Wednesday, April 30, 2003

The Original Anatomy

It occurs to me that not everyone knows of Robert Burton's book. It is not easy reading. I keep it on my nightstand for those times, more frequent these days, when I cannot sleep. This is not to say that he is a soporific, rather that he is a writer to whom you must pay attention and give him hours of concentrated effort.

Burton had a classical education from which he drew quotes and references in abundance. My classical education is drawn primarily from his. To use his erudition in my essays would be redundant. Those quotes I use will be contemporary, and I will leave the classics to Burton, who knew them better.

My intent is not to parrot his work, but search for an escape from my melancholy in somewhat the same way. However, I am more engaged in externals than he was. I am married with children. I have not the time provided him as a scholar and a clergyman to sit and muse, observing life from a distance.

All the tools I have are my autodidactic tendencies, my library, my senses and my wit (what there is of it). If I write in an archaic style it is because I love writing. If I think and declaim curious ideas, it is because I think in curious pathways. If you do not enjoy my essays, you are free to ignore them. They are not written for you. They are written for me.

I am tired and I am sad. I look at politics and I see children playing "king of the castle." I look at religion and I think of Aesop's fable of the dog in the manger. I am weary of those who know they are right, and I can find no trace of those who know that they may not be.

I am disturbed at the ease with which people stop thinking in order to follow a leader. I am disgusted by the cant of art critics who praise for fear that condemnation will show that they know nothing of their subject.

Discussion has been abolished in favor of certainty. There is no conversation, there is no thought. The new mantra is, "if you do not think as I do, you are wrong." I have no problem with those who are passionate about their ideas. I am disheartened by those who think that there should be no opposition.

It is so easy to think that you are the only one who knows the truth. It is even easier to think that the person you idealize is the only one who knows it. Blind faith allows no argument. It is too easy to take refuge in the evangelical argument, "If you do not believe as I have been told to, you are damned."

I place the blame on the complexities of modern society. There is so much to know, so much to understand. Blind faith removes the complexity. It is too easy to dismiss other world views. It is too hard to think for ones self. It is so easy to discard logic. Logic is messy, faith is easy.


I was walking with my dog in the woods the other day. Perhaps I should say walking against her since she has never learned the discipline of obedience. She strained against the leash until her breath rasped, tail flailing metronomically, desperate to make the aquaintance of some woodland creatures. I was sorry that I could not trust her to return when I called and could not let her go where she wanted.

The area that we were enjoying together, during the odd moments when she was not trying to rip my arm from my shoulder while simultaneously strangling herself, is a local farm that is now a nature preserve. Dotted throughout this area are strange monuments, ornately decorated, pyramidical spires.They look like wayposts on some fantastic web of ley lines.

My dog is inordinately interested in the bases of these spires. I keep looking for the vestiges of ancient sacrifices, as does she. But while I search for the blood of the victims of pagan rituals, I believe she merely senses thinner body fluids of her canine predecessors.These odd constructs are actually spires that once adorned the roof of a demolished library at Harvard University.

After an exhausting journey of cross-purposes we rested at the base of one of these spires, she panting and drooling, I meditatively drawing doodles in the dirt with a stick, when we heard a voice in the distance. As it grew louder, I wondered at the oddity of sitting in the midst of nature while overhearing a madwoman rant about the stock market.

It was no surprise that, as the source of the voice appeared, she held a retractible cord leash attached to the collar of a well-behaved dog in one hand. In the other hand she held her own collar with a retractible cellular leash. I nodded and smiled as she passed. I am sorry to say I received a glare in return.

Perhaps I over-analyze, I have often been accused of this sin, but it seemed as if both my unruly, but friendly dog and my inoffensive, silent acknowledgement of her presence threatened to increase the carefully balanced tension of her leashes.

As I continued my stroll and my dog continued her suicidal lunges toward the depths of the woods, I imagined that the unsocial passer-by was also a waypost of ley lines. She was a node with lines of force pulling at her from all directions but whose stability was threatened by any uncontrollable external event such as a smile or an undisciplined dog.

We are all leashed. The forces of family, society, work and money pull at us from every direction. That is what life is all about. It is as if we hold the loops of innumerable leashes, each with its own dog and each dog with its own squirrel in view. We wear collars too.

As the dog and I walked in our own tug-of-war through the woods, I was thankful that I had the capacity, or perhaps the freedom to reduce my battles to a single one, if only briefly. I can find a simplicity that lets me enjoy the quiet woods, the gurgle of the brooks, the soft compression of the mass of pine needles underfoot ... The respite of a single leash.