Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry and Rebellion

One of the more thankless tasks which fall on the shoulders of the UU ministry student is that of obtaining a growing arsenal of "readings" for all occasions -- poems, anecdotes, inspiring quotations and more, which one might be called upon at any moment to enlist to provide peace of mind to oneself and one's hearers.  The trouble in my case is that I like exactly two kinds of poetry, neither of which belongs in this sort of arsenal -- poetry which beats one over the head with an ethical or political or theological message, and poetry which is grotesque and disturbing and morose. I have been chagrined to find before that these are not the universal parameters of taste.  More significantly, the ministerial situation calls for some words of comfort, and the only words that I ever find memorable in poetry are those of affliction.

I was called on recently to open a meeting with such a "reading".  This should be a routine assignment, but it filled me with terror.  I spent hours trying to remember the names of various poems I had read and enjoyed, only to open each one and think "I couldn't possibly read this to other people!"  The poetry I remember is the kind that ends with a thud that sends a hollow reverberation through the room -- the sort that forces you to look up from the page at the end with a slightly queasy feeling and exhale noisily. At any rate-- there's definitely a release of breath involved.

But no one needs or wants this at the start of a meeting, which should begin with words that are vaguely familiar and leave no impression apart from a sensation of warmth.  And I know of no poems that do that off the top of my head -- mostly because, as you may have noticed, forgettability is implied in the definition.

I already had a black mark against my name where poetry was concerned, due to my ill-conceived attempt to read "The Mower" by Philip Larkin at the start of a prior meeting.  The poem ends with the innocuous enough sentiment: "Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time," which is why I chose it -- but it also starts off with the death of a hedgehog who has wandered into the blades of the poet's lawnmower.  Reading such a poem must sound like an obviously bad idea-- but believe it or not, "The Mower" was the very least objectionable and morbid thing I had found that day after going through an entire list of "my favorite poems" from college.  The rest was all Wilfred Owen on English youths choking on mustard gas in the trenches and William Blake on consumptive chimney-sweeps, and so forth.

So I decided on this occasion that even if I couldn't achieve the desired effect of bland familiarity, I could at least manage to avoid offending people outright.  I settled on Emerson's "Brahma" as one of the least bad options.  Cultural misappropriation maybe.  But at least death only enters into it in the abstract, and its theological purpose is sufficiently vague and ethereal that people can tune it out as they choose.  It is also a poem I like a great deal, and it still has -- for me at least -- a bit of the hollow reverberation at the end I look for.

Talking to a friend after the meeting, it appeared I had succeeded in not upsetting anyone, but this friend had not seen "the point" of the poem.  I explained that I thought it was Emerson's attempt to describe non-dualism, which it is, but my friend shrugged: "So?"  Admittedly, this friend can be relied upon to say whatever it takes to disagree with me in a given situation, but he did pose a valid question as to why I should care, or ask other people to care.  It's not hard to imagine any number of philosophical treatments of non-dualism that would leave me emotionally cold.  Given that I am not a non-dualist in my own theology or worldview, it's hard to say why Emerson's defense of it should "move" me the way this poem did.

Looking more closely at it now, I realize the "thud" and "reverberation" for me in this poem comes with the last line (as it always should): "But thou, meek lover of the good! / Find me, and turn thy back on heaven."  It is the sanction Emerson provides to the choice of moving away from the Christian heaven that comes to me as an emancipating utterance.  It provides me with "release"-- that release of breath mentioned above standing in for the release of mental tension.

But what was the source of this tension?  Surely it is strange that some part of me even today, even after all those blaspheming blog posts and all the time I spent in college as an "angry atheist," should still think that I am "supposed" to be a Christian -- or at least, to love and respect the Christian God.  But this is the best explanation I can think of.  For someone, like my friend, who is neither burdened nor enriched by this particular cultural inheritance, Emerson's poem would have little to say -- unless it spoke to some other source of inner conflict that would probably be just as unavailable to me.

This more than anything makes me doubt the plausibility of all theories of "intrinsic" or "objective" standards of beauty.  A very great deal of what other people appear to find lovely in poetry is a complete emotional dud for me.  I hear tell that many people's favorite line in all of Philip Larkin is his closer in "An Arundel Tomb": "What will survive of us is love."  But this does nothing for me.  It's not that I find the sentiment mistaken or misguided.  Rather, the idea that we live on after our deaths in the love of those close to us is such a familiar piece of mental furniture for me that it can only sound like a cliché -- though I am perfectly willing to accept that there are people for whom this idea would come as a tremendous liberation.  The fact that it does not arrive so for me probably means that, just as much as I am "blocked up" inside with regard to the feelings I allow myself to express toward the Christian God, I have no similar clog in my emotional plumbing (at least at this stage of development) with regard to the problem of eternal life.

Patterns are starting to emerge here.  I mentioned above that the two kinds of poetry that speak to me either have a political or a moral or a theological purpose, or else they are grotesque and morose.  Preferably, they are both.  Something similar could be said, by the way, of most categories of aesthetic experience for me.  In the visual arts, I am an admirer of Goya, whose "The Third of May" satisfies the first of my two requirements, as his "Saturn Devouring His Son" satisfies the second.  Ilya Repin's "The Barge-pullers of the Volga" and Otto Dix's "The Seven Deadly Sins" and William Hogarth's "The Bench" are some of the beloved few paintings that manage to achieve both effects in a single image.

