Kobayashi Issa, “New Year’s morning”

New Year’s morning (from Modern American Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Robert Hass)

New Year’s morning–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Comment:

I guess you could rejoice that “everything is in blossom” on “New Year’s morning,” that spring itself celebrates the emergence of light from darkness. For us nowadays, even in the midst of winter, the calendar year switches and resolutions are made, as the perception of time is shaped to fit a conception of self. We want to feel like we’re growing, like life is our journey, and so we have set dates as festivals and milestones. I guess if you set the new year in spring, or some point where things were absolutely in bloom, you’d reinforce this logic to an extreme degree. It would be like the universe itself, the natural world, was reaching its peak at a certain moment, and we were wise enough to mark that as our new year. If everything else is in bloom, we should be too: a natural law, no?

Well, Issa’s like “meh.” “I feel about average.” Maybe he’s an unnatural being, or naturally a grouch. Or this is just another day, another day where he feels average while everything blooms. It’s funny how he points to his freedom in merely approaching the situation the way he does. His attitude points to his perception of time, and that in turn points to the fact that our perception of time doesn’t really follow any natural order we truly understand. Maybe we’re entirely determined, but we don’t know enough to really know that. Normalcy, averageness, is a strange condition in a universe that seems on edge, teetering between chaos and magnificence.

Bruno Bettelheim, “Freud and Man’s Soul”

“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love,” claims Freud in a letter to Jung, and Bettelheim devotes his short book to this proposition (1). Bettelheim focuses on mistranslations of Freud, mistranslations which make his work sound more scientific when its purpose is far more ordinary (2). The word “soul” (Seele), with its attendant notions of a spiritual life and all-too-human struggle, seems to have been written out of his work in translation, often replaced with “mind” (Geist) (3). “Mind” advances the idea that the rational has priority, that the conscious can simply conquer the unconscious. This badly botches the rationale underlying psychoanalysis, pushing it as a medical technique, rather than an intense process of self-reflection which ultimately creates more sensitivity to the human condition (4). Freud’s “greatest hope was that with the spreading of psychoanalytic knowledge, and the insights gained through it, the rearing of children would be reformed. Freud considered this ‘perhaps the most important of all activities of analysis,’ because it could free the largest number of people – not merely the few who underwent analysis personally – from unnecessary repressions, unrealistic anxieties, and destructive hatreds” (5).

Complete liberation from the unconscious is not possible, even though “uncover[ing] the unconscious was intended to give us some degree of rational control over it” (6). Rather, the psychoanalyst herself should make a reflective, perhaps therapeutic journey and more fully realize from where her thoughts and emotions come (7). Freud’s classical allusions only make sense in this context. For him, the classical underworld, a combination of memory and fantasy, reflects one’s grappling with the unconscious. To experience the underworld and leave it we suppose a necessary journey, one which can forge, within limits, a better guide to the underworld in general. On this note, the famous Oedipal complex does not simply reduce to “boys have sexual desires for their mother.” Rather, it is the process of discovering where one’s feelings for one’s parents come from and how they make themselves manifest in our lives. Oedipus’ great love for his adopted parents results in self-imposed exile. His preoccupation with killing them, his enormous anger at himself, culminates in the fury he unleashes on Laius and the near-suicidal confrontation with the Sphinx (8). Oedipus, of course, is not the only person with a problem in his story. Laius and Jocasta did the unthinkable in letting their fear of the future govern them. The Oedipus story is about the unrealistic expectations both parents and children have and their tragic consequences. “We all are projected into deep conflicts by our infantile desires, but also the need to resolve these conflicts through the difficult struggle for, and the achievement of, self-discovery. This is why, as Freud always insisted, the Oedipus complex is central to psychoanalysis” (9).

