Category Archives: literature

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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Thomas Mann Offered Prophetic Word to the U.S. in 1947

Literature can be a portal into the human soul.  As the current political and cultural drama continues to unfold in my country, it has been so interesting to stumble across observations from ancient…and not so ancient…cultures whose insights were so relevant to what is unfolding now in the American psyche.  The human soul is constant.  It never changes.  Oh yes, the historical moment changes but the human response to circumstances of any moment always reveal common themes.  Here I wish to share a lengthy excerpt from Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel, “Dr. Faustus,” which is very relevant to present day America:

We are lost…the war is lost; but that means more than a lost campaign, it means that in very truth WE are lost: our character, our cause, our hope, our history.  It is all up with Germany, it will be all up with her.  She is marked down for collapse, economic, moral, political, spiritual, in short all-embracing, unparalleled, final collapse.  I suppose I have not wished for it, this that threatens, for it is madness and despair.  I suppose I have not wished for it because my pity is too deep, my grief and sympathy are with this unhappy nation, when I think of the exaltation and blind ardour of its uprising, the breaking out, the breaking up, the breaking down, the purifying and fresh start, the national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication—which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness, ah how unmistakably it bore within itself the seeds of this whole war!  My heart contracts painfully at the thought of that enormous investment of faith, zeal, lofty historic emotion; all this we made, all this is now puffed away in a bankruptcy without compare.  No, I surely did not want it, and yet—I have been driven to want it, I wish for it today and will welcome it, out of hatred for the outrageous contempt of reason, the vicious violation of truth, the cheap, filthy backstairs mythology, the criminal degradation and confusion of standards, the abuse, corruption, and blackmail of all that was good, genuine, trusting, and trustworthy in our old Germany.  For liars and lickspittles mixed us a poisonous draft and took away our senses.  We drank—for we Germans perennially yearn for intoxication—and under its spell, through years of deluded high living, we committed a superfluity of shameful deeds, which now must be paid for…with with despair.  (Thomas Mann, “Dr. Faustus”)

Julia Kristeva, Shakespeare, and the Unconscious

Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst is one of the primary influences on my intellectual and spiritual life.  Recently her term, semiotic chora, has been falling into place for me, tying together for me a variety of spiritual/intellectual themes that have drawn my attention for most of my adult life.

She borrowed this term from Plato’s “Timeous”, using it to describe a “space” between being and non-being.  This buffer zone might be thought of as the pre-conscious, a murky realm where our animality conjoins the symbolic realm, the domain from which will spring consciousness.  And between this chaotic, “non-sensical” realm there is discontinuity with consciousness which is related to the Oedipal transition and, in my estimation, the Biblical “fall” from Grace.  This is the domain of experience that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was aware of when he lamented, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”  Here Shakespeare was revealing one of the reasons for his literary brilliance, his “dull brain” was always teeming with effluvia from the semiotic depths of his heart which is why his work speaks so powerfully to the human heart even today.

With this foray into linguistic intricacy, I admit I am a bit over my head.  Let me be safe and put it into laymen’s terms…being a layman myself…there is a region of experience beneath the surface of our life which is unconscious.  All of us know about it though when it surfaces we often dismiss it with a simple lament, “Now why did I do that?” or “Why did I say that?”  And occasionally the playwright of this drama in which we each have a bit part brings along a character like Donald Trump who glaringly demonstrates this unconscious element of our individual and collective psyche.

Awareness of this unconsciousness could be completely stifling.  For example, the words I am spitting forth here are coming spontaneously.  They are flowing from my heart, driven by this unconscious dimension I have put on the table.  I am mentally healthy enough to not be so worried about my unconsciousness that I am fretting about every single thought that I convey here, or every single word I choose.  For, should I do so I would very quickly be so stymied by the resulting hypertrophied self-reflectiveness that I would not be able to do anything but sit here and, and, well…., ahem, alas and alack…probably just burst into tears at some point, a complete meltdown!

Mental health, or actually spiritual health, will allow us to recognize the presence of an unconsciousness in our life but not be so terrified of it that we feel out of control.  Recognition of this dimension of our life is merely acceptance of our human-ness and with that might come a dollop of humility which would allow us to be less strident with our viewpoints and more accepting of those who see things differently.

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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/

 

 

“Families Are to be From”

Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families.  She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time.  If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity.  My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years.  And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical.  It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns.  Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.

The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family.  I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more.  She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.”  Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.

There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture.  This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation.  T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:

What we have written is not a story of detection,
Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.
It is possible you have not known what sin
You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain
That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.
It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

The Dynamic Nature of Language

Words are not static, just like life.  Heraclitus, (535 bc-475 bc) told us that life is an eternal flux and now that wisdom is even born out by modern science and quantum physics.  Life is a “flow” and if we are to be alive, rather than a static, dormant potential for life, we too will experience the flow of life in the depths of our being.

T.S. Eliot emphasized this wisdom in his Four Quartets, with observations such as,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

Poets are very familiar with this dynamic energy, not just intellectually but emotionally, which allows them to “play” with words and images to create new, meaningful images for those of us who live more on the surface of life.  One local poet who is a friend of mine recently demonstrated this verbal finesse with the term “leaking adjacencies”, describing how that two images juxtaposed with no apparent relationship, if deftly chosen, could then “leak” into each other and “meaning” could be evoked by the reader.  One example that comes immediately to mind is Shakespeare’s term, the “pauser reason” in which “pause” and “reason” are juxtaposed in such a way to tell us how that reason does indeed impose a pause on our thoughts and thus our behavior.  Well, it could…and should though we have a President for whom this is obviously not so!

