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come and go

Every year when South by Southwest is over,
the airport fills with jostling and bags
and a collective sigh of Californians and New Yorkers
being packed into planes like potatoes
every which way, sometimes stacked.

And Austin returns to introspection.

Inspection! Tester of spring, the wind crescendos
and asks the leaves, “Are you sure?”
They hold tight through the tossing, the winnowing billows
that ask every branch, “Do you mean it?”
They pass. Like a second fall, the air is confettied
with brown leaves and weak ones flying,
embarking; but the younger leaves cling desperately
to dynastic continuity.

For you, there is a time to withstand every gust and to be “wick”
as a secret Yorkshire garden, but there is also a time to
be carried away; to be packed into planes.
Someday green leaves will turn old and pray-
for strength not to hold on, but to pass away.

It is a time of both going and staying
here every year in the spring.
The airport fills with leaving,
but the leaves in Austin cling.

timeless dear love of everything

this post first appeared on: Torrey Gazette

the day after the kite festival

The day after the kite festival
The great field is empty
Except for five lacrosse players
And half an orange abandoned in the grass.

Yesterday this place was a whirling,
Pulsing cacophony of color and running
And kites swarming under the sun.
Of sisters shouting “higher!” and “now you’ve got it!”
To sweaty-palmed little brothers tugging on strings.

Today at the field’s edges,
All the trees are littered with kite shards-
Colors trapped in skeletal branches,
Ribbons flayed to shreds, ripped by the wind and a grey sky.

Convince me not to see all of life in this field:
One day everything is brightness and celebration,
And the next it’s all tangled in trees.

What trust is there in soaring, if kites are so easily caught?
Or laughter becomes silence and kisses turn to stone
And tenderness is exchanged for indifference?
Seamus Heaney pulled up a railroad tie and asked the same.
What is fixed, if things so solid can be utterly undone?

I have heard there is a future
And a hope that will not be cut off.
Next year the kites will swarm again.
So as I walk under the littered trees,
I sing softly
but am not quite
ready
to fly.

over

Marcus Aurelius vs. Modernity

A week and a half ago I finished Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I’m currently halfway through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I can hardly imagine two more dissimilar books. Notes is a literary personification of The Enlightenment carried to its logical extreme. Constantly second-guessing himself and wrestling with both pride and insecurity, its anonymous narrator begins by soliloquizing on the state of man and the world. His statements are often contradictory, i.e. “Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him.” Through this narrator, Dostoevsky exposes modern man’s addiction to progress detached from achievement, and good reputation detached from hard work and morality. Boredom and embarrassment are hailed among the chiefest of evils.

Reading Notes is a bit like looking into a mirror at the worst parts of myself. I suspect these are problems common to all men and all times (many times while reading, I was reminded of the human diagnosis in Pascal’s Pensées), but with the advent of modernity, the problems began to solicit praise. They cannot stand scrutiny, however! As Pascal notes in his thoughts about diversion, boredom is unbearable because it forces a man to think about his inadequacy: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The fictional narrator of Notes from Underground thinks a great deal too much for contentment. He cannot decide whether to applaud himself as clever or denounce himself as an idiot. “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?” he asks.

Notes-from-underground

Notes is divided into two parts. In the second, the narrator tells a story from his past which centers around his encounter with a girl whom he first belittles and patronizes. Speaking from his position of occasionally optimistic cynicism, he tries to instruct her about life. But although initially captivated by his words, his supposed student soon reveals the petty contradictions of his nature. Because of this, the narrator realizes that he cannot truly love. He can only tyrannize. But even in his anguish and self-loathing, he cannot escape the calculating introspection that leads him to poeticize his every thought. He reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara, who realizes too late that she loved and lost Rhett, but still relies on her own arrogant charm. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says, but when you’re that level of selfish, tomorrow won’t be better than today unless you make the decision to change your core self. Actually I don’t know what happens. I haven’t read the sequel because Gone With the Wind irritated me so much!

