Etchings & Epitaphs

This section of Murphy’s Log will be updated occasionally…or never.  For many years, going back to the early 80s, I gathered scraps here and there—reflections, impressions, moments.  Every now and then I would collect, edit and type them up in a loose-leaf binder, which I called Etchings and Epitaphs.  In 2006 I winnowed some it down as part of an introductory presentation for a day-long seminar on the deeply personal and subjective elements of an activist life.  The seminar took place at Concordia University’s Institute in Community Development and was called “Reflections from the Activist Road”.  Notes for that presentation can be found here.

Although I no longer maintain such a ‘log’ very systematically, I still seem to note stuff that strikes or moves me, along with the odd reflection.  Here is some of that collected since the seminar in 2006.  Annotations will be added if the spirit is moved….

 More Etchings… (September 2007– )

• I was reading Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, and I had this thought:  And when there was absolutely nowhere to go — again — I continued on.  How did I get here?

•  One more ‘opening line’:  “I come from a family of literary figures; perhaps we all do…”

•  From John Berger, in: and our faces, my heart, brief as photos (Bloomsbury, 2005; Random House 1984):

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories.  All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat.  Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful.  They bring a kind of peace.  Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never happened…The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out. ~ p. 21 (Bloomsbury)


What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying. ~ p. 78


It was there [war-torn Livorno, in the late 1940s] that I discovered the ingenuity of the dispossessed.  It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power.  This has turned out to be a life-long aversion.  ~ p.79

•  From Michael Ondaatje, in Divisadero (McClelland & Stewart, 2007):

For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue.  We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.  ~ p. 126

•  From MG Vassanji, in The In-between World of Vikram Lall (Random House 2003, Anchor edition, 2004):

There are wonderful moments sometimes…that stand out purely in themselves, sparkles of childhood memory scattered loosely in the consciousness.  They need not tell a story, yet moments lead from one to another in this tapestry that is one’s life; and so we feel bound, unhappy adults, to look past and around those glimmer points in our desperate search for nuance and completeness, for coherence and meaning.  ~ p. 58 (Anchor)

•  Idea for a book that I would call: The Politics of Transcendence

1)    the politics of grievance

2)    the politics of vengeance

3)    the politics of transcendence

4)    the politics of transformation

•  Confronted by academics and tenured Marxists, I reflect on science vs. knowledge; logic (rationality) vs. analysis (reason); the politics of experience.  What is declared as possible (the program) emerges from what is seen to be necessary (imperative); and the necessary from the descriptive obverse (negative) of what is described as a problem (the poor are alienated, therefore, de-alienate the poor; the poor are excluded from the market, therefore include the poor in the market).  Must, is not is

•  The history of knowledge and the history of science are not the same thing…

•  I listen to their ‘discourse’ and want to interrupt:

~ What is going to happen has not been envisioned…

~ What has happened has not been explained…

~ What is happening is neither seen (apprehended) nor understood (cf. Paglia:  the first thing we think is always wrong)…

The first step should be to ask ourselves not what our theory predicts, or our politics desires, but what we actually think will happen in 10 years or one hundred, and what the world will look like; then adjust our theory, or our politics.

•  It is easier to put good into the world than to take bad out…

• Social solidarity is not altruism; it is aspiration.

•  Ideas for an Essay:

It appears that the national security regime exists to identify risk elements and prevent incidents; but the trajectory is clearly towards a regime that certifies those who are allowed to travel, and only those so-certified will be allowed; that is, we will all need permission. This is a re-definition of the person (“do you have papers?”): what process? what profile? what “compliance? what complicity?  Also: issue of our consent to our own surveillance.


The threat of the global warming hype is the same as it was with AIDS: ‘environment’ and apocalypse vs. justice; rhetoric vs. reality as it lived.

• While reading Tony Judt’s Post-War, Europe since 1945 last year (it took months of picking it up and putting it down to get through the almost 1000 pages), I jotted down the following reflection:

On contemplating the incredible fraternal and inter-ethnic slaughter in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, it occurs to me that the sheer number of dead is not the (only) issue.  All those deaths were experienced individually, a drama of singular importance and significance. Each was unique. Not all were “terrible”. What makes the difference? It is not death itself, but the state of will and integrity of the one who dies — the role (if any) they play in their dying, their agency.

