Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

Almost two months ago some of my Facebook friends started challenging me to name ten influential books that have stayed with me.  I ignored these challenges because I’ve been reading books for 60+ years of life, 19+ years of school, and 30+ years of teaching literature.  It was just too overwhelming to pick ten books on short notice and have it mean anything significant at all.

I did give it some thought, though, and here are my ten books.

1.        Alice in Wonderland.  My parents read this book to me before I could read it for myself.  More than any other children’s book it stirred my imagination and stoked my love of literature from an early age.  I even remember having childhood dreams that sprang from the characters and episodes of this children’s fantasy.  Only later did I come to appreciate the adult themes.

2.       Silver Pennies (http://www.amazon.com/Silver-Pennies-Collection-Modern-Poems/dp/B0037A5UFK).  I remember spending hours as a child poring over this children’s poetry collection, memorizing poems, reciting them, acting them out, even taking notes in the margins.  This little book did more to stimulate and develop the early love of poetry that has stayed with me to this day.

3.        Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.  Having been introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Silver Pennies, I went on to read her collected poems in depth, mesmerized by both the style and content.  Many of the poems were cryptic riddles, but that only whetted my appetite for the joy of analyzing and interpreting literature, as well as enjoying its sensory and psychological pleasures.

4.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I read this in ninth grade English at my all-white high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where schools were still segregated in 1960.  Having learned about the civil rights movement at the family dinner table, where my father frequently held forth on the evils of racism, Jim Crow, and segregation, I was struck by the bond between Huck, the runaway white orphan, and Jim, the runaway black slave.  Later I came to understand the racist elements of the novel, but at the time I was most impressed by the possibilities for interracial friendship and loyalty.

5.       To Kill A Mockingbird.  I read this novel in tenth grade English at the same white high school and have never forgotten the lesson in social inequality and injustice based on race.  My class at E. C. Glass High School was the last all white class to graduate from the school, as it was integrated in my senior year.

I look back in amazement that I read both these books in a segregated high school in the South at the height of the civil rights movement, and, as we studied these novels, we never once had a classroom discussion of how they related to the history unfolding around us.

6.       Catcher in the Rye.  As a teenager I was captivated by Holden Caulfield’s raw adolescent honesty and aversion to adult “phoniness.”  Although I was fairly conformist in those days, I had a secret admiration for the misfits and rebels of society that has stayed with me to this day.

7.       The Sound and the Fury.  More than anything this novel embodies my sense of southern regionalism, especially in the multiple voices of characters that seemed to echo members of my own family.  Though I have now lived longer outside of the South than in it, I still carry with me that underlying burden of Southern history—the loss, the guilt, the love and loyalty, the shame, as well as the enduring sights, sounds, smells of the South—its food, its climate, its landscapes, its flora and fauna, its accents, all of which are bound to my earliest memories.

8.       The Marble Faun.  Despite my roots in the South, I learned to love the literature of 19th century New England and the mid-Atlantic, going on to write my Master’s thesis on Henry James and my doctoral dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The theme of Americans in Europe, the Old World and the New World, has always drawn me in, and in none more hauntingly than The Marble Faun, in which New England Puritanism and Old World Catholicism are strongly bound up together in ways that have led me to an abiding interest in history, religion, philosophy, human psychology, and ethics.

9.       Nature.  When I renounced my Southern Baptist upbringing I rejected religion in general.  My World and English History professor in college did succeed in sparking my interest in Anglicanism, but it was Transcendentalism that really made an impact.  This book-length essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson transcends all Christian denominations and all world religions to achieve a kind of religious philosophy or philosophical religion that eventually led me to Unitarian Universalism.  In addition, while most philosophers would laughingly dismiss Emerson as a philosopher, I think his writings show how philosophy and literature can meet and merge.

10.   Moby Dick.  My love of both literature and philosophy makes me a sucker for the philosophical novel or novel of ideas.  This novel is the ultimate smorgasbord of adventure, drama, poetry, comedy, tragedy, allegory, symbolism, psychology, religion, and philosophy, all somehow tied together by unforgettable characters, an unforgettable narrative, and an unforgettable epic style.


