Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 2 of 181

Sappho, “Tomorrow you had better…”

Note: Apologies for the lack of posting. I’m going to try to post every other day, at least. I had forgotten that, whether I like it or not, I’m in the business of producing media.

“Tomorrow you had better…”

Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Tomorrow you had better

Use your soft hands,
Dica, to tear off
dill shoots, to cap
your lovely curls

She who wears flowers
attracts the happy
Graces: they turn
back from a bare head

Comment:

A peculiar harshness attends the making of beauty. Dica, with her “soft hands” and “lovely curls,” probably possesses a pleasant mien already.

Yet a strong admonishment begins this fragment. Dica “had better” tear off dill shoots and wear them on her bare head. The motherly commands nothing less than pious force. If flowers are not worn, “the happy Graces” do not come. Dica, in the narrator’s eyes, is not beautiful enough. It is very easy in this translation to see why people fight with their parents over matters of tone. The gravest insults are only a few words away.

Still, even “mom” recognizes Dica’s natural beauty. Dill shoots, strictly speaking, are rather plain. If we are speaking of the flowers of fennel and thyme, those are very delicate, fine flowers. Dica is easily seen for who she is. The happy Graces do not want her to tremble in fear, but to rejoice in her being part of greater beauty. Perhaps they even see her as one of them.

On a Passage from Nietzsche’s “Twilight of the Idols”

“The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming. Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland. – I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…”

– Nietzsche, from Twilight of the Idols

Dear Fred:

Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day, my plan was to read “The Free Spirit” section of Beyond Good and Evil as I was, um, really free. Went to work, slept a bit, sat in a convenience store under dull fluorescent lighting watching people buy cigarettes and liquor.

With that remarkable schedule, I confess I still didn’t get to your book, so I instead dug up a thought of yours I had put down 10 years ago.

I think I remember my state of mind then. It’s a lot like mine now. I’ve never felt, as some in the humanities do, that too many people study science and not enough the liberal arts. I’ve only worried, as I think many worry, that there’s a cult which pretends to worship science, but in reality wants to savage anyone who disagrees with them. That cult goes out of its way to kick people who study the humanities while they’re down, treating the transmission and preservation of knowledge as a given. It goes out of its way to become unnecessarily angry and petty about issues that don’t even concern it. For example, note the moralistic intonations of certain people when the topic of becoming a professor in the liberal arts emerges.

It’s a strange game. It feels like a lot of people are trying to prove everyone else wrong about life so that way they can say they’re right. It’s like they’re trying to shut down the fact that the world is a diversity of voices. You can’t help but feel that something human, genuinely democratic, maybe even spiritual is being lost in the name of a pseudo-utilitarianism. The barbarians now have the rhetoric of science and modernity and progress with which to attack people who want to think for themselves.

On that note, I want to thank you for your thoughts in Daybreak.  I’m nowhere close to finishing it, and at times, your reading of the history of thought is obscure to me. But what stands out is how personally you advocate for independent thought. The future isn’t about cleverness or knowledge in the abstract. It isn’t about thinking we have all the answers and devoting ourselves to that.

Weirdly enough, for someone who is called a nihilist by so many, you seem to be advocating for a moral rebirth. One that isn’t afraid to walk a tightrope between eternity and uncertainty. I get the impression that you want us to reconceive both notions. Eternity should be seen as the eternal recurrence, more or less. That things happened a certain way in the past and will happen again means that we can imitate the best of humanity previous or learn from our mistakes. Uncertainty lies in our very approach to the world. We fail to understand how our desires make themselves felt as moral, even rational, certainties, but we know we can ask everyone else how they know something. As a result, we get fanatically certain about the most dubious things, all the while immersing ourselves in doubt and skepticism about everything and everyone else. A little more honesty about what we want and we might be less blinded by “truth” and more humane to those around us.

That, at any rate, is my “take” on the matter. I don’t think you’re aware that this is “take” season, where various Internet commentators have offered their opinions on a variety of subjects. Here’s one by a user who think the transportation company Uber’s violation of the law is comparable to Rosa Parks’ fight for civil rights. I readily submit that my “take” on your thought is of similar quality. Maybe you do love nihilism and fascism and the like.

In any case, the thought that’s been torturing me the last couple of months goes like this: What could I possibly teach that is of worth to another person? When tutoring, improving skills happens. It’s nearly impossible not to find language to which a student can relate. That can translate into being more confident in the classroom, answering questions the teacher poses, answering prompts from a relevant perspective. Reading, responding, and writing can be improved over time, through repeated sessions of getting a student to talk and feel comfortable with the task at hand.

