Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Page 6 of 181

Paul Celan, “With a fieldmouse voice”

With a fieldmouse voice (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (translation Ian Fairley)

With a fieldmouse voice
you squeak up,
a sharp
you bite through my vest into flesh,
a cloth,
you slip over my mouth,
even as my talk
would weigh you, shadow,


Perhaps unfairly, I thought of this as a study for George Szirtes’ “Polyphonic,” which I hope to write on later. In that poem, a shadow lodges in a man’s mouth while he speaks, and an argument commences between him and the shadow.

The action of Celan’s poem bears similarity. The speaker addresses a shadow which has come over him. And the shadow is not unrelated to the speaker’s own voice.

Here, the shadow is also aggressive, moving onto the speaker. It seems to start from outside him, almost imperceptible (“fieldmouse voice”). Then all of a sudden it grips, bites, tears into flesh. But the tearing into flesh feels accidental, as the speaker’s clothing, his vest, looks like the target. The shadow ultimately forms a cloth over him and slips over his mouth.

My impression of the shadow: it’s one of Eros’ arrows. Getting bitten by a squeaky mouse that doesn’t really know what it wants to chew is a lot like love. Not love of the “omg I think I’m crushing on that hottie at the bar” sort. This is real romance, where the faintest sound latches on and doesn’t let go. It hits suddenly out of the everyday. To resist is pain; whether any pleasure exists apart from pain is a good question. You’d argue, if this is love of a more real sort, that the speaker would at least allude to how necessary or choiceworthy it is. I do think that allusion presents itself.

Talk weighs the shadow covering the mouth down. To speak is to break the spell in a way, as the shadow will move less quickly over him. But to speak is also to keep the shadow with oneself, to make it more earthly, to make it more real. What’s funny is how this process exists for the people we truly love and who truly love us. Most of what we call love seems to be some sort of game bearing a resemblance to this. On a larger level, this is most unexpected.

Emily Dickinson, “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act” (997)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (997)
Emily Dickinson

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —


This poem seems to spend a lot of words prolonging our agony. “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” “a borer in the axis,” “ruin is formal,” “fail in an instant, no man did:” our completely falling apart is our own fault, pure and simple. We put in play a principle doomed to decay, if it wasn’t a fatal enterprise in its very inception.

However, I’ve been driving myself crazy the last month wondering what I can do to make my prose and speech sharper. My reaction to this poem was not to wallow in more self-pity, but wonder what Dickinson was up to. Surely she knows that people undergo incredible traumas that break the strongest wills. That even if one wants to blame oneself for faulty reasoning and indulging delusions, there are still others getting hit by disasters which are “an instant’s act.” It would be beyond cruel, not to mention unreasonable, to expect they would have the resources to deal with everything brought upon them.

Her poem starts with a speaker musing on crumbling nearly abstractly, as if it were a mere dimension of time:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

“Instant’s Act,” “fundamental pause,” “processes,” “organized decays” – the subject of the language she employs is Time itself. “Crumbling” and “Dilapidation” bring to mind the image of a building, but “Dilapidation” merely describes “processes.” “Organized Decays” feels like it augurs the introduction of something natural, but nothing living or organic has been introduced in this stanza.

From Time the speaker moves to the Soul, but while she provides organic imagery, almost nothing living is given:

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

She moves from a “cobweb” on the soul to a “Cuticle of Dust.” The dust might as well be our skin. Suddenly, the imagery changes to the mechanical. There is an axis and it is rusting, perhaps because of the very elements of which it is composed.

What stands out is “Borer” – that is either a worm or insect. It is something living, only metaphorically some kind of mechanical malfunction. All a “Borer” does is wreck an attempted motion. Up to this point, there has been no mention of motion other than “crumbling.”

Before we close read the third stanza, we should summarize where we’ve come. The speaker started with Time, then mused about the Soul. Not once did she engage the prospect of something being alive, except obliquely. This may be a clue that the principle she stands upon was fatal from its inception, moreso than most principles. Something was overwhelmingly self-defeating in her logic. It sounds like she wanted to build a sure foundation upon which to act; what’s crumbling is her house upon the sand. “Cobweb on the Soul” is very strange: don’t people who build use their souls? They are usually described as spirited. Also peculiar is that a layer of dust is one’s skin. It’s like the speaker wanted to trade her mortal coil for something more lasting, but in the process ignored what she can do with her own body.