Creating this list has accomplished exactly what I thought it would—made me painfully aware of all I have left out.  So many books that have made me who I am, enriched my life, and opened my eyes to worlds beyond my own paltry experience.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Goldfinch

This 2013 novel by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.  It received mixed reviews when it was first published and mixed reviews from my literary friends.  Some gave it a thumbs up, some a thumbs down, and some, like me, a sideways thumb.

The strongest reaction from my friends was that it is too long (784 pages), too heavy on detail, repetitive, etc., etc.  I agree that economy is not the author’s strong point, and especially since a lot of the detail involves copious consumption of drugs and alcohol, I almost didn’t finish it myself.  I stuck with it, partly because I was looking for a good reason to award it a Pulitzer Prize; partly because I was curious how the main character, suffering from multiple psychological wounds, was going to end up; and partly because I was quite mesmerized by the actual Fabritius painting “The Goldfinch” as well as its fictional fate in the novel.

In any case, apart from the suspense surrounding Theo Decker’s life drama, starting at age 13 as a motherless, practically fatherless, unintentional art thief, the novel is worth our time for the complexity, the artistry, and the profundity that makes any work of fiction worth reading, however long and drawn out.

By the way, at one point the text indirectly defends the excessive detail in the novel, suggesting that no detail in a work of art is wasted.  The artist is trying to tell us something with every brushstroke.  That may be true, but a writer might be wise to attend to her readers’ capacity, lest she lose them.

As for the complexity, The Goldfinch can be read, studied, and appreciated from numerous perspectives.  It is a coming of age story as Theo is initiated into a world of violence, homelessness, drug addiction, petty theft, as well as not so petty theft, and a whole dark underworld of criminal activity.  It is also a conversion/recovery narrative as he eventually meets what he himself calls his Damascus moment, alone and suicidal in an Amsterdam hotel (on Christmas Day no less), and begins to take responsibility for his past misdeeds and heal from the early and sustained effects of his traumatized childhood.

It is also a realistic study of the dark underside of modern civilization in contemporary settings like New York City, the Las Vegas desert, and Amsterdam.  In these settings the disease of modern life is played out with drugs, alcohol, family dysfunction, gambling, deception, , crime, heartbreak, anxiety, pain, loss, and the incessant longing, not only for freedom from our history and circumstances, but also for the love and belonging that could somehow fill the absence of family and romantic fulfillment.

It is a psychological drama of Oedipal conflict, repressed desire, hostility, and relentless anxiety.

And it is a captivity narrative as Theo is trapped by his personal and social circumstances, his own desires, and the painting itself, his “fateful object.”

At another level it is the universal story of human tragedy and redemption—the hero’s entrance under dangerous conditions, his initiation into evil, withdrawal, trial and quest, the encounter with death, rebirth and return.  In this case the mythic promises of redemption and atonement are muted by the compromises of reality, but they are not entirely denied.  Though in the end Theo calls himself a nihilist, he leaves the door open for God and an afterlife. 

What redeems the “cesspool” of life, Theo comes to see, is art, illusory as it may be, for it is in art that reality strikes up against the ideal, and it is in that space that we glimpse a mysterious something that transcends the human tragedy and the “wreck of time.”

And what redeems The Goldfinch, for all its failures, is the way it weaves great works of art through its narrative, reminding us, as Theo comes to see, how beautiful objects can speak to us past the limitations of time, space, and mortality.

Thus in the first chapter, titled “Boy with a Skull,” Theo’s mother shows him Hal’s painting of the same name just moments before a terrorist explosion rocks the museum, killing her, turning Theo’s like upside down, and thrusting him into a future in which his mother’s absence becomes his constant psychological companion.

In that chapter, his mother, an art lover and student of art history, also delivers a commentary on “The Anatomy Lesson,” in which a cadaver, laid out on a table, is being dissected, surrounded by students and doctors in a medical school.  In chapter two, titled “The Anatomy Lesson,” Theo learns the lessons of loss in the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death.  As the painting exposes the stark mortality of every individual life, so Theo continues to be haunted by his mother’s death just as we are all required to live our own lives in death’s shadow.