The narrator from Notes both hates and adores the nature that causes him pain. But he knows he is not alone. At the end of the book, he addresses his readership, saying that we have lost touch with reality. And when he imagines readers protesting at being generalized so, he rebukes them, “After all, I have only carried to a logical conclusion what you yourselves didn’t dare to take more than half-way.” He is modernity, honest and personified.

Contrast all of this with Marcus Aurelius! What a stark difference. A Roman emperor stoic, Aurelius believed that everything happens in accordance with nature, and thus there is no true evil. A “ruling mind” can internally reorient experience and dissatisfaction in order to be perfectly at peace. His Meditations are like a journal of notes to himself: reminders and tips for living his own life. “This you must bear in mind:” he writes in 2:9, “what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole; and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things which are in accord with the nature of which you are a part.” The Meditations are full of wisdom. But in denying the reality of evil, Aurelius underestimated its power. He relied on the Soul to preserve virtue, but the aggregate soul of humanity wasn’t up to the challenge.

Still, the Meditations are inspiring. Aurelius had such hope for mankind. He lived a life of measured wisdom and perspective, knowing that his mind was his citadel, and that he could defend it from any external frustration- even using suffering and inconvenience for his own advantage. One of my favorite meditations is 4:1: “When the ruling mind acts according to nature, it so takes the events which happen as to always easily adapt itself to whatever is presented to it and whatever is possible. For it requires no special materials, but moves toward its purpose, imposing only certain conditions. It makes material for itself out of what opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it. A small light might have been extinguished; but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the stuff which is heaped on it, consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” Reading Aurelius, he doesn’t strike me as a carefree optimist, but as a man who thoroughly analyzed the world and determined to live rightly regardless of circumstance. He took refuge inside himself: the very place that Dostoevsky’s narrator could not abide.

Aurelius

Why was Marcus Aurelius able to find peace where the Underground Man could not? I’d love to just say the answer is Jesus, but Aurelius wasn’t a Christian. He did, however, believe in “the gods” or a consciousness that controlled the world. Even though he had doubts about eternal purpose and immortality, he believed in the prescribed order of the universe. And I think that sustained him, along with many other thinkers of the time and throughout Western philosophy. When you believe that everything happens for a reason, even if you don’t know the reason or the arbiter, it’s easier to rest. But with the dawning of the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”, uncertainty in the existence of meaning turned into certainty that meaning was a child’s dream. Faith in an impersonal controlling force could no longer silence enough questions. In the infancy of Western thought, Marcus Aurelius could retreat into the order of his own mind. But as philosophy matured, it cut its bonds to God and therefore to order. And now the human thought process has nowhere to go, for Truth has become one hypothesis among many: all equally valid or invalid. We are left asking, “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?”

Postmodernity is a peculiar place. We pursue sacred experience apart from its source. We want the numinous but cannot bring ourselves to believe in it. Essentially, we long to be Marcus Aurelius but we are stuck as the Underground Man. Posting quotes from the Meditations on Tumblr cannot align our identities to its author. “For we have sinned and grown old,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “and our Father is younger than we.” Once mankind believed in a ruling force. But a force is not a father. I admire Marcus Aurelius more than Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator, but neither of them knew the Way, the Truth, and the Life. At the end of C.S. Lewis’ book, Till We Have Faces, when Orual finally finds rest in encountering the person of Truth she says, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius was real but partial, and obviously it has broken in the confrontation with Modernity’s questions. In order to sustain us, a force must have a face.

Modernity exposed humanism for the dead end that it is and made us realize that the answer cannot come from inside any of us, for our very hearts are fickle. Isn’t that the point of all this post-apocalyptic youth literature we’re currently enduring? The Hunger Games is a good example of the frailty of human goodness. But Christians trust not in human virtue, but in a force that became flesh: a father, a face before whom all questions fade away. In Christ we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,” as Hebrews 6 promises. HE guarantees our life and salvation, not we ourselves. And in him, we really can burn through every obstacle like Marcus Aurelius, but with greater certainty because we can put a name to the hand that controls our fate. Christ takes the disillusioned, tired soul of mankind and gives us back our innocence by reuniting us with our Father. In him, I become a child again and enter the kingdom of God.

river

You have seen it while hiking,
Whether you walk energetically or drag your feet on the gravel path,
You have heard it asking questions.
And whether you carry half your wardrobe in a pack or travel light,
You have come to its bridge or its bank.

