Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Author: ashok (page 1 of 181)

Emily Rosko, “Aubade”

Aubade (from Poetry)
Emily Rosko

There’s loneliness and there’s this—
an unfrequented song, a startling voice
across years. A shifting position, hymn
from the hard bench, sharp something in
there, glass-glinted. If the movement
of trees in the weather front were enough.
If the notes were off-pitch but piercing
(which they are) as birdcall across
the stirring hour. In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts. Everywhere,
the roadside lilies in thick morning
dew open orange and in numbers, one
after the other. Sun so strange it’s as
though our looking, for a time, is first.

Comment:

There’s loneliness, and then there’s being together, whatever that is. An aubade is a love song, sung in the morning. This one seems to concern the essence of being together. It is “unfrequented,” as everyday life is an occupation all its own. It possesses a “startling voice,” one which hearkens to an initial romance and the reality expectations meet.

Rosko’s imagery unpacks what startles, the darkness and beauty of a life together. What drew me to write on this poem was its ability to speak of what is nearly unspeakable so gently. To illustrate: we start with the wedding at the church, the porch in front of the house (“hymn from the hard bench”). In both cases, there’s a slight discomfort, a tune throughout, a beautiful but sharp spark. We glance trees moving to that tune, too, but what do they communicate? There are notes, but they feel alien. If they were piercing enough, they might stir us instinctually.

None of these ideas suggest we are dealing with a broken relationship where no one understands the other and anger resides in every look or syllable. What’s discomforting and wondrous is that the tune isn’t known. You don’t know everything about your partner, you don’t know how things will turn out. No less than Dickinson sees that as amazing. Lest I wax romantic about this, I should note some couples have seen their love turn to hate. Some people are toxic and can whittle away at anyone’s sanity. Being together can be an awful, cruel trap.

Again, Rosko’s musing hints at this, how ugliness does not constitute an insignificant part of love. Those closest to us do drive us crazy. Just dig a bit more into that fragmented, haunting, sharp melody the woods whistle. What’s in there?

In the woods,
a rustling of creatures we have no
idea of. Outcrops of limestone, wet leaves
lush and deadly. There’s a time for killing,
some tell us, in the corner
of the who-knows-whereabouts.

In the woods, we find home again – the homes of creatures to whom we’ve been blind. It is easy to slip out there, in here. Everything we’ve built a life around is deadly. And maybe we’ve even killed and don’t want to remember it.

Again, I don’t think the poem is talking about a couple inspiring Memento 2. But it is true some people are in years of therapy because of people they love who love them. Our lives together center around elaborate rituals whose importance we’re not even aware of. Sometimes, the fight over the dishes is just silly. Sometimes, it harbors the anger of one who feels they’re doing everything and are being exploited. It is easy to slip. It is easy to do things one should regret.

Yet, in large part, we don’t do those things, even though we are in a position to hurt worst those we love most. Some of our most egregious and unforgivable wrongs do find forgiveness, if only for utility’s sake. This is a love poem, and it manages to end appropriately, if ambiguously. We moved from the porch to the woods, now I imagine we’re circling back to the path. All along it, these lovely orange lilies, bunched together. A strange sun above, looking at us, that together we look back and marvel at.

Three Stories from Herodotus, “The History,” Book 1

Once again I have put together a piece of writing that sounds like a really ambitious 8th grader trying to have heady thoughts while distracted watching a League of Legends tournament. Below, you will find an attempt to grapple with why Herodotus puts the stories he tells in the order he does. I have done my best to reproduce those stories so you can make your own decisions, but I have added a heavy amount of commentary and editorializing because I’m trying to discover what I myself think. I do not think badly of the end result, clunky though it may be, because whoa that was an awesome combo to finish player Dr3dEnD0ll

I

Herodotus almost allows us to think Croesus, king of Lydia, a harmless fool. His haughty attitude in trying to be declared the happiest of all men indicates a tyrannical disposition, as his wealth and empire are simply so glorious. Attempts to test oracles and bribe the gods also fall under this category. Still, it is hard to see what he truly is. One has to remember why Herodotus brought him up in the first place. It seems to be said almost in passing that Croesus “was the first of the barbarians of whom we know who subdued some Greeks to the payment of tribute…. before Croesus’ rule all the Greeks were free” (1.6). That Croesus was the first to enslave Greeks is mentioned some 20 sections before his story begins in earnest. And a notable detail about how Croesus treated threats to his rule stands nearly an afterthought as Herodotus finishes his main narrative about him. A half-brother of his led a faction against him when he was to ascend the throne. For this, Croesus tortured him to death, “drawing him across a carding comb” (1.92). (1)