But the painting Theo’s mother had really come to see that fateful day is “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, a trompe l’oeil of a goldfinch “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.”  In the 17th century goldfinches were popular as indoor pets, chained to their feeders in this fashion, instead of being caged as pet birds are today.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goldfinch_(painting))  A trompe l’oeil is a realistic painting that “deceives the eye” into seeing it as an actual object.  Theo’s mother first loved a reproduction of the painting in an art book she had as a child.  These details become significant later when Hobie, a furniture refinisher who becomes Theo’s surrogate father and the one stable point in his chaotic life, reflects on the value of art even if it is a copy or fake, and when Theo reflects on the value of art even if it is an illusion, because it saves us from gross reality.

The painting of the goldfinch also symbolizes Theo himself, chained to his time and place; chained to his life circumstances; chained to his addictions; chained to the painting itself, which he takes from the museum and has to hide and later rescue; chained to the memory of his mother; chained to a “self one does not want” and “a heart one cannot help.”

The painting thus represents layers and layers of reality and layers and layers of illusion.  The reality of a goldfinch chained to a wall is almost repulsive, but somehow the painting, the deceptive copy of reality, redeems that grossness, that “cesspool,” as Theo calls human reality. 

And the painting, which becomes Theo’s burden, also becomes his salvation, as it lifts him “above the surface of life” and teaches him who he is.  Surrounded by secrets and lies the painting becomes the means of Theo’s redemption, and such is the paradox at the heart of the novel—how truth cannot be separated from falsehood, good from evil, beauty from corruption, love from loathing, life from death.

Ironically, Theo’s friend/enemy, Boris, a Russian immigrant who had lived for a while in Indonesia, converted to Islam, and been given the Arabic name Badr al-Dine (“Badr” means “light”), for all his darkness—drug addiction, crime—becomes the means by which the painting is rescued and Theo is saved from punishment for having innocently removed the painting from the museum in the aftermath of the explosion.  And it is the light that draws Theo’s mother to both the paintings that she loves (“that clear pure daylight” in “The Goldfinch”) and those that she hates (that “radioactive” quality of the corpse in “The Anatomy Lesson”). 

No light without darkness, no darkness without light; no imagination without reality, no reality without imagination; no truth without illusion; no illusion without truth.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"The Road Not Taken"

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


This well-known poem by Robert Frost is often interpreted as an affirmation of unconventional choices in life. 

Careful study of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the poem and of the text itself, however, puts that popular interpretation into serious doubt.

Here’s Wikipedia’s account of how the poem came to be written and the misunderstanding that ensued:

"Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost had returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of "The Road Not Taken".[1] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. However, Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended; in particular, Thomas took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas' decision to enlist in World War I.[1] Thomas was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken)

If it is true that Frost intended the poem as “a gentle mocking of indecision,” that is a far cry from the popular view.  And a careful reader wouldn’t necessarily need Frost’s word for it to detect the author’s tongue in his cheek.  For one thing, the road “less traveled” in the last stanza is worn “really about the same” as the other one in the second stanza.  Secondly, the so-called “difference” is projected into the future, when the speaker imagines himself telling this story “with a sigh.”  Is that a sigh of affirmation, as the popular view would have it, or is it a sign of regret”?  In either case, it’s an imaginary memory recalling the “difference” between two roads that were actually “about the same.”  Is all this an elaborate way of mocking indecision about two similar choices?  And the human propensity of reading more significance into such choices than there actually is? 

And the history of the popular interpretation could be a commentary on our human propensity to put a good light on something that really doesn’t merit it.

However, claims about authors’ intentions are always problematic.  Even if the above statement about Frost’s intention can be documented, there is always the possibility of unconscious motives lurking beneath the surface of the text, of which the author himself may not have been aware.

Is it just indecision that is being mocked?  And is the mockery all that “gentle”?  Does the apparent simplicity and innocence on the surface of the poem mask a more sinister sense of complexity and darkness in human experience?

