Half Rumination, Half Scrutiny (Mervyn Peake)

The long-sounding final paragraph of MP’s The Craft of the Lead Pencil:

What does it matter how long or slow you are in the traffic of lead and paper?  The advance from virtual blindness to that state of perception–half rumination, half scrutiny–is all that matters.  The end is hypothetical.  It is the journey that counts.

We could say this of writing too, and philosophy, and of thoughtful living generally. 


Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

The Present Actual Situation of Philosophical Reflection

While philosophical reflection is temporally-historically so conditioned, its aim is the universal and eternal.  These however are, and are reflectively discernible, only in and through the individual and temporal.  Or better:  since the universal and individual, eternal and temporal, are not distinct things or opposites, but constitute reflectively characterizable aspects of the concrete situation of being, reflection must break forth out of non-reflective immersion in the present actual situation.  In so doing, it does not leave that situation but constitutes that altered mode of absorption within the concrete situation which attempts to elicit in conception the universal and eternal accessible to it.  –Richard Gotshalk, “Reflection and Seeing”

Between (Charlie Hickey, Music Review Essay)


This is Not Easy for Me 

Charlie Hickey

Patience with yourself is demanding, particularly when you are young.  You are prone to impatience with yourself; others are prone to impatience with you.  It can seem that your teenage years are a weary succession of one today “I am forever committed” and one tomorrow “On to the next thing…”.  A chorus of voices, your own often the loudest, keeps chanting: “Choose!”  But choosing is precisely what you really cannot do, not once and for all.  This is not the stage of life at which choosing, final choosing anyway, typically gets done.  The hard thing is to be between:  neither a child nor an adult, but on the way from one to the other.  It is hard to keep focused on the journey, –hard not to reach backwards in remembrance toward the voicelessness of childhood, with its attendant freedom, if you are lucky, beneath the rainbow of your parents’ love, –or hard not to reach forward in anticipation to the full voice of adulthood, with its attendant responsibilities, if you are lucky, toward those beneath the rainbow of your love.  The hard thing is to be between, not a child, not yet an adult, but composedly trans-ing  from one to the other.  To be between.


On his new EP, This Isn’t Easy For Me, 16-year old Charlie Hickey presents four songs about being between.  The songs are melodically assured, subtle, eschewing big musical poses for smaller, more intimate gestures.  None of the melodies leap out of the speaker–but all register over listenings and make a home in memory.  Hickey’s voice centers the album:  clear, warm, palpably human, it is a real voice, alive. But it is never showy, never cocky, never crooning, never plangent. Unlike many (and many older) singer-songwriters, Hickey never sends his voice on an errand while he stays behind.  He is there, right there, fully present in his voice.  This substantializes the songs, giving them power and immediacy.

The EP opens with “Broken”.

I’ve got so much love in my life
But I’m looking for some kind of tattered touch
Yeah I can live without it
But sometimes this livin’ is not quite enough

I feel the love of my family
It’s the only thing that really lets me sleep
But when the sleeping gets easy
Sometimes I wish that there was someone beside me

I’ll let my bones be broken when I can find someone to make me feel fixed
I’m looking for someone’s tattered kiss
We can’t go on living like this
We gotta find each other…

Not a typical song of teenaged love.  The addressee is more possible than actual, the distance between the two logical, not spatial.  Part of learning to love is being loved and achieving an open-eyed understanding of the cost of that love.  Familial love is not romantic love, of course, but the loves remain bound up with one another, and the first typically sets the stage for the second.  Hickey captures this beautifully:  he sleeps easy in the love of his family, and yet finds that the very ease of sleep allows him to long for something else, a different kind of love. At a certain point, familial love, however overflowing, is not all the love we wish for.  Our hearts prepare a place for someone else, prepare themselves for the work of loving in a new way.

Part of what makes the song memorable is Hickey’s willingness to acknowledge familial love and its role in fitting him for a new love.  Part of what makes it memorable is his ability to capture the new love while it is still a mere possibility, while he is still reaching out toward someone-he-knows-not-who, who he understands is reaching out, in reciprocal unknowing, toward him.  The final part is carried in its titular word, ‘broken’, and its conceptual rhyme, ‘tattered’.  Hickey treats the possibility realistically.  I mean that he recognizes the cost of love he is wishing for, understands that it will, precisely to the extent that it is real, exact things from him–but he is willing to face the exaction:  “I’ll let my bones be broken…”  He will face it because, again precisely to the extent it is real, it will also reward him:  “… when I can find someone to make me feel fixed.”  And it will cost the person he is reaching out toward–her touch and kiss will be tattered.  Even so, her touch and kiss will be what he needs.  And he will do for her what she has done for him.  Together, the broken and the tattered are fixed and repaired.

