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Emily Dickinson and John Donne Speak to Us

Emily Dickinson knew the human heart, as do any poet who is worth their poetic salt.  Therefore, she knew about meaning and understood that it was obtained only in the inner most depths of the heart which she captured with the following poem:

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
Dickinson knew that meaning comes from “heavenly hurt” and that it leaves, “no scar” to the casual observer, those who look only on the surface of things; but those who can withstand the pain will find, “internal difference—where the meanings are.”  This “internal difference” allows an ephemeral “certain slant of light” to daunt the citadel of the heart and bring into question certainties which had, to that point, been biases and premises unsullied by the “certain slant of light” of conscious awareness.  It is in the resulting disarray, confusion, doubt, and fear that “meaning” can surface in our heart and allow “words fitly spoken” to flow from our inner most being.

To borrow from another line of Dickinson poetry,  she called this intrusion into our consciousness of this, “slant of light,” a “splinter in the brain.”  This “splintering” is a violation, a penetration, not unrelated to what the famous poet John Donne had in mind when he noted that God would not be able to penetrate the stubborn rational fortress of his egoic self, “except thou ravish me,” which would come only after the answering of his prayer, “Batter my heart, three personed God.”

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John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a list of my blogs. I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

Shame, Truth, Courage, and Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, shocked the world yesterday by disclosing an effort by AMI (the National Enquirer publisher) to blackmail him with salacious text messages they had uncovered, including sexually intimate photos.  Yes, these photos even included the now quite common “d…k pix.”  Ami was trying to get him to back off an intense investigation he had initiated to determine how they had intercepted his texts and emails. But Bezos did not play ball, declaring he preferred to “roll this log over and see what crawls out.”  He admitted the shame of this experience but determined he would not be blackmailed and was willing to call the bluff of the National Enquirer. The National Enquirer and its CEO, Jeff Pecker (chuckle, chuckle) have been intimately involved with Trump, Pecker now having defected under pressure from Robert Mueller’s investigation of the President.  Trump and Pecker colluded to pay off Trump’s hush money to a prostitute and former Playboy bunny.

My concern with this story is shame and its relationship with honesty.  A sense of shame…a “healthy shame”…helps make us human, giving us the motivation to participate in the very necessary social fiction that makes us human.  We keep things hidden and should do so.  Not everything needs to be disclosed.  But when “healthy shame” has been obliterated by toxic shame, it reveals that there is so much to hide that the individual will go to any extreme to keep the secrets of his heart hidden.  Mr. Bezos, like all mortals, has sexual peccadillos fluttering about in his heart and mind and he “imbibed” of a few like most of us have.  But he found the courage and stubbornness to not be blackmailed and owned up to the accusations, taking the “wind out of the sails” of the National Enquirer.  (And, admittedly this “courage and stubbornness” was facilitated by the fact that he is one of the richest men on the earth.)

Life, i.e. “reality”, often pushes us into a corner where we are forced to admit things that are not pleasant.  But when shame tyrannizes us into a façade that is not simply a persona but a prison, we cannot allow “truthfulness” to break out; sometimes we will go to any extreme to deny what we are accused of.  Related to this machination, Trump introduced to us the term “fake news” as a simple term for, “whatever I don’t like or is unpleasant,” is not true.

This issue, given Trump’s intimacy with the National Enquirer, brings to my mind the question of what he and his compatriots have dug up on members of Congress.  We all have stuff we don’t want to come out and it is now clear that if the intent is there to uncover it, it can be uncovered.  Blackmail would explain some of the blind compliance with Trump’s whims that many noted Republicans have demonstrated; Lindsey Graham and McConnell comes to mind, to name but two.

Trump is Getting “Pelosi’d”

What does Trump to hide? The threat of “investigations” is now present.  The House of Representatives is now controlled by the Democrats and the comfort of the “swaddling clothes” the Republican-controlled Congress provided Trump is not there.  Trump is getting Pelosi’d.  Nancy Pelosi is now presenting the limits to Trump that a bedrock principle of our government, “separation of powers” gifted our nation with.  But people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the Republican cabal, made a commitment to cover for Trump’s political, ethical, and moral excesses.  And, that damned “evangelical council” facilitated the cover of many evangelical Christians. (Yes, I’ve got an axe to grind with them for betraying rank-and-file evangelicals.)

Trump is the “word fitly spoken” for the Republican Party, the perfect articulation for their decades long effort to hide the racism, bitterness, jealousy, calumny, and deceit they live in denial of.  He has put on the table all that they never had the courage to acknowledge, demonstrating that human quality that none of us like to embrace, a penchant for being dishonest with ourselves. Trump has so much to hide and should fear these “investigations”; for two years he lived in the comfort of an enabling Republican-controlled Congress but now Reality has intervened and is now pecking away at the bubble of narcissism they live in.

