Kylo Ren, Confessional Poet

In what I think is the most interesting scene in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren, after killing his dark-side master and fighting off a bunch of guards with Rey, urges her to join him:

The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.

I think his words here reveal a lot about the Kylo Ren character, The Last Jedi movie itself, and the struggle in which the entire Star Wars franchise has been engaged for some time—a struggle I would characterize as negotiating one’s relationship to tradition.

Some context for my thoughts:

I was leading a poetry seminar a couple of weeks ago in which we discussed T. S. Eliot’s (in)famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and one participant questioned the possibility of tradition at all. “In what sense is it even meaningful to talk about a ‘Western literary tradition’?”

Eliot and his modernist compatriots seemed to think of tradition as something very real–something you could have, or not have—and, for poets, something you were responsible for making sure you had in order to write proper poetry. But for many of us today, “tradition” is a very problematic term. The only safe way to use it in popular culture seems to be in phrases like “faith traditions” (with a respectable emphasis on the pluralizing “s” at the end); otherwise, to speak of “tradition” in the singular with any kind of reverence, one is perceived as advocating for a misogynistic unenlightened power structure, or of idealizing an ossified set of texts that neglect the literacies and voices of marginalized groups.

Even Eliot acknowledges that the term was problematic in his own time:

We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction.

Obviously there is much to be said about tradition in general and the poetic tradition more specifically, but I think an interesting way to explore how human beings grapple with tradition is to look at it through the lens of Star Wars.

Kylo Ren proposes discarding tradition altogether, no matter the source: “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi.” One’s identity can only be uncovered by “killing” the past.

My dad was reminiscing about seeing the first Star Wars movie when he was a senior in high school, and one of the things he loved about it, apart from the incredible visual effects, was how the original movie engaged playfully and cleverly with film tradition. George Lucas incorporated elements of WWII movies, cowboy westerns, cheesy sci-fi thrillers and Japanese culture and films in a kind of hodge-podge that resonated rather deeply with American popular culture at the time; it was fun and recognizable, and yet fresh.

Lucas’ borrowing from those well-known motifs (and in some cases even specific storylines) reveals his engagement with, and sense of indebted-ness to, tradition. He was making something new (“make it new!” Ezra Pound says) but his innovations had a kind of reverence for the movie-makers that had come before.

I think the Star Wars franchise today — like so many other rebooted franchises that have to navigate nostalgia and memory — is grappling with conflicting conceptions of tradition. The characters within the story grapple with repeating the past, reinventing it, or rejecting it, and more importantly, the directors and writers of the films themselves do, too. They are trying to come to terms with a thing they did not create and which seems to have taken on a life of its own.

In an article tellingly entitled “Why Star Wars’ past is so important to the future in The Rise of Skywalker, we get some hints from one of the writers of the upcoming movie on this engagement with tradition:

“The idea of how the legacy of the Jedi is carried on and how the Force and its uses extend to the next generation [is] a thing that we for sure are taking up,” Chris Terrio, the co-writer of The Rise of Skywalker, told io9. […] “We first meet Rey, literally, in the wreck of the old war. The old war is so present in her life in every possible way,” he said. “So we wanted to explore [that] a little bit further and the origins of the First Order and how the past affects the present…And by exploring the story in the ways that we did, we could keep the sense of the past, even in the present war.” (emphasis added)

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, J. J. Abrams got the new trilogy into structural and plot problems by choosing to repeat the universe’s situation from the original movie — merely replacing the Empire with the First Order and the Rebellion with the Resistance — instead of imagining new challenges a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy with a fledgling Republic might encounter. As Eliot says in his essay,

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, emphasis added)

On the other hand, choosing to have Kylo Ren be a microcosmic illustration of this approach within the film — acting as an inferior Vader wanna-be, helmet, black cape and all — was a much more interesting decision. Ren’s subsequent advice to Rey to “let the past die” seems to come from his own vacillation from slavish imitation to extreme iconoclasm, a pattern which Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Johnson’s The Last Jedi also exemplify structurally and thematically. Director Rian Johnson, in another memorable scene from the second movie, has Kylo Ren smash his Vader-like helmet to smithereens after Snoke shames him: “You are no Vader; you are just a child in a mask.”

Too add yet another thread to these musings, I’m reading a book of essays on poetry by Peter Balakian, Vise and Shadow. In a chapter on Theodore Roethke, Balakian gives an interesting description of the transition from T. S. Eliot’s modernism (exemplified in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) of the first half of the twentieth century to the confessionalism of the 1950’s and ’60’s; a description that I find profoundly echoes something that’s going on in Star Wars as well. The old, original trilogy that embodies the Jedi mythos, I would argue, has the feel of a T. S. Eliot-modernist reverence for and invention within tradition, whereas the new trilogy has the more fractious feel of the confessional poets’ approach.