We do not hear much about the people building Lydia’s empire. For 14 years, Lydia is extremely formidable, poised to become even more powerful. We mostly hear of Croesus and Solon, Croesus and oracles, Croesus and Cyrus. He bumbles, stumbles, and finally is finished. The temptation is to think everyone around Lydia left and the Lydians occupied their territory, somehow also growing their numbers faster than humanly possible.

When Herodotus does speak about the Lydians, they are about to be destroyed. “There was at the time no people in all Asia who were braver or more valiant soldiers than the Lydians. Their fighting was from horseback, where they carried great lances, and they were themselves excellent horsemen” (1.79). This detail is given to us right before Cyrus finishes them. Cyrus, knowing horses are scared of the sight and smell of camels, used the train of camels he had transporting his provisions against the cavalry. Even though the cavalrymen should have completely broken, they joined the fight as best they could:

Indeed, as soon as the battle was joined, the very moment the horses smelled the camels and saw them, they bolted back; and down went all the hopes for Croesus. Not that, for the rest, the Lydians proved cowards; for as soon as they saw how it was, they jumped down from their horses and joined battle with the Persians on foot. (1.80)

The Lydians are routed, despite keeping discipline in the worst circumstance. They do not seem to be of the same cloth as Croesus. They are imperial, but not decadent; while tyrants over other peoples, they do exercise some virtue. They are not criminals looking to save their own skin, nor so desperate they rashly commit suicide.

Indeed, I hold this their silent rallying cry:  give me liberty, or give me death. Croesus’ puffery masks a story about how we value freedom. The experience of freedom as something good is how we know it to be good. Unfortunately, this almost always means injustice toward others. Someone else’s labor creates the conditions for our freedom. The Lydians are not shy about freedom entailing empire, and therefore fight not to be slaves of another.

II

The next ruler Herodotus speaks of at length is Deioces (1.96-101). Deioces was a Mede, a “clever man” who “had fallen in love with royal power.”  Grene’s translation of “royal power” isn’t quite correct; Benardete points out what he had as eros for tyrannidos (Benardete 24-25). The Medes at this time were quite a lawless people. Deioces thus “set himself to practice justice ever more and more keenly.” His village noticed and appointed him judge over them. People began flocking to him in greater and greater numbers, as he was judging “according to the rule of right” (1.96). When he realized how dependent everyone was on him, he refused to serve any longer, as he received no profit and his own affairs were neglected. Lawlessness grew more rampant in Media than before (1.97). The Medes met, agreeing with Deioces’ friends that they should set up a kingship, and Deioces should be king.

Deioces’ first demand was for kingly houses across the country and a bodyguard. These demands were met, enabling him to get more. A fortress upon a hill, with seven walls arranged in concentric circles. Complete privacy for the king except for messengers, shame upon anyone who laughed or spit in the royal presence. Spies and eavesdroppers everywhere, as people wrote their complaints about each other to Deioces, and he would send his decisions out. His justice was exact, and he seems to have united the Median nation (1.101).

Deioces, in effect, made himself a god. Invisible to his friends, those like him who might be as just and able. Invisible to all his people, who of necessity had to be in awe of him. The description of his fortress mirrors what was known about the cosmos at the time – seven walls for seven planets, except with himself at the center (Benardete 25). Benardete comments that what Deioces represents is the unjust basis of justice. Hence, the identification of justice and tyranny. Deioces could do whatever he liked behind those walls.

Benardete is right, but my concern centers on what Deioces achieved. In effect, he made an immoral people moral. We’re not looking at the mere establishment of law and security, as much as a recognition of necessity turned into morality itself. Deioces put himself in a perfect position to be thought a god after his death.