One could say traditions inspire us and make us want to be like the great figures of yesteryear. But that can be flipped on its head, as we do pursue false idols.

The speaker, I think, has too strong a sense of sin. She wants immortality in this life, and still thinks the principles she holds can obtain that. The problem is that she’s watching herself fall apart every second she insists on this. She seems to be blaming herself for not being spirited enough, for not being physically resilient enough. She continues by citing the Devil as the problem:

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

The movement has been from “Time” to the “Soul” to “Man.” But again, except for a man slipping, the organic, natural world is completely missing. “Ruin is formal:” there are principles she holds that she has not purged. She lacks purity and so is doing the “Devil’s work” unknowingly. “Slipping – is Crashe’s law:” there is no such man as Crashe. Dickinson’s speaker made a name up from the concept of “crashing.” That tells you all you need to know about how the speaker engages humanity.

All that being said, this is not Dickinson simply ranting against theism. There’s a degree to which the speaker is an aspect of her, of all of us. If you insist that what you do must last, then yes, you are going to crumble. All of us need to take the world as is, the one we were born into and remains in front of us, seriously. We need to keep in mind that we create and recreate structures of belief that we treat as one-size-fits-all solutions. The solution sounds simpler than it is, of course. The world comes with its share of sticks and stones that break bones, as well as words that hurt worse. Many times, the search for an unshakeable foundation emerges from that pain.

How different do YOU feel the United States would be without the Constitution?

Suffice to say I’ll be talking about American Constitutionalism with scouts tomorrow.

The goal, as I see it, is to help them create thoughtful responses to questions like these: What makes a good citizen? Why are the Declaration of Independence and Constitution important? – In other words: Are you, as a good scout, working at being civic minded?

But what is unstated dominates any potential response. To get to what is unstated, we can start with being a bit skeptical of the motives these kinds of questions assume. Maybe some people want to be the embodiment of patriotism: self-reliant, honorable, loyal. But there could be others who just want the power to be self-reliant and get honors without regard to their own behavior. This isn’t to cast doubt on anyone’s motives or any particular institution. It is to wonder how “What is good for me?” becomes the same in our minds as “How do I serve my country?” Every nation that has ever existed posits the two as more or less the same.

I actually didn’t start by being skeptical of anyone, I should add. I started by asking myself the title of this post and wondering why the heck I would ask such a thing. The question conflates tradition and history, justice conceived at another time, with how I feel now about anything. And before someone says this question is dumb or ill-formed, I’ll go further and say it is perfectly well-formed. It tries to square who one is exactly with the order handed down to one. It almost assumes your human nature is exactly the product of being a part of a country.


I think I do want to talk about the Constitution and values tomorrow. I’ll start off with how the Declaration of Independence has grand, powerful rhetoric – “all men are created equal,” have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – and how this can be acid on any given regime. The declaration of natural right, while obviously groundbreaking and moral, lends itself to wanting too perfect justice. The Constitution sidesteps this, continuing the project of the Declaration by focusing on large issues of practical import:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Those issues of practical import veer far away from proclaiming any right to revolution. The ends of forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, and providing for the common defense are all about security in one way or another. Promotion of the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty concern property.

The higher values can disappear, and often do disappear, when we have to get things done. The Constitution is about getting a working government which does not threaten liberty. At this point and only this point, I’ll move into talking about the structure and powers of the various branches. I’ll mention beforehand the “little bill of rights” as an expression of the larger concerns (but not as large as, say, equality). I’ll talk a little bit about the Bill of Rights after some basics about checks and balances and separation of powers. But the main theme should be that we ask some very funny questions about things like citizenship. What we’re assuming and why we assume have to be thought through, especially in this age where people are regularly tuning out appeals to genuine patriotism and informed civic participation.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part III)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I started this close-read because I was curious to see how early modern rhetoric works. People like Francis Bacon are in a time where being a scientist is not like it is today. Accordingly, we saw in the first part Bacon talk about truth, but also hint that skepticism and lies have their utility. Truth looked like integrity, but whether it characterized freedom or aided our self-esteem was another matter. In the second part, we saw a rousing defense of truth. It was good and ought to be loved! It was godly! Again, some doubts about this picture were raised. If truth enables you to say you are better than everyone else, are we really talking about truth?

