Solitary Ethics Trilogy

Solitary tree in the light of the beginning of summer, Tatlow Walk, Stanley Park, Vancouver. 22 June 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

Solitary tree in the light of the beginning of summer, Tatlow Walk, Stanley Park, Vancouver. 22 June 2015. (Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst)

The poetic trilogy Solitary Ethics is an exploration of ethical and moral considerations. Book I deals with right action in the context of the experience of the individual will; Book II, in the context of the absolute nature of the essence of being; and Book III in the context of human desire guided by reason.

The trilogy is comprised of

I Caravaggio’s Dagger (completed Vancouver, 2005)

II Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden (completed Edmonton, 2014; revised Vancouver, 2017; 47% published in literary periodicals)

III Constellations of Desire (first draft, Edmonton and Vancouver, 2014-2017; major revision and full draft, Vancouver, March, 2018; second major revision, July, 2018; 12% published in literary periodicals)

Caravaggio’s Dagger

Caravaggio’s Dagger concentrates on identification of the need and process for the selection of right action, and, as a direct consequence, the reaping of constructive, and ethically meaningful, social and personal benefit. For, I believe, we must find ourselves able to know how to act ethically in our society — a society that glorifies money and global trade to make the rich richer, that deposits the poor at the outermost edges of community, that stands aside as our heritage disintegrates, that funds wars that dislocate peoples and destroy countries, that supports beliefs steeped in greed but cares nothing about the true value and intrinsic essence of life.

I wrote Caravaggio’s Dagger to pursue the discovery of ways and means to find a way through these deceits, and so enable a reconsideration of the adoption of any course of action thought to be right, even though we knew, in our heart, it could not bring happiness, ever.

In six taxonomies (chapters), Caravaggio’s Dagger examines these concerns, beginning with the constancy of war and related social falsehoods; decisions, especially those that affect relationships, that are made when one is young; the evaluation of these relationships as reach middle age; the value these relationships hold when the inevitable loss of family sets in; the lessons one’s life partner and one’s friends will want to help one through; to enable one to find and take the course of action that is right, for oneself, in the moral rubble that is all around.

Caravaggio - The Beheading of John the Baptist - Detail, with the signature of the artist in the prophet's blood

Caravaggio – The Beheading of John the Baptist – Detail, with the signature of the artist in the prophet’s blood

A principal exemplification employed is that found in the art of Caravaggio, the murderous, brilliant 16th-century painter, who depicts the beheading of John the Baptist at the moment the act is botched: jugular severed, head attached, the saint in agony—a rendering of humanity’s predilections placed above the altar of the Maltese co-cathedral of the military Knights of Saint John.

The architectural structure of the book may be seen to correspond to that of the masonry arch, in that it is a pure compression form made stable by the contribution of the weight of its individual members.

The major artistic influences on the book include W. Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up and A Writer’s Notebook, the cantatas of J.S. Bach, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale.

Caravaggio’s Dagger was completed in Vancouver in July, 2005, with the financial assistance of a professional writing grant from the Canada Council. It was published in 2013. Twenty-two of it eighty poems had been previously published in established literary periodicals.

Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden

Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden continues the line of discussion initiated in the earlier Caravaggio’s Dagger. Its subject is the contract life imposes on a human being as the fundamental condition of its existence. It is explored as the unstated, never negotiated covenant between existence and life; that is, the conditional situation that existence provides to those that live within it, and the necessity in particular of human life to acknowledge and respect the inexplicability and inexorability of the situation it has been given.

Under the Glimmer of the Urban Night, Gustav Mahler, Symphony 10

Mahler’s short score for the Einleitungssatz of the fifth movement of his Tenth Symphony.

Its structure is modelled to considerable extent upon the Tenth Symphony of Gustav Mahler. The central part of the five-movement symphony finds its parallel in the long poem that concludes Part Two, in the middle of the book. This poem in particular has a debt to Aristotle’s Ethics. Its other major artistic influences include Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the symphonies and string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, and the novels of Charles Dickens, especially Dombey and Son and Little Dorrit.

Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden

Den Vergulden Turk, where Mahler and Freud met, Breestraat, Leiden, Netherlands

Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden is in four parts and ten sections, contains 78 poems, and was begun in Vancouver in June, 2005 and completed in Edmonton in March, 2015. Thirty-five of the work’s seventy-eight poems have been published in established literary periodicals.

During the decade of its composition, I was professionally engaged as a municipal chief administrative officer in three municipalities in three different provinces, and as the registrar of The Banff Centre. I also served as a director and officer of several economic development and cultural not-for-profit boards and organizations.