If moving forward, death is embraced; if falling back, death embraces. If personhood is destroyed first, and fear and terror the final emotions, death is “terrible”. But if personhood is affirmed in motion and struggle — or surrender — death is not “the point”, but merely the last experience of “life”.  Moving forward, death is experienced once; falling back, afraid, death is experienced countless times — except the very last.

Those who resist, who fling themselves forward, escape the dying even as they die.

• Note from December 2006, an idea for a story:  a person, the life s/he lives, and the life(s) s/he fantasizes…

• Another from January, 2007, while reading Franz-Theo Gottwald’s chapter in What is Life? (edited with Hans-Peter Durrer).   Gottwald writes:

…living systems are cognitive systems and…life will always be a process of cognition … Individual, living systems become part of another plane of systems through mutual structural coupling.  They communicate with one another and co-ordinate their behaviour.  (pp 33-34)

My reflection: But human life stopped “communicating” with nature long ago — stopped listening, distaining “mutual structural coupling”, and is therefore 1) dying, and  2) killing all other living systems.

• Discovered at about the same time, from Robert Frost (Notebooks, Harvard University Press, 2007): “Not just our faults, but our virtues stand in the way of the perfect state.”

• In Suite Français, read in July 2007, the protagonist shares her wondrous childhood epiphany that “the earth is a sphere which sits on absolutely nothing.”

And from citations in Richard Tarnas’s Cosmos & Psyche (Viking, 2006), the same month:

~ J.S. Mill, commenting some centuries ago on those engaged in scientific controversy: “…in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied”. (C&P p. 13)

~ Neils Bohr on a similar vein: “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” (C&P p. 14)

~ Oscar Wilde, coming at the issue from the standpoint of an artist: “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” (C&P p. 14)

• Cormac McCarthy reflects on courage in All the Pretty Horses:

…all courage [is] a form of constancy…it [is] always himself that the coward abandoned first.  After this all other betrayals came easily.

•  Reading John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on survival and resistance (Pantheon/Random House, 2007), in March 2008:  from “Wanting Now” (which really needs to be read in its entirety):

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous.  This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences.  They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’.  A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve.  Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations. sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement.

The promise of a movement is its future victory; whereas the promises of the incidental moments are instantaneous.  Such moments include, life-enhancingly or tragically, experiences of freedom in action. (freedom without actions does not exist.)  Such moments — as no ‘historical outcome can ever be — are transcendental, are what Spinoza termed eternal, and they are as multitudinous as are the starts in an expanding universe.

Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued.  Desire never concerns the mere possession of something.  Desire is a wanting.  A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfillment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.

Today the infinite is beside the poor.  (pp 7-8)

Later in the book he says:

The poor are collectively unseizable.  They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks to them. (98)

These passages recall several included in the “Epilogue” to my book:

~ From Bertolt Brecht, The World’s One Hope:

The more there are suffering, then the more natural their sufferings appear.  Who wants to prevent the fishes from getting wet?  And the suffering themselves share this callousness towards themselves and are lacking kindness towards themselves.  It is terrible that human beings so easily put up with existing conditions, not only with the suffering of strangers but also their own.  All those who have thought about the bad state of things refuse to appeal to the compassion of one group of people for another.  But the compassion of the oppressed for the oppressed is indispensable.  It is the world’s one hope.

~ From Chinua Achebe, in Anthills of the Savannah:

There is no universal conglomerate of the oppressed.  Free people may be alike everywhere in their freedom, but the oppressed inhabit each their own peculiar hell.  The present orthodoxies of deliverance are futile to the extent that they fail to recognize this.

~ From Eduardo Galeano, in The Book of Embraces,

• Turn loose the voices, undream the dreams…In these countries…every promise is a threat, every loss a discovery.  Courage is born of fear, certainty of doubt.  Dreams announce the possibility of another reality, and out of the delirium emerges another kind of reason.

What it comes down to is that we are the sum of our efforts to change who we are.  Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.

• There is just one place where yesterday and today meet, recognize each other, and embrace, and that place is tomorrow.

• And also a reflection from my own journal long ago:

Freedom avoids the traps set by the world;

Wisdom goes further, and avoids the traps we set for ourselves.

It is the struggle that honours us, not the victory.

