I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.
There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.
Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.
In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.
According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is
a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)
I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.
In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.
The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.
I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.
At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”
I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.
It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.
There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.
The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”
This accomplishment, even despite the fact that it was not done “under race conditions” and even included other time-optimizing elements, is nonetheless astonishing. His average mile was under 4 minutes and 34 seconds!
But his observations on his feat have given me pause.
“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”
As a teacher who has admired the work of Carol Dweck on mindset and the importance of cultivating in my students (and in myself) the sense that my mental capacities and abilities are malleable–that intentional practice and effort does make a difference–this statement feels inspirational and motivating. I have seen so many students trapped by their perceptions of their lack (or, oftentimes worse, their surplus) of talent. Students who have decided at fourteen that they “just don’t like reading” or they “can’t write”. Or, conversely, that they have always been “A students” and need to maintain that confining, impoverished, grade-based identity. And I look at someone like Kipchoge and his example gives me hope. I remember what many of us were often told when we were young: “You can be anything you want to be.”
“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”
But then, I start to wonder.
To be a creature is to be limited. To be a human being is to be confined by one’s biology, location, health, intellectual assumptions, cultural milieu, prejudices, anxieties, talents, desires, wounds.
And, to be clear, we aren’t just minds trapped in bodies, free except for these unfortunate physical constraints on our consciousness. We are our bodies, for all the frustration they sometimes cause us. It’s through the body that we see and touch and taste and love and desire and think.
To be embodied is to be bound by time and space. We grow old. We get tired. We get sick. Eventually, we die. There are limitations.
And as much as the human person continually strives to overcome these–to go farther, faster, deeper, higher–in ways that are often awesome and admirable, I think that some people have discovered a different kind of liberation, an expansive freedom in limitation.
Chesterton has this great image that illustrates the tension I’m talking about:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased. (Orthodoxy, Ch 9)
Without walls of some kind, we actually lose our freedom. Limitless autonomy is a kind of horror.
Is it just me, or are women especially attentive to this kind of freedom in limitation?
Emily Dickinson, unrecognized for the genius she was in her lifetime, self-confined to her Amherst house as the mysterious “woman in white”, describes the expansiveness she finds within the boundaries poetry imposes:
I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
She names poetry “possibility”—even though her poems were written on little pieces of paper, on tiny notes to friends, and only a few were published during her lifetime. Her “narrow Hands” are nonetheless capable of “gathering Paradise.” Life itself, fleeting and fragile, is stretched between possibility and poverty:
In this short Life that only lasts an hour How much – how little – is within our power
For Dickinson, literature, despite the humble pages upon which we grasp it, is by its very limited-ness and focus on a particular story, a particular character, a particular life, able to transport us toward infinite horizons:
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – This Traverse may the poorest take Without oppress of Toll – How frugal is the Chariot That bears the Human Soul –
My dear friend Flannery O’Connor, to whom I often refer in this blog, was limited by her community, her illness, her prejudices, her sin, but she saw her limitations and the kind of freedom I am describing more clearly than most. Throughout her twenties and thirties (she died at 39) she hobbled about on crutches and lived with a mother who loved her but did not often understand her and a Catholic community that often regarded her stories with incomprehension and dismay. She found her freedom in her vocation as a writer, but as her stories attest (they are all about strange, wounded and distorted characters encountering violent intrusions of grace in the rural South) she embraced the boundaries of her knowledge and of her talent:
A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to do a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. It is well to remember what is obvious but usually ignored: that every writer has to cope with the possibility in his given talent. Possibility and limitation mean about the same thing. It is the business of every writer to push his talent to its outermost limit, but this means the outermost limit of the kind of talent he has. (“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers”, emphasis added)
What she says of artists could be applied to all of us insofar as we recognize our own lives as a kind of art:
The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them. (Ibid)
Isn’t this, really, what it means to be a saint? Saints are often trail-blazing and controversial and provocative, to be sure, but not at all in the way that celebrities are. Francis binds himself to poverty, Dominic to homelessness and preaching, Benedict to a particular place, Edith Stein to the cloister, Dorothy Day to the worker community, Mother Teresa to the untouchables of Calcutta, John Paul II to the burden of the papacy, Gianna Molla to the life of her unborn child, Therese to her littleness.
They have, of course, Jesus as their model—Jesus, who imposed upon himself the limitations of our nature, who was born in an obscure village, belonged to a conquered and beleaguered people, “never travelled two hundred miles from the place he was born,” who wed himself, finally, to the cross.
All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life.
And so I wonder about the limitations in my own life. To what extent do I resist them? Which ones am I called to break, and which ones am I called to embrace as doorways to a deeper freedom?
Did you know you can play old versions of Oregon Trail, and apparently other computer games of a bygone era, for free online?
I discovered this through friends a couple of years ago when we were reminiscing about computer-typing classes in grade school, and how most of our time was actually spent trekking across the pixelated wilderness and losing beloved family members one-by-one to dysentery. Well, we promptly fired up the old game on a web browser and marveled, appreciatively, at the ancient graphics.
This morning, another Buzzfeed article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed, trying to remind me of all the childhood memorabilia and literature I’ve forgotten about. Boxcar children, anyone? Slinkies?
And I’m sure you’ve noticed the avalanche of reboots and sequels in the movie industry in the past five or ten years. From live-action or CGI new versions of classic Disney animations to new iterations of Spiderman and Batman, from Sherlock and Endeavor to one last Gilmore Girls, from Star Trek to Marvel to Star Wars, it seems like there’s no end to this digging up and repackaging of old treasures.
Why, I wonder?
I mentioned in my last post that the biggest problem with the new Star Wars franchise seems to be difficulties with story-telling, with crafting tight and compelling plots. Is it that we are having a harder time telling good stories—and so we must keep looking back to the older stories that once compelled us?
Yet some of these reboots end up not only being updates but also critiques; as The Last Jedi was for Star Wars, and I imagine Joker is for Batman (haven’t seen it), and the live-action Beauty and the Beast was for the un-woke original.
But all the reboots, whether they be homages, inferior repetitions or edgy critiques, are riding on the powerful engines of nostalgia. That’s why we go to see these things, even when we already know the plot by heart. That’s why we click on the Buzzfeed articles. That’s why we play Oregon trail with our friends. We want to feel nostalgia—or, we want to sharpen the nostalgia we are almost always already feeling under the surface.