Perhaps Bettelheim’s best critique of Freudian mistranslation concerns the structure of consciousness: id, ego, and superego are not the terms Freud himself uses, as the German is it (Es), I (Ich), and above-I (Über-Ich) (10). Usually, when we speak of id, ego, and superego, we’ll say the id is the pleasure principle, an unconscious set of drives, the ego is rational, trying to master those drives, and the superego is the seat of moral reasoning and the norms we’ve internalized. We’ll make it sound like all the ego has to do is side with the superego and all human problems are solved. “Es,” “Ich,” and “Über-Ich” go a different direction. They are not stylized, medical-sounding terms, but everyday German, meant to prompt a layman to further examine his own life. The it, yes, is unconscious and concerns pleasure and relief. It is the underworld, a past we carry with us which we haven’t fully come to terms with. One is not simply going to master that past, for any insight into that past is a great achievement, one which can be considered most rational. The above-I, then, can be seen as an obstacle to self-understanding in some cases. We try to internalize normative standards which do not appreciate the justice of our situation, we place heavy moral burdens on ourselves. This is not to say we shouldn’t try to lead more normal lives, nor to say that man will always be discontent with civilization. The whole point of psychoanalysis is to show that our deepest concerns about the world we live in are warranted, and we need to learn to mature with the depth of our own thought and experience. The “I,” then, isn’t really rationality itself, or a rational self. It is the synthesis of the “it” and “above-I,” respectful of the unconscious, wisely critical of society, moving toward rationality. The “I” is simply that, an “I,” a self working toward self-realization.

I could say more about the book, but for those of you who also grapple with the question of the character of political philosophy, you can see how psychoanalysis, or something like it, begins to open a most necessary inquiry. Something about way political philosophy inspired by Leo Strauss is conducted nowadays stays deliberately blind to the educative process. It’s strange how one can detail a number of techniques used by the greatest authors, gain a number of insights, and have nothing to say about who people actually are.

Notes

(1) The quote is the epigraph to the book.
(2) Bettelheim, 1984, p. 5-7
(3) p. 70-71
(4) p. 7
(5) p. 33
(6) p. 16
(7) Some important qualifications on p. 33: “Freud… was concerned mostly with broadly conceived cultural and human problems and with matters of the soul.” Also on the same page: “He [Freud] admitted that he was never really enthusiastic about psychoanalysis as therapy.”
(8) p. 20-30
(9) p. 30
(10) p. 53-64

References

Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. New York: Vintage, 1984.

James Baldwin, “Untitled”

Untitled (from Poetry)
James Baldwin

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?
    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.
     I
            am beneath that water.
            It falls with great force
            and the light
Blinds
            me to the light.

Comment:

In the last two posts, I began meditating on age and maturity. As it is only a beginning, we’re finding lots of things that could be wise or insightful, but we can’t be entirely sure yet how or when they apply to people or situations. Regarding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Heaven-Haven,” I wondered how dismissal can come dressed as admiration. Some people can express awe at someone else being a nun, and not even bother to think about the level of humility, commitment, and reflection involved. It takes a lot of guts to commit to a genuine reflection, a genuine thought, and there are many who don’t really appreciate the courage others have. In Amiri Baraka, “Snake Eyes,” I turned my attention to the immense guilt one can feel for letting one’s idols waste away. Those who shape us we invest with divine authority, and that very authority we use as an excuse for neglecting their humanity. This is about the young failing to reach out to the old (I’m definitely guilty of this), but it isn’t hard to notice a somewhat parallel issue, and turn one’s gaze to those who would rather watch television for 12 hours straight than reach out to someone.

