The World of Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (“The Golden Compass”) (1)

Most readers of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, experience from the first few pages something like being caught in a riptide — pulled inexorably further away from the shore and helpless to resist the drag. His matter-of-fact, unfussy way of creating his world — a genuine storyteller’s gift that has surely been cultivated by reading masters of the succinct like Chekhov — is part of the secret. He trusts his readers to synthesize quickly an abundance of new details and surprising juxtapositions, whereas a writer like Tolkien takes his time and expands in a gentlemanly manner. Pullman takes the daring step of opening the novel with a clandestine, claustrophobic meeting of scholars in which information is doled out in an intimidating density of hints and glimmers. Within about twenty pages, we hear about northern geographical expeditions, new interpretations of the aurora borealis, chocolatl, the custom of heating and mixing poppy for scholarly gatherings, distant wars, the fearful churchly organization that rules the western world, a civilization running on steam and “anbaric power,” Skraelings, Tartars, Gyptians, panserbjorne, a mysterious element called Dust investigated in the science of “experimental theology”…The names of these things are casually dropped, as if the reader might reasonably be expected to know about them — and thus we are cajoled into the book’s world, lured into it, as if into something familiar. Tolkien paints; Pullman runs, and we sprint after hm. Here is an example of his characteristic seductive density:

In every part of the kingdom there were dyeworks and brick kilns, forest and atomcraft works that paid rent to Jordan, and every quarter-day the bursar and his clerks would tot it all up, announce the total to the Concilium, and order a pair of swans for the feast. Some of the money was put by for reinvestment — Concilium had just approved the purchase of an office block in Manchester — and the rest was used to pay the Scholars’ modest stipends and the wages of the servants (and the Parslows, and the other dozen or so families of craftsmen and traders who served the College), to keep the wine cellar richly filled, to buy books and anbarographs for the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground, and, not least, to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel.

   It was important to keep the chapel up to date, because Jordan College had no rival, either in Europe or in New France, as a center of experimental theology. (Ch.3)

It is worth pausing to marvel at Pullman’s mastery of exposition. Throughout these sentences words such as atomcraft and anbarographs (which are never defined, so that we guess or assume we know their meanings) sit comfortably with the evocation of a 19th century Oxford college that is, realistically, wealthy enough to extend into an industrialized and urbanized landscape: the dyeworks and brick kilns, the office block in Manchester. The governance structure of the college, together with its hierarchy and its workers, are quite true to life, with its air of tradition and perpetuity from medieval times to the present. Middle Ages and 19th century have been fused; later, we will get an evocation of something like the London of Conan Doyle and Dickens (Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend), with its dark alleys, fog, gaslight, lawlessness, and scampering urchins.

The mixture of science-fiction or anachronistic technology with Victorian street-setting has given rise to the term Steampunk, but the medieval connotations of kingdom, the suffix -craft, the word served, and the climactic placement of chapel all embed the Steampunk elements in a world gripped by a more feudal authority.

Crowning that first sentence are two wonderful details: “Concilium” and the swans. The Concilium has been mentioned previously in the story, a shadowy ruling body that is part of the tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium. (Ch.2) Pullman’s omission of the definite article involves us in assumed familiarity, as when we “government tells us to do this” instead of “the government.” There is a Consistorial Court of Discipline and an Oblation Board, whose workings are murky as yet. Who governs this kingdom? We are told, Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The sentence is impishly constructed: an event that would be impossible in our world, namely the accession of Calvin to the papacy, is tossed to us in a subordinate clause, while the main clause presents what would seem a fact of 20th century totalitarianism, the absolute power of an institution over every aspect of life. The latter adds yet another layer to the anachronisms: the struggle against absolute power, which will be the major theme of the book.

Returning to our sentence, the bursar’s ordering of a pair of swans is an evocation of medieval luxury. Does any feast in a 19th century novel involve swans? — probably not, because by then swans have been ennobled into emblems of beauty and purity that are no longer edible. But Chaucer’s sensual, indulgent Monk loved “a fat swan more than any roast” — not only a swan (which should be big enough), but it has to be a fat swan. Here, we get a pair of swans, true medieval excess.

It is in the long sentence that follows the swans that Pullman shows his brilliance in exposition. Dropped in there, again like a less important detail, in a subordinate clause qualifying a subordinate phrase, is the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground. The notion of a “quadrangle” is familiar to anyone who has spent time in an older British educational institution; it is the formal term for what a student would call a “quad,” and “quadrangle” rather than “quad” would be used by someone in authority. You might have seen a quadrangle, but standing in one and viewing one of its sides, could you imagine that underneath it was a library labyrinth deeper than the college was high? Above ground, Lyra’s Jordan could easily be taken as a fairly realistic description of an idealized Oxford college, but the underground library moves it into myth. Moreover, while “quadrangle” suggests geometrical design, burrow-like implies improvisation — and not only the making of extra space, but also concealment, secrets. Yet we haven’t reached the culmination of the sentence: the money from the college’s investments is not least used to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel. The word philosophical together with apparatus could only derive from the 18th century, when philosophy was one word for what we would call “science” — but for a chapel? Again, Pullman cleverly uses these words as if we would know what he means by them, but philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel — like John Calvin’s papacy — shocks us with its historical absurdity. Notice how this sentence itself burrows like a worm towards its climactic provocation.