In the last part of his short essay, Bacon returns to the theme of lying again. Of course, this means that being truthful must be emphasized:

To pass from theological, and philosophical truth, to the truth of civil business; it will be acknowledged, even by those that practise it not, that clear, and round dealing, is the honor of man’s nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.

There is theological/philosophical truth, and the truth of “civil business.” What this means exactly Bacon leaves unsaid. What he does say is that everyone, even if they are liars, says straightforward dealing “is the honor of man’s nature.” To mix in falsehoods with truths is like making an alloy. One sacrifices purity for utility.

But Bacon’s demonstration of truth’s purity, as we remarked in part II, is very curious. Either truth is a realm to itself, sounding to a degree like the worst religious fervor has to offer, or truth is part of a divine quest that requires some curious readings of Scripture. Bacon has been pretty clear the way we normally operate is something like this: we have self-knowledge and self-esteem. This is a mixture of truth and untruth. There is also truth in the sense of knowledge strictly, which is about providence and the obtaining of a sovereign good. Though Bacon has been critical of vanity on the surface of his essay, the key passage showing the value of truth – you can survey all the mistakes everyone else makes, while being immune yourself – seems designed to appeal to nothing but vanity.

It would be nice if Bacon just said “truth as useful, as effectual cause, advances humanity more than theological speculation which leads to petty fighting and warfare.” But he can’t say that, and that clues us in to how regimented and dominated by honor previous ages were. What he does say is that lies are most dishonorable. A mixture of lies and truth forms “winding and crooked courses,” “the goings of the serpent.” If one is found “false and perfidious,” one will be covered with shame like nothing else:

For these winding, and crooked courses, are the goings of the serpent; which goeth basely upon the belly, and not upon the feet. There is no vice, that doth so cover a man with shame, as to be found false and perfidious.

This seems pretty straightforward, but again, note the emphasis on honor. The problem with lies is that they are dishonorable, making one shameful, like an animal. But even Christ says to be as wise as serpents, and I do wonder if the problem Bacon points at is being “found false and perfidious.” Not that one lies, but one gets caught lying.

In fact, Bacon points to the dignity and power of lying, cutting against his religious rhetoric a few sentences before. To lie is no less than to confront God. Yes, one could read him as saying lying is nothing but hubris and cowardice toward men. But it could also be that those looking to challenge the “truth” in their age have to take on what is most like god while avoiding the rage of the mob:

And therefore Montaigne saith prettily, when he inquired the reason, why the word of the lie should be such a disgrace, and such an odious charge? Saith he, If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.

Again, one can read Bacon as dismissing the enterprise of lying, of concealing one’s purpose in order to reveal new modes and orders. But it looks like he has worked with two senses of “truth” throughout this short essay. There is truth in the sense of integrity, which makes his last sentence below stand out. No less than God’s judgment is reserved for our lack of faith. But truth and lies in terms of making something out of oneself (not always the same thing as integrity!) or furthering utility is completely missing from the end:

Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.

Thank you for your time. I’m sure commentary on these essays becomes more dense when one has command of all of them. But I wanted to read one as closely as I could to see what we could find.

Emily Dickinson, “Partake as doth the Bee” (994)

Partake as doth the Bee (994)
Emily Dickinson

Partake as doth the Bee,
The Rose is an Estate —
In Sicily.


Looked this one up. Domhnall Mitchell in Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception says this was included with a bouquet of flowers and that everyone then knew of Sicily’s extreme poverty. A surface read of the poem, maybe one we cannot go beyond: You, receiver of the flowers. Take their beauty in moderate amounts, like you were a bee whose life depended on it. In other countries, flowers like these are no less than estates.

