Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Signature of All Things

When I read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love, on which the 2010 film is based, I had little interest in what sounded more like a journey of self-indulgence than an authentic spiritual quest.  Perhaps that was unfair.

When a friend recommended Gilbert’s 2013 novel, I decided to give it a try.

The Signature of All Things is also a quest narrative.  The first part reads like a classic success story, as her father rises from poverty in 18th century England to wealth in Philadelphia through his application of botanical knowledge to the development of early pharmaceuticals.  His daughter Alma is born into wealth and focuses her 19th century quest on the acquisition of botanical knowledge, not only for practical application, but for its own sake, though she also seeks achievement and recognition in the scientific community.

Alma’s professional quest is paralleled by her personal quest for romantic and sexual fulfillment.  This quest leads her into a misguided marriage in which a mystery arises regarding her husband’s sexuality, and she is as bound and determined to solve that mystery as she is to solve the mysteries of the natural world.

 At this point the narrative becomes like a detective story, as Alma, after her father’s death, gives up her inheritance to her adopted sister and devotes herself to tracking down her late husband’s secrets.  This journey takes her to Tahiti, where her professional and personal quests intersect.

She learns more about her husband (as well as the Polynesian people and the Christian missionary outreach), enjoys a moment of sexual fulfillment, and, through a personal experience, not scientific study, achieves an intellectual breakthrough in her understanding of nature.

Alma develops her own theory of the survival instinct and natural selection but fails to publish it because she feels the theory is incomplete.  Darwin, of course, publishes The Origin of Species in 1859 and later The Descent of Man, achieving world recognition for the theory that Alma had also formulated.

What was and perhaps still is incomplete about the theory is the problem of altruism.  Given evolutionary theory, why do humans individually and in groups, make sacrifices in order to assist and promote others’ well-being, even save others’ lives, often at their own expense?  Multiple theories have been developed to explain how human altruistic behavior might have evolved, but there is still no good account for how it might have pre-evolved in the non-human world. (

In the end Alma must accept the limits of human knowledge, not only in the intellectual, scientific realm, but also in her personal life.  As much as she discovers about her husband’s secrets, there are unanswered questions that remain shrouded in mystery. 

The historical backdrop to Alma’s story includes the role of women in the 19th century, the increasing reliance on science as an authority for truth, the colonizing outreach of Christian missionaries, and the conflict between religion and science, of which creationism vs. evolution is but one example.

Western imperialism and race relations also figure in the narrative.  Alma’s father participates in the European western expansion, making his fortune exploiting plant life around the world before settling in Philadelphia.  Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence, becomes an abolitionist, and Alma herself lives among the Polynesians in Tahiti, where Christian missionaries have established a Western foothold.

The novel moves from the Old World of Europe to the so-called New World of North America to the Third World of Tahiti and ends in Holland where Alma, having abandoned her estate in Philadelphia to Prudence, connects with her mother’s Dutch family. 

This movement parallels Alma’s own journey of exploration, expansion, and discovery, her almost imperialistic thirst for control through scientific and personal knowledge, and her final retreat and acceptance of limits to the power of knowledge and to her own ego.

But what of the title, The Signature of All Things?  It is borrowed from Jacob Boehme’s 1621 work by that title.  Boehme was a Christian mystic who argued that God had imprinted a message in every plant and flower, a kind of secret code that he called “the signature of all things.”  Similar to 19th century Transcendentalism, nature is an outward expression of spiritual truth.  In this view, science becomes a way of reading, not simply the material world, but the mind of God.

Alma is a scientific materialist, but she marries Ambrose, a Christian mystic who follows the teachings of Jacob Boehme.  Turns out Ambrose wants a chaste marriage, or as he calls it a marriage blanc, much to Alma’s disappointment.  It also turns out that Ambrose is most likely a repressed homosexual, who has displaced his sexuality into religion.

This dilemma results from a huge miscommunication between Alma and Ambrose, leading them to think they are both on the same page regarding the expectations for their marriage.