This term nostalgia, though it’s based on Greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“pain”), isn’t actually quite as old as it sounds. It was coined in the 17th century by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer and originally used to describe the severe homesickness of Swiss mercenary soldiers.
Though it means something like “the pain of homecoming,” it’s a kind of pain that a lot of us rather enjoy.
Yeah. Abrams is really good at nostalgia.
It’s a concept that is increasingly interesting to me.
I think that nostalgia in a more literal sense, as a longing for one’s homeland, is a timeless part of being human, attested to throughout the ages. One thinks of Odysseus:
Nevertheless I long—I pine, all my days— to travel home and see the dawn of my homecoming. And if a god will wreck me yet again on the wine-dark sea, I can bear that too, with a spirit tempered to endure. Much have I suffered, labored long and hard by now in the waves and wars. Add this to the total— bring the trial on! (Book V)
Or the exiles in Babylon remembering Jerusalem with intense grief in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon We sat and wept, remembering Zion. There on poplars we hung our harps For there our captors asked us for songs; Our tormentors, for joy: “Sing for us a song of Zion!”
But how could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?
Or in Genesis, beyond the punishment of toil and pain in childbirth, the irrevocable sense of banishment from home:
“He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3:24)
Yes, nostalgia has been with us for a long time. But I wonder if some of the strains we’re experiencing now aren’t a little different than those expressed by Odysseus and the Jewish people and our first parents. We seem less desirous today of specific places than of specific times—or, really, experiences.
A famous example of modern nostalgia is the experience of the titular character in The Great Gatsby, a novel I’ve always thought rather underwhelming except for passages like this—and these are the last words of the book:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Oof. Now that’s nostalgia—but in a distinctly modern key; it’s the kind that merges a hoped-for future with the dreamt-of past, a past that probably never really existed no matter how much we insist that it did. It’s a longing for an experience rather than for a specific place, or even really a specific time. Gatsby loves what Daisy represents for him; not Daisy herself.
Christmastime nostalgia is a bit like this, I think. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” resonates with us so deeply not just because of the song’s original purpose in honoring soldiers serving overseas, but rather because the “home” it describes really is the stuff of “dreams.” One cannot really ever get there, even if you beat the traffic and are blessed enough to go to the house you grew up in and spend the holidays with your family.
So much of our modern and post-modern experience, even for the most forward-thinking and progressive among us, seems to be tinged with nostalgia. There are hopes for a Friends reboot or The Office (it only ended in 2013!). Stranger Things, though very much a unique show, relies heavily on nostalgia for 80’s pop-culture. Why?
It would be interesting for those more informed than I to look at the Classical education movement through this lens as well, or even the traditional Latin Mass movement. I say this with respect: there seems to be a strange kind of longing in those communities for something that never really was—at least, not quite in the way we now imagine it to have been.
I have no conclusive thoughts on all this. I think that maybe our contemporary preoccupation with nostalgia might have something to do with how home has been problematized—we are far more mobile and global; we identify less with specific places, much less with nationalities. There seems to be no home to long for—but there are still memories, and experiences that, when excavated by memory, look rather like home.
But Billy Collins has a poem entitled “Nostalgia” we could end with, for now:
Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult. You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade, and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular, the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework. Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon, and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.” Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone. Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room. We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang. These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.
The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big. People would take walks to the very tops of hills and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking. Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft. We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs. It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.
I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821. Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits. And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment, time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps, or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me recapture the serenity of last month when we picked berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present. I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.
As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past, letting my memory rush over them like water rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream. I was even thinking a little about the future, that place where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine, a dance whose name we can only guess.
J.J. Abrams’ upcoming The Rise of Skywalker has a nigh-impossible task: bringing a satisfying conclusion to a 42-year-old saga whose mythology has become an integral part not only of American pop-culture, but also movie-making. The Last Jedi, which, for all its divisiveness, did not move things forward plot-wise or explanation-wise for the new trilogy, has left the characters pretty much where they were in The Force Awakens, minus a few thousand troops and, of course, Snoke.
Back in April, the teaser trailer revealed with his unmistakable cackle the return of Emperor Palpatine.
In the visually-appetizing last trailer dropped on Monday, we hear and see a little more from our old enemy. Rey and Ren apparently visit the old throne room from Return of the Jedi (inexplicably intact after the explosion of Death Star 2.0), another throne (inspired by art from Ralph McQuarrie?) looms on a frigid planet where OT-era Star Destroyers emerge from the ice, and Rey faces a hooded figure looming on some kind of royal hovercraft.
Ian McDiarmid’s iconic voice, in rather Yoda-like phrasing, explains—“Long have I waited.”
(For a really great Star Wars movie? Yes, Emperor, so have we.)
Although many are speculating about how the Emperor will
return in this concluding episode of the saga—did he somehow escape the fall
into the death star’s shaft? did he find a way to cheat death after all and
come back from the dead? Is he a force ghost? A hologram?—a more interesting
question to me is why.
Why does Abrams need to bring back the Emperor?
And why now? Why not in his first movie?
I suggest three reasons—though I’m sure I’m not the first to recognize them:
The vacuum left by Snoke’s untimely demise in The Last Jedi
The foundational plot mishandling in The Force Awakens
The need for continuity, a thread that connects us to the entire saga
The nostalgia factor
The first three reasons have to do with plot; and if there is one critique I’d make of a lot of movies these days, esp. the new Star Wars ones, it’s the thin-ness of the plots, the lack of robust stories.
1. The Vacuum
As neat as it was to watch Kylo Ren use the force to slice Snoke in half during The Last Jedi and (momentarily) join forces with Rey, this decision caused a big plot problem for the next movie. The questions raised by TFA as to Snoke’s origins were simply dropped, rather than explored or deepened.
And, conspicuously, the main enemy of the new trilogy was simply gone, almost as soon as he appears on-screen in the flesh. Kylo Ren, for all of his ruthlessness, is too ambiguous a character to properly provide a dark side “balance” to Rey’s wholehearted commitment to the light. His form of evil is angsty, emotional—like Anakin’s (not Vader’s); and it’s a bit hard to take it seriously. (Imagine Lord of the Rings with a Saruman but no Sauron). Most importantly, as a kind of Anakin 2.0, Ren’s character arc is too bound up with the possibility for redemption to make him the kind of robust bad guy you need for the last movie.
Abrams knows (as we do) that Kylo Ren’s shoulders are too thin to bear the burden of evil mastermind. It’s too late to introduce a new bad guy.
