Sunday, March 15, 2009
What was renaissance man? A polymath perhaps? In Leonardo's case, we could say: artist, engineer, even natural historian. He painted, sketched, constructed siege engines, and filled dead lizards with wax so he could see the shape of their internal organs. But what is the value of being a polymath? Is it just being good at many things in parallel? No, it is rather the cross-pollination that arises from the crossing-over of one's various talents. But this could just happen horizontally, as it were, between different intellectual interests. Just as important, I believe, is the vertical interplay between what we think of as the theoretical and the practical. This is especially true of writing and thinking, where images and metaphors play such a vital role in shaping our work. When we sensuously (and attentively) work the world we viscerally reach down into the well-springs of poesis. Today I found myself repairing a broken chair with glue, and about eight clamps, each exerting pressure from a different angle. The chair was of no great value, and yet I had had it for decades, and it had become something of a friend. I had been using it to get extra height cleaning the roof of the truck, and then inadvertently backed up on it, crushing a leg. Wanting to mend it was overdetermined. I wanted to undo my own folly. But I also wanted to make a damaged thing whole. I react this way to almost anything that can be fixed, and with my workshop in place, I can now easily repair many ordinary sized objects. There is something fascinating about 'the broken', as Heidegger noted about a broken hammer. When a tool breaks (but equally when a living being is hurt), its taken-for-granted functionality is interrupted, and becomes visible, perhaps for the first time. There is an ontological"Aha!" experience. You appreciate things anew. But I still wonder what this desire to make things whole is all about, whether it is an instinct we all have some of (a gestalt tendency), and how it connects with Freud's eros and thanatos. Is it broadly what Freud meant by eros? And how is it connected with the desire to destroy, to kill? I know it is not what Freud meant, but there is clearly a synergistic version of these twin impulses - in which the destructive impulse is in the service of the creative. We want to destroy what impedes creativity - negativity, blockages, bad karma. But what then is the end of creativity - is it (in the case of mending the chair) just restoration of a static whole? That would be profoundly conservative. Wholes that are worth having do something. A machine works again. A mended chair stops wobbling, enabling one to concentrate on other things. A watered plant grows. Sometimes the 'doing' may be symbolic - demonstrating that (in the case of my chair) that damage can be undone, that time is not always irreversible. A non-conservative commitment to restoration would be to restore potential, possibility, openings onto a future, not some fixed essence. A true conservative might respond: but of course, what else? When the glue has set, I wonder if I should paint the chair red. Or stripes. Must order a WWLD? tee-shirt.
* Speaking of symbolic connections, the second image above is of The Broken Chair, a sculpture by Daniel Berset, which stands in front of the Palais des Nations (Geneva) and symbolises the campaign for a mine-free world. A hybrid of the broken tool and the hurt creature.
Henry died yesterday. Jay and Melissa had four horses here: Big Mama, Chance, and two white ones: Gracie and Henry. And now Henry is no more. He lay down in a rain puddle at the end of the pasture, and died. In the evening mist it was too late to deal with his body. We covered him with a blue tarp, and secured it against coyotes with wire pegs. There were lots of tears. Melissa had given him extra shots, vitamins, special food, and he had put on 50 pounds. Had we done enough? Could we not have done more? Measuring his girth, he weighed some 747 lb. With dirty, wet,straggled hair, and half-bared teeth, he looked very dead. The people they got him from late last summer said he was 17, maybe 20. But from his flattened teeth he was clearly much older - over 30. (Perhaps one should look a gift horse in the mouth!!) Had they lied to get rid of him? And if they had lied? Had Melissa not taken him, he would have had a quick bullet in the head and missed out on those good last months. Are we not all tempted, at times, especially as we get older but feel young, to lie about our age? Kant worried that the practice of truth-telling would break down. How is it that white lies do not destroy truth? The question now was what to do with the body. Priscilla told me a while back that the pit down near the bottom creek bed had once been used for dead animals. But after the downpour it was full of water; Henry would just float. I phoned Tom to see if he had a backhoe so we could make a hole, but he was out. I later checked on the web about horse disposal. Seems there are laws in some states about what one can do. Important to keep dead horses out of water courses, away from neighbors yards, and to avoid critters you don't want turning up. (Hey - I got to use the word 'critters' - not previously part of my vocabulary.) Last year, a tree of vultures greeted me on a dead-goat day. I would like to have exposed ol' Henry on the hillside. Those winged butchers would have stripped and carried him off in no time. Instead we strapped him to a sheet of plywood, and skidded him first with the 4x4, and then with the tractor, to the far end of the Peace Circle field, and covered him on the ground with cedar branches. The kids were not with us. Alexis (aged 8) had wept all night and she will want to visit the grave. Jay said they will take her to some other patch of disturbed ground. I don't want to lie to her, said Melissa, but ... (But Alexis would not want to see a half-rotten, worm-infested Henry?) Could an eight year old child understand ashes to ashes? Horse to worms? Don't those horribly graphic Roald Dahl children's books suggest kids delight in the gruesome? And is it really gruesome to think of nature's little helpers (worms, ants, bacteria, vultures, coyotes ...) welcoming Henry's substance back into the mix. The people who gave us Henry lied about his age to smooth things along, and now we will lie about his resting place. Nietzsche says we cannot take too much reality, and yet he wants to rub our nose in this truth. Sartre imagines a world of brutal honesty as a healthier place. Jay told sobbing Alexis that Henry was in a better place now. Should we say these things? Unlike animals, we say we understand the meaning of death, so why not come clean: Henry is history. While we were folding Henry onto his plywood gantry, Chance, Big Mama, and Gracie galloped over menacingly. Would they charge us? - they acted as if we were intruding on their grief-space. Instead, they kept back and watched us intently. And when we skidded Henry away from the field, they followed, as if part of the cortege. What were they thinking? Do horses have at least the whiff of the abyss? Do they perhaps at least catch the drift?