The friend who recommended Gilbert’s novel to me pointed out that this misunderstanding is only one of many mistakes Alma makes when it comes to “reading” other people.  As brilliant as she is when it comes to unearthing the (material) secrets of nature, she is clueless when it comes to understanding human beings.  And perhaps herself.  Her obsession with knowledge and control may well be a displacement of her own frustrated sexuality into science.  Does her blindness to humanity prevent her from seeing beyond the material world to spiritual truths?

Perhaps, but in the end, having been chastened by the recognition of her failures in human relationships, Alma comes to respect those, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, who see in science a religious revelation, and to accept her own limitations, neither converting to a religious world view nor denying spiritual reality.  In the final image of the narrative, Alma is leaning against a tree, held up by it really, as if nature were all she needed for support.

The Signature of All Things is a kind of historical novel in that it features actual historical personages, such as Captain Cook, Jacob Boehme, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace, as well as the backdrop of Western imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, women’s roles, sexual repression, and class privilege in the late 18th and 19th centuries. 

We know now that there were important women scientists, activists, and leaders in history who remained invisible until 20th century feminist scholars began lifting them up.  Gilbert’s novel offers an imaginary portrait of such an invisible woman, who resists almost every female stereotype of its time period.  Far from conforming to the Cult of True Womanhood (domesticity, piety, purity, submissiveness, Alma is professionally active, atheistic, sexually alive (if not fulfilled), outspoken, and assertive.  At the same time the novel presents a realistic version of the classic quest myth with a classically larger-than-life and classically flawed heroine.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

Anything by Flannery O’Connor, including this short story published in 1953, should come with a warning label: “Proceed with Caution,” or something to that effect.  Especially if you are inclined to see the best in people and to view life with a more sunny than grim outlook, you might want to gird your loins before entering into her world, which has been variously described as “gothic,” “cynical,” and downright “grotesque.”  That this world is represented in a rather matter-of-fact manner makes it all the more hair-raising.

The title of this story actually comes from a popular blues song, performed by the likes of Bessie Smith, lamenting her no-good, cheating, abusive man and urging those who are lucky enough to have a “good man” to “Hug him every morning, kiss him ev’ry night…Cause a good man nowadays sure is hard to find.” 

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, the line is stated by Red Sammy, the owner of a barbecue spot, who laments that “These days you don’t know who to trust”:  “Everything is getting terrible.  I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

An ordinary family, husband and wife, three children, and a grandmother, are on a road trip to Florida.  When they stop for lunch, the grandmother and Red Sammy commiserate together about the sad state of the world.  Earlier, when the family vacation is being planned, the grandmother warns against heading to Florida.  A escaped convict, called The Misfit, is “aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida.”  Overruled by the rest of the family, the grandmother, dressed in her best clothes, takes her seat in the back seat of the car.  “In case of an accident anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”  At Red Sammy’s the grandmother once again brings up The Misfit.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t attact this place right here,” says Sammy’s wife.  Everyone seems to agree, “A good man is hard to find.”

Except for a sideways glance at her husband when Sammy’s wife states, “It isn’t a soul in this green world of God’s that you can trust…And I don’t count nobody out of that, not nobody,” everyone seems to agree that the law-abiding, upstanding, respectable family vacationers and roadside business owners are among the “good” people on God’s green earth.

Yet, throughout the story, the family members are disrespectful, rude, and downright mean to each other.  The children talk back to their grandmother and the parents do not scold or correct them; the parents ignore the grandmother, who is herself a shallow, petty, and vain woman; Sammy interrupts his wife and bosses her around.

What does it mean to be “good”? 

Later, after a series of mishaps the family has a car accident and crosses paths with The Misfit.  Murder and mayhem ensue accompanied by a bizarre conversation between the grandmother and The Misfit, in which the grandmother tries to convince him that he truly is a “good” man from “good” family.  (He is not even wearing a shirt.)  “Nome, I ain’t a good man,” The Misfit tells her politely and begins to relate his history.

“I was a gospel singer for a while,” The Misfit said.  “I been most everything.  Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive onct…I even seen a woman flogged….”

