daniel silver

Stories, poems and essays. Published irregularly. danielsilver[at]mailbox[dot]org

I, Sitting

I sit and look out in a moment of life’s shifting, on a hill made of coarse red rocks;

I see bright green budgies dart between open fields of spinifex and mulga;

I see a magpie perched on a boulder, imposing, assured, I hear him coral call to a distant ally – I watch him launch and fly off;

All around there is undulation, I conjure a celestial perspective so the landscape moves like an ocean;

I open my neck to feel sunshine from the east, a brush of soundless air;

I look at my knees, then to where the magpie stood, then nearby to a wild passionfruit flower, white, like an open palm, and a hovering bee;

Above, to the west, I see the near full moon, giant, semigloss grey, preside over the morning;

Below I see countless tussocks of lithe green grass, pleasing to the eye, but introduced for captive hordes of oxen, grazing elsewhere;

Suddenly I recall the anguished faces of people I love, or knew briefly, beset by disappointment, yearning – I feel dullish pain, and shame for expecting my luck;

I reach for my love’s hand, her shoulders peel beside me, she kisses my face, a butterfly flits on invisible swells too close for me to see, I sigh;

Looking out, upon a world I can’t understand, I sit, and am silent.

I wrote I, Sitting while preparing to leave Alice Springs, my home for the last three years. I wanted to write about what I’ve seen here. Walt Whitman’s poem, I Sit and Look Out (1848), was on my mind. In it the poet bears witness to “all the sorrows of the world”, “oppression and shame”, “meanness and agony”, and then, at the poem’s end, falls silent. I’ve included a copy at the end of this essay.

I Sit and Look Out is a mournful poem, and to be sure, there is plenty besides sorrow in Alice Springs. But what I love about the poem is the way it expresses John O’Donohue’s (1998) idea that “poets are people who become utterly dedicated to the threshold where silence and language meet”, that “the language of poetry issues from and returns to silence” (p. 80).

O’Donohue encourages budding poets to treat silence as material. So in writing this poem, I wanted to sit in silence, and look out like a poet. But my early attempts were frustrated by two pitfalls.

First, I became obsessed with understanding the past. I wanted desperately to know how we got to this point. For this point to make sense. We being humankind. More than that, I wanted to know how it came to be that I, a Jewish man whose great-grandparents fled from Eastern Europe to South Africa at the beginning of the last century, whose parents flew across the Atlantic to Western Australia 25 years ago, am trying to write a Romantic poem about what I see in the central desert of this continent, 250 years after the British arrived and claimed it for their empire, from people who are still here.

I began with the history of pre-war literary movements in Jewish culture, specifically the Haskalah, then turned to transatlantic perspectives on the Enlightenment. Then oscillated back and forth between the prehistory of homo sapien migration from eastern Africa, and the archeology of Aboriginal Australia. Eventually I went further back, and started reading about the geological history of Gondwana, from its origins at the south pole 145 million years ago. A list of books and articles I read during my amateur historianship is included at the end of this essay.

What I learned from all that is that the past is continuously becoming determined, by an increasingly complex process that always occurs in the present. Which makes history very interesting, but altogether incomplete as a means of orienting in silence. History provides context, but given that poetry issues from a silent now, its authorship requires more than context-setting. Put another way, history does not tell me where I am, it only makes sense of where I’ve been.

The second pitfall I encountered when writing this poem was more sinister. Because Whitman’s poet describes what he sees, the poem risks assuming an omnipotent gaze. It risks becoming voyeuristic, and speaking in a way that presumes to discover truth in its singular perspective. In philosophy, this error is related to the error of transcendence (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994). Which occurs when the thinker separates the movement of thought from the plane of immanence, and looks upon experience as if it were immanent to a subject, themselves. The trouble is that the contents of experience is inseparable from the experience of its contents. Or, put another way, there is no experience of swimming without getting wet. There is no ‘I’ who sees what happens to ‘me’. ‘I’ and ‘me’ are experiences that occur in the same plane as everything else, which is always in motion (Bergson, 1946). Which is why, for example, its possible to have egoless experiences, and for my self-concept to change over time.