None of us like “the Truth.”  We all live inside a persona but usually that façade is not such a self-imposed prison that we cannot handle those moments that come our way when we get exposed and have to utter the famous word of Rick Perry, “Oops!”  Brings to mind the wisdom of T.S. Eiiot, “Oh the shame of motives late revealed, of things ill done and done to others’ harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue.”

Does “It Take A Village?” Yes, It Does!

“Families are to be from.”  This was a wry quip from a high school student of mine in the early 80’s when a sociology class discussion about families was wrapping up.  This young lady was grasping the complexity of family relationships even at her young age, recognizing poignantly that one needs to extricate oneself at some point in life from the familial orbit.  This is usually done with the normal developmental process as young people reach maturity, seek a mate, marry, have children, and begin a family of their own.  But sometimes even then the emotional ties with the family of origin will be inordinate and, one or both of the marital partners will not have “cut the cord” and complications will develop.

The family is a primary dimension of social life.  Family structure is the template in which a child finds his place and learns how to “find his place” in the family at large, i.e. the community, and eventually even in the world “family.”  The family is where connection is established, and explored, and the skills…or lack thereof…will be offered in the social body. The anchor of the family is the mother and father and if their relationship is not stable, or insincere, then the children will not have a stable basis upon which to find their roots in the family dynamic.  A college psychology professor of mine, decades ago, noted that for a child it is more important for a child to know that his parents love each other than that the parents love him.  For the connection between “mommy and daddy” provide an anchor for an inchoate identity and from that anchor will arise a knowledge of parental love that is not prosaic or formulaic.  The script always includes “mommy and daddy love me” but the nuances of the family dynamic, based on the connection between “mommy and daddy” often convey otherwise.

But let me close this grim assessment with a positive note.  The human soul is indomitable.  Most families provide what British psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott described as “good enough ‘parenting’” (his term was “good enough ‘mothering’”).  If parenting were perfect, then children would get a naive impression life is about and would be ill-equipped to face that “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” And a facetious note is here in order.  My children are perfect!  That is because my “children” are only whims and fancies of what might have been, whims and fancies that I pine for, but have never experienced.  That is because I never had the courage to take that important plunge into the “dog-and-pony show” of this human endeavor and father children, trusting that Life is good and that all would be well.  But I firmly believe that “there is a destiny that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them as we may” and that all is well in the end.  Yes, even with this current political maelstrom that is gnawing at the soul of my country.


T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, Hope, and Despair

Hope comes when we have lost hope.  “Loss” is the beginning of life, as in the teaching of Jesus…to paraphrase, “Find your life only in losing it.”  And that brings immediately to my mind the almost inscrutable Jacques Lacan who noted that nothing of any significance in life takes place without the experience of loss.  And the consummate summation of this wisdom is the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

It is really hard to lose.  It is hard to lose even in a simple game of checkers, or chess, or a football game with our “local sports team” but even more so in an existential crisis when our soul and spirit are on the line, especially when our “soul and spirit” are infused with the immaturity of ego.  In those moments our ego demands that we “dig in” and cling to our self-deceptions, our “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” (Conrad Aiken).

The loss I am presenting here is the gateway to humility, that which T.S. Eliot described as, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”  This is particularly challenging for those of us who are “spiritually” inclined for it often involves realizing just how “the flesh” has dominated our spirituality which we then realize was intrinsically ersatz.  And, therein, I must plead, “Mea culpa.”

The anguish of this realization is here captured in a couple of quotations from George Eliot:

“But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”  And elsewhere she noted, “There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and have recovered hope.”

“Self-Deception” is Not All That Bad!!! ‘Tis But Human.

Terry Eagleton, in a review of Rita Felski’s book, “The Limits of Critique” in the London Review of Books (January 2017) noted, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.”  The observation of this literary critic is not unrelated to the observation of the Apostle Paul who noted, “We see through a glass darkly.”

This observation is personally relevant to me as I’m now realizing just how much I’ve lived my 66 years (67 tomorrow!) in self-deception.  But it is increasingly nice to understand that this is the human predicament and the lot of us all.  Therefore, when others who are so “stupidly” inured in their own little “bubble” appear on my radar, I am made to realize, “Hmm.  There am I, but by the Grace of God.  And, even with that Grace, ‘There am I.’”  It is not possible to escape the human dilemma that we view the world, including ourselves with a skewed vision, that we see the world, “through a glass darkly.”  This is the world from which Jean Paul Sartre noted, in his play, there is, “No Exit.”