All of this creates an “atmosphere” of medieval religious oppression compounded with the bustling hurly-burly of city streets in industrial ferment — a close, confined world, of which the scholars’ parlor at the beginning of the novel is an intellectual center. Out of this world go the great explorers and scientists, creating currents of intellectual instability that have the power to undermine or even wash away a realm that is being held stable by doctrinal orthodoxy; and chafing at the borders of this realm are unpredictable foreign hordes:

Then there was the rumor that had been keeping the College servants whispering for days. It was said that the Tartars had invaded Muscovy, and were surging north to St.Petersburg, from where they would be able to dominate the Baltic Sea and eventually overcome the entire west of Europe. And Lord Asriel had been in the far North… (Ch.1)

The mention of “Tartars” is startling, like one of those random but fascinating details in a dream: suddenly we are faced with the barbarian hordes of the 13th century, invaders of Muscovy and and destroyers of ruthless Christendom. The image of Tartars seems distant to the preoccupations of the medieval western church, and an anachronism in terms of the 19th century frame of industry and exploration — but it does fit right in with the evocation of the dangerous exploits of pioneering ethnographers, interested in exotic customs such as trepanning and mummification of heads.

What we have here is a parallel version of our own world: the crazy scientific breakthroughs and ambivalent technological successes, together with the extremes of wealth and poverty,  and the constant threat of distant enemies against whom we are always seeking better weapons. Against all these stand our various fundamentalisms, guardians of traditions locked in a merciless war against what they see as “sin.” Pullman’s world is compelling because he has fused together elements of ours, in a kind of distorting mirror that re-presents our world to us in its strangeness. We are used to our world and so do not see the bizarrerie of its own blend: how do the elements of Christian, Islamic, Hindu fundamentalism fit with modern capitalism and our new understanding of genes and the heavens, and how do our legal ideas, our sense of “rights,” and our distinctive notions of inviolability fit with a systemic rapaciousness that we keep shadowy to ourselves? The power of imagined worlds such as Pullman’s lies in how they reflect the oddity and incoherence of our our own world back to us obliquely: such worlds are less fantasy than parallel or asymptotic, closer to us than we at first suspect, and no weirder than our own.

The reality created by Pullman in Northern Lights would be sufficiently satisfying, enchanting, and stimulating for all these elements — but the most interesting element of all is the idea of the daemon, a rich and brilliant conception, which elevates Pullman’s work to greatness.

[This series of essays is dedicated to my daughter Mira on her 14th birthday.]



The Buddha Contemplates Milk


One of the Buddha’s most memorable analogies is given in the “Potthapada Sutta,” and it is so powerful that it causes Citta the son of an elephant trainer to leap for joy, and then renounce everything to join the Buddha. The context for this analogy is a sometimes abstruse conversation  with Potthapada, a Brahmin of highly scholastic inclinations  who seems to share a more general Hindu anxiety about the persistence of Atman (Self/Soul) and about elevated spiritual states. Citta has accompanied Potthapada in the second half of the Sutta, and has just asked a question about whether there is any underlying continuity of the Self from one stage to another of a person’s development. Startlingly, the Buddha responds with this analogy:

Just as in the case of cow’s milk — from the milk come curds, from the curds come butter, from the butter comes ghee, and from the ghee comes the cream of ghee. Whenever there is milk, at that time, one does not refer to it as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “milk.” And whenever there are curds, at that time, one does not refer to them as “milk,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to them only as “curds.” Whenever there is butter, at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “ghee,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “butter.” Whenever there is ghee, at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as the “cream of ghee.” At that time, one refers to it only as “ghee.” Whenever there is the “cream of ghee,” at that time, one does not refer to it as “milk,” nor as “curds,” nor as “butter,” nor as “ghee.” Ath that time, one refers to it only as the “cream of ghee.” (“Potthapada Sutta,” tr.Holder, Early Buddhist Discourses, 2006, p.148)

The repetitiveness of the style is not mere pedantry: we are being asked to slow down and behold with our mind’s eye milk, curds, butter, ghee, and cream of ghee, and not rush to a theoretical summation. Contemplate these: the taste, color, texture, smell — how interestingly different they are (such that a person can love milk but dislike curds), how each is its own delicious dish, yet how each so astonishingly comes from the white liquid produced by a cow for her calf. This contemplation becomes even more vivid if one brings in the vast range of things we call “cheese.” The common manner of referring to curds and butter as “curds” and “butter” rather than “the curd phase of milk” or “the butter phase of milk” (“buttermilk” is different!) points to something true: there is no such thing as “milk” that persists through all of these, and if you look you will not be able to show it to me. The curds came from milk, and now curds are simply what they are: curds, not milk. Looking closely, you will not find a particle that is in between curds and milk, but it will be curds or milk. If there is an inbetween, it will be its own thing, such as kefir; and it might be possible to make an inbetween by, say, mixing butter and milk, but that too will be its own thing, not just a form of milk. In the realm of natural transformation, change occurs over time and is conditioned by such things as temperature, microbial life, light, oxygen. The thing changing cannot be pulled out and separated from these conditions, which are in fact infinite ( including the conditions for there to be a planet with microbial life), and because of this inseparability it may be fundamentally non-different from these conditions. This does not mean they are the same as their conditions, because obviously butter is not simply the same as its conditions. Each change is thoroughgoing from one moment to the next, and there is never any thing that can be shown to underlie the different moments. Curds, butter, ghee are different moments of what was once milk, but not different manifestations of milk. They are also not really fixed things themselves, because the conditions that make them up are in constant flux; yet the fact that they are in flux doesn’t necessarily make them unintelligible, because there are clearly patterns and regularities to this change. The analogy doesn’t deny the validity of calling these moments milk, curds, butter, and so on, or the validity of saying that they come from cow’s milk: from a conventional standpoint, it is correct to do so, and incorrect to claim that because everything is in flux there is really nothing present. But such as these are only popular expressions, ordinary language, common ways of speaking, common designations, which the Tathagatha uses without being led astray. (149) The constant process of transformation, amid infinite conditions, is the way in which curds and butter can come to be from milk; and indeed if there were no ceaseless transformation there would be no curds or butter. Even if we strive to halt the process by killing all the microbes in the milk, sooner or later even sterilized milk will change; indeed, sterilized milk is itself a moment of what was once milk, conditioned by sterilizing and sterilizers. At each moment there is something that comes to be through and in transformation, because nothing in our experience remains static and immune to change. The universe flows — or, as Dogen likes to put it, the mountains are walking.

