Category Archives: literature

“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. 

 

 

Elizabeth Bishop and a Poet’s Loneliness

I have a close personal friend in Oregon that I’ve known for decades and kept in touch with him as he pursued a career in teaching English literature at a small college on the coast.  He sent me a link to a New Yorker book review of a new biography about poet Elizabeth Bishop which explored her tumultuous family, romantic, and literary life.  This life story might be summed up with a note she sent once to poet and lover, Robert Lowell, “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.”

Bishop’s loneliness was a common theme in her poetry.  My friend, who also writes poetry admits he shares the same label that I do, a “word fetishist,” though both of us at this point in our life very much in recovery.  He shared with me his impression from reading the review, noting his own profound loneliness over the course of his life time even though he is quite gregarious, socially adroit, and well-regarded.

He described his own love of literature, poetry, and writing as, like Bishop’s, some effort to assuage this loneliness which could best be described as existential.  Being familiar with psychological “shop-talk” which is my forte, we recently explored how words are one powerful way of bridging the gap between humans, extending a hand across the abyss which separates us and hoping to find a receiving hand.  He has been fortunate to often finding that receiving hand as his literary skill is of note.

Something was lost in this man’s childhood which the contrivance of culture has helped, but has not sufficed.  Words have helped him address this lack, just as it did apparently with Bishop and I think with many other writers.  I think Tennessee Williams knew about this loss and had reference to it in a closing line, describing Laura’s brother Tom, who was leaving the dysfunctional-family black-hole and setting out on the life of a vagabond, just as his father had done decades earlier. The narrator in the movie, as we watched Tom exit the drab flat and descend the stairwell, he intoned, “Trying to find in motion what has been lost in space.”  “Space” in this context refers to a spiritual space which most people cover adequately with the aforementioned cultural contrivances.  Tom could only seek this in the frenetic motion of a vagabond life while my friend, and Tennessee Williams, found it with words.

(You might enjoy reading this very interesting, well-written, and insightful book review:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/06/elizabeth-bishops-art-of-losing)

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

Poetry is a Dive into the Heart

“O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” T. S. Eliot brought to our attention the harm that is often brought into the world by people who think they are doing something noble.  In the Four Quartets, Eliot noted, “Oh the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done, and done to others harm, which once we took for exercise of virtue.”

Poets are so skilled at bringing our attention to matters of the heart.  This is because a poet speaks and writes from the heart, a murky realm that most of us escape by subscribing to “common sense reality.”  That is why so often poetry falls on deaf ears and is the reason that for the first thirty years of my life I had no ear for poetry at all, even having a disdain for it!  My ears were “deaf” to poetry and I now realize that it could have been said, I “had ears to hear but heard not” as well as “eyes to see but saw not.”

Poetry introduces one to the maelstrom of the unconscious and often brings uncomfortable insights to us, such as the one in the Eliot quote above.  It is much simpler to live on the surface of life. Poet Adrienne Rich entitled one of her books, “Diving into the Wreck” and I sometimes use that image to describe my headfirst plunge into poetry in the mid 1980’s.  When one spends three and half decades obsessively living in a linear world, sudden exposure to the subterranean depths of the human heart certainly felt like a “wreck” at times…and often does even now!

Here is another Eliot selection addressing the issue of disillusionment that life deals us if we dare to “Dive into the Wreck”:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
-T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

The Heart’s “Beastly Little Treasures”

My dear mother often trotted out home-spun wisdom that I’m sure she picked up from her upbringing in the farmland of south-central Missouri.  One of my favorites was, in reference to someone who obviously thought way too much of himself, “I wish I could buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.  I’d be a millionaire.”  I stumbled across the 19th century novelist George Eliot’s version of this wisdom yesterday, “What mortal is there of us, who would find his satisfaction enhanced by an opportunity of comparing the picture he presents to himself of his doings, with the picture they make on the mental retina of his neighbours? We are poor plants buoyed up by the air-vessels of our own conceit.”

None of us are exempt from this vanity and that is not necessarily a fault.  “Tis just a human foible.  Of course, occasionally someone like Donald Trump comes along and this “human foible” is magnified for us and we see how catastrophic it can be.  It is important to have self-respect and even self-love in some sense.  Failure to do so merely reflects what Carl Jung termed “ego deflation” which is an inverted form of “ego inflation.”  Jung realized that with either extreme there was inordinate attention on our self and a lack of attention on other people and the world outside of our ego, that we probably saw only “the small bright circle of our consciousness, beyond which lies the darkness.”  It is very humbling to suddenly realize, “Uh oh, this has pretty much been all about me so far in my life.”

“Self” consciousness or self-awareness is very challenging.  It requires what spiritual teachers often call “soul work.”  It entails looking within as well as without, the “within” dimension often requiring confronting what poet Ranier Rilke described as the heart’s “beastly little treasures.”

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com