The Sectarian Review Podcast

image

http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

Well this may be it.

I’ve found myself less and less interested in writing for this medium lately. And a quick perusal of this blog will demonstrate that.

It should also reveal that I’ve been aiming my non-teaching efforts toward podcasting instead. There is something truly rewarding about having live conversations with people about the broad range of topics I’ve tried to cover in the blog. If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to check it out. Here’s the link to our Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/SectarianReview/

Also, I’ve created a dedicated website to the podcast where you can learn more about it and link to all the episodes.

If you do, please let me know what you’re thinking. What makes that thing so much fun is the dialogue with our listeners. Here’s the link to the site:

http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

If you’ve been reading this blog, thanks so much. I hope you’ll listen to Sectarian Review and talk back!

Be well.

Sectarian Review: A Call For Contributors

image

Mark Greif recently published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that considered the importance of Partisan Review in American intellectual life:

(http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921/).

What Greif identified as important about PR, its intellectual cultural contribution, many listeners of the Christian Humanist network of podcasts desire to experience in our own historical moment. This is why we listen.

As a sometimes-contributor to The Christian Humanist Podcast, (http://www.christianhumanist.org/) I’ve found great satisfaction and excitement in engaging with my co-hosts and listeners in conversation about the life of the mind in all its complexity and variousness. So when Farmer, Grubbs, and Gilmour offered me the chance to begin my own podcast, I was honored, and would now like to take them up on their kind offer. I had initially intended to begin this project  last year, but unforeseen circumstances drew my time and attention and I had to hold off (long story short, I will be starting a new job as Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College this Fall). Now seems the time to begin this project.

I have no interest in hosting, as Michial puts it, The Danny Show. My own intellectual inspiration largely springs from New York Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling, who was a central figure in the Partisan Review crowd, and he worked within that larger, vibrant intellectual community. So the idea I have is to imagine Partisan Review in the CHP network. Nathan Gilmour suggested the name Sectarian Review, and this is what I’ve gone with.

The idea is to have a large pool of scholars from a variety of disciplines contribute regularly or semi-regularly and to aim for an episode once a month (at least at first). Topics are solicited, and might include subjects such as: the role of the artist in society, Disney and Culture, The Christian Imagination, political commitment in the age of Twitter, etc… In short, whatever strikes the contributors as worthy of discussion.

In the tradition of PR, I welcome contributors from across disciplines. Economists, rhetoricians, sociologists, historians, philosophers, literary scholars, mathematicians, musicologists, and gender studies, as well as professionals from law, clergy, and medicine would bring a diversity of intellectual perspectives that would, I believe, prove to be an enlightening hour of conversation. (I’m sure I left disciplines out of the above list, so please forgive me and take it as a sign of my openness to a variety of perspectives).

If you are interested in participating, please feel invited to contact me at danny.p.anderson@gmail.com

I look forward to developing something great with you.

Danny Anderson

Professor Anderson’s Goals

Copied from my Introduction to Literature syllabus.
Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to make you miserable.

I’m sort of exaggerating about that, but not really. If the humanities, particularly literature, are to claim any purpose in college, part of that purpose must be to unsettle you, and this requires a bit of misery. Fortunately then, we have Kafka to start us off this semester.

Anyone attending college today has probably been victimized by a happy lie. The lie suggests that you students are powerful beings who only need the magical institutional credential of the college diploma to take the world by storm. In this environment, the courses you take are procedural rungs on the triumphant ladder of progress and achievement. You believe you can fly and we can provide the jetpack. Just Do It, and we’ll give you a fancy piece of paper that proves you did (frame not included).

Even in this course. The objectives outlined above are very good. They give us specific skills to focus on and those skills will unquestionably help you in your economic, post-college lives. And they will help me to assign a grade to your efforts. This, along with some elaborate fonts, boosts the credibility of the wall decoration you get for your four years of effort.

The problem is that none of this really has much to do with education.

Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you.

On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.

Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.

This course on twentieth-century and contemporary literature is an opportunity then. Think of it as a speed bump in the soul-killing progressive-triumphalist superhighway (you may not be able to exit – we’ll read Sartre at the end of the semester – but you might be able to slow down sometimes). Here is a too-rare chance for us (and I purposefully include myself here) to unsettle things that are settled and stale. This literature will not be easy to face because it very often undermines our heroic views of ourselves and our society. This brutality is exactly its value.