So too, my very favorite poets are those whose sensibility makes room for both the morbid and the moral.  The combination is a rare and admirable thing, you realize, since political and moral reformers are so often helpful and and mild and un-morbid people, on the one hand, and since morbid people are so often self-involved and politically indifferent, on the other.  Among the gentle and healthy-minded reformers are people like William Morris, who has all my sympathy, but who I have no great desire to ever read.  Among the self-involved morbid people are some whom I admire a very great deal as poets, such as Philip Larkin and Gottfried Benn, but they will never truly enter my inner circle of perceived kindred spirits, because they lack the overriding ethical dimension.

It is only people like William Blake and Edgar Lee Masters and Heinrich Heine (whose "The Weavers" and "Morphine" are fine examples, respectively, of the two genres I have in mind), who have a sense both for the inevitable element of horror and distress in life and the ethical and spiritual values that can make meaning of it, whom I truly love.  It is only writers whose proposals for spiritual health arise out of a deep acquaintance with spiritual sickness who really seem honest and freeing influences in my life.

But those ethical and spiritual values can't be just any values for me -- otherwise I might have taken some stronger interest by now in Milton or Dante or other rhapsodist of an Age of Faith.  So what are the values that run through all the poems I admire?  I think I've already identified a theme of the rebellion of humanity against the Deity.  Isaac Rosenberg's "God," Goethe's and Byron's respective renditions of "Prometheus," Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife," and Brecht's "How Fortunate the Man with None" all fall into this category.  There is another theme of social protest-- usually against something, primarily, rather than for something.  A lot of utopian dreams fail to carry conviction for me.  True literature of protest recognizes that what it is rebelling against is not just the current government in charge, but the oldest and deadliest propensities of human nature.  Carl Sandburg, Shelley, and others come to mind.  Finally, there is a theme of recognizing the validity and legitimacy of deep sadness.  The later Gottfried Benn on the themes of loneliness and the terror of the obliteration, say.  Philip Larkin, perhaps, on the plight of being Philip Larkin (which is, in fact, the whole of Philip Larkin).

When I look at this list, I notice something crucial: it does not include everything that I think and believe about the world.  There are a great many rose-tinted convictions I carry with me through the day which do not provide a justification for sorrow or deep disenchantment with existing society.  Not every waking second of my day is devoted to plotting rebellion against a God in whose existence I don't really believe.  Why, then, are the themes I listed above the ones that matter to me in poetry?

I notice first of all that  every one of those themes reflects a belief that runs counter to something deeply rooted in my religious and cultural inheritance.  I noted above that Philip Larkin's remarks about our post-mortem fate have little purchase for me, because the hope for the Christian heaven and the terror of the Christian hell were never instilled in me as a child.  However, respect for the Christian God and for Jesus certainly was.  The idea that one ought to love Jesus -- and that one should regard his message in turn as one delivered in love -- was very much an element of my received faith.  Meanwhile, the idea of a social protest that is offered in the absence of faith in a specific alternative runs counter to much of my bumptious Protestant heritage, which always assumes that if something is broken it can be fixed -- and at once -- and by us.  Finally, the notion that sadness is a real emotion-- perhaps the real emotion -- and not simply the fictitious shadow of an eternal and justified happiness, contradicts a core tenet of the American creed.  To state baldly or even to hint darkly that happiness is not the only "natural" state of humankind takes intellectual courage where I come from.

But I notice something else too.  Not every belief that runs counter to my upbringing presents itself to me as a form of emancipation.  There is a great deal to be found in poetry that seems to me a mere sickening transgression.  There are poetical celebrations of cruelty and sadism that certainly repel me.  Chauvinism and bloodlust and exploitation and exhibitionism in verse are just as repugnant as they are in life, and they leave every part of me protesting -- not just my superego, but my ego too.  Yet surely I take these reactions in part from my cultural inheritance, and not just in opposition to it.

What is happening then in an aesthetic experience does not appear to be a repudiation of one's upbringing.  There is certainly an element of repudiation involved, in which one carves out a minimal sphere of privacy for oneself away from the searching gaze of "bad conscience."  Having someone else -- a poet-- speak one's mind absolves one of guilt.  It lets one respond in sympathy to something one really would have liked to say oneself, if one only had the words to do so and could unblock the vocal passageway over which the superego stands guard.  This release of tension surely has something to do with what the Greeks meant when they spoke of "purging" as the core of the aesthetic experience.

Yet there can be no blockage or tension where there is no inner force struggling to find expression.  And that inner force too will be invariably shaped and informed by one's cultural inheritance.