“Broken” reaches forward hopefully to new love.  But in the different mood of “I Like the Idea of Loving You”, Hickey expresses the natural diffidence the actual prospect of a new love can cause.

My neck gets sore from trying to keep my head turned away from you
You’re an open door and you’re closing on my fingers
My heart rings. it sounds like a warning bell from heaven
Saying don’t confuse me with anything real

I think I like the idea of loving you
I think I like the idea of loving you
I like the idea of loving you
Sometimes it lights a fire in me
Sometimes it lights a fire in me

This is not easy for me
I couldn’t let the promise of air just breathe
And I’m lying awake cause I couldn’t leave that hope alone
And I’ve been waiting for you or any other red rose that’s passing through
But I relive every little beautiful thing until I can’t see it’s colors anymore…

Commitment in possibility and commitment in actuality are radically different, however similar they may seem in conception.  January 2nd teaches us this unmercifully.  Still, substituting living in imagination for living in reality seduces us, especially in between, when what we hope for is neither inexistent nor in existence.  The work of realizing what we hope for we often want to dodge:  we like the idea of something but shrink from realizing it.  “Don’t confuse me with anything real.”  The problem is that the idea now seems like it must be realized (“Sometimes it lights a fire in me.”) but now seems like I should simply luxuriate in its ideality, waving my hand dismissively toward its reality.  “Almost thou persuadest me…”

Commitment is hard.  (“This isn’t easy for me.”) And so we attenuate it, delay it, by a series of prefixes, each expressive of a mental state:  ‘I think…’, ‘I like…’ even ‘I think I like…’ burying the proposed commitment deep in propositional attitudes.  –A related example:  James Thurber’s title for the fear of the fear of the fear of something:  phobophobophobia.  That is a towering, babbling fear.  –In between, this kind of stepping back from our steppings-back is all-too-common.  We are trying things on, seeing how we look.  But the problem of stepping back repetitiously is that it not only attentuates or delays commitment, it also leeches the color and the vitality from our experiences themselves.  Seeing the rose is one thing:  a visual plunge into a warm pool of saturated red.  But as we relive the seeing, it is as though our eyesight itself dims or the red cools and desaturates:  eventually we cannot see the rose’s color anymore.  I am, as it were, free with respect to what I relive in a way that I am not with respect to what I live–I have elbow room in reflection that I do not have in perception.  But still:  it is the rose that matters, the actual red rose, and if we pass on seeing it in favor of reliving seeing it, we start to lose our anchor in what matters.

The next song turns its attention to the real and to the seduction of escape from what is real.  “I’m Alive”:

Living in the arms of the past
And it’s wildest dreams for me
Old flames to light up just one more time
Weary guiding light

Waiting for the sun on my face to pass
So the hope of tomorrow can show me it’s face at last
When the moment’s grip gets tired of me
I just try to make the future last

I’m alive
In this very instant and my
Breath goes by
Unnoticed but true, you know that
All I have
Are these very moments cause they’re
All I have to run away to

Tomorrow’s always coming
It’s giving me a break
I do so much dreaming
I forget that I’m awake

Dreaming of the day
That don’t need me to be anything that I’m not
A day that is right now
A day that is alive…

The present is our happiness.  This is one of those things we have to tell ourselves over and over because we never quite effectively internalize it.  And that is because being present in the present leaves us vulnerable.  For the most part, we can render ourselves safe from the past, variously jettisoning, suppressing, muffling or misrepresenting it–or, more helpfully, we can gain distance from it and perspective on it. And we can render ourselves safe from the future, because it has no definite shape, and so no sharp edges.  We find in ourselves a will to absent the present, to run away from it.  But of course, if I run away to the past, then I am presently remembering, and if I run away to the future, I am presently daydreaming.  Try as I will, I cannot actually absent the present.  I am always in these very moments.  I succeed only in turning my attention from my vulnerability in the present, I do not render myself invulnerable in the present.  Any escape from the present is a present escape.

Hickey ends the album with “The Child in Me”, attempting to measure accurately the difference between the child he was and the man-in-becoming he has become.  Here, again, Hickey’s patience with himself is instructive.