I do not wish to change your mind or your worldview. And I certainly don’t want to empower you. I hope to challenge you to confront your mind and your worldview in an effort to perfect them.

This is a burden I look forward to helping you with, but, like all real education, it is ultimately yours alone.

My office hours are listed above.

On Smart Phones, Freedom, and Alephs

Aleph

When people ask me what makes something “literary,” I typically say something about how literature reads you even as you read it. Literary art provides an opportunity to think.

The moments at which my job is most satisfying are those in which the stories and poems I’ve assigned point an accusing finger at me and draw back the curtain between the mystical and the “real” in my life. I love it when the book I’m reading seems to know me, and I really love it when it tells me I’m not OK.

I have, like many others, brought my smart phone into numerous aspects of my life. It is communication, entertainment, work, and study; so much of what makes me human has been given over to the machine. There is a certain liberty in this. I am now able to find answers and questions anywhere I am. Wherever I am, the universe is before me in all its complexity, its strangeness, and its dullness. So remarkable is the device, I never stop to ask whether it is me or the phone that’s the tool.

I’ve thought of instruments like my Samsung as a kind of power so liberating I’ve even encouraged my students to wield it, but I wonder if I’ve been living a free life within a prison.

The Aleph (short story collection)

The Aleph (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I taught Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The story is landmark of magical realism, and therefore asks the reader to not only question the distinction between magic and real, but to look for the magic in the real.

The story’s narrator, Borges, has an irritating acquaintance, Carlos Argentino, who is the cousin of Borges’s late love interest, Beatriz Viterbo. Carlos Argentino is a bad poet who, as it turns out, has access to a magical point in the universe in which all other points in the universe can be seen. This is the Aleph, and it gives Argentino direct visual access to all the objects, landscapes, and people about which he writes his terrible poetry.

The story is awe-inspiring as a work of literary art, and the paragraphs in which Borges describes what he finally sees in the Aleph are particularly mesmerizing. In addition, it is an extremely funny story, with Borges’s subtle digs at Carlos Argentino’s ineptness and inflated ego providing the narrative spine of the story. I was therefore a little disappointed that it proved to be a little alienating and difficult for my students to enthusiastically embrace.

To combat moments moments like this, I’ve developed a little bag of teaching tricks, and I pulled one of them out during our discussion of “The Aleph.” The internet has given us tools for live polling via text messaging and Tweeting. When I have difficulty getting students to pose questions or make observations in class, I will from time to time project one of these live polling environments to the screen in our class. Often, this will jump-start conversation by providing students with a concrete statement or question to respond to.

In this particular case, however, our retractable white screen was as silent as my students. This was slightly disappointing, but I was mostly irritated by the fact that the vast majority of the class were clearly typing things into their smartphones. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but even I could deduce that I was merely providing them cover while they mentally exited my classroom and entered the intoxicating liberation of cyberspace.

Eventually, I squeezed a little water from stone and we had a decent conversation about the story. One moment in particular seemed to draw some interest. After Borges has experienced the majestic, God-like view the Aleph offers, he stumbles into the street and makes the following observation:

In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again.

This puzzling moment was productive for us. It raised questions about the value of mystery, wonder, and imagination. Carlos Argentino had endless, literal access to everything in the universe and his poetry suffered for it (though he ironically garners acclaim from the publishing industry – another hilarious cultural critique Borges offers). His direct, instant access reduced his poetry to pale, mimetic description. His poetry was strangled by the brutish hands of fact and the oxygen of imagination was cut off.

The fear that Borges experiences then is a powerful one, and the relief his forgetfulness brings is tangible. The overwhelming clarity of the Aleph threatened to sap the very joy from life, which lies in encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it.

After class, I wandered back to my office and noticed just how readily and enthusiastically students slip into the black mirrors of their smartphones at any opportunity. Like Carlos Argentino scurrying under his basement steps to submit to the easy immediacy of the Aleph, we compulsively reach for our devices to connect us to our digitized universe. And this is by no means exclusive to the young. At playgrounds, restaurants, and school assemblies all over the industrialized world, people of all ages, myself included, shun the profound, magical surprise of the street, the stairs, and the subway for the pale titillation of the virtual.