If you’re not reading James Baldwin while browsing your timeline or newsfeed, you’re missing out. There are many voices that speak of the unspeakable, that bear witness to the transformation of people into tools of the damned. Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” does not simply speak as they do, but cries. As it cries, it reveals itself the product of wrestling not just with yourself, not only the world, but the very source of any judgement at all:

One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

You could summarize these lines as “man has been warlike, and since he is so warlike, innocence is not only impossible but hypocritical,” but you’d miss the whole point in doing so. Baldwin struggles, in these words, to articulate a moral value for his nephew: What should he become? Not simply hard, able to take pain, but “tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death,” able to not break down when seeing the lifeless, beaten, broken bodies which merely wanted equality. He must realize that “mankind has been best” at death, at killing. That to speak love is not only radical, but will result in humiliation and ostracism. In other words: you’ll be seen by those who deny you rights as weak, seen by those who have become brothers-in-arms as traitors. Moreover, those who deny rights especially have become comfortable in a notion of innocence. Innocence, then, is not merely hypocritical, but accepting of the violence of division and conquest, an approval of the maintenance of that conquest.

This is James Baldwin. Ignore him, fine, but don’t tell me later you weren’t warned. His prose breathes the fire of Pentecostal preachers who know the Day of the Lord is like a thief in the night.

In this short poem, Baldwin admonishes God Himself. There’s too much rain, too much life:

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?

Think about the rain you send. Think about what you’re doing. Are you a mother desperately stuffing her child full of food, hoping that will result in her being loved? Are you the child, playing gardener, throwing seeds and water everywhere, visiting hourly to see if anything’s grown? God as Creator is playful, manic – indeed, a line of commentary on the Book of Job holds that God was so in love with creating that, in essence, He just keeps creating. With so much love, he creates His adversary. Something similar is happening in this poem, I suspect:

    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.

God and Baldwin agree that the sound of falling water is glorious. It carries one away, carries even the Creator away. The light, even more so. It is “marvelous,” it speaks marvels. This poem holds a radical suggestion: maybe all God does is let water fall. All He can do, after Creation, is open the sluices of the firmament of Heaven, and let what was once everything out. All He can do, after the Flood, is not do that again. All God can do is love, and by extension, not overwhelm what He’s created with love:

     I
              am beneath that water.
              It falls with great force
              and the light
Blinds
              me to the light.

It sounds strange to complain about being loved, but our all-too-human experience understands exactly of what Baldwin speaks. “The light blinds me to the light” makes perfect sense. In continuing the theme of the last two posts, we know getting older can involve being dismissive of others’ choices, or having great guilt because we didn’t even regard when we could. Baldwin reminds us that too much love is sometimes no love, that being in love with love only goes so far. Parents who wonder what they can give children who are estranged think too much of giving and not listening. They only hear themselves, the echoes of their feeling of love. Obsessive lovers do the same, failing to set boundaries. There are no easy answers, of course: if you don’t try to show someone they’re loved, you’ve failed because you haven’t done anything. But we’re a bit prone to go to extremes in doing, as opposed to exercising moderation, exercising openness.

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), “Snake Eyes”

Snake Eyes (from Poetry)
Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones)

That force is lost
which shaped me, spent
in its image, battered, an old brown thing
swept off the streets
where it sucked its
gentle living.
              And what is meat
to do, that is driven to its end
by words? The frailest gestures
grown like skirts around breathing.
                                   We take
unholy risks to prove
we are what we cannot be. For instance,

I am not even crazy.

Comment:

As a title, “Snake Eyes” opens a world of misfortune and deception. It does not seem to bear the imprint of the everyday, but brings forth addicts, gamblers, and criminals out of dark corners. Yet Baraka immediately moves from the title to what could be a great grief, “That force is lost which shaped me.” He does not hesitate to describe that force as human:

That force is lost
which shaped me, spent
in its image, battered, an old brown thing
swept off the streets
where it sucked its
gentle living.

Someone made him who he is, and for that, paid a heavy price. With her force spent, now she is “spent in its image,” “battered,” “an old brown thing.” Her beauty, strength, and humanity were given to him, and now the only thing left is an “it,” “swept off the streets where it sucked its gentle living.” I’m using “her” to designate that force he has lost, but Baraka moves us to wonder. The force could be anyone who inspired him, who gave his life shape. It could be a parent or prostitute, lover or elder, brother or sister, teacher, mentor, pastor, homeless, alcoholic, junkie. (It could be himself, too. See N.B. below.) “Swept off the streets where it sucked its gentle living” is anyone who has done no harm, has given shape to the poet, and has aged with expanding misfortunes. “Snake Eyes” could be an elegy to those broken. To be broken, one had to be great before.

