Category Archives: poetry and prose

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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Authenticity, God, and Identity Crisis

People of spiritual commitment often, if not most of the time, come to the point in their life when their faith needs to be cast aside.  This is the time when emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually the maturity has been reached to realize that even spirituality can be used to cover up the essence of life, even the “God” that we purport to worship.  This does not mean that this “God” will necessarily be forsaken but that one’s projections about “God” will be seen for what they are and cast aside, leaving one with the possibility of discovering “God” in a meaningful fashion.

This identity crisis, usually in mid life, is when the fantasy world that we have created and wrapped around ourselves is crumbling, providing for us an opportunity to enter into a more authentic dimension of life.  Even the “God” we have been worshipping might be seen as a self-serving fantasy and will have to be given up for a more honest, humbling relationship with a God who is the very Ground of our Being, our Source, and not a mere prop to adorn the hollow life that we have been living.

Anthropologist Clifford Geerst once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”  It is challenging to contemplate that the whole of our life, including our faith, is suspended in these “webs” and that to achieve any authenticity we will have to wrestle with them and discover as did poet Adrienne Rich that, “We can’t begin to discover who we are until we recognize the assumptions in which we are drenched.”  It is only when some, or most of these “assumptions” begin to crumble that we can begin to understand the wisdom of the crooner Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything; that is how the light gets in.”

 

David Whyte and T.S. Eliot on the Subject of Faith

The following poem by David Whyte portrays faith in a more meaningful fashion than what I’ve been familiar with most of my life.  In this poem, faith is presented with a “loss” dimension, poetically conveying the need of “losing one’s faith to find one’s faith” (my paraphrasing). This is related to the observation by evangelical-Christian literary, “hall-of-famer,” Oswald Chambers who noted the danger of “believing only in our belief.”  Whyte and Chambers, and many other spiritually-oriented persons, see the danger of an ideological faith, understanding that the ideological dimension of faith must lose its tyranny in order for the underlying dimension of human experience that faith points to can be experienced.  This is precisely the wisdom conveyed in the famous Buddhist teaching, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”  Whyte captures this truth with the image of the moon fading away and offering, “the last curving and impossible sliver of light before the final darkness.”

Poem by David Whyte: “Faith”

I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

T.S. Eliot also understood this subtle dimension of faith, noting in The Four Quartets:

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. 

Politics, Belief, and “a bit of wobbly”

Margaret Thatcher in 1990 brought the expression, “Don’t go wobbly” to the political table. At the time Saddam Hussein had invaded Iraq, Thatcher and George W. Bush were together in Aspen, Colorado discussing the ins and outs of a military response. As “W” appeared be equivocating, Thatcher told him, “This is not the time to go wobbly, George.” The opposite of, “wobbly,— going full speed ahead on a matter, throwing caution to the wind with utmost certainty–will always be appealing to many but the rigid certitude of such a stance often needs at least a tad of hesitation, a small dollop of what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”

The relevance of this issue to our current political/cultural climate is obvious. And one dimension of this climate is the area of religion where “belief” is often held to so rigidly that many believers have found themselves “believing” themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape. This mind set avoids the wisdom of faith traditions that belief must be moderated with a bit of doubt here and there as when St Thomas prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief,” or even Jesus when he prayed to his Father as the Crucifixion approached prayed, “Lord, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Following here is a lovely poem which speaks of the need of a touch of “wobbly” in a person’s faith:

Belief by Lia Purpura

Light being
wavy and particulate
at once
is instructive—
why wouldn’t
other things or states
present as
both/and?
For instance
I both
believe and can’t.
Holding these
together produces
a wobble, I think
it’s time
to take seriously
as a stance.

Reality Tightens its Noose on Trump.

I kick the subject of mental illness around a lot in this venue due to my career as a clinician which has given me a perspective to “sniff out” madness pretty readily.  Oh, we are all “mad” to some degree but then there are times when one’s madness goes beyond the pale and then the Shakespearean question is relevant, “What’s mad but to be anything else but mad.”  There are times when the ordinary madness of day to day life approaches the pale and threatens to go beyond it and enter the realm of “nothing else but mad.”

