Almost Spring Edition
Ai Weiwei’s memoirs of a life in perpetual opposition, the nature of Internet and Time, and Ash Wednesday coming with gifts of ashes and dust.
This is my semi-regular roundup of what I’m reading and working on. If you’re new, catch up on what this substack is about here. I also post occasional poetry and prose. It’s free. Subscribe here if you like.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Fathers and sons. I’ve followed contemporary artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei since I visited his American retrospective at the Hirshhorn way back in 2013 (the review I wrote is another piece lost to time, unfortunately). A lead designer of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic stadium, by the 2010s his work had turned to satirizing the CCP surveillance state and launching “citizen’s investigations” into various government failures. Predictably, he suffered police beatings, extrajudicial detention, house arrest, and the confiscation of his passport, before being allowed to go into stylish European exile in 2015.
Now, Ai’s recently-released memoirs connect his own oppositional personality to the struggles of his father, famed poet Ai Qing. The elder Ai was an early friend of Mao Zedong, which did not save him from later being subject to decades of detention, reeducation, and internal exile, often accompanied by his young and impressionable boy. And in the work of both father and son there is a complex and often tense dialectic at play, between critiquing the past and making use of it, between rejecting political life and being fueled by its schismatic energy, and between asserting the autonomy of the contemporary and grounding it in streams of culture that predate our 20th century totalitarianisms.
“We were still living in a culturally impoverished era,” he writes, “but art had not abandoned us—its roots were deeply planted in the weathered soil.”
Chekhov’s gooseberries. In an 1888 letter to his (presumably frowning) publisher, Anton Chekhov had this to say on the artist’s responsibility to answer the questions they raise:
Anyone who says the artist's field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses and synthesizes… You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.
As cited by critic Chris Power in his reminiscence of Chekhov’s enigmatic tale of a gooseberry harvest and its roundabout lessons on happiness and suffering.
All’s fair in love and fur. Historian Anne Hyde describes how the tribes of the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay creatively negotiated relationships with the European fur traders of the 17th and 18th centuries. Love, family, survival, and commerce were all inextricably intertwined:
A “country wife” offered a trader like Étienne Waddens comfort and economic advantage. If Waddens wanted a band to hunt for him and trade at his post, he had to create a formal family relationship. Like many others in the fur trade, he remained married to his Montreal wife, but he also joined a Cree family. To do so he must have approached the Cree woman’s father and brothers in proper ways, bringing gifts and only then suggesting marriage. He had to meet Cree standards about how husbands should behave and how they should provide for their Cree families. If he failed to recognize his obligations to an entire band, he wouldn’t get many furs, and his new wife would leave him. To ensure that such relationships served Cree or Algonquian needs, the women taught the hivernants how to speak their languages. They taught them how to hunt and trap animals, manage deep snow, and survive on the ice.
Putting Internet in a corner. The latest in a quickly-growing genre, blogger David Cain relays what he learned from his attempt at three days off the internet. It was his experiment in putting the internet “back in the basement”; that is, back in a zone you have to intentionally opt into, as in the days of dial-up. I’ve been doing something much less systematic, turning my phone off for much of the weekend, and I notice a lot of what he describes. All the stuff about feeling your attention span slowly grow back and feeling more “in place” and feeling less anxious is true. And reading books is nice.
But what I’ve found most notable, and Cain also touches on, are the somewhat unexpected effects on the passage of time. When connectivity is the default, the minutes and hours slip by, hijacked by exposure to the larger and often quite invisible forces seeking to monetize and mobilize not just your attention, but the entire matrix of human activity that flows downstream from attention. Our days are full of transition points and decision points and only through withdrawal does it become clear how much, almost without realizing it, I have been progressively outsourcing the experience of time itself to devices, like some oracle sifting the digital entrails.
As Cain notes, even when distraction is defeated and real work gets done, almost every break or finished task is oriented around the ritual device check. Whether that ends up taking “just 30 seconds” or spirals into a half-hour binge, the effect is similar: you’ve avoided the psychologically strenuous task of taking conscious responsibility for what happens next. Without default connectivity, by contrast, each “next thing” in your day is no longer the captive of whatever stimulus happens to assault you. You are thrown back onto having to intentionally decide at each juncture what you value spending time on next. This at first creates a sense of unease and even panic, but soon enough becomes rather empowering.1 You regain some agency with time—I won’t say over time, but instead of a hapless swimmer carried along a dangerous current you become more like a kayaker capable of steering a course. You’re surprised to find the experience newly challenging but also newly enjoyable. Time again becomes something solid, a resource that you can mold and mobilize and deploy. Suddenly, there is time enough and all that’s required is to choose how to best to use it. And even when you are too busy, you are at peace, since you are doing what you have made an intentional decision is the best thing to be doing. Even if it is goofing off.
And indeed goofing off, daydreaming, whiling away time—these are the most important things to recover. Reclaiming agency over time is not primarily a productivity hack. Much more importantly, it is the prerequisite for true leisure, play, and relaxation. It frees you from the doomscrolling purgatory of not even being able to enjoy the time you set aside for entertainments because you have not chosen or committed to them. This feeling of being “butter scraped across too much bread” is often used to describe work-related burnout, but I think the experience is increasing precisely because it is only accidentally about work. It pertains anytime you are half-doing, half-being, with half of consciousness elsewhere, exhaustedly divided against yourself, when you can’t even finish a movie or let your mind wander watching the cardinals prance outside the window without anxiously breaking up the movement of time and seeking the temporary solace of timeless, placeless hyperreality. The question is if the project of Putting It Back in the Box is realistic or if such a thing will become like that once-a-year visit to a national park—a strange, dangerous-feeling, and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of lost wildness.
