Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Monthly Archives: December 2013

“The most trifling thing…can open up a universe.” On Proust.

“The most trifling thing…can open up a universe.” -Pico Ayer

Shelby Foote talks briefly of Proust at the 13 minute mark or so in this:

Proust was an extremely important author for Foote. He read the Frenchman’s tome nine times, to reward himself for a job well done whenever he felt he had earned it.

I have not read a sentence of Proust. This post, on the commonalities between Proust and Buddhism, was immensely enjoyable as well as thought-provoking. One of these years I will have to tackle this great work.

Here are some Proust quotes fished from this article that I thought worth noting down.

“So long as you distract your mind from its dreams, it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us.”

“If there were no such thing as habit, life might appear delightful to those of us who are constantly under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.”

“We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.”

“What one knows does not belong to oneself…”

“It is not common sense that is ‘the commonest thing in the world…It is human kindness.”

“[I]deas, works and the rest, which he counted for far less — [this great artist] would have given gladly to anyone who understood him.”

“One short-sighted man says of another, ‘But he can scarcely open his eyes!’”

“We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.”

“What one knows does not belong to oneself…”

“In the state of mind in which we `observe,’we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.”

“Before we experience solitude, our whole perception is to know to what extent we can reconcile it with certain pleasures which cease to be pleasures as soon as we have experienced it.”

“For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself than beauty: namely, grief.”

This is the last paragraph from Piko’s terrific essay, cited above.

“I couldn’t tell you much about the plot of À la recherche, its characters, its events, anything of its surface. Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.”


Sonnet for the end of 2013

Sonnet XV: When I Consider everything that Grows

By Shakespeare, William

When I consider everything that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment,

That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows

Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

When I perceive that men as plants increase,

Cheered and check’d even by the selfsame sky,

Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,

And wear their brave state out of memory;

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay

Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,

Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay

To change your day of youth to sullied night;

And all in war with Time for love of you,

As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

General Sherman on Friendship

I found this to be a profound reflection on friendship.

“Grant is a great General. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk. And now, sir, we stand by each other always.” -General Sherman.

The quote above comes after Sherman, mole-like, surfaces up on the East Coast after his ostentatious razing of the Cotton Belt.  Lincoln had been reelected and  there was talk about promoting him to Grant’s level. Some wanted to make him president and Sherman, famously, would have none of this.

General Sherman was philosopher as well as excellent with words. He articulated a coherent argument for coercive diplomacy a la Schelling to justify his scorched earth tactics on his long march to the sea. Something, it should be noted, that Lincoln understood, agreed with, and immediately endorsed.

General Sherman

“The Giving Tree”

My favorite children’s book. Here is the animated film:

There is a Soul of Goodness in Walter White

I was satisfied with Breaking Bad in almost every way. It was gripping, unconventional, fresh, and authentic. The narrative and cinematography propelled the story and developed textured characters with relentless speed and acuity. Epic Southwestern landscapes, rural and urban, set the stage for action. Violence and capers, together with crisp dialogue, breathed life into characters.

We watched Walter White became a genius at the criminal craft of cooking meth. Though extremely clever and competent in most other aspects of the business, we watched him repeatedly get in his own way as he established himself as the underworld’s premier meth chef. His dizzying transformation into a ruthless villain is understandable only in light of his towering obsession to be acknowledged as the best at his craft, embodied in the mythical Heisenberg.

Before he exploited the opportunity to cook meth Walter White was marching towards ignominious and, worse, anonymous death. He had failed as a scientist and entrepreneur and was, at best, a mediocre father-cum-husband. What’s worse, he had failed his family economically. He was, in short, the poster boy for underachievement and pusillanimity, a man who had buried his talents far deep into the ground. The meth business provided the perfect outlet for unearthing those talents, but it was never really about the money or protecting his family. Working with Gus, as Mike points out — would have provided enough for his family ten times over. Walter White takes egregious risks with his family’s safety. Cooking meth was a way for him to live life to the fullest before cancer caught up with him. Along the way he argues that it was about his family and, later, that it was about empire-building. By the end, Walt confesses the truth: “I did it for me.” Precisely what this means is revealed in the story’s final scene as he surveys his great creation one last time.

Unbounded ambition cost Walter White his soul. By the end, even though it was manifestly clear that he had lost it by then, we foolishly hoped for some final act of redemption that would mitigate the harshness of his long-overdue reckoning. The authors and directors of Breaking Bad resisted this temptation because everything he did and attempted in the end was manifestly hollow.