The Buddha doesn’t interpret the analogy to mean that there is no Self/Soul. Rather, while there may be no thing underlying these various conditioned forms that started as milk, there is a phenomenal continuity that enables us to categorize them as moments of what was once milk. These moments are what it means to be milk, for only milk can change into curds, butter, and ghee. The implications are momentous.

What am I? Do I even need to be preoccupied with a what that I must be? When I am with my parents, I am all child; with my children, I am all parent; with my spouse, all spouse — and at work, wholly absorbed in the work. When I go to the gym, I work out to win and play with all my heart; and after the gym, I can be swept away by a piano sonata and moved to tears. Of course this is on a good day; on a bad day, I am thinking about work while playing with the kids, or worried about my ageing parents while at work. Yet even on a bad day, I am whole in my division; that is to say, sitting at my desk and worrying anout my parents is itself a whole distractedness, and I am occupying the distraction wholly. In each activity I become a different moment of what at the beginning of the day was a groggy person stumbling to the bathroom. It is amazing how thoroughgoing the transformations are. My children would be surprised at how I am with my parents, and vice versa; neither parents nor children can imagine me studying the “Potthapada Sutta,” and people who study such texts with me cannot really picture me climbing playground equipment with my daughter. All these transformations would be impossible if we had an unchanging underlying self that we hauled around like a boulder in the belly. We can live as if we had a boulder in the belly, and sadly we usually do — but what a miracle it is that I can flow so wholeheartedly and seamlessly into each one of these moments of myself. It is a miracle that from the teat of a cow there comes milk that can transform into curds, butter, ghee, and cream of ghee — and into me when I digest it. This is why the elephant trainer’s son jumps for joy when he understands the analogy: the boulder of Atman has been rolled away.

On Loving Geometry

There is a strange kind of book originating in the ancient Greek world and found in no other of the great ancient civilizations: the geometry book, as exemplified by those of Euclid, Apollonius, and Archimedes. I emphasize the word book: other cultures later had loose collections of mathematical insights, or mathematical writings geared to the solution of specific problems, but from Euclid on the mathematical book of the Greeks and Romans was conceived as a whole, with narrative threads laying out questions and exploring answers, and with sometimes dizzying climaxes that could make one see all that went before in a different light. Such books would build upon a small set of axioms, and then by inference and imagination reach conclusions about simple but very interesting objects. They would not be primarily interested in solving practical problems; for example, Euclid’s preoccupation with perfectly regular solids such as the dodecahedron and icosahedron, and with perfect numbers as well as the many kinds of irrational numbers, seems mainly motivated by love of beauty and by the satisfaction of understanding. Before the blossoming of applied algebra in the 16th century, when for example parabolas acquired utility in the calculation of the trajectories of cannonballs, geometers had happily studied the subtleties of conic sections for two thousand years without needing to find uses for them. It was enough to contemplate, behold, wonder, question, and understand. The geometrical endeavor must have spanned the whole of the Mediterranean: Euclid lived in Alexandria, Apollonius in what is now Turkey, Archimedes in Sicily.

In ancient India and China there was no book like Euclid’s Elements or Apollonius’ Conics. I do not say that to disparage those civilizations, because of course they also had their unique genres of book. Greece, India, and China all had philosophical dialogues, treatises, anthologies of poems, collections of aphorisms, dramas, medical studies, and biographies. China and Hellas had great books of  histories, India did not; Hellas and India had epic poems, China did not. But only Greece had the geometry book — and moreover, not only was the geometry book held as central to education (so central that the study of geometry could be considered essential for philosophy) but it became, and remains, at the heart of the civilization. People still study Greek geometry for delight and mental refreshment. The great 20th century mathematician Hardy remarked in his autobiography that the continuing study of the Greeks was like going to the college next door to see what the Fellows there were currently working on: for a mind that is mathematically alive, Euclid remains ever contemporary and a bottomless well of insight.

I am a mediocre mathematician who discovered the joys of geometry late in life, thanks to my work at an unusual liberal arts college where Greek geometry is a vital part of the culture for all students and faculty members. In this short essay I want to celebrate a few of the delights of one particular masterpiece of Greek geometry, Apollonius’ Conics, one of the greatest mathematical works of all time but also one that few people will ever read — understandably, because the book is hard and requires familiarity with all thirteen books of Euclid. However, the delights of Apollonius are not essentially mathematical, but can be felt by a student who knows the delights of poetry, drama, and philosophy. To me they have the kind of playful, dreamy, yet rigorous abstraction of a story by Borges or Calvino. In the following few examples I am going to abbreviate and simplify to get to what interests me, but if the mathematical exposition starts to get tedious just skip to my conclusion.

