Body Beyond

I am your body
I gave birth to you,
your consciousness,
out of my limitations.

I am a system of parts
doing everything I can
for you
and you exploit me.
I don’t mind
because when I die,
I’m taking you with me.
Together again,
without ego or pretensions.
Until then,
I am yours to explore
and push to my limits
and beyond.

We train together,
you and I.
I ask you to listen to me,
respect my boundaries
of pain and pleasure.
And I will give you everything
I feel to you.
So that you use me
And your consciousness will strengthen.
But please remember
who gave you your sensations
So that next time
You and I will push beyond them.


I started the first lines when I was in a sauna in Berlin a month ago. A couple days earlier I’d been doing some exercises that were stressing my body and I sprained my wrist. So when I was in the sauna, i was thinking about the relationship between body and mind and how we push our bodies to their limits and then beyond them. I kept repeating the first lines in my head. My friend Witherspoon then tells me how “this sauna will clean the nasty out of you.” Then I turn to him and grin, tapping on the side of my head, “but the nasty is in here.”


In the Shadow of Air Balloons

The great men and women of the ancient and medieval world were a fleet of hot air balloons coalescing across the pale blue sky. Their lofty visions of faith, philosophy, and political theory while the world around them was sometimes a material and intellectual poverty. I am in their shadows still. One day, my vanity believes, I’ll flit among them too.

Transcendental Knowledge

On the theory of transcendental knowledge. Realms of what can be knowable only by transcending to a new hierarchical or spatial plane.

We’re talking about knowledge which is achieved through learning and acquiring. One learns through experience, analysis, and intuitive leaps. While these are developing and building on what one learned previously, it’s not what I’d call transcendental.

Maybe intuitive leaps are transcendental, but they must be provable after the immediate inspiration. Knowledge therefore must be repeatable and verifiable, like a truth or fact. But if one learns something in a way that can’t be reproduced, it likely could be transcendental. It can’t be unlearned, but it also can’t be systemically reproduced.

To understand transcendence, I return to Oxford Dictionary
Definition of transcend: “be or go beyond the range or limits of (a field or activity or conceptual sphere).
From Latin transcendere, from trans ‘across’ + ‘scandere ‘climb’”
Therefore to cross a threshold and to climb conceptually or spiritually
Definition of transcendence: “existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level”
Definition of transcendent: “beyond or above the range of normal or human experience
1) – surpassing the ordinary, exceptional
a. (Of God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Often contrasted with IMMANENT
2) (in scholastic philosophy)
a. higher than or not included in any of Aristotle’s ten categories.
b. (In Kantian philosophy) not realizable in experience
From Latin transcendent : ‘climb over’”
Definition of transcendental
1) “- relating to a spiritual realm
– relating to or denoting transcendentalism
2) (In Kantian philosophy) presupposed in and necessary to experience; a priori”
Definition of transcendentalism: “a system developed by Immanuel Kant, based on the idea that, in order to understand the nature of reality, one must first examine and analyze the reasoning process which governs the nature of experience.”

Therefore Transcendental Knowledge is knowledge that comes before or external to experience. This holds true whether God or the Spirit of the World is responsible for bringing the knowledge about (catalyzing it by divine intervention or laying out signs), or whether it is innately a part of the way one structures thought. If it’s innate, it means knowing something without being able to learn it. This is in fact knowledge, but can’t easily be explained or the conditions reproduced. Acknowledging unexplainable facts (or facts that can’t be reasoned. unreasonable) govern part of our lives acknowledges there’s an unknowable, ununderstandable, uncontrollable part of ourselves. Acknowledging there’s an external force that ‘pushes’ us so to speak to higher understanding, means we acknowledge we’re shaped by the world and therefore unable to wholly control our lives.
How one achieves transcendental knowledge therefore is either a spiritual journey directed more or less by an external force or by an cognitive journey directed by an internal force. Respectively, the sea of the earth of the sea inside. Regardless whether you choose external forces or internal forces, admitting to the attainability of knowledge which crosses thresholds and turns walls into doors means opening your mind or soul to possibility of a greater or higher mode of existence. It means accepting there are limits to what we know now. That means you yourself must accept one basic fact in the present moment: “I don’t know”.

Opera singer Stephanie Blythe plays ukulele

The other day I was listening on the radio to opera Live At the Met, and they interviewed mezzo soprano singer Stephie Blythe.  They asked her if about social media and there was an awkward pause they mentioned something ‘low brow’. She then said she uses social media to reach audience she wouldn’t have otherwise.  She went on to say that about 2 years ago she started learning ukulele and making videos for facebook and twitter.  Because of that, she made friends with people who didn’t even know she was an opera singer.