III

Herodotus’ cynicism about freedom and morality does not only disabuse us of more conventional opinions. He is openly wondering about how we create a world based on the experience of what is good for us. Both the Lydians and Medes embraced empire and tyranny because it resulted in goods for them, goods no less than freedom and justice. The worst abuses can come from the best intentions.

What about a more natural justice? Something more respectful of humanity as a whole? A later ruler of the Medes, Astyages, is warned through dreams and visions that a grandson of his will displace him (1.107). He orders his chief of staff, Harpagus, to kill the child; the chief of staff passes the duty to a shepherd, who through coincidence and contrivance is able to keep the child and raise him as his own. That child, Cyrus, does overthrow Astyages, but not before being discovered. As a result, well before his overthrow, Astyages has Harpagus’ son killed, dismembered, and fed to his own father.

Astyages is thoroughly despicable and disgusting. The Medes are united in their hatred toward him. Under the chief of staff’s plotting, they use Cyrus in Persia, the Persians being subject to the Medes, to effect a revolt and get rid of Astyages. The Medes are united in justice because of the gross injustice and tyranny of their king. They do not fight Cyrus’ Persian invasion for the most part, instead siding with it, capturing Astyages quickly (though Astyages finds what little time he has left ruling convenient for killing all his diviners).

The former chief of staff, Harpagus, confronts his old boss after all this, mocking him for becoming a slave. Astyages responds that Harpagus is the “stupidest and most unjust man alive:”

…stupidest, because you might have become king yourself, if the present circumstances are really of your making, and instead you turned over the power to someone else; most unjust if, because of that feast [where the son was eaten], you have made slaves of the Medes. If you had to confer the royal power on someone else rather than keep it to yourself, it would have been juster to grant that good to some Mede and not to a Persian. As it stands, the Medes, who were not guilty in your regard, have become slaves instead of masters, and the Persians, who were slaves, have become masters of the Medes.” (1.129)

Astyages is correct. From that point on, the Medes are subject to the Persians. Harpagus might have had power himself, or given it to a Mede, but instead he empowered Cyrus and the Persians. Moreover, the search for justice costs more than can be accounted for. The Medes as a whole pay for the wrong done to the chief of staff. Yet, being almost exactly right about these matters does not make Astyages wise, just, worthy to be a ruler, or remotely human.

Astyages indirectly explains the incentives that created the situation. The Medes, in order to maintain their preeminence, could not afford to turn on their own. To attack the king would be to divide the kingdom and invite their subjects to revolt.  They ruled the Persians, Assyrians, and a number of other Asian peoples (1.102-106). Their imperial power has not only been unjust, but founded on a false confidence. One might say Astyages’ brutality is only the honest expression of a subconscious fear, one coming from their very successes.

Still, I think it safer to say that the Medians acted justly in overthrowing Astyages. In certain ways, they acted prudently, as the plot was accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed. The problem of the Medes keeping their freedom is bigger than any just or unjust action they take, even bigger than the fact they had an empire. The Medes, in understanding how grossly unjust Astyages was, acted on a presumption of what is naturally just. No one except the craziest would call them incorrect, but the reasoning underlying one’s claims to justice can and do blind one to men being the worst of animals, even when one recognizes exactly that as the problem. A thread unites all three of the above stories, setting the stage for the rise of Persia in Herodotus’ narrative. Our political ideals are greater than us, and bestow upon us certain goods, experiences that make life worth living. Those same ideals test us, though, seeing how good we are. In the last analysis, we will be found wanting. “For of those [cities] that were great in earlier times most have now become small, and those that were great in my time were small in the time before.” (1.5)

Notes

1. Croesus, as later advisor to Cyrus, saves the Lydians from being completely destroyed in his wrath. Croesus is a murderous scumbag, but still somewhat human. I think the point of Herodotus telling us this story is to highlight how brutal and wanton Cyrus was.

References

Benardete, Seth. Herodotean Inquries. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.

Herodotus, The History. tr. David Greene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Some Thoughts on the State of Political Philosophy Today

What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.