He begins to emerge as a kind of Everyman.  Grandmother tells him to pray.  He says he was imprisoned for killing his father, but claims he did not do it, or, at least, does not remember doing it.  Having lost all faith in justice, he has decided it doesn’t matter what he does or how he lives.  The grandmother begins to murmur “Jesus, Jesus,” but it’s not clear if she is praying or cursing.  Such is the ambiguity of the story.  Is the Misfit truly an innocent man who has been twisted into evil by an unjust system of justice?  Is the grandmother truly a faithful Christian woman trying to save a sinner or is she using religion to manipulate a murderer in order to save her life?

In a sudden moment when The Misfit seems close to tears as he claims if only he had known the truth about Jesus, “I wouldn’t be like I am now,” the grandmother reaches out to him, exclaiming, “Why, you’re one of my babies…You’re one of my own children!”  The Misfit recoils “as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” 

We know from O’Connor’s own testimony that her work is a representation of her Catholic theology; as such, this scene is interpreted as a moment of divine grace when The Misfit appears to show remorse and the grandmother, recognizing his capacity for salvation, expresses compassion for his soul.  In this interpretation, the grandmother, despite the foolishness and superficiality of her life, reveals her own capacity for salvation.  The image of the grandmother “in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at a cloudless sky” is taken as evidence of her final deliverance into the arms of God.  The Misfit, on the other hand, has rejected the offer of grace, reacting to the grandmother as if she were an evil “snake” and reverting to his own evil, murderous ways.

So, why does O’Connor present this message with such ambiguity?  From another perspective, The Misfit is merely toying with an old woman’s desperate religious appeals and the grandmother’s supposed moment of compassion is yet another attempt to use religion to manipulate The Misfit into sparing her life.  Her image in death could just as well be seen as evidence that she is just as ridiculous dead as she was alive.

“She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the Misfit says.  Is this his recognition that it takes the shock of extreme circumstances to open a shallow person to divine grace or is it just evidence of his own perversion? 

When his companion Bobbie Lee says, “Some fun!” and The Misfit replies, “Shut up, Bobbie Lee…It’s no real pleasure in life,” is that evidence that he now renounces an earlier statement that there is “No pleasure but meanness” or is it a nihilistic rejection of any form of value in life, even the value of “fun.”

The one thing Flannery O’Connor is not ambiguous about is the sad state of the world and human nature.  It is a fallen world, a perversely fallen world in which there is not only the obvious evil of violence and murder but the everyday evil of foolish pride, petty meanness, and shallow faith. 

Why is she so ambiguous about the possibility of redemption?  If we take her at her word, then perhaps her fiction is intended to provide a shock of extreme circumstances designed to test our own capacity to recognize the potential for divine grace available to even the worst of us.

Another possibility is that underlying her own Catholic faith is the doubt and fear that there is no hope of redemption for this truly fallen world.

In any case, Flannery O’Connor uses dark humor and grotesque comedy to make this fallen world, redeemable or not, highly entertaining.   A few years ago there was an ad for fitness equipment that used the slogan, “A Hard Man Is Good to Find.”  That’s what happens when English majors go to work for advertising companies.  One imagines that O’Connor would have enjoyed that ad immensely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World

In the last post (March 25) I made reference to this 1999 work by my friend Patrick Henry.  Previously I did a series of posts on Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett (Sept. 2013 – June 2014), by turns admiring, questioning, and protesting his work.  My biggest beef with Dennett is his lack of appreciation for the power of imagination, symbolic truth, and what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

Although it was published seven years earlier, Henry’s book is the best answer I’ve read, from a Christian perspective, to Dennett’s often arrogant atheism.

The word “ironic” refers to some kind of discrepancy in language, in experience or in thought.  An “ironic” statement may mean the opposite of what it says.  (Sarcasm is a type of linguistic irony with an edge of hostility.)  An “ironic” situation involves a confluence of events that don’t seem to go together, with sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, effect.  An “ironic” thought, similarly, brings together ideas that one would not normally expect to coincide.

Openness to, even appreciation for, the unexpected is central to Henry’s version of Christianity.

Whereas Dennett dismisses anything that does not pass a verifiable scientific or demonstrably rational test as delusion and insists on the most literal, fundamentalist understanding of religion, Henry locates his faith in the unverifiable, indemonstrable, dizzying realm of uncertainty, and understands religion in figurative, symbolic, imaginative terms.

