“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.” – Sigmund Freud
The power of language, content, and how information moves and influences us amazes me. Content of various mediums, the craft of writing, the importance of stories (and storytelling) — as well as the immense power of images, symbols, motifs, and mythologies — and how these things have moved through history and our own psyches, individually and collectively: always evolving, changing, mutating, influencing, informing, weaving together often clashing ideas of who we are and why we are here, have left an indelible imprint on human civilization perhaps more than any other aspect of life.
Ancient humans told stories through images on cave walls and via oral tradition like we see with the Homeric hymns. This content is pre-writing in its truest sense and, later, content passed down through the generations verbally and was memorized. Eventually, early content creators took those oral songs, dramas, and stories of the ancient Greeks, and compiled them into cohesive narratives like The Illiad and The Odyssey. Although we still don’t really know much about Homer (pictured above), the stories and “hymns” early inhabitants of what is now the region of Greece once loosely shared through song, were eventually “curated” and Western civilization was kind enough to give him credit of authorship, a byline of sorts.
“Good writing is recognizable,” I remember hearing a New York City literacy coach tell my 6th-grade English Language Arts (ELA) class one morning many years ago. Despite my feelings of disillusionment with the NYC Education Department and my short involvement with it, the literacy assistant’s turn of phrase stuck with me. I was teaching in a decaying dinosaur disguised as a middle school near Little Italy in the Bronx, or what little was left of it along a small section of Arthur Avenue, a couple of blocks off Fordham Road — and a 10-minute walk from the storied Jesuit university. Most of the neighborhood and surrounding areas were populated by first and second generation Hispanics and blacks when I briefly worked there in 2006, its Italian heritage displaced like so many other pockets of the city that is always changing. I must of been one of the last generation of college graduates that could afford to live in Manhattan (albeit at the northern tip of it in West Harlem), and work a lower middle class or entry-level job. Even then, my own studio apartment was out of reach — even way uptown. I rented a closet-size room from a friendly Dominican woman who allowed me to pay only $100 a week. I was fortunate to find her through a slightly dodgy roommate agency at 145th and Broadway. What drew me to New York wasn’t teaching, but its literary and cultural history, and being an aspiring writer, its status as being the publishing capital of America.
I enjoyed passing Fordham University on the way home, feeling quite frazzled after a 9-hour shift at M.S. 7000, surrounded by grouchy pre-teens and teens but, more detrimentally, a fully-loaded “strike group”, to use a little navy jargon, of know-it-all, stuffy “educrats” that refused me a moment of peace and autonomy with my overloaded class of students, many of whom were classified as special education with I.O.P.’s (individualized education plans), some sections of which I attempted to co-teach with a Mr. Ferraro, a recent college graduate and hire who had a temporary teaching certification in special education. Initially, I thought it might help having another teacher in the room, but it actually made things more confusing, disorganized … often the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing.
It wasn’t meant to be. I couldn’t handle all the people telling me exactly how to teach, the constant interruptions, lack of resources, the disrespectful and intrusive administration micromanaging my every move. Anyway, I had a better job waiting for me in South Carolina, where I am from, that paid about the same. Moving to New York had never been a lifetime commitment; from the beginning it was more of an experiment and an intense desire to experience living there because of the qualities I mentioned earlier.
On my last day at the school, I didn’t even stick around for the end of the day. I was so disgusted with it all, I walked out during my planning period and never looked back. Feeling somewhat emotionally drained, I stopped in one of the nearest bodegas and bought a couple of cans of beer. I walked straight down Fordham Road, past the university, until I got to the end and saw the Poe Cottage near Grand Concourse.
