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Bluefin tuna, one of many ocean fish at risk

Book updates:

Dorothea Lasky‘s most recent book, Black Life, is reviewed in the Boston Globe today. I just recently discovered Lasky and am a fan of both Poetry is Not a Project and Awe. In this review Michael Brodeur speaks to the contrasts at play in her work:

But where “Awe” balanced Lasky’s fascinations with the spiritual self with a caution to “be scared of yourself,” the poems of “Black Life” stay fixed in a darker stare, charting death, desire, jealousy, loss, love, and loneliness with equal parts emotional warmth and factual chill. All the while, Lasky’s mix of stark truth and playful affect effectively foregrounds the former…Though Lasky’s language is simple its often stark clarity is also the source of each line’s force. And in “Style is Joy,” she takes care we know that fidelity to the unpracticed is central to her practice: “every poem full of blood and guts/ Must be stylized to be so.”

Lewis Hyde, author of two books that have touched me deeply , The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, has published a new one, Common as Air. From the review in the New York Times by Robert Darnton:

Hyde, the author of “The Gift” (1983), a defense of the noncommercial aspects of art, does not merely cull the works of the founding fathers for quotations. He pitches his argument at a level where historians and political philosophers have contributed most to our understanding of intellectual history. Instead of treating the ideas of the founders as self-contained units of meaning, he explores their interconnections and shows how they shared a common conceptual frame…Hyde builds his argument by telling stories, and he tells them well. His book brims with vignettes, which may be familiar but complement one other in ways that produce original insights.

Paul Greenberg is the son of an old friend of mine, Harvey Greenberg. Paul’s latest book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, is personal and extremely well timed. I have seen glowing reviews in a plethora of publications. I’ve just started reading his account of the vanishing population of four iconic North Atlantic fish: salmon, sea bass, cod and bluefin tuna. With a son who also approaches the ocean and all creatures therein as the earth’s most sacred domain, I am approaching Greenberg’s book as prescient essential reading.

From a review by Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times:

Didactic — however worthy — is not much fun. Ecological and planet-saving literature tends to argue for the essential. The discoveries, the questions, the issues it raises must exercise us. And exercise is an excellent thing. Only, in a contemporary contentiousness, that pits puritans against know-nothings, rather excluding play.

So much as preface to Paul Greenberg’s “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.” He deals in weighty though never ponderous detail with such matters as the despoliation of our seas by industrial overfishing and the tension between the need to feed our world and to preserve it. He writes with evocative passion about the individual animal wildness of a bluefin tuna, a king salmon, an ocean-spanning cod.

More unusually, he goes on to convey what can only be called the fisherman’s happiness: part battle, part sense of primeval freedom in a constrained world. At 13, he got his hands on a used dinghy and taught himself to navigate and fish: ” Long Island Sound still felt to me like wilderness — a place to freely search out and capture wild game. I thought of the sea as a vessel of desires and mystery, a place of abundance I did not need to question.”

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Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and now Free: The Future of a Radical Price is out promoting his book. (I know, I know, the irony is too tempting isn’t it? No the book is not free, and neither are his speaking engagements. But I digress…) Now with a review in the Times Book Review last Sunday by Virginia Postrel, his ideas are being bandied about a lot.

Anderson is very smart. I thought The Long Tail offered brilliant insights into how the internet has shifted business paradigms, models and best practices. I haven’t read Free yet but certainly intend to.

But even without having read the book, interviews with Anderson have piqued my curiosity. “People are making lots of money charging nothing,” says Anderson. “Not nothing for everything, but nothing for enough that we have essentially created an economy as big as a good-sized country around the price of $0.00.”

Although Anderson is writing about business models and for profit entities, I can’t help but compare his thinking with one of my favorite books, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. I have referenced Hyde’s work before (his other book, Trickster as well as his poetry here on Slow Muse, and articles about his thinking on Slow Painting) and continue to recommend The Gift as a book that every artist and maker should read.

Hyde’s territory is not the same as Anderson’s, but I keep putting the two of them in the same room in my head, hoping they get past the small talk and into some real content. There’s something going on here, a parallelism worth exploring regarding giving for free, gifting to others, connectedness between stakeholders and community.

Hyde gives a historical overview of how gifts and gifting have impacted the inner life concerns like emotions, feelings, spirituality. In Hyde’s model of the gift economy, a gift can be tangible or immaterial (like a talent, or teaching). He writes, “I have hoped…to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.”

In describing a “gift economy” Hyde demonstrates how its purpose is to build and strengthen human connection and relationships. That is a very different set of goals from the market economy that Anderson is addressing. Hyde makes the distinction between the commerce of gifting, which is rooted in the “erotic” (as in bringing together, the power of attraction) and the commerce of the market economy, which is founded on “logos” (logic, distinction.)

In the market economy, the hoarding (or “saving”) of goods is one way to build wealth. In Hyde’s gift economy, the opposite is true. Wealth actually decreases with hoarding since it is the circulation of gifts within a community that results in an “increase”— of connections, the strengthening of relationships, and of community. For Hyde, the circulation and perpetual flow of gifts is the key.

Anderson’s concepts are about redistributing the profiteering. He talks of cross-subsidies, “shifting money around from product to product, person to person, between now and later, or into non-monetary markets and back out again.” But in all this cross subsidizing, in all this money that comes in here and goes out there, goes up then down, in and around, isn’t something else happening here?

Worth sitting with, it seems to me.