I have no problem seeing this poem as “occasional,” but Dickinson always finds ways to challenge when one least expects it. The outstanding question is the drama represented. With so few words, we have to do a lot of speculation. Are these flowers really that beautiful? Is the audience too spoiled for such flowers or overeager for beautiful things? Why this particular warning on the speaker’s part?

The funny thing is we have more information than one would initially suspect. So the speaker’s comment about the rose being an estate in Sicily seems to be sarcasm of some sort, given how the last phrase is set off, left on a line of its own. It looks like an aside. Either Sicily is poor, and these flowers which are probably “pretty good” would be treasured there. Or Sicily is an exotic climate with other amazing flowers, and these flowers still amaze.

Either way, flowers which may not be the best can be pleasing. This fits the grandiose command to “partake as doth the bee / abstemiously.” Dickinson affects a haughty tone which will be seen through by the recipient. But while the speaker indulges some self-deprecation, she does present a real warning for the immediate audience. The recipient probably could use a bit more temperance, a bit more humility. These flowers could be that beautiful, the speaker could be offering that much more. They just need to treat her as best they can. I suspect this is Eliza Doolittle’s “the difference between a lady in a flower shop and a flower girl is not how they treat others, but how they’re treated” writ large.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part II)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

Last time, we wondered why Bacon titled his essay “Of Truth.” He seemed more concerned with skepticism and lying, and pointed indirectly at the advantages they provide. Again, the larger significance of Francis Bacon’s thought: he is a key transitional figure from ancient/medieval thought to the world as we know it today. Democracy and science are prominent themes, but have to be looked for carefully, as Bacon can be considered subversive for his time.

We resume with a comment of Bacon’s about poetry. Poetry, he claims, was condemned by a Church father as something demonic and filled with error, some kind of wine or false nutrition, as it fills the imagination. But poetry may be filling the imagination because it is nothing but a shadow of a lie. Poetry comes and goes, passing through the mind: it’s a shadow puppet show. The deeper lies sink and settle in the mind, and they cause harm:

One of the fathers, in great severity, called poesy vinum doemonum, because it filleth the imagination; and yet, it is but with the shadow of a lie. But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in, and settleth in it, that doth the hurt; such as we spake of before.

What lie, which sinks and settles, did we speak of before? Bacon must mean the type that gives us “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would,” i.e. self-esteem. But no one’s self-image is based entirely on truth. We make do with a combination of truth and lies – or more properly speaking, untruths. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t work for honor or for greater goods.

Of course, you object at this point. Isn’t a life that works for honor, a greater good, or the truth one that is fundamentally true? – Oh, you have much to learn. – Bacon will allow you to use the word “truth” in a number of different ways, assuming their uses completely reconcile. According to him, the sorts of lies I am saying we use for self-respect are merely depraved. Truth only judges itself, teaches inquiry into itself and an erotic love of knowledge. Also, believing one has the truth is not just enjoyment, but “the sovereign good of human nature:”

But, howsoever these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments, and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

Bacon has taken a key element of ancient thought, that the philosopher has a lust for knowledge, and overemphasized its inhumanity. Granted, Socrates can be accused of neglecting the human things. “What is justice?” leads to the inanity and cruelty of the Republic. Aristophanes and the sophists rightly ask how one so unmindful of money can advise regarding human happiness.

The overemphasis makes itself clear in how truth is a realm unto itself, a realm that sounds suspiciously like a universal, monotheistic religion. The “belief of truth” is the “sovereign good of human nature” and our pleasure? No believer about to massacre infidels or heretics thinks they have a mere opinion. By contrast: the Socratic claim was knowledge of ignorance, which, upon further examination, was something Socrates worked for.

Bacon provides, in accordance with his purposes, a retelling of Scripture. Pursuing truth is no less than godly. God first made “the light of the sense” and ended Creation with “the light of reason.” The work of the sabbath (are you supposed to work on the sabbath?) is “the illumination of his Spirit:”

The first creature of God, in the works of the days, was the light of the sense; the last, was the light of reason; and his sabbath work ever since, is the illumination of his Spirit. First he breathed light, upon the face of the matter or chaos; then he breathed light, into the face of man; and still he breatheth and inspireth light, into the face of his chosen.