To the extent that the poem undercuts the significance we attribute to certain decisions in life, what does that say about free will?  Do we really make free and independent decisions, or do we just rationalize the unthinking choices we make?  Are the choices predetermined?  By fate, predestination our genetic dispositions, our unconscious urges, our social circumstances?  Are they more a matter of random chance than rational choice?  Is there order and meaning to our lives or are we buffeted by forces beyond our control? Is our sense of autonomy, order and control merely an illusion?  To what extent are we fooling ourselves about being the masters of our fate?

The speaker of the poem seems to recognize that “ages and ages hence” he will be making more of this event than it deserves, but that self-awareness does little more than acknowledge how we delude ourselves.  Read this way there might be a hint of bitter irony in the last stanza.  It is, perhaps, our human tendency toward self-deception that is being mocked.

Did the poem play a role in Edward Thomas’ decision to enlist in World War I and thereby hasten his death?  If so, then, not only can poetry have unintended meanings, it can also have unintended consequences, in this case a rather dire one.  Or, perhaps Thomas would have enlisted anyway, poem or no poem. 

In any case, the popular affirmative interpretation of a well-known poem may often overlook the darker, hidden depths within the text.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Lesson Before Dying

As I reread this 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, I kept thinking, “Who is teaching who what lesson?”

 Jefferson, a young, black man in a Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940’s, is falsely convicted of participating in a pre-meditated crime resulting in murder and is sentenced to death.  The defense had argued he was too stupid and sub-human to carry out such a crime.  “Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” was the last statement in the defense attorney’s closing argument.
Jefferson’s grandmother knows there is no justice to be found for him in the white-dominated, racist criminal justice system; she just wants him to die with dignity. 

She and her friend turn to the friend’s nephew, Grant, the educated local school teacher, asking him to visit Jefferson in jail and restore his sense of self-worth after his humiliating victimization and his equally humiliating defense in that public courtroom.  Grant is reluctant to agree.  He will have to humble himself before the white officials of the town to get permission to visit Jefferson, and he has no idea what he can say or do to build Jefferson’s self-esteem on death row.

Grant bows to the pressure of the older women, however, and takes up the task.  He finds Jefferson in a depressed state; not only is he facing an early death, he cannot get that image of himself as a “hog” out of his head.  Grant has no lesson plan and despairs of getting through to Jefferson, but at the urging of his aunt and her friend, the grandmother, he continues to visit and try to talk to him. 

Grant, himself, we might say today, has a bad attitude.  He is sometimes disrespectful and even contemptuous of his elders, including the local minister.  He wishes he could escape the small town and its traditional environment, hates his teaching job, and resists almost every effort to participate as a full member of his community.  It doesn’t help that he has rejected the Christian religion that his family and neighbors live by.  He refuses to lie to Jefferson about salvation and life after death, though he does dutifully preside over the school Christmas program.

Grant’s inner conflict is represented by the fact that his secular schoolroom is housed in the church.  And the theme of religion vs. secularism runs through the entire novel.  How will a secular atheist fulfill the wishes of his Christian aunt and her Christian friend, as well as their minister, to rebuild Jefferson’s self-image as a child of God, worthy of salvation and immortal life in heaven?  And is it Grant who will teach Jefferson the lesson of self-worth or is it the community that will teach Grant the lesson of social obligation and self-redemption?

In the end it is both.

 Instead of using religion to persuade Jefferson that he is better than a “hog,” Grant uses history, the whole history of slavery and racial oppression under white supremacy.  Jefferson can use his execution and the manner in which he faces it to transcend that history and demonstrate to whites and blacks alike the full humanity, worth, and equality of the black man.  In effect Grant builds Jefferson’s self-esteem by reminding him of his duty to his race, his family, his community, and by persuading him that he has the capacity, not only to be a hero to his people, but also to prove their human dignity to their white oppressors.

