Category Archives: science

John Masefield, Stanley Kunitz, and “Continuity of Being”

John Masefield, the British poet laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967, is now running a close second to Shakespeare as my favorite sonneteer. He was a bookish lad, an addiction which his aunt, his guardian when his parents died in his childhood, sought to break by sending him to sea at age 13. But he there found lots of time to read and to write without the interference of the unappreciated aunt and also developed a lifetime passion for the maritime life. “Sea-Farer” is one of his best known poems and the sea, and water themes, are common in his work.

His adventures at sea, including the foreign lands he visited, gave him a global approach to life and made him an observer of the human situation which is a gift many poets have. In the following sonnet, he started with a line about the ephemeral nature of identity itself, noting a wish to “get within this changing I, this ever-altering thing which yet persists…” Masefield’s natural curiosity and educational accomplishments helped him see life as every bit turbulent and capricious as the sea, always changing yet persisting nevertheless.
Modern life in the late 19th century (he was born in 1878) was teeming with scientific discoveries and theories, including the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. To those exposed to higher education, life was not a static phenomenon but a dynamic process and even one’s own identity was an evolutionary process. But later in the sonnet he did recognize a “ghost in the machine” which some of us like to describe as “god” (i.e. “God”) which appeared often to be effecting some direction to the caprices of our day to day life. Even “in the brain’s most enfolded twisted shell,” he saw, “The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell” providing some mysterious teleology to our often-mischievous path. This notion brings to mind one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”
If I could get within this changing I,
This ever altering thing which yet persists,
Keeping the features it is reckoned by,
While each component atom breaks or twists,
If, wandering past strange groups of shifting forms,
Cells at their hidden marvels hard at work,
Pale from much toil, or red from sudden storms,
I might attain to where the Rulers lurk.
If, pressing past the guards in those grey gates,
The brain’s most folded intertwisted shell,
I might attain to that which alters fates,
The King, the supreme self, the Master Cell,
Then, on Man’s earthly peak, I might behold
The unearthly self beyond, unguessed, untold.

Here I want to append an excerpt from another poem, by a United States poet laureate, Stanley Kunitz, entitled, “The Layers” in which he too recognized some mysterious “center” in the depth of one’s being from which one, “struggles not to stray” even in the infinite vicissitudes of life.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

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/

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John Masefield Sonnet on Mystery of Life

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

This witty and insightful little poem has amused me for nearly three decades, helping me to maintain caution given a tendency myself to overthink. But this “thoughtfulness,” combined with deep-rooted passion is what has produced poetry of the sort found here in a John Masefield sonnet, showing it can have value! (My commentary below is in italics.)

What am I, Life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin;
A world which uses me as I use them,
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

The “unresting cells” are seen to both drive mankind on, to use us even while simultaneously giving us agency to “use them.” Modern science was captivating this young poet. When only 13 years of age, his guardian aunt sent him to sea to break an “addiction” to reading. Thus her “cells” were using her to introduce him to a major dimension of his literary opus, the sea.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes north, this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

“Like a marvel in a marvel set” made me think of a line from W. H. Auden poetry in which he described life as “a process in a process, in a field that never closes.” Masefield did not see life as static as his ancestors certainly had. The “tingling” of his “I” made me think of what Kierkegaard described as the “giddiness of freedom” which others have described as simple existential anxiety. Human awareness, “not knowing how, yet wondering why” will introduce one to giddiness.
 

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.

*****************************

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 Pope Francis

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”  (Read more, including discussion of the contest of this quote at: http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/popeatheist.asp#xwbkSGqYxMVhujwy.99inj)
Pope Francis is one of the most courageous human beings I have seen in my life time, a true example of “speaking truth to power.” The above quotation has been circulating on social media and stands out and is deeply appreciated by all of us who recognize when someone is daring to step outside of the “box” that he finds him/herself in and offer an authentic word. And Pope Francis finds himself in one “hell” of a box for the Catholic Church is monolithic, steeped in rigid tradition that does not want anyone to “think outside of the box.” But, this epistemic closure goes far beyond the Catholic Church as I don’t see anyone else in christiandom daring to “think outside of the ‘christian’ box” and offer a prophetic word. Theologian Paul Tillich authored a book of sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundation” in which he voiced the need of Christianity in the mid-twentieth century to find a prophetic voice in the din of its burgeoning echo chamber.

Of course, Pope Francis is meeting resistance within the Catholic church and even from American politicians who do not like him daring to suggest that his faith has anything to do with such “mundane” and “unholy” things like, say, climate change. These politicians are driven largely by a fundamentalist faith which practices a “pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by” theology in which this world we live in, and the bodies in which we live, are only a means to the end of getting to heaven where we will spend 39 quatrillion years fawning over Jesus, not realizing that Jesus is really more mature than to even permit that!

Pope Francis realizes that the Christian faith is more than a doctrinal creed which, if taken too literally and seriously, will only be used to create and perpetuate a Christian echo chamber in which we “bask, agreed upon what we will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the agreed upon lie.” And yes, in this case the teachings of Jesus become a “lie” when they are used to hide behind, deny reality, and oppress others in the name of “faith.” W. H. Auden, the author of the above quote, also noted, “The divine and the demonic often speak the very same language.”

