Category Archives: existentialism

“My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” —Hermann Hesse

Life is messy.  So, we attempt to eliminate the mess but the end result is that at best we lessen the mess for ourselves and heap it upon others.  But we can’t get away from the gist of Hesse’s observation, life is messy unless we are willing to lie to ourselves. Of course, “lying” to ourselves is how social convention is formed in the first place.  That is to over state the matter for sake of emphasis but, as Otto Brown once wrote, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” and I’m benefiting from this veil even as I write.  The problem lies only in the human tendency to not acknowledge the veil, to not realize that it subjects us to seeing “through a glass darkly” and basking in the comfortable illusion that we see things objectively.

“Not wanting to lie to ourselves” is now becoming ever more apparent as the contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies of our social facade have crystallized into a single point, Donald J. Trump, who is merely the figurehead of our collective duplicity.  He is obviously the “toy of some great pain,” spinning and twisting about like the bit of paper cavorting about in the wind in that mesmerizing scene in the movie, “American Beauty.”     He is being used by the gods to give us an opportunity to own our ugliness, our horrid self-absorption that refuses to see beyond the end of our own nose.

Of course, I’m talking about you…and all of those who aren’t reading this…as I stand above all of this, being as narcissistic and psychopathic as Trump!  Wink, wink!  Really big wink, wink!!!  My facetious point is that this is a human problem and all of us have this tendency to go to great extremes to avoid reality, reality which includes a deep-seated aversion to being disillusioned of our pretensions.  ‘Tis much easier to cling to our “invented stories.”

**************************************

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

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Advertisements

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.
https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Hamlet’s Wisdom for Our Political Impasse

Shakespeare had wisdom relevant to the political impasse of my country. He realized that human nature often leaves us trapped in a cognitive grid, i.e. being “lost in our head,” which W. H. Auden described as the world of a “logical lunatic.” In the following passage Hamlet is in deep anguish and pines for his mother to listen to him, listen not merely be “waiting” until he finishes talking:

(Hamlet, speaking to his mother, Gertrude)
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace. Sit you down
And let me wring your heart. For so I shall
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damnèd custom have not bronzed it o’er so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense. (i.e.feeling)

Gertrude was wringing her hands with her own anguish and guilt over her son’s misery. But Hamlet, consumed by rage…teeming with “mother issues”…would not give her any mercy and asked her to take a seat and let him “ring her heart.” And Hamlet knew he could, for he knew that with his murderous rage he was able to, “speak daggers to her, not use them.”

But Hamlet’s creator, Shakespeare, knew that Gertrude was like all humans, insulated with a thought-world shaped by “damned custom” that had “bronzed o’er” her heart so that it would prevent any affect which would allow genuine listening. “Damned custom” is a necessary gift of human culture, to fill our heads with contrived thinking designed to help us function in our tribe which means to minimize the influence of “bothersome” affect. But if the “bronzing o’er” is done too completely, then one is not capable of listening to anyone but only in interpreting what is heard in terms of a medley of pre-conceptions and premises. Without that “proof and bulwark” being in place, listening to the anguish of another person would prove too painful so culture provides us platitudes such as, “Oh, it will pass” or “My, I know how that feels” or, “Oh hell. Why don’t you just get over it,” or, “God knows what is best.”

In the current political situation this denial system leads to the “hunkering down” phenomena in which some, when faced with contradictions and absurdity in their stances, merely assert their beliefs with greater emphasis. This is because core beliefs are seen to be under attack and these “core beliefs” …always to some degree unquestioned assumptions…are not subject to question. And, of course it is this morass of the unquestioned that harbors “material” that is deemed too painful to address.

“They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” Goethe

Poetry Sometimes Puts a Dollop of Grim on our Plate!

EXSANGUINATIONS by Joyce Carol Oates

Life as it unspools
Ever more eludes
Examination
We wonder what is best—
Exsanguination in a rush
Or in a 1,000 small slashes.

Oates has the grim that poets often have. This poem makes me think of Shakespeare’s cryptic observation about, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Poets do not have the filter that most people are equipped with…in a sense, “cursed” with…and therefore are skilled at bringing our attention to the underbelly of life as well as the sublime.

Life is harsh. This harshness often bites us in the butt and the gods have equipped us with an infinitely resilient heart to cope…most of the time! Here I want to share an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s “Preludes” relevant to the beauty and Grace that is available in the context of human struggles:

DUST as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all 5
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I 10
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use 
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

Language & the Existential Abyss

There is some way in which we don’t have language, but language has us. To put it differently, in our youth we don’t “acquire” language but language “acquires” us. We are born into a verbal field and the matrix of that field consumes us…in a sense…as it shapes our identity. To illustrate one dimension of its formative influence, in English we say, “I see the book” while Eastern languages would say, “The book is seen.” In the West language has shaped us so that we see ourselves more separate from the object-world while in the East the subject-object relationship is more nebulous. Language, infinitely subtle and complex, makes us human. It allows us to communicate, to reach a hand across the existential abyss that would otherwise separate us.
Here are two Carl Sandburg poems which illustrates the mysterious complexity of language:

JABBERERS by Carl Sandburg

I RISE out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

Two tongues from the depths,
Alike only as a yellow cat and a green parrot are alike,
Fling their staccato tantalizations 5
Into a wildcat jabber
Over a gossamer web of unanswerables.

The second and the third silence,
Even the hundredth silence,
Is better than no silence at all 10
(Maybe this is a jabber too—are we at it again, you and I?)

I rise out of my depths with my language.
You rise out of your depths with your language.

One thing there is much of; the name men call it by is time; into this gulf our syllabic pronunciamentos empty by the way rockets of fire curve and are gone on the night sky; into this gulf the jabberings go as the shower at a scissors grinder’s wheel….

**********************************

PRECIOUS MOMENTS by Carl Sandburg

Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

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.

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.