The sub-title of his book offers a clue as to what the reader is in for.  It is not a “treatise” or “study,” but a field guide, like Petersen’s field guide to wild birds.  The phrase “finding the marks of God’s grace in the world” even has a poetic rhythm to it.  This will not be a “defense” of or “argument” for religion.  Instead, we are invited on an experiential field trip into the wilderness of faith, a wilderness with as many hazards as beautiful birds and scenery, where there is as much danger of getting lost as promise of being saved.

Furthermore, while this field trip has a beginning, middle, and an end, don’t expect them to occur in that order.  Thus, while there is progression in the overall structure from the felt sense of uncertainty to the equally felt sense of Christian faith, this field guide wanders by a kind of association from the uncertainty of “little brown jobs” (birds that cannot be identified), through cosmic time and space, unexpected calls to attention, Keats’ concept of “negative capability,” human connections and interdependence, post-modernist decentering, the non-linearity of grace and faith, to trust in the universe. 

The “ironic Christian” is an uncertain, independent, imaginative, and ecumenical thinker, as well as believer.

Patrick Henry is a religious scholar who taught at Swarthmore College for 17 years.  Most recently he served as executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN.  A thoroughgoing academic, he is able to cite theological, scientific, philosophical, psychological, and sociological sources with proficiency; however, his style is personal, down-to-earth, and emotionally appealing, lending itself not only to esoteric Biblical and literary references but also to popular culture, including such children’s literature as Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss.

In an age in which Christianity has come to be dominated by the literal, fundamentalist, narrow, evangelical, conservative brand, Henry seeks to break Christianity open in order to broaden its reach and enlarge its appeal—to save faith by testing it.  In the process, he opens Christianity wide enough to let non-Christians in.

“Once upon a time,” he writes, “the term ‘Christian’ meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days ‘Christian’ sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow.  Many people who identify themselves, as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure.  When “Christian” appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.” (p. 8)

The final message of the book is the same for both conservative Christians and atheists alike:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”  (Hamlet, Act I, scene 5, ll. 167-8)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"Eisenheim the Illusionist"

I was so fascinated by the 2006 film The Illusionist ( that I read “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Steven Millhauser (, on which the film is based.  Little did I know that this innocent act would lead me down a rabbit-hole of philosophy, art, literature, history, politics, and religion.  Anyone who has read much of this blog knows, of course, that all those topics are irresistible to me and are probably not be surprised.

In the film, I was struck by the way the story dramatizes the ancient saying that “All may not be as it seems,” not only in a magic show but also in real life.  Deception is at the heart of the illusionist’s craft and, in the film, deception is at the heart of a whole plot line that does not appear in the original.  Turns out that plotline is based on a historical event, which was itself and perhaps still is as mysterious as it is factual, but more of that later.

In any case, the proverbial philosophical debate over art vs. life, illusion vs. reality, and appearance vs. truth is thrown into sharp relief.  In the original story, there is more suggestion of the supernatural, at least in the minds of Eisenheim’s audiences and perhaps in that of the police inspector, who attempts to arrest the magician for “crossing of boundaries,” disturbing “the essence of things,” “shaking the foundations of the universe,“ and “undermining reality.”  When Eisenheim disappears it is “the faithful” who know “that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.”  Perhaps that “realm” is that of art and myth, perhaps of something even more timeless and “indestructible.”

In the film Eisenheim’s art is inextricably bound up with his life, indeed the love of his life.  He fashions a necklace for her with a trick chamber that later becomes evidence in her apparent murder, and, of course, the whole story of her murder is an artfully designed deception, which entraps her abusive fiancé (who also happens to be the Crown Prince) and enables the lovers to be reunited.  “All may not be as it seems.”  What seems real may be as illusory as a magician’s trick, and, likewise, the illusion is crafted with the materials of real life. 