Trump is demonstrating this.  Here and in my other blogs I have noted often of his need to isolate himself in a private world, to cut off any criticism from those who see the world differently than he does, best illustrated with his hatred of, “fake news.”  But now as his “fake news,” known by most of us as “reality,” continues to tighten its noose on him, he is taking even more desperate moves.  The news about the non-disclosure agreements with his advisers and now the “cleaning house” with his staff and cabinet reveal a heightened need to cut off feedback from the outside.  Like Hamlet, overwhelmed with the duress of everyday life, expressed a desire to, “flee to a nutshell and there be the king of infinite spaces,” revealing Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human need to occasionally want a complete escape, even that of lunacy.

Trump as an Instrument of the Good???

The evangelical Christian support of Trump has been a sore point for me, given my background in fundamentalist Christianity and a continued emphasis in personal faith.  The evangelical trope, “The Lord has raised him up” to restore our country to greatness, (i.e. “Make America Great Again,”) has always been a really irksome bit of their rhetoric for me.  But, I now can certainly accept the notion of “the Lord’s” hand in “raising him up” as he has brought to the surface the full extent of our collective and personal shadow.  Here is a bit of wisdom from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) relevant to our collective unconsciousness’s intent in bringing this darkness to the light:

“We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do . For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced. Nay, an honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to reclaim them, without the help of the knowledge of evil.”—Francis Bacon

This “knowledge of evil” is something we prefer to see in others, having a very human aversion to recognize that it lurks beneath the surface of us all.  This is particularly difficult for persons of faith to accept, especially the Christian faith, as being a “person of faith” often convinces one that he has “seen the light” perfectly and has clear judgment.  Trump has clearly shown all of us, even the whole world, just how impaired our judgment is; yes, even in the area of religion. W. H. Auden, in his narrative poem, “New Years Letter,” presents the, “Prince of Lies” as being a god-send as in spite of its evil intent, and often being necessary to, “push us into grace.” Trump is one of these opportunities for us if we could ever manage to pause that linear-thinking monstrosity of our collective Western thought and let it dawn upon us, in the words of Pogo, “Uh oh, we have met the enemy and he is us!” We could then be “pushed into Grace,” kicking and screaming every inch of the way.

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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/

Gaining the Whole World and Losing Your Own Soul

Yesterday’s post addressed the subject of alienation, being trapped in an inauthentic existence while the heart pines for the taste of genuine human experience.  This “imprisonment” is the situation in which one’s persona grips an individual so tightly that the heart has been stifled to the point that he has no awareness of any dimension of life other than the “suit of clothes” that he wears.  It is relevant to a poetic quip of W. H. Auden, “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation,” seeing the world only through the skewed prism of our “occupation” or basic, unquestioned assumptions about life.

Auden had another observation about this existential predicament, noting in one poem, “In the desert of my heart, let the healing fountain start.  In the prison of my days, teach this free man how to praise.”  Auden recognized that this existential “entrapment” in the world of appearances often grates against the soul to the point that one wants an escape which, in his estimation, merits a simple prayer of gratitude for the gift of life.  We are “here” and this “here-ness” is the simplest but most profound thing that we have, the simple gift of “be-ing” alive in this brief parenthesis of time.

Social critics, writers, and artists have been crying out since the mid-19th century about this loss of soul which is the by-product of modern industrialized, technologized human life.  One of my favorite examples is Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman” which was a smash-hit in 1949 and is estimated by many to be the greatest American play of the 20th century.  The lead character in the play, Willy Loman, is at the end of his successful career as a salesman and he is gradually feeling that his employer is “putting him out to pasture.”  In fact, this process culminates in the play when, after protestations to his boss about the matter, Willy is fired.

Miller uses Willy Loman and his family to poignantly illustrate the mid-20th century expression of what happens when a man comes to the end of his career and finds that he has nothing but emptiness remaining, his persona having become obsolete, or “used up” and cast aside by the corporate world.  Anger, resentment, and frustration overcome Loman as he realizes that his life is, “over,” over in that he no longer had an identity without the successes he delighted in with his job.  Without his persona, there was nothing left.

A social structure functions because of the human ability to take on a role, a “persona,” and fulfill the obligations of that role.  The problem arises only when that social structure becomes such a behemoth that individuals are devoured by it, their very lives having become only that of a “thing” which has as its primary purpose only in keeping the behemoth afloat.  The illusions of the culture become so powerful and stifling that there is no room left in an individual’s heart for authenticity.  In our modern consumer society this is often described as human identity having devolved to the point in which it’s only a “consumer,” a “consuming unit” designed to buy more “stuff,” and thus keep the “stuff-producing” apparatus going.  In this, “Brave New World,” of Aldous Huxley, human value can be summed up in the quip, “Whoever has the most toys at the end of the game is the winner!”