Category Archives: Authenticity

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries!

WHAT ARE YEARS by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

I have referenced and explored this poem before in this venue, but I wish to delve deeply into the heart of the matter this time.  She dives into the meat of her message with “he who sees deep and is glad” to introduce the notion of furrowing into the marrow of life which, borrowing from the title of an Adrienne Rich poem I like to describe as, “Diving into the Wreck.”  For the “deep,” i.e. the “marrow” will always be murky, dark, wet, confusing, and frightening until we get accustomed to it.  But in so doing we are “acceding to mortality” which is to say we are becoming human which culture has offered us a myriad variety of ways to avoid.  But as we embrace our mortality, recognize that death is our ultimate fate…a veritable imprisonment…we can then rise “upon ourselves as the sea in a chasm, struggling to be free and unable to be, in its surrendering find our continuing.”

I have been to the ocean many times and the vivid image of the ocean crashing into those chasms, powerfully and noisily, and then surrendering into calm is so gripping.  And only in this catastrophe do the waves, in surrender, find their “continuing.”

This poem is a beautiful picture of the infinite energy that we are coming to grips with the world of finitude.  Our first impulse is to rail against the limits that we find, even death, but Moore had discovered that in accepting the circumstance of human life she found empowerment. And then there is the powerful observation, “They who feel strongly behave.”  I have seen so many who feel so very strongly that they cannot behave and succumb to a haphazard life which often includes addiction.  I know one young man, for example, who can give expression to his artistic skills only when confined to prison walls and is spending his early adulthood and soon-to-be middle ages in and out of prison.  When there he has found the answer to the famous movie line of Jim Carrey, “SOMEBODY stop me.”

“Satisfaction is a lowly thing.  How pure a thing is joy.”  Moore recognized the pyrrhic victory of immediate gratification.  C.S. Lewis described sin as, “Preference for immediate satisfaction over a ‘believed-in’ pattern of glory.”  The dilemma of modern life…so vividly illustrated in the United States currently…is an obsessive “preference for immediate satisfaction” over the interest of the long-term welfare of the country…and the species.

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e e cummings and individuation

The poet, e e cummings declared, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
The world has a primary task, socio-culturally speaking, of homogenizing the “raw-material” of the human “matter” that comes its way as we daily “rattle the world for our babies.”  And yes, our babies are the precious coins that our piggy-banks always have stored up for us though we so often don’t treat them with the respect they are due.  But as our babies begin the task of becoming humanized they find the homogeneity pressure is overwhelming and so often they meekly succumb to the pressure and become mere automatons, following the dictates of the tribe into which they are born.

e e cummings demonstrated in his poetry…and I’m sure in the whole of his life…his determination to “rebel against the machine” and thus we witness the absence of punctuation, capitalization, and often the absence of simple linear thinking.  And I’m made to think of “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the fictional creation of Herman Melville in the 19th century, whose compulsive, “I would prefer not to,” was his standard response to the structured workplace of the burgeoning industrial revolution of his day.

Human life is the daily conflict between the twin poles of a demand to comply with “fitting in” and the equally important need to “individuate.”  A healthy society will call for both but so often an imbalance is seen in which the “fitting in” is so heavily emphasized that little or no room is left for individuation and the tribe is left with a nation of sheep. When that happens, the wisdom of Proverbs 29 is relevant, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” for vision is not possible when group-think (or group “vision”) tyrannizes.

Emily Dickinson and the Unconscious

Today I am following up with further thoughts on a little Emily Dickinson poem that I explored yesterday:

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

The little boat being swept out to sea is the fragile human ego, always adrift upon the unconscious wash that carries us along, individually and collectively.  The persona that our ego has crafted, i.e. “the boat,” is very fragile and susceptible to being “carried away” too far from the shore and “lost” or even being “sunk” into the abyss of despair.  Our unconscious fears tend to keep us tethered tightly to the comfortable shore which, should we never find the courage to lose sight of for a moment, Jesus posed the famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  For if we never venture from the shore, we will remain bound to the tribal conventions in which we were born and never discover the Divine potential that was given us at birth, we will never discover the Christ child that lives within.