Suji Kwock Kim, after Ko Un

At least when I read the classics, this sort of concern seems unknown. In its stead are stories about desire and knowledge, nobility and tyranny, form and function. Personal drama, exemplified in Greek tragedy, does not merely mirror the political, it is politics. I’m almost tempted to say that the difference between political philosophy and poetry as we know it is that more personal concerns are purposefully excluded in the former. Some nowadays would say our treatment of topics that touch us directly, such as suicide and depression, would be beneath a writer like Plutarch or Cicero. They are careful to keep this under their breath.

Could they be correct? There are less technical and more technical explanations. An example of one less technical: ancient audiences, at times, consisted of an ambitious elite. For example, the ones who could blow money on sophists or teachers of rhetoric, or go to plays or ride horses. Someone writing the stuff I’m reading – Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides – has to tell stories more or less about prominent people or lives well-led. He has to indulge the affirmative. Xenophon says “it is noble, as well as just and pious, and more pleasant, to remember the good things rather than the bad ones” (Anabasis 5.26). That statement is in the mouth of a character who is no less than Xenophon himself, defending himself before his men. It is an open invitation to wonder about what he does not tell us in his writing. As far as I’m concerned, the immediately personal is very much at stake. Socrates’ domestic life and attempted love affairs are more important than the fate of empires. This can be seen by comparing the first sentence of the Memorabilia with the Cyropaedia - there are the things Xenophon often wondered about, and the things he considered only once. But one might have to be a crafty, suspicious reader in order to find points of correspondence between our concerns and the past.

A more technical explanation goes something like this. Ancient thinkers wondered about the soul, the cause of motion on the one hand and rationality on the other. The soul, though, lends itself not just to scientific concern – in what sense are plants, animals, and humans all living? – but to political concerns. Law is the wishing to be the discovery of what is, as it makes claims on human being and how we think. The right laws lead to a virtuous, well-ordered, happy life. Laws complete the human species by shaping the soul. As time went on, the soul dropped out as a theme of philosophic inquiry. It was replaced by the self, which is a narrower, more subjective, and decidedly less political subject.

That the soul is a more comprehensive theme leads to a trap for those teaching classically related material. It tempts one to dismiss the self as a mere symptom of how we approach problems, as if one could turn back the clock to the 13th century or whatever and find manly men doing God’s work of obliterating heathens and debating the best regime and enslaving women, minorities, the people next door, etc. Men full of soul and virtue had no qualms about what was natural to them and just for others.

Still, it’s tough to prove that classical concerns have an overlap with our modern concerns that matters. Even if we’re talking about the same ideas, they tend to go different directions in the literature. I don’t want to prove that the classics want to talk about suicide, depression, how to deal with overbearing family or broken relationships. What I do want to show is that such themes are more continuous with the inquiry into what is humanity, what is civilization and barbarism, what is rule and knowledge, than we have been led to believe. The recovery of the past and its strikingly bold and different ideas, unfortunately, has been done with little or no self-awareness. We have become professors of a creed we do not understand. It is useless to many of our students and dangerous for some of the most talented.

Obviously, such a task is beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps light can be shed on one of the central problems, though. It has become fashionable in some circles to depict Socrates as a hedonist. As the most “natural” human type, this makes sense in a way. He has a lust for knowledge and a lust for the beautiful: he is driven to young men and then driven to ask them bothersome questions, keeping all but the most ambitious away (i.e. Charmides, Alcibiades, Plato). Whatever Socrates wants is good for him, as he will never do anything without some sort of benefit. This sort of reading means that the death of Socrates is not tragic, not in the least. I should say it is useful to purge ourselves of some of our most moralistic tendencies before we consider what philosophy is and what it is good for. Philosophy is quite a radical endeavor, to say the least, and it presents challenges that make us uneasy.

However, there is such a thing as being too reductive. If wisdom is moderation, and the love of wisdom some kind of madness, then we know Socrates to be certainly mad while being even more sure of his moderation. The appearance of not being a hedonist, the continence on display in matters of food, drink, clothing, wealth, takes more effort than actually being continent. We can say this is an extension of his rhetoric – he could do with any interlocutor as he wished – but then one has to explain where his considerable rhetorical ability as the most natural human came from. Either the image of Socrates that we have is an unintentional byproduct of his hedonism, or it is intentional. If intentional, then he’s more than a hedonist, and that leads me to my final thought for now.

