Sunday, August 30, 2015

Running Dreams

My suspicion is that most runners do not dream -- or at least do not remember their dreams. As a runner, my sleep had the quality of ink; absolutely black and immediate. It could be that runners simply do not need to dream, as in waking-life they are able to inhabit an intermediate phase of consciousness, skimming underneath their minds as they roll down the road. Or perhaps the narcotic fatigue of training drags runners into sleep so deeply that by the time they re-emerge they've left their dreams unconsciously behind.

Lately, without exercise, I have been dreaming more, and I often dream quite vividly that I am running. Some hours later, I have to point my consciousness to the fact of my injured ankle and construct a counter-factual argument: I cannot run, and so therefore the run that I am remembering must have been a dream and did not happen.  That's how vivid they are.

Upon recall these dreams are are very bodily. The run comes back as vibrations and sounds. The images are peripheral, as when in the flow of running, experience becomes a type of tunnel that opens out from the mind. The eyes are less important than the hips, the shock, the balance.

The other day in my dream I was running up a mountain, and what I remember most was the downthrust of my elbows, my toes curling to grip the dusty trail, and the arch of my neck as my eyes searched up for the horizon. The sun was nowhere to be seen; the landscape was trimmed down to an intimate horizon in which everything was felt and included, as if the lavender on the side of the trail was not seen but felt. This is perhaps a hallmark of dreaming. The boundaries between mind and world, between sense and reality, are muddied, as the world itself is only thought and through that inversion thought itself is worlded.

I remember that inversion in the flow of the run. To be reminded that we are each centers of our own universes, each capable of expanding and dissipating, or contracting to a point of intensity. Cosmology states that the universe began in a tightly wound point of tremendous density, and it has been exploding outwards for eons. Our image of the universe is specks of lonely stars in gallons of black paint.

The inward universe does not mirror nature. We need both expansion and intimacy, distance and depth, beginning and endings, waking and sleep. The multiverse of experience is a billion drifting centers of a billion vague horizons, blinking open and awake and then at the end of the day contracting back and asleep.  Later we wake and remember that it was all a dream, and that it all happened inside our minds, but that it was still somehow quite real, as real as it gets.

The possibility that reality is a dream has always been seen as solipsistic -- as a way of arguing that the only thing that is real is individual consciousness. But dreams and runs do not eliminate the world. They interiorize the external. They collapse the barrier between self and world, not so that the one becomes the other, but so that they both mingle and refresh and inter-connect. We dream and run and remember, not escaping reality, but following paths back into it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Depressives

Disclaimer: this post is not about running -- it's been over a year since I've run! But it was motivated by a perfect evening for running, as the Tennessee summer somewhat incredibly loosened its grip, letting the crisp of fall in through the cracks in the clear sky.

* * *

It's come to me slowly and over time that almost all of my literary/philosophical heroes have been depressives. The three philosophers I've spent the most time with -- James, Emerson, and Nietzsche -- all struggled with and at moments succumbed to depression. There's a way in which their depression is a key to their writing, particularly Nietzsche's writing. Much of his work on human motivation -- the will to power -- could be seen as motivated by the depressive's question: how can I will myself to will?

James' philosophy as well so often rotates around questions of what makes experience flow and run. Depression is like a large and stagnant body of water, and we see James through the sort of effort of his prose make the water run. "The Will to Believe" is the text of a depressive trying to develop habits of mind that keep the water flowing. Belief for James is not about truth, but about continuing to survive and pursue an active life: this is the depressive's challenge.

We don't often think of Emerson as a depressive; the stock Emerson is the Emerson of "Self-reliance," an essay often (mis-) read as having the view that the individual could through force of will somehow wrest hold of his destiny and live according to it. The deeper argument that Emerson urges throughout his work is that the self must find deeper and more substantive sources of energy: the divine, genius, the universal. The Emersonian self is always losing itself in larger flows. The essay that unlocks this message is "Experience," in which Emerson fails to find the flows of experience, in which he lays out the fundamental nature of reality as melancholic:
"...we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again."
In The Noonday Demon (a book which anyone who is interested in depression should read), Andrew Solomon argues that depression has been with us, manifesting itself in various cultural forms and under various understandings, but persisting as a quality of the human animal. These days, of course, depression is understood medically as a type of disease along the lines of alcoholism or perhaps diabetes. There are people who have a propensity towards depression that can be activated by their environment or their biology (and also deactivated through medical and talking therapies.) Solomon's take is that depression is a type of chronic illness and should be treated as such -- through ongoing and constant treatment. Depression is a flaw in the wheel of character, and it can be lived with, but only through steady work.

