Monthly Archives: December 2008

Fire-poker zen

Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.

101 Zen Stories

I should be glad of another death

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

— T.S. Eliot, from ‘Journey of the Magi’

The train

Those early days with him were like riding an empty train to an unknown destination. There was an obscure logic about it. She felt caught up in something she had no instruments to measure. As always, part of her stood on a hill watching, resentful at this being ‘carried away’ down the tracks into who knew what.

The two halves

He was so upset that he sat straight up in bed. Tereza was breathing deeply beside him. The woman in the dream, he thought, was unlike any he had ever met. The woman he felt he knew most intimately of all had turned out to be a woman he did not even know. And yet she was the one he had always longed for. If a personal paradise were ever to exist for him, then in that paradise he would have to live by her side. The woman from his dream was the ‘Es muss sein!’ of his love.
   He suddenly recalled the famous myth from Plato’s Symposium: people were hermaphrodites until God split them in two, and now all the halves wander the world over seeking one another. Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.
   Let us suppose that such is the case, that somewhere in the world each of us has a partner who once formed part of our body. Tomas’s other part is the young woman he dreamed about. The trouble is, man does not find the other part of himself. Instead, he is sent a Tereza in a bulrush basket. But what happens if he nevertheless later meets the one who was meant for him, the other part of himself? Whom is he to prefer? The woman from the bulrush basket or the woman from Plato’s myth?
   He tried to picture himself living in an ideal world with the young woman from his dream. He sees Tereza walking past the open windows of their ideal house. She is alone and stops to look in at him with an infinitely sad expression in her eyes. He cannot withstand her glance. Again, he feels her pain in his own heart. Again, he falls prey to compassion and sinks deep into her soul. He leaps out of the window, but she tells him bitterly to stay where he feels happy, making those abrupt, angular movements that so annoyed and displeased him. He grabs her nervous hands and presses them between his own to calm them. And he knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again abandon his paradise and the woman from his dreams and betray the ‘Es muss sein!’ of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.

— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (trans. not mentioned)

The dog

Robin now headed up into Nora’s part of the country. She circled closer and closer. Sometimes she slept in the woods; the silence that she had caused by her coming was broken again by insect and bird flowing back over her intrusion, which was forgotten in her fixed stillness, obliterating her as a drop of water is made anonymous by the pond into which it has fallen. Sometimes she slept on a bench in the decaying chapel (she brought some of her things there), but she never went further. One night she woke up to the barking, far off, of Nora’s dog. As she had frightened the woods into silence by her breathing, the barking of the dog brought her up, rigid and still.
   Half an acre away, Nora, sitting by a kerosene lamp, raised her head. The dog was running about the house; she heard him first on one side, then the other; he whined as he ran; barking and whining she heard him farther and farther away. Nora bent forward, listening; she began to shiver. After a moment she got up, unlocking the doors and windows. Then she sat down, her hands on her knees, but she couldn’t wait. She went out. The night was well advanced. She could see nothing. She began walking toward the hill. She no longer heard the dog, but she kept on. A level above her she heard things rustling in the grass, the briars made her stumble, but she did not call.
   At the top of the hill she could see, rising faintly against the sky, the weather-beaten white of the chapel; a light ran the length of the door. She began to run, cursing and crying, and blindly, without warning, plunged into the jamb of the chapel door.
   On a contrived altar, before a Madonna, two candles were burning. Their light fell across the floor and the dusty benches. Before the image lay flowers and toys. Standing before them in her boy’s trousers was Robin. Her pose, startled and broken, was caught at the point where her hand had reached almost to her shoulder, and at the moment Nora’s body struck the wood, Robin began going down, down, her hair swinging, her arms out. The dog stood rearing back, his forelegs slanting, his paws trembling under the trembling of his rump, his hackle standing, his mouth open, the tongue slung sideways over his sharp teeth, whining and waiting. And down she went until her head swung against his, on all fours now, dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms, and wide and throbbing, rose up on her hands as she moved forward.
   The dog, quivering in every muscle, sprang back, his tongue a stiff curving terror in his mouth; moved backward, back, as she came on, whimpering too, coming forward, her head turned completely sideways, grinning and whimpering. Backed into the farthest corner, the dog reared as if to avoid something that troubled him to such agony that he seemed to be rising from the floor; then he stopped, clawing sideways at the wall, his forepaws lifted and sliding. Then head down, dragging her forelocks in the dust, she struck against his side. He let loose one howl of misery and bit at her, dashing about her, barking, and as he sprang on either side of her he always kept his head toward her, dashing his rump now this side, now that, of the wall.
   Then she began to bark also, crawling after him — barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. Crouching, the dog began to run with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her; soft and slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up, lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head flat along her knees.

— Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

He destroyed her image

Today I thought about that Something between our lips that we both agreed was real but couldn’t define: some infinitely gentle thing that turned into a brutal truth. It had our number all along, didn’t it? Then the newness and strangeness of mutual absence. Untidy destinies, punctuated by images like rocks jutting out of the ocean. My memory’s like a camera — I don’t even remember your name anymore, just soft silent pictures, sequences, movements. I’ll delete them as soon as I can; I like to think it’s up to me.