What to ultimately do about this new reality is unclear to me. Until I figure it out, I will leave my phone in the car when I go out to eat with my family. Perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected things children say.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Falling into Fiction: On Meeting Philip Roth

Philip Roth, Nobel or not, means more to me than any other writer. Reading his work for the first time was like stumbling blindly into an experience both familiar and alien, and built wholly from words. These words did not represent the life I had lived, but they captured the life I’d felt. Roth’s words projected a truer than true landscape of human relationships on the wall of my Platonic cave. Through the experience of his fiction, the skirmishes between my individuality and my communities found a vocabulary and a mythology — and this magical purgatory was entirely constructed out of words. It all hung on the word.

The precise word to call just the right sense and emotion into being. For all the joy this act brings to the right reader, it is, most surely, a brutal task for the writer.

Roth, now 80, has cited this brutality in his decision to call it a career.

As disappointed as I am, I also understand.

I’ve been struggling for months to capture a particular experience in words and, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, preserve it for posterity. Yet the weight of this task has been too much for me and linguistic paralysis set in. It isn’t writer’s block I’m struggling with (I know this because there is no such thing). Rather, I feel too much responsibility to choose the right words to capture something truly unique and special. Like the speaker in Keats poem, for whom the urn was “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” I feel my words can’t do justice to the event.

Fiction, Life, and the Park Bench

Last March, I had the honor of presenting a paper on Roth’s work at a conference in celebration of his 80th birthday. The conference was in Newark, New Jersey, which may sound disappointing to most readers, but it is Roth’s hometown and we were treated to some opportunities that were truly remarkable for people interested in his fiction. In addition to the excellent academic conference, there were guided tours of Roth’s childhood home and other special events. The main event was a speaking engagement featuring a litany of literary dignitaries and culminating with a talk by Roth himself, followed by a birthday party at which we would occupy the same room as The Great Man.

The “life in photos” collection at the Newark Public Library was special enough, but when I broke out a copy of Goodbye, Columbus while there and read passages describing the park across the street, I was overcome. In a strange haze, I hobbled to the bench Neil sits on as he surveys the park and library, reflecting on his attachment to Newark.

Here is a point where my failings as a writer taunt me. I don’t have access to The Words.

It was as if I had briefly entered the novella I’d so long admired. For a moment, I was able to step out of my existence and into the fictional body of Neil Klugman. Postmoderns like myself love to talk about the collapse of ontological distinction between fiction and the actually-existing world, but, so help me, it happened. Either I diminished into the world Roth’s words wrought, or those words escaped the covers of their book and sat with me on that park bench. I cannot stress the strangeness of this moment enough and, if you stick with me, I will return to it again.

Falling into Fiction

Our Disney-Roth vacation also included a bus tour that took us to various Newark landmarks, Rothian and otherwise. Each bus load of wide-eyed academics was given a tour guide who gracefully read passages from Roth’s work that described the locations we visited. The readings were often, as one would expect from Roth’s work, humorous, but what stood out to me was the descriptive power of the writer’s words. Though Newark has morphed into an altogether new social space in the 50 years since Roth became its emotional historian, his words, when religiously invoked in those spaces, collapsed time and space. Just as with my experience on Neil Klugman’s park bench, Roth’s words, when experienced in the places they froze in literary time, recreated the modern world in the image of Roth’s Atlantean Jewish Newark.

In a comically appropriate way, the driver of my bus was surely the doppelganger of the elderly Arthur Miller, and, fittingly our representative from the world of fiction drove us headlong into that world.

The tour’s highlight was a dual stop at Roth’s youth. First, we pulled in front of his old school, Weequahic High, and we scurried into the cold to snap photos of ourselves in front of its entrance. Here is my own selfie:

2013-03-19 13.05.03

The postmodern romantic in me likes to think that with each of these photos, we not only commemorated our visit to literary history, we hurled ourselves into literature. This act intensified when we boarded our bus again and headed to the pleasure-dome of Alexander Portnoy’s own “Kubla Khan,” The Philip Roth House.

Located just around the corner from the high school whose daily lessons we interrupted, the house that Roth grew up in politely sits in a quiet, even pleasant neighborhood, so utterly dignified that it disorients the devoted reader of Roth’s sometimes raucous fiction. Undaunted by all this oppressive respectability, my colleagues and I tumbled out of the bus for voluminous digital photographs of Alexander Portnoy’s house of Atreus, each shutter-click seemingly inaugurating dirty jokes by extremely smart people. There was a sense that we’d been dissolved into Roth’s great fiction and were powerless to behave like folks with Ph.Ds. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself immensely, nor that I regret the dirty jokes and neighborhood disturbance. I am simply in awe of the experience.