You have seen it swirl, caught in its own undertow.

“How can I go on,” it asks, “and leave the mountain spring behind?
I was a pupil and a lover there and every molecule of me
is stamped with the memory of belonging; of holding on and being held.
I loved those cold depths.”

You have sat by the side of this stream.

“Did I fill it too full?” you have heard it wonder. “Did I do something wrong,
to cause the mountain to cast me out?
This cannot be the justice I was promised.
How can I go on?” it asks
as it goes on.

You have followed its cascades as it rushes over rocks and into canyons.
Whether you run to listen or walk slowly, watching the Catskill eagles soar,
You have overheard its questions and caught snatches of the answer.

“I learned to be swift and supple,” it whispers. “And to overflow.
And if overflowing means leaving high coldness for the warmth of the valley and the sea,
I will leave it. But,” it sings, “in every molecule of me I retain
the best and truest parts of that place. Once I belonged to it, but now I have made it my own.
As it pushes me away I will mourn for it, but I will bless it.
I will bless it and I will go.”

catskill eagle

 

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard was a man of science. He had written more than a dozen books on the philosophy of science and physics when, quite without warning, he suddenly published a book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire. That book was the first sign of his defection from the realm of scientific rationalism to the world of poetry. In December I knew none of this. I was simply scanning the architecture section at HPB when I came across this title: The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. It seemed a little bit magical.

poetics

The book is, above all, a defense of poetry. Bachelard delves into many of the various aspects of House and its “oneiric form” as he calls it, and follows his study of houses with a few chapters on inhabited space more generally. But throughout the book, he philosophizes as a poet writing to scientists, justifying the nuance of poetry to his erstwhile colleagues. For him, poetry transcends knowledge. It reaches the depths of the mind before it disturbs the surface. And it does this through its use of the Image: simple, almost prehistoric concepts that somehow evoke feelings in every human soul. When they are spoken, they need no lengthy explanation, because an understanding of them predates our comprehension of logic or science. The house is such an image. In analyzing the organization of a house, Bachelard aims to plot the human mind.

He is quite the dreamer. (And he uses the word “oneiric” frequently, which was a new word for me. It means “of or relating to dreaming.”) I can’t sum the book up into a strict flow of ideas because… can you ever do that with dreams? I’ll just touch on the parts that most interested me.

He begins with discussing House as FORM, which throws back to Plato. Bachelard says the ideal house requires “verticality”- that is, attic and cellar- to allow its inhabitants to fully daydream. (I wondered about this, and my first question was “what about hobbit holes?”) I do not know what the inhabitants are meant to dream about. I don’t think Bachelard would prescribe that, but he thinks it’s very important that they be able to do it. The geometric structure of houses influences the mind, as do their settings in nature (or lack of). Bachelard isn’t entirely sure what to say about cities because he thinks city dwellings (for example, skyscrapers in Paris) lose magic and are less conducive to dreaming when inhabitants live in one-level “rooms”. Also this quote: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky.” Bachelard’s idealism is endearing. He believes houses need some element of the natural. “Where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings,” he says, “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” However, he claims that the natural can be imagined with good effect, interestingly. He suggests turning traffic noises into a rumbling storm or the sounds of the ocean using one’s imagination.

In chapter 2, B talks chiefly of the image of the house, how it must be a lived-in image to communicate full feeling, and how its creation (or imagining) reveals much about the architect or dreamer. Envisioning a house makes us all poets? The fascinating thing to me is his concept of contrast: in a massive, undulating universe, the house lends boundaries to the imagination and gives it a Center. With frequent quotations from Baudelaire etc. to support him, Bachelard says, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” For example, storms bestow more significance upon shelters. This quote also helps to elucidate: “Well-determined centers of reverie are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” The form/image of House is (should be?) a well-determined center. That center exerts gravitational force. “The house remodels man,” B says starkly.

