Meanings provisional & relational

At the beginning of 2022, I reached the three-quarter point in a trajectory that, if you’re remembered by others, provides them with a marker, your centenary. In 2019, Richard Bender and I contributed to a book marking that of Giancarlo de Carlo, the late Italian architect and planner. As few people get to celebrate the event themselves, it’s reasonable to take an event like turning 75 as a comparable, still-available occasion.

Bender’s death in October 2022 led me to write his obituary. During the pandemic, I wrote another for my neighbor, Sally B. Woodbridge. These exercises in summarizing a long life surfaced the fact that people tend not to leave such a summary behind. The famous are written up beforehand, those accounts filed away and then brought up to date as their deaths loom or occur. The rest of us don’t get this treatment, although in Bender’s case, I gave a talk at his 90th birthday on which his obituary drew liberally.

This led me to a draft a “self-obituary” that I sent to my daughter. “To be updated,” I noted optimistically. Writing it placed me in a kind of past conditional, a retrospective view that lacks a solid vantage point. I think this is true of obituaries in general, that their attempts to sum up are hemmed in by the constraints of length and immediacy. Even if I return to mine episodically, this problem persists. And, of course, my summary is skewed by subjectivity and delicacy. I downplay my faults and tics, likely missing some, and fail to name names. (While I could get down to the bone, descriptively, this is better left to poetry or auto-fiction.)

Instead of an obituary, I decided to write a Walter Benjamin-style look back and ahead. By coincidence, I had a tutorial on Alfred North Whitehead from the writer/actor/filmmaker Ashley Elizabeth Chambers, occasioned by discussions we had and her kindly sharing two papers she wrote in 2019 and 2022. (Citations below.)

As she points out, Whitehead argues that our present is always in conversation with our own and everyone else’s unfolding. What I think of as “me” and “my life” contains this interrelatedness. This is also the Buddhist take. Both are germane to questions like, “What does my life mean to me?” and “Where does it point?” I want to pose such questions to myself — responding provisionally, in the past/present/future conditional.

What does a life mean? What’s already unfolded is this question’s object, say the obituary writers, biographers, and critics. They discern early, middle, and late styles or attributes in their subjects’ sensibilities and works. With Whitehead, I agree that history should figure and, as I also learned from Chambers, any meaning is in process. The decisions made, at any point, serve to create life (and its meaning) anew.

Another point Chambers makes is the fluidity of who we are within our lives. In her book-length poem The Exquisite Buoyancies, Chambers calls its subject “baby baby,” a doubling echoed in her term “body body” to renounce the Cartesian split. Dögen, writing in the 1200s, also insists on what Hee-Jin Kim calls “radical nonduality,” anticipating Whitehead. When I look at my own life, this fluidity stands out. Like water, my nature flows into every available empty space (as the I Ching puts it).

Buddhism views “emptiness” as Creativity’s ever-fecund vessel. Whitehead saw God emerging from Creativity, Chambers says, serving it as a cosmic uterus, an empty vessel serving as the engine of generation. All the interrelated, generated elements support God in this function, rather than the reverse, so nothing is predetermined: life in its novelty unfolds in endless, inherently random relatedness — and each unfolding is a decision that mediates, consciously or unconsciously, between our past and future.

(Everything here about Whitehead draws on two of Chambers’ papers, which place her poem The Exquisite Buoyancies and Hildegard of Bingen’s sung play Ordo Virtutum in conversation with Whitehead’s metaphysics.)

Decisions you make along the way help keep the game going. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb explains, the fact of surviving shapes a false narrative that you knew what you were doing. Luck plays a role, but you also learn that failing, however painful, often occasions something better. I tend to try things twice before admitting that they aren’t going to happen. Yet something happens and very little is wasted. (“Nothing is lost,” the I Ching says. It may seem that something has, but then later you have the novel or the poems.)

I always wrote (and sometimes wove) in the spirit of what Aristotle called “leisure,” by which he meant the work one does purely for oneself, unprompted by necessity. When I retired, just before the pandemic, I began to do my own work in earnest. I also went back and looked at the work I’d done in the past, collecting and revising it. My sister, reading a collection of my personal essays, compared them to Montaigne. What my life means to me doesn’t hinge on the accuracy of her judgement. What resonates with others, and perhaps especially what resonates with me, ebbs and flows. Creativity’s lure, to use Whitehead’s word, is a glimmer of what Benjamin called reception — how our works are seen once they’re in the world. Archives also figure, enabling scholars to access such contemporary accounts as letters, diaries, and commonplace books.

