The Syllabication of Desire

You are here.In “The Stylization of Desire,” William H. Gass[1] complains philosophers have ignored the body. I guess if you live a life of the mind, you don’t dwell on the accoutrements. You save your energy for argument. Gass argues an evolution in the development of human desire, from a direct recognition and fulfillment to more sophisticated, abstracted satisfactions. A fly fisherman ties his own handmade, artificial flies onto barbless hooks, intending to catch and release fish not to be eaten. That’s my example, not Gass’s, and the fish dances, which is already style, but does the fish find or hunt the fly? While the fly fisherman is hooked on a style, not the object of his desire?

Gass says his subject is, indirectly, style, not desire. The hungry man finding food employs a different style from the hungry man hunting for food. The man who is not hungry, but who knows at some point he must eat, develops rituals when repeated over time create their own needs and wants, which may or may not have all that much to do with food anymore: on which side of the plate should the barbless hook be placed?

Style is need become recreation. Substitutions are impurities, and style is anything but a distillery. Style is additives, an acting out: a method, a process, a procedure, elliptical, indirect, never subtle. And style is a tool, a way of reaching for something just beyond immediate grasp or sight. In 1971, when Gass was writing his essay, the goal of music may have been lost in the style of sound systems, in stereo equipment, components, each creating its own desirabilities. The sound system is a stylization of music, as music is a stylization of sound. The war was sixteen years old, also a style, because there was no end in sight. It was the long reach of promise, the promise of style. You could master MLA, even if you had nothing to say. You could still read for style, before theory stylized the wrecking ball. Theory is a means to no end, all style.

By desire, Gass means basic human needs. By style, he means the infrastructures erected culturally and socially that achieve goals to reach those needs. To create the infrastructure, people have to agree about what they want. Things they want are then called values. Values are the styles of desire. You wanted a fish, to eat. You may have seen a bear or a bird snagging a fish from a river. You watched the bear eating the fish with her hands, cold, river to mouth, maybe a rock for a table. You could learn to do that too. But now you can grab a can of tuna off the shelf at the supermarket. You get a job so you can pay for the tuna. The job probably has nothing to do with fishing. It takes a whole lot of infrastructure so you can make a tuna salad sandwich, and all kinds of new needs are created along the way which have nothing to do with fishing for fish.

The object of desire is mystified by egress, the tool, the way. The path becomes the object of desire, as in Zen. Gass visited Plato country, maybe, but he seems to have been looking for a way out. Today’s gentrifications imply style, new rituals in old neighborhoods, where you can no longer belly up to the bar and drink beer from a bucket, which was also a style, but one now no longer valued. Styles change as values change. Gentrification is a means-end inversion, where desire for the object is lost to desire for the tool, and tool instruction becomes ritualized: indentured servant, laborer, apprentice, master, homemaker. This is the abstraction away from the body, from hammers and nails to blueprints and picking out your wall and rug colors and appliances. Houses, once homes, are now investments. Houses are the shells of families. The oldest ones have ceilings and walls and floors layered with sediment, basements full of dregs, the debris of style. An investment is not a body. But investments, like bodies, can get run down. Style is a value. Values are mutable.

But while the philosophers may have avoided the body, the poets embraced it as well as all of its functions. First comes the body, then the mind. That’s not to say the body is always taken seriously. From Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” a situation comedy:

“Speak, sweete bird, I know not where thou art.”
This Nicholas anon let fly a fart,
As great as it had been a thunder dent*;                     *peal, clap
That with the stroke he was well nigh y-blent*;                 *blinded
But he was ready with his iron hot,
And Nicholas amid the erse he smote.
Off went the skin an handbreadth all about.
The hote culter burned so his tout*,                             *breech
That for the smart he weened* he would die;                  *thought
As he were wood*,  for woe he gan to cry,                           *mad
“Help! water, water, help for Godde’s heart!”

From Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Episode Three, Stephen on a meditation walk:

Cocklepickers. They waded a little way in the water and, stooping, soused their bags and, lifting them again, waded out. The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue red panting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffling rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.

From Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” 21:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.

and from 50:

Wrench’d and sweaty – calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep – I sleep long.

The body is energy, energy heat; how to cool the mind? Sprinkle some water on it.

In “Being Peace,”[2] by Thich Nhat Hanh, we find a tool that might be used to solve Gass’s algorithm, that style (means) usurps ends (desire), a game Gass calls civilization, the realization of values. Civilization is a clock, the stylization of time. It’s hard to live in the moment when the clock is ticking and clicking away. Tests are timed. Clock in, clock out. Days are geared for what comes next. Hanh’s solution, simply put, is to be in the moment, which requires body and mind to come together, stop arguing, come to some agreement. Hanh offers a three-fold mantra that blends breath (an amalgamation of body and soul) with mind. Breathe in calmly; be calm. Breathe out and smile. It’s not easy to smile under rigid conditions, but it’s even harder to feel anger, frustration, envy, or any of the other so-called deadly sins when smiling. Bringing the present moment into focus cuts style short because there’s no reliance on a past or future moment. There is no time for playing games, for acting out, for conceits and deceits. And there is no need for revisions.

