Tag Archives: W. H. Auden

Michel Foucault and “Difference” in Contemporary America

Difference matters to me.  I was raised in a conservative, American South culture with religion being the paramount dimension in my particular subculture.  But this upbringing in a rigid, highly structured atmosphere of “us vs. them” troubled me and in my early adulthood I began to acquire a more inclusive, less linear-thinking oriented approach to life.  Now, in the latter stages of my life, the issue of sameness vs. difference is a paramount concern of mine, especially given the political climate in my country and in the world.

Today I stumbled across a book in my library, “The Order of Things” by Michel Foucoult, heavily marked up from my “youthful” enthusiasm of decades past.  In the quote which I will share, Foucoult explores the relationship between “sympathy” (i.e. sameness”) vs. “antinomy” (difference) and the dialogic imperative of an interaction between these two complementary dimensions of the human soul.

Sympathy is an instance of the same so strong and so insistent that it will not rest content to be merely one of the forms of likeness; it has the dangerous power of assimilating, of rendering things identical to one another, of mingling them, of causing their individuality to disappear—and thus rendering them foreign to what they were before.  Sympathy transforms.  It alters, but in the direction of identity, so that if its power were not counter-balanced it would reduce the world to a point, to a homogeneous mass, to the featureless form of the same:  all its parts would hold together and communicate with one another without a break, with no distance between them, like those metal chains held suspended by sympathy to the attraction of a single magnet.

But then Foucault presents “antipathy” as the opposite life-force, equally necessary, which seeks to counter the otherwise stultifying power of the demand for sameness.  What he calls “antipathy” is merely a drive for difference, an innate desire to not be swallowed by the whole of sameness, a “whole” which would be merely a “black hole” without consideration of this “antipathy” or difference.  Foucault declares:

Sympathy is compensated by its twin, antipathy.  Antipathy maintains the isolation of things (i.e. the difference, the desire and demand for independence) and prevents their assimilation; it encloses every species within its impenetrable difference and its propensity to continue to being what it is.

This notion of continuing “to being what it is” is an essential dimension of identity, an ability to “hang onto” a core of what/who one is even when beset by the challenges of difference.  With maturity, i.e. “ego integrity,” one can hang onto a core of who one is even as he negotiates with difference, (i.e. “antipathy”) and knowing that he can survive…and even thrive…with the benefit of “difference” (i.e. something new) into its mindset.

Poet Stanley Kunitz offered wisdom re this inner-core, this essence of who we are:

The Layers
BY STANLEY KUNITZ
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.

 

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Emily Dickinson and the Imprisonment of Specious Truth

The subject of truth continues to fascinate me with the term “fake news” becoming synonymous with any viewpoint that does not fit with ours.  Truth appears increasingly to be very relative with no real standard being applicable.  Oh sure, I’m a “relativist” myself but then I continue to believe in some basic standard of veracity which, should I breach it, I would evoke some sense of shame and an attempt to apologize.

But the wonderful 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson knew that it was possible for the human soul to select its constituent elements and fashion a private, “society” that would be, “proof and bulwark” (borrowing a term from Shakespeare) against truth.  She was a keen observer of the human situation in her day and noted how people tended to create a very private reality for themselves, congregate with like-minded souls, and then repel any contrary viewpoint.  Here is how she put it:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Note that Dickinson observed that after constructing this autistic shell of a world view, the individual would, “shut the door” and then assume a “Divine majority,” that is assuming a Divinity to which nothing could be “presented” any more.  She knew that at this point an individual had said, in the depths of his heart, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with facts.”

But often in this closed-minded world, Dickinson knew that Truth often visited and “kneeled at her low-gate,” bidding for admission.  But she had already pledged her troth to a particular viewpoint and “closed the valves of her attention like stone.”  The imagery of valves of attention, “closing like stone” is powerful, evoking an auditory image of the gates of attention clanging shut with finality.  When one has barricaded him/herself into a prison of specious certainty, and labeled it Truth, there is no way for those chariots that are always passing by to breach the force-field it faces.  The poison that results inside such a prison always makes me think of Westboro Baptist Church, David Koresh and his disciples, and Jim Jones and the Jonestown, South Africa disaster.

W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “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.”

A Texas “Outlaw” Poet Demonstrates Semiotics

In the six years that “literarylew” has existed, I’ve explored poetry at great depth.  A lot of my exploration has been in the area of semiotics, that unconscious domain where instincts and external demands of society encounter each other and an identity amenable to symbolic participation in the world is created.  If this identity is too well-endowed with instinctual energy, psychosis could emerge in the extreme.  If “external demands” rule the day, then at an extreme linear thinking will prevail one will find comfort in the world that W. H. Auden described as that of, “a logical lunatic.”  The goal is for both dimensions of human experience to freely interact with instinctual energy finding expression in socially acceptable terms.

But the poet has that “id”-stinctual energy working with more intensity than those of us who live a more prosaic life.  With the poet, words cavort about in the subterranean regions of the heart, making it challenging to, “buckle his distempered “swollen” heart within the belt of rule….as Shakespeare put it.  The energy of instinctual energy that would threaten dissolution is harnessed by the poet’s capacity to use words to bind that energy and to use words creatively. At the conclusion I will include a poem by Archibald MacLeish who so beautifully describes the meshing of what William James called the, “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” with words.)

However, I first would like to introduce you to my most recent blog subscriber, a Texas “outlaw” poet, Jeff Callaway, whose life story and poetry so beautifully illustrates the struggle of one poet in “binding” the energy of his heart and life.  This poem is a hodgepodge of imagery, often lacking “sense” other than to one who has a heart for poetry and will intuit and feel a whole lot of “sense” by giving it a close, attentive reading.  Here I quote the initial stanza of this raucous and often bawdy poem which clearly reveals this man’s energy bursting at the seams:

the greatest poems
are never written down
but lonely and forgotten
before a pen can be found
the greatest poems never find the ink
in the time it takes you to think
slowly with time they fade
and face the guillotine
of jilted poems and unrequited lovers
or glued to my own vague memory
of what could’ve been
if only i’d had a pen
and the recollection to keep repeating
what it was i was trying to say…

For the whole of this poem, check out this link:  https://texasoutlawpoet.com/2018/02/16/the-greatest-poems-of-all-by-jeff-callaway-texas-outlaw-poet-2/

“Words in Time,” by Archibald MacLeisch:

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!

There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.

That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.

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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/

“Logical Lunacy” Besets All of US (illustrated by cartoon)

 

Image may contain: 8 people, people smiling, text

 

W. H. Auden bemoaned having to put up with the folly of, “a logical lunatic.”  In this cartoon is illustrated a dimension of a rational mind that is meticulously “rational” as long as you are confined to the premise, “I support Trump.”  If you do not support Trump, you will “see through this” and understand the implicit “logical lunacy” of the reasoning process demonstrated.  HOWEVER, this same “splinter in the brain” besets us all and leads to the “lunacy” we witnessed last night when the U.S. Senate could not pass a bill which led to our government shutting down.  There is a tendency with us all to believe only what we want and refuse to consider there is another way of looking at the world.  It is only when both sides of a disagreement can trot out some degree of “meta-cognition” and recognize this that compromise can be found.  When this cannot happen, the opposing sides “hunker down” and draw swords, emphatically declaring, “I’m right!  You’re wrong.—it is always easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the “other guys.”

AN IMPORTANT AFTER THOUGHT–It is so much easier to see the “logical lunacy” of the other guys!

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.
 

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

……………………………………….

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/

“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “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.”

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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/