Follow the Brush

October 29, 2009 § 1 Comment

Boethius and PhilosophyBoethius and Philosophy, Mattia Preti

I’ve been more or less in bed for a week, after falling and spraining my ankle. I’ve done this before, but I always had someone with me. This time, Charles came for several days, which was very helpful, but now I’m alone except for the cats whom I don’t have the emotional strength to engage with. Yesterday I ignored Fitzroy all day (fed and brushed him but distractedly, and yelled at him a few times); by bedtime I was ready to relent. He jumped on the bed and wandered around, first lying near my head, then by my knees, then by my head again. He bit me on the nose and knuckles as he does when he wants to wake me in the morning: not generally a nighttime behavior. He mewed and circled my body in the dark, like a Victorian suitor finally told, after years, that he can commence making love—who then doesn’t know quite what to do, where to begin, what he wants, or why.

My poor neurotic cat! I’m used to my quirks but it’s sad to see an animal flail in this nervous, closed-up life, especially without books and television or the consolations of philosophy.

The Consolation of Philosophy was written by Roman statesman and Philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius in AD 524, while imprisoned awaiting execution for treason. It’s a meditation on the nature and meaning of suffering, particularly the suffering of good men; on fate, predestination, God’s mercy, etc.  I read sections of it in college, retaining only a vague pleased sense of how much thought and literature lurked around and between the brightly lit arenas of Athenian Democracy, The Renaissance, Napoleon, George Washington, Paris in the 20’s, WWII, and Watergate. I was fond of the strenuous and dazzlingly elaborate logical structures Boethius, like many Christian writers, built to decipher and justify the unfathomable. I liked the combination of quivering intensity (his) and backwater charm (my perspective). The intellectual rigor worked on both levels. It was a man’s only weapon in the fight for his soul, yet also, to this reader, a delicious kind of puzzle and distraction.

But my current idleness reminds me of what I love best, what I still think of as myself, no matter how many other selves I acquire or display. This self is a privileged, exquisitely sensitive young  creature with a romantic intelligence, an amiable nature and a  greedy heart. A heart with a trapdoor. Such a person manages to avoid things like treason and prison.

A 14th century Japanese poet, Kenko, wrote this in his era’s version of the personal blog—an essaylike form called “zuihitsu” or follow the brush

“About the twentieth of the ninth month, at the invitation of a certain gentleman, I spent the night wandering with him viewing the moon. He happened to remember a house we passed on the way, and, having himself announced, went inside. In a corner of the overgrown garden heavy with dew, I caught the faint scent of some perfume, which seemed quite accidental. This suggestion of someone living in retirement from the world moved me deeply. In due time, the gentleman emerged, but I was still under the spell of the place. As I gazed for a while at the scene from the shadows, someone pushed the double doors open a crack wider, evidently to look at the moon. It would have been most disappointing if she had bolted the doors as soon as he had gone! How was she to know that someone lingering behind would see her? Such a gesture could only have been the product of inborn sensitivity. I heard that she died not long afterwards.”

Meanwhile, the cat has returned and sits by my bed (where I’m laptopping, leg elevated), looking at me.  It’s always disconcerting when you realize they’ve been looking at you for a while.

“Hello, my dearest feline,” I say.

“Meow,” he replies—a plaintive, long-drawn-out meow, soulful and irritating. He needs to get out more.

The Harvest Moon

The flame-red moon, the harvest moon,
Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing,
A vast balloon,
Till it takes off, and sinks upward
To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon.
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.

So people can’t sleep,
So they go out where elms and oak trees keep
A kneeling vigil, in a religious hush.
The harvest moon has come!

And all the moonlit cows and all the sheep
Stare up at her petrified, while she swells
Filling heaven, as if red hot, and sailing
Closer and closer like the end of the world.

Till the gold fields of stiff wheat
Cry `We are ripe, reap us!’ and the rivers
Sweat from the melting hills.

–Ted Hughes


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