None of that, though, is the maturity to try to see what it’s like to seek knowledge, or, on a related note, find serious people without fancy titles or positions. No amount of improving academic skills replaces the probity, the will to curiosity, that comes from wanting to make sense of this life in which we live. I don’t think most of the students I’ve ever met have ever cared for such a mundane topic. Most of them want insight akin to a panacea, or the status that comes from being the best, or the grades simply. That last is not so depressing when contrasted with the ephemerality and artificiality of what the most ambitious want.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed. I spent most of today unpacking freight and stocking liquor. I failed to read seriously anything of any significance. I am afraid to call my best friends – the ones who understand my perspective, and are no slouches as knowers and thinkers – and work through what I’m seeing in my life with them. I don’t want to bother them when I don’t know if I’m attentive enough, when I don’t know that I’m not seeking a panacea myself.

I can’t say I live up to my own creed, because I’m in doubt about what it produces. People who know me know that I’m a nervous, awkward person. When you castigate your time for a sort of slavishness, citing “a harsh Helot condition” caused by “the tremendous extent of science,” I find it very hard to join the critique. Partly because I think you are consciously exaggerating – this ties into my discussion above. However, I do not really know what “fuller, richer, deeper natures” there are, and what education could do for them:

The harsh Helot condition to which the tremendous extent of science has condemned every single person today is one of the main reasons why education and educators appropriate to fuller, richer, deeper natures are no longer forthcoming.

Again, the problem I’m having is what good we can produce for another. Your discussion helps a bit: for a certain nature, a certain education is necessary, and we have lost it. Something about a cultish scientism – I don’t want to call it science, not at all – makes all of us incredibly unfree, even as we think we’re free in putting others down.

Fair enough. I should quit while I’m ahead, I suspect, and just say that freedom attends the mindful. You go on in a way that throws me under the bus. I know I will never be a first-rate scholar; for me, it is a struggle to be an average student, to do something solid but unspectactular. Does that make me one of the “presumptuous journeymen” or “fragments of humanity,” or should I not console myself with even ranking that high?

Our culture suffers from nothing more than it suffers from the superabundance of presumptuous journeymen and fragments of humanity; our universities are, against their will, the actual forcing-houses for this kind of spiritual instinct-atrophy. And all Europe already has an idea of this – grand politics deceives no one… Germany counts more and more as Europe’s flatland.

It does look like you are taking a direct shot at my approach to the humanities. In your defense, you are not doing so for the sake of promoting fascism or Nazi supermen or philosophers that found religions or anything like that. You seem to be worried that people like me are more New Age guru than scholar, that we water down the humanities to make them relatable while science and anything that sounds scientific simply teaches. The difficulty in the liberal arts is getting to the hard questions. Someone like me doesn’t really try to do so, no matter how much I say otherwise. With the emphasis on accessibility, I’m just offering students what might be a swim in their own opinions. “Grand politics” are a testament to our lack of thoughtfulness; we have large scale ambitions as we don’t understand how to live our lives without domination of another or utopian visions.

I will only say this, and it is really not aimed at you. Let’s say I was an actual scholar and not a hack. Someone truly adept in languages, not only knowledgeable of history but with good instincts for how to reconstruct a portrait of a time or person. Someone who could really write, conveying the difficulties I encounter in reading or thinking through something without belaboring them. Would that mean I would necessarily bring into focus the hard questions? Could I even do such a thing, with that skillset alone?

I will say that what impresses and confuses me is the freedom you celebrate. It is both serious and playful, religious and irreligious at once:

I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion – how much more for one with whom I might be cheerful! – Twilight of the Idols: ah, who today could grasp from how profound a seriousness a hermit is here relaxing! – The most incomprehensible thing about us is our cheerfulness…

“I am still looking for a German with whom I could be serious after my fashion:” I take this in the vein of The Case of Wagner – you are rejecting the Reich and political solutions that propose happiness. Cheerfulness comes while watching what one thinks is one’s age come to an end. Every generation thinks they are in the midst of the end of the world. Maybe one guy wrote “my life was the same as my father’s, and his father before him,” but we never read that guy. Either Athens is collapsing, or Rome is. The Church is rising to its height, converting Emperors, or being torn apart along with the European continent. Morals are always falling apart; Charles II is living at what seems to be pagan excess after years of Puritan dominance in England. And there’s always violence – men hurting other men for their invisible objects, always – and it could be cataclysmic if recognized as such. Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in until the town lie beaten flat.

To be a hermit, relaxing from or with “how profound a seriousness,” is to understand that we only work with images. We’re stuck in our own heads. It doesn’t mean we’re powerless, it doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as truth. I think it means we can enjoy a distance from some of the most powerful and most ill-evidenced assertions. There are moral issues, serious ones that have a profound impact. When not pressed urgently, we have to find our way to them. Nowadays, what has my attention is the pacifistic brush with which many thinkers paint the life of the mind. At work is a refocusing of ambition, where “do no harm” makes perfect sense as a basis for humanism. The truly human work is to relax and find good cheer while sorting the contents of one’s mind. That may sound New Agey, but that’s the spiritual instinct of a reflective, rational animal.