Ukrainian ecclesiology. Will Putin’s war on Ukraine hasten the creation of a Patriarchate for the country’s eastern Catholics? The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the second-largest self-governing (sui iuris) church in the Catholic communion, after the Latin Church. But unlike other major eastern Catholic churches, it lacks a Patriarch, the full and ancient expression of an autonomous church. It’s been discussed since the 16th century, but negotiations have so far been sidetracked by other considerations—including Soviet-era repression of Catholics and, most recently, by worries about disrupting ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church, which sees its own Patriarch as the rightful authority over Ukrainians2. That calculus may now be changing.
If you want something done right... Francis Ford Coppola is apparently set to spend $120 million of his own money to create his final masterpiece, the film no studio will let him make. He’s been thinking a lot about his legacy, originality, and the youths of today:
I once read a Balzac article—I wish I could find it, but it's not published, and I don't know where the book is.” (I think this was Coppola's way of telling me he owns, or once owned, an unpublished work by Balzac.) “But people said, ‘Oh, these young people are stealing your stuff.’ To Balzac. And Balzac said, ‘That's why I wrote it. I want them to take everything, whatever I have, they're welcome, these young authors. Take all you want. One, because it can't really come out like me because each one of them is an individual and it's going to come out like them, so they can't steal it. They can appropriate it, but it's going to come out through them.
Willem de Kooning: "The more I'm influenced, the more original I get."
To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March…
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house.
—from “To Go To Lvov,” Adam Zagajewski (trans. Renata Gorczynski)
The liturgical life.
Once again, Lent is nearly upon us. Over the years, whether I considered myself religious or not (mostly not), I’ve always been drawn by the season. I continue to find it noteworthy, if not fascinating, the ambivalence of our culture’s relationship with fasting, whether from food, or work, or even just the comfort of daily routines. A feature of all societies in all times, today in the West, even among the religious, it is often met with incomprehension or embarrassment, even as the repressed need pops up in fad diets and a shame-ridden food discourse. (Perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.)
At its heart, it’s a need for rest—for stillness, for withdrawal—that can be strangely terrifying. Our distractions serve a purpose, after all. To be still is to be confronted with ourselves as we are, in all our weakness and delusion and dependency. It is to be reminded that our achievements are not who we are, and can’t save us. It is to be reminded that we are going to die.
And yet, we are drawn to rituals of death, mourning, and renewal. Is it really surprising that Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular services of the year, by some accounts more so than Christmas and Easter? That people line up and chase down priests to get smeared with ash, who in other seasons can’t be bothered to sing carols of joy? I don’t think so; many people intuit the shallow and desiccated nature of our relation to suffering, rooted in the psychological structure of consumerist anthropology, which demands of its subjects a participation in an eternal present and an ongoing denial of the natural limits exemplified by death. We respond to our due portion of ashes, the invocation to “remember you are dust,” because we understand on some level that it reflects the structure of reality, an architecture barely visible under the propaganda of economic progress but load-bearing all the same. It is the inescapable rhythm of our own lives, try as we might to hack them. And, of course, the rhythm of nature and the soil, where the seeds of regeneration lie in the fallow times and the charred aftermaths of fires.
Almost invariably, the people I give ashes to—parents, old ladies, gang kids, hipsters, day laborers, drunks—say "thank you." I say it, too: touching strangers with such intimacy in public, admitting what we share, feels like a gift, one that turns the lies of our culture upside down. “It's like every time your thumb touches a forehead, time stops," a friend said, watching. "Time just stops, over and over."
—Sara Miles, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco
Church leaders might look to the popularity of this memento mori and take a lesson that what is thirsted for today is not more escapism, more rejection of all that is morbid, grotesque, and bracingly strange about faith in a crucified God, who took the form of our same dust, tasted death, and descended into Hell. Czeslaw Milosz, irascible Slav incongruously transplanted to lotus-eating California, criticized this this tendency in American churches, desperate not to seem weird or unmodern, which he called “Boy-Scoutish cheerfulness…untainted by abominable souvenirs of Latin chants and of medieval danses macabres.”3 And yet we crave the macabre, turning it into cheap entertainment when we no longer possess the cultural resources to commune with it in our daily lives. What is thirsted for in an ever-more unreal world is above all an encounter with reality—reality which is not optimistic, but miraculous; not free of suffering, but not devoid of healing; and which demands we face our own mortality, not in despair, but in view of reality’s ultimate telos: restoration, renewal, resurrection.
Ash Wednesday, the start of the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter, is tomorrow, March 2. The Holy Father has also asked that it be a day of fasting for the particular intention of peace in Ukraine.
For those who observe, may your fallowness be fruitful.
I have noticed a similar journey through psychological stages in other activities, most notably surfing and meditating, that require a radical disconnectivity. The first half-hour out on the water is always a sort of detox through stages of irritability and boredom, and then your brain adjusts to the lack of normal stimuli and relaxes and truly opens itself to the surfeit of natural stimuli, which swims through time at its own pace. Then you are in something like Flow and hours of “doing nothing” pass like minutes; or rather, units like minutes and hours stop having much meaning.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s discomfort with Ukrainian Catholics is not to be confused with its objections to the newly autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine. That is a separate intra-Orthodox dispute over whether Moscow should retain jurisdiction over Ukraine’s Orthodox churches and it is…extremely complicated.
“I am an outsider and have no right whatsoever to quarrel about what the Church should do. All I know is that a church building in America is now at last what it aspired to be for a long time: a place of genuinely American, Boy-Scoutish cheerfulness. Untainted by abominable souvenirs of Latin chants and of medieval danses macabres. I am not cheerful and I am not for a national togetherness, be it American, Mexican, or Polish. Whether the rotten wood should be hidden under a layer of varnish or revealed as it is, remains to be seen.” Czeslaw Milosz, Letter to Thomas Merton, January 15, 1968.