“What is justice?” is the central concern for any queries about Socrates. It is peculiar why this should be the case. Shouldn’t there be more of a focus on his desiring to know, and what he can actually know? Shouldn’t we be debating whether the only real philosophy is natural philosophy, whether questions such “what is just” or “what is noble” are exercises in futility? Well, no. The key question is how the most natural human being fits in with those of us who are also human beings. Philosophic justice – to do no harm – is more than mere rhetoric. It is the hallmark of the truly good life, where the wisest and most ambitious among us might not discover anything new. Extended to the realm of knowledge, it shows that self-knowledge, as illusory and temporary as it is, of vital importance. There’s no way to secure what is good for oneself, convey a benefit to others, or preserve a question or body of knowledge for the future without knowing who one is and how one is perceived. It is only just to be aware of the opinions of others; it is only just to be knowledgeable as opposed to dismissive.

Jane Kenyon, “Who”

Who (from Otherwise)
Jane Kenyon

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

Comment:

Admittedly, locating the Muse is difficult. Authors like Homer and Virgil seem divinely inspired. If we knew what moved them so, we might have access to divine status ourselves.

Kenyon’s speaker starts with what looks a more humble proposition. In attempting to write, in coming to language, she has to wonder who she is and what is within her. “These lines are written by an animal, an angel, a stranger sitting in my chair:” she’s at once all three and none at all. She is lowly, supernatural, and alienated from her own self. Despite the overtones of religious rhetoric, she has depicted the central puzzle of trying to be rational. One works to apprehend the truth, understand it fully, and apply it to one’s own life. Needless to say, these are three separate tasks with massive ironies lying in wait for those who think knowledge of one thing alone allows mastery over one’s own life. (1)

To be sure, the puzzle of trying to be rational leads back to the issue of divine status. If one could live “without trouble among books, and pots and pans,” one would be self-sufficient, ready to receive and use enlightenment. It almost seems only a god can truly know and use knowledge in the way we wish. It feels like the rest of us are confined to miserable ironies every time we make a pretension to knowledge. (2)

Kenyon, in the face of this, just wants to make her question clearer. “Who is it who asks me to find language for the sound a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes a stone?” The desire to convey experience to another comes from wanting to be a part of the human species. All the same, the religious image is unmistakable. It sounds like a lost sheep is spoken about here, a sheep trying to climb something it probably shouldn’t attempt. I posit she still wonders, specifically, what drives her. Who needs to feel part of humanity, who wants to describe our motions, both those sustainable and those imperfect? What does it mean to follow blindly and be satisfied, to be lost and perhaps saved?

Finally, what of an intellectual necessity? “The words which are my food” are spoken by the speaker who does not understand what she says. She’s articulated her ignorance, her attempt to have knowledge where she might collapse into belief. Ultimately, the poem’s progression turns life on its head. In order to understand the alienation one feels as a writer, one had to assume oneself a writer. This means that daily life, even with troubles regarding books and pots and pans, takes care of itself to a degree. To find the words that accurately find one a mere sheep is to find a truth that does not mean what we think it means. We are not, in a sense, mere sheep. Yet we are, because we needed those words, our own.

Notes

1) Xenophon, Memorabilia III.9.10 – “[Socrates said] kings and rulers are not those who hold the scepters, nor those elected by just anybody, nor those who obtain office by lot, nor those who have used violence, nor those who have used deceit, but those who understand how to rule.” Leaving aside the problem that Xenophon’s Socrates has completely dismissed political legitimacy in any recognizable sense, and in fact makes himself guilty of the charges by saying such a thing, we have an endorsement of a view opposite to mine by no less than Socrates. Can’t we say that true knowledge is mastery? Doesn’t knowledge enable perfect practice? The quick answer: Socrates’ rhetoric is excellent. Better than dynastic claims, currying the favor of voters, getting randomly elected, or any tyrannical attempts at rule is actually knowing what you’re doing. Knowledge is superior to the typical practice of politics, and even to a degree to law itself, when things have to get done. I don’t know that the scope of this rhetoric should be extended to individual lives without qualification.

2) There are people who have made it their mission to take poetic musings and use them as hard limits on what one is allowed to question and know. In this sense, and perhaps only this sense, are philosophy and poetry distinct.

