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March Post: The Reception of Art and Personal Experience

We like March.

His Shoes are Purple —

He is new and high —

Makes he Mud for Dog and Peddler.

Makes he Forests dry.

Knows the Adder Tongue his coming

And presents her Spot —

Stands the Sun so close and mighty

That our Minds are hot.

News is he of all the others —

Bold it were to die

With the Blue Birds exercising

On his British Sky.


We like March — his shoes are Purple.

He is new and high —

Makes he Mud for Dog and Peddler —

Makes he Forests Dry —

Knows the Adder's Tongue his coming

And begets her spot —

Stands the Sun so close and mighty —

That our Minds are hot.

News is he of all the others —

Bold it were to die

With the Blue Birds buccaneering

On his British sky —

There is more than one way to like or even love something.

For example, if I am being fully honest I have to say that I don't and frankly can't have the same feeling for this month as did a woman from Amherst in the early 19th century, even notwithstanding our commonality of autism.

Purple is one of my least favorite colors and my lifestyle is considerably different than hers though in living where I do now is closer to hers in certain ways that at any time in my previous life.

Yet, looked at aesthetically, these items in the poem are far less important than one might ordinarily think.

One way of liking and even comprehending an object like a poem is to undergo a kind of marvel or simply acknowledgment that such a thing as a poem is or can even be made and that the author's feelings are his or her alone and not necessarily those of the reader.

Her poem, like practically most of her poems, was discovered and published long after her passing, in this case in 1896. Some of her poems were discovered as late as the mid-twentieth century which is or should be a rather startling fact when you take seriously enough the fact that her dates as a living writer were far earlier.

When this or that material object is discovered that is in fact thousands rather than hundreds of years old this is always, whatever else it may said to be, an aesthetic discovery, of course it is rarely formulated as such; more likely it is dotted into the categories of History or science alone.

When I use the word aesthetic I am talking about a way of liking, appreciating and, more rarely, loving the objects humans have made - I call them snapshots - that is not wholly dependent on many constitutive elements of these objects. I am talking about what happens when humans mold emotions, moods and ideas into some kind of form that is recognizable as an object or performant of some kind set apart from "real" life.

To discuss something aesthetically is not only to discuss how a thing appears to us, though that is surely important, but really all of the sensations or feelings that such cultural works evoke in and elicit for us.

It is a way of reaching across the boundaries of my own experience - and these boundaries are real and not manufactured - into a basic regard for the world such that the boundaries, while not dissolving into nonexistence, enable me to relate and even form a kind of intimacy with others.

This is at one and the same time a special regard for the world's specificity - the color purple, being a woman in Amherst in 1860 - but also regard for what might be said to transcend such specificity.

I have honed this capacity in myself over many decades and, to take but a couple of examples, is one of the reasons I have a deep love for Michael Ritchie's film The Bad News Bears and Ted Kotcheff's North Dallas Forty without having ever been a parent with kids involved in organized sports of any kind, nor cared much about football or baseball, or sports more generally.

Indeed I had rejected all sports in spite of having them thrust upon me not only by society but by my mother (!) who, in an atypical gender role at the time, took it upon herself to exorcise all of her negative feelings about my lack of skill or interest in sports, mainly by throwing balls at me in a field and asking me continuously why I did not pick up or catch these balls. (This is the only time in my mom's life when she herself engaged in any physical activity of any kind).

Yet the comedy and pathos of Walter Matthau and his team in Bad News Bears, moreover, the essential absurdity of it (Ritchie's fierce satire of American conformity and iniquity) as well and the value of it all (Ritchie's acknowledgment of how we are all in this together somehow and this being the source of value), above all, the 1970s sensibility of that film: all these are reasons enough to elicit in me love for that film.

Likewise, the outrageous antics of the football players in North Dallas Forty and in the center of it, Nick Nolte's struggles against the oppressive owners of the team are identifiable parts of classic drama over the ages, especially in the representation of occupations more generally. In those films the directors and writers are USING the elements that the films are supposedly "about" to reach more universal matters that apply to all of us humans.

Whether we acknowledge these matters or not is ultimately up to us, as is whether we conceptualize all art as the central space in which to ask questions about any of this.

I am sure many people more conventional than myself - physically active in one sport or another or fans of the game - might feel that they "get" these movies and understand therm much more fully than I ever could. There is no way for me to know if they are correct or not. But I do reserve the right to proceed as if they might be wrong.

As the late and truly great superstar philosopher Rick Roderick used to say: "act as if you are free. You might get lucky. You might be free. Who knows? Act that way - it's worth trying."

One other, sometimes comic, result of my outlook is that I might relate at cross purposes with others with whom I share similar interests.

For example I might meet a fan of Emily Dickinson who is more interested in nineteenth century life than am I or more sympathetic than with certain qualities of her biographical person and therefore our relations over Emily Dickinson will have limits since we are both going to her for rather different though equally valuable matters. I do think the greater works of art have this diverse or many sided quality, such that people can use them for conflicting or even contradictory purposes while still remaining faithful to the works of art as such.

The former lifeguard with whom I discussed that movie of the same name told me that he was puzzled as to why I liked the movie as much as did he later learning his assumption that I had worked as lifeguard as youth was false.

I think the word curiosity might be the most important word in all of this.

I feel that curiosity, which unfortunately is not equally distributed across the human population for all sorts of reasons (and none of those reasons having much to do with, say, intelligent or value), is an indispensable quality to even begin to relate to the arts, never mind practicing them or doing them.

Curiosity is dependent on a kind of a priori fearlessness.

To be a little more blunt than I normally would like, there really isn't any metaphysical blueprint or instructional manual that can tell us how much or little to be curious about our world, at least above a rather minimal or base level. And we all have our biases that go into making us human and we should be aware of these not in order to be rid of them or transform them necessarily, but to have some distance from them so that we can override them if need be.

For example the works of art I cherish the most are those that are have some comic or light qualities in them, without having to be fully unserious, and where the stakes are, while important, not the highest, and there is some kind of emphasis on the quotidian rather than fantastical or highly dramatic.

I also prefer the scope to be on the minimal side which is probably the chief reason I am not as enamored of most serialized television. I can do nothing about this for these responses are what make me my self and not some other self.

Yet in a spirit of generosity I can, from time to time, appreciate works of art that are peachy or didactic or have convoluted narrations or narratives dense with intergenerational casts of characters.

These are never my first love but I can see their value.

This ability to see value is something I believe to be, like learning, a lifelong project.

It is certainly one of the central themes of this podcast.

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