STATE ARCHITECTURE Small Houses_USA_STATES_Map Drawing_TurnoftheCenturies_13x19_close_Mid

He acknowledges the physical geometry of a house honestly, but really shies away from strict physical analysis. Once he said, “We are tempted to analyze this rationally,” which I thought was funny. But he’s just such a poet about it all– constantly harping on transcendence. “To give unreality to an image attached to a strong reality,” he says, “is in the spirit of poetry.” And look at this: “An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Wind radiates from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” He never apologizes for passages like this. In a later chapter he says, “Exaggeration is always at the summit of any living image.”

B is always talking about the Image vs the Metaphor. I think by this he means that a metaphor is too objective to allow for the “feel” of a thing. In ch 5 on shells, he gets deep into shells as an image: what the thought of them evokes, etc. This section gave me serious throwbacks to my study of epistemology. Again, if an image communicates the “feel” of a thing through poetic sensitivity, images enlighten because in seeing we begin to see from and gain new perspective. And perspective leads to appreciation. Essentially, real sight breeds knowledge and real knowledge breeds love. One of my favorite novels is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and this concept of understanding turning into love reminds me of a quote from the protagonist when he’s having a bit of a crisis involving his purpose:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

In chapter 7, which is about the concept of Miniature, Bachelard gets deeper into images and nearly becomes philosopher Michael Polanyi. While reading the chapter I kept thinking of P’s theory of tacit knowing. Bachelard reverences the transcendence of imagination: “The imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning.” Imagination is what takes learning to the next level of loving. This connects to all the epistemic philosophy I’ve read in the last 3 years! He says as well, “Daydream is not geometrical. The dreamer commits himself absolutely.” Perhaps it is that commitment that makes Bachelard so value dreams. They require your whole soul, which B longs to give? Which we all do, or ought? I do wonder, though, why Bachelard is so loathe to diagram. Perhaps his imagination was squelched by the particular scientific community of his day. But I think of scientists like Einstein who clearly valued imagination, and it confuses me why Bachelard seems eager to distance himself from all data and definition. He says at one point, “To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.” That seems very extreme.

The chapter on miniature was a high point of the book for me. Especially the section where he says poets can use imagination to change the size of things, making large out of small and vice versa. If vastness is infinite and if smallness is infinite, the two infinities have much in common in their extremes. B quotes Paul Claudel on microscopes vs telescopes: “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, in the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.” To close the paragraph after that beautiful quote, Bachelard simply asserts, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.”

bilde

In the following chapter, B moves on to write about immensity, essentially claiming that immensity has its root, not in the exterior universe, but in our own souls and our capacity to think vast thoughts. I thought a lot about the power of surroundings and physical environment in this section, especially due to this quote: “The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur to unfold.” As has become more and more evident to me due to urban design/development, WHERE you are affects how you think and ultimately changes WHO you are. “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.” Yes, exactly.

Pause for this concept: “voluptuousness that pervades high places.” ……….thank you.

One of the most memorable parts of the chapter on immensity was the story of Philippe Diolé, a psychologist and deep-sea diver. After years of love for the ocean, Diolé chose to travel through the Sahara desert and found there a similar feeling of weightlessness as what he experienced in water. But what strikes me most is why Diolé exchanged water for sand. Bachelard asked the question and said Diolé answered, “as a poet would. He knows that each new contact with the cosmos renews our inner being, and that every new cosmos is open to us when we have freed ourselves from the ties of a former sensitivity… And by changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.” Expanding your surroundings expands YOU. This seems oddly contradictory to Bachelard’s earlier tirade against experience. Perhaps earlier he meant to rebel against the graphing table and the drawing board rather than life experience. Because he ends this chapter so: “But poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to “impressions” in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”

space

Bachelard concludes his book with studies of outside/inside and the concept of “roundness”. I got a little lost in this part and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not intelligent enough to get what he’s saying or if he’s actually going down confusing rabbit trails for no reason! There were several haunting ideas, however. At one point he poses this question, seemingly unconnected to the overarching point of his book: “And where is the root of silence? Is it a distinction of non-being, or a domination of being?” I think this did flow logically in Bachelard’s mind. Once started on the concept of contrasts begun with the discussion of Miniature vs Immensity and continued with Outside vs Inside, he couldn’t stick to physical examples or even to those spatial subjects. For him, everything is connected poetically. Immensity to Miniature, Outside to Inside, Fullness to Emptiness, Noise to Silence. Everything is connected, and everything finds significance when considered against its counterpart. When you look at it long enough, through the continually surprised eyes of poetic sensitivity, everything begins to look like different facets of the same crystal. Or, to bring us back around to the beginning, different rooms of the same house.

