Feeding on the Spectres in Books

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
           of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
           of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
           through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
           books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

(Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass.)

Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and lunch
The literary book club I’m in is reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

I’m feeding now on the ghost of Walt Whitman.

There’s a great Taoist story about a nobleman and a wheelwright. The nobleman is reading a book. The wheelwright asks the nobleman what he’s reading, and the nobleman says it’s a book written by some revered ancient philosopher. The wheelwright laughs and says, “you’re eating the ashes of a dead man.” The nobleman angrily demands an explanation. The wheelwright explains that he’s been trying to teach his son how to make wheels, how one must feel the path of the chisel against the grain of the wood and constantly adjust pressure and angle and speed to make a perfectly round wheel. But although he’s explained it many times, in many ways, the son simply lacks the feel for the wood and the wheel within it. No matter how much knowledge the son acquires about wheels, he will never be able to make a good one. Some things can’t be passed on through words, or, rather, what’s passed on is the sense within and around the words, not the words themselves. And that’s why reading classic literature is just “eating the ashes of a dead man.” Which is Whitman’s point too.

On a related note, it never ceases to amaze me that when Westerners create a philosophy, they often create something that’s basically Taoism. Then they dress it in new jargon: transcendentalism, cosmic mysticism, Eywa, Jediism. But by any name, it’s the tao, and it’s happy to be here.

I’m feeding also on my lunch bowl: farro, kale, tofu, basil, Greek olives, and roasted red peppers all scurried up in a frypan with olive oil. The tree behind the house is abuzz with bees.

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