 The Counterlife

As the day drew us closer to The Event, my metamorphosis into a fictional character escalated. At a stop on the way back to the fabulous Newark Museum, where the festivities would be held, I was approached by a reporter who asked if I’d like to comment on the tour. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name at the time and I assumed he was a reporter for a local, Newark paper. Professionally and politely, he asked me several questions about my experience and, still on a fanboy high, I answered them. As it turned out, the reporter, Matthew Schuerman was a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, and he completed my voyage into Wonderland by describing me, in his article, as almost sounding like one of Roth’s “compulsive, self-doubting characters.” He might as well have introduced me as “the nebbish, Danny Anderson.” Note that I don’t blame Mr. Schuerman for this. He crafted a fine account of the event, and it isn’t his fault that I had chased the White Rabbit so far down the hole.

Oh, and, hmm…well…there’s also…you know…an…audio package that was aired and features my interview. Here’s the link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/276933-bus-tour-brings-philip-roths-newark-life/

 Out of Body Experiences and Jumping Valences

My pumpkin eventually brought me to the ball in my best suit and I lightly entered the ballroom, certain that I was going to be found out and escorted home — or at least back out into the streets of Newark, with Cory Booker nowhere around to save me. Yet this did not happen. Instead, I saw some of my fellow academics, many of whom are actual big-wigs in the profession. The fact that they were as outwardly shaken by our shared out-of-body experience as I was either comforted me or added to my terror. I could not distinguish.

Nonetheless, we chatted about our excitement, hit the fruit-and-cheese table, and I avoided the alcohol, thinking water was the wise choice given my recent postmodern dissolution into fictionality. Like Bob Hoskins’ fear of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was sure I was dangerously close to becoming Alvin Pepler and I decided not to take unnecessary risks.

So, feigning a witty and urbane manner, I nibbled on my kiwi fruit and cheddar as the small talk took us. Events then began to snowball.

First, someone identified Paul Auster in the crowd. City of Glass is a favorite novel of mine and I involuntarily gasped at the sight of its writer. Our celery sticks were abandoned as we started to scamper into the crowd, pointing out literati as if we were playing nerd-bingo. “Look there’s Nathan Englander.” “I heard Mia Farrow was supposed to be here.” “Is that Jonathan Lethem? I almost wrote about him in my dissertation.”

Then.

My index finger rose and directed awe-inspired traffic to Don…“DeLillo! He wrote White Noise, for Pete’s sake!” I unashamedly swooned in front of my colleagues, and not because of DeLillo’s purple sweater.

By this time, the room had been transformed into a great atom, with excited electrons like myself whirling around it. I had no idea how not to buzz around in such company. I just write and teach about these people, I don’t rub shoulders with them. Yet, as a former person who was now a fictionalized avatar, I did.

Then, through an archway that divided the marble room from the marble hall that encircled it, I saw Philip Roth. He was maybe 100 feet from me, thin, healthy, and dressed in black. As if bombarded by an intense heat source, the highly charged electrons in the room tried to jump levels, from the nucleus of finger foods and plastic wine glasses, up the brief staircase to the energy source dressed like Johnny Cash. Physics got in the way of my migration, however, as the staircase served as a bottleneck that trapped me long enough for Roth to be removed to the auditorium in preparation for the talks in his honor.

C-SPAN fortunately recorded this part of the event, so I need not try and recreate my experience of it in words. Words, it seems to me, are sirens, tempting sailors to their doom. An experience like this, that was for me so meaningful and profound, begs me to not let it drift off onto a Sea of Forgetting. Never again, I suspect, will my consciousness touch the border between our physical world and that of our cultural imagination. I have been tortured by the desire to keep its magic ever existent, carrying it with me through my everyday life without it falling victim to the Everyday. I could do so, I suppose, by boring people with my story for the rest of my life, like the speaker in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” But it seems to me that this is what writing is for. The tortuous act of rendering multifarious experience into words is supposed to accomplish the work of Keats’ Grecian Urn.