This is a long way of saying that what my life means to me currently is wrapped up in the leisure it affords me to do my own work. What constitutes my own work is a separate question, yet it seems related. From the perspective of the late period of life I’m in now, the work/life split quandary of the middle period seems akin to the Cartesian mind/body split that Whitehead and Dögen saw as fallacious. What seems true is how the nature of our everyday shifts depending on where we are on life’s continuum. (This is Dögen’s big point; he notes for example that enlightenment is an unprivileged, transient state, not a permanent attainment.)

We could call this “continuum of self” mind — body. What we think of as “balance” or as “the ground” from which we can make clearheaded decisions about our unfolding “next” feels constant in being familiar, but varies in that we redefine “familiarity” subtly and sometimes dramatically within our “circus of contingency.”

In the late period of life, the mind — body continuum overtakes what we thought of as work/life (but was really work — leisure). We’re freed to put the second continuum in conversation with the first. They have a parallel, interdependent relationship with its own constant-yet-varying balance or ground. As the body (in a somatic sense especially) declines, the work — leisure continuum becomes superfluous. (It relies on holistic well-being; a primary task then is to maintain it within or despite the aforementioned circus’s growing pandemonium.)

“Where it points” has a carpe-diem urgency. This is the late period’s paradox, that while you have time at last to do your own work, the actual time available is shrinking at an unknown pace. Questions of capacity arise. We deny and adjust, making the boundaries of our lives smaller to compensate, to avoid disillusion and indignity.

The pandemic made it almost universally clear that at certain points in life, we come to resent the arbitrary requirement that, for example, we commute to a central location to work with others, or meet them individually unless such meetings are truly desired. In the course of it, I took two online writing classes with a dozen other people, several of whom became friends. I also took classes on poets and specific poems led by two professors who are both poets. These classes were helpful. I finished a short story and began a novella. I read poets I hadn’t read, and was prompted to learn more about them and their work. I heard poets reading poems, which echoed my experience of hearing Chambers recite her long poem, live-streamed from a distant stage. This is our contemporary moment, alive with possibility. Where does it point?

Life exposes us to other people’s judgements, for better and for worse. Maturation prompts us to take them in and decide how best to respond with increasing discernment. We’re also confronted with the consequences of our decisions. (We’re back to Whitehead here.) Our personal discretion varies as we make them, but cause-and-effect governs and Karma rides the range, regardless of which period of life we’re in. (The I Ching‘s broad suggestion, its “law of least resistance,” is to go with whatever resonates for us.)

A sage is the important role of life’s late period. It grows out of the middle period, especially toward the end of it, when the ambitions of a career give way to others. My friend Yukiko Bowman noted that ambition often separates real architecture from mere buildings. This seems true for all creative output, reflecting a desire to take yourself seriously and to be taken seriously by others.

The late period also affords experimentation in the sense of doing much more with what comes readily. The constraints the period imposes seem to make this a better route than taking up things that don’t, but I’m not sure. In my own case, it’s meant taking my personal essays, poems, and photo-collages in new directions, and making books and pamphlets that collect them, using this occasion to curate, edit, reconsider, and inform “next.”

The I Ching also speaks of “carrying the outer world” (I paraphrase) to which (per Whitehead via Chambers) we’re inextricably interrelated. I take from this interrelatedness that an ambition to be seen should ideally serve this world-carrying. Because Creativity unfolds, making the decision path more evident helps annotate that process — hence my tendency to “work out loud.” (By “annotate,” I don’t mean post-facto explication, but rather an unfolding progression [by whatever means] that reveals how a given work is developing.)

I write to find meaning in my own experiences — what they meant then, what they mean now, and how and why the meaning has changed, if it has. Hovering over this are the art and craft of writing — poesis and techne. It raises a work in our estimation if it strikes us as persuasive, serious, meaningful, evocative.

Writing is also how I repay life for my experiences. Even the ordinary in life accrues to surface meaning, I find, and form a leitmotif that makes the extraordinary or uncanny stand out more. Receptivity gives form to the germs of ideas, and this is closely connected to observation. Viewed from within, I see myself as a kind of “observation engine” that takes experience in and then works with it to derive its meaning — personal and otherwise. In forecasting, you work with what draws your attention, a signal-and-noise kind of noticing that’s akin to the way ordinary vies with extraordinary as sources of meaning. Even noise has patterns, while the extraordinary is singular, as Robert Musil pointed out, although (drawing on Chambers again) Whitehead would add that it’s in conversation with the rest, and so, apparently singular or “singular.”