Since the spring of 2012 I have resumed full-time writing. Further, all my considerable work in the artistic not-for-profit sector in Edmonton, from 2012 to 2015, was pro bono.

Constellations of Desire

The ‘desire’ of the title is from the definition of Baruch Spinoza, as given in “Definition of the Affects” in the conclusion of the third part of Ethics. “Desire is man’s very essence … to do something…. desire is appetite together with the consciousness of it…. by the word desire I understand any of a man’s strivings, impulses, appetites, and volitions, which vary as the man’s constitution varies, and which are not infrequently so opposed to one another that the man is pulled in different directions and knows not where to turn.”

Constellations of Desire

Constellations of Desire

The line of discussion follows coherently from that of Mahler and Freud Meet in Leiden.

“Ultimately there are but three systems of ethics, three conceptions of the ideal character of the moral life. One is that of Buddha and Jesus, which stresses the feminine virtues, considers all men to be equally precious, resists evil only by returning good, identifies virtue with love, and inclines in politics to unlimited democracy. Another is the ethic of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, which stresses the masculine virtues, accepts the inequality of men, relishes the risks of combat and conquest and rule, identifies virtue with power, and exalts an hereditary aristocracy. A third, the ethic of Socrates, Plate, and Aristotle, denies the universal applicability of either the feminine or the masculine virtues; considers that only the informed and mature mind can judge, according to diverse circumstances, when love should rule, and when power; identifies virtue, therefore, with intelligence; and advocates a varying mixture of aristocracy and democracy in government. It is the distinction of Spinoza that his ethic unconsciously reconciles these apparently hostile philosophies, weaves them into a harmonious unity, and gives us in consequence a system of morals which is the supreme achievement of modern thought.” (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, Ch. IV, Spinoza, p. 137)

The major influences include the cantatas of J.S. Bach and the Ethics of Spinoza, with Spinoza dominant. Although I studied Spinoza as long ago as 2003-05, my interest in his philosophy resumed in 2010-13 because of Daniel Barenboim’s essay “Freedom of Thought and Interpretation” in his book Music Quickens Time. “[R]ational understanding is not only possible but absolutely necessary in order for the imagination to have free reign…. the very idea of search requires the will and courage to learn in stages without any guarantee of acquiring knowledge at the end of the process.”


Spinoza’s cottage at Rijsnburg

As influenced by Spinoza, the principal considerations (given in the following quotations from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy) include:

  • Our happiness and well-being lie not in a life enslaved to the passions and to the transitory goods we ordinarily pursue … but rather in the life of reason.
  • Nature is an indivisible, uncaused, substantial whole—in fact, it is the only substantial whole. Outside of Nature, there is nothing, and everything that exists is a part of Nature and is brought into being by Nature with a deterministic necessity. This unified, unique, productive, necessary being just is what is meant by ‘God’.
  • Because of the necessity inherent in Nature, there is no teleology in the universe.
  • Nothing stands outside of nature, not even the human mind.
  • What we should strive for is to be free from the passions—or, since this is not absolutely possible, at least to learn how to moderate and restrain them—and become active, autonomous beings. If we can achieve this, then we will be “free” to the extent that whatever happens to us will result not from our relations with things outside us, but from our own nature.

At this time, Constellations of Desire is structured in 12 sections, a first part in five sections and a second part, in retrograde, and thus also of five sections; the two, linked by an entr’acte in two parts. The arrangement in part one is an exposition (an “understudy”), an ostinato, a commentary,  a second ostinato, and a recitative; part two is the exact retrograde of this order, and begins with the recitative and concludes with the understudy. The middle entr’acte contains two arias.

Begun in June, 2014, in Edmonton, and continued in Vancouver since 2015, the structure of Constellations of Desire requires 60 poems. Ten of these have been published. Completion is expected in the spring of 2019.

My thanks, therefore, to the British Columbia Arts Council and its jurors for a substantial monetary award in January, 2018.  I have been on jury duty myself a number of times and I know it is hard work. The money itself immediately simplifies several logistics and project schedules, and so frees up more of the mind for writing.

One thought on “Solitary Ethics Trilogy

  1. Joy in writing the finale, Hendrik. This is an impressive trilogy of deep thought, lengthy research, and captivating connections. It moves me to mention an important philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and his fundamental book, Philosophy of Freedom, for he writes of ethical individualism. The whole book is a deepening, worthwhile study, which I imagine would strike a resounding chord in your searching soul of truth, beauty and goodness. And all best to you on the last leg of your 3-fold journey! – Diane


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