Voyeurism of this kind is not merely a philosophical error though. It is also an ethical one. Because it proffers hegemonic brands of Western intellectualism (Braidotti, 2019). The ethical issue is that transcendence destroys places and times by separating them from chthonic process of continual becoming (Haraway, 2018), and erases traces of minority ways of being and seeing. Like removing a crocodile from a river – there is no longer a crocodile, nor a river, nor everything between.

For the sake of avoiding embarrassment, I will not provide examples of my attempts at transcendence. But I should acknowledge that my obsessive determination to claim knowledge of the present by mastering the past, which was my first pitfall, could also be interpreted as an extension of the same misguided effort. Also that it would be interesting to mediate posthuman ethical critiques of transcendence, and Bergson’s duration, with Korzybski’s view that human beings are a ‘time-binding species’, which I touched on in my last essay.

In the end, I found my way through, and wrote the poem one morning, by taking a walk in nature. Which is probably what Whitman did whenever he needed to humble himself too.

References

  • Bergson, H. (2007). Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. First published 1946. Dover Publications
  • Braidotti, R. (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Polity Press.
  • Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is Philosophy? (H. Thomlinson & G. Burchell, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Haraway, D. (2018). ‘Capitalocene and Cthulucene’, In Posthuman Glossary (R. Braidotti & M. Hlavajova, Eds.). Bloomsbury.
  • O’Donohue, J. (1997). Anam Cara. HarperCollins.

Amateur Historianship

  • Australian Museum. (2018). Evolving Landscape. Accessed February 2022. https://australian.museum/learn/australia-over-time/evolving-landscape/
  • Hershkovitz, I., Weber, G. W., Quam, R., Duval, M., Grün, R., Kinsley, L., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Valladas, H., Mercier, N., Arsuaga, J. L., Martinón-Torres, M., Bermúdez de Castro, J. M., Fornai, C., Martín-Francés, L., Sarig, R., May, H., Krenn, V. A., Slon, V., … Weinstein-Evron, M. (2018). The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, 359(6374), 456–459. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aap8369
  • Litvak, O. (2012). Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism. Rutgers University Press.
  • Manning, S., & Cogliano, F. D. (Eds.) (2008). The Atlantic Enlightenment. Routledge.
  • Various blog posts by Josephine Mills for the University College London from 2019. Accessed February 2022. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/category/c-e/josephine-mills/
  • Murray, T. (Ed.) (1998). Archaeology of Aboriginal Australia: A reader. Allen & Unwin.

Poem by Walt Whitman (1848)

I Sit and Look Out

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;

I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;

I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;

I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;

I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.

In 2001, three years before he died, Czeslaw Milosz published a collection of essays titled To Begin Where I Am. As if carved with a blade in the bole of a tree, the first sentence of the first essay reads, “I AM HERE”. Then continues…

Those three words contain all that can be said – you begin with those words and you return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other, in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.

There is something redeeming in Milosz’s words. In the story of a man who wrote throughout his life, and upon nearing its end, finally discovered a way to begin.

Also in the way his refrain remembers Descartes’ I think therefore I am. Whereas Descartes’ brand of enlightenment rationalism is often criticised for being disembodied, I AM HERE is grounded. Situated in place: earth, continent, city, and time: epoch, century, year. Also in touch and feeling. Through its embodied way of thinking, the phrase earns its resonance with wisdom and fundamental truth. There is a here. And there is also an experience of being here, which we call I.