To get a conic section, you cut a cone with a plane. The line made by the intersection of the surface of the cone with the cutting plane is a section. If you cut the cone through the vertex,  the section will be a triangle; if parallel to the base, a circle; if through both sides of the axial triangle (such as ABC in the following diagram, where BC is the diameter of the base circle) but not parallel to the base circle, an ellipse; if at an angle not parallel to the base circle or to one of the sides of the axial triangle or cutting both sides of the triangle, a hyperbola; and if parallel to the side of the axial triangle, a parabola. This is an oversimplified summary, but for the purpose at hand I’d like to dwell on proposition 1.11, where Apollonius shows us how to get a parabola.

In this cone there are three planes of interest: the one making the axial triangle ABC, the plane of the base circle, and the plane DFE that cuts the plane of the base circle along the line DE perpendicular to diameter BC. The line FG is the common section of the plane of the axial triangle and the cutting plane DFE, and is the diameter of DFE because all lines drawn across the section parallel to DE will be bisected by FG; thus the section will be symmetrical. It is necessary that FG be parallel to one of the sides of the axial triangle, here AC. Because of this, if FG were continued past A it would go on forever, and if the cone were continued indefinitely at the bottom the section DFE would also expand indefinitely. This section is a parabola (literally, “along-thrown”).

Apollonius is not content merely to cut a cone in this manner to get a new curve, because as I have described it so far this curve is unintelligible and cannot be related to anything we know in any specific way. What would it mean for a curve to be made intelligible? To understand this we need to see clearly that all the conic sections — triangle, hyperbola, parabola, ellipse, and circle — are made in the same way, by cutting a cone. Therefore they have something in common. We know a lot about circles from Euclid, and one of the things we know is that if we drop a perpendicular from the circumference to the diameter the square on that perpendicular will equal in area the rectangle made by the two parts of the diameter cut off by it. In the diagram above, because lines KL and MLN lie in a plane parallel to the base circle, this plane will itself be a circle; and the square on KL will equal the rectangle made by ML and LN. This is a remarkable defining property of circles and expresses something crucial about the way circles curve. The line KL, because it is bisected by the diameter MLN, is called an ordinate to the diameter of the circle; but as we can see in the diagram it is also an ordinate to the diameter FG of the parabola — and therefore is the means by which Apollonius relates something we don’t yet understand, the parabola, to something we  understand a little, the circle. Just as in the circle the square on KL equals the rectangle formed by ML and LN,  in the parabola the square in ML is equal to the rectangle formed by FL (which is analogous to ML) and…what? He demonstrates that if you set up a mystery line FH such that  FH:FA (line between vertex of parabola and vertex of cone):: square on BC (base of axial triangle): rectangle made by AB and AC (sides of axial triangle), then the rectangle made by FL and FH will equal the square on KL — and this is one defining property of a parabola. It is noteworthy that FH is not arbitrarily concocted, but seems to be determined by structural relations in the cone. He does something analogous with hyperbolas and ellipses, so that now the conic sections all can be related to each other through specific proportions.

These proofs come early in the Conics, and the soup will thicken considerably and gain in flavor as it simmers. But even though we are not very far in the game, the mind is stirred by the beauty of the conception: these different curves can be made intelligible, because they all follow a kind of law that can be related back to the laws of the circle — and, moreover, may be variations of those circular laws. Does the fact that they are all obtained by slicing a cone suggest that underlying their apparent differences they might in fact be the same — obeying laws not accessible to sense but to the intellect alone? Later in the book we even abandon the cone altogether and reach a point where we are able to discuss a conic section without needing to specify which one it is. And all these sections come from something as idiotically simple as a cone, which is basically a hybrid of circle and triangle, and thus partakes in both straight and curved: paradox in simplicity.

A friend of mine regularly issues gasps of amazement that a curve should have any symmetry at all: why should it? — and yet Apollonius proves that these conic curves all have diameters. Moreover, just as a circle has an infinite number of diameters, so do the other sections. In 1.46 Apollonius demonstrates that in a parabola a line parallel to the original diameter is another diameter, bisecting all lines drawn to it at a given angle. In the following diagram, where AD is the original diameter, HM is the new one, bisecting all lines drawn parallel to the tangent CA, such as LF:

Shockingly, it turns out that not only are these curves symmetrical, but they are infinitely so! Yet the symmetry here is not the same as the symmetry in a circle: there, you can fold the figure along the diameter, and both halves will coincide; here, that will happen only along  one diameter, but along all the others the folded halves will lie at a subcontrary angle and yet be equal in area. To encounter such things and understand — not see — that they are so is as amazing as standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon: an endless landscape of patterns opens out before one. And to encounter it in something as simple as a cone is as wonderful as watching water boil or frost crystals take form.

The cone is full of mysteries. One recurrent one is that two forms as seemingly opposite as ellipse/circle and hyperbola — one closed, the other endlessly open — might actually be the same: that is, spatially they seem opposites, but noetically they are identical. Thus in 1.21 Apollonius demonstrates that if you cut the diameter at points E and G, as in this diagram,

then the square on FG : square on DE :: rectangle made by AG and GB : rectangle made by EG and GB ( that is, rectangles made by the lines from the cutting point to each end of the diameter). The big miracle in this proof is that Apollonius’ words apply simultaneously to hyperbola and ellipse/circle; in his argument, it does not matter that these shapes look like polar opposites. How can it be that two things so evidently different can also be so evidently identical?

