Sunday, October 30, 2011

Annie Dillard and Innocence

Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.

On Sunday mornings I usually like to read scripture and sections from a book of practical theology, such as Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure by the man for whom I was named. Today I decided instead to pick up Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

"Ecstatic" might be the most apt word for Pilgrim, a series of deeply meditative and wide-ranging reflections that the author composed while spending a year in solitude near the eponymous creek. Like no other writer I know, Dillard has a remarkable talent for transfiguration. What is familiar to us—assumed, casually passed over, thought to be unremarkable—takes on an unsettling and foreign dimension as she recasts the familiar in her own terms. Insects become horrific voids of meaning, a tree caught in the light at dusk throws open a door to eternity, and the whole world of nature reassumes a majesty and transcendence that the disenchanting movement of modern culture has all but shut out.

In light of themes running through the David Foster Wallace quotations I put up recently, I can't help but share an extended section from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; here Dillard reflects on self-consciousness and its opposed state which, interestingly, she calls innocence.

Consciousness itself does not hinder living in the present. In fact, it is only to a heightened awareness that the great door to the present opens at all. Even a certain amount of interior verbalization is helpful to enforce the memory of whatever it is that is taking place. [. . .]
Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree. But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities—looking over my own shoulder, as it were—the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown. And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases. It dams, stills, stagnates.
Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people—the novelist's world, not the poet's. I've lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clatter of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, "next year . . . I'll start living; next year . . . I'll start my life." Innocence is a better world. 
Innocence sees that this is it, and finds it world enough, and time. Innocence is not the prerogative of infants and puppies, and far less of mountains and fixed stars, which have no prerogatives at all. It is not lost to us; the world is a better place than that. Like any other of the spirit's good gifts, it is there if you want it, free for the asking, as has been stressed by stronger words than mine. It is possible to pursue innocence as hounds pursue hares: singlemindedly, driven by a kind of love, crashing over creeks, keening and lost in fields and forests, circling, vaulting over hedges and hills wide-eyed, giving loud tongue all unawares to the deepest, most incomprehensible longing, a root-flame in the heart, and that warbling chorus resounding back from the mountains, hurling itself from ridge to ridge over the valley, now faint, now clear, ringing the air through which the hounds tear, open-mouthed, the echoes of their own wails dimly knocking in their lungs. 
What I call innocence is the spirit's unself-conscious state at any moment of pure devotion to any object. It is at once a receptiveness and total concentration. One needn't be, shouldn't be, reduced to a puppy. If you wish to tell me that the city offers galleries, I'll pour you a drink and enjoy your company while it lasts; but I'll bear with me to my grave those pure moments at the Tate (was it the Tate?) where I stood planted, open-mouthed, born, before that one particular canvas, that river, up to my neck, gasping, lost, receding into watercolor depth and depth to the vanishing point, buoyant, awed, and had to be literally hauled away. These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present. 

 A good lady. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'll Show You a Package Covered in Stamps, Its Contents Even

Another day, another act of international kindess.

 This is how to cover an international postage charge using only thirteen-cent stamps

"Yo young poet!" - Rainer Maria Rilke

My wonderful friend Ryn sent me a copy of a book I once loved so much that I gave it away. Thank you, Ryn! Reading through the first few letters again has reminded me of why I loved Rilke so much in the first place. If you haven't encountered any of his work before, I would recommend the pictured book, Letters to a Young Poet, and perhaps Sonnets to Orpheus (if you're familiar with the myth) or The Book of Hours (if you're a person of faith). Themes and motifs in Rilke's poetry anticipate Heidegger's phenomenological perspectives on being and language! Which is to say, Rilke is an exciting and brilliant observer of life. Thank you again, Ryn

Thursday, October 20, 2011

New Package Address, Etc.

Since moving in to this apartment complex, my roommates and I have discovered that packages larger than a shoebox end up being held at the post office in downtown Leuven, or even at a shipping facility in Brussels, instead of being delivered to our door or put aside for us to retrieve somewhere in our building. After quelling an outbreak of the solipsistic rage that I have begun experiencing with some regularity since leaving the states, I pleasantly discovered that there is an alternative address for packages that will result in their being held for us, conveniently and reasonably, in an adjacent building! It is with delight that I now pass on to you our packages-only address:

 Regina Mundi Leuven
 Martyn Jones, Jeremy Heuslein, and Dan Leonard (Studio C 3.19)
Janseniusstraat 38
3000 Leuven

Please continue to send other mail to the previously-posted Minderbroedersstraat 21 address. 


I wish to enact a new policy, starting with this post, and it shall be called: responding to comments. To contextualize this a little bit, when I started blogging for Everydayness last fall, I had a strange idea about "professionalism" with regard to public writing; it entailed my disappearing from view after putting up each post, and holding back from interacting with any followup remarks (except, of course, in cases where my pride urged me to defend myself for something). 