When the police inspector realizes the trick and the scales fall from his eyes, I was reminded of that moment in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady when Isabel sees her husband in a particular pose with Madame Merle and immediately knows all that has been hidden from her in their relationship.  And that moment in Melville’s Benito Cereno when “across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day….” All may not be as it seems.

In Millhauser’s original story, I was reminded of Hawthorne’s oft-used device of “multiple choice” or “alternative explanation” (Washington Irving used it first but for purposes of mockery rather than speculation.).  Some spectators say that when Dimmesdale pulled back his shirt a scarlet letter clearly appeared etched on his breast; others claim to have seen no such thing, affirming that his flesh was as bare as that of a “new-born” infant.  Do we see what we want to see or do we see what is truly there?  In “Eisenheim the Illusionist” there are various theories to explain why “all may not be as it seems,” ranging from ingenious practical, perfectly natural methods of deception to more supernatural theories, such that he had “sold his soul to the devil for the dark gift of magic.” 

This theme of illusion vs. reality is prominent also in The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014 blog post), in which reality is permeated with illusion and every illusion is created out of factual material.  The painting of the title is a trompe l’oeil or optical illusion in which art objects are made to appear like real life.  The main character of that novel comes to believe that “there’s no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between ‘reality’ on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  We might add, perhaps, it is that space where religion also exists, but more of that later. 

“Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

So, what about history in this rabbit hole of illusion and reality?

Both the film and the short story take place in Austria at the end of the 19th century when magic shows were all the rage.  The Eisenheim character may be based on Robert Houdin, from whom the 20th century Houdini took his name.  At this same time in Austria the Hapsburg dynasty was withering on its vine.  Could that be part of the police inspector’s anxiety over Eisenheim’s increasingly supernatural-seeming illusions?  “For where would the Empire be, once the idea of boundaries became blurred and uncertain?”  Is the decaying Hapsburg Empire the “crumbling order of history” from which Eisenheim escapes?

One of Eisenheim’s illusions is the ghostly appearance of a young woman named Greta.  Among the speculations is that Greta “was really Marie Vetsera, who had died with Crown Prince Rudolph in the bedroom of his hunting lodge at Mayerling.”  There are other speculations, but the Mayerling Incident (, as it came to be called, may be the basis of the murder-suicide plot in the film.  To this day, the historical murder-suicide in Mayerling is shrouded in mystery.  All may not be as it seems.

Another political (and mythic) allusion should also be noted since Eisenheim is Jewish.  The anti-Semitism of the day may have fed the speculation that he had made a pact with the devil.  One commentator has suggested that Eisenheim’s disappearance into “the indestructible realm of mystery and dream” aligns him with the myth of the Wandering Jew (

Which brings us to the “boundary” between history and myth.  Is “official history “all that it seems?  To what extent is it suffused with illusion and myth, just as myth and legend may have a basis or origin in factual history, not to mention in symbolic truth?  To what extent are knowledge and imagination intertwined with one another? 

 “Stories,” states the narrator of “Eisenheim,” “like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams…”

Could that also be the case with religion?  To what extent do the “facts” of history become transformed into the mythic fears and aspirations of human dreams?  To what extent is life bound up with art, reality with illusion?  And to what extent does the blurring of these boundaries create anxiety and tension such as that which led to the inspector’s attempt to police those boundaries by arresting Eisenheim?  To what extent does our uncertainty over truth lead us to police those boundaries ourselves by insisting on reality over illusion if we are atheistic materialists or illusion over reality if we are religious supernaturalists?  And to what extent do such rigid boundaries result in the truth escaping us, just as Eisenheim himself disappeared.

Well, as often happens with rabbit holes, we may have wandered too far from the texts under discussion.  By coincidence, as I was working on this blog post I was also reading The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World ( by my friend Patrick Henry.  In the following passage Patrick is referencing the disorienting effect of theories in modern astrophysics:

“The more I read about cosmology…the more I am persuaded that Lewis Carroll is the most faithful guide to the world we live in.  As Alice remarks, things get “curiouser and curioser,” less and less commonsensical.  Every new discovery takes us down the hole to Wonderland once more.” 

In science, in religion, in life, in art, in reality, and in illusion, the rabbit hole may lead us where we least expect:  “All may not be as it seems.”