This little myth reconciling Christianity and rationality is crazy. The light of God that distinguishes beings from chaos is of a reason and purpose beyond us. It requires revelation to understand. Man in Scripture is not meant to be as rational as he is meant to be obedient. That is plainly obvious. With these problems in mind, what the heck being “chosen” in the sense of having light inspired in one has to do with the sabbath or the Holy Spirit is beyond me. I think Bacon ultimately wants to show rationality of a certain sort Providential, i.e. the progress of the sciences. This would make truth useful to man. But Bacon prior to this passage has truth being its own self-sufficient realm, where believing in it is enjoying it.

So what exactly is happening in this essay? For now, the argument seems to be that the pursuit of truth is a godly task that is good in every way. To have the truth is to have the highest honor possible. Those in ships and in battles are subject to fortune and can be laughed at as idiots. However, you, holding the truth, will have pity and move in charity, as you do not need to condescend to swelling with pride:

The poet, that beautified the sect, that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.

Bacon said truth is its own good, even Providential in aspect. And yet he ends this paragraph with a bit of poetry whereby one who has the truth does better than others. This is not an appeal to the good in itself or to divinity. This is a mere earthly pleasure, usually held by one who is vastly superior to opponents in games of power. Bacon is appealing to some kind of courtier or clergyman or warrior desperate for honor. Instead of adventure, intrigue, or force of arms, go find the truth and put oneself in an unassailable position. He has not yet talked about doing science, but he is definitely preparing the ground for that (cf. New Atlantis, where honor and science and religion go hand-in-hand).

Back and forth the last few weeks

It hangs by a thread. At first nervousness, followed by exhilaration. Maybe this is a moment to shine; maybe preparation is for the precarious. Not much later, a thud of failure. That thread swings, if it hasn’t broken.

Being abandoned pushes one to justify oneself too soon.

There should be a plan, otherwise one is a rat in a maze. Still, one continues by struggling with the maze. The immediate, what can be had, matters most. Everything else wouldn’t be there even if one trusted. Identifying an injustice is wallowing in self-pity, no? Rationality means hard truths, right?

To rediscover the trust of others is necessary, but it is nothing close to a rational process. As weird as it sounds, you have to feel sorry for yourself in order to not deny you’re feeling sorry for yourself. People are still driving me crazy nowadays, but instead of blaming myself or my circumstances, I can safely say I’ve been taken for granted, and what I have to offer will show itself soon, if it hasn’t already.

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” (Part I)

Francis Bacon, “Of Truth” | Part I | Part II | Part III

I’ve been disappointed in a number of people recently. Some have shown that they can absorb a lot of information, but could care less about treating others decently. Others are better on that score, but display an enormous amount of immaturity and irresponsibility despite the fact they know better. Still others are dogmatic and too comfortable with their conclusions, and quite a few cannot distinguish their petty complaints from what are serious character flaws. In a number of cases, they unjustly cast virtue as vice. I do feel we are consistently failing others, that we have declared ourselves a right to be trivial, cruel, and petty.

The best thing for me to do is not to continue ranting, but introduce something and see if anyone cares. What follows is a commentary on Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Truth.” To summarize Francis Bacon’s relevance: if one wonders how democracy and science emerged in the West, he is a crucial figure to study. Ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) was concerned with science and democracy, but careful not to endorse both blindly. Socrates was put to death by a democracy; the pre-Socratics advanced inquiry, but did not care about sounding insane. Christian thought overemphasized ancient philosophy’s concern with virtue and the soul. (I’ve written a little bit about this in my Introduction to Machiavelli’s Prince.) Bacon, writing after Machiavelli, breaks with classical thought (virtue is not as important as utility) and certainly with Christianity (the goal of the sciences: “the relief of man’s estate,” or immortality).

