Reflections on William Blake’s Eternity

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

An endless title, for such a brief poem. And a curious title. Three-fourths of the poem’s lines are about joy, the fourth about the titular ETERNITY. Those three little lines–that brief message–this brief moment–is pressed between ETERNITIES: in preface, in conclusion.

William Blake is writing to teach us. He instructs us in two sets of coupled lines, composed in a structure of ‘wrong behavior-negative result; right behavior-positive result’. The behavior to be taught: the way to relate to the joys in life. 

He who binds to himself a joy

Binding implies a resistance, either inherent in the nature of an inanimate object, or by the volition of an animate object. If something is bound, it is not free to go on its natural course, even as a bundle of grain is prevented from its gravitational scattering. To bind a joy to oneself, I take to mean a selfish appreciation of it.

Does the winged life destroy;

Whose ‘winged life’ is destroyed, the man’s? or the joy’s? Or both? Winged, can signify a life that is elevated, flying; it can signify a life that is transient, fleeting. Here, it may mean both.

On to his counter-example:

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

But: in contrast to the previous erroneous behavior. Notice the definite article change from ‘a‘ in line 1, to ‘the‘ here, indicating that these are two possible postures toward the same postulated ‘joy’.

Joy flies. This supports the idea that the winged life that was destroyed was the joy’s. But it may have layers of meaning. Kisses the joy as it flies, is to allow the joy to remain unaltered in its course by your appreciation. Give the joy its autonomy, and let it fly as it will.

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Destroyed life is juxtaposed with Eternal life, suggesting that they may share an object after all, the man’s life.

Eternity’s sun rise. Three words with tension in the spaces between. The sun rise is a marker of time, but in the timeless? The sun rise is a beginning, but does eternity have one? Perhaps it is a general image of red-hot, blazing joy.

Or, quite likely, it is religious, literal in a sense. This is William Blake, after all. It could be a simple gospel of salvation through your relationship to life’s joys. Winged life, heavenly life, afterlife, renewal, a new day, a sun rise. Eternal life is destroyed through selfish joys. 

In sum: the enduring is wrought in the momentary.


Neurosurgeon Resident Paul Kalanithi on How Life Changes When Dying

Paul Kalanithi (1977-2015), an Indian-American Neurosurgeon resident at Stanford, was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer in the final year of his decade-long training to become a neurosurgeon. In this training, he had helped guide many patients through their medical crises, as they wrestled over the existential questions thrust upon them by their prognoses. He himself was then unexpectedly thrown into the same position. When Breath Becomes Air is his poignant memoir, written in the last years of his life, chronicling his journey through the medical world as both a physician and patient.

After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Paul Kalanithi struggled to define what mattered:

The tricky part about illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card and I was having to learn how to budget. You may decide you want to spend your time working as a neurosurgeon, but two months later, you may feel differently. Two months after that, you may want to learn to play the saxophone or devote yourself to the church. Death may be a one-time event, but living with a terminal illness is a process.

What is the best use of the life that we have left? It is a question we all face, but perhaps not with the same solemnity of those who are terminally ill. For Paul, this question was quite difficult to answer.

Grand illnesses are supposed to be life-clarifying. Instead, I knew I was going to die–but I’d known that before. My state of knowledge was the same, but my ability to make lunch plans had been shot to hell. The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do that day?

He continues,

The most obvious [response to his terminal cancer diagnosis] might be an impulse to frantic activity: to “live life to its fullest,” to travel, to dine, to achieve a host of neglected ambitions. Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day. It is a tired hare who now races. And even if I had the energy, I prefer a more tortoise-like approach. I plod, I ponder. Some days, I simply persist.

Yet one thing is certain: In facing death, life becomes focused. Many of the concerns that bogged one’s life prior to that point become less than nothing. As Paul Kalanithi concludes,

Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

An Illustration of a String

Imagine you are holding the end of a long string in your hand. The string travels off into the distance, out of sight, and is attached at its other end to something you desire. You are required to roll the string into a ball in order to attain the object on the other end of the string.

There are two possible routes: the first is to pull the string and the object toward you, wrapping it as you do so. The second is to move yourself toward the object, wrapping the string as you do so.

These are the ways we navigate life.