To say something about here, that is, to describe and transmit knowledge about here across time and place, is a defining occupation of humanity. We are what Alfred Korzybski (1948) called a “time-binding species”. By which he meant we use varied forms of language to separate knowledge from the moment of discovery, and send it elsewhere. Probably in the hope that what we have to say is of some instrumental value to the survival of our kind. But not only for that reason. We also communicate to think, to acquire what we need, to advocate for change, to nurture relationships, and to be heard.

We want to be heard, because life is distributed among singular instances of lived experience. Each of us inhabits an entire world by ourselves. For every here there is only a single I. And when that I is extinguished, its here ceases to exist as well. I am here. I was given no other place, no other time.

To say something about here is also to enable another defining occupation of humanity, the invention of culture. What Clifford Geertz (1983) called the “inscription of activity”. If language binds knowledge in time, then culture binds activity in a worldview. The closest we get to a common here. Where here is a map, complete with trails and track notes.

Still, like all human knowledge, the nature of a worldview is fundamentally separate, in time and place, from here. Or as Korzybski put it, “the map is not the territory”. Therefore, knowledge about the world should never be confused with the world per se.

I am here. In this epoch I call mine. And so far, I should say, I have believed many things that turned out to be untrue. But not before taking shelter in them. Only to realise, time and again, that the mind creates a semblance of what it seeks to find. Which is a phenomenon psychologists call cognitive bias. But I think a better term is catastrophe. Because what could be more catastrophic than realising that every shelter made of thought is good for only one storm? And I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient.

I am here. And whatever I have to say is at the very least a description of where I am. That much I know.

References

  • Geertz, C. (1983). Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. Basic Books.
  • Korzybski, A. (2000). Science and Sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and General Semantics. First Published 1948. Institute of General Semantics.
  • Milosz, C. (2001). To Begin Where I Am: Selected essays. FSG.

Yesterday we took a walk at sunset. South, along the nature strip that runs between the road and the railway line. Towards a gap in the timeless procession of rocky caterpillars that stretch from east to west across the desert. Yeperenye, they’re called, by the Arrente people.

The weather was unusually humid. The sky stuffed with gigantic purple clouds bursting with crimson firelight. A raven searched for crickets in the scant grass by the roadside. Ringnecks perched and busied themselves. Ants scurried by our feet in all directions. The last of the day’s activities. We talked about the toll it takes to care for a world so consumed. Our conversation turned playful, then quiet. Content to witness the horizon eclipse the sun.

In a rut beside the tracks, somewhat concealed, we passed a small camp of first-nations people. A woman looked out from her motorised wheelchair. Another shook the sand from a plastic rug. I imagined them getting into bed uneasily. We exchanged no gestures. No nods or waves. Nothing to acknowledge our being in the same place at the same time.

Up ahead, a man rode towards us on a cheap mountain bike. He was African. Forty eight or nine. Wearing baggy pants and a black polo. His red cap said Coles. His face bore a warped expression, as if he were riding on a flat tire and could ill afford to walk.

I thought of my father. His pale, broad hands. My privilege. His grief and sacrifice. His middle-class anger. The migrant community that kept him afloat when he lost both his parents within two years of leaving them behind to move to this country. I felt shame for ever feeling responsible for my own good fortune.

We turned around at the footbridge. Safely intertwined. The last rays of peach light catching on stray wisps of cloud. We squeezed hands, and kissed. A friend passed on their bike, and waved. Dusk fell by the time we were home.

The next day I read again the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And I tried to imagine a more just Australia. How could it be otherwise?

To reify is to become real, to materialize, to have a dream become viable, to consummate in pursuit. Its associated experience, of reification, is a turbulent confluence of relief, elation, grief, and all things between.

This short essay is about the grief.

Grief is an aspect of emotional life that never fails to surprise the uninitiated. By the uninitiated I mean those for whom a particular event is still only a dream. Its object may be known, but its associated becoming-event has yet to reify in the life of its dreamer.