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Girl on the Train

A potboiler is a work created for entertainment primarily to make money, not for artistic purposes.  But, of course, even the cheapest forms of entertainment require some artistry and, I would argue, often embody or represent a serious purpose.  Popular works can tell us something about the public psyche at the time and may even raise serious social and/or philosophical issues.

The detective story, for example, came of age in the 19th century at a time when there was public anxiety and philosophical inquiry concerning human nature.  Are we primarily rational beings, or are we fundamentally irrational creatures with a thin veneer of rational appearance masking our underlying penchant for hostility, aggression, violence, sex, and power?  Gothic fiction of the 18th century could be viewed as an expression of social anxiety over, not only irrational human nature, but also destructive forces in the universe beyond our control.  The detective story serves to reassure us that the use of our rational powers can overcome those forces and restore order to our world.

Most detective stories begin with ordinary, familiar, seemingly innocent reality.  The crime, usually of a violent nature, usually murder (because death is our greatest anxiety), disrupts the rational order, creating a sense of chaos, confusion, and fear, not to mention mystery.  It takes the careful, methodical, reasoned calculation of the controlled and rational detective to solve the mystery and restore order.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins offers a variation on this pattern that undermines our faith in rationality as the means to truth and order, suggesting that the irrational can actually lead us to a restoration of rational order.

It begins, as the detective story (and gothic tale) usually does, with familiar reality.  What could be more ordinary than a young woman on a commuter train passing by the back side of suburban houses on her daily route?  As we get to know this young woman, however, with each layer that is peeled back, we discover less and less rationality and less and less order.  The sense of irrational disorder is well established before the crime occurs.

In this case the official police investigators of the crime, using their methods rational analysis are not very successful.  The successful “detective,” who solves the crime, is considered an “unreliable witness” by the police. 

Her involvement in solving the crime is motivated by her desire to recover her lost memory of something that occurred near the time and place of the crime, but also by her own personal obsessions, fantasies, and generally disordered psychology.

She solves the crime more or less by hit-or-miss accident based on her gradually emerging but hazy memories, rather than logical calculated analysis.

Most detective stories affirm reason and rationality, but this one seems to affirm the role of irrational processes; the official detectives in the case fail to solve the crime, while the irrational “unreliable witness” succeeds.

Most detective stories reassure us that the power of rational order can overcome the irrational, but in this case, we are left with no such reassurance; irrationality is pitted against irrationality and it is through confusion, fantasy, obsession, and disordered thinking/behavior that some semblance of rational order is restored.

Parallel to the detective story is a recovery narrative in which the “detective” moves from emotional instability to health during the process of solving the crime.  Recovery of her lost memories leads to recovery of her health as well as the solution to the crime.  And just as the process of solving the crime is messy, disorderly, and irrational, so is the process of recovery.

The effect is to suggest that the irrational has the power to lead us to truth and healing as much or more than the rational.

We tend to associate reason and rationality with truth and goodness, whereas we associate the irrational with our worst emotional excesses, destructive urges, and false beliefs about reality.  The Girl on the Train reminds us that human reason has its limits.  Not only is it subject to fallacies, it may not see far enough.  It may dismiss out of hand the positive power of emotional energy, imagination, hunches, even dreams, and thereby miss the whole story.

This is not to say that reason and emotion cannot work together but that one may not necessarily be superior to the other.

Philosophy and psychology aside, The Girl on the Train is a well-crafted, suspenseful page-turner with plenty of personal drama thrown in for good measure, just like a good potboiler should be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"Desert Places"

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

It’s amazing how you can read something multiple times, then come back to it and discover something new.  I’ve often read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” and admired it for the way it moves from an ordinary winter scene to the vastness of outer space to the familiarity of inner space.  Recently I studied it more closely and found more to appreciate. 

First, let’s note that this “nature” poem is not of the uplifting or sentimental variety.  Instead we get a stark image of human isolation and loneliness in the midst of a desolate scene in which nature is blank and expressionless.  It is striking that this northern winter image is compared to a southern “desert,” but this is but one in a series of striking contrasts.