Virginia Woolf also had tremendous insight into the fluidity, the flux, of language.  A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, revealed that she saw her task as to “Tempt words to come together” and I would surmise to become one of the “leaking adjacencies” noted above.  The author of the TLS article quoted Woolf, “…words are not useful at all because they lead the mind capriciously on from one image to another, and will not stay put.  The trouble with the plain reader, when confronted with the stuff of literature, is that words as he knows them are useful, and quite unexciting.  He cannot make them stand on their heads and perform tricks.”  This command of words is the craftsmanship of poets and novelists such as Eliot and Woolf who stand aloof from the verbal field enough that they can utilize words in a meaningful fashion to bring to the table truth that is hidden to most of us who live on the surface of things, those of us who are the “plain reader.”

In the same article, Woolf asked, “How do words live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love and mating together …Royal words mate with commoners.  English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy.”

Woolf saw that language becomes a medley, a medley which becomes commonplace over generations as the meanings are lost in common usage.  But to a thoughtful writer, poets and novelists, words can be brought together in “leaking adjacencies” so that meaning can be evoked in the hearts of the readers.  Furthermore, artists and even comedians can put “leaking adjacencies” on the table and allow us to see into the depths of our heart…if we are open to it.  And these “leaking adjacencies” are not just single words, but concepts; for concepts, juxtaposed against each other, can abrade against each other and “leak” meaning.  For example, “justice” and “mercy” are meaningless unless they are brought together, and are allowed to abrade against one another leading to a judicious decision on the part of the “judge.”  The best example I can think of this is Jesus who was confronted with the “woman at the well” who was a prostitute.  “Justice” demanded she be stoned to death, mercy directed him to tell her accusers, “Let him without guilt cast the first stone.”  The accusers walked away with their tail between their legs and he told her, “Go, and sin no more.”

We live in words.  In some way, our very being expresses itself in a verbal structure, a capricious edifice tittering and swaying on the subterranean unconscious pre-verbal dimensions of that edifice.  Thus, “our thoughts become us” or “we are what we think.”  ‘Tis a scary proposition and is much more comforting to remain ensconced in the delusion that we are only what we think we are and never heed the wisdom of the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

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/

Shakespearean Wisdom for Trump

Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably the key to the birth of “literary lew” in the mid-eighties.  A friend gave me a copy of the Bard’s sonnets and my confinement in a linear world began to crack immediately, a “cracking” which continues! I remember Leonard Cohen telling us in song,  “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 begins with, “As an unperfect actor on the stage of life, who with his fear is put beside his part…”  Shakespeare saw through us all.  He did this because he saw through himself and realized that in so doing he had insight to the human predicament, that we are merely actors on a stage playing some role that we were given early in life.  His grasp of the human heart is a gift that some poets have, a gift eloquently put into words by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who wrote, “The poet, in whose mighty heart, heaven hath a quicker pulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”

Shakespeare’s literary gift to the ages is a scanning of the heart.  With modern technological wizardry, we can “scan” the physical heart in ways that Shakespeare could have never imagined but our modern mental wizardry cannot “scan” the heart like Shakespeare did.  For Shakespeare knew that the heart was something intricately subtle and complex, so much so that most people live their lives without any awareness of having one, or at least without any awareness of its infinite depths.  And, it is the experience of “infinite depths” that introduces one to the spiritual realm which people usually prefer to avoid, opting for words instead of the essential realm that words point to.  Infinity is scary which is why T. S. Eliot declared, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” for in the depths of our heart we are intrinsically aware of this infinity…and, therefore, our mortality.

The social contract is the stage that Shakespeare put on the table for us. This contract is best illustrated for us in today’s world by Donald Trump who flagrantly disregards this contract, refusing simple rules of civility and decorum on the “playground” that we all play on.  Most of us very early opted to “make nice” with each other in return for the knowledge that others would reciprocate.  This “making nice” is upon closer scrutiny, insincere in some fashion as beneath the surface we chafe under the daily grind and would prefer the disinhibition of a tragic figure like our President.  On some level I think that is why so many of the “low-information voters” pledged their troth to him for they sorely resent on some level the lack of freedom that the “social contract” they have signed imposes upon them.

Some hypothesized that perhaps the office that Trump was assuming would modify his whimsical and capricious nature, that he would begin to “act” Presidential as ordinarily one must.  But this ability to “act” to fulfill any role on the playground requires a deep-seated, heart-level restraint that some people lack. Shakespeare described Macbeth penchant for acting out as being wont to “crown his thoughts with acts,” noting later that, “He cannot buckle his distempered (or swollen) cause within the belt of rule.”  Shakespeare knew that some men could not “subdue” or harness the energy referred to in the Arnold poem quoted above.  Shakespeare knew that dark energy of that sort, unleashed, was dangerous to all.

If we could only get Trump see the wisdom of Shakespeare’s advice, through the mouth of Hamlet:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.