For example, consider a person who dreams of becoming a parent. For them the child is the object, and the event begins in pregnancy, when the person becomes an expecting-parent. The event moves through birth, when the person becomes a new-parent of an infant, and then through various phases of initiation: new-parent of a toddler, new-parent of an adolescent, new-parent of a teenager etc.

At each stage, the parent experiences their own reification, in parallel with the developing child. Acquiring new faculties, needs and desires.

Often overlooked in this process is that developmental is accompanied by loss. When a parent of an infant becomes the parent of a toddler, the former is lost. Which is why the eyes of parents become moist with tangible grief when they notice their children have grown.

Moreover, having dreamed about what each stage of parenthood might be like, the becoming parent holds an image of the future as a kind of fantasy. But reification invariably reveals something other than expected, in both parent and child, so that in consummating the pursuit of becoming, the person also grieves the death of a dream.

In the parenting example, the object, or the other, is a person. But the same thing happens in relations between people and material objects.

For example, when a person dreams of buying a car, the car is the object. In pursuing that object, the person also pursues becoming person-with-car. The event begins by entering the market, then moves through finding a car, then buying the car, and then through all the various trials and tribulations (initiations) of becoming person-with-car.

At each stage in the person-car relationship there flows a grief for the death of a dream. Grief for the car that was always reliable, that never looked dirty, that never needed new tires. Grief for the person who knew what to do when the engine light was on.

It is worth mentioning too that the more idealistic, romantic or creative a becoming-subject, the more profound their experience of grief is likely to be, because the gap between dream and the real is likely to be vast, and that distance correlates to the measure of grief.

This is not to decry the value of idealism, romantic or creative thinking, but to help such thinkers better understand the immensity of their emotional lives.

A final note on all of this. And perhaps the most important. Because there is an ethical dimension to the process of becoming real in the relational event. I mentioned above that the object of a dream is other to the subject-dreamer, and becoming is a process that occurs in relation to that other. Also that the object, the other, is subject to its own becoming. This is easy to see in the parent-child example. Because while the parent is becoming new-parent of a toddler, the infant is also becoming toddler of a new-parent. Things get a little more abstract in the example of material objects, but still, for example, in the course of becoming person-with-car, the car is becoming car-of-person, and traces of its particular car-person relationship will materialize as transformations in its condition over time.

The ethical dimension here concerns the responsibility of subjects to objects, and in this regard Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of being for the other is instructive (see Marcus, 2008).

In a parent-child relationship, if the parent refuses to accept an initiation, for example by refusing to become parent of a toddler and instead continues to treat the child as an infant, they will trample some aspect in the child’s development. The consequences of this kind of trampling are more pronounced in parent-child relationships where the parent rejects becoming new-parent of an adult, and clings instead to the dream of being parent to a child, thereby avoiding the associated grief, but causing the child to struggle in the process of becoming an adult. To reify their own becoming, the child in this example may grow to resent the parent, compounding the tension, and find themselves fantasizing about severing the relationship altogether. Preferring instead the alternate dream of an absent parent.

Thus derives the ethical imperative to become for the other, and the notion that becoming reified in relation to otherness is an ethical responsibility.

A wagtail attended my great-grandmother’s funeral.

We saw it from inside the modest stone hall where we gathered to attend the first rites of mourning. At the rear of the hall, two large doors opened to the cemetery grounds. A bitumen road lay extended between grassy beds. On the road was the wagtail. Quietly swaying. Inside an old Rabbi recited his prayer. He called on us with the honour of accompanying the coffin to assemble. My brothers, my uncle and cousins. We wheeled the coffin on a metal barrow towards the grave, towards the wagtail, who fluttered, and each time landed further along the way. Behind us nearly fifty people walked politely. My great-grandmother was much admired, and she died in due course. The wagtail was waiting when we reached the grave. Later I learned my mother and grandmother were both aware of its presence. They said the bird bore her spirit. A link between this world and the next. As is the custom, each person in attendance took their turn filling the grave with three shovels full of earth. The first few made thuds, of dirt on wood. The wagtail stayed until the end.