So, where do we get the gravitas we need for that role?
From Palpatine, of course.
His origins in the original trilogy didn’t need to be explained in the same way Snoke’s did (but weren’t) in TFA. In the OT, the emperor is part of the background setting, not even appearing in A New Hope (Vader is sufficiently evil and mysterious for that plot) but introduced in The Empire Strikes Back to provide a deeper look into the nature of the Empire and to contextualize and complicate Vader’s character in time for the big “I am your father” reveal at the end of that movie. But really he is a feature of the original universe Lucas created—he does not need to be explained any more than hyperspace travel does.
In Palpatine, the disturbing opaqueness of evil is preserved, and the void opened up by Snoke (now more superfluous than ever) is more than filled.
2. Plot issues in The Force Awakens
The problem with bringing the emperor back (like many of Abram’s other initial choices in TFA) is that it undermines the original trilogy in rather egregious ways. After two death stars, Alderaan’s annihilation, Obi-Wan’s demise, several lost limbs, and Vader’s conversion, the Emperor is back?
It’s not entirely fair to blame Rian Johnson’s abrupt execution of Snoke and the subsequent void created, either—the underlying structure of the problem is something Abrams set up for himself. In TFA, he essentially copied and pasted the state of the galaxy from A New Hope, but gave the actors and entities new names: The First Order replaced the Empire, the Resistance replaced the Rebellion, Rey replaced Luke, Ren replaced Darth, Snoke replaced Palpatine, Starkiller base replaced the Death Star.
The problem with that approach is that it renders rather null the sacrifices and plot development of the original trilogy even without the return of the Emperor. You get ten minutes into The Force Awakens and realize that everything that happened in the OT essentially doesn’t matter. The galaxy is no better off now than then. And though certainly, in the real world, history has a tendency to repeat itself, you can’t say that the world was in the same place it was after WW2 as it was before, or after the Civil War as it was before, or after The Revolutionary War as it was before.
Not so in Abrams’ rebooted galaxy. Nothing has really changed. You see this pattern in a microcosmic way with Han and Leia’s defunct relationship—Ren, as their son, the fruit of their love, is simply a new Anakin at the very beginning of the new trilogy who has already destroyed almost everything his parents built. Instead of watching the process of Ben Solo’s demise, or the challenges of establishing a New Republic, or the rooting out of old Empire holdouts (in other words, a NEW plot), Abrams has merely dressed up and repeated the old one.
With the return of Palpatine, necessary as it now seems, the undermining of the original story has become fully explicit—The Emperor wasn’t defeated at all by Vader’s sacrifice. In fact, he’s been in the shadows this whole time.
3. The Need for Continuity
Continuity, I think, is the most robust reason to bring back Palpatine, and would be an essential factor no matter what the first two movies did or did not do: Abrams needs establish that all three trilogies are somehow part of an overarching story. The Emperor was an important presence in the older two, and in that way it does make sense to have him be the antagonist for this one as well.
But the main reason Palpatine, rather than someone else, has to be that principle of continuity for the last film in the new trilogy is that all the other possibilities have already been excluded, usually by the plot issues of the first two:
Luke can’t be a principle of continuity (a symbol of the re-established/renewed Jedi Order) because he was killed off in The Last Jedi (in a rather superficial kind of last battle–he wasn’t there) and, more importantly, rejected the Jedi teachings of the older movies altogether.
Leia, unfortunately, can’t preserve continuity either (as a symbol of the Republic), although I suspect she was originally intended to, because Carrie Fisher died in 2016. Although I’m glad Abrams is trying to make her presence felt as much as possible in this last film, I doubt that any amount of unused footage from The Force Awakens will be able to make her an essential part of the plot.
Han, though important to the OT, doesn’t have connections to the prequels. Also, he’s dead. (And, more importantly, I don’t think Harrison Ford would agree to be in another Star Wars film.)
What about Darth Vader? As a force ghost?
This is a possibility—and I think it’s likely we will see Hayden Christensen appear—but since his role in the sequels was so divisive, he can’t really be a principle of continuity. He seemed to symbolize the fundamental break in tone between the prequels and the originals.
The droids, perhaps? C3PO and R2D2 have functioned more like furniture in TFA and TLJ than real characters, though judging by the latest trailer it seems that Abrams has devised more important roles for them now, at least for 3PO.
Who are we left with? Palpatine. And, if it weren’t for the issues discussed above, I would be more on board had his influence (rather than Snoke’s) been hinted at in the earlier movies.
3. The nostalgia factor
Rian Johnson’s TLJ was so divisive amongst long-time fans that some good ol’ fashioned nostalgia might be the only thing that can bring us all together in the last film; and there’s nothing quite like the feeling brought back by Ian McDiarmid’s laugh.
I suspect that Abrams will backtrack quite a bit from Johnson’s postmodern critique of the light/dark side mythos. I could be wrong. But I hope he does, in a way that acknowledges the failures of the Jedi past without rejecting it altogether.
To be honest, even with the problems I suggested above, I think the Emperor striking back is the best chance the new trilogy has of ending on a resounding, triumphant note.
Palpatine is a great bad guy because he, like evil in general, is ultimately not that interesting.
What is interesting is how our heroes respond to him. Perhaps his unadulterated evil presence will allow this movie a deeper and more meaningful exploration of Rey’s character, and a real possibility of redemption for Ben Solo.
Nine years ago, I stood on the steps in front St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, looking east down the Via della Conciliazione in the twilight, and I saw something very much like this:
I was mesmerized.
I remember gazing and gazing, drinking in the strange juxtaposition of that wild, restless image with the stately columns of Bernini’s colonnade–the whole scene washed in that special golden light that settles on Rome in the autumn evenings. I remember trying to describe what I had seen to my friends who were back on campus south of Rome, to my parents back in Boston, to my journal, to God. “That’s neat,” they said. Or, “Wow, I’ll look out for that next time I’m in the city.” Or, “Beautiful, honey.” And, of course, God didn’t need me to explain it to Him.
It wasn’t until a year later, however, back in Dallas, that I discovered…
Thomas Aquinas, who in many ways is the pre-eminent teacher of the Church, asked whether it was really possible to teach another person anything at all.
I say this is a sign that he really was a classroom teacher.