AK

Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1129)

for Paula Gardner

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1129)
Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Comment:

Cats jumping wildly at a moving laser-pointer: that’s how we are when we first learn to read. It’s so much fun to see that the little squiggles on the page can be said aloud. We’re announcing loudly what’s on signs the car passes by, or priding ourselves on the medal for going through more books than anyone else in class. Later, we make notes on larger texts and difficult essays, trying to remember what they say for the test. Rarely, we may try to relate to a character or interpret a book as a whole. Those few attempts might be a major part of our lives – think of how many people say they wish they had the loyalty of Ruth in the Bible, or are devastated for Anna Karenina – and yet we could have no serious conception of how or why we read. We extract meaning from stories upon which we build our lives while having no clue what we’re doing.

To be sure, there are more conscientious readers of literature. They work to understand the issues an author explores and connect the dots. They put authors and their works in dialogue with one another. Tolstoy’s spirituality can be contrasted with Dostoyevsky’s orthodoxy; Graham Greene’s moral complexity cannot exist in the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves Tolkien inhabits. This is all well and good, but there is a trap. One tends to reconstruct voices which fail utterly at challenging one. We read into authors ideas we’re comfortable with. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” someone once said.

A peculiar phenomenon limited to a small set of texts brings forth a similar situation. It may be the case in less liberal ages – ages far more restrictive of speech – one had to hide one’s more radical opinions. For example, if you endorsed a more secular, representative government against notions of kingship, you might place the word “God” every other sentence when crafting your political writings. Or if you thought the future was a republic of scientists, you might write a strange, apparently incomplete work of fiction where sailors come upon a New Atlantis which wants them to witness their technological marvels and curious religious pluralism. Political esotericism makes perfect sense, now that we have the benefit of hindsight. There are always going to be scholars who doubt its existence, but one does not hide messages for consensus. The goal was to reach the minds who would create the future.

What is much, much stranger is another sort of esoteric writing, a subset of the group above. Jonathan Swift once noted that modern esotericism was like the spider: from the foulest was spun the most beautiful. That characterizes thinkers like Locke and Bacon, who dwell on the reality of power so as to arrange orders where we can live and think freely. Ancient esotericism, though, was like the bee: from the sweetness of flowers flowed ever so much more sweetness. Both Xenophon and Plutarch declare at times that they will not speak of unpleasant things when writing. It’s up to us to imagine those things for ourselves, to reconstruct the pleasures and pains of another world.

I

I cannot say with certainty that Dickinson has a project which encompasses all of her poetry. I do think her themes, her verse, and her life itself are radical enough.  At times, it looks like she has something she wants to say which will force us to reconsider everything. In “This is my letter to the World” (J441), she hints at this larger something:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

“The simple News that Nature told” is what the speaker has put in a letter to the world. This is quite stunning: Nature, which mankind has witnessed and investigated for thousands of years, has news? The speaker continues pleading with her countrymen, whom she obviously distrusts. She hopes they judge tenderly, she implores them to be sweet. But they have not been sweet. They have never written, and their distance from the “tender Majesty” of Nature could not be clearer.

I have not finished reading all of Dickinson, but I suspect her larger concern starts with a proposition such as this: Perhaps the world is eros. That desire and beauty, as Yeats says, put “the young in one another’s arms” – that’s the easy problem, the easy confrontation. More complex is when desire and beauty involve religion, where “safe in their alabaster chambers… sleep the meek members of the resurrection” (J216). Some pride themselves on the afterlife, thinking they have devoted all their desires to earning it. In the end, they can be said to have a portion of eternity in this life, as all else moves and eventually perishes while they sleep. The irony lies in how what happens while they are in the grave too literally is the Biblical promise. Their entombment has meaning when contrasted with dropping Diadems and surrendering Doges; their coffins are just as royal, with “rafter of satin.” However, the wisdom of justice as we understand it, the justice we pray for, does not impress the natural, perhaps created, world: “Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — Ah, what sagacity perished here!”

One might counter Dickinson’s suggestiveness by saying that eternity is not had in the grave, but only after the Second Coming. One might go further and argue that justice as we understand it cannot be the issue, only justice as God understands it. In any case, it seems to me that Dickinson is concerned with the orientation and intensity of our desires. The world is erotic in her telling, but she is alone. Her loneliness emerges emphatically in her poetry, over and over. I have yet to fix my interpretation of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288), but I always took it to be the speaker talking to herself.

At least in my own thinking, I hold that for Dickinson this question remains most prominent: What does it mean to be alone in a completely erotic world?

II

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant:” Christ Himself says to be wise as serpents, but surely this command of Dickinson’s cannot be applied to preaching the Gospel. What, exactly, is “all the truth?” Dickinson avoids answering this, continuing instead with geometric imagery. The “slant” we are to tell is completed by “Success in Circuit.” If we are careful in telling the truth, if we avoid hammering at certain issues, we will communicate truly without offense. Our audience might even consider something differently.