See if you agree.

Balakian says,

American poems of the later 1950s and 1960s were a departure from the passion for mythic structures and Eliotic notions of impersonality (“the poem Eliot insisted should be a ‘flight from the self‘”) that dominated modernism.

Think Obi-Wan and Yoda’s teachings on a kind of self-denial and aestheticism as the proper way to wield “The Force”. The old Jedi tradition has a quasi-religious reverence for centuries of teachings, passed down to each new generation, and demands an intense self-discipline when engaging with them.

Balakian contrasts this T. S. Eliot modernism with the newer approach:

The new confessional orientation was embodied in a poetics that appropriated a more intimate and transparent sense of autobiography; it was created out of a personal mask that was forged from an idea of intimacy […]. (emphasis added)

Just think of all the stuff going on with Kylo and his mask. He wears it to imitate his grandfather Vader, of course– then he takes it off for most of The Force Awakens. In the second movie, as I mentioned above, he destroys it.

Interestingly, in the upcoming (and Abrams’-directed) third movie, he reforges it again for some reason, and, at least in the trailers, we see him wearing it, red-cracks and all. So much for “let the past die.” Maybe I’m being too literal here, but Balakian’s whole section on confessional poetics reminds me a lot of Kylo Ren:

This new aesthetic orientation was grounded in experience that was located in the personal realm […] [and] defined itself with a bold and visceral idea of a self located in the daily life and domestic space of stress and trauma, and often in a domain in which the dynamics of family become a location for self, history, and culture. […] In the way that classical myth and Western intellectual history were essential to the modernist poet, the domestic, the personal, and the family-historical–or some variant of personally inherited history—became central to a post-World War II poetic orientation. (Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era,” Vise and Shadow 56-57, emphasis added).

Now here’s the big distinction. Both the old trilogy and the new trilogy have a lot to do with the past and one’s family—but not in the same way.

Young Luke wants to become “a Jedi, like my father”—but the Jedi part for him ultimately comes first. His family legacy, the fact that Obi-Wan tells him Darth Vader “murdered” his father, is a point of entry for him into a larger, older, vaster tradition, that goes beyond his personal family history. The Jedi tradition itself is the real object of his desire. “The Force is strong with this one,” Vader observes, even before he realizes that Luke is his son, but Luke himself quickly realizes that his natural talents require a lot of hard work and cultivation.

Similarly, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot says, “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”

You see that kind of labour in Luke, especially in The Empire Strikes Back as he runs through the swamp with Yoda strapped to his back. His bloodline is important, but his struggle to learn and live the Jedi tradition is more important. Contrast his experience with Rey’s — who, as many have noted — seems to have inherited the force with no labour at all in a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, though, for all his fascination with the Jedi tradition, Luke does need to contend with his personal family history—he needs to come to grips with the legacy of his father. His greatest fear seems to be becoming the man behind the mask, as his famous tortured reaction to the “I am your Father” reveal in Empire Strikes Back shows.

Yet Luke does find a way to integrate his vocation as a Jedi with his personal identity as son. Even when Obi-Wan warns him that Vader is “more machine now than man,” Luke insists that there must be “still good” left in Vader, and tells Leia this as well. In accepting the truth about his family, Luke does save his father.

But notice, in the key scene in Return of the Jedi, when he cuts off Vader’s hand in a fit of anger, just as Vader had done to him in the previous movie, he looks at his hand, pauses and throws away his lightsaber. He refuses to merely repeat the past, and tells the Emperor, “I will never join the Dark side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

His sense of particular family legacy is fully integrated with his sense of the larger, deeper Jedi tradition. And it is his love for family and that tradition that saves him and his father. The redeemed Anakin, as he dies, asks Luke to help him take off his mask so he can look his son “with my own eyes”; that is, with love. The final unmasking of his father is a powerful moment that also unmasks and disarms, finally, Luke’s fear of what lies hidden in himself.

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, the embodiment of the new trilogy’s ethos, seems to be a kind of confessional poet who puts on a mask in order to manufacture an identity for himself. His “art” is all about releasing and unleashing his pain, his anger, his trauma. His obsession with his family legacy becomes the lens through which he interprets the world and it precludes any reverence for or sense of a larger, older tradition or schema in which he can find meaning. His interest in artifacts (Vader’s helmet) is not about Sith teaching, but about family bloodline and how it fuels his own experience of pain and power.

Despite his obsession with family, the only way Ren can cut himself off from the larger tradition is, ironically, by literally killing his own father. In this way he is an anti-Luke. He has no desire for tradition in the broader sense, though paradoxically by forging his own “new” path he seems to tread a very well-worn one down into dark side despair.

