Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

Comment:

I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.

William Carlos Williams, “This Is Just To Say”

With thanks to Michael Tinawi. For Emory Rowland.

This Is Just To Say (from poets.org)
William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Comment:

At least twice people I’ve known have sat around making fun of this poem at length. This poem was their excuse for avoiding poetry entirely. Quite honestly, given some of the attitudes displayed, I think poetry won by not having their readership. I wasn’t a sharp enough reader myself to defend this poem, but knowing how capable Williams is – “Complete Destruction” stands out for me – I knew I’d be returning to this someday.

A good way of approaching any given poem is through reconstruction of the drama. “This Is Just To Say,” the title, implies that something more important hasn’t been said. The poem itself seems trivial, as the speaker apologizes for eating some plums in an icebox. A few details stand out, though. “I” in the first stanza is strictly separated from “you” in the second. The plums were eaten before breakfast, as if the speaker left before joining a breakfast he and the addressee should have had. The speaker pathetically begs forgiveness; “saving” and “Forgive me” give what is probably a goodbye note solemn, nearly religious overtones.

One can say all of this is a stretch. But like Jim Gordon says in TDKR, “You’re a detective – you’re not allowed to believe in coincidences.” Good poems make every syllable count. Knowing that, we should not be afraid to explore themes and symbols. The plums are described sensually, and “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” might describe the progress and demise of an intense but superficial relationship. I wonder if Williams meant for us to see this poem as laughable. Tragedy doesn’t occur in obvious, easy to digest ways. Watching your life fall apart isn’t something anyone else sees but you.

Emily Dickinson, “Your thoughts don’t have words every day” (1452)

Thanks to Adam Cooper – would not have seen this otherwise

Your thoughts don’t have words every day (1452)
Emily Dickinson

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Comment:

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day” lends itself to two readings because of the very next sentence, “They come a single time.” What comes a single time? Thoughts which have words accompanying them? A plausible reading, as it initially seems rare thoughts so easily find appropriate words.

Thoughts with precise wording are “like signal esoteric sips of the communion wine.” They are singular but holding something secretive. Divine, they do not stay external to us. Brought inside, they make another manifest. It is like truly hearing the Word. One’s life can be transformed in an instant.

All is well and good, no? Thoughts with words are rare but beautiful occurrences, if not only one occurrence. They feel “native,” making life “so easy so to be.” The “price” and “infrequency” of such an experience should be self-evident.

Yet Dickinson’s speaker insists that it is not self-evident. It is, in fact, beyond our comprehension. Thoughts which have the right words may contain a mystery, but are a still larger mystery themselves. They may point to the price of revelation. To be blessed with an immediately useable thought is a divine burden; one’s life finds itself subject to it.

However, the question on my mind: are immediately articulated thoughts actually a product of thinking?

Let’s start over again. This time, “your thoughts don’t have words every day” refers to that which is not yet or can’t be properly spoken. Maybe there are inchoate thoughts, more intuition and emotion than proposition. Maybe there are thoughts, on the other end of the spectrum, which are fully formed, transcending us, leaving us with only partial comprehension. Either way, such thoughts fuel something eventually more articulate, and the interesting thing is their singularity prior to our verbiage. Most days we have too many words in our head. To really think, to struggle with thinking, is unique. Given the emphasis on this happening once, I wonder if Dickinson is speaking of thinking itself as rebirth.

On my second reading, the poem stays radical. “Like signal esoteric sips / Of the communion Wine” – before, thoughts had words and the only problem was within the words. Now the problem is that of the self. We are talking about thoughts which stand on their own, prior or beyond words. To “sip” of them, to be in communion with them, is to try to ingest the self to understand it. It’s a grotesque image, but not coincidentally the problem of self-knowledge. You try to know yourself and all you get are images of yourself, images that might be best realized in other people. It looks like, on this reading, the overtones of divinity are emblematic of a power beyond us, within us, and not at all purposive. If anything, we’re pulling ourselves apart in different directions.