reading list 2015

It was a full-circle year. Things happened to me; I happened to them. I read some books too. [*obligatory disclaimer about how I don’t necessarily recommend all these books so make your own life choices*]

Annual reading list 2015:

(forward asterisks denote intention to read again, while following asterisks denote previously read)

**Perelandra by C.S. Lewis*
**Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card*
*Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte*

jane eyre

The Essential Agrarian Reader (The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land) edited by Norman Wirzba
Many Winters (Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos) by Nancy Wood
Poems on the Underground – Anniversary Edition edited by Gerard Benson
*One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp*
Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba
Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card
Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’: a Reader’s Companion edited by S. Hawking and prepared by Gene Stone
*The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry

berry-070615

Stardust by Neil Gaiman
A Little Manual for Knowing by Esther Lightcap Meek
*The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Top 10 Distinctions Between Entrepreneurs and Employees by Keith Cameron Smith
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Physics for Future Presidents by Richard A. Muller
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

75040a01cb62eb4266e65200da385b00

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
**The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Socrates by Paul Johnson
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
*Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card
Good Leaders Ask Great Questions by John C. Maxwell
The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield
*Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card

passage of light

what has the sky done with itself?
I only glanced down at The New Yorker for 5 minutes (10?)
and it disappeared-
all the colour washed out of it like it went through the bleach by mistake;
only down across the west field
a few streaks of orange cling for dear life:
I cling too.

sky

Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

michael

“I can tell whether someone is a good person by how they react which they accidentally step on a snail.”

We were standing on the sidewalk on South Congress- my photographer friend Christina and I, deep in conversation with a man we had just met. She and I have taken to the streets of Austin several times recently, looking for good pictures and good stories. We’ve made ourselves students of the art of asking questions and listening well, inspired largely by Humans of New York. The trail of inspiration goes back further, however- all the way back to 468 BC and the birth of Socrates.

Philosophy. The love of wisdom. Socrates helped define it for Western civilization and he did it not by writing or ruling, but by walking the streets of Athens, making conversation. I recently finished reading Paul Johnson’s biography, titled simply, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. Johnson is a favourite historian of mine and I had a 50% off coupon at Half Price Books, so that’s the backstory. It’s a small book, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into Athenian culture and the life of one of history’s most revered philosophers. Johnson portrays Socrates as a man immanently alive. “There was about him,” he wrote, “a vigor or animation of mind, a power of cheerfulness, vivacity, and liveliness. Some vital power or energy seemed to flow into and out of him.” After centuries of philosophic thought, going back to Socrates and ancient Greece may seem dull. But to catch a glimpse of the person Socrates was– that jolts me awake.

socrates

Socrates was not an intellectual- at least, not as Johnson describes an intellectual: “someone who thinks ideas matter more than people.” Plato was an intellectual when he took his master’s character and wrote him into dialogues that sometimes treat Socrates as a mere mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. But Socrates cared very little for proving statements or imparting knowledge to a rapt audience. He repeatedly said that true wisdom is found in the admission of ignorance, as I mentioned in a previous post. When the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him to be the wisest man in Athens, Socrates, puzzled, concluded that it must be because his wisdom consisted in knowing his own limitations. We are wisest when we are pursuing wisdom, not when we think we have attained it. This truth was echoed later by another wise man in Greece, the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”