The prequel movies, also the work of George Lucas, reveal a lot of problems with the Jedi tradition. By these late ’90s early ’00s movies, the tradition is no longer a source of wisdom, but rather a kind of blind, ossified set of restrictions that alienate the young Anakin (a proto-Kylo-Ren, especially in his experience of unleashing his trauma on the world) and blind the Jedi themselves to the obvious machinations of Palpatine. You get the sense that over-adherence to tradition is what pushes Anakin away.

Rian Johnson’s older, embittered Luke in “The Last Jedi” seems to have adopted the Kylo Ren approach; his own trauma over the loss of his academy and his nephew seems too much to bear, and he lashes out in disgust against the tradition that he once reverenced as a young man but now feels has betrayed him: “the Jedi must end,” he says, in a moment that initially horrified even Mark Hamill (and, I suspect, still kind of does). He tells Rey, “Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”

In The Last Jedi, tradition is symbolized by the sacred Jedi texts, old books which Yoda surprisingly seems to incinerate when he comes to comfort Luke towards the end of the movie. (We find out later, however, that Rey somehow saved them.) They don’t seem to play a very important role in the movie practically-speaking, and I suspect this is due in part to Johnson’s own perplexity as to what to do with tradition. The books are there, but nobody seems to actually read them—what they actually say is never discussed. (A powerful image of contemporary education.)

I kind of doubt that they will appear again in the Abrams’ movie, but we’ll wait and see what happens next week.

If I were penning this new trilogy, I would have liked to explore Rey’s character as a possible “balance” between these views, between the Eliot-style desire to recover and insert oneself into an ancient tradition and the confessional-poet approach of Kylo Ren that rejects tradition in favor of the trauma of ones’ personal experience. That would, however, require that she actually read those old books and learn about the past, and not simply “inherit” her power without “great labour”.

I think this integration of tradition, family legacy, and personal experience is the un-woke balance Luke achieved in the original trilogy, and therefore one that we are not very likely to see unfold in this one.

But who knows? Perhaps Abrams’ has realized that neither Johnson’s wholesale rejection of Star Wars mythos nor his own overly-nostalgic imitation of it really work. Perhaps we will see a new balance that successfully integrates the old and the new in The Rise of Skywalker. As Luke says to Rey in one of the trailers, “We’ve passed on all we know. A thousand generations live in you now.”

But it’s Kylo Ren I’m really interested in. He’s the archetypal millennial, embittered by the the family pressures and traumas the boomer-generation bequeathed to him, unsure what to do with his pain and power, attracted to and yet repulsed by the tradition.

Interestingly, he says to Darth Vader’s helmet early in The Force Awakens, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”

At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader is redeemed by the love and example of his son and (seemingly) defeats the Emperor who had enslaved him for so long.

With Emperor Palpatine back for the final movie, Kylo Ren’s words to his predecessor carry some new weight.

Divine Art: "Something we can hold in our hands and love"

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe features prominently in the beginning of Willa Cather’s sparse and beautiful novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, a story based on the lives and friendship of two French Catholic missionary priests in the southwest. Today is the feast day of Saint Juan Diego, so it seems like a good time to return to a fascinating scene and discussion in the novel that explores the miracle he experienced.

Father Latour, later the “archbishop” of the novel’s title, is a fictionalized version of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and, like his historical counterpart, is contemplative and intellectual. He and his more emotive friend Father Joseph Vaillant (who is based on Joseph Machebeuf, eventually the first bishop of Denver) have an interesting conversation in the opening part of the book. Both of them have just listened to a young priest retelling the story of the miracle of Juan Diego’s tilma and the roses. Both friends are deeply moved when they hear of how Our Lady converted millions to Christianity in the matter of a few years, as they, too, are in mission territory in the vast expanses of the new archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Latour later observes to his friend, reflecting on Juan Diego’s experience of the apparition and the image on his cloak,

Where there is great love, there are always miracles…. [They] seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (50)

It is a beautiful and thought-provoking interpretation. Indeed, Cather ends first part of the novel with his words, as if to emphasize that everything else that comes afterward in the novel should be considered in these terms. Latour’s description suggests something of the miraculousness of the every day– if we could only see and hear “what is there about us always”. It makes me think of a favorite epigram of Emily Dickinson: “Not revelation–tis–that waits / But our unfurnished eyes.”

And yet… there is something distinctly modern in Latour’s interpretation of miracles too, as if they are more a matter of adjusting one’s internal, subjective perspective than bumping into something unexplainable in external, objective reality. His words are particularly strange when you consider the story itself; what is the miracle of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego if not an instance of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off”?

Taken too far, Latour’s characterization of miracles might move us toward Thomas Jefferson’s famous rather ribboned version of the bible.