How does this feel “native,” though? How could it be “so easy so to be?” I don’t think we have to throw this reading out because there isn’t enough of a struggle on the speaker’s part. Nor do we have to say, in the tritest of fashions, that some struggles are perfectly natural.  Rather, the emphasis falls to “while you taste” – our deepest struggle is, for a time, like a drug. Contemplating images of yourself could lend itself to thinking you relate to everybody when you really relate to nobody. The feeling of having a serious thought apart from speaking is not characteristic of true thinking. One does have to assert oneself and face the consequences of that self-assertion.

Whether we speak of thoughts that find articulation immediately or thoughts which stand apart from speech, there is a price and rarity attached to both. That price and rarity is beyond our comprehension either because of revelation, or because our truest thinking exists in a vacuum where it cannot properly be called thinking. I should go further at this point and say this: Dickinson is not really talking about God with “communion wine.” She simply means the instances where we think we’ve had our “Eureka!” moment, where we can explain ourselves perfectly. With that in mind, the problem of “revelation” should actually merge with that of pre-verbal thinking.

Something I’m playing with: you can’t merge the problem of speaking properly (i.e. “I know how we can always be articulate and truthful”) with the problem of thinking prior to speech (i.e. “I have a theory about how we form our thoughts and how they come to be spoken”). United, we’re talking about human reason. It looks like there should be merger: reason can articulate things! Thinking happens, and it makes itself manifest in speech! – That’s about all the unity one can get. The obstacle to any greater unity is that thoughts don’t have words every day. What they are in essence is unclear, and thus they have a radical character in our everyday lives. They’re almost not of this world. -

Paul Celan, “I hear the axe has flowered”

I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can’t be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.

Comment:

Why am I bringing this bleak little poem forth? It gives two images which almost sound surreal, a flowering axe and bread that looks upon a hanged man. The more one thinks about them, though, the more they make a grim sense.

“Axe has flowered” is the easier image to decipher. Along with “the place can’t be named,” it refers to how the injustices we commit against the Earth and each other, including the killing of millions, wash away with time. Actually, it’s worse than that. If the axe is an executioner’s tool, then it can refer to even our justice washing away with time, too. This is Providence of a kind, weirdly enough. Perhaps we’ve messed up human history such that we don’t have anything substantial to bequeath. Maybe we should be put gently aside, as opposed to flooded away.

Four times in the poem we are told “I hear.” How the speaker hears anything is an open question. This must be hearing in the sense of rumor, as flowering makes no sound and “the place” cannot be named. Ultimately, that means the lack of hearing is hearing. “I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him.” There are overtones of Holy Communion in the love constituting the bread. But the bread merely “looks” on the hanged man; it does not feed him and stays separate. How it heals is most strange, as we do not hear that the man resurrects.

The bread is remembrance; the past is heard. The hanged man is whole and healed in the past. But the past is just as much forgetting as it is remembrance. The problem of the flowering axe and places that can’t be named remains. Just or unjust, remembered or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. What stands out from the bread looking at the hanged man is a third dualism, distance and lack of distance. On the one hand, that bread does not even touch the corpse points to how our memories are separate from the person or object remembered. On the other, the bread was given by a mourning lover.

Not remembrance, but the will to remembrance. That they call life the only refuge is both a truth and a half-truth. It’s a half-truth in the sense we go to the past, we try to make love define time. We struggle against the idea of life as the only refuge. And yet we’re here, doing what we can.

Seventh Reflection: Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

For Torrey Livenick

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument

Comment:

The Muse speaks, revealing herself a heavenly beauty that dazzles and blinds us physically. She takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. One’s mind’s eye receives a strength unknown to others.

Maybe that’s how poetry works, giving us great deeds and hearts. But maybe we also sing to ourselves without grand purpose. We could just want a soothing tune, the leisure to practice speaking ourselves. If that’s the case, such a desire is grounded, of the earth. We pray our thoughts and feelings into song, then collected speech.

Terza riflessione: Saffo LXVIII (translator Laura Garofalo)

Note:  One thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer – I have no idea where to find my audience. Laura very graciously offered to translate some of my blog entries into Italian. She needed the practice and thought my writing might be worth sharing.