Being in control is a concept that I sit and try to understand
Scared of fate but hey I guess it’s somewhat up to me in the end
Sitting here meditating on wishing myself the best
Years will grow around me and I’ll try to make the best

Of the child in me that stayed and played and only did the steps he made
But he got by and sometimes he cried

Sittin trying to keep my eyes on the ground
But they keep on going up
I shoot the question out of the gun
But don’t stay long enough to see where it hits me

Like I said, I wanna look down and see both our hands on the ground
Trying to grasp the same thing.  Maybe it’s common ground
It’s all coming down

The child in me that stayed and played
Is going places, looking into faces
And saying, what a beautiful day
And the child in me will make it where you’re going and he’ll meet you there

At sixteen, it is natural to disown your childhood for fear of being treated as a child.  But we often lose our grip on childlikeness in the hurry to discard childishness.  If we mature as we should, a kind of immaturity remains–something resistant to narrow prudence, gamesmanship, cynicism and faithlessness.  And that something is the child who stays and plays within us, if we allow him to do so.  If we exile that child, we exile ourselves from the kingdom, whether the one we now live in or the one that may be to come.  Wonder is spiritual youth; it preserves that plasticity of childhood, preserves a structure weak enough to be responsive but not so weak as to be nothing but response, to be nothing in itself.  To lose that child is to lose the best part of ourselves.  One of the reasons for the common happiness of childhood is that childhood is all present.  (The child has no past really, and has not yet become aware of the future as the future.)  And so childhood is also vulnerable.  And maybe that completes the lesson in Hickey’s sequence of songs:  the cost of happiness is invariably vulnerability.  Absolute safety includes safety from happiness.

Despite their thematic unity, Hickey’s songs musically are varied.  The tempo changes , and so does the instrumentation.  Hickey’s voice and guitar are the centerpiece, but not all there is.  The melodies are subtle–subtle, but hummable, singable.  You will find yourself singing along.

It is not often that someone between cables us a thoughtful report about what it is like to be between.  It takes a certain talent, and a certain strength of character, to make such a report.  Hickey gives one to us, and if we listen carefully, we can recognize in his the report we might have sent. In art, one criterion of getting it right is that what you create ceases to be yours alone and becomes everyone’s.


Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Ears to Hear: Bill Mallonee’s *Slow Trauma* (Music Review Essay)


Earlier this week, I was walking across the red brick and green tree campus of Auburn University, where I am lucky enough to teach philosophy.  My daughter–a rising senior philosophy major–was walking with me.  We were chatting, and, our chat, as our chats often do, turned to books.  My daughter reported that she was nearly finished with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

As my daughter knows, I venerate Robinson.  If Robinson were to walk toward me on the sidewalk, I would step off, doff my cap, and cry, “Empress!” as she passed.  I deeply admire Gilead.  My daughter continued:  “But I think I am going to have to read it again when I am older.  I don’t think someone my age can fully understand that novel.”  I stopped and thought for a moment–then I agreed.  “Yes.  Some novels you can understand because you can make do with your imagination to fill in where necessary.  But with other novels, only experience can fill in where necessary.  You can imagine being experienced; but that will not substitute for experience where it is necessary.  James Gould Cozzens’ Morning, Noon and Night is another novel like that.  You have to have lived forty years or more fully to understand it.”


I recall this conversation because it highlights an important fact about Bill Mallonee’s fine new album, Slow Trauma.  This album, which I think continues what is now a conceptual trilogy of albums that includes Winnowing and Lands and Peoples, is perhaps the Mallonee album that is most clearly the result of his long experience and experiment in art and in living.

The slow trauma is life itself.  We know–late at night, when we cannot sleep, and the ceiling reveals nothing, and our joints cry bitterly about their long misuse–cringingly, we know at such moments that no one escapes life untraumatized.  But we forget that the trauma has been on-going since our first greedy suck of breath, accumulating.  We keep such thoughts at bay when we are young, maybe we do even until we get just past halfway betwixt mother and Maker.  But eventually, they settle on us, heavy:  we are at war with Time:  we are going to lose.  Time is a bloody tyrant.  He happily besieges us.  He can wait for the walls to fall.  Beginnings and endings are his speciality. But he is done with our beginnings.  Our endings are all that are left.


Mallonee’s album is neither a carping lament nor a willful carpe deim.  Its dominant tone is reverence.  Mallonee has a deep understanding of human limits–and of the human limits in handling human limits.  He knows we would like nothing more than to deny our humanity and to transcend those limits.  We so imagine them that we run against them, believe ourselves to be caged by them.  But there is no cage.  We are limited to our nature but not by our nature.  Our slow trauma is our slow trauma.