“You don’t understand the facts”

“You don’t understand the facts,” said the priest, “the verdict does not come suddenly, proceedings continue until a verdict is reached gradually.” “I see,” said K., lowering his head. “What do you intend to do about your case next?” asked the priest. “I still need to find help,” said K., raising his head to see what the priest thought of this. “There are still certain possibilities I haven’t yet made use of.” “You look for too much help from people you don’t know,” said the priest disapprovingly, “and especially from women. Can you really not see that’s not the help you need?” “Sometimes, in fact quite often, I could believe you’re right,” said K., “but not always. Women have a lot of power. If I could persuade some of the women I know to work together with me then I would be certain to succeed. Especially in a court like this that seems to consist of nothing but woman-chasers. Show the examining judge a woman in the distance and he’ll run right over the desk, and the accused, just to get to her as soon as he can.” The priest lowered his head down to the balustrade, only now did the roof over the pulpit seem to press him down. What sort of dreadful weather could it be outside? It was no longer just a dull day, it was deepest night. None of the stained glass in the main window shed even a flicker of light on the darkness of the walls. And this was the moment when the man in the cassock chose to put out the candles on the main altar, one by one. “Are you cross with me?” asked K. “Maybe you don’t know what sort of court it is you serve.” He received no answer. “Well, it’s just my own experience,” said K. Above him there was still silence. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” said K. At that, the priest screamed down at K.: “Can you not see two steps in front of you?”

— Kafka, The Trial (trans. Wyllie)

Everything is exactly right

Everything is exactly right
When I walk around here drunk every night
With an open container from 7-11
In St. Ides Heaven

Been out haunting the neighborhood
And everybody can see I’m no good
When I’m walking out between parked cars
With my head full of stars

High on amphetamines
The moon is a light bulb breaking
It’ll go around with anyone
But it won’t come down for anyone

You think you know what brings me down
That I want those things you could never allow
You see me smile and you think it’s a frown turned upside-down

Cos everyone is a fucking pro
And they all got answers from trouble they’ve known
And they all gotta say what you should and shouldn’t do
Though they don’t have a clue

High on amphetamines
The moon is a light bulb breaking
It’ll go around with anyone
But it won’t come down for anyone
And I won’t come down for anyone

— Elliott Smith, St. Ides Heaven

Men in love

And yet he was inclined to suspect that the state for which he so longed was a calm, a peace, which would not have been a propitious atmosphere for his love. When Odette ceased to be for him a creature always absent, regretted, imagined, when the feeling that he had for her was no longer the same mysterious turmoil that was wrought in him by the phrase from the sonata, but affection and gratitude, when normal relations that would put an end to his melancholy madness were established between them — then, no doubt, the actions of Odette’s daily life would appear to him as being of little intrinsic interest — as he had several times already felt that they might be, on the day, for instance, when he had read through its envelope her letter to Forcheville. Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be a matter of indifference to him. But the truth was that in the depths of his morbid condition he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would in fact amount to the death of all that he now was.

— Proust, Swann’s Way (trans. Moncrieff)


He exorcized the glory demons. The pages were jammed into an antique drawer that Shell respected. It was a Pandora’s box of visas and airline-ticket folders that would spirit him away if she opened it. Then he would climb back into the warm bed, their bodies sweetened by the threat.
   God, she was beautiful. Why shouldn’t he stay with her? Why shouldn’t he be a citizen with a woman and a job? Why shouldn’t he join the world? The beauty he had planned as a repose between solitudes now led him to demand old questions of loneliness.
   What did he betray if he remained with her? He didn’t dare recite the half-baked claims. And now he could taste the guilt that would nourish him if he left her. But he didn’t want to leave for good. He needed to be by himself, so he could miss her, to get perspective.
   He shoved an air-mail letter into the stuffed drawer.
   He watched her sleeping, sheet clutched in her hand like an amulet, hair sprung over the pillow in Hokusai waves. Certainly he would be willing to murder for that suspended body. It was the only allegiance. Then why turn from it?
   His mind leaped beyond parting to regret. He was writing to her from a great distance, from some desperate flesh-covered desk in the future.
   My darling Shell, there is someone lost in me whom I drowned stupidly in risky games a while ago — I would like to bring him to you, he’d jump into your daydreams without asking and take care of your flesh like a drunk scholar, with laughing and precious secret footnotes. But as I say, he is drowned, or crumpled in cowardly sleep, heavily medicated, dreamless, his ears jammed with seaweed or cotton — I don’t even know the location of the body, except that sometimes he stirs like a starving foetus in my heart when I remember you dressing or at work in the kitchen. That’s all I can write. I would have liked to bring him to you — not this page, not this regret.
   He looked up from his lined book. He imagined Shell’s silhouette and his own. Valentine sweethearts of his parents’ time. A card on his collector’s shelf. Could he embalm her for easy reference?
   She changed her position, drawing the white sheet tight along the side of her body, so that her waist and thigh seemed to emerge out of rough marble. He had no comparisons. It wasn’t just that the forms were perfect, or that he knew them so well. It was not a sleeping beauty, everybody’s princess. It was Shell. It was a certain particular woman who had an address and the features of her family. She was not a kaleidoscope to be adjusted for different visions. All her expressions represented feelings. When she laughed it was because. When she took his hand in the middle of the night it was because. She was the reason. Shell, the Shell he knew, was the owner of the body. It answered her, was her. It didn’t serve him from a pedestal. He had collided with a particular person. Beautiful or not, or ruined with vitriol tomorrow, it didn’t matter. Shell was the one he loved.

— Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game

The fire goes down easily

He never described himself as a poet or his work as poetry. The fact that the lines do not come to the edge of the page is no guarantee. Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation. He hated to argue about the techniques of verse. The poem is a dirty, bloody, burning thing that has to be grabbed first with bare hands. Once the fire celebrated Light, the dirt Humility, the blood Sacrifice. Now the poets are professional fire-eaters, freelancing at any carnival. The fire goes down easily and honours no one in particular.

— Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game