Let’s start proving and exploring some of the claims I have made. “Of Truth” begins with Bacon asking a “What is?” question, the sort of question Socrates was said to ask, i.e. “What is justice?” or “What is virtue?” However, “What is truth?” is not put in Socrates’ mouth, but Pilate’s. Like Socrates, there is an element of jest, but Socrates would at least stick around:

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

The “what is” question is asked by one who put God to death, but it did not serve his interest to actually get an answer. Bacon, after his one sentence NaNoWriMo submission, continues by showing a classically-influenced skepticism undermining morality for the sake of freedom:

Certainly there be, that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting. And though the sects of philosophers of that kind be gone, yet there remain certain discoursing wits, which are of the same veins, though there be not so much blood in them, as was in those of the ancients.

Once there were ancient skeptics who dismissed the very concept of truth in order to emphasize that they were free thinkers and actors. Bacon sees in his time “discoursing wits” who play in a similar vein, but are much more trivial. Even though Bacon rejects both the modern and ancient skeptics, he has created a hierarchy in his writing, where the “discoursing wits” of his day do not matter. The want of freedom meant that once it was “bondage to fix a belief.” Once, people insisted on the freedom of thinking, even if they were mistaken about the cause of that freedom.

Abruptly, the subject matter of the essay changes, as it strays from the themes of truth and skepticism. In an instant, Bacon wishes to tell us about how awesome lies are. Truth is difficult and laborious to find; when found, it imposes on one’s thoughts. There is a “natural though corrupt love of the lie itself:”

But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural though corrupt love, of the lie itself.

One can say this is entirely continuous with what was before. The dilettantes of Bacon’s day are lazy, and the ancient skeptics were scared truth would impose on them. But skepticism is a far, far cry from loving lies.

Bacon really wants to focus on lying. “The lie itself,” instead of the truth itself, is loved. He sketches the position of a Greek philosopher who thought that there might be lies told only for “the lie’s sake,” not just for pleasure or advantage. Bacon expresses confusion himself about this position, equating “this same truth” with daylight and lies with candlelights:

One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.

This is where things get interesting. Bacon said a sentence ago that there was a “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” He brought up a Greek philosopher who said much the same thing. Then he expressed his confusion, as if the philosopher and he himself were wrong. Note that the Greek philosopher sorted lies by pleasure, advantage, its own sake. The unnamed Greek philosopher is not Aristotle, but in Aristotle’s Ethics, there are friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. What lies could stand in place of is virtue. (Virtue – arete in Greek – is simply “excellence.”) No wonder Bacon affirms that lies loved for their own sake matter, then sounds like he wants to back away from it.

Bacon argues that “this same truth” is “naked,” “open day-light.” He may mean by the “truth” the specific proposition that the lie in itself is loved, not just that truth in general is daylight, opposed to lies that are lesser lights. Those lesser, artificial lights – you know, ones that help create shadow puppets on cave walls – “show the masks, mummeries, and triumphs of the world” in a “stately” and “daintily” fashion. Honor and love are merged in lies. One can say pleasure and advantage come from this, but Bacon leads us to a much larger, harsher truth: conventionality is the lie in-and-of itself.

Again, he only leads us there. His very next passage seems to show lies pleasurable and advantageous in such a way that loving lies for their own sake could not exist. Truth has value, like a pearl. But diamonds and carbuncles do better with artificial light, so they are more useful. And lies mixed in with truth give pleasure. See? There is no such thing as lies loved for their own sake. There are only lies for pleasure and advantage, both lesser goals than the beatific vision. Truth is by implication amazing, and Francis Bacon by implication totally believes in God and truth and virtue and all that good stuff:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

Bacon’s surface falls apart when one carefully considers the link between honor and pleasure. The pleasure of mixing in a lie affects opinions, hopes, valuations, imaginations. The consequence is not simply a small ego boost or even self-delusion, for without lies, there is “melancholy,” “indisposition,” a complete crisis of self-confidence. One could say Bacon appeals to humility before God as the highest virtue, but if his audience has any kind of ambition, they’re wondering what notion of truth they need in order to be properly confident. Bacon’s notion of lying is so strong that it wrecks any attempt to feel honored.

