Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Skeptic’s Faith [Sextus Empiricus]

Greek words are transliterated, though I don't doubt that there is an easy way to maintain the Greek font.

I have pursued art rather than religion or philosophy because it seems to me to offer greater access to reality. Indeed, when the practitioners of those other realms appeal to me, in the person of the Buddha, say, or St. Francis, Plato, or Nietzsche, I assimilate them to art. After all, each of these sought symbolic manipulation that would in part make life seem livable. For me, understanding religion is largely a matter of interpreting metaphors, and philosophy’s most important role is that defined by the ancient Greeks, Indians, and Chinese alike: to enable one to live a good life.

Much of religion and art as well employs ample metaphorical mediation in rendering the world, often glorious and grand as in the Mahabharata or Dante. While I agree that the subtleties of human insight are more precisely expressed in the indirection of figuration, I also appreciate the early Daoists, and some among the practitioners of Zen and Vedanta who look at reality directly, without illusion or protective rhetoric and yet find illumination in that rigorously spare vision. I find elements of the same sort of consolation of philosophy digestible even to a faithless twenty-first century reader in certain of those philosophers of late antiquity, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and Skeptics for whom the Olympian gods had become unsatisfying, but who were not attracted to the salvationist mystery cults of the era. I turn to the pre-Socratics for poetry, to Plato and Aristotle for magisterial system, but to Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, stories of Diogenes, and to the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus for strategies aimed at a well-lived life.

Though Pyrrho of Elis, whose ideas we know primarily from Sextus Empiricus, is often named the originator of Greek skepticism, his ideas were by no means altogether novel. The Greek skeptomai means to look about carefully, to view or consider, and thus a skeptic would originally have been simply an inquirer. Indeed the Pyrrhonian skepticism of Sextus encourages continuous questioning and declines to be dogmatic even in its doubts, insisting that one must withhold judgment in the present state of knowledge while allowing for the possibility of knowledge through some future improvement in reasoning and perhaps through non-ratiocinative processes as well. Long before Sextus’ time, late in the fifth century B. C.E. the sophist Gorgias was the author of a lost book titled On Nature or the Non-Existent (an epitome is in Sextus’ Against the Professors) in which he maintained that nothing exists, though if it did exist, it could not be known, but even if it could be known, it could not be communicated, and, if it could be communicated, it could not be understood. A more thorough nihilism is difficult to imagine.

In some dialogues, Socrates is portrayed as a doubter, saying in the Apology “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” [2] Similarly the conclusion of the Theaetetus seems to leave the question of what constitutes valid knowledge entirely unresolved.

Academic skepticism descended through later thinkers associated with Plato’s school, constituting an alternative Skeptical tradition to Pyrrhonianism, embodied in the work of what was also called the New Academy of which Carneades was the most prominent exponent. As a kind of skeptic fundamentalist in this long-established tradition, Sextus aims at providing a systematic formulation of Pyrrhonian skepticism and thus mounting a persuasive and thorough polemic against the Dogmatists , meaning chiefly the Stoics, but including all believers of every sort. He rejected the Stoic faith in reasoning as well as their monistic pantheism and qualified acceptance of sense data as an accurate register of reality.

Aiming at providing a thoroughly reasoned case even at the risk of trying his readers’ patience, Sextus repeats the same series of arguments a good many times. His most telling points called tropes or modes, were for the most part inherited from Aenesidemus. [3] His most often repeated argument is that of infinite regress. Since the reason justifying a conclusion itself requires justification, no proposition can be certainly established. [5] For Pyrrho and Sextus every criterion for truth must itself be proven and the criterion used for that proof in turn requires always another proof. The Skeptics insist, in opposition to the implications of everyone’s daily behavior, that we never can be certain we are in fact perceiving reality nor can we know that our own perception is the same as another’s. Since different thinkers come to different conclusions, not only about ideas but even about sense impressions, since all humans are limited by our sensory and cognitive apparatus, since consensus is inadequate as proof, [4] it is difficult or impossible to find truly “self-evident” propositions from which to rebuild, like Descartes, a structure of thought ascending all the way to the heavens.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Pyrrhonian skepticism as described by Sextus is the state of mind that can occur after one admits one’s ignorance. According to Sextus the goal (or telos) of skepticism is ataraxia, a quietude in mind. According to Eusebius’ account of Pyrrho’s follower Timon the skeptic experiences “first speechlessness, and then imperturbability, but Aenesidemus says pleasure.” [6] Sextus readily recognizes that this calm may be imperfect and he allows for “moderate feeling” when “unavoidable.” [7] For Sextus as for Buddha, desire is the source of pain. When one suffers what seem to be “natural evils,” one “deems himself to be pursued by Furies, and when he becomes possessed of what seems to him good things he falls into no ordinary sense of disquiet both through arrogance and through fear of losing them.” [8] Pyrrho himself was said to have traveled eastward with Alexander and to have studied with Indian yogis (the gymnosophists or “naked philosophers” whom the Macedonian king himself regarded most highly) as well as with Persian magi before returning to Greece. Many of the anecdotes recorded about him after he set up as a philosopher upon his return relate to his detachment and imperturbability, though tales of his needing to be protected from walking off cliffs or being run down by carts are doubtless hyperbolic. He so impressed his fellow-countrymen that he was made chief priest during his life (his agnosticism having been found no impediment), and statues were erected in his honor both in his native town of Elis and in Athens.