“Slant” and “Circuit” turn from geometric shapes into nothing less than the sun. The allusion is as Platonic as one could possibly get: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Dickinson herself says she has read widely in English poetry, but I cannot tell if she has spent much time with Plato’s Republic. Still, the idea there is this: there are unseen forms which are the truth of our world. “The form of red” is the truth of red, the answer to “what is red?”, in the same way that mathematics determines its objects. The quest for the forms is undertaken by the philosopher, who in the story immediately following the introduction of forms, ascends from a cave of artificial light and shadow puppetry to the surface, where the sun makes things visible.

Whatever the truth is, it has a “superb surprise.” One is telling “all the truth” in order to do some good, not to hurt anyone. Whatever that surprise is, it is “too bright for our infirm Delight.” “Infirm” is key: we’re inflexible. We’ve made a decision on what makes us happy. We want to work with the illusions that are useful and sometimes meaningful. The whole history of ideas, as I see it, is taking care to respect other people’s opinions about justice while bringing them to realize something more. “Infirm” carries a darkness upon which the truth all too easily focuses. To be a completely conventional human being is to be dictated completely by the dead.

III

“All the truth” remains the fundamental issue. It is our liberation from opinions we hold as true simply because they are old. But that liberation does not imply having the absolute truth oneself. If one knows that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, one does not necessarily know it happens to be precisely the opposite unless one knows a lot about physics and astronomy. There may be universal laws of which we remain purposefully ignorant, but to be more knowledgeable does not entail realizing those laws.

So in one sense, “all the truth” isn’t really “all the truth.” It’s the truth about oneself – it’s self-knowledge – which we want others to have. This brings about a further complication. Is it actually knowledge to know how many ways we can delude ourselves, or what rhetoric can entrance us? Is knowledge of our lack of self-knowledge a science? In Plato’s Gorgias, where Gorgias declares that rhetoric enables men to rule and makes them free, Socrates ends up calling rhetoric a pseudoscience, the false art of punitive justice. To put it cynically, self-knowledge can consist somewhat in our declaring ourselves not to be something while spewing hate toward that something. Xenophon understands the figure of Socrates by comparing and contrasting him with the figures of the best political leader (Cyrus), the gentleman (Ischomachus), and the purely ambitious (Xenophon himself).

There is a deeper sort of self-knowledge, where others’ choices do not have to punished for one’s own sake. The “truth’s superb surprise,” on this reading, consists precisely in telling the truth slant and completing the circuit. The risk is that even such subtlety will be too bright:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One must treat one’s audience like children scared of lightning. It seems pretty awful to imply people do not have the moral maturity to hear what they consider blasphemy. To be fair, I never thought books that hide a message to be terribly elitist, nor do I think this poem such. The problem is the risk of making “every man” blind.

That risk comes about this way. On an individual level, we can correct each other. We can be hurt and forgive and improve, or choose to walk away entirely. Moral communication occurs at a personal level, and it is risky there, but the stakes need not be life or death. When we’re talking about works that will reach a mass audience, there cannot be that sort of communication visibly. What results on a mass scale is a reaction, and crowds will be provoked one way or another, because there are certain things we must believe in, or civilization is doomed. It sounds almost like conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that mobs have existed and still exist, and that the power of the mob comes directly from the power of conventionality. Once something is declared “our way,” a perceived attack on it is an attack on us. This cannot be discarded as easily as one would like. Without a sense of a larger identity, without knowing who are friends or who are enemies, no one can fight on behalf of another.

It still is remarkable, in my opinion, that so many have been able to contribute to this indefinite, indeterminate thing called “humanity” over the years. Oftentimes, they don’t do it by fighting, but through sacrifice, even the sacrifice of measured speech. The hope is that the truth will dazzle gradually, whatever it is. “Whatever,” to be sure, is the wrong word. For “all the truth,” in the last analysis, is simply “all.” To speak carefully is to stress one’s own voice, one’s own sensitivity. Personal knowledge is the only knowledge we have.

Kay Ryan, “Blue China Doorknob”

Blue China Doorknob (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

I was haunted by the image of a blue china doorknob. I never used the doorknob, or knew what it meant, yet somehow it started the current of images. – Robert Lowell

Rooms may be
using us. We
may be the agents
of doorknobs’
purposes, obeying
imperatives china
dreams up or
pacing dimensions
determined by
cabinets. And if
we’re their instruments –
the valves of their
furious trumpets,
conscripted but
ignorant of it –
the strange, unaccountable
things we betray
were never our secrets
anyway.

Comment:

The objects we make use us. That we craft them is almost irrelevant to our freedom. Our craft grounds itself in what we understand of the nature of things, but we do not fully understand nature. We have opinions about it which hold true, and while that works for many theoretical and practical purposes, control is not ultimately ours.