Instead of insisting on his own superior intellect, Socrates was concerned for people. He spent most of his time asking questions and became an expert interrogator- direct but not imposing. I aspire to this. I doubt he ever had to fill an awkward pause with, “…So, the weather, am I right?” When my conversations lag, I remember how Socrates could linger for hours with a person; going deep and forcing them through questioning to examine their most internally held beliefs. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he declared. As a philosopher, he worked not to bestow wisdom on people like Athens’ other philosophers, the Sophists, but to draw out any wisdom that already dwelt within. He never formed an academy or published a book, and yet he is one of the most famous and foundational philosophers in the Western tradition. It’s remarkable to me, because my mental picture of a philosopher is more like a bookish Professor Emeritus wearing a turtleneck rather than an extroverted, curious urbanite. But Socrates thought truest philosophy happened in conversation and he would laugh at those who relegate it to books. His philosophy was meant to be lived, not merely mulled over. Plutarch said Socrates was the first to apply philosophy to common life, and he did so in a winsome, engaging manner. He also managed to annoy people sometimes, as his nickname, “the Gadfly of Athens” suggests. Some of his tactics weren’t universally appreciated- for example; he was well versed in irony, which was sometimes misunderstood as mockery or false modesty. A friend of mine pointed out that Socrates was master of the ultimate ancient Greek mic-drop! In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says to his opponent, “You are laughing? Here we have yet another form of refutation – when a statement is made, to laugh it down, instead of disproving it!” But Socrates knew the rare art of slipping subtly between levity and gravitas– which Johnson calls “the essence of sophisticated communion.”

It was his genuine interest in people that drove Socrates and expanded his influence. Athens was his first love. Even near the end of his life, after the city was wracked by plague and war and the so-called democratic system of the time sentenced him to death for “corrupting the young men of Athens” with his questioning, he refused to seek shelter in exile. To him, leaving his city would be worse than death. There’s a quote I’ve seen floating around Pinterest: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Socrates did.

I don’t know whether Socrates knew the one true God. Either way, he’s not our ultimate role model. But I believe he set an admirable example of how to converse with and improve people. Saint Augustine, in his City of God, says there is no eternal earthly city, but that Christians are members of the eternal city of God and live out their devotion to him by being the best members of their cities here on earth. In the last chapter of Jonah, God soundly lectures the prophet on the proper way to care for the world. When Jonah, camped morosely outside Nineveh, wakes to find a plant that shaded him has died, he cries out angrily to God who replies, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow…. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?” We live in a world of cities that can all relate on some level to Nineveh. Socrates made his home in a city like that, a great metropolitan center full of ignorance as well as promise, and he nurtured the minds of its people. In the 21st century, we need Socrates as much as ancient Athens needed him. We need curious philosophers and examiners and lovers of humanity to dig deep and challenge cultural assumptions and aid in the pursuit of Truth. And as Christians, we should be first to run at the task.

There are two kinds of philosophers: those who tell you WHAT to think and those who tell you HOW. Socrates was the second. “He was keenly anxious,” says Johnson, “to discover how people think and whether they can be encouraged to think more clearly and usefully.” He looked closely at people and asked questions to find what motivations stirred them, what emotions compelled them, and what ideas latched onto them. He was anxious to help each person think more clearly, efficiently, and ethically. Johnson continues, “For Socrates, ideas existed to serve and illuminate people, not the other way around.” His love for people shaped the entirety of Western thought. It shapes me still: whether I’m casually talking with friends or walking the streets of Austin, looking for stories.

vespers

montana

set down the sun gently for me-

roll it west like a word off the tongue.
my best friend and I will sit on the back porch
watching cottonwoods snowing and
ringing their leaves like bells

across the river, the mountains will glow-
flushed with satisfaction at a day lived well.
mountains become lampshades holding the sun:
long after the sun has set, they will carry its burn
like a kiss

Montana in the summer is a cathedral full of vespers

let the sun fall like a curtain-
draping the hour in red.
on the back porch we will talk in hushed voices
watching the river continue its intrepid race and
beginning to reflect the stars.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

atx-pano

Every Monday night, I take a detour on my way home and drive through the heart of downtown Austin. It lures me like I imagine an anglerfish entices prey in the deep sea depths; a sinister analogy, but oddly applicable to how I feel when I’m drawn to those bright streets. I vary my route each week, watching business-suited pedestrians and party-goers share the night with cars and motorcycles and glittering buildings. It’s a vibrant nightlife that, come morning, will transform into a vibrant workday. It’s the sort of place you want to drive through slowly (or ideally walk)– becoming a participant.

