Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 4

The angel at the Gates of Happiness spoke again unto me, saying:

Your suffering, O poet, is no greater in degree than that of your fellow mortals; yet it is different in kind.


You have been blessed with many causes of happiness, for all the beauty of the world is there for you to enjoy as it is for all members of your race.


Your mission, poet, is to celebrate the good. Even in your songs of mourning, you affirm what is good by your sorrow at its passing.


Your proper attitude is not only that of celebration, but of gratitude. The true poet harbors no resentment, but only a humble and grateful spirit for all the good that has been given.


Your peculiar suffering, O poet, no greater than yet distinct from that of your kin, is this:

There is a happiness which is granted to most of your kind that is denied you, although you desire it more than any other good.

It is a happiness which you have never once possessed;

and it is a happiness which you never once shall know.


Your friends believe you suffer for a happiness which you once held, then lost. Yet in truth you grieve for a happiness which was never for a moment in your hand.

They do not know the true nature of your suffering, nor the true object of your sorrow. Like the nature of your treasure, that is only for you and your Maker to know; you may only speak of it in symbols and in myths, those great tools of the poet's art.


Your deprivation seems to you cruel and unfair; but what did you ever do to deserve any gift, O mortal? The gods dispense their gifts as they please.

None deserve the good they have. If they had deserved anything, they should have no reason to be grateful.


Your poverty, though it seem a curse, is in truth a blessing to you, O poet. It enables you to receive the strange and wondrous treasure that is given to poets, for which all the world counts as loss.


If you had the happiness which you desire, you should not have the happiness which is properly yours, and which is the true fulfillment of your being.


The fulfillment of your desires does not consist in your own satisfaction, but in the happiness of others. For this reason your tears shall become refreshing water for your kin; your blood shall become sweet wine to lighten their spirits; and your cries of sorrow shall become songs of beauty and of joy.


You are not made low as an act of cruelty but as an act of grace. The grape must first be crushed in order to produce wine.


Suffering is the lot of mortals. Your holy mission, dear poet, is to sing sweet songs full of truth and beauty and divine grace, that you may ease suffering on the earth, not only your own but also that of your fellow creatures.

In this way shall your loss be made gain, and your tragedy triumph.


For it is through your words, O poet, like the works of all those who bring love and grace, that the gods kiss the hearts of men and bring healing to their souls.

Thus spoke the angel.


I awoke from the dream, and, pondering these things, took pen in hand and crafted a song such as I was capable of making.

Glancing out my window, I saw children playing merrily in the street, old men and women smiling upon them with gladness, young men and women embracing in love. Though I could not join them, I was nevertheless happy for them, and that happiness was true.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 3

The angel who stands guard at the Gates of Happiness spoke unto me, saying:

It is wise, O poet, not to ask the gods for a muse, for they might grant you one.

Then, and only then, shall you know suffering.


The muse is a kind and a gentle muse; she will at least allow you to live.


The muse shall devour your burning heart as Beatrice consumed poor Dante's. If it is greatness you seek, you must pay for it dearly.

To most it is not worth the price; this is why there are so few great poets.


The muse is granted you that you might desire the unattainable and pursue the impossible. Only in this way may you understand the nature of your calling and the purpose of your art.


The muse holds in her hand the bluebird. It is the bluebird's song that you must ever seek, listening in the darkest depths of night, and it is the bluebird's song that you must ever transcribe into your mortal tongue.

To translate the bluebird's song is the most difficult of earthly tasks, and it shall be your lifelong challenge.


The bluebird lit briefly before your wondering eyes long ago. Her song was sweet and good and true, and you shall never be allowed to forget it, however much it pains you.


The bluebird you desired more than life, and you desire her still more than life. You would give up the riches of the world only to hear her song. That is what makes you a poet.

Thus spoke the angel.


The gods, according to their pleasure, showed me the bluebird, then placed her forever out of my reach. I first hated the gods for their injustice, until I learned that in truth she belongs to no one but her Maker.


The bluebird was not given to me as a possession, but only as an inspiration.


In my poverty, I yet possess treasures untold: the wondrous vision of the bluebird, and the divine inspiration of her song.


The bluebird inspires me far more in her wildness than she would if I kept her in a cage.


