memory, which tells you something. I want to tell you about it because I think it exemplifies the one thing that gets lost in a zero-tolerance, all-or-nothing cultural climate, and that is what actually happened. And the context: what happened before, and after. The ambiguity and weirdness that is the power of narrative can be too quickly stamped flat by interpretation and judgment. I don’t want to lose the details of the experience by classifying it and filing it.

I have the luxury of remembering this way because I was lucky. The man in the story was not a misogynist, he had already demonstrated that beyond a doubt. At no time did he belittle me or relate to me primarily as a body, much less one he had rights to. He did not punish me professionally in any way for my infinitesimal rebuff. I do not intend to generalize from this story. I am not suggesting that other such stories may or may not resemble it in any way. I don’t want to make this particular story out to have been either worse or better than it was. I’m not drawing conclusions. I’m trying to preserve particularity.

*   *   *

I was twenty-two. He must have been in his mid- to late forties, a heavy-bodied, intellectual man with a sensual, fleshy face. Married. He was a senior editor in the publishing house where I had been hired right out of college. I was an editorial assistant. Or maybe I had been promoted to assistant editor, because I was no longer reading the slush pile (the unsolicited manuscripts that came in the mail—we actually read them) in a windowless office with three other Ivy League “girls.” I had my own little windowless office.

He came into my office on some business or other and closed the door behind him, which I thought was odd. We exchanged a bit of professional small talk and then he stepped forward, bent over my desk and kissed me on the mouth. In his loose business pants a dolphin rolled.

I simply didn’t respond. I didn’t move. I must have given him an uncomprehending, wary, enigmatic look. He stepped back. The dolphin vanished into the depths. He left my office and closed the door behind him.

And that was the end of it. Things went on as before, as if it had never happened. Almost. There was a little dent in my childlike trust in him, like the first scratch on a new car.

*   *   *

The context.

He had been a mentor to me, someone who reveled in and egged on my mind and talent, unlike the boyfriend I’d recently dumped whose motto was, “I like airline stewardesses because they don’t think.” Scalded by prefeminist Harvard, which had dripped condescension toward all things female, especially those with pretensions to intelligence, I had thrived on the heady banter and exchange of ideas with this authority figure who treated me like a fledgling colleague. If there was a flirtatious, male-female subtext, I was obtuse to it. I played in my boss’s indulgence as freely as a child in a play therapist’s sandbox, safely trying things out.

I wasn’t a virgin, but I was pretty innocent. About my own powers, and even my own motives, as well as others’. So when I showed my boss some poems I had written, I didn’t think anything of including this one:

Spring Song 2

Had he, I wondered, wondered whether my showing him that poem had been meant as an invitation? Or did it just turn him on?

Oh, and then there was the other one, I’d forgotten about the one about the visit to the gynecologist—I won’t inflict the whole thing on you, but it was 1968, full flood sexual revolution, not only in what you did, but what you could say, and it ended with these lines:

Sanger Clinic 2

He might have been . . . forgiven (I use the word with all due irony) . . . for wondering if I was dropping an invitation in his inbox, because—the plot thickens—another young woman working in the office, a few years ahead of me, had already had an affair with him (I don’t remember when or how I learned this; probably she told me, we were friends), and it is quite possible that she had initiated it. She had had a previous relationship with a much older literary mentor. You can hear the Starr Report chorus of prurient patriarchal scorn warming up, but it wasn’t a happy story, a case of the mythical wild free spirit; she had been sexually abused as a child, was possibly bipolar (she later had a psychotic episode), and possibly hypersexual at times. How could our boss have taken advantage of someone so vulnerable? Did he even know? Or did he just think, “Oh boy, wow, why not?”

In any case, this married man had learned that bright young women in the office might be available and willing, so his kiss was investigative, to find out if I might be another one of those. To his credit (more irony), he was keenly attuned to the finding that I was not. I didn’t have to do anything but nothing, and he backed off like he’d touched a hot plate.

Remember that in 1968 there were no rules yet governing this type of relationship (aside from the stuffy old ones about marital fidelity, of course). It was a time when graduate students routinely married their professors. Was ours a relationship of unequal power? Of course. Did my boss abuse his power? Barely. For the most part he used it sincerely to nurture and foster me, a kindly professional father figure.

But as such, he did violate my naïve trust.

Compare the president of the company, a devastatingly charismatic man who doodled sharp, dashing strokes with a fountain pen while he talked to you, like Stalin doodled wolves. He took great pleasure in summoning awestruck young editors-in-training up to his eyrie on “the Ninth Floor,” alone, and entrusting us with challenging assignments. And he was impeccable. If he knew the thrill his power and presence elicited, he never took an iota of advantage of it. He used it to supercharge us with endeavor.

(I did date his son a couple of times . . .)