What is really going on, then, when I feel "liberated" by a poem, is not that I have gotten rid of my upbringing, but that I have set that upbringing upon firmer and more self-consistent ground.  I have seen something deeply contradictory within that inheritance and cannot now un-see it.  My "bad conscience" can try to force me to ignore the contradiction, and will probably be successful in doing so for a time, as it is in all of us, but its admonitions will eventually be rejected by the body as a foreign article. "Bad conscience" is not our conscience, it is something or someone else's. We will at some point be "purged" of it and find release.

For most people, the recognition of contradictions in their inherited worldview starts in adolescence, and it is usually with the discovery of such contradictions that teenage "rebellion" begins.  As perplexing as it may seem to parents, therefore, the teenage rebellion is actually waged in support of the parent's own moral and cultural values in most cases -- that is to say, in favor of a "higher interpretation" of them -- even when that rebellion seems to parents so apparently omni-directional, pointless, and destructive.  The child accepts what it is told quite literally, yet when we get older, we start to see that the world doesn't live and function according to the literal interpretation of the values we have internalized.  This is why the charge eternally leveled by the young against the old is not that of "evil" so much as that of "hypocrisy!"  It also helps to explain why the reformer is always a bit of a conservative as well.

In my case, the moments of "release" come for me in poetry when I see that a fellow person, a kindred spirit, has spotted a contradiction I also perceived, and is every bit as indignant over it as I am.  In adolescence, I found a contradiction which I simply could not circumvent between the commandment to love Jesus and the fact that we as UUs and religious liberals adamantly reject a great deal of what Jesus seems to say in the Bible.  I started to perceive a contradiction too between the commandment in the liberal Protestant tradition to protest against injustice wherever one finds it, to always assume the position of the outsider and be willing to stand alone, and the fact that the liberal Protestant society in which I lived in reality tolerated deep injustice.  Thirdly and finally, I began to realize that there was no way to reconcile the commandment to "express your feelings" which I derived from American culture with the fact that one of the feelings I sensed to be most deeply "real"in life -- namely sadness -- was not one this same culture is willing to acknowledge.

It was the recognition of this final internal contradiction in particular that has always given me a special affection for writers who, like Orwell, have a "power of facing unpleasant facts."  In this case, the unpleasant fact was that the world really is full of sadness and horror, and that ignoring this element of its character cannot save one from it.  Richard Wright is another of the writers who face this fact, as are most of the poets and artists I have been celebrating in this post.  As Wright tells us in Black Boy, his memoir: "At the age of twelve [...] I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay [...] a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring meaning out of meaningless suffering." (100)

Such a notion of what life is all about runs counter to a great deal of the American Protestant faith, which teaches us to keep a chin up and look to the future.  But it also reaffirms at a deeper level a perhaps truer and more lasting element of that faith-- the belief that one must follow one's own conscience and internal sense of conviction, even when it leads one to frightening and socially disapprobated conclusions.  Richard Wright speaks later on in Black Boy of the inescapability of the American liberal Protestant faith for those who have been schooled in it, even when they appear to be in rebellion against it.  He writes of "The heritage of free thought which no man could escape if he read at all, the spirit of the Protestant ethic which one suckled, figuratively, with one's mother's milk, that self-generating energy that made a man feel, whether he realized it or not, that he had to work and redeem himself through his own acts[.]" (352).

I'm sure my own kids, if I have any some day, will perceive contradictions in the things I believe to which I am currently blind or indifferent.  I hope they will have some mercy on me when they do, and I hope they may realize that their rebellion is as much a reaffirmation of the faith I will have tried to teach them as it is a rejection of it.

So too, I have tried as an adult to moderate the indignation with which I treated perceived "hypocrisy" as a teenager-- realizing as I do now that we are all hypocrites, and that it is better to celebrate the moments of consistency than to be surprised by the long stretches of self-contradiction.  But just because one must eventually moderate the teenage rebellion does not mean that one has gained nothing from it, or that one must lose entirely the insights one has gleaned.  I may not feel quite as much anger now as I did as a teenager toward people who, in my view, have failed to notice the contradictions I described above.  But I do still feel that they are contradictions, and that I wrested something important from the experience of squaring off with them as I grew up.  Erik Erikson (you knew he'd show up here eventually) describes beautifully the paradoxical relationship in which the developing individual stands to her or his own cultural heritage:
"We say that tradition 'molds' the individual [...] But the social process does not mold a new being merely to housebreak him; it molds generations in order to be remolded, to be reinvigorated, by them." (254).
All of this no doubt means that no matter how greatly a poem has moved me, this will not necessarily be a sign it will move someone else.  We all have different heritages, with different internal contradictions in each, and different internal pressures and tensions arising out of them.  So my quest for the perfect poem that will speak in the desired way to everyone in a meeting is no doubt a hopeless one.

I also have to believe, however, that one can recognize this fact without being led by it into ethical or aesthetic relativism.  Every ethical tradition arises from features of human life for which we may not have the same vocabulary, but which I believe are deeply shared across all human groups.  Because of this, one is justified in supposing that as every tradition is remolded -- as every tradition discovers its own internal contradictions and works through them through the adventure of the generations-- we will come to see that they are not so incommensurable.  We will begin to discover that the highest and least self-defeating version of each may look something very like the highest and least self-defeating version of all.

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