The bluebird is a messenger of grace. Through her song I am continually blessed and purified.


I never held the bluebird in my own hand, and never shall. This is my emptiness, but in that emptiness, I am granted a strange and wild freedom.


My freedom is this: I no longer must invest time and strength and soul in the pursuit of happiness, since happiness has been made impossible for me.

I am free, therefore, to become that strangest and wildest of all creatures: a poet.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 2

The oracle spoke unto me, saying:

O poet, your greatest temptations are those of Despair and of Pride.

For this reason you must learn the ways of Hope and of Humility.


You are not to be pitied; nor are you to seek pity; nor are you to pity yourself.

Your suffering is no greater than that which is the common lot of mortals. You are merely given the eyes to see and the mouth to speak the jewel that is formed in the fire, and thereby help to ease the suffering of your fellow creatures.


You are not to be glorified; nor are you to seek glory; nor are you to glorify yourself.

Yours is not to be glorified but to glorify. You are but an instrument for the divine purpose, a servant to the will of the gods. You, poet, are merely the messenger between heaven and earth. You did nothing to deserve your gifts, which are granted you at the pleasure of the gods.

Thus spoke the oracle.


Would I refuse the diamond that is produced in the crucible in exchange for the coal that lights the evening hearth?

--It is a great temptation, because even poets are human.


I am not allowed to eat when others are at table; I am not allowed to make merry when they gather round the fire. I must instead remain forever hungry and cold, my abode the dark and lonely night.


The poet is condemned to remain outside, forever outside, and this is why he sees what others cannot. Only in the cold emptiness of night, far from the warmth of the dinner table, do the stars become visible.


Far happier it is to have food in one's belly and friends at one's side than to stand alone in the cold dark longing for the unreachable stars.

--Yet far less conducive to poetry.


I have been granted a special grace to aid me in my calling. It is a great and wondrous secret, a treasure beyond compare. Yet I may not tell my fellow mortals what it is. They therefore believe that I have nothing, when I am rich beyond my dreams.


The only difficulty I face is that I must never touch or spend any of my treasure.

I therefore live as a pauper, though wealthy beyond imagining.


They believe me to be aimless. But it is simply that my aim is beyond anyone's reach.


They believe me to be ambitionless. But in fact none could possess greater ambition, for my goal lies higher than the tallest mountain peak.

The fact it is impossible to attain only makes it appear that I have failed. But that cannot rightly be called failure which was never possible to begin with.


They call me a dreamer. Yes, I say, for my dreams are my only possession. No other riches are attainable to me, and no other riches are desirable.


The poet's dreams are not meant to come true. They are meant to be turned into poetry.


The gods do not will you to be happy; they will you to be a poet.

--Thus spoke the oracle, and I sighed.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dream of a Depressed Poet: Part 1

Below is the first part of an extended prose poem on the nature of the poetic vocation (though it may apply only to a particular species of poet rather than the class as a whole). Like all poetry, this should be read as fiction, not fact; myth, not history; symbolic expression, not literal doctrine. The relation between poetry and truth is always complex and mysterious.


Dream of a Depressed Poet

In daylight, I saw nothing but emptiness.

In the oblivion of night, my blinded eyes met with a strange and sparkling truth.


It has been said unto you: "Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

But I say unto you: "Do not let the good be the enemy of the perfect."

--Unless you wish to avoid becoming the most miserable creature under heaven.


If you are capable of avoiding this fate, by all means avoid it. It is better by far to enjoy the good that is possible than to desire the perfect that is impossible. Some of your kin lack this capability, and are called Poets.


My friends cannot be blamed for believing me to suffer over the fall of my kingdom; their eyes cannot perceive the more cosmic passion of which that collapse was but an unhappy effect.


Buildings burn and collapse all around me, but my heart is afire with a far different flame.


The fall of my kingdom, tragic though it was, merely cleared a space so that I could see, at last, the true emptiness of my existence, the sublime Olympian emptiness that is the peculiar gift of poets. I have been able to think of nothing else since.


If the gods have made me to suffer, it is for the good of my fellow mortals. No suffering happens in vain.


The way to Olympus is not smooth but strewn with rocks; not straight but winding and obscure; not safe but careening precipitously over cloud-shrouded cliffs.