By rising to the challenge of his community, especially of the women in his community, and by learning to empathize with them, as well as with Jefferson, Grant learns the value of social relationships.  When he teaches Jefferson that in the historical context of racial oppression his life and death have significance and meaning, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of social obligation, that he is a member of a community as well as an individual in his own right.  And when he refuses to take credit for Jefferson’s “transformation,” when he admits the minister and Jefferson are braver men than he is, Grant shows that he has learned the lesson of humility.

Not only does the novel raise a protest against racial injustice and the death penalty, it raises questions about the meaning of education, religion, power, and individualism.

The minister tells Grant that his secular, formal education cannot help him help Jefferson; Grant proves him wrong but also comes to appreciate the value of education through human experience.  Similarly, while Grant does not undergo any sort of religious conversion, he comes to understand its meaningfulness in people’s lives. Likewise, he learns the difference between social power and psychological power, as the man who was reduced to a “hog” in public and sentenced to death emerges as the strongest and bravest in the room at his own execution.  And finally Grant learns to temper his sense of individual righteousness with a sense of community values.

The story is narrated almost entirely from first person point of view by Grant.  However, near the end we get Jefferson’s point of view in his journal and then the POV seems to pan out to an omniscient overview of the community.  This technique reinforces Grant’s (and Jefferson’s) shift from egocentrism to sociocentrism.

In a larger sense, the novel uses Christian allegory and the universal patterns of the hero’s quest and the scapegoat myth to lift the novel out of its historical context to a transcendent level of meaning.

If you think it a stretch that Jefferson serves as a Christ figure, consider that, when his execution is set for two weeks after Good Friday, Grant notes, “And on Friday too. Always on Friday. Same time as He died, between twelve and three.”  In addition, Jefferson is innocent of the crime he is accused of, and, like Christ, he dies with dignity and is lifted up by his community after his death as one who left a legacy as “the bravest man in the room,” braver than any of the white people who participated in, presided over, and witnessed his execution.


The Christian story, of course, and Jefferson’s are both examples of the universal hero’s quest and scapegoat myths.  Jefferson’s quest is to refute that public image of himself as a “hog,” and with Grant as his guide, he fulfills that quest, showing that he is a better man than his accusers and demonstrating the full humanity, not only of himself, but of his race.

Like Christ, Jefferson is also a scapegoat.  As Christ dies for human sin, so Jefferson dies as a scapegoat for the guilt and fear of his white oppressors.  By accusing and executing him, the dominant white class reassures themselves of their own supremacy.

Grant also, however reluctantly, fits the hero myth pattern.  He is called to a quest which he resists but ultimately fulfills—to “save” Jefferson from his shame and from an ignominious death.   In the process, he learns that, as much as he might like to live his live for himself alone, he is part of a community, a race, and a human family, calling for certain sacrifices and challenging him to leave a legacy that is larger than himself.  To that extent the novel serves as a coming of age story, not only for Grant, but for Jefferson as well.

And so both Grant and Jefferson redeem each other, contributing to each other’s maturation and growth into better people who leave something behind more significant than either would have done alone.  

Finally, as one who has no faith in God or an afterlife, Grant learns and teaches Jefferson that it’s not that you die, it’s how you die, and how you live, that matters.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Breaking the Spell VII

Family medical issues arose on multiple fronts and for the first time I missed a month of blogging.  It’s been weeks since I finished Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and I’m just now concluding the series on this provocative but, at times, maddening book. (See previous posts starting in Sept. 2013.)

I largely agree with the skepticism Dennett expresses in chapter 10 that religion is the foundation of morality.  I know too many atheists and non-religious people who are upstanding, ethical, responsible folks to think that religion is necessary to morality.  Likewise, we read every day in the news of devoutly religious people, including religious leaders, committing unspeakable acts of violence, sexual crime, and moral corruption, sometimes in the very name of religion.

Dennett argues that religious institutions themselves are responsible for those who use religion as a cloak for their own nefarious behavior, and that religious moderates, even when they denounce the fanatics, are allowing themselves to be used by the lunatic fringe when they fail to recognize the way religion discourages critical questioning and rational thought.  By promoting faith in certain sacred dogmas over philosophical and scientific inquiry, religion, by its nature, enables irrational extremism.