Greek literature and philosophy are rooted in the dilemma, the insoluble contradiction of the soul, the knot of life itself. In dramas and epic poems, the heart of the conflict is Right versus Right — Hector and Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax, Antigone and Creon — because Right versus Wrong is not only uninteresting but also inadequate to our experience. The philosophical masterpieces are also centered on the dilemma: in the Republic, justice or eros?  Just as the principal strategy of Socrates is to bring us to aporia, the knowledge that  we are well and truly stumped, by exposing the contradiction in two lines of our thinking, so Apollonius and Euclid both rely on the reductio ad absurdum, in which two lines of thought are made to collide. The essence of dilemma literature is the laughter and despair of perplexity. This is generally not so in the philosophies and literatures of civilizations that seek useful ends, even noble useful ends such as the cessation of all suffering; but even in those civilizations there are always the great dissidents who stand up for the play of perplexity and for the relishing of what cannot be solved, which will necessarily be useless. Zhuangzi would have poked fun at the good-for-nothing tree of the Conics and yet thoroughly enjoyed lying under it and marveling at its branches.

”A Very Exceptional Man”: Bozo the Screever


A certain hermit once said, “There is one thing that even I, without worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up: the beauty of the sky.” I can see why he would have felt that way.
Yoshida Kenko, Essays in Idleness, 20

It is a pity that George Orwell is known mainly for his sharp, unforgettable fables, 1984 and  Animal Farm, plus one or two essays — a pity, because no other writer has ever had such a profound understanding of what it means for a human being to work, to be poor, to be ordinary, and to live a good life within the mediocrity that will be the lot of most of us. Everyone should read Down and Out in London and Paris (1933), an account of Orwell’s period as a sweating kitchen serf in Paris and then as a tramp in London. The book is often piercing in its analysis of the system that condemns many to a life of penury or hopeless grind, but it is also very funny in its bleakness, and full of interesting characters who have had to find a way to stay human in crushing circumstances. In literature generally, the hardest thing is to write believable descriptions of good, happy people, so when an author succeeds in giving us a credible image of happy goodness — that is, not an idealized hero or a barely human sage — we have to pay attention and be thankful for the gift.

In chapter 30, we meet in London “a very exceptional man” — Bozo (the name Orwell gives him, presumably in 1933 without the connotations it has now), who is a pavement painter or “screever.” To a reader of Chinese philosophy, he feels like a character from Zhuangzi, not only because of his knack with colored chalks but because he is a cripple, with one foot injured from a terrible fall:  His right leg was dreadfully deformed, the foot being twisted heel forward in a way horrible to see. Like Zhuangzi’s cripples, he does not complain of his crippledness and even sees himself as independent of it — even though he possesses nothing, and must know that he is destined to lose his rotting limb and die in the workhouse. After being impressed with the man’s skill in sidewalk cartooning, Orwell gets a little revelation:

We walked down into Lambeth. Bozo limped slowly, with a queer crablike gait, half sideways, dragging his smashed foot behind him. He carried a stick in each hand and slung his box of colours over his shoulder. As we were crossing the bridge he stopped in one of the alcoves to rest. He fell silent for a minute or two, and to my surprise I saw that he was looking at the stars. He touched my arm and pointed to the sky with his stick.

‘Say, will you look at Aldebaran! Look at the colour. Like a — great blood orange!’

From the way he spoke he might have been an art critic in a picture gallery. I was astonished. I confessed that I did not know which Aldebaran was — indeed, I had never even noticed that the stars were of different colours. Bozo began to give me some elementary hints on astronomy, pointing out the chief constellations. He seemed concerned at my ignorance. I said to him, surprised:

‘You seem to know a lot about stars.’

‘Not a great lot. I know a bit, though. I got two letters from the Astronomer Royal thanking me for writing about meteors. Now and again I go out at night and watch for meteors. The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’

‘What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.’

‘Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea-and-two-slices.’

‘But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things — things like stars — living this life?’

‘Screeving, you mean? Not necessarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit — that is, not if you set your mind to it.’

And later:

 If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”’ — he tapped his forehead — ‘and you’re all right.’

Bozo’s peculiar dignity sounds like classical Stoicism, which sets out to protect us from suffering by giving us the means to see ourselves as fundamentally unaffected by what happens to us; but it really is not the programmatic anesthesia of Stoicism because it roots itself in love of the beautiful — for Bozo, the stars. Moreover, this love is not a posture, an attitude, but a genuine delight that comes from a soul deep enough to find joy in something as simple as the sky. I’m not sure if this can be taught, or even cultivated. Orwell suggests that it is manifested not only in Bozo’s pleasure in watching the stars, but also in the startling and original way in which he talks. To describe Aldebaran as “like a great blood orange” shows a freshness of perception that can only come from true inner freedom, an unfettered intelligence.

Bozo talked further in the same strain, and I listened with attention. He seemed a very unusual screever, and he was, moreover, the first person I had heard maintain that poverty did not matter
‘Have you-ever seen a corpse burned? I have, in India. They put the old chap on the fire, and the next moment I almost jumped out of my skin, because he’d started kicking. It was only his muscles contracting in the heat — still, it give me a turn. Well, he wriggled about for a bit like a kipper on hot coals, and then his belly blew up and went off with a bang you could have heard fifty yards away. It fair put me against cremation.’

Or, again, apropos of his accident:

‘The doctor says to me, “You fell on one foot, my man. And bloody lucky for you you didn’t fall on both feet,” he says. “Because if you had of fallen on both feet you’d have shut up like a bloody concertina, and your thigh bones’d be sticking out of your ears!”’