The Muses darkened my eyes at birth so that I might see another light than that by which my fellow mortals see the world. This is the way they mark poets and set them apart from those who are destined for happiness on this earth.


The bright and cheerful sun was blotted out for me by the fair and gracious moon so that I might behold the wondrous, eternal stars.


Wandering birds never light until they find their true home.

--For this reason, the poet is doomed to be a lifelong wanderer on the earth.


This world is an unfulfillment; it cries out for another.

--So says the poet, and the happy ones laugh and turn again to their feast.


It is a fearsome thing indeed to awake to a dawning awareness of one's destiny, when that destiny is to be a poet. Few fates are more fearsome than that.


The angel has blocked my way to the Gates of Happiness, and will not be moved.


Do not be despondent, my friend, if you find you are unable to lead me through those gates. You are, after all, only human.

No mortal, however pure of heart, may overturn the will of the gods.


It was said unto me:

"Do not be disdainful of this cup of suffering, O mortal. If God saw fit to sacrifice His own dear Son, and to let Him bleed and be broken for your pitiable race, then consider it an honor to be chosen for your painful calling. Your blood shall produce Beauty, and your tears Truth, and these shall be your gift to Man."


My destiny was revealed to me: strange, terrible, and fearsome it was, yet also good and lovely and true, and full of tender grace.


The poet is sentenced to perpetual loneliness and heartache. For this reason his days are shortened.

--At least in some things there is a mercy.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Beginning of "V"

I am obviously being much more open about this novel than I was about Bluebird. Below is the beginning passage (for now at least) of my 2nd novel, code-named "V". I must note that the entire novel will not be written in this style. The style will actually vary quite a bit; as I mentioned in the previous post, some passages will take the form of scientific, academic, or journalistic writing, for instance, and the rest (the majority of the text), while being more personal and poetic, will also exhibit variety in style. The below opening passage is conceived, as is much of my writing, like the quickly changing scenes of a movie. It is like a preview of the entire story.


  I awake to a world of mist and memory. The sound of water rushing…

  In the end, it was her eyes that mattered most. The sound of soft rain on our umbrellas…

  I pick up a cup of coffee and read the headline:

11 Cosmonauts Presumed Lost; Declared Heroes

  In the Hall, she lights a candle for the fallen, crosses herself, bows her head, and prays.

  My hand touches her inner thigh, her red lips sigh. The sound of candles flickering in the night…

  The loneliness of the evenings while she is away. The cold blue glow of the television. The sound of empty laughter…

  Their dead faces, devoid of light and love, lost to time and the endless black.

  The harsh light of a strange Antarean star, penetrating my frayed mind… oscillating wavelengths of sanity… exerting its salvific gravitational pull on a damned soul. The sound of agonized and hope-filled screaming…

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another Novel Idea

Well, while I am supposed to be busy editing and marketing The Bluebird of Happiness, it seems I might just launch into writing another feature-length fictional tale, erstwhile known as a novel. This "new" novel idea actually originated from a seed of an idea I first had back in 2006 and which has been gradually developing since then. Since completing Bluebird, I had already decided that this particular concept--I'll call it V for now--was the next major work of fiction that I wished to tackle, perhaps as early as this fall.

Just today, my ideas about it began to reach what you might call a critical mass, the point at which the story starts to seem real and vital enough that the writing of it begins to feel like a compulsion. I doubt that the writing of it will happen in anything like the burst of energy and inspiration that produced Bluebird in about six weeks--in fact, I doubt whether that is a repeatable phenomenon at all--but V has, as of today, arrived at the point where it suddenly feels imbued with inspiration and passion in a way that it never quite had before.

The key factor that has pushed V to this critical mass is a fresh conception of what the story is essentially about, which has given a more definite shape to its inner structure. This is similar to the process that gave shape to Bluebird a few months ago, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the motivating and shaping force is pretty much the same thing that gave impetus to the previous novel. In essence, V became all the more interesting and important and real to me as a story today because I suddenly saw a way to relate it more directly and vitally to my current feelings and concerns.

