Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “The Soul” scores a direct hit on the awkwardness of the word itself in poetry:
When I started graduate school, I remember thinking how strange it was that students and teachers talked about “the soul” so much. Yeah, that was the term in the older texts. But it felt like each time it was used, we should have had a discussion about its relevance and warrant. Not just assumed, say, that a form of Catholic theology operated in our understanding of the past.
I didn’t want to use the word without being clear about it. It’s so easy to think of it in a sloppy way, as something having vaguely to do with emotions, reason, sin, and the afterlife.
For my own studies, I made a decision. “The soul” could be understood as the inquiry into what constitutes life. This could be the distinction between nutritive, sensitive, and animal souls, or it could be the more general problem that what puts the body in motion isn’t quite the same as that which we identify with rationality.
With the idea that “the soul” could be used to describe a sort of philosophic, quasi-scientific inquiry, I could use it more extensively. Someone might have a noble soul if their thoughts, speech, and actions work in virtuous concord. This doesn’t represent a solution to the problem of how we recognize life as life. But if someone lives a certain way, the inquiry expands. How is their way of life possible? A human soul might be shaped by a society, or shape itself in response to one.
With this sort of reasoning, I became more comfortable with the word “soul.” But I still feel strange dropping the words “soul” and “philosophy” repeatedly. It seems more proper to me to say that older inquiries into how we should live, inquiries that are secular, use the term “soul.” (Likewise, the term “philosophy” concerns the possibility of inquiry in societies prone to believe strict obedience to the law cultivates virtue.)
I can only imagine how wild it is to write poetry—to teach poetry—and have to think seriously about “soul.”
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. What to do with the opening of the Magnificat?
You don’t want to reduce this to theology. You want the drama to shine. “Soul” and “spirit” obsolete themselves, experiences and emotions surface. “Soul” in the Greek is psyche, which works; “spirit” is more of a problem. It’s pneuma, which might be better rendered “breath.” (I think I get what the translator was going for: something akin to “living breath.”)
In any case, you don’t want to be translating, either. A young woman, unmarried, has just been informed she carries a divine personage. People think her sinless, which is fine, but it should not distract from how terrifying this whole event is. Now there are angels, there are signs. But what comes next?
All one can do is recall one’s faith. What has been taught, what is believed. It’s not an entirely pleasant moment.
It’s awe before the Lord, a literal transfiguration. You have to act like you understand it all, that it makes any sense. You’ll be depicted as one of the holiest of holies for centuries, but can that be seen and appreciated at this moment?
This heroic humility seems particularly apt when thinking of Christianity as apocalyptic. If the world will end in our lifetimes, then bravery in accepting the supernatural is the only virtue. We must be what we can’t fully conceive for the sake of the world to come. To be fair, It can be apt in a number of situations where moral urgency is paramount. We have to be that much bigger than we are to meet the challenge.
Not for nothing, though, do we strive for authenticity. To take on an appearance in which we have some say.
“The Soul selects her own Society,” Dickinson says, and I’m not sure if she means to brag or cry. Kings and chariots don’t move the soul. A beloved? “I’ve known her – from an ample nation – / Choose One – / Then – close the Valves of her attention – Like Stone.” It’s not even clear that the soul makes space for who it has chosen.
The soul commits to authenticity to such a degree that the rest of the world is forgotten. We, acting as normal people in our everyday lives, want to feel a real connection with the work we do. We are fortunate to not think too much about whether we have souls properly attuned to that work. A vague sense of satisfaction is enough. But the very concept of the soul raises the stakes.
I’m tempted to conclude that the awkwardness of using “soul” has to do with it being unnecessary. That’s flatly not true. It’s corny and cliche in the way love is corny and cliche. There are higher commitments. We make them and we feel awful when we fail them. The soul is the stakes. That’s why it’s a term I want to avoid—not out of shame, but reverence.