Yet finding those words is brutal. Worse yet is the act of placing the words into the right relationships, and capturing not only fact and chronology, but emotion, newness, and wonder. This is, I think, what lurks behind Roth’s retirement. A lifetime of finding words, typing them, becoming discontented with them, erasing them, and replacing them is more than I can imagine bearing. Let me just say that I’ve never been more captivated by a speaker in my life. Listening to Roth read a few pages from Sabbath’s Theater was what the Romantics meant by sublime. Thank God for C-SPAN’s videographers and sound engineers. Do yourself a favor and take some time to watch it here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311957-1

Shaking the Hand that Shook the Liver

I had assumed that Roth’s speech would be the end of the evening, and that would have been enough. There was more, however. The attendees, great and small, would gather once again in the marble Xanadu of the Newark Museum to wish Roth a happy 80th birthday and consume pieces of an amazing cake, which was baked and frosted into images of Roth’s novels. I ate a piece of Nemesis, myself.

Standing near Roth while we sang and toasted to his honor (Louise Erdrich provided a toast in Ojibwe — Roth responded that he had wanted her to “jump out of a cake”), was, I thought, the culminating moment in my escape from tyrannical reality. I was wrong.

Roth proceeded to sit down at a table and, organically and without prompt or organization, two greeting lines formed. Still uncomfortable in my alternative-universe skin, I suppose, I hesitated to join the line. Meeting Roth terrified me. I tried even to avoid eye, let alone physical, contact, as I didn’t wish for my carriage to revert back to a pumpkin at an embarrassing moment. My dissertation adviser, friend, and mentor, Judy Oster, however, pushed me into line, providing me with a gracious and loving slap in the back of the head.

As I waited, I watched others greet the man and I was jealous that they actually seemed to have something to say to him. I am, in professional circles, rather a Nobody. I feel that my great contribution is almost entirely in the classroom and not the journal. So I watched and waited my turn, jumping in and out of line to snap pictures of the others, who I now realize were just as awestruck as I was. The childlike giddiness with which they took in their own experience of the event was a truly heartwarming sight. That people who had held me in such envious awe were, in the end, not so different than me, was an oddly comforting epiphany.

As my camera was passed to a colleague for my own photo op, Roth’s intimidating gaze landed on me at last. Maybe it was the lifetime of breaking experience down into sensory-rich words that gave Roth’s eyes such an intensity, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was under observation even in conversation. Were he to write another novel, what great schmuck might I inspire?

Surrendering at the outset, I decided to get out quickly. I said, “Mr. Roth, I don’t want to take up any of your time. I just want to say that it’s a great honor to meet you and to wish you a happy birthday.”

I was satisfied with this. I had spoken to him and shaken his hand. I needed no further magic. Yet there was some. As if to convince me that I was not just a disembodied consciousness perceiving an experience, but also a being to be perceived myself, Roth held me up: “Ok. Now who are you?”

“Who?” The events of the day had somehow almost made me forget that I was a Who. Ironically, Roth had reached within the novel I’d sunk into and pulled me back out into my own skin. The creator of fiction re-established my reality. I was not “the nebbish, Danny Anderson,” I was, again, “Danny Anderson.” A name that once having recovered, I announced to the man shaking my hand. And then, “I’m just a teacher, and I wanted to say how much I admired what you did tonight in your talk. You made literature come alive in me in exactly the way I want it to come alive in my students.”

Roth politely listened to me, we shook hands again, and I ceded my place at the table to the next admirer.

I walked away, restored to my body and name, emerged from Wonderland, filled with an extraordinary magic and the dread of losing it.

2013-03-19 21.58.17

Enhanced by Zemanta
apollo-with-lyre_thumb.jpg

Preachin’ to the Choir

apollo with lyre

Digression

Three months into this blog, I’ve reached a strange crossroads. Looking back over the topics I cover, I see posts about teaching, religion, conspiracy theories, werewolves, and child rearing, among others. It’s a dizzying array of topics that I’m sure confuses my readers and makes it difficult to “build an audience” for my blog. In all honesty, this has bothered me too much, I think. The great blogger Bryan Daniels has inspired me to not care about numbers so much in this post on his blog, Chief of the Least.

Liberation! Wasn’t that easy?

Anyhow, as it turns out, the posts I like best are the ones that blur the distinctions between my topics. My recent post, “The Werewolf Priesthood,” is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s about werewolves, yes. But it is also about faith. And teaching. And parenting. Is my confusion clear? Where are the lines at which one topic begins and the others end?

