Two faces of the ‘Inner Citadel,’ a philosophical portrait drawn in charcoal by Aleksandra Marcella Lauro. (The reference is to Pierre Hadot’s book on Marcus Aurelius.)
I want to understand myself more fully, and so I have begun taking pictures of myself. Robert Nozick writes that examining one’s life is like painting a self-portrait; I wrote the same about Jane Austen.
I took this screen shot on the morning of April 30 around 7:20 a.m. It was then that the sunlight was bathing my treetop home. Hours later, I would leave the city for a five-day retreat upstate. I look again at the photo. The face strikes me as being calm, at peace with itself and its surroundings. There is perhaps a tightness around the edge of the lips, but the the eyes and nose and lips tell a different story. They imply that I am neither fighting the sun, despite its brightness, nor letting myself go or giving in. What is more, the neck and shoulders are relaxed but also ‘put together.’ I do not want to let myself go, it says, but when the time comes I will have to let go of this world.
I take a final look: there is, above all, a sense of placidity as well as courage. I am here, the photo says, I am content with life, alive to life, facing up to the present. Soon I will be gone but now, however long the now, I am here.
During the past week, I have been learning how to occupy space with a sense of lightness. It is not that I want to stay out of the other’s way; it is not that I want urge her one way or another; it is not that I am seeking not to interfere. Rather, I am trying to enhance, bring out, draw out a shared life together. I want to make this space feel like a song, sound like our song, a song which we both can sing, are singing, are singing along to. And when we are not singing this song aloud, we are humming the same time, quietly, to ourselves.
The philosophical life is so gentle and tender, so delicate and attentive as to be not unlike thumbs and forefingers holding up to us our higher selves. Thumb and forefinger invite us to look, to see and be seen, to love our aliveness, the transcendent nature of the ordinary. I have felt this thumb and forefinger all week, this calmness, this gentle lift even during the brooding days and falling rain and morning mists. I know she has felt them too.
In my recollection, the week all seems a single day filled with different rhythms, tempos, and shades. Sometime in the middle, she took this photo of a leaf. The leaf seems woven together with many interlocking patterns.
She wrote, “After I got back, I happened upon this photo of the chevron leaf. It is us: reflection, symmetry, convergence.” I love the contrast between the lines on the leaf, the lines on the thumb, and the dark brown stalks in the background. I love most of all the pink nail, barely visible. It has a sheen, a life, a story.
There is the church bell again, ringing the 9 o’clock hour. Had I forgotten it and that so very soon? This morning it reminds me, as do the sketches above, of how much my life has changed over the past two years. The words “how much” can scarcely account for the difference in nature and kind and tenor. When, in February of 2010 (revised in February of 2011, submitted in November of 2011 or thereabouts), I wrote this recently published paper on the need for speculative philosophy today, I was already on my way out of the academy. Then, a life of words about words, now a life of quiet action. I would not have it otherwise.
How many pigeons are there? I lose count every time.
Each pigeon and every pigeon formation come, all come, as a surprise. I look and the formation has changed. Or I turn away, return, and–am I disappointed or reassured?–they have not changed. Or they have. My eye goes back to the places where they were, only my eye has to wander around before it finds, memory being imperfect and time ungenerous, and what it–that is, my eye–finds may be just off the left, to the right, or gone. I adjust my eye. Do I long to be near them, my pigeons?
Set within the tree and against the brick buildings–stucco and sepia and red–and especially when the sky is overcast as it is today, I have trouble picking them out, my pigeons. As I write, I have to turn my head to the right and up to see them, supposing they are where I left them. Will they leave me? Is this my question? Will nothing settled last? I feel sorry, or think I do, when they are gone. And, yes, when I look over and cannot immediately place them, I am saddened. Saddened or just a bit frightened. Or wistful.
I saw one, just now, flutter up, struggling, onto a low branch, the white undersides of its wings pulling it out before my eye. Do the white undersides flap solely in order to draw my eye and draw me out?
I do not know whether it is the allure of my study in tweets, for those who follow my tweets, or whether it is the mystery of life, or whether the asymmetry of the design. How jarring it all is. I do not know whether it is separation. For you look at familiar things, don’t you?, just long enough anyway, and soon you lose count. You look at a woman, a very beautiful one, then at her beautiful nape, and soon she becomes strange.
The truth is, I seem not to understand the once mine pigeons, and I do not know why. I want to understand them, at least I think I do, want to reach my hand out and find the right words in which we can both speak with each other, want to pull them closer to my window and look long and see them truly. Or do I want them to remain friends aloof, steadied solely by my gaze and fixed amid the tree? Or perhaps to sit there and cajole my eye when I turn from work? Or to be fooled a bit, played with without consequence, without harm, cause, or consequence? Could it be that their strangeness–which pains and delights me at once because their nature is not as anthropomorphic as dogs but more so than fish–sustains, long after I would like, the allure? Ars longa, in short?
All this time, I have not forgotten the birdsong hanging softly into my left ear. You may have, but I have not. The birdsong occurs always, near always, sometimes, daily anyway, around the corner from my armchair, the melody from birds unseen, unidentified, but no matter because that is of no concern to me. I seem to have no desire to know from whence the birdsong comes, only to feel the notes against my ear during the lazy afternoons of winter. Why the mystery of the pigeons and why the tranquility of the birdsong I cannot say.
What I can say: beyond my window off to the right, pigeons unsettling my eye. Beyond my window off to the left, birdsong settling my ear.