I’m a writer but horrible with social media, so I thought her positive support of social media was noteworthy.  After all, I went online and searched her name, then added a mental memo to dust off my blog and use it again.  The first new post being about Stephanie Blythe.

Here is her doing something complete different than her usual style

And here is more classic her.


Prague Metro Time Table

Drunk expat walks off
the metro platform.
At last relaxed, he falls
awakened only by the loss
of ground to sleep walk on.

Dazed, strangers are yelling,
gesturing wildly,
pulling him up to safety
and more gestures
pointing to the escalator exit up.

While ascending to Charles Square
towards daylight,
the Saturday morning metro arrives.
I wander towards Angel district
and its three story mall,
the free bathroom on the second floor,
to wash the rail grease from my face,
and look dismally at the rips
in my Offspring t-shirt.

That day I realized
When I die, it will be some way
similar, just as stupid
and preventable
(a public inconvenience maybe).
Last time I was early, but next time
I will not be late.

The newspaper would read,
“John White, an American in Prague, died last night
in Peace Square underground metro station.
He was catching the metro home.
It hit him in the face.”

I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day

“I’ll take Universal Harvester over Mein Kampf any day.”

Review of John Darnielle’s book Universal Harvester. Published Feb 7, 2017.

Reviewed by John White


NOTICE: This reviews contains spoilers. If you haven’t read or listened to it by now, tick tock. Seriously, I really liked the book and I hope you will too.


Darnielle’s Universal Harvester and Hitler’s Mein Kampf are both narrated by someone deeply traumatized who struggles with staggering personal loss. Their struggle to overcome unspeakable hurt becomes a defining trait of their identity. The former is about loss of a parent and a sense of home and the latter is about the loss of one’s parents, the perceived loss of one’s country and homeland, and pointing the blame. In Harverster, there’s no one to blame for the sadness, only coping with the void. Both narrators struggle to make sense of their pain by hurting others and call it help. For the former, harassing hooded strangers in a shed, for the latter, genocide and lebensraum (German “living space”) flavored with German Idealism. In both cases, if they don’t hurt their victims physically, they hurt them psychologically. Ordinary events fill the victims with dread and they hope that if left alone, the insanity will resolve itself and life with go on as before. For the novel, the protagonist (Jeremy) seek to justify and enable the antagonist’s (Lisa) desperate attempt at emotional catharsis. For the National Socialist regime, different social strata identified with various parts of Hitler’s two volume rant on why multi-culturalism is bad, Germans lost World War One, and how the Germans could regain their national self-respect. Well-intentioned but emotionally scarred and proud people inadvertently permitted the annihilation of tens of millions of people because they wanted to help their country and themselves. That’s where the similarities end and let’s never speak of it again. Comparing anything with Hitler’s warped and hateful ‘World-Concept’ (his term was Weltanschauung) is like bringing a gun to a knife fight.  Don’t reference it unless you understand the concept and don’t mind shooting yourself in the foot.

Darnielle speaks the way Edward Hopper paints. The scenes are of everyday middle America with a sense of vague unease lurking beyond the picture’s frame. The setting of Harvester is wholly in small towns and farmland between Eastern Nebraska and Iowa. Hopper uses washed out colors and empty scenes to convey the unspoken. When there are people in the scenes, they’re always alone, even when with others. They are merely props on the canvas for the real depth is in the places themselves. To the viewer, this conveys a sad alienation. Unlike Hopper, Darnielle lets the people take center stage without diminishing the locale’s role in the story. The settings exist and they enable the characters to breath with their mystery intact. Darnielle’s use of irreducible spaces gives life to the country most Americans will never see. However, what is witnessed and remembered is dutifully preserved through family histories told over holiday dinner tables, with the cameras of those passing through, and with writing like the novel Universal Harvester.

This book is beautifully written and hauntingly read by Darnielle from the beginning to the heartfelt and unsettling end. The plot’s main conflict is that disturbing home movies are being spliced into commercial movies available a small video rental store in rural Iowa. The retail clerk (Jeremy), the store owner, and a customer all seek in different ways to uncover the truth of the footage. The plot’s overarching themes are of grief over the loss of a parent.  For one character, their mother died in a car crash when they were a teenager. For another, their mother disappeared when they were a child.  How their fathers struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy and how the children internalized their father’s behavior makes all the difference.  Near the end of the book, Lisa makes a speech rationalizing her actions. It’s a heartfelt speech and the reader or listener is genuinely moved. I was. Its only after some thought that we stop and think, ‘wait, did she just gloss over the most puzzling and criminal part of her behavior?  Did we just condone what she did because we felt sorry for her? Did we the reader just get fooled along with the characters?’ Yes. Yes. And Yes.  Due to Darnielle’s masterful and poetic storytelling, the reader’s personal feelings become part of the plot.  The characters are disturbed by the video edits and we are disturbed by our sense of being duped (The rise of National Socialism also couldn’t have happened without audience participation.).

