Lax’s A Greek Journal

Robert Lax's Love Had a Compass ends with A Greek Journal, a work that in some ways reminds me of Thoreau's masterful Walden, though it doesn't seem nearly as "finished," nearly as polished. At times I almost feel embarrassed reading it, as if I've walked in on someone's private meditations.

The work is often a simple celebration of the people who Lax meets on his island retreat. Other times it breaks out into pure poetry. And at still other times it seems like the ultimate "blog."

My favorite entries are those, like the following, which examine the very process of journaling:

JULY 22/69

almost as soon as i open the door of the hill-house, i roll the paper
into the machine & bang bang bang

talk somewhat to journal all through the day, knowing that most of
what i say won't actually go into it: that i'll write whatever i write once
i start writing. & that no whole subject probably will ever be covered.
some attempt maybe to lay out in dotted lines a range of the spectrum.
spectrum of what? spectrum if only of my worries. & joys? yeah, yeah,
& of my joys.

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally
one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the
old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of my
problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary viennese who lis-
tened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt tech-
nical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior, the
viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short
visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or
sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wis-
doms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat,
prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of "sitting quietly doing
nothing," of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing
at all.

as i don't think i really understood the "psychiatrist" half of the time,
i'm not sure i really understand "chuang tzu." i respect him though,
don't resent him, as i often did the psychiatrist; feel that he knows i
don't know but that little by little there'll be things i can learn. i pic-
ture him with shaved head, a listener (& yet a practical man), a lis-
tener who appreciates, a listener with humor; a storehouse-but very
light storehouse-of wisdom; made like modern electronic ears of
light, light materials, but of great receiving strength.

what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom,
perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.

one feels that all philosophies, Zen, & yoga are ways of approaching
wisdom & "enlightenment"-they are ways of approaching an en-
lightened state in which one's behavior is always or almost always
"spontaneously" right.

to be "enlightened" is not to shine; nor to bring multitudes to the hill
where one sits cross-legged, to listen.

it is rather to know what one is doing (& even, perhaps, to enjoy it).

thus i am glad that they say i am "isichos" & not that they say i am
rich (which i'm not).

they've discerned a direction i've taken, and one which i hope i shall
keep to.

sometimes i've tried to see more than i saw (and have tried to forget
what i've seen).

& sometimes i've tried to see less than i saw (& have tried to forget
what i've seen),

but the world here is whole: whole & large & patient. the longer i stay,
the more patiently i seek, the more, i believe, i shall learn.

here comes the shepherd
& his flock

(out of the shadow
of the rock)

There's much here to explore, and Lax explores the same themes from different viewpoints in this, too short journal. I guess I'll have to see if this was the whole journal or merely an excerpt from it.

It seem to me that at its best this is what bloggers do, talk to that internal voice that resides within, perhaps even at times convincing that voice that he, too, must see the world in a new way. Neither the psychiatrist nor chuang tzu has all the answers on how to live our lives successfully.

I suppose this is why I disagree with Shelley and Dave Rogers when they argue that "we're writing ourselves out of existence. We cease to be people, and instead become characters and plot devices.

We all deceive ourselves, no doubt about that, but only life's events and self-reflection on those events can ever dispel that deception.

Of course, that's not to say that those who use their blog for self-promotion rather than self-enlightenment won't continue to deceive not only their reader but themselves.

7 thoughts on “Lax’s A Greek Journal

  1. Are the two separable?

    Aren’t we everything we do, including writing?

    Since you’re an INTP, I would have thought that you’d write largely for yourself, or at least to try to make the outside world conform to your view of the way the world should be.

  2. “We all deceive ourselves, no doubt about that, but only life’s events and self-reflection on those events can ever dispel that deception.”

    Hi Loren! Concur with the above, except to note that, in my experience and in what I observe around the internet, much of that “self-reflection on those events” is usually just more narrative construction that creates a desired view of the self which may not be consistent with something else, because I’m reluctant to say, “the actual self.”

    It’s like Shelley’s commenter who observed that he examined his beliefs all the time, and they always came up “true.”

    The other day, I was reading an explanation offered by a certain high attention-earning weblogger on why he worked for MS. And his explanation included some very high-falutin’ words about “changing MS from within.” This lofty rhetoric rang a big bell with me, because when I was a very young man, my friends couldn’t believe I had accepted an appointment to the Naval Academy. In 1975, the military was still regarded with some disdain. So I offered that I was going to the Naval Academy to “change the system from within.” Of course, I was really going because there was no way I could disappoint my father, who had wanted me to go there since I was about 0. Which was just one of the first times I did something I didn’t really want to do, just to avoid disappointing someone. The MS weblogger moved 1000 miles away from his young son, and seriously compromised his role as a father, and I submit it wasn’t to “change MS from within.” Rather, I expect it was because he was either very attracted to what MS offered in terms of validation, or he wanted to get very far away from his son’s mother. In any event, we construct narratives to avoid having to deal with uncomfortable events, and the choices we make in those narratives have consequences of their own.