I don’t quarrel with this reasoning, but Dennett goes on to blame, not only institutional religion, but a broader cultural belief in philosophical dualism over materialism.  Any belief in a non-material reality, whether under the guise of religion or generalized spirituality or the paranormal, it seems, reinforces the popular notion of “materialism” as the root of evil and “spirituality” as the source of goodness.  This naïve dualistic belief enables those with a religious or “spiritual” world view to, in effect, deny their own capacity for evil and rationalize any behavior done under the perceived guidance of “supernatural” powers. 

Just as he reduces religion to a system of literalistic belief in symbols, metaphor, and myth, he reduces the debate between dualism and materialism to a simple binary, with one element on the side of the angels and the other on the side of the devil.  I find this to be too simplistic.

As usual, Dennett fails to recognize the power and efficacy of symbolic thought, even though he makes repeated references to such abstract values as love, justice, joy, beauty, and freedom, none of which can be satisfactorily reduced to empirical reality alone. 

He claims that “all” of these values are “material benefits” without even addressing the long-standing philosophical debate between dualism and materialism or the role played in this debate by modern physics.

It is those times when Dennett makes such blanket assertions or assumptions without a supporting argument, which takes into account counter-arguments, that Dennett’s book becomes maddening.  I expect more from a philosopher.

In the end, Dennett’s conclusion in chapter 11 struck me as anti-climactic.  The best recommendation he could come up with for addressing the failures, excesses, and destructive tendencies of religion is more and better education.  I’m all for that, but after his long, extended build-up, I was expecting more. 

And I can’t help but wonder if the goal should be, not to eliminate religion, but to improve it.  To me the greatest fault with religion is literalistic thinking.  What if religious leaders spoke and acted like artists and storytellers, presenting their claims in figurative terms instead of facts?  What if religious believers were less literal and “materialistic” in their convictions and more symbolic and metaphorical?\

More and better education could certainly help with this, but even an educated philosopher like Dennett seems to have a problem understanding and/or appreciating symbolic thought.


In the end I do agree with Dennett’s statement that “we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning.  The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least nonmalignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions.”  And I agree that religious institutions have a responsibility for promotion of such avenues, but so do the materialists, atheists, agnostics, and non-believers among us.  I trust Dennett will help with that effort as well as the effort to explain religion as a natural phenomenon.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"To the Thawing Wind"

To The Thawing Wind
Come with rain. O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate'er you do tonight,
bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit's crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o'er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.

Here in Minnesota serious winter cold set in before the Solstice and has only now relaxed its grip.  We've been calling for the thawing wind since February, but here in the central part of the state we had eight inches of snow as recently as April 16.  Now at last the thaw has arrived, with wind and rain punctuated by occasional sunshine.   Yesterday, despite the remaining winter chill in the air, we fertilized and tilled our plots at the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Community Garden. We’re looking at another week of spring rain.  It seems a good time to appreciate Robert Frost’s “spring” poem, published in A Boy’s Will (1913).

We think of spring in clichéd terms of budding trees, singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm sunshine; Frost reminds us that early spring can be cold, wet, and windy.  And in northern climes, the thaw can come late in April.  It is a time of year when the wind and rain are welcome signs, not only of winter’s end, but of an end to our long indoor human hibernation.

Frost writes the poem in a staccato-like trochaic imperative, calling on that wind and rain, indeed, celebrating the coming storm.  It’s not a gentle wind and rain but “loud” and strong enough, at least metaphorically, to “burst” the window, rattle pages, “scatter poems,” and blow the poet out of his “narrow stall.”  The lines grow shorter as the poem goes on, increasing the sense of urgency for escape from winter’s grip.  Yet the couplets convey a sense of order and security that somehow the storm will remain within nature’s bounds, even as it brings disruption to the indoor life.

Obviously it is a poem about the welcome change of seasons and the anticipation of singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm brown earth, but perhaps more importantly (“whate’er you do tonight”) it is a poem about the anticipation of a thaw in the human isolation of our winter hermitage.  The inner life has become close and confining; we yearn for relief and release to a more active, outgoing life in the open air, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  We long for escape from our introspection to a life of interaction with the outside world. 