So this is how I will approach this blog for the time being. Numbers be darned.

Psst. But seriously, one or two shares or likes on Facebook or Google+ makes a huge difference to my fragile, pathetic self-esteem! 🙂

Oh, Original Sin. You fascinate me.

End Digression

This post will hopefully be focused on and applicable to a specific audience, to be consumed and distributed as they see fit. I do hope, however, that the broader intersections are apparent as well, because they are important to me.

 

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colo...

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colossians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Sometimes, listening to the sermon in church pays off. I recently heard a sermon about the Epistle to the Colossians that opened my eyes to something I’d never known. Verses 15-20 of chapter 1 are apparently lyrics to a popular hymn in the proto-Christian era.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

(Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

This was a revelation to me.

The Apostle Paul’s subsequent advice column was not simply information given to instruct the intellects of his readers. Instead, it organically erupted out of an engagement with art! Paul seems to know that his readers engage with the world through means that transcend mere rational logic. In fact, I argue that the logic of religion must engage the imagination as much as the brain. It could very well be that because I happen to teach English, I find this element of Colossians more exciting than anyone else does, but, nonetheless, it struck a chord with my inner poet.

The lyrics in this little ditty are certainly pedagogical in nature and they offer an essential vision of orthodox Christian theology. Yet they are innately poetic as well. Phrases like “image of the invisible God,” and “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” are not literal, but imaginative, and they offer the human reader an entryway into the supernatural, the Divine. Theologically,  they establish a theme in the first line about Jesus springing forth into history, directly from the central God. The theme is repeated (becoming a motif!) by the use of imagery that subsequently centralizes Jesus, making him the center around which the Christian life revolves. Whether one is a believer or not (I imagine many of my readers are not), there is an aesthetically pleasing poetic structure in these words that is admirable.

Paul, being the … ahem … great prose stylist that he is … cough cough … builds his instruction, or argument, upon this poetic beauty. Thank goodness!

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

(Colossians 1:21-23 ESV)

This snappy bit of prose (wink wink) makes even less sense if the reader does not understand Jesus as central to salvation. Given the supernatural and mystical nature of this belief, it is a concept much better conceived in the poetic than it is driven home in didactic form.

I have, as I’ve alluded to in the past, severe difficulty with contemporary Christian music (and culture in general). We’ve found a way to isolate the emotional and pedagogical elements of faith, assigning the former to music and the latter to sermons. This makes for bad poetry (“Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy, wet kiss” – ick) and, in my opinion, a degraded culture. This discovery about Colossians, which was new to me, was therefore exciting. Here is a model that insists we do better.

This discovery not only has theological ramifications, it also opens up yet another intersection, that between faith and literature. I’ve posted about this particular crossroad before; if you missed it here’s the link.

As an English professor, this discovery is not only exciting, it is a relief. Maybe I’m not Jekyll and Hyde after all.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Buried Life

Long before it inspired a basic-cable series dedicated to MTV douchebaggery, Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem, “The Buried Life,” inspired generations to quiet introspection.

Who has not, after all, sensed that there might be something more to life? Something richer? Who has not felt bitter sadness at their inability to escape the immediate demands of life in order to pursue an unclear purpose and invisible meaning? Like generations have before me, I too have found solace and desperate inspiration in its 98 lines, and I wanted to use this forum to experience it’s wisdom once again. After all, as the poem’s speaker suggests, “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

2013-02-14 13.39.16

Upon her retirement, my beloved adviser, Dr. Judith Oster, gave me her copy of The Portable Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling. Given the nature of my dissertation, she thought it a poetically appropriate gift and it is precious to me. I love that Lionel Trilling edited it. I love that it identifies itself as “portable,” meaning that art need not be something dead and compartmentalized, but alive and living with me. But mostly, I love that my adviser, mentor, and friend passed its wisdom on to me. With it in my possession, I feel as though I’m a part of a great tradition. And as much as Arnold’s own printed words, I relish Judy’s handwritten marginalia. It captures an image of my intellectual forebear struggling for the first time with great art and great ideas. Seeing the undergraduate underlining and engaged scribbling of my great teacher makes me imagine her life and career as a classical epic, and inspires me to try and carry on her intellectual and moral work. Much of what I know of the “best that’s been thought and said,” she taught me, after all.