Yet things literally are more complicated. “Rooms may be using us:” they may use us, they may not. Robert Lowell claimed his vision of a blue china doorknob led him to compose the masterful “Skunk Hour.” It follows a narrator as his gaze falls away from the rich and leisurely to the young and horny. Finally, it rests upon the most primal of families. I love to read too much into things, but somehow I suspect a blue china doorknob cannot possibly encompass all of that.

Rooms may be our imagination simply. In which case, we confront the oddity that we speak through things as things speak through us. That seems the playful puzzle, the philosophical puzzle. Can it mean anything? Well, we have to go through a room first, don’t we:

…We
may be the agents
of doorknobs’
purposes, obeying
imperatives china
dreams up or
pacing dimensions
determined by
cabinets.

We turn the knob to enter the room, taking note of the beautiful, delicate china. We don’t want to even come close to wrecking it, so we keep our distance, “pacing dimensions determined by cabinets.” On this reading, our sense of the value an object has, our reverence for its beauty, governs our motion. To be more precise, one can also read Ryan’s “or” as “either/or,” an exclusive “or.” In which case, we either obey “imperatives china dreams up,” submitting to beauty, or separately we pace only room yielded to us by cabinets.

Maybe beauty and necessity are locked in a battle for control over us. But what has emerged is the use of narrative to connect our motion to the objects. That narrative is the search for purpose; utility, value, necessity – in a way, all are means to ends. The puzzle over whether we speak through objects or objects through us is no longer the primary concern, though still crucial. The question is narrower, now: Is there a specific character our ends have?

This sounds ridiculous. There are a number of people, infinitely diverse, with multiple goals and in various situations. People are tremendously unique; it would take a lifetime for any one of us to appreciate in any other. Where we find common ground in our natures and purposes, we find communication. Not even dictation, as that creates the appearance of commonality through fear. Our ends could not possibly have anything truly in common…

And if
we’re their instruments –
the valves of their
furious trumpets,
conscripted but
ignorant of it –
the strange, unaccountable
things we betray
were never our secrets
anyway.

Our diversity is limited by the world we are in. The objects around us limit us a peculiar way. We can make that much more of them, but we are proclaiming them the more we do so, being “the valves of their furious trumpets.” What makes us human is that we allow the objects to speak loudly, to use us almost entirely. Sometimes, they show us to be greedy or lustful or fearful or just plain awful. To be rational, though, follows the same pattern. To communicate, to find our common humanity, we don’t just approach other people. We start with the objects they trumpet, the objects we trumpet. In the midst of many a betrayal, the key question of this poem being betrayal to whom, we ultimately find those things to be something else entirely. They are completely redefined, the product of neither narrators nor object alone. Perhaps it is more proper to say that the strange, unaccountable things we betray are never our secrets anyway.

 

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Comment:

Assigned this poem, I produced a paper full of billowy nonsense I hesitate to term “writing.” That was 15 years ago, and thankfully lost forever. A few years later, I had a few insights as to what details might matter. I still didn’t understand what this poem was about.

I

In the museum hang the paintings of the Masters. They are attempts to depict an aspect of their time, with one slight problem: Is it actually possible to convey one’s everyday experience to people of another time? Strictly speaking, it is not possible; one recreates the past by looking to what is presently at hand; it is the fact we are human, that we react certain ways, which art uses to imitate life. At some point, art may even communicate with us.

Before communication, however, one must create a compelling imitation. We viewers have to want to engage imaginatively. Something pointed, something potentially meaningful, stands prior to the composition as a whole. To see the world, ironically enough, is to react to it first:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

Strolling through a museum, “just walking dully along,” treats the window into suffering as those eating in the painting treat those who suffer. The Masters, in never being wrong about suffering, in understanding its human position, understand the limits of their art.

To be sure, they understand the possibilities also. The poem as a whole provokes our moral indignation, as we are outraged to hear of those who do not feel pity or compassion! How dare they be blind to what is happening right in front of them! To be so blind is to ignore our pain, our promise, evident in scenes of Old Testament prophets fervently praying, or shepherds near holy and wise men, all gathering around a manger:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood…

We may dismiss the skating children as ignorant, or turn on them as worshippers of a lesser god. It is far less likely we will remember the words of the child miraculously born, “Let the children come to me.”

II

It would be wrong to say that using suffering this way is a trick of some sort, that it is only done to make an ordinary work of art look profound. It is true the world cruelly goes on while cruelty occurs, as the poem and the paintings both attest. But what of it? We, as observers, correspond with those of the paintings who are almost entirely oblivious. If they weep and gnash teeth while a saint dies, does that make the painting more moral? If we feel morally superior because we recognize someone suffering in an image, are we better people?