About that greatness: “And what is meat to do, that is driven to its end by words?” Life and its concomitant decay alone did not break the Muse. No, people and society did it too, and quietly, the poet indicts himself, as he drove meat “to its end by words.” He took, and in some crucial way, did not give back. Maybe he couldn’t give back. Somewhere, there are the words he didn’t say, as these few words only mark the end. Now it is too late to speak: “The frailest gestures grown like skirts around breathing.” If she were to communicate, it would be in feeble, frail gestures that couldn’t possibly convey her pain or acknowledge his guilt. If she were to communicate, it would mask the greater tragedy.

The guilt describes him too. He is also meat driven to its end by words. Would gratefulness – acknowledgement – have helped her? Would it have made him redeemable? Probably not: American society loves to destroy those who are deservedly proud, to turn them into an “old brown thing” or “meat” ready for its end. It destroyed her, and it can destroy him. To show gratefulness, to put away pride, is not about saving anyone but simply acknowledging kinship. Of his life, the poet declares that “We take unholy risks to prove we are what we cannot be.” “Snake Eyes,” ultimately, are his own eyes, which deceived him greatly. They let him think her larger than life, allowed him to indulge his pride. He strayed away from the Muse for what was presumably more praiseworthy. The last question, then, has to concern his own sanity. In trying to come to grips with his guilt, the reality of his situation, he has to question every motivation he’s had. This is more than a denial of innocence, as it makes one wonder if one should even use his own eyes: “We take unholy risks to prove we are what we cannot be. For instance, I am not even crazy.”

N.B. I could speak, instead of a “her” or “Muse” or “mentor,” of the poet’s split self. A force integral to his creative spirit has left him, and all that is left of him is “meat” and “words.” However, I always find it helpful to render the drama of the poem as vividly as I can. The split self does not help us imagine the situation where leaving the street is leaving people who invested in you behind. Force as an aged Baraka more than likely gives the poem a gentle humor. It fails to acknowledge that there actually are old brown things swept off the streets everyday, as if they didn’t even have the right to speak.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Heaven-Haven”

Heaven-Haven
Gerard Manley Hopkins

A nun takes the veil
  
    I have desired to go	
      Where springs not fail,	
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail	
    And a few lilies blow.	
 
    And I have asked to be	        
      Where no storms come,	
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,	
    And out of the swing of the sea.	

Comment:

“A nun takes the veil.” In the quietest, most humble moment, vows are taken; any ceremony distracts from meaning. A human being binds her earthly life to an eternal promise.

I can’t say enough about how incredible this is. I’m basically middle-aged at this point, just waiting for more crises to hit. If I see someone younger take such vows, what impresses is the desire for faith. It’s not that nuns don’t have faith – they do, but that’s not really what’s important. To put yourself in a position where you would continually pray for the world, pray for everyone else’s concerns, hope that God would make himself known to all: this is asking directly for the mustard seed to become the great tree. It’s asking on the terms God Himself laid down, but also on the proposition that belief is so fundamental it must be regarded on its own terms. I don’t know what to say about that, as it is a completely different notion of living than trying to obtain some independence and struggling with that experience. It instead makes self-sacrifice the heart of living and attempts to purify belief. There are therefore corresponding spiritual experiences of which I cannot speak.