Sextus emphatically insists that his skepticism in no way denies appearances which he recognizes “induce our assent involuntarily.” [9] To him the problem is in the account given of the appearances. We cannot deny, he says, that honey seems sweet, “but whether it is sweet in its essence is for us a matter of doubt.” He is not performing intellectual stunts (as one might suspect Gorgias of doing) but rather, as he says, “pointing out the rashness of the Dogmatists.” [10] Like all people, he relies constantly on his sense impressions and his cognitive abilities. He differs only in thinking that these useful abilities may fall short of delivering Reality to the consciousness. This is far from being a cul de sac for him; it is rather a beginning. On the first page or so of his book, Sextus warns his readers that he does not “positively affirm” of any of his statements “that the fact is exactly as we state it, but we simply record each fact, like a chronicler, as it appears to us at the moment.” [11] He later restates the concept while commenting on the highly practical matter of his own medical professions’ remedies: “we are unable to say what is the true nature of each of these things, although it is possible to say what each thing at the moment appears to be.” [12]

For Sextus the same tentative acceptance of the phenomena of everyday reality applies to dialectic, the art of logical argumentation. Thus Sextus concludes his book with a curious passage in which he says that the skeptic sage, being a “lover of his kind,” wishes, like a good physician, to “cure” the delusions of others. He will select the argument to use in a given situation, not on its rational superiority to other possible arguments, but on the basis of what is appropriate to use with a given opponent. [13] “Proof” is not a matter of positivistic conclusions, but rather of rhetorical victory, the verbal formulation that will accomplish the speaker’s task.

Both this acceptance of admittedly imperfect vision and the elaboration of rhetorical goals sound to me very like poetry. While we cannot grasp at Truth and hold it firm in the hand, we can record a snapshot of the play of subjective mind, and, if we do so accurately enough, it will resonate in others. Every poem, every work of art, no less than the propositions of a skeptic, might begin with the words “it is as if . . .” If such a declaration is the closest we may approach to Truth, it is the part of wisdom to accept that reality and follow Pyrrho and Sextus and those Renaissance writers whom they influenced such as Montaigne in making the most of it.

1. See Sextus Empiricus I, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I, 21d. I use the Loeb Classical Library edition with a translation by R. G. Bury. Though quotations are in English, references are to sections of the original text. See also Diogenes Laertius II.32.

2. Apology 21, d.

3. Ancient skepticism described their basic arguments as tropes or modes. Sextus Empiricus’ attempt to set forth his position systematically leads to a great deal of repetition. Modern comments taking his arguments into account include those by Karl Popper and, later, Hans Albert who coined the term “Münchhausen trilemma” to describe the choice between dogmatism, infinite regress and “psychologism” (trusting sense impressions) in terms very similar to those used in antiquity.

4. See Sextus Empiricus I, II, 43 on consensus of the majority. The Academic Skeptic Carneades had attacked consensus as a basis for theism.

5. See, for instance Sextus I, I, 116.

6. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, Bk.XIV, ch. 18, 1-5.

7. Sextus I, II, 25.

8. Sextus I, III, 237.

9. Sextus I, I, 19.

10. Sextus I, I, 20.

11. Sextus I, I, 3-5.

12. Sextus I, I, 93. As a physician, his name Empiricus would seem to suggest that he practiced in the Empiric tradition though he notes at one point that the Methodic school had much in common with Pyrrhonism, in that it “follow[s] the appearances and take[s] from these whatever seems expedient.” [Sextus I, I, 237] Both schools were opposed to the Dogmatists.