The first stanza contains a regression. It started with those who were “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Then, the next group blind to suffering and hope were “children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.” It ends with a horse and dog going on with their lives, while a martyr is tortured to death:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The first stanza moves from adults to children to animals. Silently, it implies that recognition of suffering has some meaning, for rationality falls away as the suffering becomes more pronounced and stays ignored. However, whether suffering, God becoming man, or torture and death can cause life to pause is another issue. The paintings tell the story that it is difficult to even expect art to pause.

III

Surely, a chain of observers must result in some reaction, somewhere. Those witnessing the ghastly scene of Icarus’ death in Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus “quite leisurely” turn away. The ploughman and the sailors are busy about their work, and if Icarus had been less full of hubris, he too would be sailing or plowing, not trying to fly:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Breughel’s painting is cruel, but cruel to his world, not Icarus. Art itself is hubris in a world where the truth has been completely revealed and everyone knows their place. The indifference of those witnessing pain in the first stanza has been replaced by contempt in the second.

The poet makes this substitution quietly, as the paintings did. Not all the Masters may have understood the human position of suffering. If they did, they may have understood it different ways. Their attempt at meaning, what unites them in the poem’s narrative thread, indicates the centrality of merely shining light on an event: “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water.” These painters provoked through the theme of suffering, and in at least one case, asserted something about their own time, simply to get us to see the event. Without the provocation, without the contention, we would not bother seeing the more fundamental truth. Prior to that, we would neither think about the type of people a given age has, nor wonder how a myth endures as it changes.

The coldness of our narrator is itself a provocation. He has been “quite leisurely” turning away from painting after painting, taking in bare facts. A splash, a cry, sunlight, green water, an expensive, delicate, ship. He also has somewhere to go and will move calmly on. We’re not more moral for looking at suffering in paintings. Maybe a bit more clever for seeing how it functions in bringing us to respond to art. This much is true: if we can take in the details, reconstruct the story, we too can narrate. What that means, though, is up to us, alone.

William Butler Yeats, “The Choice”

The Choice
W.B. Yeats

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

Comment:

Recently, I attempted a more comprehensive comment on Yeats. The first few paragraphs went pretty well. I observed that loving something or someone, even worshipfully, does not mean you become it or them. Yet Yeats’ poems are infused with a peculiar yearning. He’s in love with something (and, at times, someone). What transformation do his poems intend to create in the reader that could satisfy his specific needs? This may be obvious in love poetry like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (maybe the best love poem ever written), but what’s happening when he deploys occult imagery or speaks about the end of an age?

At the moment, I’m content to see how Yeats develops a thesis of his own without running into too large a question. Not that my train of thought is wrong: it’s just that following it out might be a lifetime’s worth of work put the way it is above. I need to narrow my focus.

Yeats, to say the least, does not seem to think the same way as me. He begins The Choice with a thesis that only has a surface specificity: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” If we care at all about our intellect, if we attempt to be knowers, then we can either perfect “the life” or “the work.” It sounds like he means that we can either perfect our lives, or create some work that has a chance of lasting, either being perfect itself or informing perfection.

If we pick the latter and attempt to be creators ourselves, we “must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” This probably alludes to Matthew 22:2-14. A king held a wedding feast for his son, telling his servants to gather guests. Some of the servants were killed out of spite, leading the king to declare war against the murderers and significantly change the guest list. People then came from all the highways, but one man came dressed in a most unbecoming manner. He was bound by the king and cast into the outer darkness, where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Does perfection of the work mean directly challenging God? Independent of considering theism or organized religion or theology, there’s a simpler proposition: it’s really hard to make something worthwhile that might last. A lot of creative people put significant resources into making something, getting virtually nothing during the process or at the end. In some cases, it does feel like life, or something larger, is toying with one. There is raging in the dark, there is refusal of set answers or accepted ways, independent of any specific blasphemy.

But we do have to take the blasphemy seriously, if only for the reason that Yeats devotes the rest of the poem to perfection of the work. When I first put notes together on this poem, 9 years ago, I held that perfection of the life and the work were the same thing, that any choice between them was ultimately illusory. People try to create in order to make life better. Even one who tries to perfect her life in accordance with a strict moral standard thinks herself part of a divine plan. Life is better for everyone because of the work her faith generates.

One might think that last example anything but intellectual. Yeats brings us back to it, though, by casting despair on our attempted accomplishment:

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

He first makes work sound worthless, like as if it were possible to choose “perfection of the life” alone: “When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?” All we do is rage against the dark. Why didn’t we initially choose to make our lives better? Yeats answers that query with dead silence, and I take that silence to be evidence for my above remark. He only elaborates on intellectual labors as opposed to results, as “in luck or out the toil has left its mark.” If we think such labors actually make our lives better immediately, we probably have not truly used our intellect, instead unknowingly benefiting from conventionality.