Friendship is struggle shared, and needs no laurels….

•  In John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on survival and resistance, he quotes often from his friend, Nazim Hikmet[1]; this from 9-10 pm. Poems:

The most beautiful sea

hasn’t been crossed yet.

The most beautiful child

hasn’t grown up yet.

Our most beautiful days

we haven’t seen yet.

And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you

I haven’t said yet.

They’ve taken us prisoner,

They’ve locked us up:

Me inside the walls,

You outside.

But that’s nothing

The worst

Is when people — knowingly or not —

Carry prison inside themselves . . .

Most people have been forced to do this,

Honest, hard-working, good people

Who deserve to be loved as much as I love you.[2]

•   Much that preoccupies Berger in this little book is the militarism and terror wrought in the world in our times, and particularly in the Persian Gulf and in Palestine & the West bank.  He quotes the playwright Peter Ustinov: “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

Berger goes on to say,

Day and night the partners of fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths, half-truths which hope to change the world from what it is into something that it is not! It takes about six half-truths to make a lie.  As result they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. (59)

It reminds of another author’s question: “And how many tiny lies has it taken to construct your portly truth?”.

Reflecting on the “something” that allows young Palestinians to confront tanks with slingshots, he observes:

Perhaps its what the poet Mourid Barghouti noticed: ‘Living people grow old but martyrs grow younger.’ (66) [my note: Born in 1944, in Deir Ghassana near Ramallah on the West Bank, Barghouti is a Palestinian poet and writer.]

Later, in a remarkable description, Berger recalls an “expression” he noted often in people’s eyes in the West Bank towns near Ramallah.  He first describes a lovely interaction that he has with a moneychanger, a resident of a refugee camp in Ramallah (the incident is worth reading), and then tells another story:

The expression in his eyes as he looks at me reminds me of an old woman I have seen the day before.  An expression of great attention to the moment.  Calm and considered, as if it could conceivably be the last moment

He then tells about his meeting with “an old woman in the village of Kobar”, the aunt of Marwan Barghouti, currently a political prisoner in Israel.  He ends the vignette with this:

When it came to saying goodbye, the Aunt held my hand, and in her eyes, there was this same special attention to the moment.

If two people are laying a tablecloth on a table, they glance at each other to check the placing of the cloth.  Imagine the table is the world and the cloth the lives of those we have to save.  Such was the expression. (78-79)

Later he describes “A revelation which confirms an insight”:

…to engage today with the traditional vocabulary, as employed by the powerful and their media, only adds to the surrounding murkiness and devastation.  This does not necessarily mean silence.  I means choosing the voices one wished to join.  (93-94)

Later, in a passage that I partially quoted earlier, he observes:

The poor are collectively unseizable.  They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks to them.   This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls — walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens.  (98)

One more reminder that the problem to be solved in the world, is not pervasiveness of  poverty, but the concentration of wealth.

Towards the end of the book are “10 Dispatches about Endurance in the Face of Walls” (reflecting specifically on the Palestinians of the West Bank, but applicable in general to the uprooted and exploited).  I will quote the tenth and last, although it needs to be read at least with #9:

The multitudes have answers to questions which have not yet been posed, and they have the capacity to outlive walls.

The questions are not yet asked because to do so requires words and concepts which ring true, and those currently being used to name events have been rendered meaningless: Democracy, Liberty, Productivity, etc.

With new concepts the questions will soon be posed, for history involves precisely such a process of questioning.  Soon?  Within a generation.

Meanwhile, the answers abound in the multitudes’ multiple ingenuities  for getting by, their refusal of frontiers, their search for holes in the walls, their adoration of children, their readiness when necessary to become martyrs, their belief in continuity, their recurring acknowledgement that life’s gifts are small and priceless. (106)

•   Notes that I made a few years back while reflecting on a retrospective seminar at Concordia:  All of these are lessons from Gavin’s ‘memoir’/journey

~ Maps can only be drawn after the journey.

~ Singularity: the point between stillness and movement…

~ The lesson of ‘trials’(travails’): there is a personal lesson in every trial/failure…

~ Mystery:  not the unknown, but the unknowable…

~ It is not what we do — it is that we do it…

~ walk beside: companion (share bread)

• Recovered note: Frank Kermode describing a character in R. Mistry’s Family Matters (LRB 25 April 2002) :

…fairly happy in his way of dealing with the circumstances of unhappiness…

•  How do we grow?  From the ground, up…

•  Silence is the sound of truth.  Only in the midst of silence can the true word be spoken, and the voice heard.