Tennessee Williams Had Boundary Problems!

Yes he did!  For example, read this thoughtful and provocative wisdom that flowed from his heart, “Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.”

My clinical mind, not quite completely dormant yet, read this and immediately diagnosed, “Porosity of boundaries.”  For this man saw too deeply and felt too deeply and when one is that open he is susceptible to what poet Wallace Stevens described as, “The fatality of seeing things too well.” Life, including relationships must also be lived in a perfunctory manner, on the surface of things, for to dive too far into the depths of life is to risk opening Pandora’s Box.

But my viewpoint of Williams is not as critical as it might seem.  Insight about existential issues requires “boundary problems” otherwise one is confined to living life oblivious to reality, opting to keep on the surface of things. Yes, boundaries are important, even vital, and it is important to be able to maintain involvement and investment in the surface of life even when one’s heart is as open as was Williams’.  And Williams managed to do this, more or less, as he was a successful poet and playwright which usually requires an ability to function in the structure of life and of the art world.  The quoted passage demonstrates what novelist Toni Morrison described as having a heart that was “petal open.”  It was this quality which made his plays so rich and powerful as he was able to reach into the depths of his heart and put on our collective table wisdom that most of us do not have the courage to find on our own.  “The Glass Menagerie” and “Street Car Named Desire” are almost too painful to watch as Williams put human vulnerability right before us and then even rubbed our nose in it!  He put the repressed pain and vulnerability of family life, and of social life as a whole, right before our eyes.

The wisdom of the above quotation is humbling.  We prefer the comfort of being ensconced in our view of the world, including our view of other people including those who we love.  But, Williams displays here the wisdom that W. H. Auden had when he asked the question, “Suppose we love not friends or wives but certain patterns in our lives?”  This same wisdom can be applied to collective experience and pose the question, “Are those ‘bad guys’ actually that bad or are we contributing to their ‘badness’ to accomplish our unacknowledged purposes?  I remember in the 1960’s when the Viet Nam War was raging as my country passionately subscribed to the domino theory about Communist desire to take over the world when now it is quite apparent that there was more to it than we thought.  And what about destroying the Native American culture in the interest of Manifest Destiny only to now see clearly that it was merely an example of “might makes right” so that we were able to accomplish our greedy ends.

Life is complicated.  It is important that we wrestle with the issues that people such as Williams have written about.  But it is also to not make the mistake of taking ourselves too important and allowing the ugliness that is upon us to eat on us to the point of being consumed by bleak despair.  There is always hope.  There is “method to this madness.”  There is “a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invite you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

“Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”

John Donne’s famous sonnet, “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” reveals the intense spiritual passion of those whose “god-spot” in the brain is over-heated.  Donne’s sonnet vividly conveys his deep desire to know God with complete abandonment though he also realizes that it is his rationality that stands in the way of this experience.  He knows that this reason is itself a gift from God but intuitively knows that it has been “captive’d” by something or someone (i.e. Satan) so that it is useless in the quest for God without Divine intervention, unless his reason be “o’er thrown.”

Donne recognized that our reason is not the primary driving force in our lives, even with religious impulses.  Being a poet he was in tune with depths of the heart which most of us never have any awareness of.  He knew that the phenomena of “god” would come to fullest expression only from these hidden spiritual resources in our heart and never as the result of rationality.  Donne was bringing to our attention that life is much more complicated than we like to think, knowing that our “thinking” when given primacy will always keep us on the surface of life.

But life spent on the surface will always be shallow and sorely lacking, with the absent quality always beckoning for attention.  Some use the term “god” to refer to this driving force but any word choice is not important for words can never capture this experience though our “captive’d” would like us to think so.  Religion was created to address this issue, the word itself meaning to bind together something which is divided.

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.