13. Sextus I,III, 280-281.

Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane]

The Middle Passage (Naipaul)

V. S. Naipaul says he was encouraged to write this book by Eric Williams, Trinidad’s first premier, yet the book is hardly the work of a booster. Naipaul’s description of a return to Trinidad, the island of his birth, after years in the U.K. and then through Guyana (then British Guiana), Surinam, Martinique, and Jamaica is insightful and vivid and all-too-relevant more than fifty years later. His observations on the societies generated by years of exploitation are devastating and precise. On issues such as the internalization of inferiority by colonial peoples, including an account of the gradations of color consciousness, he is a subtle and revealing informant. The inclusion of documentary material such as excerpts from newspaper accounts is effective whether or not the idea occurred to the author as a means of padding his essays. Some have attacked Naipaul for backward politics, attacks later reinforced by revelations of his sometimes nasty personal life, but such strictures do not affect the book’s value.
Apart from its candor in describing the conditions history has wrought in the Caribbean and the nearby South American mainland, The Middle Passage was also entertaining as an account of a traveler who visited remote places at some risk to health and person. With introductions to local notables and a willingness to penetrate deeply into the bush, Naipaul has written a book both informative and readable.

Out of Africa (Dinesen)

About to head to the airport, I picked up a mass market paperback of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa with a cover picturing Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Three times during my journey fellow travelers noticed and spoke to me, each time about the film. I suspect a copy of Seven Gothic Tales would have drawn no comment at all.
One may read Out of Africa as a documentary of colonial life. Though today she would not refer to her African workers as “boys” (or even, indeed, as “natives”), her keen eye and long residence had given her a deep understanding of the Kikuyu and the Somalis with whom she dealt. She records much precise information about the encounter between traditional African and modern British life in a rural environment as well as about the constant challenges of farming itself. This value, however, shrinks in juxtaposition to her beautiful lyrical descriptive passages which occasionally rise to an almost mystical celebration.
Much as I enjoyed these flights toward the sublime, I relished even more he many oblique, odd, unaccountable anecdotes, sometimes beginning with a phrase like: something very strange happened to me one morning . . .” The informality she allows herself in the section titled “From an Immigrant’s Notebook” accommodates many such reflections on the enigmas everyone encounters which for her seem always touched with the light of the marvelous.
The book’s elegiac tone surely arises from the gap between her exact and detailed yet highly edited idealization of Africa as Eden and the less attractive experiences she underwent while living there. She suppresses much (notably her husband) and a good deal of the narration occurs during a time she was losing friends and lovers as well as ultimately losing the farm. Even with such issues in the background, she manages to strike a note that will resonate even with those who have never left home.

I, the Jury (Spillane)

Though it has been tied to the Romantic predilection for the thrill of fear, the hard-boiled detective novel in America is more simply seen as satisfying the timeless human fondness for sex and violence evident in Roman amusements and broadside ballads. A late exemplar of the genre, Mickey Spillane’s hero Mike Hammer exaggerates the cynicism and controlled lust of his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Using a plain style without the striking similes that adorned the work of Hammett and Chandler. Spillane deploys utterly unapologetic super-masculine violence in the service of individual revenge motifs that would have made sense to an Old Norse warrior or an Albanian. To him the even a contemptuous mention of homosexuals (who “were hiding out behind the door when sexes were handed out”) is titillating, and torrid love or sex or simple nakedness scenes appear suddenly at any moment, fulfilling thereby, to a certain prescribed extent, the promise of the lurid covers. Though on good terms with Pat Chambers, the cop on the case, Hammer operates solo, a lone wolf whose identity is wholly self-forged and who owes nothing to society. In this he resembles America’s cowboy heroes. The title indicates the lead character’s anti-social self-sufficiency. Following Spillane crime fiction had exhausted the type exemplified by Mike Hammer’s macho character; the genre had no choice but to take new directions.