Christians have a hard time understanding how their dogma, centered on the Holy Bible, can embody epistemic closure in which they are merely “thinking within a ‘christian box.’” But the New Testament clearly warns of this temptation, repeatedly warning of those who mistake “the letter of the law” for “the Spirit of the law.” When this mistake is made, we are guilty of “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” (2 Timothy, ch. 3) When any suspicion of this error confront those self-imprisoned in this “box,” they merely “shout a little louder” their dogma and heap disapproval…and sometimes worse…on those who have brought “discomfort” to the safe little world in which they are ensconced.

Donald Trump’s “Dysfunctional Family”

When our unconsciousness begins to speak to us, the messages are sometimes subtle over a period of time until we finally “get it” and start paying attention.  But then other times the unconsciousness strikes us abruptly, like a thunderbolt from the blue and then we are sometimes stunned or even devastated.  But in either case the human tendency is to deny this irruption into our safe little world of delusion…and “delusional” describes all of us…and to shore up our defenses and shout more loudly the soothing self-talk that comforts us daily.  As W. H. Auden put it, “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.”

Donald Trump represents a voice from the Republican Party’s unconsciousness.  He is behaving and speaking with reckless abandonment, fulfilling the role of the identified patient in a dysfunctional family who “acts out” and announces the conflicted dynamics of the family that is trapped in its Ozzie and Harriet world.  In my clinical practice, my task was twofold: a) stop the “acting out” of the identified patient and b)get the family to own its own role in a dynamic that was often overtly pathological.  Needless to say, often one or both of the parents did not appreciate this approach to their child’s treatment.  For the unacknowledged anguish of the family had forced the identified patient to articulate its pain with word and deed and the parents  were not willing to admit that.

Donald Trump offers the Grand Old Party an opportunity to get real, to get honest with itself.  For example, one of the things that Trump is currently admired for by the base of the party is that, “He tells the truth!”  Well, yes he often does but without the decorum and respect which would make him more palatable to the upper hierarchy of the party.  But if this hierarchy would learn from this unconscious gift they have before them, they could start being such “politicians” and be less blatantly dishonest.

My favorite example…and there are many…is the climate science/global warming issue.  The base of this party is proudly skeptical of science and therefore of the overwhelming evidence that global warming is a critical issue.  But realizing that their base would disapprove if they acknowledged this, the Republican leadership and current candidates for their Presidential nomination glibly shrug their shoulders and report when questioned on the issue, “Well, I’m not a scientist.”  They could easily just simply answer the question but it would be politically inexpedient so they humiliate themselves and their party with this lame response.  And the same dishonesty has often been demonstrated on the issue of whether or not President Obama is a Muslim or was born in Kenya.

Paying attention to the unconscious is often just gut-wrenchingly painful.  But listening to this dimension of our experience, to a gut-level intuition, parallels with closely with  what Christians like to call heeding, “the Spirit of God.”  But  heeding the “Spirit of God” is not just listening to the whims of our heart that we are comfortable with, those  that confirm our pet theories and belief systems. It requires us to pay attention to those that rattle our cage.

The “Unity of All Things” in a Poem

I love the way poets can bring things that are totally disconnected together to make sense. Of course, that is because we, and everything about our lovely world, is very connected in the first place. But lost in our illusion of separateness, it takes poetic courage to “Dive into the Wreck” and put the unity of all things into words so that pedestrian traffic like “moi” can appreciate it:

Trinity
Small things have a different logic to them.
Drop an ant from fifty times its height.
It survives. But a man, a mammoth, a bomb …
well, quantum particles tell us, size is fate.
So when Robert Oppenheimer gathered
those great minds, each with his specialty,
they chose a boy’s schoolhouse in the heart
of an enormous nation, its sons at sea.
Those days were never simple: the squeak of chalk
against the darkness, the dread of failure,
of success, inside each uneasy thought
the dull knowledge that, hell, if not here,
then some other hell, and so they worked
against the clock, the hammer of its hours.
Trinity. That was their goal, their test site
that drew its name from a line by Donne,
who invited God to batter his heart,
God who was three-person’d, and so one
conscience split into ravishing light.
The way men long to be that usurpt towne,
no doubt it frightens them: the blank slate
that reason fills for all the wrong reasons.
What Oppenheimer saw there, God knows.
Perhaps it was the words knocke, breathe, shine, 
and seek to mende. Perhaps the overthrow
of one god for another, for one who blinds
the doubt, so we might lie against our shadows
and fall, too deep to fathom, too small to find.

BRUCE BOND
For the Lost Cathedral
Louisiana State University Press

http://poem.com/today.php

Neurology Challenges & Deepens Faith

The New Yorker magazine has an excellent article on a new device which electrically stimulate parts of the brain and alleviate depression and even addiction.(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/electrified) It reminds me of neurological research of a couple of years ago that said that his religious fervor of mine can be traced to a neurological “god spot” which did not shake my faith in the least due to the intransigence of my very unique and special “god spot”!!! (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/04/god-spot-in-the-brain-more-like-god-spots/)

And, seriously, my faith and the rest of my reality is not shaken by scientific exploration as I feel very strongly that my grasp of reality is a mystery beyond my comprehension and that “reality” itself is far beyond my comprehension. And since I’ve come to realize this, I’m much more accepting of myself and of others though I am often very, very angry that the rest of the world refuses to see things just as I do!!! (Just kidding!)

Consciousness is a scary thing. Hamlet said that it “doeth make cowards of us all” as Shakespeare realized that it was easier to live in the comfort of unexamined dogma, knowing that the “earth was flat” or whatever the prevailing myth of the moment is.