After I finished listening to this book, I felt Jeremy, Jeremy’s dad, and Lisa are really out there even now, living in Navada, Collins, or Tama, Iowa. I felt that if I went to thrift stores there today, I’d find those altered VHS tapes. This sense of realness is due in part to the sparse writing style of the author and in part to the universal themes he investigates. The author is a song writer and knows that a few well-chosen words can describe a scene better than long descriptive paragraphs. The main characters are given a life of their own and secrets left intact. The reader or listener cares because the characters cared about one another. Small towns have a way of protecting their own and not prying too much into one’s personal life. If someone needs a friend, several are readily available to help even if it puts their own well-being in danger. This book reflects that.

The book isn’t without its faults. Some of the characters seem like mere plot devices or obvious red herrings and I keep expecting them to show larger purpose, but they don’t. Sometimes the author relies on the reader’s acceptance of the character’s judgments or a scene is left too vague. If a particular character sums up some extremely disturbing event as “she’s hurt”, that’s all the reader gets and we the objective public remain unsatisfied. The momentum of the early chapters halts suddenly and shifts to a background story of characters we at the time feel are unnecessary. The backstory takes 1 hour out of the 6 total hours of the audio book.  The side story is quaint, touching, and poignant on its own, but I kept thinking, ‘And about those videos…’.  Eventually the side story merged with the initial story and I realized the video splicing from the book’s publisher is just a hook. The real story is much more original and unsettling.  I’d also slight the book a bit because of some unnecessary poetic flourishes describing objects or moods.  These are minimal though, and I liked them for themselves. My criticism is the momentum of the plot lags sometimes so I hope the reader enjoys the fragmentary reflections. I did.

What makes a good book great is how it lingers in the mind after one has finished reading it.  It’s the impression it makes.  If the drama is all resolved and there are no more questions and nothing left to tell, then why should I remember the book?  If I liked some of the characters or a few turns of phrase, maybe I’ll remember those lines for a little while.  But a great book has more questions than answers whether in trying to ‘decipher’ the plot’s nuance or comparing those nuances within the book to films referenced. Inside the relatively short text (6 hours for an audiobook is half the typical audiobook length. Hitler’s tedious diatribe is a numbing 27 hours.) are different parallels between the protagonist and antagonist, between the ‘crimes’ of the antagonist and the movies the home footage is spliced in.  One of the first movies is “Targets”, which briefly is about an emotionally damaged Vietnam vet who comes home from the war, kills his family, and goes on a shooting spree at a movie theater. When he’s caught, he wonders if he’ll make the evening news.  It’s a very stylized and public display of an inconceivable inner wound. How does that compare to the motives and methods of the Harvester’s chief villain?  In Lisa’s final monolog, she admits offhand that the films weren’t always chosen randomly.  Sometimes she picked certain films and deliberately spliced in certain home footage. Another parallel is how the itinerate nature of her childhood contrasts to her home films. How her, at times, criminal insanity serves to achieve mastery over her trauma.  How she views her work as bearing witness to the anonymous lives of the Midwest, to her mother’s absence, to her own life. Without her home movies, her video splicing, and desperate re-watching of old surveillance footage in search for her lost mother, her life would also be anonymous and lost.  Her single minded focus is her only claim to Midwestern life origins.  If we deny her the expression or ‘witness’ of her grieve, does she cease to exist?

Years after the main action takes place, a family of newly arrived residents find the video tape of Jeremy and track him down for some explanation of what they’ve seen. He replies that he doesn’t want them to write him anymore, but gives them the address of the person behind the camera.  He says, “I know you have many questions, but you should leave her alone. I know you won’t, but you should.” Throughout the novel, Darnielle presents an unsettling detective story mixed with a presentation of personal grief.  He shows how a family copes with the loss of the mother, how they grieve, and how they try to redeem the mother’s memory. He respects his subjects enough to give them room for their emotions despite the consequences.  The ending places the reader into the story, acknowledges that we want the big reveal, but we don’t get it. Jeremy believes the search for answers should be dropped. John Darnielle does too.