But setting aside for the moment its possible problematic theological implications, I think his description is an important interpretive key to the novel. There’s another way Cather might be inviting us to conceive of Latour’s words here, especially when you consider them alongside his friend Father Vaillant’s very different description of the event.

Vaillant, moved almost to tears by the story, says fervently, “The miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love” (50).

In my senior thesis in college, in which I focused a lot on this scene, I summarized the differences in the two friends’ descriptions of miracles this way:

The bishop locates miracles as occurring within interior human perception, whereas Father Joseph locates them as occurring in nature, in the external world. Father Latour seems to define miracles as a process—of refinement, clarification or sharpening; but Father Joseph seems to define miracles almost as objects: indeed, they seem rather unsettlingly personal and tangible—they can be touched, even held “in our hands.” Miracles, for Father Joseph, are interventions into nature. But Father Latour distances his definition from the idea of divine intrusion, of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off,” and places it instead within the context of corrected human perception. And of course, one cannot hold that in one’s hands!

Or can one?

Now, I think there is a way in which these views might be harmonized–or at least brought much closer together. What if we considered them as different descriptions not just of miracles, but of art?

I mean, one could argue that miracles themselves are a kind of special divine art. All of nature is divine art, of course, but when God intervenes in nature He’s making a rather unique statement. So maybe there is a kind of analogous connection there.

But I think there is also textual justification for looking at these two definitions as descriptions of art. The conversation between Latour and Vaillant occurs in the context of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that story’s miracle explicitly involves a work of art: the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, which we are told looks “exactly as She had appeared to him on the hillside” (49). The mantle, especially in its strange properties and marvelous preservation over hundreds of years, becomes a kind of “miraculous portrait” that we can “hold in our hands and love.”

Maybe in this scene, Cather is suggesting that art (literature in particular?) can achieve two things: it “refines” the reader’s interior perceptions, our ability to see the world as it truly is, and it offers us a kind of tangible object of wonder and beauty to hold and to treasure. The first description concerns what art does for us, the second more what art is in itself.

Why does any of this matter?

I think these two “roles” of art are often in tension with one another. They are like two poles that pull the artist in different directions. On the one hand, art should be about “refining perceptions”—that is, correcting our vision, or even challenging our assumptions about what art is and can be. I think (in my very inexperienced opinion) that a lot of modern art (and literature) likes to push boundaries for this very reason. Contemporary art is very much about changing the way we see things, perhaps especially art itself.

On the other hand, art should also be about creating “something we can hold in our hands and love”— that is, something grasp-able, accessible, that moves us with its beauty. This kind of art is more content with being something beautiful than with engaging in mind- and category-bending acrobatics.

I think my favorite examples of art, both literary and visual, do both of these things, but I think I am drawn much more to the Father Vaillant side. Theologically, I’m also more drawn to his view of miracles. They are real, they are out there, they aren’t just in my head, they happen.

But as Father Latour points out, we do need the “eyes and the ears” to perceive them, and this takes the healing of our perceptions. “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:9).

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)

San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin by Raul Beroza

"The feathers of some unimaginable bird"

Photo by Pixabay

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.

Does this happen to you, when you read it?

White-Eyes
BY MARY OLIVER

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Poetry Foundation

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.”

Strange, and beautiful.

“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

Here’s a post I wrote a while back on one of my favorite poems to sit with during Advent.

Mysteries and Manners

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

Back…

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Limitation and Freedom

On my LinkedIn newsfeed, a Nike advertisement popped up with an image of a man finishing a race and the following inspirational message:

“I run to prove to any human in this universe that there are no limitations.”

The man in the picture, and the origin of those words, is Eliud Kipchoge, who recently became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours.

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 – (466)

BY EMILY DICKINSON

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 –

I have my doubts that the new show, “Dickinson,” will be attentive to this important part of Emily’s self-understanding.

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.

And yet, as James Allan Francis observed a hundred years ago:

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?

A brief look at nostalgia

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.

Remember this?

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.

Why is the Emperor striking back?

Why is the Emperor striking back?

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.)

Some people are optimistic about his re-emergence. Some are not so sure.

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:

  1. The vacuum left by Snoke’s untimely demise in The Last Jedi
  2. The foundational plot mishandling in The Force Awakens
  3. The need for continuity, a thread that connects us to the entire saga
  4. 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.

Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.

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.

We’ll see.

By Words and the Defeat of Words

Reposting, for the anniversary of Richard Wilbur’s death.

Mysteries and Manners

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…

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We need a philosophy of education

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 learning rather 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:106:1I: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.

(The Idea of a University, Discourse V)

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.

The Writer

Richard Wilbur

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back, 
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

Questions of work and identity, especially for teachers

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…

Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)

Oh, right.

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.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André), 1886-1894.