In the first part of the Summa, Q 117, he asks whether “one man can teach another, as being the cause of his knowledge”. My favorite objection he lists is the fourth one:
Further, the teacher does nothing in regard to a disciple save to propose to him certain signs, so as to signify something by words or gestures. But it is not possible to teach anyone so as to cause knowledge in him, by putting signs before him. For these are signs either of things that he knows, or of things he does not know. If of things that he knows, he to whom these signs are proposed is already in the possession of knowledge, and does not acquire it from the master. If they are signs of things that he does not know, he can learn nothing therefrom: for instance, if one were to speak Greek to a man who only knows Latin, he would learn nothing thereby. Therefore in no way can a man cause knowledge in another by teaching him.
I think most teachers could think of many instances in their experience that line up pretty well with that description!
You’ve got your students who already know stuff, and in some real way already have a kind of incipient grasp of your lesson before you even begin. They do just fine, with or without you it seems, and they ask all sorts of insightful questions about a topic they already love–or at least, a topic they grasp enough to be willing to investigate further.
But then you have other students who seem to know hardly anything at all–at least, not the things you think are important that they know–and by the end of the lesson it’s unclear if they are any better off than before. With or without you, they struggle.
I have always been rather disturbed by a passage in the Gospels where Jesus describes something very much like this:
The disciples approached him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted. To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because ‘they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.’ (Matthew 13:10-13)
This principle–“to him who has, more will be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away”–seems to be an accurate observation about life in general and education in particular, but it also seems extremely unfair and upsetting.
Does Jesus speak in parables because stories are the best way to reach those of us who have not been granted “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom”? Or is he speaking in parables, in a veiled way, in order to keep those mysteries hidden? I don’t know.
When I read Thomas’ question about whether or not one person can teach another person, I go back and try to remember how I learned things. How did I learn to write a thesis statement, or incorporate a quote? How did I learn to read? How did I actually learn to memorize Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides”? How did I learn to play that first chord on the guitar (it was D)?
It’s tricky. It’s hard to remember. It’s especially hard to unpack how one learned about the things one really loves—because they seem so intuitive and “(con)natural”—to use an Aquinas term. This makes it harder, in some ways, to teach things that you really love to someone else.
In some cases, I remember teachers being involved in the process of my learning, but many of these instances seemed for me to involve largely an interior process, a personal negotiation with reality, a task I had to wrestle with myself.
I remembering seeing the red marks scrawled all over my sophomore year summer essay, and then trying to apply that feedback (“your thesis needs to be arguable! split infinitive! tenuous connection!”) when I was writing my next essay. I saw on the chart where I was supposed to place my fingers on the frets of the guitar, but I had to bend my own small hands in various contortions in order to release the appropriate sound from the strings—and I had to do that over and over and over until I didn’t have to think about where my fingers belonged anymore.
I find it interesting that educational theories in the last thirty-plus years have focused on students learningrather than teachers teaching—and although perhaps when taken to extremes that approach underestimates the value of teachers as “experts”, as many classical educational models claim—there is something rather Aquinas-esque about the student-centered approach.
With gifted students, teachers sometimes feel superfluous. With really struggling students, teachers can feel helpless.
So, can you teach someone else something?
Or, despite popular perceptions of education, is learning really an interior cognitive task that only the individual can perform for herself?
In his answer to the question, Thomas Aquinas starts off by acknowledging how complicated the process of learning is: “I answer that on this question there have been various opinions.” Note that he says this after having already listed some of those opinions in the objections. There are more.
One of the opinions he explores in his answer is that of the Platonists, who perhaps veer too far in the student-centered direction in theory of how learning happens. They
held that our souls are possessed of knowledge from the very beginning, through the participation of separate forms, as stated above (I:84:4); but that the soul is hindered, through its union with the body, from the free consideration of those things which it knows. According to this, the disciple does not acquire fresh knowledge from his master, but is roused by him to consider what he knows; so that to learn would be nothing else than to remember.
That is, according to the Platonists, the teacher isn’t actually giving the student any new knowledge at all; she is merely prodding him to “remember” something he already has inside of him!
I’m glad that Aquinas explicitly discusses this view, because as strange as it sounds, the process of teaching and learning often really does feel that way. Students who already know a lot are the ones who exclaim “Oh!!” in recognition during your class—almost as if they are remembering something. To “recognize” the truth seems awfully similar to this idea of “remembering” it.
You can hear echoes of this theory today in the literature that emphasizes student “construction” of their own knowledge— as if all the pieces of knowledge are already there, they just need the encouragement or proper environment in which to build those pieces of prior experience in whatever way makes the most sense to them. In this conception, the teacher is more of a facilitator than a source of knowledge.
But Aquinas doesn’t follow the Platonists. His view of how learning happens is more nuanced.
I’m still unpacking his complex answer– but part of what he seems to be saying is that learning happens on both an exterior and interior level:
In order to make this clear, we must observe that of effects proceeding from an exterior principle, some proceed from the exterior principle alone; as the form of a house is caused to be in matter by art alone: whereas other effects proceed sometimes from an exterior principle, sometimes from an interior principle: thus health is caused in a sick man, sometimes by an exterior principle, namely by the medical art, sometimes by an interior principle as when a man is healed by the force of nature.
I think he is saying that learning–the process of becoming educated–is like the process of being healed. Both an “exterior principle” (like the work of a doctor) and an “interior principle” (the work of the body) are involved.
At the same time, Thomas emphasizes the interior principle as being primary; that is, the fact that any exterior principle (like the instruction of a teacher) can only help or strengthen the interior principle (the intellectual work of the student), which is where the real learning is happening:
Secondly, we must remark that the exterior principle, art, acts, not as principal agent, but as helping the principal agent, which is the interior principle, by strengthening it, and by furnishing it with instruments and assistance, of which the interior principle makes use in producing the effect. Thus the physician strengthens nature, and employs food and medicine, of which nature makes use for the intended end.
Therefore it is possible to teach someone else something, but not in the sense of dropping knowledge into him like you might put apples into a bucket. What makes the endeavor so mysterious is that a teacher must encourage, inspire, and explain something to the student, so that the student herself can engage with the content interiorly in order to grasp it. Learning is not something that can be forced; the student’s own agency is deeply involved.
But the teacher is not thereby rendered superfluous:
Now the master leads the disciple from things known to knowledge of the unknown, in a twofold manner.