To summarize: Bacon shows skepticism about the truth not only to be linked to impiety, but freedom. He goes further and links lying not just to obtaining pleasure and advantage, but the larger issue of the good life. One can question every convention, sure, but then one is going to be miserable. All the same, by discussing the value of skepticism and lying, he is positioning himself for discussion of the value of truth. “What is truth?” is still the outstanding question, and whether reason or revelation will help illuminate it has yet to be seen.

Ninth Reflection: William Carlos Williams, “Fragment”

William Carlos Williams

as for him who
finds fault
may silliness

and sorrow
overtake him
when you wrote

you did not
the power of

your words


Perused Williams, thought I recognized this. A fragment of Sappho’s features, as it is the first part of the poem. Mary Barnard’s translation, which I used in the Second Reflection:

We shall enjoy it

As for him who finds
fault, may silliness
and sorrow take him!

So it looks like all Williams did was add on “when you wrote you did not know the power of your words” with some fancy line breaks. Truth is that a much greater mind than mine has reflected on Sappho, and he’s up to something.

Any sense of “we shall enjoy it” is absent from Williams’ “Fragment.” He starts with a dramatic opening, in the middle of things, with no imperative. A speaker is talking with mind resolved. Silliness and sorrow will “overtake” one who finds this speaker faulty.

We might think “when you wrote” introduces a separable part of the poem, but Williams’ attention to form prevents that line of interpretation. “When you wrote” brings us back to the opening of the poem, framing it, but also sits as the conclusion of “and sorrow / overtake him.” The tenses are mixed if one wants to say “and sorrow overtake him when you wrote,” but the import is clear. The initial speaker has uttered a curse of sorts. “You,” starkly distinct from “him,” makes us wonder if the second speaker, addressing the first, has been cursed.

Sappho has been excised from her fragment, for a moment. Williams is using it as another kind of drama. Perhaps Sappho is making a call to unity, half in jest: “we will all love what I do, but there’s one or two who must be punished for seriousness and lack of joy.” Williams has tightened the scene to two actors. It feels like to “find fault” is to take another, maybe a beloved, too seriously. That beloved curses one with “silliness” and “sorrow,” but wait: shouldn’t we take love as seriously as we can?

It’s crazy that the very same thing which includes us can exclude us. There is no easy way, and it doesn’t look like there is a right way. Williams leaves “know” on a line of its own, abandoned by the rest of the poem. In a way, it accuses Sappho. To declare one’s non-seriousness to be without fault is to say “take me seriously but don’t take me seriously.” That there are people who actually use this as a standard, rather than fighting through all the problems of miscommunication and misunderstanding that occur daily, well.

Eighth Reflection: Sappho, “Although they are / Only breath…”

“Although they are / Only breath…”
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal


At first, duh. Words are immortal as they certainly outlive us. We “command” them through our short-lived, not terribly articulate breathing. Words not only signify a reality outside ourselves that we struggle to grasp, but they also point to inner struggles and confusions. We need words piled upon words to make sense of words.

So our “command” can be considered suspect. And yet this fragment is defiant. “Only breath” is a seeming concession. It allows command of no less than immortality. How can one be so sure?

There are plenty of poems that promise a beloved immortality. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” might be the most famous. It ends thus:

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I’ve never really known what to do with the promise of “hey, I can give you immortality through a poem.” It sort of makes sense for a literary culture, one where epic poetry and things like “Macbeth” are mass media. But then again, people in that culture know plenty of poets who are terrible or will be ignored – either way, they fall by the wayside. And whether the audience being flattered will be remembered in any specific way apart from being loved is an obvious problem. I usually treat the promises of immortality in verse cynically, as a way for clever authors to seduce a not-so-bright audience. Or I talk about how we humans, through the honors we give and the traditions we hold, in a way have created immortality, one that we ironically need to be very lucky to have.

But is Sappho promising someone else immortality? This is just a fragment, but there is a sense in how words which are only breath are immortal. It has less to do with “command” and more to do with “I.” Inasmuch one can present oneself as a person of interest, one might be considered worthy to remember. The words commanded present a problem, and one has put oneself inside them.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2014 Rethink.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