My friend Rocky Hanish wrote to me recently about the place of narrative in making architecture. I replied that some people appear to lack a narrative sense, seeing life as “one damn thing after another.” Galen Strawson argues that narratives aren’t determinative. I see my life as a narrative, but I agree with Strawson that while my past is present for me in a sense that Whitehead would call its relatedness (if I read Chambers correctly), that takes the form of an ongoing conversation with it, mostly an inner one but it sometimes involves others. If I write about my past, it’s partly to engage these others and give the dialogue itself a conditional future that I may influence but ultimately cannot shape directly. (Chambers’ Whitehead and my Walter Benjamin both speak of reception, which brings us back to ambition as the lure of any creative process: this desire that the narrative continue. We set out our stand in this afterlife, offering fragments that we hope are pregnant with meaning.)

We arrive at life’s late period with a boatload of experiences. Ordinary things like names may elude us, but all those rooms and terraces, time alone or with others, are still vivid. Writing in its different forms conveys how they were and what they meant. We’re also aware that whatever we fail to convey will be lost. I think it’s a universal motive, to want to convey what we’ve experienced to others in some manner, to plant ourselves in conversations we won’t live to hear.

This is what I make of Stendhal or Tomasi de Lampedusa, honoring what life gave them by creating windows into minds that experienced what they knew to be remarkable, aiming to capture it in order to reflect on it, and then share this with others. These aren’t monuments-to-self, but there’s a certain ruthlessness about this fidelity to experiences and their meaning, because it’s done also to enhance the experiences themselves, make them stand out vividly again from ordinary life. With Dorothy Wordsworth, two of whose journals I read last winter, it’s unclear if she meant to show them to others, but she was William Wordsworth’s sister, part of a writers’ circle. She’s reportorial, but then you hear the observation engine whirring, evocative in what it produces. The root of ruthlessness may lie in the fact that such minds observe and they experience, and then draw on the entirety of what they sensed. “Minds” here is a stand-in for post-facto exposition, since they’re otherwise engaged as the seats of emotion, even crocodiles in heat. “To know,” we say, and we mean body and soul, or really what’s the point?

My life’s meaning is wrapped up in this desire to know. I’ve lost the need to know by touch. Perhaps this is because I knew too much, at points, or discovered the limits of knowing in this sense. It only gets you so far, that horizontal life you craved. Craving fell away, I noticed, but perhaps trying to understand and convey is also a craving, like having a cigarette in bed, talking as we do after fucking across an afternoon, our minds open in post-coital bliss, a clarity amid haze, somehow sharper as our bodies cool down, loosen their grip. I experienced this along with the rest, this taking in of what can’t be said, then saying it. It’s why I write.

Sources

Giancarlo de Carlo: Paolo Ceccarelli, Giancarlo de Carlo and ILAUD: A Movable Frontier, ILAUD and Fondazione OAMi, 2019.

Whitehead: Two papers by Ashley Elizabeth Chambers, read in manuscript: “A Process-Relational Exploration of Uterine Knowledge: The Exquisite Buoyancies in conversation with Alfred Whitehead,” 2019; and her revision and expansion of it, “A Process-Relational Exploration of Ordo Virtutum and The Exquisite Buoyancies: Considerations for Future Work at the Intersections of Performance Studies and Theology,” 2022. Also, Chambers’ book-length poem, The Exquisite Buoyancies, New Michigan Press, University of Arizona, 2021.

Dögen: Hee-Jin Kim, Dögen on Meditation and Thinking: A Reflection on his View of Zen, SUNY, 2006.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness, Random House, 2005.

Benjamin: Uwe Steiner and Michael Winkler (trans.), Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought, Chicago, 2012, and Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Belknap Harvard, 2016.

Musil: Bence Nanay, “The Dethroning of Ideocracy,” The Monist, January 2014, p. 7. (The entire issue is devoted to Musil as a philosopher.)

Galen Strawson, Things That Bother Me, New York Review Books, 2018.

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, Oxford, 2008.

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Writer and editor, based in Berkeley, CA.

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