Firstly, by proposing to him certain helps or means of instruction, which his intellect can use for the acquisition of science: for instance, he may put before him certain less universal propositions, of which nevertheless the disciple is able to judge from previous knowledge: or he may propose to him some sensible examples, either by way of likeness or of opposition, or something of the sort, from which the intellect of the learner is led to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.
Okay, so, a teacher can give examples that tap into the student’s “previous knowledge” and experience, or she can invite the student into new experiences (“sensible examples”) in order to invite the learner “to the knowledge of truth previously unknown.” I can read stories to my students. I can give them examples of good writing. I can break down those examples into small, focused pieces. I can give them something new.
The teacher, according to Aquinas, also acts like a doctor:
Secondly, by strengthening the intellect of the learner; not, indeed, by some active power as of a higher nature, as explained above (I:106:1; I:111:1) of the angelic enlightenment, because all human intellects are of one grade in the natural order; but inasmuch as he proposes to the disciple the order of principles to conclusions, by reason of his not having sufficient collating power to be able to draw the conclusions from the principles. Hence the Philosopher says (Poster. i, 2) that “a demonstration is a syllogism that causes knowledge.” In this way a demonstrator causes his hearer to know.
It sounds like Aquinas is saying one can go step-by-step through a logical demonstration or process with a student, leading him by the hand to the proper conclusion if he doesn’t yet have “sufficient collating power” to get there himself. Similarly, a doctor could give a prescription or propose a specific activity (extra rest, drinking lots of liquids) that helps the body do what it cannot do by itself, or is having difficulty doing by itself, to rid itself of a particular disease.
His reply to objection 3 is helpful here:
The master does not cause the intellectual light in the disciple, nor does he cause the intelligible species directly: but he moves the disciple by teaching, so that the latter, by the power of his intellect, forms intelligible concepts, the signs of which are proposed to him from without.
I invite anyone with greater knowledge of Aquinas to weigh in to my reading of him there—I might not be fully getting it. (In other words, I am willing to learn! to be taught! to be assisted in my “insufficient collating power”!)
It is true that Thomas Aquinas did not have access to modern science and psychology. But he was a teacher, and, I suspect, drew a lot from his own observations about teaching others in unpacking this question.
I think we in the Church need to do some serious work looking at the thought of Aquinas and others, and looking also at the findings of contemporary science, psychology, and educational research in light of Christian anthropology in order to develop a robust philosophy of education.
What does it mean to be educated? Is there only one way to be educated well? What are the ends of education, and how do we reach them? What does good teaching look like? What does learning look like? How do people learn, anyway–and therefore, how should we go about teaching? What are the responsibilities of the student, and of the teacher, to one another, to themselves, to the subject? Where does virtue come in–and holiness?–neither of which are dependent upon intellectual prowess, as the history of the saints suggests? To what extent is Catholic education about evangelization and to what extent is it about inquiry and knowledge?
Without articulating clear answers to these (and other) questions, we find ourselves limping along in Catholic schools, adopting unquestioningly or rejecting too hastily the secular models of education around us.
Blessed Cardinal Newman, who is about to be canonized, had a few things to say about these things.
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.
It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim.
That is, acquiring knowledge and even cultivating one’s intellect are important and noble aims. We need a better understanding of how those things happen in order to formulate a more precise approach to Catholic education. But they are not the only thing. Formation in virtue and instruction in living the faith are even more important. Yet, as Aquinas noted earlier, there are exterior and interior principles at work, some beyond our reach or control.
Richard Wilbur has a beautiful poem about writing, but when I read it I often think about the process of learning in general. His attitude toward his daughter is so very much like the attitude of teachers toward their students. Watch the starling in this poem—and watch the speaker watching the starling. It sounds, to me, like a teacher watching a student wrestling with a new and challenging subject.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the past few years in Catholic circles regarding problems with perpetual discernment–a phenomenon among many young people influenced by both a genuine desire to follow the will of God and an oft-cited anxiety around commitment that seems to afflict millennials more than previous generations.
As a result, many of us find ourselves continually discerning but never deciding. Or we try new things but do not fully invest in them–we go on a retreat here or there, we explore Catholic dating sites (well, I don’t), we try out a young adult’s group or bible study, we test out the waters, wondering when they’ll calm down a bit and stop seeming so stormy and treacherous…
But there’s another problem going on here regarding discernment, and the best way I know how to get at it is to explore it from a (former?) teacher’s perspective. But even that parenthesis indicates my problem:
I was a teacher for eight years. Am I still, even though I no longer teach high school, even though I no longer have a classroom and grade papers and lesson plan? You see, there’s this part of me that wants to justify still holding some kind of claim to that title. Perhaps, because: if I’m not still a teacher, then who am I?
Not everyone defines herself by her job description, and some jobs seem more intimately tied to one’s sense of self than others. But if we think of doctors, police officers, soldiers, writers, poets, carpenters–and teachers–we might realize that a lot of folks see their jobs as outer expressions of their inner personalities.
And so the paralysis of perpetual discernment is not only afflicting those trying to decide whom to marry or those trying to decide whether to join consecrated life; it also seems to afflict many more people now in their professional choices. Many of us were told when we were young you can be whatever you want to be even more often than we were fed Disney love stories. The latter seems to involve fate or Providence–but the former, the loneliness of choice.
I’ve recently been auditing a seminar on Work and Vocation for undergraduates, led by my boss and colleague. He notes that many young people today are overwhelmed by a sense that they must find meaningful work–not just dignified work. That is, they feel they must search for a career that is not only lucrative but also engaging, that calls upon their creative capacities, talents, and interests–that somehow affords them an authentic expression of themselves. He contrasted this experience with that expressed by Lars Svedson’s description of his father in the mid-twentieth century:
My impression was always that he, for the most part, enjoyed working at the shipyard. Yet he was also eager to leave at exactly 3:30pm every single workday, and as a child I usually met him at the gates of the shipyard before we walked home together. There was a very strict distinction between work and leisure, and my father had limited contact with his work colleagues outside the workplace. If a particularly close colleague had fallen ill, he might pay him a visit in the afternoon, but otherwise work and leisure were strictly isolated social spheres. Questions as to whether his job was “meaningful” or whether it was an expression of his “true self” do not seem to have occurred to him. (Svedson, Work 1)
That’s the kind of work/life distinction I always idealized as a teacher, but it was never one that made sense to me if I remained being a teacher.
You see this conflation of job and identity a lot in the teaching profession, and I think it is intensified in Catholic circles. Not only am I a teacher, I am also a disciple of Christ, commissioned to invite other disciples. I’m not just supposed to teach a subject, I’m supposed to form persons.