It takes humility to accept this human fate.  But “humility” is so often a commodity that is rife with arrogance and pride.  I prefer the notion of “humility-ization” as the process in which we spend the rest of our lives being disabused of the certainties in which we have smugly been ensconced.

Vulnerability, Faith, and “Opiate of the Masses”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, observed in his book, “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” that self-awareness is a very subtle and  often misunderstood phenomenon.  According to him, “Imagining that we have arrived at a satisfactory level of self understanding is clear indication that we have not in the least.”

Self-understanding is the process of becoming conscious.  And this is a task that we never finish completely though it is so comfortable to convince ourselves that it is.  The resulting certainty allows us to function in the smoothly-oiled social machinery of day to day life but only at the cost noted by W. H. Auden, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”  At some point in life we need to be able to challenge the smug certainties that we are ensconced in and tippy-toe into the risky domain of faith where we deal with the vulnerability that makes us human.  Otto Brown noted, “To be, is to be vulnerable” and until we have learned to live with some degree of vulnerability we have not become human. But use of this word “faith” is risky territory as it brings to mind religion and often there lies one of the most pernicious traps available to mankind.  For, “god” which often is the key figure in faith can often be merely another escape, a veritable opiate as in Karl Marx’s observation, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”

Fletcher Knebel Rises from the Dead!

Knebel was a writer of popular political fiction during the Cold War of the 1950’s and 1960’s, novels such as “Fail Safe” and “Seven Days in May,” being made into popular movies.  Another novel which did not make it into the movies was entitled, “Is the President Stark Raving Mad.” However, nearly sixty years later someone…for reasons unknown (wink, wink), the novel is being re-released, certainly in part because of references made by Bob Woodward and Rachel Maddow.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you were “stark raving mad”?  Would you know it and be able to tell someone, “I’m nuts.  Help me!” or would you refuse to acknowledge it.  It depends upon the degree of madness.  The closer one is to total madness, the less likely is he to ask for help as the ability to acknowledge any such infirmity is beyond the capacity of his feeble, fear-ridden ego.  Most of us deal with internal duress at some point in our lives…and times throughout our lives…and one might think of this as “madness” but not anywhere near deserving the label madness.  Life is difficult and at times the difficulties test our resources and our ability to make appropriate adaptation is challenged.  But we do it and never merit the label “mad” though often…perhaps, ”neurotic as hell.”  But those who are “stark raving mad” are so far beyond the pale that they are immune to any external feedback and will listen only to the feedback from their own internal haunts as well as those who have subscribed to the influence of these same haunts. Those who are under this influence have permitted this to happen because the haunts of the mad man, the “identified patient”, have resonated with some muted haunt in their own depths that they have surrendered to the siren call of this embodiment of madness that was before them.

Shakespeare offered pertinent wisdom on this matter, asking the question, “What is madness but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare here recognized the point made above, that we are all mad to some degree, and the problem would lie only with those who are “nothing else but mad.”  He realized that “madness” was only a problem when it consumed the individual to the point that his judgment was gravely impaired so that his choices put himself and/or others in danger.  Such an individual is out of touch with reality, relative to another observation by the Bard, “Madness in great one’s must not unwatched go.”

I hesitate to describe Trump as “a great one” but he does occupy a “great” office with immense power and influence in the entire world.  The evidence of his instability goes back decades, has become more prominent in recent decades as he became a more prominent public figure, and now is glaringly obvious as he occupies the office of the President. No, he is not “mad” for there is, at this point, “something else than mad” present.  But there is madness, “stark raving madness” roiling in the depths of his being, and it cannot but escalate as the Mueller investigation continues to close in on him.  “Acting out” always leads to conclusion, either humility and recognition of one’s excesses or an explosion of violence upon oneself, or others, or both.  The ugliness within must find expression.  We can run from it but it will always follow us until we address it or find a steady diet of “others” upon whom to project it.

I find it interesting that my country, the United States of America…the sole surviving superpower…has the ability to destroy the world but so far does not have within its heart the will or power to even “limit” this personification of its own avarice.  Like any individual, my country is powerless before its hidden, feared, subterranean depths which are now glaringly obvious to us all in this embodiment of our heart’s darkness.  Even his minions are aware of this but they are so “dug in” with his delusional system that they cannot admit it. This is the ‘will to self-destruction” which will relentlessly pursue its ends unless the gods, i.e. “God”, offers us a “deux ex machina” to resolve this mess.

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.