In “Being Peace,” Hanh identifies three energies: sexual, breath, and spiritual, a trichotomy, but peace requires oneness:

Breath energy is the kind of energy you spend when you talk too much and breathe too little [many examples of breath energy can be found on The Coming of the Toads blog, including this post]. Spirit energy is energy that you spend when you worry too much and do not sleep well.

The Zen practitioner works on conserving energies, though if describing an expert at it, work might be the wrong word.

For some reason, we have language. What is language? Do all animals have it? Do plants have languages? Writing is the stylization of language. Metaphor is style. To live in the moment as Hanh suggests, to meditate, sitting or walking, may require thinking anew and reevaluating the primacy of words as a means to cut away from the hankering that looks before and after and pines for what is not.[3] To live in the moment may mean to abandon metaphor. To liken this moment to some other moment we must leave, momentarily, this moment.

Hanh’s mantra can be shortened to four words: Calm, Smile, Present Moment. Present can be substituted with wonderful. This is the syllabication of desire, but can it be done without words? Below is a table I created containing variations on the mantra, simple syllables, monosyllabic, mostly. Read vertically top to bottom or horizontally left to right or right to left. Note the mantras are presented with their counter or anti-moment-mantras, the desired calm moment placed near its opposite, acknowledging tension and conflict and the difficulty of doing this, of being calm, of smiling (Hanh is talking about smiling in the face of suffering), while some attempt has been made to create a cycle using the four seasons:

Calm Storm Smoke Motion Drizzle Quiet
Smile Frown Swell Blow Open Spring
Present Absent Green Tube Empty Mouth
Moment Nowhere Dwell Past Scene Space
           
Thorn Palm Face Prayer Smooth Light
Snarl Wave Play Tick Listen Place
Reach Hand Wall Honey Summer Reel
Mist Balm Way Brim Water Well
           
Naked Red Still Rough Sweet Noise
Laugh Close Rest Remit Toss Circle
Full Scar Walk Future Soft Moon
Ocean Door Rhythm Evening Fall Flat
           
Snow Freeze Silver Bleary Cold Cool
Spur Scowl Thaw Abstract Breathe Call
Hither Fix Winter Weary Slow Bird
Rapt Incessant Drip Notion Motif Bell
           
Calm          
  Smile       Wave
    Present Current  
      Moment  
Eat Drink Enjoy Labor[4]  

[1] “The Stylization of Desire” appeared in The New York Review of Books, February 25, 1971. It’s paywalled, but the first few paragraphs can be viewed. I have it in an old copy of “Fiction: The Figures of Life,” a collection of Gass essays from late ‘50s to early ‘70’s.

[2] “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh. 1987, 2005. Parallax Press, 118 pages.

[3] from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s, “To a Skylark,” stanza 18:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

[4] “And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13 (KJV).

Susan Among the Zen Monks in the Gorge

Upper Multnomah FallsOne summer, we drove into the Gorge to view the falls. There are several falls along the way. Multnomah Falls is the tallest, and is now a major tourist attraction, complete with gift shop, food carts, and a fancy restaurant where a few years ago Rachel Ray filmed a segment of a food show. Summer falls, and it’s hot in town and in the Gorge, but the mist from the falls is cool.

There are two falls at Multnomah Falls, an upper and a lower. To get to the pool at the upper falls, you hike a switchback trail up to an old bridge. The pool below the upper falls is now off limits, but you can view the upper falls and the pool below from the bridge. We used to climb down the trail and wade into the pool, but you can’t do that any more. Wading into the pool, you could get soaking wet just from the mist from the falls. The falls don’t take the place of waves, the smell of salt-water breezes. In the Gorge, in the summer, if there’s no wind, the air seems thick and heavy, but if you take the old highway, you pass along cliffs of shade and green fern groves growing under the fir trees. And the falls are always a cool surprise.

Lower Multnomah FallsAnyway, this last time we stopped at Multnomah Falls, Susan decided not to make the switchback hike to the top. On my way up, I passed a group of men coming down. Their heads were shaved. They wore robes and sandals. I didn’t think much of it; monks, I assumed. I nodded as we passed on the trail. When I got to the bridge, I spent some time looking at the upper falls and turned around and crossed the bridge to look down on the lower falls and below to the trailhead to try to spot Susan. And there she was, sitting on a stone bench, surrounded by the monks. I waved and waved some more and finally caught her attention, and she waved back, and all of the monks waved too. I took a picture of her in the middle of the monks, all waving. Then they all stopped waving and went back to talking with Susan. Later, Susan told me they were Zen monks. And this morning I’ve spent probably 30 minutes looking for that photo. Alas, it seems to have disappeared. I think in a past life Susan may have been a Zen monk who attained enlightenment.

The cover’s title

Both the July 7 & 14 (double issue) and the July 21 issues arrived today. For those curious still about the July 21 cover controversy, already of course fizzling out, Emdashes provides a clearing house. We were still curious only with regard to the cover’s title, having not seen mention of it, and seeing it (“The Politics of Fear”), were reminded of Gary Snyder’s essay touching on the subject in Earth Household (pp. 90-93), written during the Cold War, but still pertinent, but settled, finally, on this to share, which says even more about contemporary politics:

There is a Zen saying that “while studying koans you should not relax even in the bath,” but this one is never heeded. (p. 52)