Category Archives: human culture

Franz Kafka on the Power of Books

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”  Kafka knew that our internal life is always “frozen” to some degree, confined to structure and routine which allows us to live our lives in a structured and routine life.  But he knew that at some time in our life this “frozen sea” needs to be broken up and that literature, i.e. “books”, are one means by which this is accomplished.  But he also noted that the only books that could serve this purpose are those that, “wound or stab us” to “wake us up with a blow to the head.”

Routine and structure provide safety and no one can fault humankind for desiring safety.   Otto Brown noted, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” but he also knew that this was a necessary “veil” which provides the safety necessary to go about day-to-day life and keep the wheels of our social organization spinning.  But Kafka’s concern, and the concern of other writers and artists, is that the need for safety can become so great that life itself is stifled and instead of an interior “flow” in our heart we have only a “frozen sea.”  W. H. Auden put it this way, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

If the risk of life is not acknowledged…the fragility and vulnerability of being a mere “meat suit” in a relentlessly grinding cosmos will be avoided; but so will the experience of being alive. It is disconcerting for humankind to consider his vulnerability, to realize that he is this mere “sack of bones” on a speck of cosmic dust on a lonely planet.  It is this finitude that he seeks to hide with this specious “safety” that Kafka suggested books could “crack.”

This is a personal issue for me, thus a recurrent theme in my daily life and in this blog.  Literature has been the primary means whereby the “frozen sea” in my heart has been shattering for the past three decades since a good friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and introduced me to W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot.  Good literature comes from the depths of the heart and speaks to the depths of the heart, described by the Psalmist as, “deep calls unto deep.”

Here is the Kafka quote in  full:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

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Woody Allen: “The Heart Wants What it Wants”

Allen said this in response to criticism of his marriage to his step-daughter in 1997. He was very astute, perhaps more than he realized as the declaration merely meant, “I want what I want and I don’t have to explain it to anyone!”  He realized that marrying your own step-daughter was, at least…shall we say “awkward”; but, the desire of his heart prevailed.

The heart is easily misunderstood as we are taught by our culture to look at life superficially, including our own life…and even our “heart.”  I’m reminded of sermon fodder from my youth, “The heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.  Who can know it?”  My adult interpretation of this verse from Jeremiah is, “The heart is really complicated, so much so that, ‘Who can know it?’  The complications of the heart include good and bad impulses, even ‘desperately wicked’ ones which this same heart will not allow us to be conscious of.”  But what we are not conscious of will manifest itself in our attitude and behavior though we will always “be human” and fail to acknowledge this.

On its deepest level, the heart is a rapacious monster wanting only what it wants.  Most of the time this black hole is assuaged by the process of symbolization, i.e. “sublimation”, so that instead of complete satisfaction of our wants we will settle for “some” of our wants which will allow us to live in a world populated by persons who have made the same bargain with the reptilian brain.  History has given us many examples of persons who could not accept this bargain, most of which are noted for acts of brutality which have led to imprisonment or execution.  This people have said with their behavior, “I want stuff and I will go to any end to get it.”  On the platform of world history, demagogues like Adolph Hitler come to mind.  He wanted power; he wanted to control the whole world, and would go to all ends to accomplish this goal.  Fortunately, humankind intervened and stopped him though not before millions of lives had been snuffed out by his rapacity.  England had a chance to set a limit in 1938 but the appeasement policy of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain demonstrated that people like Hitler cannot be reasoned with. Less than a year later Hitler brazenly disregarded his agreement with Chamberlain and marched into Czechoslovakia.

The heart is the wellspring of life.  It is the source of all the beauty that we see in humankind; but it is also the source of all the ugliness.  Poet Ranier Rilke noted this ambivalence, telling us, “The heart has its beastly little treasures.”  At times it is necessary to give attention to this “beastliness,” individually and collectively, to allow the beauty to find expression. But if the “ugliness” is not acknowledged, and addressed consciously, it will prevail usually under the guise of some “noble” announced intention.

Knowledge is Capricious

Daniel Boorstin, a noted American historian declared in his book, “The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself,” that, “More appealing than knowledge itself is the feeling of knowing.” Boorstin in this quote had gleaned from his study of history that the comfort of “the feeling of knowing” often, if not most of the time, would triumph over knowledge itself.  Throughout history we have records of cultures in which “the feeling of knowing” proved to lead to their demise while letting that “feeling” give way to some critical thinking could have allowed them to continue, though with a moderated view of reality.

It is comforting to feel that one knows, permitting one to “know” that one knows.  It is so comforting that human nature has hard-wired us to prefer “knowing that we know” in the interest of preserving our tribe.  But when the world grows so small…as we are now experiencing…then “knowing what we know” begins to compete with other tribes who “know that they know” with equal conviction. Then violent conflict ensues unless leadership is available which will direct us to tolerate the notion that diametrically opposing ideas of reality can co-exist. There is no need to attempt to obliterate “them” just because we see “them” as, “not knowing correctly.”

The core issue is the comfort of “feeling that we know” not understanding the wisdom of poet W. H. Auden who told us that, “feeling knows no discretion but its own.”  Auden knew that our view of the world is not a rational matter, but one whose origin lies beneath the surface in the murky realm of feelings, closely akin to the unconscious.  But to recognize this truth is to take away the certainty that we can have in believing our beliefs and discounting anything or anyone that threatens them.  Another word for this realm of feelings is the heart, that center of our being which is unlocked only when we are willing to forego the tyranny of rational thinking and permit the grace of a non-tyrannical rationality which is quickened with the intuitive wisdom of the heart.