•  Activist dilemma: The world in which we work in is not the world in which we want to live in. (So, get used to it!)

• Idea for a story:

An anonymous regime that neither identifies nor explains itself.  It is manifest only by its total presence, total control, total dominance, with no force but its assumed and unquestioned domination, asserted.  Its agents appear at the door, invade and surveil, for nothing, explaining nothing.

• From Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed (1993;1996):

~  Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality.  The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding.  From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Nor that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but he refuses it a place in the novel… [7]

~  Ecstasy means being “outside oneself,”, as indicated in the etymology of the Greek word: the act of leaving one’s position (stasis).  To be “outside oneself” does not mean outside the present moment like a dreamer escaping into the past of the future.  Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present instant, totally forgetting of past and future.  If we obliterate the future and the past, the present moment stands in empty space, outside life and its chronology, outside time and independent of it (this is why it can be likened to eternity, which too is the negation of time). [85]

~  We know reality only in the past tense.  We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it is happening, when it is.  The present moment is unlike the memory of it.  Remembering is not the negative of forgetting.  Remembering is a form of forgetting … The present—the concreteness of the present—as a phenomenon to consider—as a structure, is for us an unknown planet; se we can neither hold it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination.  We die without knowing what we have lived. [128-9]

•  The entire section, pp 226-234 is a profound dissection of the political ‘trial’ (tribunal) as the exercise of absolute power against the ‘idea’: antithesis of justice.

• From Milan Kundera, The Curtain (2006):

~  “A faraway country of which we know little….”  Those famous words by which Chamberlain sought to justify the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia …  What distinguishes the small nations from the large is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants; it is something deeper: for them their existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager, a risk; they are on the defensive against History, that force that is bigger than they, that does not take them into consideration, that does not even notice them.  (“It is only by opposing History as such that we can oppose today’s history,” Witold Gombrowicz wrote.

~  We can deduce a general rule: the existential import of a social phenomenon is most sharply perceptible not as it expands but when it just beginning, incomparably fainter than it will soon become.

~  …we must recall another general rule: reality is utterly unashamed to repeat itself, but confronted with reality’s repetition, thought always ends by falling silent.

•  I think about it every day.  The lines from Paul Simon help…

There is a moment,

a chip in time

When leaving home is the lesser crime

When your eyes are blind with tears

But your heart can see

Another life, another galaxy

…When your eyes are blind with tears

But your heart can see…

       ~ Paul Simon, Another Galaxy

•  And always we need to remember Dylan’s rule: to live outside the law, we must be honest; so….

As for the myths, take anyone’s life and deny that most of it is deliberate self-delusion—an aggrandizement—a mixture of lies and truth, of what was wanted and what was had, producing the necessary justification for having been granted a life in the first place.  “I was struck like a match”, Lily wrote, “I had no option but to burn.”  And burn she did!

~ Timothy Findley, The Piano Man’s Daughter

… all our memories are already fictions.

~ Pat Schneider

[We’re well into 2011 by now!!]

• From John Berger, his novel, From A to X (© 2008, Verso Edition © 2009)

We tend to think secrets are small, no?  Like precious jewels or sharp stones or knives that can be hidden and kept secret because they’re small.  But there are also secrets which are huge, and it’s because of their immensity that they remain hidden except to those who have tried to put their arms around them.  These secrets are promises. (187)

Speaking of the young who “today know more vividly and intensely and accurately that anyone else”, he says,

And what we today can show them is that victory is an illusion, that the struggle will be endless, and that to continue it, aware of this, is the only way to acknowledge the great gift of life! (75)

And this…

I saw [Manda] approaching like a crowded bus that had crossed the Sierra; all the passengers, who knew each other after the long journey, were joking inside her. (41)

[1] [my note: 1901-1963, Turk poet, playwright, novelist, a political prisoner for much of adult life, considered one of the great international poets of the 20th century, died in Moscow in exile.].

[2]  Berger was using translation from Selected Poetry / Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Persea Books, New York:1986; ISBN 0892551011)

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