How will a nun taking the veil be regarded when I am older? When I’ve watched some of the elders I admire engage those who are younger, they praise them for their spirituality. They wisely acknowledge that there’s something special about people willing to live for ideals. However, their appreciation ends there. I don’t know that they think too much more about what it means to try for an ever greater faith. Or what is gained and lost in having an everyday, normal life. I have to bring up the perspective of those who are older because there are so many I’ve run into recently who are embittered. I’ve seen parents teach their kids to hate Muslim kids and spout racist stereotypes. I’ve seen a lot of people who are older throw everyone else under the bus for things they themselves have done that are wrong. I definitely live in a country where a 70 year old man-child bully is considered a leader. There’s an idealism in taking the veil that could protect a nun’s mind and heart from this, but can we use it for our everyday, secular lives?

I’m not sure. Let’s start with the title, for “Heaven-Haven” comes from a prior poem of Herbert’s, “The Size.” “Heaven-Haven: Refuge from the Sea of Tears” notices this, quoting the relevant passage:

Then close again the seam
Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe
In hope of great things. Call to minde thy dream,
And earthly globe,
On whose meridian was engraven,
These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.

“Do not spread thy robe in hope of great things.” Call to mind your dream and the globe of the earth, and you’ll see all longing for success in this life is for naught. The seas are composed of tears, and to be in port, to be in a haven, is heaven. Hopkins starts with this essentially tragic view of life, and starts responding with the joy Christianity could be:

    I have desired to go	
      Where springs not fail,	
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail	
    And a few lilies blow.

“I have desired to go where springs not fail.” The nun states a desire for perpetual refreshment, for the clarity, purity, and nourishment of water. It is, perhaps, the simplest, most essential element for life. This natural baptism is accompanied by a longing for peace, for growth, as she wants to go “To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail / And a few lilies blow.” If you visit that “Refuge from the Sea of Tears” link, you’ll notice that the author of the post, David, argues that “blow” should be taken in an older sense. It probably means something more like “bloom.” I guess you can argue that, as I’m certainly no expert on Victorian poetic conventions. I’ll just say that it is no sin to note that “springs not fail” and “few lilies blow” both imply motion. This haven is a peaceful, restful place for the living. The dialogue the nun is having, in her vows, is less with the world and more with other spiritual notions. The nun may accept martyrdom, but it is not her calling. Nor is any notion of spiritual warfare or physical suffering – again, things that can quite easily be associated with monks and cults – present in this vision. Rather, her vows are an all-too-human gamble. I will place my trust entirely in God and accept spiritual peace. I pray I will be sustained in this. Note well that “to go” implies strongly that this is the end of her journey, but since the kingdom of God is something one works for in this life, there is significant overlap between the destination and getting there.

The vows continue. She asks to be “where no storms come,” where the crash of the sea cannot be heard, and she herself is “out of the swing of the sea:”

    And I have asked to be	        
      Where no storms come,	
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,	
    And out of the swing of the sea.

The desires of the first stanza are more apt to be fulfilled than this stanza. Here, the vows are a gentle plea for supernatural support. Can one really live life, in any way, “where no storms come?” One needs to ask God for this even as one enters a convent: one can take care of internal storms to some degree, but what about storms themselves?

Where she wants to be, what she wants to be, is dependent on a strength beyond her. That it might seem impossible is a mere challenge for belief. With the right faith, one can move mountains. That faith ignores the crash of the “green swell,” an enormous sea of tears. She has no use for self-pity or failed dreams. She knows she asks to be where no storms come; this does not mean her strength when confronting a storm is absent. She knows she asks to be “out of the swing of the sea.” On the one hand, her joining a convent, her taking the vows, will help further that. On the other hand, she will always be in the swing of the sea. What grounds her faith is a profound realism: she knows the value of not being hammered by chance. That value is not life in some static, fixed sense, but living in a gentle, pure way, able to appreciate the simplest things that have been given, building from there.

I think you can understand why I brought up elders and older people earlier. Maybe what people should be impressed with is not “spirituality,” but the ability to think through what one wants, what kind of person one wants to be. Maybe those are the things we should be talking about, as it is most notable in this poem that a nun, with all that she is required to believe, has not started declaiming all she thinks she knows and chiding us for not accepting them.