Sappho, “Sleep, darling…”

“Sleep, darling…” (tr. Mary Barnard)
Sappho

Sleep, darling

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden 
flower

      I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her

Comment:

Turning to us while putting her daughter to sleep, she’s so excited about her she’s bashful, self-conscious, about it.

This is itself no small wonder. Excitement overflows, demanding rational explanation. You want to convey your joy to others. You want to convey it to yourself, because you don’t want to forget a single moment.

Maybe that’s why the image ultimately presented is hopelessly inadequate. No one would consider trading their children if they could help it. Trying to think through a hierarchy of goods, with “having a child” at the top, leads to having nothing to compare. All Sappho can do is introduce another set of circumstances involving giddy excitement, like winning the lottery (“Croesus’ kingdom with love thrown in”).

Sappho compares Cleis to a “golden flower,” mixing the height of convention with the heights of nature. Wealth, beauty, and growth can only hint at how Cleis stands to her mother. Her uniqueness is her most precious aspect; an assumed unreality of the “golden flower” hints at it. Croesus famously asked if he was the happiest of men, on account of his wealth and empire. His happiness stands as generic as Sappho’s purposefully throwaway phrase, “with love thrown in.” There’s no love like nursing this small daughter. To be perfectly clear, there’s no love, no happiness, otherwise.

Robert Creeley, “The Language”

The Language (from Poetry)
Robert Creeley

Locate I
love you
some-
where in

teeth and
eyes, bite
it but

take care not
to hurt, you
want so

much so
little. Words
say everything.

I
love you

again,

then what
is emptiness
for. To

fill, fill.
I heard words
and words full

of holes
aching. Speech
is a mouth.

Comment:

I love you, from nowhere. We’re trying to locate it, bite it, watch out for ourselves (“take care”). Maybe it is coming from a beloved who loves us back. We’ll eventually find the nose, between “teeth and eyes,” what’s central to a face. And maybe something more sensual will ensue (“bite”), and the paradox of our desire, “so much so little,” will remain an abstract problem for a short while.

However, I love you, strictly speaking, came from nowhere. While Creeley captures the tense giddiness of loving and being loved, he’s not doing it to celebrate that which can celebrate itself well enough. What about those of us who, alone, are trying to love? We unfortunate souls start by finding our nose. (1) The smell of another means they exist for us in some concrete way, not possessed but not entirely distant from us. Our longing is our nutrition, and yet too much longing is no love at all. Real love respects, as “you want so much so little.” There’s no insistence, no power game, no craziness. Just hope and a lot of self-doubt.

“Words say everything” – that’s just it, that’s the problem. We consider love beyond mere syllables. Two who love each other don’t need words. They have everything. Speech and action couldn’t be further apart. One is merely imaginary, the other seems to be the reality of the situation. One can almost feel this question underlying the first half of the poem: does love only exist when two people share it?

In beginning the second half, I love you again comes from nowhere. This second time confronts the doubt, the emptiness. Somehow, I know I’m in love. I know I can enjoy it, be hurt, be patient, let go. Greater virtue may be exercised in the service of loneliness than for another person. Love, in truth, is potential: “then what is emptiness for. To fill, fill.” It is an emptiness, the same thing causing doubt and fear in those who do love and are loved back. It is a language, shared by those who are loved and those longing alike. Through it, I can hear things – sometimes, things coming only from myself – and I understand the needs conveyed. Only with those needs in mind do I have a mouth. Love gives the capacity to voice love, and strange as it sounds to say, to actually love.

Notes

1. “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” – one can say there is no nose being sought. Rather, “I love you” emerged directly from somewhere in the teeth, somewhere in the eyes. But what more does one hope to find within teeth and eyes? “Somewhere in teeth and eyes” can speak to the combination that is a face.

Emily Dickinson, “A Bird came down the Walk” (328)

A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Comment:

Human and animal souls correspond, perhaps too closely. The bird is encountered much like another person would be, coming down the walk. In what he regards as his privacy, he does something grotesque and horrible. He finishes his meal with the nearest drink, then shows either fear or politeness to a passing bug. So far, this bird sounds like a better dining companion than most people. We can relate to him, at least.