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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/

Rebecca Chopps On Our Country’s Malady of the Soul

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation.

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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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/

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.”

Feminism, Consciousness, and Memory

I recently discovered a feminist philosophy professor from LeMoyne College, Karmen MacKendrick, who has written about one of my favorite subjects—difference and sameness.  The following is a selection in a review by Richard A. Lee, Jr. of one of her books:

The issue in Fragmentation and Memory is the question of the relation between unity or wholeness and difference or fragmentation. The argument could be put quite generally and abstractly: wherever there is a drive for unity or wholeness, there fragmentation will always and necessarily be found. More specifically, MacKendrick argues that it is fragmentation that is, in fact, primary and that the obsession one finds with unity and wholeness is, in fact, derivative of this primary fragmentation. The key to this is memory. In a sense, memory as always fragmented remembers this primary fragmentation.

“My dull brain is racked by things forgotten,” said Macbeth.  Shakespeare knew that our memory was a house of cards, teetering on the bedrock of the unconsciousness.  He knew that individuals like Macbeth…and I’m sure himself…were “weak links” who felt the seepage from that forbidden territory.  And groups of individuals, even countries, can also experience this seepage also, as is the case currently with my country, the United States.  We are demonstrating what can happen when a mouth piece for a country’s hidden ugliness appears on the scene, giving voice and action to its reptilian brain.  For always, there is, “Only a tissue thin curtain in the brain (that) shuts out the coiled recumbent landlord.”  (E. L. Mayo)

In the very early stages of our development, what will become a mature psyche begins to take shape in the depths of chaos, termed above as “primary fragmentation.”  Mackendrick asserts that this memory, which our ego wants us to take as so sacrosanct, is actually “derivative” of this chaotic, fragmented stage of development.  But Shakespeare realized, with the Macbeth character, that the “derivative roots” of memory are still there and influence tortured souls, as well as gifted souls who can sublimate the anguish of their “racked brain” into works of art, literature, and religion; this is naming but a few disciplines that can facilitate this redemptive sublimation.

The unconscious is always present.  It is present in a subterranean “structure” that is always already underway when we born, providing a fabric of assumptions, premises, and even biases which provide a safe cocoon in which we can find our footing in the tribal culture into which we are born.  The challenge comes in maturing enough to accept at some point the presence of these “subterranean” influences, a realization that strikes terror in most hearts who prefer living on the surface of life.  To accept these influences is to encounter the feeling of being out of control as we embrace our mortality and fragility, devoid of the safety the cocoon provided in our youth.  This is the existential predicament that comes with being a human being and emerging from the cocoon which would otherwise stifle our interior life.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he posed the question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

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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/

Auden, Despair, Picnics, and, “Build that Wall!!”

W.H. Auden is probably the poet I quote most often here. The story of his life and his beautiful poetry has been a great inspiration because it encourages us to look beneath the surface of things and find that the effort is worth the pain of the process. The first step in this process is to recognize there is a “surface of things,” an insight which in itself is challenging; for any culture imprints into the depths of our being that the “surface of things” is something to take as a given and not to be questioned.  To ask one to question the existence of this “surface” is like asking a fish to see water.

In the following excerpt of Auden’s, “New Years Letter,” the reader is encouraged to peek beneath this surface of life though with a warning that only, “despair can shape the hero who will dare the desperate catabasis,” and face the “snarling abyss” which always lies beneath the surface of life’s contrivances. However, it must be noted that despair is not necessary for all who travel Auden’s road to redemption.  “Despair” is for the “heroes” such as poets, artists, religious and even political visionaries.  Most of us mercifully face only a watered-down version of despair and encounter a mid-life crisis, or some persistent duress which cues us to also look beneath the surface in our non-heroic manner and do battle with our relatively tame horde of demons.  Auden and his sort were faced with, “slaying the demons” and most of us merely have to step into the ring for a moment with our “benign” demons, and gain the wisdom from the encounter that is there to be had, and then return to our very routine life.  But the wisdom gained from the encounter can empower us to lead a more productive and meaningful life.

Auden described the superficies of life, those amusements which distract us from the gut-level issues of being a sentient human being as a, “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.”    Here Auden brings to our attention the façade of normal, everyday, routine life which is too subtle to actually notice.  This “jolly picnic” is delightful for some…let’s say, for example, “the haves,” though the “have nots” are not so fortunate and look sullenly, angrily, and despairingly at the picnic, wishing they could have been invited also. Auden also notes that those who have been invited to this picnic always, “bask” in comfort, “agreed on what we will not ask,” tanned and relaxed in the comfort of the, “accepted lie.”

This “accepted lie” is essential for group coherence, providing the biases and premises which allow the group to exist in the first place.  For example, one basic premise of a group is exclusion; and Auden notes elsewhere there is no, “us” without a, “them.”  But these “lies” are necessary for the group to cohere, the problem lying only in circumstances in which the “lie” is so sacrosanct that it cannot be relaxed a mite to allow more access to those who are excluded.  But usually a siege mentality evolves in a social “lie” and letting down its guard and allowing any of the excluded to have some degree of access will be perceived as an existential threat.  Then will the cry go out far and wide, “Build that wall!”

Here is the relevant excerpt from Auden’s, “New Years Letter”:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
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?
(Excerpted from “New Year Letter” – 1/1/1940)

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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/