My experience of being a teacher is wrapped up in my experience of discipleship, of following Christ, of serving the Church. If I stop being a teacher, what happens to all that?
I left teaching in large part because it felt like being in an unhealthy relationship with a bad boyfriend who was super demanding and not very good with boundaries. That could indeed be part of why I and (I believe) many other teachers who leave the profession struggle with questions of identity afterwards. But setting co-dependency and other issues aside, I think there is something beautiful about the connection between work and identity; the sense that your work was an authentic expression of your unique interests and gifts. There was something truly unique in teaching that called to you, and calls to you still, even if you are discerning out of it for whatever reason. Most people enter teaching out of a profound desire to do some good, to do something meaningful, to share a particular love of a discipline or even a way of life with others. That desire doesn’t just go away when you leave, nor should it.
I remember during my first and second years of teaching a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids. And I remember thinking to myself, as I sat behind my desk watching a group of my first seniors take their final exam, with a sudden surprise, “I haven’t been given that right now, but I have been given this; I have been given these kids.”
It’s hard to leave an experience like that.
But should I approach my work in that way—in the way many people in the modern Church talk about Vocation with a capital V?
Well, I suppose Flannery O’Connor did. In her Prayer Journal, she wrote,
I must write down that I am to be an artist. Not in the sense of aesthetic frippery but in the sense of aesthetic craftsmanship; otherwise I will feel my loneliness continually—like this today.
Writing for her, and for most people who are truly great writers, isn’t a job. It’s a vocation in the sense of calling. Writers through the ages from Homer to Milton have cited the gods or muses that called forth from them the opening lines of their epic works–they talk about the experience as if they almost did not have a choice but to write down what they “heard.”
And though I can’t say I felt quite that way as a teacher, I think the experience is more akin to that than to landing an executive director position at a big corporation.
But if work is tied up in vocation, it’s also tied up in the questions of discernment with which we began. And in addition to struggling with discernment, whether one is discerning one’s way into the water or out of it, I think a lot of us struggle with questions of work and identity, or work as identity. And not in a workaholic kind of way (though maybe that, too) but in a quasi-spiritual kind of way.
It would be easy to say, “Well, obviously you are more than what you do!” It’s just as easy to say, “Obviously what you do shapes who you are!”
Whom you marry, or what religious order you join, or what job you accept determines, to a large extent, how you’ll spend most of your time. So how are you going to spend it? And how is that shaping who you become?
I can’t shake off this question: To what extent ought we to identify ourselves with our work?
Flannery, again—as a graduate student, wrestling with her vocation:
Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work. I have the feeling of discouragement that is. I realize I don’t know what I realize. Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted. That is so far from what I deserve, of course, that I am naturally struck with the nerve of it. […] All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing. (Excerpts in the New Yorker)
I mean, you read that–“give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord”–and you think of her life, and you realize with fear and trembling that God said yes.
Her very next entry reads,
Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.
So–again, I ask whomever may be reading this, to what extent ought we identify ourselves with our work, especially if that work is something like writing or teaching?
I have no straightforward answers, actually.
But I find it interesting that even though Jesus called Peter and the others to leave their day jobs and fishing nets behind, to embark on a completely new way of life of preaching and healing and miracle-working for which they were completely unprepared, he still said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
Their work was still to identify them somehow, to be characteristic of the radical new life to which he called them.
Hobbit Day was Sunday, apparently. September 22 is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and, as you recall, the day Bilbo famously disappeared from the Shire and left the Ring in Frodo’s keeping.
In their honor, let’s investigate something near and dear to hobbit hearts: riddles.
A famous chapter in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is entitled “Riddles in the Dark.” Gollum and Bilbo engage in a game—an old and ancient exchange in Middle Earth that carries, even for us, a kind of magic and authority. Gollum agrees to let Bilbo go if Bilbo can solve the riddles he poses to him; and Bilbo—well, given the spot he’s in, he agrees to be eaten if he loses.
This chapter hearkens to a very old tradition, not only in English, but in many languages and cultures, and makes you think of nursery rhymes, and kennings in Beowulf (if you’re particularly nerdy) and even the Sphinx in Greek mythology. Tolkien himself emphasizes the sacredness of that tradition when describing Bilbo’s thoughts after desperately asking Gollum “what do I have in my pocket?” as his last riddle:
[Bilbo] knew, of course, that the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and even wicked creatures were afraid to cheat when they played at it. But he felt he could not trust this slimy thing to keep any promise at a pinch. Any excuse would do for him to slide out of it. And after all that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
I remember my dad reading “Riddles in the Dark” to me and my sister and pausing to give us the chance to figure out the answers. It was, I think, the first time I had encountered riddles, and I remember my mind bending and twisting in frustration, stretching to do a sort of thinking that it wasn’t used to.
Here’s one that Gollum poses to Bilbo:
Alive without breath, As cold as death; Never thirsty, ever drinking, All in mail never clinking.
What’s so striking about this riddle is that three of the four lines are paradoxes. It pushes against your sense of what is possible. How can something be alive, and not breathe? A plant, perhaps? But then the next line nixes that: plants aren’t “as cold as death.” Well then; so what is never thirsty, but “ever drinking”? A riverbed? But then your mind is thrown again– apparently this thing wears “mail,” like a soldier? A mail that “never clinks”?
The answer is fish–and as with all good riddles, as soon as you hear the answer, you feel a sense of surprise at its obviousness: “oh! Why didn’t I see that before?”
You work backwards, and realize that each of the pieces of the puzzle fit really well, and invite you to see fish in a strange new way: alive, but not breathing, “cold as death”—and indeed there is something rather ghostly about the fish I observed in the Boston Aquarium as a young girl—, always “drinking” water but obviously never thirsty for it, and arrayed in fine, sometimes beautiful scales like silent mail. Fish are stranger than you think.
When I used to teach Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, I loved telling my students the story of how Oedipus became the king of Thebes, a story which precedes the events of the famous awful tragedy with a kind of unexpected playfulness. After diagramming on the board the (somewhat complicated) family tree, I always shared with them the famous riddle the Sphinx poses to Oedipus. Like Gollum, she places dire terms on the riddle: if he solves it, she will leave Thebes alone; if he fails to solve it, she will devour him:
What walks on four legs in the morning Two legs at noon And three legs in the evening?