Of course, now that he’s done his meal, he glances rapidly around, his eyes acting like “frightened Beads.” Is he aware he’s being watched? Or is he really bored with this date?

Our speaker steps forth at this point. She feels like she’s in danger; she does not want to lose or aggravate this bird. Cautiously, she offers a crumb to him, and he flies away. Dickinson devotes a stanza and a half to the departure:

And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

Not an abrupt, scared motion, but an unrolling of feathers, a rowing softly home. It is as if the bird was made for this moment; it journeys with an elegance we aspire to have when we travel. The anthropomorphizing brings out the felt, primal unity. As we row to an unknown land that is our ultimate home, the bird also rows. Only, there is this difference. However the bird travels is peculiar to it. It does not disturb nature in the slightest, whether nature is related to the chaos prior to Creation (“Ocean / Too silver for a seam”) or seamless, perfectly adapted change (“Butterflies… leap, plashless”).

Recognition of the correspondence almost yields a primal unity. However, it may not be the most important thing to say we’re alienated from the bird or the Nature of which it is part. What struck me on a first reading was how we can so easily anthropomorphize the bird’s actions to make too much sense, as if the bird were going through a morning routine much like ours. Just as easily, we could deny that the bird’s actions make any real sense, that even if it is going through a morning routine, it is nothing but appetite and whim. In the latter case, how different is the bird from any of us? One does not really want to compare human and animal souls. At best, “rational” only describes “animal.” The bird knows that much better than we do, and accordingly leaves.

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

For Nathaniel Cochran

Seth Benardete, “A. E. Housman”

Benardete begins by telling us Housman was a great scholar. So great he had a specific wish for how he wanted to be remembered. In his field, with two other scholars, he would compose “the triumvirate of textual emendation.” Inasmuch he advanced knowledge, he would provide a good, and justly acquire a noble reputation on his terms. There are shades of being no less than a philosopher, as Benardete tells it. Housman’s “probity and love of truth” were so fundamental they created the appearance of generosity. His vices, perhaps, stemmed from his intellect and erudite aspirations. A “just estimation of himself and others was always combined with a cutting nastiness that seems to be a superfluous display of wit and… bitterness.” Truth can be bitter, and someone who is just simply because he knows better, we expect, would have no time or concern for social graces. (1)

“Textual emendation” initially appears a narrow, too-specialized problem. Most people don’t read, still fewer engage classics. Of the few, only a select hang on every word, seeking design if there is any. Making matters more complicated is the lack of certainty in merely rooting out corruption from a text. “Whatever solution it [textual criticism] arrives at is meant to satisfy only the immediately surrounding area where the corruption is found; it is not designed to handle the larger question which of two or more possible readings the author in fact chose, for the author had the design of the whole in mind and the critic is forbidden by the rules of his craft to take the whole into consideration.” The critic’s tools isolate a part, rather than grapple with the whole. Shouldn’t this commonsense assumption – nay, method – grant us access to the past?

Housman took that assumption and ran with it. Benardete says as much: he did not acknowledge “that emendation necessarily has to be understood as a probe and not as a tool of certainty.” Rather, he thought “certainty could be gained through a thorough understanding of an author’s style; “poetry [for Housman] was primarily a question of diction and not of fiction.” What strikes me, in this critique, is his purported lack of imagination in bringing the imagination of the past to light.

It is beyond my competence to do more than paraphrase Benardete’s experience with Housman’s editions and those of other classical editors. Notes which inform the reader of history concerning the work, other classical texts which may be related, and difficulties well-known to classicists are not present in Housman’s editions. In their place are witty comments on other editors, “a deep grammatical understanding of passages,” and his own Latin, “clear and Ciceronian as Lambinus’.” Housman is a brilliant combination of artist and scholar. He can further our understanding by keeping our focus on the text, not on the manuscript tradition and other concerns.

Or maybe not. Benardete’s last words are biting: “All the careful exactness of Housman goes along with a pettiness of spirit that at least at times is out of control and expresses a contempt for whatever he does not understand.” Why such a harsh judgment? I think because of the attempt to render historical considerations, the opinions of other scholars, moot by declaring oneself a better reader. (2) The attempt’s arrogance is not readily apparent, as it can present itself in a more democratic guise. Anyone can read well, if they simply pay careful attention. It goes without saying that disagreement with those who said you can read well by paying attention can be a pretty painful process. They have certain biases; Benardete notes Housman’s preference for almost childish sentimentality.