    I wanted to confront the MS writer about his lofty mission and how that contrasted with his mission as a father and see what his response might be, but it wouldn’t be welcome. He’ll be revising that narrative one day.

    As I look back over my own life, I see many of those choices now. Much of the time, we truly do not _know_ why we do the things we do, so we construct a narrative to explain ourselves to ourselves, and that’s what substitutes for self-reflection and the hard work of paying attention.

    And we paint others into narrative corners with our opinions on who they are and what they stand for. Red versus Blue is part of that narrative now. “Pro-life” versus “pro-choice.” We’re all “good” guys. Except for all those “bad” guys we’re having to “take back” our country or democracy from.

    We’re too clever by half. We polish and burnish our self-deception day after day, and we’re often praised for it. Only making the bonds of our lies grow tighter and tighter.

    I love Springsteen’s The Long Goodbye:

    My soul went walkin’ but I stayed here
    Feel like I been workin’ for a thousand years
    Chippin’ away at this chain of my own lies
    Climbin’ a wall a hundred thousand miles high
    Well I woke up this morning on the other side
    Yeah yeah this is the long goodbye
    Hey yeah this is the long goodbye

    The moon is high and here I am
    Sittin’ here with this hammer in hand
    One more drink oughta ease the pain
    Starin’ at that last link in the chain
    Well let’s raise our glass and let this hammer fly
    Hey yeah this is the long goodbye
    Hey yeah this is the long goodbye

    The essence of Zen is there is no essence. But, in part, it’s also seeing existence past the struggle of narrative to put distance between ourselves and our suffering.

    Just don’t believe everything you read. Or everything you write, either.

  3. Loren, based on your first post about Lax I ordered Love Had a Compass and have begun digging into it. (I had known of Lax through Merton, but hadn’t read him.) I loved the concreteness of the 25 Episodes, the beings he gave voice to with so few words.

  4. I’m not sure of the validity of my INTP rating, though, Loren. I am a trained psychologist, and part of my training was in how to construct these types of tests. Because of this, psych tests are relatively useless with me because I can see the ‘patterns’ in the answers. Even when I think to myself that I’m being honest when taking the test, I may ‘see’ myself as an INTP, and respond unconciously towards that as ‘goal’.

    Or maybe I am genuinely an INTP, and as you say, I write primarily for myself. It hasn’t felt that way lately.

    Dave, I think you don’t give enough credit to the positive role of self deception.

    I know from your writing that you’re striving towards being a person who doesn’t get angry with the people you debate online (such as Bennett). You chastise yourself online when you do, which means that you must see yourself, or want to see yourself as the type of person who doesn’t loose his cool. But is that the real you? Or is this the type of person you want to become.

    And does it matter? Because if you see yourself that way, won’t you act that way, and basically won’t this re-inforce the behavior you prize until it really is you? In other words, the ‘self deception’ is really a persona, a set of training wheels, if you will, that you wear until you no longer need it; because you’ve incorporated that aspect of behavior as truly your own.

    The MS person you speak of–perhaps the job at Microsoft is what he needed as an individual, for personal growth, and yes, a sense of self worth. This really isn’t selfish, even, when it meant moving far away from his son. What good to a child to see their parent daily if that parent’s self-esteem is damaged and full of doubt; or worry about finding decent work in a tough economy? So he says to the world and to himself he’s doing this for Microsoft when it his doing it for himself. But it’s not a wholly selfish act–so where’s the harm?

    And who are we to point out other’s sometimes
    necessary self-deceptions? To be the reformed hell bent on pointing out the evils of others existence. Eschewing self-deception does not make one a reforming angel. Or at least, it doesn’t give one the right to adopt this particular persona with other people…unless the person is deceiving themselves, of course.

    (The thought of it reminds me of how ex-smokers or alcoholics, or former overweight people, will sometimes take huge amounts of delight in pointing out other’s weaknesses because the other still smokes or sometimes takes a drink, or doesn’t look good in a tiny swimsuit.)

    For myself, since both writing and self-deception have been brought up in this thread: a year ago I may have thought I was a good writer, and even a good photographer. But am I? Or is it self deception? And is this soul searching, this honest inner reflection, a good or healthy thing for me?