As a class, we would spend at least fifteen minutes guessing all sorts of answers. I would always insist that students who had already heard the story not to give it away. I can still see the furrowed brows, confused smiles, frustrated frowns and eyes raised to the ceiling for inspiration—all proper responses to the riddle, the kind of intellectual language game that most of us don’t often encounter.
Eventually my students would reach the end of their patience and demand the answer. I don’t remember in my eight years of teaching anyone actually solving it:
Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a cane in old age.
If you know what happens next to Oedipus in Sophocles’ play, you realize the depths of the irony: Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle about the nature of man, but cannot solve the riddle of his own nature, his own fate.
Riddles don’t seem to be part of our common discourse today, but puns are, and they’re rather akin to them. I have two friends in particular who are really gifted at coming up with puns, and it always takes me several moments to even realize what they’re talking about.
Like riddles, puns rely on something similar to metaphor–on pulling together sounds that you do not normally associate, as riddles pull together disparate ideas or images. And, I would admit, despite my own personal frustration and lack of skill with both, puns and riddles have the unique ability to refresh language, to make you encounter words you think you knew in a new way.
Puns and riddles are poetic.
In his wonderful essay “The Persistence of Riddles,” my friend Richard Wilbur says that riddles “unlimber the mind, making us aware of the arbitrariness of our taxonomy; they restore us briefly to clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery” (The Catbird’s Song 46).
“Clear-eyed ignorance and a sense of mystery.” I love that. Flannery would too.
We think and move and live in language–in a particular dialect, conditioned by time and location and class and economic status and ethnic background and all sorts of things we don’t even realize are forming the way we speak and think. But riddles–and, I believe, poems– have the power to engage us with language in fresh ways that can make words strange and new for us again.
In marble walls as white as milk Lined with a skin as soft as silk, Within a fountain crystal-clear, A golden apple doth appear. No doors there are to this stronghold, Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.
The first two lines begin gently, with similes. Similes are always easier to swallow than metaphors; they claim less. The marble walls as white “as milk”–like it, but not exactly; they have a skin soft “as silk”–an arresting image, to be sure, but nothing to get too worked up about.
But the riddle intensifies as it ventures into metaphor: “a golden apple” appears “within a fountain crystal-clear”–and your mind starts to stretch a bit as you imagine the apple bobbing up and down in the water cascading from some kind of source. Of course, the apple is a metaphor, but for what? And you can’t quite get the image of an apple floating in water out of your head, even though you know it obscures as much as it reveals.
The last clue is more tantalizing than it is helpful (at least it was for me, as I read it before finally allowing my eyes to slip down to the answer). Another metaphor appears: the apple in the fountain is somehow “a stronghold” that is nevertheless breached by “thieves” who “break in and steal the gold.”
Have you guessed the answer?
That rich and curious structure, that doorless stronghold, sounds as if it belonged in a fairy tale or chivalric romance. To someone unused to the aesthetic of riddles, it might seem anticlimactic, after all that marble, silk, and gold, that the answer should be merely “an egg.” But that is not how enigmas are to be taken; whatever else they do, they are out to restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things—to make us amazed, in this case, that an egg should be what it is. (Ibid. 44, emphasis added)
That is what a riddle is—and a pun, and a kenning, and any truly metaphorical use of language. That is what poetry is: the mode of language that can “restore for a moment the wonder of ordinary things.”
If you want a bit of proof, look at Emily Dickinson. Her “Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is, of course, a snake—but she never says his name out loud in the poem, as if she were in a drawing-room full of delicate 19th century ladies.
Rather, she offers us a riddle that helps us rediscover the snake as “a spotted Shaft” or a “Whip Lash;” a creature who inspires in us a “tighter Breathing”; we gasp at the sight of him, and not just because we are afraid.
In “I Dwell in Possibility”, Dickinson poses a riddle whose answer is poetry itself: it is a “house” that is “fairer than Prose” with more “Windows” and “Doors”; that is, it somehow lets in more light. It’s “Chambers” are “impregnable of Eye” with a roof encompassing the “Gambrels of the Sky.” Indeed, poetry is capable of endowing the poet, with her “narrow Hands,” the power to “gather Paradise”.
No wonder Socrates felt that poetry was rather dangerous. Riddles are, too. They are both like magic spells because they are both human acts of renaming the world. They attempt to get a fresh look at things that would otherwise be disenchanted for us. They make the expected unexpected, the ordinary unusual, the profane sacred.
I’ll close with a poem containing a series of riddles that Richard Wilbur says describes the poet:
Plato, according to some readings, seemed to think so.
It’s an odd question to ask because poetry, as we usually conceive of it, has been so marginalized from our daily discourse, relegated to esoteric journals and graduate courses, that most people feel as though they don’t even know how to read it, never mind worrying about its nefarious influence. This absence could be partially due to the inaccessible and exasperatingly experimental nature of much contemporary poetry–but then again more traditional forms don’t seem to be faring much better.
However, we could expand our definition of poetry to include music, and we’d have strong justification for doing so. Lyric, of course, comes from the Greek word lyre, an instrument played often to accompany ancient recitations and performances of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon scop chanted the three-thousand lines of Beowulf and Virgil wrote “I sing of arms and the man” in the opening line of the Aeneid, just as Homer “sang” of the wrath of Achilles in the Iliad and the man of many ways in the Odyssey. Historically, poetry was inseparable from song. Including modern music within its domain might make Plato’s anxieties more understandable.
Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and Socrates, in The Republic, seems inclined to agree; he is especially concerned with the power of poetry to elicit our emotions:
And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure, which are held to be inseparable from every action—in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue. (The Republic, Book X)
Charles Griswald observes:
The debate about the effects on the audience of poetry continues, except that today it is not so much poets strictly speaking, but the makers of others sorts of images in the “mass media,” who are the culprits. Controversies about, say, the effects of graphic depictions of violence, of the degradation of women, and of sex, echo the Platonic worries about the ethical and social effects of art. (“Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
In The Republic, Socrates famously recounts multiple examples of Homer’s unseemly descriptions of weeping heroes and badly-behaving gods in the Iliad as evidence that even great poetry is bad for people. Eventually, Socrates concludes that most poets should not be allowed to enter his ideal city–since even the best ones entice the listener with misrepresentations of the divine. Only the “rougher and severer poet or story-teller, who will imitate the style of the virtuous only, and will follow those models which we prescribed” will be allowed inside.