Mallonee realizes that coping with our slow trauma necessitates acknowledging it as part of who and what we are.  It would be nice to opt out or be lifted up, be caught up in a cloud or be given a spot on some low-swinging, sweet chariot.  But neither is likely to happen.  We have to hoe our row to its end, sweaty and dirty, knowing the weeds grow back when we finish. But while we hoe, we are surrounded by mysteries.  Our hoeing, our living, has a meaning–but that meaning has not been vouchsafed to us. And what would it matter if it were? How could we recognize it as the meaning of our life?  And how could what I recognize be the meaning of my life, if that recognition comes before my final chary exhalation? My life after I have recognized the meaning of my life would then not be able to change the meaning of my life.  But that cannot be right. Repentance, at least, is always possible, even if it is unlikely.

We are homo viator.  We are in passage, in transit.  The meaning of our life is not available to be known until we are not around to know it–and maybe not even then. The meaning of our life extends past our death into the lives of those we have touched and those we have refused to touch. Our journey’s end is our end, our last stop our last stop–but our meaning travels on. It continues without us.  We don’t arrive, and then get to go and see the sights. Arrival at our destination is our departure for Parts Unknown.

We have to live within these limits.  –How do we do that?  Mallonee opens the album with a short song (“One and the Same”) responsive to the question.

What to hold onto?
What to let go of?
And what to give away?

What’s going to save you?
And what makes you smile?
Sometimes, they are one and the same.

We often see things under aspects.  The thing I need to keep and the thing I need to reject are sometimes the same thing–but seen under two different aspects.[1] What exalts me is the same thing as what makes me chuckle–but under different aspects.  We deplore this state of things.  We want to be able to see under nothing, non-aspectually.  But when we try to see what is both needful and rejectable, but to see it non-aspectually, it simply recedes into some indeterminate, more or less middle distance, neither foreground nor background, just an irregular clump amidst visual clutter.  This means that we cannot have what we want, some final, non-aspectual vision of the thing.  We are stuck with it as both needful and rejectable.  This is not a problem to be solved, but a condition of our lives.  Things don’t sort for us.  They remain a weird tangle, knotted to us and to each other inextricably, in inexplicable ways.  No final preference ordering is forthcoming.


We are curious about Parts Unknown.  We wonder at mysteries.  As we should.  Still, we need to remember that mysteries are not unsearchable because they are abysmal, dark rifts.  They are unsearchable because they are blinding, consuming fires.  Those fires create the light in which we see light.  We live in the light of mysteries, surrounded by uncreated light.  We come to understand the mysteries, to the extent that we can be said to do so, not by staring directly into them, as if we could interrogate them, but by looking ever more carefully at what they allow us to see:  the world around us, and especially other people. We understand the mysteries by caring for what they show us.  (We love God by loving what God loves.  Thus are the first and second commands forever yoked together.)  Our spiritual posture toward the mysteries is forever interrogative–but our question-marks are not symbols of skepticism, but of a desire to progress from glory to glory, to move ever deeper into the Heart of Wonder.  The next of the wine in Cana is better always than the last.

You know, it’s funny how things can get so damn misplaced
Where you bet your farm and where you place your faith
And time is such a precious thing to kill
I just wanna see over that last hill

Will my highbeams flood the plain?
Will the Gatekeeper know my name?
Will there be Someone to claim me for his own?
Well, you whisper to yourself when time runs low
Darling, I’ll carry ever smile we shared with me when I go
Lord, gather me unto Thyself when my wayward heart grows still
I just wanna see over that last hill (“That Last Hill”)

It is important to recognize that this is an entreaty, a prayer, not a demand.  Mallonee asks to see.  Mallonee’s aversion is the clenched fist, the demand aimed at heaven or at earth, the refusal to touch unless it is to hurt–but he also knows how easy it is to clench the fist, to treat the mess, the ugliness, the pain, the worry, as excusing the fist:  it is easy to harden our hearts and curl our fingers.  Reverence sours into resentment.  The light of the mysteries fails us–because we fail it–and so the light we see by is now itself unlit.  The world becomes a grey-on-grey assembly of petty nothings.  We all know the temptation of such moods.