My reasons for doing this at the time are largely inchoate and sub-rational to me now, as in retrospect they probably were to me back then (sometimes, you just have to go with your instincts to get things done). But in any case, from this day forward I wish to reply to every person who is so kind as to reply to the content of this fledgling blog, as it struggles to get to its wobbly feet


So far, this blog has been concerned almost exclusively with the mechanics of making life work in a foreign context. I love the way that this sort of experience naturally leads to missteps and moments of revealed, unavoidable ineptitude, and how humanizing those moments can be when translated into a narrative form, for the agent of ineptitude himself and for other people. However, as my roommates and I gain speed and momentum in our program, I am going to be increasingly drawn to using this space to work out thesis-related ideas. My good friend and roommie (and future something-in-law or whatever), Jeremy, has been using his blog for just this purpose.

My question, if you'd be so kind as to respond, is: would you rather I leave the theological and philosophical speculations to Everydayness, or might I put up some of those thoughts here? I only ask because a lot of it will likely end up being pretty dry, and I certainly don't want to bore anyone. 

To be clear, the foibles will undoubtedly continue; the question is only whether the inclusion of less personal content would be welcome or unwelcome among the compassionate, intelligent, and patient people who take a weekly glance at this congealed mess of text and photos. 

Okay, great. Cheers everybody; back to the books for me. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

David Foster Wallace

My roommate Dan forwarded me a list of David Foster Wallace quotations. Here are a couple that really stuck out:

And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don’t really mean what I’m saying." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."


We're all—especially those of us who are educated and have read a lot and have watched TV critically—in a very self-conscious and sort of worldly and sophisticated time, but also a time when we seem terribly afraid of other people's reactions to us and very desperate to control how people interpret us. Everyone is extremely conscious of manipulating how they come off in the media; they want to structure what they say so that the reader or audience will interpret it in the way that is most favorable to them. What's interesting to me is that this isn't all that new. This was the project of the Sophists in Athens, and this is what Socrates and Plato thought was so completely evil. The Sophists had this idea: Forget this idea of what's true or not—what you want to do is rhetoric; you want to be able to persuade the audience and have the audience think you're smart and cool. And Socrates and Plato, basically their whole idea is, "Bullshit. There is such a thing as truth, and it's not all just how to say what you say so that you get a good job or get laid, or whatever it is people think they want."

A good dude. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011


For your casual perusal: 

Walking in through the front door. What a judicious distribution of space / things!

Standing in the left corner next to the front door. Jeremy is in "the dock". 

Facing the kitchen, back to the stairs. We have a fridge, a stove, and load-bearing culinary imaginations. 

Facing the stairs, back to the stove. Jeremy is still in "the dock".

Up the stairs, to the sleeping loft! We shall conquer the world of dreams... together. 

Glancing back down, wondering whether Jeremy is still in the "the dock". Whether he knows. Etc.

Surveying the sleeping loft, criss-crossed by buttresses (purely decorative, jerk architects). 

Facing back towards the stairs (notice the window, which affords us unique roof access).

Back downstairs, at the front door. We shall go down the hall to the right. Together.

Facing the front door from the opposite end of the apartment. Bathroom now on right, window on left.

A pleasant window seat appears. Let's get him out of the way and have a look out. Together.

Nice! He did not have to fall very far, also what a pretty day. 

Peering into the courtyard. Audible yelps from below, curiously.

Appreciating the view. Can now hear sirens, wondering about the cause. On a nice day you can see the very face of God. Yelps continuing, commotion below, cause unknown. 

* * * 

Thanks again to Rachyl and co. for providing us with the camera that made this domestic photo-record possible. And my cold is finally gone! It is a good day for these and other reasons. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Two Items

The first: a postcard from a wonderful friend who is studying at Goshen College in Indiana. Leanna, thank you for making my day! Receiving mail really is the best!

I chanted the word "Goshen" to myself for a while, and now it's just a sound (via semantic satiation)

The second item doesn't carry any significance for any of us, although it did catch my eye at a kebab stand. I chuckled:

Sorry, I don't take orders from discarded pieces of paper, no matter how glossy

My roommates and I discussed a number of interpretive possibilities, but I won't enumerate them here. Suffice it to say, the phrase at the top of this party flier leaves most of the work up to the reader. Oh Belgium. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lecture Quotations, Part One

Hilarious out of context, this snippet comes from today's lecture for Philosophical Anthropology, for which we're reading Freud's famous essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle":

If the breast were continually present, there would be no thought.

Yep. Not explaining that one for ya. You should probably call your mother though.  Perhaps I'll explicate it later, after I figure out how to label this post without attracting the wrong sort of traffic. Oh Google, you and your keywords.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Down With the Sickness

Just a cold, but it's basically knocked me out. My face feels like it's exploding in slow motion. I wish I could say that every time I get sick, I am reminded of the frailty and contingency of human life and that I am driven, therefore, to a renewed sense of the sovereignty and mercy of God in allowing me to continue in my precarious existence, but that would not be true. I just get really grumpy, is all.