The mark of serious toil is an “old perplexity,” an “empty purse.” By day we might have something resembling perfection of life, some “vanity,” some noble or intellectual standing. At night, nothing of the sort, as raging in the dark is perpetual. The intellect wants answers that it cannot have; revelation does offer comfort of a sort, as opposed to continually questioning. Still, one cannot really choose “perfection of the life” with the intellect, unless we consider one an intellectual who is satisfied with the explanations others give. Even someone who thought they were acting in accordance with a divine plan may not be satisfied with such explanations. They work, after all, to see grace demonstrated in some way in this life.

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, "The Death of Pierrot" (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

The clown’s passing is not unremarkable. “The thinness of [Beardsley’s] tragically elegant lines suggest the breaking off of everything” (1).

The lines are indeed everything. Death comes into the room stealthily, majestically, in four dressed as though they left a masquerade or performance. Supple lines convey their agility and figures, their easy confidence comparable to how power suits a horse. Pierrot’s head sinks, but is solidly composed. Dotted lines define his outfit as well as the lace curtains. All guises and covers are unraveling; the spider silk the fineness evokes is useless. Death himself travels lightly, smiling, insisting on our respect – telling us to be quiet – as he pays his. He is the only true measure of who we are, as the opinions of others are nowhere to be found here. And he takes our guises, our laughter, our performance in a role seriously. A self-confrontation all of us fear is final, but gentler than one would expect. It’s as if we’ve been living with death the whole time.

Notes

1) Jed Perl, “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World,” p. 28. Many thanks to Perl for bringing to my attention this magnificent work of art. His observations form a basis for my own and are mingled with mine. His discussion of the Beardsley can be found on pages 25-28.

Emily Dickinson, “I never saw a Moor” (1052)

I never saw a Moor (1052) (from the Emily Dickinson Archive)
Emily Dickinson

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Comment:

On the surface, a simple statement of faith. There are many things I mean; I take for granted I can mean them. God is one of things.

As always, the devil is in the details. The first stanza presents two analogies. Neither a moor (a marshland) nor the sea has been seen. Despite a lack of direct experience, in both cases it is known how aspects of them look. The moor has heather, which are purple flowers. The sea is composed of billows.

The first stanza actually raises the question of “common sense” in a specific way. We use words to signify wholes that define our experience. We are not of the moor, nor of the sea. It sounds strange to talk like this, as it feels like one has no idea what was just said. Wholes depend on parts of which we do have more specific knowledge. However, there are at least two problems with the way the poem depicts those parts. First, it isn’t clear the speaker has experience with either heather or billows. Second, the knowledge transmitted is that of nature. The second stanza advances supernatural claims:

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

Initially, it looks like there will be two analogies paralleling the previous stanza. But stating that one has neither spoken with God nor visited in heaven does not produce any further reasoning. Instead, it yields to certainty of a place to which one has a ticket (“checks” was a word popularly used for railroad tickets). Before, what seemed to be proclaimed knowledge of a whole demanded some sort of accounting of its parts.

However, Dickinson’s speaker never claimed to know a moor or the sea! This poem doesn’t reduce to a simple statement of theism or atheism. What it does instead is force the question of what the parts of the kingdom of God are on Earth. One could say it answers that question cynically: death is a pretty certain “spot” for which we have tickets. Still, the first two lines of the second stanza are specific about something. Speaking to God or visiting in Heaven might reinforce her certainty about that “spot,” whatever it is.

The funny thing is how our preoccupation with death makes the mythic central and in an ironic way certain. To recapitulate the poem’s theme: we mean at least two things by belief. First, there’s belief in terms of the knowledge which humans gather and preserve and give to each other. Our shared experience comes to us through conventionality; we possess an image of nature. Then, there’s belief in terms of the risk we take for the sake of the divine. Knowing we will die, we hope and pray to be saved by what is supernatural. Benardete once said that belief and knowledge are of different orders, and I think this is an illustration of what he means. This little poem keeps reasoning by analogy limited to the natural world while advancing a mock ontological proof (the certainty of God is dependent on the most certain thing that will happen to me). Belief and knowledge talk past each other, but as venturers, we engage, use, and want to have both.

On Having Too Many Books

The yelling echoed throughout my skull. I’ve bought too many books. I won’t read them, they’ll lie around collecting dust. I’ve wasted money and space, as well as abused my health.

No one was there, but the three books were bought from Half Price with that nagging guilt. They could join a pile lying around in my apartment unread. Volumes of poetry, academic essays, a few art history studies with “plates” (I know. It sounds fancy!), graphic novels, excerpts from an older critic’s diary. Not to mention the virtual pile on my hard drive. Quite a lot on there. Heck, Stumbleupon got me in the habit of bookmarking everything. How many essays and articles have I left unread, or read once with the stated intent of scouring again?

