Saturday, January 29, 2005

Of Mere Being

Reading a recent translation with commentary of the poems of Basho, I found myself reminded of Lucretius, another philosophical poet living in an age of political consolidation. Dactylic hexameter may be an elaborate instrument compared to the minimalism of haiku, but the flatness conveyed by these contrasting means is similar. For both the Roman and the Japanese, the most refined and difficult of tropes is literal speech. What is astonishing about the Nature of Things is the possibility that atoms and void are not a myth but a fact. What is amazing about the frog and its plop is the possibility that the frog stands for nothing more than a frog, the plop for nothing more than a plop. Of course it is highly likely that Basho’s poem doesn’t record a singular event in a specific swamp anymore than Lucretius could automatically arrive at an accurate version of how things actually are by purely literary means—after all atomism isn’t the true physics. The everyday absolute is a stylistic effect like all the others. The ethic behind these contrivances is perhaps more substantive.

Historians of philosophy sometimes imply that the Epicurus claimed that merely existing is a pleasure in order to avoid a reputation for promoting immorality—the expensive and lurid enjoyments that hedonism might be expected to recommend are counterproductive and unnecessary if it suffices to breath and think. I’ve finally decided that the judgment of Epicurus reflected a veritable perception instead of or perhaps in addition to a dialectical finesse. I’m not scholar enough to judge whether a similar insight is expressed in the Mahayana notion of the Buddha’s body of bliss, which seems to imply that pleasure is the ground note of every sensation, even agony. It’s certainly a bit eccentric of me to arrive at the Fire Sermon with marshmallows and popcorn, but if this is indeed the other world, as I have so often suggested, the drip of the saline solution in the I.V. beside the death bed is as good a transcendental instance as any other and the shivering crow on the bald branch is, if anything, objectionably gemütlich.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

An Unpleasant Consideration

The President’s efforts to privatize Social Security appear to be faltering, but I take little pleasure in this development. Second term presidents thwarted in their domestic ambitions inevitably switch their attention to foreign affairs where they have much more freedom of action. If Bush bombs in Congress, he’s all the more likely to bomb in Tehran.