That is, the only poetry he’ll countenance is the didactic sort that unambiguously directs the listener toward the practice of virtue. I can’t help but think about the recent hoopla in some Catholic circles (yes, again) over the dangers of reading Harry Potter.
Socrates’ solution seems rather puritan, even obtuse, until you consider the sorts of lyrics most young people are listening to on a daily basis. I’m not living under a rock, but I remember chaperoning many high school dances where my stomach twisted at the kinds of things, especially about women, blasted from the speakers. And it’s pretty evident that these messages were being absorbed and even enacted by my students; I had to step in to firmly interrupt a lot of “dancing” that ought not be occurring anywhere, much less a Catholic school gym. What we see and listen to inevitably shapes our imagination and, in ways we may not fully understand, our behavior.
On the other hand, it is hard to conceive of a sanitized poetry that would satisfy Socrates and, at the same time, be worthy of the name. In Book 10, he grants that poetry could return from her exile, but only if her defenders could articulate an argument as to her purpose:
Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful to States and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit; for if this can be proved we shall surely be the gainers—I mean, if there is a use in poetry as well as a delight?
Ah, yes, the old objection. What use is it? Why should we read this stuff?
Still, the interlocutors in The Republic seem to have a kind of awe before the power of poetry that is difficult for most people today to understand. If poetry could only be proven to be useful to the city–and, by extension, to the harmony of the human soul–Socrates and his friends would consider subjecting themselves to its spell.
Perhaps the most important danger of poetry articulated by Socrates is its tenuous relationship with the truth:
Then must we not infer that all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach? The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colors and figures.
The poet is a mere “imitator”, and unlike the craftsman of swords or musical instruments, he doesn’t have a precise knowledge of the thing he makes in words. He is at several removes from the thing itself which he describes.
This seems like rather an odd objection–especially if you read Homer, because he seems to take great pains to describe the disembowelments on the battlefield in somewhat excruciating detail in many places–but if you understand the objection to be referring to something rather oblique in the nature of poetic language itself, it becomes somewhat easier to see the “quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that Socrates identifies.
Emily Dickinson has a kind of response to Socrates, I think, in one of her most famous poems:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
She insists upon telling “all the truth,” but seems to think that the best way to do so is in a “slanted” manner–that is, through poetry.
I think it’s worth pondering her claim that poetry, perhaps even because of its indirectness, its strangeness, has a unique capacity to wound us. It does stir up our emotions, as Socrates fears, but I would argue that the best poetry does not do this in a cheap or unfair way. Poetry affords us a unique way to approach the dazzling and dangerous truth–a way that does not try to seize it in a grasping way but rather, in a phrase Virginia Woolf uses, “alights upon the truth”.
Dickinson seems to locate the danger more in the destination than in the poetic path: the “Truth” itself is dangerous; it is like “Lightning” and has the power, paradoxically, to “blind” us.
It seems to me that Plato must–to some extent–agree with her. The Republic itself, as well as his other dialogues, though they are philosophical works, are highly poetic. They don’t read at all like Aristotle or Aquinas. He seems to approach the truth indirectly as well. The Socrates of one Platonic dialogue is sometimes quite incompatible with the Socrates of another, and Plato’s own views are never clearly reducible to those of any of his characters. He, too “tells the truth slant.”
In a really wonderful essay in Poetry magazine entitled “Unknowing Lyric”, which I have been reading in preparation for the seminar I’m leading this fall, Matthew Bevis digs deeply into the experience of reading lyric poetry. Why read it?
Encountering poems, I seem to know lots of things (“this is a sonnet”; “this is an off-rhyme”; “this is typical of Paul Muldoon”) but one of the reasons I read (I think) is to be disoriented. “We want to feel poetry turning against itself again and again,” James Longenbach suggests, “not only because we need to interrogate our best ideas but because we want to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping just beyond our capacity to know them certainly.”
How beautiful, and how true. The poems that stay with us contain the words that speak to, but also speak just beyond, our experience. We are like this with our favorite poems, but with people too. Isn’t the experience of falling in love killed most quickly by the (incorrect) sense that you have suddenly “figured someone out”? A riddle or puzzle delights only as long as it bewilders us, but a good poem re-bewilders us on every rereading.
One sign that it may be a good poem — I feel this especially when I’m “teaching” poetry — is that, whenever I return to it, I’ve forgotten it. Or: not forgotten it, but forgotten my way through it. I’m not sure how to offer pedagogical guidance: I have difficulty in saying who is doing what to whom on the Grecian Urn, or where it’s being viewed from; or I find myself having to figure out (again) who might be pulling the trigger in a life that had stood — a loaded gun.
I’ve said this to students before, and I will again: I think poems are a lot like people. They are frustrating in a lot of the same ways people are, and lovely in a lot of the same ways. And I’m not trying to be overly romantic. Some poems are downright disturbing; some are frightening; some are so long-winded and complex (Eliot) that you’re not sure you could manage a second reading; some are so simple and short that you’re not sure how to move forward (“Red Wheelbarrow”, anyone?). But learning how to approach all poems well, to develop a kind of love that allows you to return to them again and again, with a humble attentiveness, can help us read the folks around us better, too.
I suppose that’s one way of explaining to Socrates why they are useful to the city.
And finally–last quote from Bevis, I promise, but really you ought to read the whole thing:
My feeling whenever I get to the end of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] is something akin to the one Proust describes in “On Reading”: “we would like to have [the author] give us answers, when all he can do is give us desires.” Lyrics always leave something to be desired.
But sometimes it would seem that we don’t want desires, we want answers — want answers, indeed, as a way of being done with desire. “How does the individual get from needing to needing to know?” Adam Phillips asks in Missing Out; he suggests that it’s “as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping.” We may claim to know the other person in order to evade our desire for them; knowledge becomes a means to tame and triumph over loss, or longing, or both. One thing that seems to me striking about lyric poems — or, more accurately, about my relationship with lyric poems — is how often they seem to raise the question of knowability (their own, and other people’s), how they highlight the ways in which I might be tempted to reach for knowledge at the earliest opportunity and as a last resort.
A necessary but not sufficient condition for lyric, one of the signs I know it by, is that it makes me wary of saying “I understand this.”
So, is poetry dangerous? Yes. And one way it is dangerous is that it makes you painfully aware of what you do not know–a highly Socratic experience, I might add. That kind of intellectual wounding just might open you up to wonder.