Blech. Time for bed. Time to turn the lights out. Time to gently weep into my snotty pillow. Hah, hah. Just kidding guys. I'm not turning the lights out yet.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Prolegomena to Any Future M.A. Thesis

Dan, Jeremy, and I attended a thesis workshop today that was really a lecture delivered by the head of the institute's international program. He said: 

"Well, the thesis is worth twenty-four out of your sixty total study points for the program. That's forty percent! And if you spend forty hours each week working on your philosophical pursuits, as my colleagues and I hope you will, well, I haven't done the math but suffice it to say that we wish for you to spend a lot of time on your thesis this year."

Forty percent would mean sixteen hours each week. We have thirty-two full weeks until (ideally) our rough drafts are ready for our advisors to review. So, between the hours each week and the number of weeks, that's, well, that's five hundred and twelve (512) hours. 

Five hundred and twelve hours to produce twenty thousand words, at an average rate of six hundred and twenty five words per week, or about thirty-nine words per hour. 

I can do thirty nine words in an hour! Bring it on, thesis. Let's dance. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Pictorial Play in Two Parts


by Marty Jones or whatever 
also, Photo Booth

* * * 

 A box with my name on it! What!
Inside the box, there are things, delicately wrapped in paper! Whoa!

 A heartwarming personal note! 
The handwriting is elegant, but doesn't make me feel bad about my own!

 A card from a buncha dudes that has a cat on it! Classy and deeply felt!

Tea supplies! My fingers look strange in this photograph!
They are attempting to hold too many different items!

A camera! It can zoom, or not zoom! Depends on what you want!



Smelling the marijuana...

 That is potent marijuana you guys! 

Just kidding, it's looseleaf tea. Tea is a drug you can drink. 

* * * 

And that's the story of my afternoon. My friends are the best!

To Rachyl and company, thank you, thank you, thank you. I am amazed by your kindness and intentionality; shipping a package internationally is no casual undertaking. I don't take it lightly, and I appreciate it. Thank you.

And now for some apartment pictures!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Benefits of Life in Belgium, Part 1

The cheapest beer, the cheapest second-hand glass. 

Monetary Policy and Maturity

Fifty euros can buy two or three heavy bags of basmati rice, a new book, a pair of used books, a set of utensils, some chipped dishes, a derelict couch, a stolen bike, fries for a month, a new shirt, a trash can, a nice comforter, a cheap pair of shoes, postage for a package that can't leave the continent, postage for a three letters that can, assorted groceries for two weeks, a rice cooker, or student health insurance for ten months.

Fifty euros and eleven US dollars: this is the total amount of legal tender in my possession. I'm leaning towards the rice cooker, and perhaps, after a special dispensation of grace, I will be able to send my letters; beautiful missives addressed to National Education, Nelnet, and my other lender, requesting that my loan repayments be put on hold without incurring the penalties I probably deserve for "doing it wrong."

At the end of the day, I love my life and the season my life is entering. The various forces at work on me and my roommates in the last two weeks have pushed each of us right up to the existing boundaries of our virtues (although perhaps I speak too quickly for Jeremy and Dan). A sort of alienating friction complicates our daily doings, but it seems to force me, at least, out of my insecurity and passivity—who has time for insecurity or passivity when sleeping under a roof at night is an open question in the afternoon, or when you need to immediately procure information about a ticket for the last train home when the information is not available in English?—and this alone seems to me to suggest a certain trajectory of development for the upcoming year: one that pulls personal identity out of abstraction, uncertainty, and the infinity of possible choices, and instead gives it a tiny but definite existence.

At the risk of sounding like an idiot (give me a break, I'm exhausted from traveling), I mean something like a sense of self that is not valued in itself (e.g. as "material" for creating autobiographical art) and that naturally resists prolonged, morbid introspection, a sense of self that instead manifests in a particular perspective through which to look out, and a peculiar voice with which to say what it is that you see. Seems pretty adult, something that people who have it don't think about, or think about thinking about, because they're too busy being human beings or something. It's assumed, not sought after, and in some ways perhaps it represents a mutual understanding between yourself and the impersonal world you are trying to navigate, which will not give you any extra time to deal with your personal issues because it moves unremittingly, without concern for its inhabitants. Of course, I mean only the natural world, but anyway.

I am pleased to report that we have metal utensils now, and two glasses. The third one broke on Jeremy's hand when he tried to wash it; a sheet of paper towel helped to stop the bleeding in lieu of a bandaid or cloth bandage. When we first got back from the second-hand store there had magically appeared a new desk in our apartment, and someone had also slid a letter under the door. It's as though we really live here or something! So I think to myself as I look out the window towards the distant spires of the old city hall, a building that has cast a shadow over the cobblestone square below it for centuries and centuries.