    If it is self-deception, the advantage of it would be that I would continue to delight in writing and taking photographs, and we hope improving in both until I really am a good writer, or a good photographer, or both. Or not, but at least I would have more of a chance than losing joy in both because I am ‘questioning’ this, as a possible self-deception.

    So maybe self-deception isn’t always such a bad thing. And bringing this back to our online existence, we are using this environment to take possible new aspects of ourselves out for a trial run; to see which ones we want to keep, and which to re-invent. It’s not a harmful thing to do, but brings with it risk: if the two meet–the real and the persona–there is, must be, a clash, which can be both conflicting and confusing, and disappointing. This is the essence of what Gary Turner wrote, and there is a great deal of depth and subtle nuance to what he wrote. It’s unfortunate that most people missed it in the rush to ask him not to leave.

    I can understand, completely, what Gary Turner wrote. As I can what you wrote Dave, and what you wrote, Loren.

    (Interesting, also, though a self-centered segue from the topic at hand–in this thread are two people who I would feel comfortable meeting in person, bits of self-deception littering the ground about us or not.)

    Blathering. Need coffee. And more pretty flower pictures, Loren.

  5. I suspect we could all devote our blogs to the topic of self-deception and still not cover the topic completely in the rest of our lives.

    When forced to look back at the poor, dumb naive self that graduated from high school, proud of his country and sure of his grand future I am totally embarassed. How someone so “bright” could be so “dumb” is almost beyond understanding.

    And, yet, I’m sure that some of those naive beliefs are precisely what helped me to get through all of life’s apparently inevitable disasters that followed.

    Of course, I’d be even more embarrassed if I hadn’t begun to see through some of these self-deceptions because of what’s happened to me and our society.

    I’m sure in the end, though, that these self-deceptions lead to more heartaches than they do happy endings. If we’re ever going to escape a cycle of errors, we need to see what guides us on that path.

  6. “(The thought of it reminds me of how ex-smokers or alcoholics, or former overweight people, will sometimes take huge amounts of delight in pointing out other’s weaknesses because the other still smokes or sometimes takes a drink, or doesn’t look good in a tiny swimsuit.)

    For myself, since both writing and self-deception have been brought up in this thread: a year ago I may have thought I was a good writer, and even a good photographer. But am I? Or is it self deception? And is this soul searching, this honest inner reflection, a good or healthy thing for me?”

    In fact, I didn’t point out what I thought was this person’s effort at self-deception, because it’s mostly not possible to do, and will generally cause more harm than good.

    But I take issue with things like “writing ourselves into existence” because they elevate this act as though there were some truth to it. Existence precedes narrative. Narrative exists to place some sort of contextual “structure” around existence, that has the effect of largely removing the self from “existence” and placing it into “narrative.” We lose sight of the difference between what is “real” and the stories we simply tell ourselves. I think the more we tell ourselves, as part of our narrative, that narrative brings us into “existence,” the further removed we become, and the more trapped in our own imperfect representations.

    Some of us, it seems to me, are increasingly dividing ourselves from others of us, simply because of the stories we wish to believe about how the world is, and this is not helpful, and it need not be that way.

    I don’t wish to point out to anyone else how their narrative deceives them, how could I? I only wish to point out that this is something we all do, and it is not without some risk. Having said that, I’ll now contradict myself and suggest that Loren, your characterization of your beliefs as a young man as “dumb” and “naive” are simply pieces of your current narrative. They were simply what you believed then, they’re only “dumb” and “naive” _today_, because your beliefs are different today. So, is it fair to conclude that what you believe about your old beliefs today will be “dumb” and “naive” tomorrow, when you might believe something else? I’m suggesting it’s a negative judgment and it’s only real purpose is to support a narrative construct that you’re somehow not “dumb” and “naive” today. The fact is, the nature of ignorance is such that we don’t know what we don’t know, and perhaps that’s something we need to figure out how to incorporate into our narratives.

    “Writing ourselves into existence” has some appeal as a turn of phrase. It garnered a great deal of favorable commentary when it was first uttered. But it’s merely a deception created to elevate and perpetuate deception, so that we might feel “good” about our behavior, rather than critically examining our behavior and trying to discern if there may not be some danger there, something we’re overlooking.

    We’re painting ourselves into ever more, ever smaller corners as we try to constrain people and events into the stories we cherish.

    I’ve probably written too much here, and I’m not sure how much of what I’ve written may be a product of yet another narrative of my own creation. I’ll comment more at my place after I think about it some more.

What do you think?