Every Reader's Yeats

This is the third of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

The earliest works of William Butler Yeats, whose family was part of the Protestant Ascendancy that dominated Ireland during the days of British rule, are dreamy, melodious, and romantic, a compound of Spenser, Shelley, and pre-Raphaelite medievalizing. He soon found rewarding materials closer to hand and became fascinated with his country’s indigenous culture. Yeats published Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, a collection of traditional lore from earlier sources, and, five years later The Celtic Twilight, stories he had himself recorded from cottagers. The book concludes with his lyric “Into the Twilight” which clearly defines the fin de siècle appeal of what he, an “out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,” had found in “mother Eire,” which by contrast seemed “always young.” For him his informant Paddy Flynn possessed “the visionary melancholy of purely instinctive natures and of all animals” and “did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstances than Homer himself.”

The most popular poem of Yeats’ youth is surely “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This vision of escape to an uninhabited island in Lough Gill is very much a pastoral dream. In spite of its Irish scene which he knew well in person, he said the poem was largely inspired by Thoreau’s Walden and by the fountain in a London shop window. It is an urbanite’s fantasy of the countryside, as unreal and as precious as Theocritus.

Yeats was deeply involved in the late nineteenth century fashion of mysticism and the occult, studying Theosophy and joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The fullest explanation of his esoteric system is laid out in A Vision. To some this quasi-philosophy is central to the poet, while to Orwell it underlies his fascist tendencies. Auden’s reaction was simpler: “How on earth, we wonder, could a man of Yeats’s gifts take such nonsense seriously?”

In some poems, however, such as the Byzantium pieces and “The Second Coming,” the poet’s preoccupations bore substantial fruit.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In all times, but especially in the modern era, many unfamiliar with Yeats’ theory of the two thousand year periods he called “gyres” have felt as though the world were coming apart. In the poet’s lifetime, age-old theories of society, of the nature of humanity and, in particular, the human mind had been shaken, if not destroyed, by Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Religious assumptions that had dominated European culture for over a thousand years were thrown into question by scholarly investigation of the Biblical texts and by the availability of Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist writings in translation. Then World War I with its gas attacks, aerial bombardment, and prolonged trench warfare resulting in enormous casualties further disillusioned Europeans.
The ancient trope that we live in decadent latter days of our species, familiar from around the world, gained new form and currency. In terms so memorable they have provided Chinua Achebe, Joan Didion, and Woody Allen with titles, the poem characterizes the apparent chaos of the contemporary world, implicitly contrasted with a more orderly past. In images chilling as any horror movie, Yeats imagines the governing deity of the time to come as “rough,” “pitiless,” and, perhaps most frightening of all, “blank” like the entropy or total randomness implied in the earlier phrase “mere anarchy.”

Yeats’ later poems become increasingly spare and gnomic. One group describes Crazy Jane, a “wise fool” who, like the poet, is capable of maintaining self-contradictory propositions and speaking truth to power.

Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
`Those breasts are flat and fallen now
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

`Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

`A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'

The bishop, a representative of religious authority, cautions the madwoman to have care for her soul. Knowing as she must that she has not much longer to live, he tells her to prepare herself for admission to heaven rather than living “in some foul sty.” She responds by questioning the dualities by which the bishop has governed his life, suggesting that opposites are in fact not in contention but rather are “near of kin” and that this true of life and death as well as of “fair and foul” and “lowliness” and “pride.” The selfless idealism of romantic love, she reminds the prelate, is also messy and dirty. Her argument is sealed with an unanswerable anatomical point: “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” The poem ends in a grand crescendo of multiple meanings of soul/sole and whole/hole as Jane insists that what strikes us as the imperfection of reality is in fact its glory, the Fall that thickens the plot and sets history in motion, the suffering and passion that not only accompany sexual love and child-birth, but which in general make our lives meaningful and arduous and taxing and worth living.

In his later years, the same Yeats whose righteous nationalist enthusiasm had contributed so greatly to the Irish Literary Revival was writing marching songs for the explicitly fascist Blueshirts (though, to be sure, he did end his affiliation with them). His poetry, however, had become far more artful, compressed, and subtle in theme. He had a master’s control of poetic sound effects, rare in his day and rarer still today. Over his lifetime he changed and excelled in a variety of styles producing in each memorable cadences and unforgettable images. Yeats for his craftsmanship stands as a sort of complement to our American Whitman of the loose flowing language. Whitman’s celebrative affirmation is answered by Yeats’ more secretive and ambiguous mythology, but their contradiction points a greater truth as both are probing, as though through the Very Large Telescope in Chile, the furthest reaches accessible to words.