Arnold’s poem retains its moving power even in our distracted, immediate age. It’s able to do this because it identifies a human longing that is not bound by time or place.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life

What the speaker identifies is a human desire for meaning. Despite the claims of early Derrida and recent “advances” in science, human beings long for meaning, whether it is actually there or not. Some of us waste that desire seeking out a collection of consumable products or hedonistic frivolity to quench our thirst for meaning. Those things need not be the ends of our desires, however.

Self-absorption is not the only barrier to digging our our buried lives, however. Conversely, some expend their divine longings by assembling a life built on ostensibly good things like family, community, and religion. But these things as ends unto themselves are also inadequate. Indeed, the poem asks,

Alas, is even Love too weak

To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

So what are we to do? What is the point? The point is that there is a point. And too many people miss it.

Those who wish to confine our lives to the mathematics of particle accelerators and the pre-destination of chemistry will not agree with the transcendence this poem conceives of. But, “The Buried Life” suggests that there is something inside each of us, a “true self” that awaits discovery. The notion that the essence of our lives is arbitrary and constructed is an alien one to Arnold here. Yes, much of what we do with our time “in the world’s most crowded streets” is arbitrary and lived entirely in the “din of strife,” but this poem offers a bleak, distant hope that there is an objective beauty to be grasped and experienced. That there is a purpose each of us is born to.

Yet — and this is what can be debilitating — this quest can never be fulfilled and we are therefore Sisyphus, forever pushing that rock uphill. This is the act in which we must find our joy.

I think I must be drawn to this poem at this moment because I’ve seemingly found my calling, the life that was buried in my breast all along.

And yet.

What can explain the fact that these words resonate with me in a manner that destroys any comfort I might otherwise rest in?

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

One general critique of Arnold’s liberal humanist project is that it closes down free inquiry. It’s deference to “the best that’s been thought and said” is usually cited as an unthinking dedication to tradition. I think that this is a reductionist interpretation, if not patently false. The speaker in this poem sees life as a never ending, beautifully tragic inquiry. There is no comfortable resting on laurels. The philosophical position this poem takes is, I think, consistent with Arnold’s body of poetry and criticism, and it refutes the naive simplicity imposed upon his reputation by the dogmatists of European philosophy. If anything, Arnold provides a tortured, restless window from which to experience the world. It does not allow for confidence or privilege. It requires eternal introspection, all the while knowing that there is no depth at which the answer will be revealed. The poem states this flatly:

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

And many a man in his own breast then delves,

But deep enough, alas! None ever mines.

The Blessed Assurance that Arnold is accused of peddling is certainly not evident in these lines. This is a philosophy instead more attuned to the Romanticism of Bruce Springsteen. The ‘Burns and The Boss each find the beauty and truth of life in the Darkness on the Edge of Town. My own attraction to this poem at this moment can probably be traced to my desire to maintain touch with that landscape and the inspiring uncertainties that reside within. Only they can provide a goal worthy of my own “fire and restless force,” spent endlessly trading in my wings on some wheels. In fact, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” perfectly captures the spirit of Arnold’s poem.

This sounds rather terrifying and hopeless, I know. “The Buried Life,” however, like Springsteen’s song, also provides a flash of hope that makes the uncertain risks worth taking. Arnold writes:

Only — but this is rare —

When a beloved hand is laid in ours,

When, jaded with the rush and glare

Of the interminable hours,

Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,

When our world-deafen’d ear

Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—

Rare though it may be, I have experienced enough of this exhilaration to keep me energized for the endless journey. Like Mary in Springsteen’s great epic, my own Beloved’s hand has offered me the clear vision that reveals the Buried Life. The poem’s last three lines describe that experience:

And then he thinks he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

The brief glimpses of “the point” of my life are what exhilarate me and make me eager for my own time spent in Springsteen’s Edge of Town. I have a beloved wife and family that give me this perspective, and I also have great art. All of us have this; it is our cultural inheritance and we need only claim it. Arnold’s poem, ending as it does with this promise of vision, offers “an air of coolness,” a reason to risk excavating the Buried Life. The poem itself is a “beloved hand” that is “laid in ours.” This is what Judy gave me when she passed her book down to me. This is why we shouldn’t be so bold as to laugh off the best that’s been thought and said.

                      The Buried Life

                                by

                       Matthew Arnold

   Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

Only—but this is rare—
When a belov’ed hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Arnold's grave