No, it’s not really a good time.  No, it rarely is these days.
Loneliness she washes over you like a wave;
And the snow is ever falling down.
Doldrums in Denver…Doldrums in Denver
And it’s time you leave this town…There ain’t nothing for you now.
(“Doldrums in Denver”)

In such moods, faith and hope seem hellish currency, too awful to carry.  We cannot keep ourselves from such moods.  They come and they go, and fighting against them when they come tends only to aggravate them.  To blacken their shades of grey.  All we can do is let them come, endure them (yes, even, after a fashion, reverencing them), in holy indifference, asking for nothing and refusing nothing.  One of Mallonee’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his gift for writing from and creating in his listener this holy indifference.  (The ‘holy’ here is an alienating adjective of a complicated sort; it changes the register in which we should hear ‘indifference’, making of indifference a yielding, a pliancy, an availability, instead of self-willed stoicism.)  Such a state is, I hazard, Mallonee’s most fecund state as an artist:  his best songs seem to me to come from a state of waiting.  And, as a result, they re-create that state when–perhaps even most successfully when–the songs are not in any way about that state.  As Emerson once said:  “Character teaches above our wills.”


Holy indifference and reverence are not two distinct states.  They are rather the inward-looking and the outward-looking faces of the same state.  It is a state opposed to the state expertly captured by Alan Dugan, in “Passing Through the Banford Tolls”:

Proceeding sideways by inattention I arrive
Unknowingly at an unsought destination
And pass by it wondering:  what next?

This is not the sort of wonder Mallonee seeks to cultivate, the inanition of boredom. Mallonee’s waiting is of a qualitatively different kind.


The most remarkable song on Slow Trauma is “Waiting for the Stone to be Rolled Away”.  It opens with a lilting, meditative guitars, anticipating the melody.  It then settles into a gentle, upbuilding cadence.  The first verses and the last:

There’s a halogen glow cast from across the street
From the parking lot of the Holy Spirit Assembly
It’s a beacon in the desert night until the break of day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

I told Solomon, the shepherd of the flock
I’ve got none of the gifts he’s got
You see, you cannot speak in tongues if you’ve got nothing to say
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away


Baby, gimme those keys, sit back and just watch me
Navigate this thing back home with considerable ease
Down these sad, back streets of doubt to a new and brighter day
Waiting for the stone to be rolled away

This song manages three levels at once.  One, the actual scene in the desert night; two, Mallonee’s reflections on his own work as an artist; and, three, a metaphysical representation of the human plight.  (Consider the density of the name, ‘Solomon’ here–the name perhaps of the actual minister of the Assembly, the name of the writer of the Songs, the name of the not-entirely-grateful vessel of God’s wisdom:  “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation”.  –Doldrums in Jerusalem.)  Mallonee’s gift of tongues, perhaps not a form of Pauline glossologia, but a gift nonetheless, is real.  But he too needs an interpreter, someone with ears to hear–someone who has not only had experience, but lives and has lived in devotion to that experience, intent on creating a heart that passes out of itself. We are all waiting for the stone to be rolled away.


This brings me back to my wise daughter, and to Marilynne Robinson.  Some things we grow into understanding.  We have to develop certain habits of mind and feeling, and that takes time.  We have to learn how to hear–we need the proper acquist of experience, and we need training in how to listen, lest, hearing, we not hear.  We have to become human ourselves in order to hear the music of the human voice–in order to understand.  Robinson, contemplating this issue in her essay, “Wondrous Love”, writes:

Jesus spoke as a man, in a human voice.  And a human voice has a music that gives words their meanings.  In that old hymn [“In the Garden”]…as in the Gospel, Mary [Magdelene] is awakened out of her loneliness by the sound of her own name spoken in a voice “so sweet the birds hush their singing.”  It is beautiful to think of what the sounds of one’s own name would be, when the inflection of it would carry the meaning Mary heard in the unmistakable, familiar, and utterly unexpected voice of her friend and teacher.  To propose analogies for the sound of it, a human name spoken in the world’s new morning, would seem to trivialize it.  I admire the tact of the lyric in making no attempt to evoke it, except obliquely, in the hush that falls over the birds.  But it is nonetheless at the center of the meaning of this story that we can know something of the inflection of that voice.  Christ’s humanity is meant to speak to our humanity…The mystery of Christ’s humanity must make us wonder what mortal memory he carried beyond the grave, and whether his pleasure at the encounter with Mary would have been shadowed and enriched by the fact that, not so long before, he had had no friend to watch with him even one hour.

Our lives are shadowed and enriched by Mallonee’s voice and music, if we hear it.  His work is a beacon in the desert night.  He is waiting, watching with us–and that eases the waiting, the watching.




[1] A very simple example:  the way food looks when we are hungry and not dieting, and the way it looks when we are not hungry and dieting.

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