Category Archives: existentialism

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/

Rebecca Solnit on Trump’s Maddening Solitude

This is the best “sermon” I’ve read yet about Trump and his minions.  Rebecca Solnit spares no punches and delivers a prophetic word, not just about Trump, but about our whole culture.  As they say, “Read it and weep.”  And weeping is in order as this is a very sad moment in our history and could get even sadder at any moment.

My use of words like “sermon” and “prophetic” bely my rage at the church culture of my origins.  Yes, “me doeth protest too much.”  I still think that “truth” can be found in spiritual traditions but very often spiritual traditions ossify and become merely “well-worn words and ready phrases that build walls against the wilderness.”  That leaves it to artists, writers, and even comedians to “speak truth to power” and Ms. Solnit here “knocks it out of the park.”

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-the-loneliness-of-donald-trump/

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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/

Paean to Mothers and Home

Home is increasingly important to me.  I like to go places, I’m not to the point of isolation, but I always like to get home.  If I travel, the further I go the more disconcerting and troubling I find it.  I immediately want to get back to the safe and warm confines of my simple little home with my wife, lovely dachshund Elsa, my garden, the birds, and my dear friends who live in the town.  I know this is from my childhood when the home that my mother created was the safe respite from the scary world “out there” that the first grade told me I had to learn to adjust do.  And I did learn to adjust to it but I’m now realizing, as I round third base in my life and head for “home” plate, that certainly “home is where the heart is.”

I stumbled across a notion about the importance of “home” in Greek mythology and was reminded of the emphasis of returning home in their stories, especially the story of Odysseus who was always focused on returning to the comforts of heart and home.  Furthermore, I learned that he actually tried to fake illness to avoid going on the long voyage that would lead to a long war and keep him subjected to great dangers for many years.  And, when he finally was able to head home, many were the obstacles that the fates placed in his way.

Recently I was reminded of an old hymn from my youth about the safety and security of the heavenly home which was promised as the reward for our earthly sojourn:  This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.  If heaven’s not my home, O Lord what will I do?  I think this old hymn, and the Greek myths do convey to us the unconscious duress that human experience puts on our soul and the comfort we find in “home.”  And though fathers are an essential part of making a home, an emotional dwelling place for the children, it is usually the mother who carries the brunt of this deeply important emotional/spiritual burden.  And on this Mother’s Day, I’m grateful for my dear mother, Dorothy Lucille Stough Chamness Smith who did such a fine job for which she is often rewarded by reading “Literarylew” from heaven!!!  And, if she does, I hope she doesn’t yawn and roll her eyes very often!!!

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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/

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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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?

 

Three Poems About Marriage

The following poem beautifully and, kind of darkly, describes the duress that marriage presents to two people who have opted to engage in the process of becoming, “one flesh.”  I like to think, facetiously, that marriage was invented by the gods just to torment mankind, forcing two diametrically opposed forces to live together under the same roof.  Traditional life has controlled the tension of this union of opposites by implementing overt power, defining the term “marriage” as a relationship in which the female would be subservient to the male.  Technically this subservience went to the extent that it deprived women of a subjective experience, that their desire should only be to please their husband. But women usually managed to get their pound of flesh in the relationship which Alfred Hitchcock beautifully and darkly portrayed in his movie “Frenzy.”  In this movie a psychopathic killer was on a rampage of grisly murder of young women and the stiff and proper police inspector was obsessed with stopping the rampage.  After a hard day at the office and on the streets looking for the killer, the poor police inspector would retire to the comfort of his home where his would wife would have dinner waiting.  However, as she dutifully and daintily presented an ornate and formal dinner, he would grimace as she had prepared food that he didn’t like or was given to him in minuscule portions.  In one scene, when she stepped back into the kitchen he hurriedly poured his soup out.  But all the while as he was tortured through these scenes, she would be so delightful, loving, and gracious and he would respond in kind.

Here is a narrative poem by poet Anne Carson in the most recent edition of The New Yorker Magazine.  It is quite witty and pointed:

We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens. It is early summer, first hot weekend. We meet on the street, jumble about with kisses and are we late? They had been late, we’d half-decided to leave, now oh well. That place across the street, ever tried it? Think we went there once, looks closed, says open, well. People coming out. O.K. Inside is dark, cool, oaken. Turns out they know the owner. He beams, ushers, we sit. And realize at once two things, first, the noise is unbearable, two, neither of us knows the other well enough to say bag it. Our hearts crumble. We order food by pointing and break into two yell factions, one each side of the table. He and she both look exhausted, from (I suppose) doing art all day and then the new baby. We eat intently, as if eating were conversation. We keep passing the bread. My fish comes unboned, I weep pretending allergies. Finally someone pays the bill and we escape to the street. For some reason I was expecting snow outside. There is none. We decide not to go for ice cream and part, a little more broken. Saturday night as an adult, so this is it. We thought we’d be Nick and Nora, not their blurred friends in greatcoats. We cover our ears inside our souls. But you can’t stop it that way.  

And here Wendell Berry offers my favorite poem on marriage, vividly stresses and strains of two different forces of energy living in the constraint of committed relationship:

How hard it is for me, who live
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

And here is W. H. Auden with a witty, facetious and playfully grim description of marriage.

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

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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/