janejacobsThis diverse and energetic city atmosphere is enthusiastically supported by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication in 1961, it’s become a classic in urban planning and has exhibited impressive influence up to the present day; influencing city planners across the country and such movements as The New Urbanism. I read most of Jacobs’ book on vacation at the Frio River– about as far from city life as you can get, but even there I was struck by its pertinence. Not only is it searingly applicable to our problems as an increasingly urban nation, but Jacobs has masterfully woven personal experience, opinions and second-hand anecdotes together with hard statistics and history in a way that kept me turning pages and underlining passages even in sections dealing with amortization periods of mortgages, which is normally hard to do.

Jane Jacobs loved cities. She loved cities because she loved people and was endlessly captivated by the life of individuals, especially the ways those lives could be shaped and changed by the lives of other individuals or the places that framed them. I’ve thought a lot about the influence of Place recently, especially since traveling to England last year. What makes a place conducive to human flourishing? That question is a bigger one than Jacobs asks in Cities, since she deals primarily with urban centers rather than suburban or rural life. But in those urban centers, she calls first and foremost for diversity. “Without a strong and inclusive central heart,” she writes, “a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally, and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Because people are always changing- whether by aging or because of fluctuations of income or interest, monotonous areas become permanent way stations. People want to live in places that reflect their own lives, so what multifaceted person would choose to spend his life in a one-dimensional neighborhood?

Diversity is key to lively cities, but cities do not automatically generate diversity. It forms because of various economic pools of use, which draw different sorts of people, who create smaller elements of diversity in an increasing cycle. That cycle of flourishing is a lofty and complex goal, but Jacobs proposes four necessary conditions for diversity that help break the issue into smaller, more attainable parts. (I highly support reading the book since this brief overview is really inadequate.)

First, districts must serve more than one primary function, to draw people into the area at different times of day. Primary uses are ordinarily places of work or residence, or anything that draws people for its own sake, such as a successful theatre.

Second, most blocks must be short to encourage commerce and “intricate pools of cross-use.” Long streets cut people off from other areas. If a city were a quilt, short streets would be like stitching instead of basting in the fabric of diversity.

Third, buildings must vary in age in order to accommodate businesses of varied means. Aesthetically, a street that mingles old and new buildings looks more diverse, and can attract real diversity by offering accommodation to established businesses and small start-ups simultaneously.

Fourth, the population must be sufficiently dense (density is determined by dwellings per acre, not to be confused with overcrowding which is determined by people per dwelling). In areas where people are spread thin, only businesses supported by the majority can turn a sustainable profit. Only dense areas can meet the demands of the minority. At a lecture on urban design last week, I met a developer who chose the following quote from Jane Jacobs as a motto for his real estate consultant firm: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Further in her book, Jacobs delves deep into the nature of cities and issues such as the self-destruction of diversity, border vacuums, the role of automobiles, and various tactics to improve the functioning of everything from subsidized housing to city government. Particularly because I’ve experienced European cities and older American ones that were built around the pedestrian or horse and carriage rather than the car, I was fascinated by Jacobs’ diagnosis and prescribed cures for the (in my opinion) inferior urban planning movements after World War II. The sentiment is shared by the authors of Suburban Nation, another book on urban planning I finished recently, as evidenced by the choice of quote here:

city

Since Jacobs published it in 1961, the logic and sentiments behind her work have taken root in many city development departments and produced improvements that I hope would encourage her today. They certainly encourage me. But there’s still a long way to go. When I drive through downtown Austin, I’m thrilled by all the diversity I see in action. But a few miles out, the suburban neighborhoods are populated with bleak business parks and wide highways that speak of an environment built for machines instead of bodies. As ever more Americans (especially millennials) flock to urban centers, it is ever more important that we build them well. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s a note about illustrations that has stuck with me: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”

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