We have white “snow” and dark “night,” both “falling fast”; “smooth” snow cover with “weeds and stubble” poking through; natural desolation and human “loneliness”; “blanker whiteness” and “benighted snow”; earthly isolation and the emptiness “between stars”; external and internal absence.  The contrasts create a psychic drama as the speaker realizes, not only his own insignificance in the vastness of nature, but also that of the human species on its lonely planet.

This existential image of human isolation is conveyed in Frost’s characteristically familiar style.  The predominately iambic meter, interlocking rhyme scheme, plain diction, sentence fragments, and use of dashes, all make the poem sound conversational, while the occasional irregularity of rhythm, reversal of word order and the use of words like “absent-spirited” and “benighted” offer a slight elevation of style.  The whole is rendered as an ordinary experience that is accompanied by an extra-ordinary shock of recognition.

The winter scene is personified as lonely in stanza two but realistically depicted in stanza three as inanimate, having “nothing to express.”  The emptiness “between planets” is associated with the emptiness of a “desert,” as both of those images, like the winter scene itself, serve as metaphors for psychic absence.  Ironically, this message of disconnection is belied by the speaker’s ability to identify with the external world and the reader’s ability to identify with the speaker. 

A poem about disconnection relies on connecting with disconnection.  The comparative devices of personification and metaphor are used to create a sense of isolation and contrast.  Earthly winter, the human individual, unearthly space, and the earthly desert are all connected by their shared disconnection.  At the heart of human experience is this unavoidable contradiction between alienation (absence) and interconnected relationship (presence).  We are connected in our isolation.

From a socio/political perspective the poem serves to elevate individualism over collectivism, yet it could be read as disrupting this false binary, suggesting that our ability to identify with and relate to what is external to us transcends our isolation and makes social relationships possible, indeed, perhaps redemptive.  As Bertrand Russell wrote, “In human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that” (Autobiography Vol 1, pp. 219-221).

Viewed from a mythic perspective, the poem may suggest the Fall, death, loss, even apocalypse, but again, as spring is foreshadowed in the winter solstice, so redemption, rebirth, recovery, and resurrection are foreshadowed in the mythic cycle of eternal return. 

All of this may seem to take us far afield from the original poem, but, as we connect with that poem about loneliness, we transcend our individualism; as we identify with human emptiness, we transcend our isolation.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Readings in Civil Disobedience

Having grown up during the Civil Rights movement; read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as well as Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Phaedo in college; participated in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era; and studied Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English, I thought I knew something about civil disobedience. 

In recent years, however, I’ve witnessed a couple of protests that made me question what I understood about civil disobedience.  Most recently, I was led to conduct a little research and reread some of those classic works.

It is debated whether Socrates actually committed civil disobedience, that is, deliberately broke the law.  However, in the Apology he states that even if the charges against him were dropped he would continue to practice his philosophical teaching, acting as a kind of “gadfly” to the state. When offered the opportunity to reduce his sentence from death to a fine, he suggests such a paltry amount that the judges dismiss it and pronounce the death sentence.  When, in the Crito, he is offered a chance to escape prison, he rejects the offer and argues on behalf of respect for the laws and the courts.  Perhaps it is because he takes the position of accepting the ruling of the state, even though he believes he is innocent, that we associate him with civil disobedience.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “civil disobedience” (15th edition),  “…by submitting to punishment, the civil disobedient hopes to set a moral example that will provoke the majority or the government into effecting meaningful change.”

Perhaps, by accepting his punishment Socrates hopes to set that moral example that will expose the state’s unjust use of its power.  I can’t help but be reminded of A Lesson Before Dying (see July, 2014, blog post), in which Jefferson, who is unjustly convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, but who emerges as “the bravest man in the room” at his own execution.  By submitting to his unjust punishment with courage and dignity, Jefferson shames his white oppressors and confronts them with their own moral weakness.

Both Henry David Thoreau (see Oct.-Nov., 2010, blog posts) and Martin Luther King, Jr., make a distinction between a just law and an unjust law, appealing to a higher moral authority, individual conscience for Thoreau and God’s law for King.  They argue for the duty to disobey an unjust law.  In both cases, they advocated for going to jail rather than obeying an unjust law.  And in both cases they did go to jail, hoping to set a moral example for others. 