I don't mind revealing a little about the story at this time. It is set in the future and involves parallel narratives, one the history of a space exploration program, the other the autobiography of a male cosmonaut (that is the term used in the story) and his complex relationships with other people, including family and friends, but focusing particularly on his relationships with three different women over the course of his life. The story will not be told in strict chronological order but in a more subjective and psychological way, combined with some technical, scholarly, and journalistic styles of writing. I think of the basic theme of the story as eros and cosmos; that is, the relationship of human love and longing to the universe itself. It is, like Bluebird, a story of epic and tragic proportions, but then, it wouldn't be a Steven Holland story otherwise, would it?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Is Love Anyway?

Philosophers have a way of asking what seem to be obvious questions, as though they were born yesterday. Questions like, "What is place?" or "What is love?" Many people would simply reply to the latter, "What a stupid question. Everyone knows what love is."

But the philosopher's whole point is to show precisely that we don't know what love is, not really. As with anything else, when you really start thinking about it deeply and trying to define it, you soon get lost and confused. Even your physical surroundings and your own self can start to dissolve when you spend any time thinking deeply about what they really are. If it serves no other purpose, philosophy reveals to us how ultimately mysterious everything is.

And what could be more mysterious than love? What is love, anyway? The problem is made more complex by the fact that the English word "love" actually refers to a number of different phenomena, so that any discussion of love without further clarification will inevitably result in a confusion of tongues. The Greeks did better in this regard by having at least four different words to describe four different things that English speakers all lump together as "love":

1. Storge, familial love or affection.

2. Philia, friendship.

3. Eros, sexual or romantic love.

4. Agape, unconditional love.

It is very important to note two things here:

1. The above brief definitions of these Greek words are oversimplified and potentially misleading. Eros, in particular, as the term is used in philosophy, is far broader than its commonly understood meaning of sexual love.

2. These four types of love, though they are different, can of course coexist in various combinations. For instance, one might very well feel all four types of love toward one's spouse.

In this series, I am primarily interested in focusing on eros, which, as I say, means far more than what the above simple definition suggests. Since it is connected and related to the other loves, however, I will also inevitably touch upon each of them in the course of my musings. But it is primarily eros that has become of particular philosophical interest to me. I am especially fascinated by Plato's ideas on the subject, which I explored this summer while composing my novel.

One thing philosophy accomplishes is that it shows us how our concepts are often unclear, and that we can conflate and confuse things that should be differentiated, or that we might fail to see that what we think are a variety of phenomena are actually different aspects of one and the same thing. In the case of love, it has become very clear to me that we fail to make certain crucial distinctions, a mistake that leads to much unnecessary unhappiness.

We have already touched upon one of these problems, which is inherent in the English language, and that is the fact that we have but a single word that is used to refer to a variety of phenomena, thereby generating confusion when anyone speaks about "love". My next step is to attempt to show that even the subcategory of erotic love needs further subdivisions in order to help us understand and properly respond to our desires and feelings.

In an age that is split between puritanical overcautiousness and Freudian oversexualization, it is nigh impossible to arrive at a proper and healthy understanding of eros, in all of its complexity and richness and fullness, without the aid of philosophy. Because of the peculiar misunderstanding of eros that characterizes modern Western (and especially American) society, much damage is done not only to relationships and individuals but also to the potential for happiness that exists in each of us and in each of our lives.

My hope is that with a proper understanding of our desires, much unnecessary fear might be overcome and that more people would be capable of having fuller and richer and deeper relationships with more people. We have become liberated sexually at the grievous and unnecessary cost of having become more repressed in terms of our nonsexual relationships.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Be A Philosopher?

Twenty years ago I made a fateful and, some would say, horrific decision: I chose to become a Philosophy major.

As I described in an earlier post, I felt at the time that I was setting out on a lonely road, a path far less traveled. Prior to this decision, I had not even considered majoring in something as seemingly esoteric as philosophy. I had felt most drawn toward Art and English, and indeed most of my friends seemed to be majoring in either of those two fields. At the time, I had actually just chosen Psychology as my major, for purely practical, career-focused reasons. However, after the first day of Intro to Philosophy, I was hooked. I promptly changed my major, and as they say, the rest is history.