Clearly the phrase was not the doctor’s but Bozo’s own. He had a gift for phrases. He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but so long as he could read, think, and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.

There are valuable lessons in this concise chapter. The children I spend most time with can marvel at small stones for hours on end, and bring home common pebbles to make inconveniently vast collections of stones in their rooms: each pebble is different,beautiful,  and fascinating, and each is worthy of occupying its place on a shrine. After all, what is a planet but a giant stone? Every adult friend of mine marvels in the same way at the extraordinary beauty of leaves: who could have thought up something as perfect as a leaf? — but we are usually too mentally busy  to spend hours dwelling on the perfection of one leaf, unless we happen to be genius-children like Goethe. Stones and leaves are around us always — but the sky, both in the daytime and at night, is a perpetually available treasure. Bozo is not poor because he doesn’t feel he lacks anything, and what he has is not — as it is with a child — jewels for mute admiration, but rather a delight that sings in his words.

The Greatest Love Story

As lines, so loves oblique may well

Themselves in every angle greet;

But ours so truly parallel,

Though infinite, can never meet.

Thus Andrew Marvell finds in geometry a powerful image for classical doomed love: the perfectly matched pair, originating and pointing in the same direction, identical in all but location, incapable of ever getting closer and at the same time locked together with no possibility of moving to the next town. The greatest of the Greek geometers, Apollonius of Perga, gives us a similarly striking image of hopeless separation, which turns out to be simultaneously an image of infinite closeness. It is buried in Book 2 of his Conics (tr.Taliaferro, Green Lion Press, 2000), and to understand it we have to go back a few steps and perform the strange, interesting act of cutting a cone with planes.

A cone can be cut into five shapes. If you pass a plane through the very tip of it (the vertex), the section you will make is a triangle; and if this triangle bisects the circular base of the cone it is called an “axial triangle.” If you cut the cone with a plane more or less horizontally, you will get a circle or ellipse. If you cut it with a plane of which the diameter is parallel to one side of the axial triangle, you get a parabola. And if the diameter of the  section is not parallel to a side of the axial triangle, you get a hyperbola. Apollonius proves that these are in fact what the figures are, and then goes on to characterize them. Triangles, circles, and ellipses are all closed figures, but parabolas and hyperbolas open up  indefinitely and indeed go on forever.

In Book 2, Apollonius shows that it is possible to construct a pair of lines that enclose a hyperbola in such a way as to be asymptotes (“not capable of meeting”). In the diagram below, DF and DE are the asymptotes.

The extraordinary thing about these lines is that not only do they never meet the hyperbola, but they will eternally continue to get closer. He proves this in proposition 14: The asymptotes and the section, if produced indefinitely, draw nearer to each other; and they reach a distance less than any given distance.

In other words, as you go way down the hyperbola, no matter how close the asymptote and the section might be, it is always possible for them to get closer — and yet they will never touch. The hyperbola will keep expanding indefinitely, and yet will always curve inwards sufficiently so that it will never meet the straight lines enclosing it.

And there we have it: a love between two things as fundamentally different as a curve and a straight line, always tending in the same direction, always seeming to know where the other is, always getting closer, but destined never to converge.  It is an image that lies between separation and consummation — an affair that can never be fulfilled but also never finished. They can never get enough of each other.

At the end of Plato’s Symposium, Socrates convinces Aristophanes and Agathon that “the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.” In his own uncanny, abstract way, Apollonius is an artist who can suggest the tragic and the comic at the same time.

“What is the essence of the Dharma?”

The question is asked of a relatively obscure Zen master named Ling Yun by one of his disciples. It is an earnest question, perhaps over-earnest, because it asks for something too big to settle in a verbal reply. The disciple is asking something like, “What is the essence of reality?” or “What is the truth about life?” or, taken more narrowly, “What is the essence of Buddhism?” — which are really non-questions because there is no straightforward  proposition that can be given as an answer, and even if there were, how would we be able to understand it? The master replies simply: “The donkey’s not yet gone, and the horse arrives.” The disciple’s response is not recorded,  probably because he had no clue how to respond.

I first encountered this koan in a footnote to Dogen’s fascicle Uji  (The Heart of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, tr.Abe and Waddell, 2002, p.57) and was instantly moved. The Dogen context is a discussion of understanding, and how words and mind can hit the target at different times: sometimes your words strike the truth before your mind has quite realized what you’ve said, sometimes your mind intuitively reaches an understanding before the words can form. “The mind is a donkey, the word a horse…” A different view of the koan, from a more conventional Mahayana perspective, would be: laboring at your spiritual practice, you do not see that you are in fact already a buddha. This works as a reading but says nothing to a person who has no grasp of what it might be to have “arrived”; it is merely a restatement of an unhelpful doctrinaire slogan.

Master Ling Yun’s sentence speaks directly to everyday experience. Things pile up, situations hurtle after one another, with no pause, no time to close one neatly before beginning the next one. The paycheck hasn’t been issued, and the bills arrive; I haven’t begun to pack, and the furniture truck arrives; I haven’t said what I need to say to my loved one, and she dies; I need to give this assignment one more reading, and it’s class time already; I just got out all my winter clothes, and spring arrives; I have made all these plans, and I catch a really debilitating disease; I am doing well in my career, but my wife suddenly reveals that she is miserable. And so on. Life is about mistiming, and it never waits for us to be ready. We are never done with the previous situation when the next one pounces. Even when we think we are done, the situation isn’t necessarily done with us. As a Vietnamese (I think) proverb puts it: When you’ve slid safely down to the bottom of a steep slope, the rocks you’ve dislodged will continue to hit you in the back for a while. We’ve slid down many slopes, and the rocks keep coming. Our minds follow their own route and rhythm; the elements of our lives usually follow different beats, and they refuse to dance nicely. In every situation there is something we are not ready for,which may pop out now or later. In my days of diligent martial arts practice, I would never feel ready for a belt test, and when one was scheduled I would always quail before it and ask my sensei for more time because I didn’t feel ready. She responded by pointing out that we are nearly always not ready, and the real test is whether we can hold our stuff together when we are not ready.