The great paradox of Walter White is that he is a model of hard-work, dedication, thoroughness, and strategic thought. Together with an industrious spirit and will to succeed, these virtues evoke admiration and explain why we root for him. Indeed, and this is the hard lesson for those who pursue greatness, Walter White was willing to do almost everything that necessity demanded. Two things tripped up his ultimate success. One is sentiment. His feelings for his family and friends, however contrived, slowed his attempts to tackle two deep reservoirs of risk, Jessie and Hank, until it was too late. The other was hubris, which led to mistakes, most notably murdering Mike and leaving Walt Whitman laying around. In crime, as in politics, even iotas of goodness are landmines on the road to glory. Walter White failed because he was incapable of being thoroughly evil. Usually, a virtuous hero fails because of moral weaknesses. He fails because of lapses in depravity. He failed to break completely bad.

Through its eclectic cast of fleeting and enduring characters, Breaking Bad holds up multiple mirrors for us to examine ourselves and society. Walter White is the blurriest and most important of them all. Most disturbing is his perverse Quixotic ability to twist reality into fiction to feed his race to glory. Early in the series we believe, or want to believe, that he has a noble objective, mainly, to set up his family financially before cancer takes his life. Soon, however, Walt’s overweening ambition is in charge. Altruism and familial love sugarcoat his real agenda, for the viewer and for himself.

Affable Walter White is Breaking Bad’s main delivery vehicle for a profound moral message.  His story begs us to interrogate the blueprint that provides meaning for our actions. The life of Walter White suggests that it is likely a tendentious lie that fails to acknowledge our deepest desires and fears, one that sugarcoats these with religion, family, or other social constructs to avoid the suffering — and freedom — that comes with embracing our raw selves.

Fourteen Outstanding Places to Travel in 2014

This is a provocative list.  Be sure to check it out.

I’ve been to four:

Colombia, Mexico City, Russian River Valley, and Mexico City.

This year I will be traveling to Panama and (maybe) Argentina, so I will check one more of the list and perhaps another if I can make it to Argentina’s wine country. Disney World is not far away and neither is Nashville. Not on the list, but also on my travel itinerary this year are the following new countries: Peru, Paraguay, and Toronto.

2014 might be a great year.

Nashville is high on my list. So is New Orleans, too, because it is criminal that I have never been. It’s so close!


“The pain passes, but the beauty remains”

This was my favorite movie last year. I watched it on the big screen in Los Angeles and enjoyed it immensely. The cinematography was rich and full of natural beauty . Christa Theret was the perfect muse for father and son.  Next time it makes an appearance at the artsy fartsy theater near you do go and see it. You won’t be disappointed. You can check out an excellent collection of his work on line here. On smart & sexy French flicks that came out last year, read this.

Also, I think the Renoir quote is missing two important elements. It is not only the pain that passes, despair passes too.  And it is not just the beauty that remains, love does so as well.

renoir2chaise1900_grand[1] grdnu07_grand[1] Renoir The Bather, 1888, oil on canvas. The_Large_Bathers

What to Read: Best Books About the Rest of the World

“From the catastrophe unfolding in Pakistan to a great novel about Yugoslavia, here are 10 books about the rest of the world that deserve your attention writes Kapil Komireddi…”

My Mama’s Loss and the Mandela Principle

I’ve tried to be around mama a lot the last few days since arriving in Los Angeles last week. She lost her sister last week. This is the first sibling she or my father have lost.

Mom, I’m happy to report, has had a good time since she arrived, cooking good food, chatting, and bossing everyone around. She’s actually even smacked me a few times, which is par for the course and usually deserved. In conversation, she only broke down once. Overall, she is taking comfort that her sister is in a better place.

More generally, however, mom does not give into despair. She possesses an indomitable spirit. Her life is an example of someone who subscribes to the Mandela Principle: “I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” We can shorten this: “Never despair for that way lays defeat and death.”

I wish, more than anything, that I had such a spirit.

Pope Francis

Papa Francis

“Who am I to judge?” -Pope Francis

It is by now clear that Pope Francis would like to see the Catholic Church become a Christian organization. These days it is too bureaucratic, self-regarding, and, frankly, corrupt and abusive.

His efforts are being poo poo’d by critics and cynics, who see it as either as phony or Quixotic. I’m with the latter because I believe in my heart that being Quixotic can yield purpose and meaning together with much mischief and change. Outside of the Gospels, what better story exists about someone being born again than Don Quixote?

I hope our Papa makes progress. The Church will change course only slowly and with great difficulty. Papa Francis strikes me to be a bold man. Hopefully he is as pragmatic and ruthless as he is brave.

He should keep Machiavelli’s admonition in mind to those who attempt to revamp institutions.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

The Papa is as Quixotic as he is Christian. Even cynics should cheer him on as he seeks reform, tolerance, and a return to the ideals of Christianity as he seeks his own cross.

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