When we read philosophy as young people, we often do so in order to lend authority to our own relatively new impressions of the world. When I read these depressives as a young man -- James, Emerson, Nietzsche -- I recognized their problems and my reaction was to say: aha! -- some truth, and carried them close to my heart as encouragement that the shade in which I saw the world might have some merit.

As we get older and more settled in our views, we need the affirmation of philosophy less. We see the philosophers that we clung to so urgently in our adolescence as thinkers as deeply flawed and even embarrassing. This happened to me most specifically with Nietzsche, who I find I can hardly read any more, and when I do so now, it's mostly to extract something banal and ordinary like: the guy was a depressive, rather than a nugget of indecipherable prose that reflected back to me something undecipherable as well.

But just in this way the philosophers return to us, less as sooth-sayers and more as representative types. The depressives, I can say at least, resonated with me in a time in my life when I needed them. They were friends, fellow travelers, strange men from the beginning of the 20th century who seemed to be speaking in an untimely present to me. As a young man, the concept of depression was totally foreign to me, but I understood these problems all too well: The Nietzschean question: "what is the source of human will?"  The Jamesian question: "How does intellectual rumination touch reality?" The Emersonian question: "How can the individual tap into the spark of divination?"

My use for philosophy had little to do with truth and much to do with companionship and friendship around a certain set of questions. Or, perhaps better put, the truth I found in the depressives was in their struggle, which seemed to take place alongside mine. It's impossible to imagine my young adulthood without these ideas and thinkers; that's how deeply they affected me.

In the larger culture wars, battles rage on about the value of the humanities, the purpose of philosophy, literature, and other less practical pursuits. For my part, it's sad to think that someone like me might not have had the chance to encounter those traveling companions who shepherded me into adulthood. Who else could it have been? The transition certainly would have been made, but less richly, less articulately, and with fewer memories and understanding of myself.

So, I'm grateful for my youthful courage to study philosophy and for the teachers and professors and friends and family who encouraged me to go digging into books to see what strange riches I might find.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On the Smallness of Running

"As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top."  --William James, in a letter to a friend

The smallness of running:

  • the strike of the foot
  • the curve of the path
  • the agonizing second
  • the race remembered
  • the step out of bed
  • the moment of decision
  • the blinding whirl
  • the forward lean
  • the breeze in an ear
  • the flight of the mind
  • the common pace
  • the daily run
  • the irritable tendon
  • the lace untied
  • the rising strength
  • the return to weakness
  • and so on, so long as we run

The way to write about a practice like running, which has no larger meaning, is to focus in on the smaller meanings. It's easy to think that when we philosophize we ought to say something grand and large, as if the truth of life must somehow be bigger than life. We are always wanting life to live up to its reputation, perhaps not realizing that this desire diminishes life. 

Following James, I've found more insight going small -- into the overlaps and the lifted edges of life. It's there that the mind can actually grab hold of reality. We want our minds to be like trawling nets that capture everything at once, but the truth is that minds are more like scalpels and tweezers, better at slicing and mending and grasping the small than capturing the large. We think with a pincer-grip.

It's for these reasons that I drone on about running as an antidote to wisdom ill-conceived. Running brings us back to the small. It locates the mind inside a body, inside a brain, inside a skull. It localizes the attention, steadies the scalpel. When we run, we find ourselves to be contained within ourselves, smaller and therefore more capable, and ultimately more wise for the smallness.

Like any material, the larger the mind is spread, the thinner it becomes. With the internet and current events and politics and all, it feels as if our minds have been stretched to a sort of transparent film, like the surface of a soap bubble, upon which only impressions can be made. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to affairs much larger than we can comprehend, and our reflections threaten to spin off into other reflections, hardly skimming experience.

In contrast, the pleasures and pains of having a body are always local, immediate, pressing. While our minds can drift above and out of them for a while, in the end these smaller immediacies will have their way, like James' patient soft rootlets rending relentlessly the hardest monuments of man's pride. 

In this is the small wisdom the body teaches: in the slip, in the passing, in the sensed and forgotten, in the glimpsed and the fleeting. In these are something more stable and enduring than the monuments of pride, the Gods and Nations and Arguments and Identities and Truths. We run, we sweat, we move, composing ourselves again, packing ourselves back into the small beings we are, ready to lift camp and to travel. 

Might it be that in the end there is no larger meaning, that in the end life is measured in smaller meanings, themselves eroding away into sensations, overlaps, strains, and intentions? The world, perhaps, does not just orbit a sun but is also made of beetles and coral and blood, itself one of many worlds, teeming off into smaller and smaller multitudes. Can't we cast our lot with smallness? Aren't the multitudes more than enough?

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