death, disability, disappearance

I returned this past weekend to Temendia, to clean out the kitchen cabinets, haul boxfuls of paper, unsalvageable kitchen wares and cardboard (boxes of boxes) to the recycling center, drop off at Goodwill disused clothes for which no one who remains here, in Temendia, has any use. It stimulated useful, if far from original, reflection on impermanence and the pathos of the struggle to hold on to a sense of selfhood. (Whether that sense of selfhood is sensible, or not, is another question.)

All that stuff — nine largely unused boxes of Kleenex, all opened with only a sheet or two snatched out; cabinets crowded with empty jam jars, pickle jars, jars from salad dressing, mason jars; a surprisingly large number of wearable but seldom worn clothes in storage beneath the bed, unworn because forgotten; baskets full of birthday and holiday cards from friends and family members spanning years, many with annotations (‘replied May 9’, ‘send a thank-you note’); odd bits of writing on scraps of paper; folders of newspaper articles and excerpts from books that I had thought might interest her; recipes created for her, long since cooked and eaten but documented for future reference — all that stuff is a far from mute testimony to the tense, anxious, relentless effort to preserve a life, a sense of self, against the relentless erosion of progressing disability. (The life to be preserved: no mere appearance of a life, but the lived experience of a certain way of life. The testimony not mute if you stop to listen and let yourself hear, if you stop to look and let yourself see.)

I miss her terribly — recognizing all the while that “it is Madeline you mourn for.”

the end of politics

In 1969 Theodore Lowi published The End of Liberalism. His critique of the ‘liberal’ policies and ambitions of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society brilliantly identified the tensions that threatened social order and seemed to defeat the liberal project itself. But today we seem to have reached the end of politics, both the vacuity of political rhetoric and its incapacity to engage the pressing issues of our times but also raising the essential questions of what the purposes of politics might be. The events in Scotland seem to demonstrate the real need for a vital political dialog and the failure of our political institutions and so-called leaders to respond to those demands in any meaningful way. And as Molly Ball writes in the Atlantic, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president reveals the inability of politicians on the United States to practice politics.

piling sweater upon sweater

The image of a snake shedding its skin seems a useful way of framing different notions of the self.

The common, everyday notion of the self (the notion implicit in the casual use of “I”) implicitly posits the self as standing slightly outside momentary experience, an observer of events, including the event of itself observing its own participation in that momentary experience. This implicit (and more-or-less unconscious) notion underlies a more ‘essentialist’ concept of the self: the ‘real me’ that ties that not-quite-endless stream of momentary experiences together into a continuous life. (Not-quite-endless because it has a starting point, however fuzzy, and an apparent end point, also more than a little fuzzy.)

A similar view invokes an architectural image: Over the course of my life, I tinker with the expression of my ‘essential’ self. It may start as a simple structure — Thoreau’s one-room cabin at Walden Pond. I add a room, build an entire wing, remodel what I have built, redecorate, furnish the rooms to serve my current activities, dispose of furnishings for which I no longer have a use — or which are no longer to my taste. But always somewhere within that elaborated structure there remains the ghost of that original cabin. The additions are just accretions around it. Just as somewhere within ‘me’ there is a self that decides what ‘I’ will be now or next.

The snake as it grows simply sloughs off and leaves behind its outermost self — although its core continues on its way (larger and potentially with the marks of its experience etched more deeply into its flesh).

My own skin, that apparent boundary between my physical ‘self’ and the outer world, is constantly being lost — so imperceptibly that it is seldom noticed. The more visible, but no more permanent, boundary is something I construct (or purchase) — the clothes, the costume, the ‘drag’ I ‘put on’ before venturing out into the world. (And I assume a costume even when I venture no farther than my own living room, with no company other than my own thoughts.)

My personality, too, is a mask (persona) that I put on to present an appropriate face to others — or to myself when I look in the mirror. (Not all mirrors are on the wall. My mind’s eye, gazing upon itself, is an ever-present  mirror. The field of vision does not encompass the eye itself, but still the eye ‘sees’ itself.).Costume seems a better image of the personality than a mask. A sweater (or a pair of jeans or a suit and tie) is more ordinary, more casual, more an everyday image of the person I want others to see — and how I want to see myself in my mind’s eye.

The trouble began when I started to hold on to each sweater, each shirt, each costume as truly being the person I am — here, now, always. I become attached to my old clothes. The sweaters pile up. Unlike the snake which slithers off, leaving its old skin behind, I layer one sweater over another … over another … over another … and haul about with me wherever I go an accretion of ‘characters’ whose times have come and most certainly have passed.

My closet overflows.

walking • 1

Walking around my neighborhood with my only destination being the place where I started (“in my beginning is my end”), with no purpose beyond exercise. Traveling from point A to point A. Discovering the indefinite distances contained in the 4200 meters that separate those two points.

I looked for water, and found C. Musonius Rufus. I lost him, I think, in the galleys coming out …

It took many years of unconcerted effort to lose myself. Lose? Or to bundle myself in layer upon layer of outerwear. Unlike a snake that sheds its skin as it ages, I have merely added layer on top of layer.

Walking through the falling urban night, I start to experience the world outside my skin (the sounds of the city in the deepening evening, the sound of people walking alongside or past me, the sound of people talking, of traffic idling or rushing past, of wind blowing through the trees in which the insects sing) — and the world inside my skin (the straining of muscles too little used, the feel of the soles of my feet rhythmically striking the pavement through the cushioning of shoes, the rise and fall of breathing, waves of tension in back, neck and face).

Who or what experienced that walk?


To elucidate the meaning of a text — or a proposed cause of a state of affairs — is another take on the notion of explanation. Here the meaning or cause is obscure, hidden in darkness, and the explanations on offer seem equally obscure. To elucidate the meaning is to make it lucid, to shine a light on it so that what is dark can be seen.


The exposition of a text exposes its meaning and its underlying mechanism. Exposure removes a covering, it reveals, it makes visible. To expose a deceit or a fraud is to tacitly censure its perpetrator. To expose what, in a given situation, is out of place or contrary to propriety is to censure either the person so exposed or those whose actions are responsible for the situation so exposed. Exposure is neutral or even positive when it simply uncovers the mechanism by which an effect is created or a state of affairs has come to be.


To explain a text is to make plain — or expose — the mechanism of its meaning. To explicate the text is to unfold or untangle that meaning, to show the layers or strands which carry its meaning, the components and connections that are not obvious upon a first reading. Another etymology worth reflecting on: according to M-W from the Latin explicatus derived from ex-plicare meaning un-fold, but also plectere — which evokes a plectus as in solar plexus.


Donald Lopez, in the introduction to his Elaborations on Emptiness, describes explanation as a “leveling”, Etymologically this description is accurate, although I’ve never thought of “explanation” in those terms. To explain a text or statement is to make plain its meaning. To explain a state of affairs is to make plain the causal mechanism that gives rise to a it. The “plain” in “explain” means to make obvious or visible. The “plain” in ex-plain is not plain as in ordinary or homely, neither remarkable for beauty or ugliness, but “plain” as in undecorated, free of superficial ornament. Both plain and explain derive from the same Latin root. The Latin explanare, according to M-W, derives from planus, level or flat. Across a level or flat or unobstructed space it is possible to plainly see what is on the other side.