When Emerson visited Thoreau in jail, the story goes, he asked, “Henry, what are you doing in here?”  And Thoreau retorted, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?” The implication being that jail was the more moral place to be.  

And nowhere in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” does King argue that he should not have been jailed.  He argues for the use of non-violent direct action to challenge unjust laws by disobeying them.  By submitting to his punishment, he held the higher moral ground in the face of those who upheld the unjust laws.

Here we must make a distinction between direct and indirect civil disobedience.  In the former, as in the case of civil rights activists who deliberately broke the Jim Crow laws of segregation, disobeying those laws directly challenges their justice.  In the latter, as in the case of protesters who block traffic or break trespassing laws in order to march or demonstrate, disobeying those ancillary laws provides an opportunity to protest some injustice that is much greater than their own flouting of less important laws.

King and his followers used both methods, and suffered, not only jail, but also brutal attacks from law enforcement.  As shown in the contemporary film Selma, by using non-violence and submitting to the consequences of their actions, they held the higher moral ground and exposed their white oppressors’ total lack of moral credibility and standing.

King was inspired, not only by Thoreau, but also by Mahatma Ghandi, who developed the theory of “satyagraha,” literally meaning “devotion to truth,” but representing a method of political protest which invites suffering rather than inflicting it, thereby exposing the brutality and injustice of the dominant power.

As Gandhi himself stated, “I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.(

Other examples could be cited: the American suffragettes who were jailed and force fed for protesting the denial of women’s right to vote (see the film Iron Jawed Angels), Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid in South Africa (See the recent film Mandela), are just two examples.  (See more examples:

Though I’ve participated in protests, I’ve never had the moral courage to risk arrest or police brutality.  I have great admiration for those who have demonstrated such courage and passion for their cause.

But on two occasions in recent years, I’ve witnessed cases of so-called civil disobedience that have left me scratching my head.  In both cases, the protesters demanded that they not be arrested or charged.  In both cases, the protestors were warned that their actions were illegal and that they would be subject to arrest.  In both cases they knowingly broke the law.

Both cases were examples of indirect civil disobedience, though, I have to say, I’m not entirely clear if the protesters were arguing that the laws they broke (trespassing and protesting on private property) were unjust.  And, if that’s the case, I’m not clear if they would argue the laws were unjust in general or just in the case of their protest.  Perhaps they were demanding that law enforcement and the court system recognize the justice of their cause and give them a pass. 

This would seem to be a new strategy in the use of civil disobedience, a strategy of moral persuasion that calls for no serious sacrifice on the part of the protesters.  But it would seem to ask the state to apply the law selectively, that is, if the state agrees with your cause, then you will not be prosecuted, but if it doesn’t agree with your cause, you will be prosecuted?  Would those using this strategy approve if the state failed to prosecute others who were protesting on behalf of a cause they didn’t agree with?  Like I said, I’m scratching my head.

In any case, traditionally civil disobedients have derived their moral credibility from their willingness to put the law to the test, risk arrest or worse, suffer the consequences, and thereby challenge the justice of the state from a high moral ground.   Which leads me to ask from where the protesters who demand that they not be charged derive their moral credibility.  Is it enough to assert the justice of their cause?  Would they consider it enough if a group they disagreed with simply asserted the justice of their cause?

Let’s say a group of anti-abortion protesters deliberately violates the buffer zone outside an abortion clinic and invades the personal space of a client.  Would it be enough for them to assert the justice of their cause in claiming they should not be arrested?  If so, would those same protesters support the pro-choice protesters who make the same claim while deliberately trespassing or blocking traffic?

Perhaps the idea of suffering on behalf of your cause is out of date.  Perhaps in our modern “first world,” it is too much to expect civil disobedients to accept the legal consequences of their actions.  Perhaps there is a new, more modern theory of civil disobedience that now supersedes those of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.  How do civil disobedients who demand that they not be charged justify their demand?  How do they establish their moral standing?

I’m genuinely confused here, folks.  Help me out.