I sat there beside the fence that surrounded the place back then for about an hour, sipping sullenly on some beer, listening to the bells from the Fordham University church tower, the same bells that are said to have inspired Mr. Poe to write the long and repetitive poetic diatribe, “The Bells,” targeting the intrusive noise pollution of the bells and his own inner demons, perhaps, that plagued his short, unhappy life while he lived in the small home in 1846, his last residence, that is now a seldom visited attraction in the Bronx. I listened to those bells and thought of Poe as I drank beer and resigned myself to leave NYC, wondering where my life was heading, while also thinking of his short story, “The Black Cat,” one of my favorite stories. I was drinking more than ever then, and starting to uncomfortably identify with the protagonist of the story — an alcoholic during the Temperance era in America who couldn’t resist going to his favorite pub several nights a week despite his lack of money and tendency to drink until he blacked out and ended up doing some really disturbing things — irrational and violent actions (some that are directed at his favorite black cat, a pet he claims to love intensely). After waking up the next day and realizing what he had done the prior evening, the narrator would descend into horrible shame, guilt and disbelief. This, in turn, would bring on crippling anxiety and he would end up back at the pub again, sooner than later, despite swearing off the drink forever: a familiar pattern to anyone who has struggled with alcohol (I had my hopefully last drink in May 2018).
Poe had moved up to the Bronx home in 1846 because of the “country air” and the hope that he could nurse his ailing wife (and cousin?) back to health from the tuberculous that was killing her. He was unsuccessful and she died in 1847. He would die under mysterious circumstances while on a mysterious trip to Baltimore in 1849, hence we now have the Baltimore Ravens — named after his most famous poem, a haunting poem written the year before he moved to the cottage, one of the few literary efforts that brought him some fame but little money. Later on, I regularly taught the poem to my college students, but always preferred teaching “The Bells.” At some point, we would always read the poem aloud in its entirety with as much emphasis as I could pull out of them. Despite an undertone of anger and hopelessness that builds and builds throughout it, the poem always made me laugh for some reason.
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Along with writing, I consider reading an essential activity for me, but as one grows older and is burdened, often unnecessarily, with the complications of making our way through this life and world, perhaps raising a child, making a living, maintaining an abode, interacting with our families and the community, trying to write a book, starting a small side business, getting exercise and engaging in hobbies, keeping up some semblance of a social life — as well as having a partner, wife, or dating –if we are fortunate enough to do so in the often cutthroat current marketplace of romance in middle age — it can be damn hard for me to find the time and energy to sit down and read a substantive book.
So, I find myself reading (or re-reading) sections of books, many of which I have already read, or I turn to the classics for inspiration, a great quote or idea, a tidbit of history, even the discovery of a new word. These are valuable things to me. To wake up early in the morning, resisting the urge to reach for the phone and its endless distractions, and simply read a page or two from an intelligent book or the classics, maybe even write down a quote, do a little journaling, brainstorm ideas for content, business, blogging, finishing my book and ideas for new ones, and simply reflecting on human knowledge that has been left behind over millennia by great minds and is still being created and shared today — albeit, in many different forms than most of us ever imagined, even 15-20 years ago during the twilight of print media.
Hence the title of this first post. I picked up an old paperback copy of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, a short and quite accessible book for those familiar with the prolific psychologist. Rather than sex, ol’ Sigmund decides to take on happiness, our longing for freedom, and the trade off for living in modern “civilization,” where we relinquish much of our personal liberty in order to have a modicum of law and order. First, though, he describes his concept of religion as an “illusion,” and a symptom of a threatened ego that longs for protection of the father and fear of separation from the mother. Despite his negative feelings for religion — and even spirituality — a quote jumped out at me when Freud describes a dear friend of his who believes in God and compared his spirituality to ” an oceanic feeling” that is always with him. Freud describes this sensation further as “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.” Interestingly, Freud concludes the first chapter with a comparison of the “oceanic feeling” described by his friend with the sentiments of another associate of his who ascribes to a more Eastern spirituality. Freud seems genuinely perplexed by this “oceanic feeling” that he claims he cannot feel, but speaks of the Eastern variety as described by his other peer in a poetic term that leaves you wondering if this father of modern psychology wishes he could experience this feeling too: “Through the practices of Yoga, by withdrawing from the world, by fixing the attention on bodily functions and the … methods of breathing, one can evoke new sensations and coenaesthesias [general awareness of one’s body] in oneself … regressing to primordial states of mind.”
Reading keeps our intellect and mind sharp and awake. It provides a candle to help illuminate this world we find ourselves in, makes a feel less alone, and can help guide us as we formulate our own ideas. It is important to read opinions that are contrary to your own as well; otherwise, we tend to get stuck in our own little bubble and are never challenged about our own beliefs.
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