Not that such sentimentality is wrong, but maybe scholarship is the search for something better. Benardete cites with approval Lessing’s “Laocoön,” and I remember some passages in “The Homeric Hero,” Benardete’s dissertation, where he was quoted. Lessing said the barbarity of the Trojans meant Priam could not risk them publicly weeping for their dead. Their high-spiritedness implies the weeping would get out of hand and they would be unable to fight. By contrast, the Greeks were allowed to weep; they could be trusted to show order and courage as well as mourn. Lessing is approving, saying the Greek way is that of civilization. Benardete praises Lessing’s depth of insight, but the grounds for a critique are elsewhere in the dissertation. The Trojans are more natural, not artificially put together like the “well-greaved Acheans.” Their virtue is akin to civic virtue, not the military virtue driving Greek conquest and plunder. The Greek heroes getting their way, attempting immortal status, has at least this irony: in more than one way, they throw away their humanity.

Notes

1. Benardete does not depict Housman’s problem as generally as I do. I say openly that someone who really loved truth might be terribly obnoxious. Benardete goes the route of depicting Housman as singular in his love of truth.

2. I do not think there is any hidden criticism of Leo Strauss here. An open mind is a paradox. At the same time I stay open to esoteric interpretations, I have to keep in mind the historical record that other scholars have worked to establish. The only people I will criticize are those who think there are easy answers, as if habits of mind or one specific method of scholarship could magically fix problems with interpretation that have puzzled people for thousands of years. Or, better yet, people who think they can rebuild a country because of their interpretations of certain books.

Ted Kooser, “The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise”

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise (from danagioia.net)
Ted Kooser

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

Comment:

Many and relentless are the blind. They fill elevators “with a great white porcupine of canes,” perhaps provoking defensiveness from us. One could think them a “noisy crowd,” storming everywhere, giving only temporary respite to those who see.

Kooser conflates the singularity of a blind person with a wondrous, nearly terrible-sounding plurality. One blind person surprises, stopping cars, making mass transit awkward. The first sentence of this poem concerns a blind person pushing into our space. In the second sentence, she uses public things, much like we do, striking down our speech.

We don’t really see. Our conventional notions work for us and they work for the disabled. But they work so differently for the disabled that anyone with half a brain should wonder how they succeed. Our everyday, our normalcy, assumes moral purpose in surviving, being independent, making society work for us. The blind achieve that and much, much more – it’s the difference between a saint and an agnostic. The difference between us and them is qualitative, not quantitative.

One is many, one is the flood. Everything we think must change. Our higher goals, again, tend to assume a specific notion of well-being. They are a luxury for those who have had something so indispensable to most of us taken away. Somehow, our ambitions need to account for how incredible it can be to simply survive. Not to say that higher goals are a waste – they’re certainly not – but that a proper appreciation of the human spirit should pervade everything we do. Kooser says the blind “always” surprise us, and I think he means that we can choose to do something with our reaction or not. We are truly blind, but perhaps able to receive sight from those only blind in their eyes.

Billy Collins, “Winter”

Winter (from Poetry)
Billy Collins

A little heat in the iron radiator,
the dog breathing at the foot of the bed,

and the windows shut tight,
encrusted with hexagons of frost.

I can barely hear the geese
complaining in the vast sky,

flying over the living and the dead,
schools and prisons, and the whitened fields.

Comment:

The world is breath and structure. Breath within (“heat in the iron radiator”), next to (“at the foot of the bed”), against (“windows… encrusted with hexagons”). On that last point, breath forms structure upon structure. The cold weights breath, making it felt, visible.

We are presented this speculation by one tightly pulling covers over himself. Only remotely does he hear geese, who attempt to fly beyond the cold, perhaps beyond what he now feels. It might be thought a futile attempt, not least because of the evident ironies. But the geese represent more than an escape to warmth. Together, they are free, as they fly over “schools and prisons.” On the one hand, they move through an unreal realm, “over the living and the dead.” On the other, they bear witness to a blanketed world, to the cocoon in which our speaker resides.

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