I can’t tell you how amazing this feels. I can only hope Laura gets famous in Italy for being the best translator of American English poetry commentaries written in Dallas and New Jersey around 2014 ever. Below is Laura’s translation, and she does welcome corrections and comments from those of you who know Italian:

Pubblicato il 15 febbraio 2014, da Ashok nella sezione “poesia”

http://www.ashokkarra.com/2014/02/third-reflection-sappho-standing-by-my-bed/

Or ora l’aurora dai sandali d’oro
(Tradotto da Ilaria Dagnini)

Commento:

A man mano che leggo più frammenti di Saffo mi accorgo dell’esistenza di un certo collegamento tra l’atto dello scrivere e l’eros. Si è tentati di vedere in queste poche parole qualcosa di più erotico di quanto ci sia effettivamente, eppure non voglio negare completamente tali sfumature.

Al contrario, ciò che colpisce è l’immagine che silenziosamente risulta spontanea, personificata. Essere svegliati dalla luce dell’alba è la più dolce delle azioni. C’è qualcosa di erotico in esso, certo, ma è parte dell’idea che qualcuno, forse l’intera natura, ti vede nella tua bellezza; che non devi essere disturbato, e che persino la minima sensazione, con un certo grado di calore e luminosità, dovrebbe portarti ad aprire gli occhi.

L’eros della scrittura, se allargo questa idea, è la rivelazione dell’individuo e quindi del parlante stesso. Nonostante ciò in questo momento non posso fare a meno di pensare che ieri sera al mio appuntamento avrei avuto certamente delle cose molto romantiche da dire.

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Month in Review, March 2014

I have a bunch of Dickinson poems I could write on. I don’t feel like writing – I feel like wrapping up this month of blogging and working on something else today and tomorrow.

What you may have missed:

Maiko Shioda, “let me dream”

With thanks to Mark Alonzo and Coco Rico

Sharing one’s dreams is very risky.  It could be interpreted as an act of incredible shamelessness or bravery. Maiko Shioda’s reflections on her dreams are vulnerable and searching. They’re an invitation to reconstruct pointed pains and doubts, acknowledging how we’ve grown. They come towards the viewer, encompassing him or her; the web weaved has a tender strength.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Shioda uses her gallery space as a dreamscape. A dark forest composed of black sheer fabric, forming a path one can walk through, haunted by black bows resembling flying, nocturnal creatures. She uses it as a shop: gloves and mask and cards encased as if they would be in a curio shop. A museum: a dress stained, as if by blood, inviting confrontation. Everyday experience, purposely overloaded with meaning.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Her drawings on the walls attempt to see how we got here. They toy with narrative. A section she declares about forgiving and forgetting startles most – it may be a beginning. A snake-like head has features that resemble a dress. Another drawing features the same dress with what seem to be two snake heads emerging. The dress has legs and arms; it moves meekly and confusedly toward a picnic basket. It looks like there is an identification of the self with both snakes and mice. Later, a series showing a girl wandering through an ocean of hair. She both witnesses and dissolves into that ocean. A mouse that appears upon it is eaten by a snake. A “final” series shows a hand emerging, desperately reaching toward an overwhelming moss. The letters “grot” – a snide remark about growth and rot? – sit in a fabric flower beside it. A snake in a dress, crying, tearing apart a dress full of hair concludes.

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition "let me dream" (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

Artist: Maiko Shioda. From her MFA exhibition “let me dream” (2014). Photo credit: Mark Alonzo

The overwhelming feeling is of literally tearing oneself apart, but Shioda ends on what I think is a hopeful note. If I’m right about a narrative sequence, it seems the artifacts emerge from the drawings. The drawings are simply in pencil. But the stained dress shows color and a form that is not a mere representation like the drawings before. The color of the gloves and mask is lavender, a flowering of sorts.

Maiko Shioda’s “let me dream” can be seen at the Irving Arts Center in Irving, TX from Mar 08- Apr 06, 2014. Website with venue infornation,

Property and The Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.