These days I think of her most often as the bird. My great-grandmother the wagtail. After so many years. Occasionally I remember her body. Tiny and frail. By the time she died there was barely a foot from one shoulder to the other, and her chest, which carried the absence of a cancer she survived, was a valley between them. I never saw her legs or feet. She always wore stockings. But I know she travelled a long way. She fled the Pale, landed in the Cape, crossed the Indian. Thousands and thousands of miles, much of it alone. When her husband died she was only halfway. My mother loved her most of all. They were both survivors.

My grandmother is getting smaller now. And my mother. Becoming birds. My grandmother’s spine is bent. She spends her time among fruit trees and shrubs, and a small pond in her garden. She likes to stay put. Maybe a rail. Meanwhile my mother is a little bigger, better fed, her chest was reconstructed so that she carries her scars differently. She likes to walk, and make nests. But I hesitate to think of her as a bird. Only recently did I allow myself to think of her as dying at all. I was flying back from a visit. And the thought of life without her entered my mind in a way I hadn’t known it to do before. Not since I was ten, when I vividly imagined my own non-existence, had I experienced so dizzying a recognition. I felt the world expand and empty all at once. In it she was only a memory. The image of her I carry in my mind was all I could hold, and suddenly it began to glisten. Her laugh grew loud, her smile, the shape of her nose. I thought of my brothers, my dad. I thought of us all in a stone hall scanning for birds.

There’s a mouse in my house. I know because it leaves its little poos by the stovetop. I don’t like the mouse. Because of the little poos. If it weren’t for the little poos I wouldn’t mind if it came and went as it pleased. If it took refuge at the end of a long day. If it scampered in to escape the clutches of a cat. Or heavy rain. Or even only because sometimes outside is too much for the mouse, and inside is where it wants to be. But the poos are disgusting. Strewn indiscriminately, like scattered tic-tacs. Of course nothing could be further from a pellet meant to freshen one’s breath. But mouse poo is uncanny like that. Always in the kitchen. Similar in size and colour to black currents or chocolate sprinkles. Similar enough at least to be in poor taste. Like a practical joke in a vulgar gift shop, next to the fart bombs and plastic flies. Like a spoiled grape. I don’t like the mouse, not because I’m afraid its poo will spoil my food, but because I feel jilted by the mirage. And for that, I have set a trap.

The trap was $4.79 for a pack of two, from the hardware store. The first trap I bought was half the price, from the grocery store. The grocery store was out of the more expensive traps. I set the cheap trap with a small piece of bread rolled in peanut butter, and left it overnight on the stovetop where I found the poos. In the morning there was no bread, and no mouse. I figured the bread was too easy for the mouse to remove, so I re-baited the trap, this time with only peanut butter. But that night the trap was empty again. The game was afoot. I set the trap with cheese, like in the movies. And I imagined the mouse thwarting my efforts, like in the movies. And the next day the cheese was gone. Like in the movies. I cursed the trap for being a cheap piece of plastic squeezed in some foreign factory by the million, designed by an algorithm to reap money from poor people with mice in their houses, and keep the mice fed. I drove to the hardware store, and bought the more expensive, pre-baited trap. This time I read the instructions. They said to set the trap against the wall, where the mouse is likely to run. Not where it poos. Half an hour later the trap cracked into life. I saw it happen. The mouse struggled for ten seconds before it died.

It’s not that I miss the mouse. But I feel forlorn. I have another trap for when it comes back. It always does. The time before this on the trap woke me in the middle of the night. I could hear the mouse squealing. Frozen, I waited for quiet. I thought about going back to sleep. But it seemed wrong to leave a dead body unburied. A body for which I was responsible. It seemed unkind. Eventually I walked to the kitchen and turned on the light. The mouse was dead. I put its body in a plastic bag, which I tied, and threw in the bin outside.

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