The ultimate irony, if I am completely truthful, is that the “bundled bear” of my poem could only have been my boss. I didn’t know any other men that shape.

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Movie Review: “The Shape of Water”

March 4, 2018 at 2:28 pm (By Amba) ()

Judging from the (lack of) response to this on FB, it should have been a blog post in the first place.

Saw #TheShapeofWater” today. Trying to frame how I felt about it. [SPOILER ALERT!!]

I love “Beauty and the Beast” stories (starting with Cocteau’s 1946 classic) and hoped to be able to give myself over to this one and suspend disbelief. The movie was too self-conscious, culturally referential, and full of in-jokes to be the kind you could give in to in that naïve way (what Paul Ricoeur would have called “first naïveté,” to be outré about it). In fact, I laughed out loud many times (even at “a god? I don’t know, he ate a cat …”). Yet it also had many touching moments, relented and deigned to fulfill one’s yearnings in the end, and it grew on me after it was over.

It’s interesting for someone who actually lived through the late 1950s–early 1960s to see that era turned into a garish mythological dreamtime (as also, differently, in “Mad Men”). It reminded me a bit of the quasi-Victorian alternate universe of Philip Pullman’s novels. Many sophisticated and subversive tropes about the entrenched sexism, racism, and Cold War machismo of that time wove through the movie. It was a nifty touch that a circa 1960 movie monster actually looked like a . . . circa 1960 movie monster, done up in the special effects of that time. And it was a funny and lovely contrast between human missionary position sex, shown in blatant splayed bare-ass full frontal, and human-monster sex, hidden discreetly behind a pulled shower curtain and alluded to with a shy, sly hand gesture.

Best picture? Hell, I don’t know. The postmodern self-consciousness of so many movies now seems to me a sign of decadence, as if culture is eating and recycling itself, with too little input from either raw experience or headlong imagination. This was an enjoyable movie, haunting and hilarious by turns, but not all-of-a-piece enough to be a great one.

A final note: was Del Toro doing a bit of subliminal “Hidden Persuaders” (1957!) influencing by making the monster look so much like an Oscar?

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Frontpaging myself . . .

December 3, 2017 at 1:34 pm (By Amba)

shamelessly. From a comment I posted on this (which gave me the opening to draft something I’d been thinking about anyway):

Even when we lack for nothing materially and even interpersonally (or especially when we lack for nothing, because then we are not distracted by the demands of necessity), our consciousness still torments us, to the point where seeking to soothe and pacify this insatiable inner craving and discontent is one of our major activities and expenses (be it by football, alcohol, opioids, workaholism, religion, or reading articles on the Internet). Taoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism are some of the thought systems that have attempted to confront this directly. What is this bone-deep, incessant dissatisfaction, the ground bass of self-awareness that we hear when all the other noise stops (Henderson the Rain King’s “I want I want I want”)? Is it only human, an artifact of our incomplete evolution, or is it shared by, say, cats and cetaceans, perfected by evolution 30 million years ago? Is it about knowing we’re going to die? Is it just about the ebb and flow of physiological states of need and satiation? Should we strive to extinguish it? Should we harness it to drive ourselves somewhere worthwhile instead of driving us crazy?


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December 2, 2017 at 1:19 pm (By Ron, Uncategorized) ()

Your enemies scoffed. Your friends fretted,  the closest of them doing so silently, almost stoically.  You had none of these feelings, for reasons you could not explain even to those most cherished.

the battle of austerlitz2

The future was yours to shape as you will — it is your Austerlitz Day! No whim or caprice shall be denied you today;  the heavens do not grant these days freely or often.  But it is this day, more than any other that reminds of what great triumphs you can achieve.  Do not fret or fear any obstacle; wryly view these as that which makes your success that much more amazing, more profound!  See your as yet unaccomplished goals in life as already vanquished foes, praying for your mercy and forbearance!  Your strength is more than willing to be generous in their defeat, because you know that the Fates could have turned on you and not them.  Forward!  Even more glory awaits!


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Hypochondria and Puritanism at 5 a.m.

November 28, 2017 at 12:02 pm (By Amba)

(wanna know what the “young old” think about early in the morning? I didn’t think so. but I’ll expose myself anyway.)

Journal entry, 11/28/2017

I’m scared of my body. I lie awake tuning in to its weird vibrations here and there like someone in a creaky old house, or an earthquake zone. Listening: was that a ghost’s step closer? a tremor?

