Charles Freeland

from Variations on a Theme by Spinoza

Proof P 32 and Cor I What we call will must be understood as something caused and not free of itself the way pine trees are free to bend in the wind or stand perfectly still depending not, as we might assume, on the force of the air moving over them, but on nothing whatsoever. Pure whim. A taste for altering things simply to alter them. According to reason, the chain of causation continues forever in reverse until one reaches that place where will no longer carries its current definition; it breaks itself like china against the wall. Hurled, no doubt, by someone who has had his heart torn into half a dozen bloody and forever thereafter ineffective pieces. It follows that will and intellect obey similar instructions as do motion and rest and are therefore outside even God’s jurisdiction. God does not act freely as concerns his own will. When He conjures up oceans, gouges out mountains with his heel, it is because He too has had his heart broken.


Spinoza upbraids the multitude for equating the pursuit of their various lusts with freedom and the observance of piety and religion with a diminishment of this freedom, something they hope to forego the moment they pass from one world into the next like sailors emerging from a perilous fog into the sunshine of the tropics. Where the ports of call boast prostitutes of every persuasion imaginable and music neither too fast nor too slow. Birds in wire cages and chewing gum free of artificial flavors. Proof and Schol of P41 (to follow) My lust for you is a kind of piety and religion. It is that which promises the eternal existence of the mind and the body when all other evidence points in the opposite direction. If we believed our minds and our bodies perished like icicles (or every previous generation of human being), we would, it is true, burden ourselves with traditional forms of piety and wish to be free of them as soon as death beckoned. Why indulge the body when the body is temporary? But your body is eternal, both inside and outside the mind — or the mind’s sphere of influence (which amounts to the same thing) — and so I am all but required to shape my life according to my lust for it. And for you. These things are to be accorded worship just as one must worship and honor the earth and the sky above one’s head even when one can no longer be sure that they are there anymore because one’s eyes are closed. Because it is 4 o’clock in the morning, say. And one is trying to recapture the dream one has just reluctantly emerged from. Or the wind has whipped up some dust and there is nowhere to go to get away from it. No shelter at hand.

P41 Even if we didn’t know the mind was eternal we would begin to suspect it because of the way it places our lusts in the premiere position. It accords them primacy of place before even a sense of place such as might result from your growing up and growing old without ever leaving a ten mile radius, passing the same river and levees, the same grocery stores and cemeteries and Lutheran churches until they are imprinted on the mind like thumbprints in wax.

from Albumen

Iron bars cross the window at regular vertical intervals. Someone has decided to keep me out, has spent a great deal of time fabricating this mediocre defense. The moon stands on the far side of the world and doesn’t seem over anxious to make its journey skyward, illustrating without of course meaning to a concept I have held dear since the day I tumbled from whatever womb housed me originally. Don’t confuse my volubility, though, with a desire to reveal secrets that might promise to alter the course of history much the way monsoons have the habit of altering the course of rivers. Which is to say only occasionally, and with terrible consequences for those who inhabit the banks. Remember when the desire to make love was the primary driving force of society, and the more we inhibited it the taller the buildings became? I used to stand for hours at a time waiting to see if anything was going to change, if my daemon was going to show up like the one that belonged to Socrates used to, with wisdom and puns not altogether comprehensible to those he later shared it with. Sometimes women do me favors that I can’t immediately return because of my odd physiology, but when the time comes that I can, you can bet your hard won fortune that I will stop hiding behind the pin oak trees that line the far end of the property and start speaking in tongues. Which is the same thing as speaking in regular syllables and signifiers, I suppose, except the sound of it has been altered slightly by the advent of some mystery we can’t quite get our minds around because our minds aren’t that pliable. After a minute or two, I try again, hammering at the shutters with my fists, but the vibrations run both ways and the night becomes synonymous with pain even though I imagined beforehand the passing of violets from one hand to another, the whispering of obscene truths too literal to stand the scrutiny promised by uttering them at ordinary volume. As usual, I am right; cue the gongs and dime store theremin.


Our gifts arrive as if from above, finding us through old fashioned detective work, I suppose, or the unerring instincts of the passenger pigeon. The sound grates on the ear, turns it into an unwilling participant in a process that suddenly bespeaks agony and the importance of internalizing agony so as to make it part of the self. But only that part other people have difficulty recognizing. I remember days when the neighborhood grass brought the eggshell equivalent of hives to my body and nobody believed me when I explained what had happened. They looked at me like I had intentionally done something harmful to myself, had wished to move from this world to the next one in underhand fashion. But I didn’t believe in the next world and I still don’t. How do we unhook the upper portions, separate them from those that touch the ground, and still have enough left over for the spring clearance, for the throngs of people marching in this direction from the train stations and the ramps on the river? If you swallow a handful of the yellow pills, they will counteract anything unpleasant caused by the red ones. But a note of caution: recognize ahead of time that the hallucinations aren’t always centered in your mind. The lynx that bound about on the rocks outside will, if you let them, tear your pillows to shreds and the members of the symphony sawing away in the background must, at some point, get paid. Otherwise, who’s going to score your experiences, who’s going to turn an ordinary stroll down the sidewalk into an epic adventure of the mind? Maybe it’s time we start to file away each discreet episode from the past that still resides with us in its own mislabeled space. That way we have little chance of pulling it out again on command and must trust to accident, to happenstance. Like that which permits us to enter a room we’ve never entered before and find there a piece of jewelry, a garnet ring, say, that went missing years before when we were fishing on the Gulf or when we were shaking hands with someone who would subsequently be engaged in condemning every house on the block simply because he possessed the foresight to gather all the paperwork necessary, hadn’t left so much as a codicil to fend for itself in the dark labyrinths of the library, or the alleyways on either side of the library where the wind takes our words — spoken or otherwise, arising in anger or in guilt — and mixes them in unceremoniously with the rubbish, with the paper bags and the rotting husks of unidentifiable fruit, with the brown fragments of broken glass.

Charles Freeland is Professor of English at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. Recent books are Eucalyptus (Otoliths) and Five Perfect Solids (White Knuckle Press). His website is The Fossil Record.
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Blogger rappel said...

i'm reading eucalyptus with pleasure - & these also.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Charles Freeland said...

Thank you!

6:35 AM  

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