This is even more true of our mental life. We do not dictate what thoughts and ideas enter our heads at any given moment, we have no control over whether we understand something or not. Thoughts pop in and then disappear somewhere, superseded by newer thoughts; there are glimmerings and comprehensions alternating with surmises and perplexities, none of which are governed by us. The river of thoughts crashes and rumbles through us, going from unknown source to unknown destination. We are not finished with one  thought before another appears. Indeed, one reason we write is to follow a thought to something like a conclusion, in an attempt to slow down the rushing current. If this is so of our thoughts, how much more true is it of our emotions: the way attractions and aversions flow through us, our yearnings and regrets and disappointments, all moving in rapid succession through us, prompted by the stimuli of people and events, or by thoughts and imaginings. We usually don’t keep track of the emotional river, and prefer not to question it. We are even often unaware of what we are actually feeling and have a hard time “reading” important emotions and how they change over time.  Here too the moments and episodes oust each other, leaving no leisure to conclude what’s past let alone prepare for what’s coming.

The moments don’t seem to have a causal relation to one another. When I am planning to do some writing in the evening but instead have to take care of a sick child, the conditional chains behind my urge to write and my child’s illness are unrelated and cannot be assimilated into each other: they collide, jostle, force each other out. The succession of events, like the succession of thoughts and emotions, is fundamentally mysterious. Our mistake is to believe that they make sense and that we are in charge, either directly or by proxy, and this both cuts us off from seeing the mystery and frustrates, demoralizes us. The donkey’s not yet gone and the horse arrives is a teaching that offers consolation and inspires a relaxed receptivity towards the unrelenting onslaught of inner and outer events. Life is just like this: no need to goad the donkey to move or throw stones at the horse to slow it down, because on a deeper level the donkey is always too slow and the horse too fast.

Troubled Friendships: Poems Over Time (1)


There are some poets we encounter in youth who make an immediate electrifying impression and then become close friends or demonic intimates through days and nights. Over time, we change and develop new interests, and these poets drift into the remote background. When we chance to bump into them again, we are always glad to see them but feel no need to continue the conversation longer than we need to. For me, this is Keats. Then there is the opposite kind of poet, the one whom someone tells us we have to read but who leaves us cold; yet years later, when me meet them again, their poems suddenly hold all the secrets of the world and we wonder why we couldn’t see that before: Dickinson. In between these two, there is the poet we like on first encounter, and indeed like on every encounter, but who doesn’t particularly deepen or ever become tedious; he remains a constant presence in our lives, like a benign uncle: Whitman. And there is the poet whom we like mildly at first, but who, each time we read him, deepens into something like a true love who can be a companion through the decades: Chaucer, George Herbert, Wordsworth, Basho. And there is the uncomfortable, wild, perilous friend who sometimes is just too much but without whom our lives would feel empty of something vital: Blake.

Provoked by recent study of the Sanskrit classic of poetics, the Dhvanyaloka, to ask what sensitivity to poetry is, how it begins, and how it might be cultivated or lost over time, I decided to write down a few musings on my own changing relationship to poetry over forty years of very dedicated reading — with a view to obtaining a little clarity on “what happened.” These essays will be a kind of poetic archeology, as I excavate the significance a handful of poems have had for me and try to recreate how I read them over the years. My reading was never static, and I tend not to settle on interpretations of great poems. A poem after all is not ink on paper, but rather it is something that occurs when those marks on paper are read, with all that involves ; and when it is tasted, chewed, digested, and assimilated into a living consciousness, the poem then lives in that consciousness, which is in constant motion over many dimensions of thought, feeling and perception, and is never the same from one moment to the next. Thus it might be an interesting experiment to try to remember what certain poems have been for me over the course of a reading life.

In my early teens I was a voracious reader of popular fiction, and a few revered writers whom I no longer read opened some important doors for me. For example, I started to read Plutarch and Roman histories at 13 because several of the heroes of Louis Lamour’s westerns claimed to admire those books. Similarly, the first time I fell in love with a poem was in a short story by Ray Bradbury, which featured this famous poem by Byron:

She walks in beauty, like the night

   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

   Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

   Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

   How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

   So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

   But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

   A heart whose love is innocent!