It is tempting to imagine a simpler mode of learning. Milton may very well have read all the books at the library in 17th century England. Plato frequently brings up parts of Homer and Herodotus. Did he only know a few books well, and make the most out of those? If so, could the nice people on reddit be justified in thinking they can find deep philosophical insight by thinking really hard while reading next to nothing?

It’s difficult to know what thinking well is. It certainly isn’t owning lots of books one hasn’t read. But it does entail a comprehensiveness that is like owning a lot of books. It’s a familiarity with a range of experiences, theories, opinions. It’s an ability to navigate the human things.

It struck me earlier how badly we’ve failed those who want knowledge to translate into a better experience for themselves and others. They think they espouse a certain maturity as they enforce rules, conforming and demanding conformity to certain standards. Our young intellectuals are the most pressing problem. For years now I’ve watched talented university students be the worst offenders in promulgating and abusing unwritten rules for the sake of keeping others out. I thought they were the exception, as a lot of things happen that are far from acceptable in small, cloistered circles, tucked away from scrutiny or reality. Now I’m thinking this is more than likely happening at every school across America, public or private, large or small, religious or secular. The issue is how we relate to rules generally. The response of our most talented is to worship them, because knowledge directly applied to one’s everyday life creates the markers of status that set one apart. The vicious cliques we bemoan in grade school and high school are ignorant, but not in the way we think. They’re nerds too, just nerds about other things. In their own way, they’re in love with school.

They want knowledge to be effective, to be practical. All of us want this, and it might be the worst of all temptations, precisely because knowledge has to be effective and practical at some point. Knowledge, or whatever part of it we have, turns into rules, into laws. In a similar vein, one might say justice is relative; the worst injustices come from those who have some part of the truth and a disproportionate, unrelenting need to believe in that part.

We don’t know everything. A corollary of this is that we’re always learning what it means to be moral. There are lots of books that promise knowledge, but I can’t really say I collect those. Mostly, I’m searching for the books that remind me of what I don’t know. The ones that demonstrate the pain of ignorance, as well as the honesty, the experience, of finding an answer that matters.

On Stuff

For H.M.W.

For me, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up on Jimmy Fallon was funny, though marked by a peculiar darkness. At first, it seemed a fairly typical look at how ridiculous materialism is. Fallon had just handed out flat-screen tv’s to the audience. Seinfeld asserted this more a problem than a blessing, as most of the audience already possesses flat-screens. He then went on to say our whole lives are bringing objects home and turning them into garbage. How “garage,” where items once banished never find their way back, must be cognate with “garbage.” How nowadays, he’s happy to hear at funerals that someone wants to be buried with their stuff: “Take your crap with you.”

Like all of us, comedians tend to become more bitter as they get older. There are exceptions. Joan Rivers was so awesomely caustic that it didn’t matter how old she got. George Burns spoke of Gracie so quietly, so matter-of-factly, you didn’t quite realize how grateful he was for his time with her until well after he was done. The exceptions, I think, prove the power of the rule. Someone said you pretty much have to be psychotic to be a good comedian, and that might be correct. Strong, biting jokes are more than shameless. They spell things out so starkly that resentment, disgust, self-righteousness are only a degree away from being thought a natural response.

Disgust, of course, is anything but natural. Comedy at its best, comedy at its worst, reinforces the power of conventionality. There are some very notable exceptions to this. Still, Seinfeld’s above case doesn’t prove one. A lot of us say we want to simplify. We laugh and cry at hoarders on television, all while skirting the edge of becoming one ourselves. Obnoxiously, we impose “simplification” on everyone else. Everyone else is materialistic, and thus they’re holding us back from a cleaner, less-stressed, safer life.

This would be the most trivial of discussions if it weren’t for the fact I can recall relatives telling me to throw out books I was reading at the time. I think we can all relate stories where “cleaning” was really code for stop what you’re doing. Stop what you’re working towards. Throw what’s different away. Our materialism so thorough that it is manifest in our response to it. We don’t know why what we have is valuable, we don’t care to know what’s worth building or possessing. So we attack the idea of possession itself, as if life can be lived without objects. Or lived with very few objects that are disposable, yet almost sacred in their conception.

Either way, our response is about control. It probably is unhealthy to pretend it concerns anything else. A dark, biting tone makes Seinfeld’s cynicism look serious, but what exactly is he cynical about? That someone could do something, or make something of value, is what I feel has been buried in our day and age. It sounds strange to say this, as it looks like we celebrate achievement in so many ways. But if you asked me to write the history of our age, I’d show example after example of how ungrateful and uncharitable we are. We don’t mean to be this way; it’s a kind of ignorance at work. In order to appreciate something, we’d have to let it speak to us, at least pretend to take it seriously. Throwing away or buying objects mindlessly makes us secondary to stuff. Understanding how an object comes to be a possession, how other people possess or don’t possess – I can’t say that’s wisdom. I can say it’s wiser.

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