Philosophy is perhaps one of the few fields of human endeavor that can attract followers with a zeal that is almost like being in love. Plato spoke of eros as a love of the good, a love that draws us passionately toward the sublime. He believed that philosophers, poets, and artists, in addition to (as we say) "platonic" lovers, are compelled by eros toward the various objects of their love. In the case of philosophers, this object is wisdom. The very word "philosophy" actually means "love of wisdom". It uses a different word for love, philia, but it echoes Plato's notion that philosophers are motivated by love.

It should also be noted that philosophy, poetry, and art are fields that are traditionally thought of as notoriously lacking in material rewards. Philosophers, poets, and artists, generally speaking, do not choose their fields for any practical reasons. It can verily be said that their passions choose them. There are not many other fields to which someone would choose to devote their life without any hope or expectation of monetary recompense. These fields, traditionally, are labors of love. They are specifically labors of eros, and to their devotees they can indeed feel quite erotic, in the sense of being driven by a burning passion for a beloved object, a passion for which one is willing to sacrifice and risk appearing to the rest of society as a crazy fool.

(I will note here briefly that what I am describing is also true of platonic love, but I will address that more fully in my series on love.)

In the summer of 1989, after I graduated from high school, I was very inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society. Although I had been a lifelong writer, that movie was one of the major early influences that pushed me in the direction of poetry (I had primarily just written fiction up till then, plus a few song lyrics). From my perspective now, it is evident that this movie demonstrates the idea of poetry as an object of eros. For those who love it, it produces a passion that is itself like being in love, and that makes material concerns seem pale in significance next to the spiritual rewards it provides. I have long seen philosophy in the same light, and I used to think that if I became a philosophy professor (which I had once planned on doing), I would want to impart a passion for philosophy to my students that was very similar to the passion for poetry which Mr. Keating imparted to his.

As poets are in love with and passionately seek out beauty expressed through the medium of language, philosophers are in love with and passionately seek out wisdom expressed through the medium of language. Language is an imperfect tool, but it's the best we've got. The poet is specifically charged with the task of figuring out how to make language an ever more powerful tool. The philosopher is somewhat more limited, in the sense that he must restrict his use of language, unlike the poet, to the rational and literal (generally speaking, though there have been exceptions to this rule; but in those exceptions, the philosopher becomes something of a poet).

So what are the rewards of philosophy? Do philosophers ever actually acquire the wisdom that they seek, and if so, what does that do for them?

These are very good questions. It has been said that philosophers do not ever actually attain wisdom, at least not in full, as the fullness of wisdom is a divine prerogative and not a human one. And it would not be befitting a true philosopher to claim that one is in fact wise. The word philosopher, after all, means "lover of wisdom", not one who has already attained wisdom. One can only hope and imagine that, inasmuch as they pursue the object of their love, philosophers do in fact acquire at least some measure of wisdom. But it is a quest that can never be completely fulfilled. It is the same with any eros. Poets and artists can never completely satisfy their hunger for beauty, just as the platonic lover never finds the fulfillment of his desires. It has also been said that all eros is unrequited love, in the sense that it is a perpetual longing and desire that never finds ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment.

For this reason, any devotee of eros will seem a little crazy and even pathetic to those who do not share their passion. But to the devotee of eros, everyone else is failing to see what they are seeing, which at worst can lead some of them to feel superior, and at best can lead them to want to share their vision with others and to inspire them with the same passion and enthusiasm.

So what does the attainment, or at least the pursuit, of wisdom do for the philosopher? Why such passion for wisdom?

Wisdom, assuming it is true wisdom, helps us to see things as they really are: the world we live in, human life, ourselves. It is about understanding the true nature of things. And that understanding, in addition to being valuable knowledge in itself, also helps us to live the best life possible. It is particularly important to have a sense of what is important, i.e. of what one should value most and what one should value less or not at all. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Pursuing philosophy, as I said, can seem a lonely path. It can feel like wandering off into the woods. But it is a journey well worth undertaking. As Thoreau said:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Philosophy, then, far from being an esoteric pursuit for a few academics in the ivory tower, is something that everyone should practice in some way. It simply means to think deeply about life, to know why you believe what you believe, to examine your values and priorities, to reflect on and understand what is truly important, and to live life as though it matters. Because it does.