When I say that I fell in love with this poem, what I mean is that I fell in love with the first line and tried really hard to love the rest of the poem — which even to a 13-year-old novice in verse seemed dull. But that first line is audacious in its swagger: walks in beauty says more than “is beautiful,” but inhabits, is surrounded by, is contained by, as if in a different realm than other mortals. The in says so much. Walks is also rich, evoking King James locutions like “walked with God.” It suggests walking in the mountains, an aloof independence perhaps, active motion, a confident stride. She walks in beauty is striking enough, bursting with dhvani or suggestions that cannot be fully unraveled — but then she walks in beauty like the night? To my young yearning spirit this was astounding: is beauty like the night, or does she walk like the night in beauty? If the latter, how does the night walk? Both are possible, and the comma in the first line is especially unhelpful. If like the night qualifies beauty, is Byron trying to characterize the kind of beauty this girl has? — mysterious, opaque, secretive. Yet it is not a misty night, but a Mediterranean night of cloudless climes and starry skies — so perhaps not perplexing and obscure, but sensual, lovely, relaxed. It could be all of these. If Byron is trying to say she is a dark-skinned beauty, then the first line is a studiously decorative way to avoid saying something simply. On the other hand, if the idea is that she walks in beauty as the Mediterranean night “walks” in beauty — slow, clear, graceful, vivacious, and everything one might associate with this variety of night — then the line gets real power from the daring over-extension of walks to something that we would never consider as walking. The power comes partly from daring to be so close to nonsense.  Yet even hearing it for the first time, you never forget she walks in beauty, like the night, and the words walk, beauty, and night are now forever yoked together. This first line doesn’t play nice: it is bold, demanding, imposing — but unfortunately the rest of the poem does play nice, straining to describe pleasingly, and really not adding anything to the power and interest of the first line. Yet for me this first line opened a crack into what poetry could do, and in my youthful generosity I not only overlooked the stale worthlessness of the rest of the poem but even memorized it, in the hope that it might turn out to be good.

This poem, along with other lyrics by Byron (but not his epic and hilarious Don Juan), comes under the category of “passionate friend in youth but not interesting any more.” On many readings, the last 17 lines of the poem could only grate more and more on the sensitive soul, until even the first line would be seen as primarily a rhetorical success and poetically lucky — because if it were more than luck, Byron might have produced at least one more equally interesting line in the remainder of the poem. In this case, there was a trade-off between two kinds of sensitivity: there was the sensitivity that could get swept away by the first line so that the rest of the poem could be forgiven, and the sensitivity that could not forgive the coarse, dishonest triteness of the rest of the poem. While I can no longer react to the poem as I did at 13, at least I can understand my first reaction.

About the same time in my life, I came across this poem in an anthology, and didn’t even have to try to memorize it. It just went right in on first reading and never left:

Slim cunning hands at rest, and cozening eyes-

Under this stone one loved too wildly lies;

How false she was, no granite could declare;

Nor all earth’s flowers, how fair.

It is by Walter de la Mare, one of the great minor English writers of the 20th century who wrote a number of true gems. In contrast to the Byron lyric, this impressed me at once for its concise expression of an ambivalent feeling, and how exquisitely it is developed over four lines of perfectly controlled iambic. Slim cunning hands succinctly evokes refined, effective action, and the unusual application of cunning ( with its older English meanings of knowledge and ability) to hands expresses the kind of person for whom understanding is instinctive, bodily. The at rest implies that in life they were always in motion, while at the same time evoking an image of the speaker remembering the hands while standing at this stone. Cozening eyes is less pregnant as a phrase, but together with slim cunning hands we have in the first line a subject desribed by synecdoche — separated, disintegrated, present yet absent. To begin with the hands already convey long familiarity on the part of the speaker: off the top of your head, how many people’s hands do you know well enough to characterize?

The woman is  one loved too wildly: loved once, or still loved now? It is undetermined, as if it doesn’t matter. What matters is the adverbial phrase: what does too wildly mean? Incontrollably jealous, suicidally possessive, shamefully excessive in other ways…? The too carries a hint of regret; the speaker was not free from blame. This first couplet is perfectly balanced with its 4-6, 6-4 syllabic structure, but it does not feel like a completed thought. Lies suggests a double meaning that takes us into the second couplet. No matter how cold granite is, it cannot match the cold fickleness of her heart; or, something as cold and hard as granite could not possibly express her warm, capricious, wandering passion; or, no official utterance such as that on a tombstone would ever be able to mention the truth about her infidelity — it would have to lie. You can feel this line out in many different ways, but in all of them the word granite stands out as something with qualities opposite to the subject’s. Then, when you are expecting the last line to balance the third, instead of a pentameter you get only a tetrameter, where the structure of the clause is a reversal of the structure of line three. The tetrameter is a truncated pentameter; something is missing, incomplete, even unspeakable. All earth’s flowers cannot express her beauty: it was incomparable, yet of the same genre as that of flowers — soft, colorful, vital, of the earth; or, none of the beauty that this earth can produce could come anywhere close to hers, which was more than natural. The delaying of how fair to the end of the poem comes like a sigh. If the speaker no longer loves too wildly, he nonetheless feels an admiration similar to what was felt by the Trojan  elders when, seeing Helen on the ramparts towards the end of the bitter war that they knew would finish them and their entire civilization, they murmured that still it was worth it. This fourth line is a despairing affirmation of Eros.

As a teenager who loved to brood on poems, most of this would have been evident to me — together with more intense delight at de la Mare’s mastery of syntactical equilibrium. I rejoiced at the intellectual sharpness of this poem, in contrast to Byron’s, and it was at that time a revelation that one could have a feeling as contradictory as this towards a person. Now, after more than forty years, it seems clear to me that this poem is written from the perspective of much, much later in life. Perhaps it is that slightly archaic word “fair” that suggests the distance of someone long dead and the pang of sudden, unexpected remembrance. Thus, more than a poem about a difficult, lacerating love, this is a poem about time and about the vibrant highlights of living as viewed from a point in life when nothing like this is ever likely to happen again. The rasa of this poem is in the contemplation of love’s fever and wounds from a perspective that is aware of the end: love, insane and messy, vividly remembered but not regretted.