I know that I’m past three score and ten (which is a real thing, it turns out) and my body could turn on me at any time. So is the tingle in my left big toe the beginning of ALS, or a brain tumor? (It’s probably sciatic nerve compression in my left lower back, where I’ve had sacroiliac pain, or common peroneal nerve irritation in my sore left knee. After yesterday’s amazing ATM [Awareness Through Movement© lesson], which differentiated extension of the lower spine, it vanished for a day. Also, I was walking up and downstairs in a new way that spared my knee.) Is the little string that repeatedly vibrates deep in my pelvis — now in the left groin, now just right of center — a muscle twitch (ALS again!) or an abdominal aortic aneurysm? Is it a reaction to the drastic demands for change and exertion I make on my body? Or have these things always been going on and am I just now attuned and undistracted (i.e. alone) enough to notice them? Who knows? Who cares? Something will get you, sooner or later, you can count on that. The real question is, how can I make use of rather than waste what’s left of my life? Not by lying awake listening to the first tendrils of the flood of mortality finger for cracks, trying the door.

Then too (ambivalence is all!), the “don’t waste your life” meme is so puritanical, and it just rouses its opposite, rebellion, so they are deadlocked. It’s the guilty puritan who wastes his or her life snacking on the couch and beating him/herself up for it. What a bore, “Should!” and “Don’t wanna!” in their endless Punch and Judy show. Superego and subversive soul . . . I was thinking yesterday that an inspired or guided blundering into situations is a richer way to live than setting a Project and plotting a course — the American self-help way. Ignore the landscape, build for the automobile, with its front-facing binocular focus, its blinders on, its headlamps tunneling through the fog to the same death that will claim those who’ve been wandering in the woods exulting shamelessly in their senses . . . But from another point of view, a Project is only a way of getting yourself into some new situations.

I’ve always lived myopically, using all my creativity to respond to, cope with, and understand comprehend whatever — whoever — came close enough for me to see and, better yet, touch. (“Comprehend” holds a better metaphor than “understand”; it’s hands-on.) Now? For the first time in my life, the field ahead and all around is clear, and I have the chance and the challenge to project something of my own onto that blank screen. It is so unaccustomed, and so absurd in the existential sense — undriven by the engine of reproduction and unawaited by any even imaginary expectant throng. Does it matter to me if it doesn’t matter?

I used to think this was what “acte gratuit” meant. What a disappointment to discover that it meant a murder committed for the hell of it — an adolescent male fantasy of the existentialists, a term coined by André Gide. . . . This is weirdly relevant.

The point is, I feel like an adolescent, but I am not. I am a “senescent,” a “moribund.” I don’t have an adolescent’s plausible illusion of unlimited time. I have some unknown but very finite amount of time until the clock inside strikes and my coach turns into a rotting pumpkin. And, maybe because I am abnormally healthy for my age, I can’t quite seem to get it. Is what I have my ear cocked inward for a kick in the ass? Do I need a ticking timer, a hard deadline to race against?

Doing something for someone else (usually editing) drags me back into the lifestream, contextualizes me, and gets my juices flowing. Everything exists in connection, nothing in isolation. Pull one thread and the whole peaks and puckers into a landscape.

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A Muffled Lantern

November 3, 2017 at 2:44 pm (Uncategorized)


There’s almost no new news about the “West Side terror attack.” I can’t decide if that’s media amnesia—the accelerating addiction to ever fresher thrills—or an admirable determination to go on with life.
All I know is, you’re still resonating with the emotion of a story and the media hustle you on. My first experience of this was Tiananmen Square, and it put me off media news consumption ever since. I am a slow-paced ruminant, I guess. I resist being turned into a media lab rat conditioned to await the next jolt from the electrode. Partly, it’s having lived with Jacques who had lived through something very real in real time. I got it a distant second-hand (second-hand is always distant*) and worked very hard to make it as real to myself as was humanly possible (which is not very) using only an imagination. Vicarious media participation in traumatic events is film-thin and can be peeled off just that easily. One feels one owes the directly traumatized more respect than that. And of course we privately give, in our imaginations, more respect than the amnesic media with their ratings cravings.
*(Jacques loved this quote from L.–F. Céline: “Experience is a muffled lantern that sheds its light only on the bearer.)

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The receiving instrument

October 26, 2017 at 11:06 am (Uncategorized)

(Some discoveries are too good just to drop on @#&^$*&!! Facebook where I myself will never see them again. Besides, I want Louise to see this.)

What a lovely term I never heard before — the “beholder’s share,” the unique creative contribution that each viewer/listener/reader brings to perceiving a work of art. It was coined by Alois Riegl of the Vienna school of art history and his disciples Ernst Kris (who became a psychoanalyst) and Ernst Gombrich.

I had come to this concept (without having a word for it) in regard to Jacques, who was an immensely generous and percipient listener to music, especially jazz — its ideal audience perhaps — who was obviously musically gifted, but had never learned, in his rough-and-tumble life, to play an instrument well. (It might have been the bass.) It struck me that “the ear is the fifth instrument in the quartet,” that no piece of music is complete or fulfilled without a listener, a witness, and that listening, like playing, must also be practiced and refined. And the same can be said for every art. Now I have a term for it. The beholder’s share.

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