Hopefully there will be more on this later.

circle

I’m on my way to New York City for a weekend full of the best kind of distractions—a book reading of The Enthusiast by college chum Charlie Haas (a very funny and endearing book that both my partner David and I loved, something that doesn’t happen often), tea at Lady Mendl’s in Gramercy Park, the Francis Bacon show at the Met, a Bill T. Jones/Jason Moran performance in Harlem and spending time with lots of old friends from back in the day. Full circling, to be sure.

And in that spirit, here’s yet another great passage from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World:

One of Picasso’s favorite assignments for a young artist was to have him or her try to draw a perfect circle. It can’t be done; everyone draws a circle with some particular distortion, and that distorted circle is “your” circle, an insight into “your” style. “Try to make the circle as best you can. And since nobody before you has made a perfect circle, you can be sure that your circle will be completely your own. Only then will you have a chance to be original.” The deviations from the idea give an insight into the style, and thus, Picasso says, “from errors one gets to know the personality.”

This, then, is the sense in which an artist both works with accidents yet creates work in which “there are no accidents.” “Accidents, try to change them—it’s impossible. The accident reveals man.” With Picasso as with Jung and Freud, accidents point to the concealed portion of the man or woman to whom they happened.

Ancient or modern, then, one continuing line of thought holds that accidents break the surface of our lives to reveal hidden purpose or design. The carefully interwoven structures of thought and social practice provide stability and structure, but they bring a kind of blindness and supidity, too. Gifts of Hermes tear little holes in those fabrics to offer us brief intelligence in other realms.

I’ve been in a deep relationship for months now with Lewis Hyde’s rich and fragrant book, Trickster Makes the World. Yes, fragrant. That’s how it feels to be enraptured by this amazing volume in all its lush, verdant and seductive power. While it can be approached with the traditional “start at the beginning and read to the end” sort of treatment, it has a more rhizomatic appeal to me, one that invites you to just open it up and bite down into the deliciousness anywhere, everywhere. And I’m needing deliciousness of the deep kind right now.

Here’s a passage from a chapter where Hyde spends a lot of time discussing John Cage’s aesthetic, one that was primarily centered on chance. (Cage often quoted a line from the mystic Meister Eckhart, “we are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do.”)

It is especially by our “likes and dislikes,” Cage says, that we cut ourselves off from the wider mind (and the wider world.) Likes and dislikes are the lapdogs and guard dogs of the ego, busy all the time, panting and barking at the gates of attachment and aversion and thereby narrowing perception and experience. Furthermore, the ego itself cannot intentionally escape what the ego does—intention always operates in terms of desire or aversion—and we therefore need a practice or discipline of non-intention, a way to make an end run around the ego’s habitual operations. Zen Buddhism, Cage says, suggests the practice of cross-legged meditation: “you go in through discipline, then you get free of the ego.” Cage thought his own artistic practice moved in the other direction to the same end: “I decided to go out. That’s why I decided to use the chance operations. I used them to free myself from the ego.”

cage
John Cage

herfs-and-angi

Some things we only figure out after the fact. I wish this weren’t the case, but the evidence in my life is too strong to argue otherwise. It’s more than the wisdom of hindsight or Monday morning quarterbacking. It is the state of mind that cannot be recognized and named until its absence gives it definition.

Lewis Hyde, a writer/thinker/poet whose books are perennially in my nightstand stack, makes this case in Trickster Makes the World, his exploration into the “disruptive” side of human imagination as seen through myths about the trickster archetype. (The book is much more than that of course, but at least that’s a start.) In discussing Hermes, the Greek pantheon’s most infamous trickster, he talks about the cattle that Hermes steals from Apollo. Of course the symbolism of this famous myth is ripe with many interpretations, but here is one that struck me as particularly potent.

Apollo’s cattle are, up to the point of their theft, not normal. They are neither wild nor domestic, do not reproduce (thus their number is fixed) and their existence is peaceful and beautiful. In other words, they are immortal.

By stealing the cattle, Hermes brings these cows into the real world and gives them a domesticated position. They live in stables, reproduce sexually and are eventually slaughtered to provide food for humankind.

The immortality of the cattle is a state that only exists retroactively. Says Hyde:

So long as the cattle cannot be moved from their unmown meadow they cannot mean anything. Conversely, the moment at which they may be butchered and eaten is the moment at which their earlier state acquires its significance. Their meat means one thing on the hoof, another in the fire, and yet another hung in the barn [referring to Hermes’ actions later.] Hermes-the-Thief moves the meat from one situation to another and by such substitutions it comes to have its significance; it becomes a sign that can “tell” something.

Seems to me we are living in one of those transitions right now. The meat (graphic metaphor, and strangely appropriate IMHO) of our lives is being moved around, and how this period will look in ten years is a wide open guess. How consciousness can be respected as well as receptive during these sorts of periods is an ongoing query. On that topic I’m in a perpetual and humble state of the Buddhist concept of “don’t know” mind.

Desert

“We have to be in a desert,
for he whom we must love is absent.”
–Simone Weil

Early morning and the mist, saturated with light,
obscures the disappearing powerlines. A damp obscurity
but a desert nonetheless: birds that fly into it
lose their bodies and survive
as the songs of birds, the tallest locust
is nothing but the rustle of its leaves.

Slowly the sun cuts and burns the haze away
to re-embody each in a seedy yellow sleep.

–Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde is better known to me as the author of The Gift and Trickster Makes This World. His volume of poetry, This Error is the Sign of Love, was published in 1988.

For more about Hyde’s work and outlook in the realm of the “cultural commons,” see the posting on Slow Painting from Daniel Smith’s article in the New York Times.

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