Inspired by an excerpt from William Blake’s Jerusalem:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball

Thoreau, On Walking

Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is without question one of the fundamental works of the American literary canon. Its influence was expansive, inspiring the likes of Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, E. B. White, Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many, many more. His Civil Disobedience (1849) was a pivotal work in the formation of the views of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Comparatively few have read one of his shorter works, Walking (1862), which I will be reflecting on.

As the title suggests, Thoreau begins this work with a panegyric about “the Art of Walking.” For Thoreau, walking is not an intentionally planned trip from a predetermined point A to point B; he means something entirely different than a looping walk around the neighborhood, park, or city. To emphasize this distinction, he uses the word sauntering, which he would describe as a free, uninhibited walk through uncultivated lands (woods, meadows, swamps), in which one’s direction is guided by their instincts alone. This activity, for him, is crucial to his livelihood:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.
The benefits of sauntering, as he sees it, are:
     1)  Health, mental and physical
     2) Detachment from ‘worldly engagements’ and ‘obligations to Society’
What business have I in the woods, if I am myself thinking of something outside of the woods?
     3) Time for thinking
When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”
He then critiques the sedentary habits of modern society:
I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

And then, going further:

I confess to say that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.
To call this moral insensibility seems extreme, but it is understandable when read in context of the larger picture of Thoreau’s thought. For Thoreau, Man is fundamentally a piece of Nature:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Nature is man’s home, the soil from which man emerged, the marrow from which he lives. For this reason, it is important for humans to, in some cases, return to wilder, more natural habits. Society and civilization, and the accompanying lifestyle changes they have produced, are sometimes beneficial, sometimes harmful.

Nowadays almost all of man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap.
In an analogous way, Thoreau sees that mankind is also being deformed, becoming more and more tame and cheap. Thoreau exhorts us to fight this drifting, to return to wildness, and to prevent ourselves from becoming wholly cultivated. As he says,
I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports.
Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.


I Can’t Do Less


Let’s fall in bed, lovelessly.
Let limbs and lives grow
into treelike twist —
and chop it down before
forbidden fruit can bear.

Let’s push the boat to sea,
into deep delight drift,
showering sloppy curses
at the stale societal shore —
and turn back before
we arrive anywhere.

Let’s rise and shine,
be fresh and brine;
Let’s sink and dim,
and drown and swim.

And tomorrow,
let’s cast it all away.
Until we meet again.

No —

Let’s jump in bed today:
For I can’t do less
than love you


Animal Farm, Pig Politics, and the Success of the Trump Campaign

The success of Trump’s campaign for the presidency came as a shock — even to those who were optimistic about his chances. His campaign has been frequently pegged as nontraditional; and retrospectively, some have even pointed to that quality as an explanation for why it succeeded. In truth, the fundamental principles and methods of the Trump campaign were quite traditional. It employed many of the age-old strategies of messaging that have always been used by political movements in their successful campaigns to overtake power. In my view, it was not necessarily the new media (Twitter, YouTube live, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) the Trump campaign used that made the difference, or the manner in which they used these platforms; rather, it was the old message, repackaged, that they were able to deliver to the American people through these new media, that propelled them to victory.

While reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I noted several of these traditional tactics, as they were used by the campaigning animals in their revolution to overthrow Mr. Jones and seize the farm for themselves. I will put their illustration in Animal Farm side-by-side with examples from the Trump campaign. (The clips I will use will be Trump’s platform campaign speech in New York on June 22, 2016).

Identifying the injustices —

In the opening pages of Animal Farm, the animals gather together secretly after their owner, Mr. Jones, goes to sleep. Old Major, the prize Middle White Boar, highly respected among the animals, inspires the animals to revolt with a speech about the injustices they have faced in life:

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

Trump’s injustice: The system is rigged!

Trump always kept his chosen injustices at the forefront of his messaging: The system is rigged and the country abounds with problems — infrastructure is collapsing, we are losing jobs to other countries — due to politician corruption and incompetence.

The crumbling roads and bridges, dilapidated airports and the factories moving overseas to mexico or other countries — I know these problems can be fixed…jobs, jobs, jobs. Everywhere I look, I see the possibilities of what our country could be.

Establishment of the ‘Enemy’ as the cause of the injustices — 

Old Major continues his speech by identifying Man as the cause of all of the aforementioned problems the animals have faced in their lives.

Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word — Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever.

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself. Our labour tills the soil, our dung fertilises it, and yet there is not one of us that owns more than his bare skin.

Is it not crystal clear, then, comrades, that all the evils of this life of ours spring from the tyranny of human beings? Only get rid of Man, and the produce of our labour would be our own. Almost overnight we could become rich and free. What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race! That is my message to you, comrades: Rebellion!

Trump: Politicians (including Hillary Clinton) have caused our problems!

Trump, like Old major, begins by establishing a general enemy: Politicians. They are corrupt, greedy, and incompetent — and they have created a system that serves themselves alone, at the detriment of the country and its people.

We will never be able to fix a rigged system by counting on the same people who have rigged it in the first place.

But since I am not a part of the rigged system — I am not a politician! — I can be our political savior. Here he has established a general Enemy (Politicians), and identified himself as the leader of their opposition.

This election decides when we are ruled by the people or the politicians. Here is my promise to the american voter: If I am elected president, I will end the special interest monopoly in Washington, d.c. Very important.

Transition from a general to a specific Enemy —

In Animal Farm, it is not all Men that are causing the miserable conditions of the animals on Manor Farm, it is Mr. Jones, the man who runs it. Nonetheless, Old Major uses the general — all Men are bad, since they created this unjust system and profit by it — to ignite the animals’ opposition to a specific man, Mr. Jones.

Trump uses this same progression, as he connects the rigged system, the abundance of problems, etc. to the specific enemy: Hillary Clinton. He attempts to establish her as among these awful ‘Politicians’. She is complicit in these political maneuvers. She caused your problems — do you really think she would now fix them? 

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our economic problems:

Hillary Clinton supported Bill Clinton’s disastrous NAFTA. We have lost nearly one third of our manufacturing jobs since these two Hillary-backed agreements were signed. Among the worst we have ever done. Among the most destructive agreements we have signed. Our trade deficit rose 40% during the time Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. She should not be congratulated for that, but rather scorned.

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our Foreign Policy problems:

It is not just our economy that is being corrupted but our foreign policy, too. The Hillary Clinton foreign policy cost america thousands of lives and trillions and trillions of dollars, and unleashed ISIS across the world. No secretary of state has been more wrong, more often, and in more places than Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is responsible for our jobs disappearing:

Hillary Clinton gave china millions of jobs, our best jobs, and effectively let china completely rebuild itself. In return, Hillary Clinton got rich.

He is attempting to establish her as the particular instance of the general enemy group ‘Politicians’. Framed in this way, she then can bear all of the populace’s frustration and anger if they themselves have experienced any the repercussions of any of these national problems. She is established as the root cause.

Present your Presidential pursuit as an act of service ‘out of the goodness of your heart’.

Another interesting political maneuver is to present yourself as seeking office merely out of charity, for goodness’ sake. It is quite a common tactic in political history, and it gives the illusion that you would be a trustworthy leader, one that is magnanimous, in contradistinction to the Politicians who only look out for themselves while they scheme to rob the pockets of the people. In Animal Farm, this tactic presents itself following the initial revolt, after Napolean drives out Snowball and ascends to unilateral leadership. Squealer, his Propagandist, is sent around the farm to ensure the animals that the stepping into power is a ‘sacrifice’ and an act of charity.

Afterwards Squealer was sent round the farm to explain the new arrangement to the others.

“Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

Trump: ‘I am running for President to give back.’

People have asked me why I am running for president. I built an amazing business that I love and I get to work side-by-side with my children every single day. We come to work together and turn visions into reality. We think big and then we make it happen. We absolutely make it happen. I love what I do. I am grateful beyond words to the nation that has allowed me to do it. So when people ask me why I am running I very quickly answer: I am running to give back to this country which has been so very good to me.

Establish group unity through collective song or chant:

Perhaps the most obvious tactic to establish political unity is the adoption of a collective song or chant. In Animal Farm, it is the ‘Beasts of England’ song, which is sung to conclude every meeting:

Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the golden future time.
Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone.

Trump’s chants: 

Drain the Swamp!

Lock her up!

There remains much more in Animal Farm that is worthy of comparison, but that’s all for now. Perhaps, someday, I’ll continue with a Part 2. Maybe in 2020.