I have no problem seeing Frost’s text as both a nature poem about the change of seasons and a psychological poem about the human need to escape from our own inner prisons.

What I wonder about is the reference to “a hermit’s cruxifix.”  Of course the poet is being compared to a hermit and the crucifix literally refers to the wooden crosspieces within a window frame.  But does that reference to a religious symbol suggest some other meaning?  Does the cross represent the burden of winter, of human self-consciousness, of the poet’s calling?

Or, does the cross represent the universal principle of sacrifice, the reality that suffering is the necessary evil that makes some greater good possible.  Is the suffering of winter necessary to the glory of spring and summer, is life possible without death, is our human inwardness somehow necessary to enhance our social life, is the poet a kind of scapegoat whose sacrifices make possible a higher level of consciousness for all of us? 

Or, are we too far out on the limb of interpretation?

For those who insist Frost’s text is just a simple nature poem, in which the poet expresses his winter weariness and longing for spring, we’re making too much of a good thing.  For those who love poetry for the levels of meaning it can express, its power of expressiveness, and its unfailing ability to surprise us with new insights, we’ve made a good thing even better.



Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Having spent the last eight months reading and discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept., 2013-April, 2014) in my Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group, it seemed serendipitous when I saw Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed about her new book.

An atheist writing about having had mystical experiences?  What would Dennett say?

Probably he would say what Ehrenreich herself said for years: temporary psychic break, “perceptual slippage,” sudden electrical or chemical power surge in the brain, etc., in any case, a perfectly rational and natural explanation.

Raised by atheist parents under the strong influence of her scientist father, Ehrenreich struggled most of her life with those rational and natural explanations that were never quite commensurate with the experiences themselves, experiences in which the natural boundaries of ordinary physical objects broke down and the world seemed to flame out in radiance.

She pursued a career in science herself, moving from chemistry to physics, finally earning a Ph.D. in Cellular Immunology, before becoming a free-lance writer more focused on the social science of feminism, economic inequality, war, militarism, and the politics of health care than chemistry, physics, or religion.

It was actually her research into the origins of human warfare that eventually intersected with her life-long quest to understand her seemingly “mystical” experiences.  The study of human evolution led her to, lo and behold, the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD (see previous post Jan., 2013), which Dennett cites to explain the rise of early religion in the form of animism and the human belief in other types of “imaginary agents.” 

For Dennett, this survival mechanism becomes overdeveloped, even as it makes the advancement of the species possible, resulting in supernatural belief and eventually the cultural evolution of organized religion.  By now, however, Ehrenreich’s faith in the certainties of empirical science has been undermined by the New Science of quantum mechanics and “non-linear dynamics.”  And she dares to ask the question:  If the HADD is reliable when it comes to detecting conventionally observable predators, why is it not reliable in detecting other, non-conventionally observable agents? In any case, how do we know that the latter type of agents is entirely imaginary?

In the end, she does not undergo any kind of religious conversion, but her “faith” in atheism has been shaken.  While, she says she does not believe in a god or gods or divinity or universal consciousness at work in the world, she keeps an open mind, neither drawing definite conclusions from her “mystical” experiences nor rejecting them as aberrations without any meaning.  There may just be more going on in the universe than our ordinary powers of human perception can take in, and “it may be seeking us out.”

Metaphysical musings aside, Ehrenreich’s book is also an autobiographical study of family dysfunction, a string of broken relationships, academic experimentation, political and social awakening, and self-exploration, all held together by the author’s lifelong quest for the truth about our inexplicable human “situation.”

She recounts tragedy, disappointment, misdirection, social idealism, political activism, success and failure with a cold, unsparing eye and a sharp wit.  There is no sentimentalism, no high-flown rhetoric, no glamorization, and no air-brushing of stark reality.  Ehrenreich’s unflinching rationalism, skepticism, and wry humor make her openness to the possibility of a “palpable Other or Others,” more credible than the espoused certainties of either true believers or confirmed non-believers.  She is not one to be seduced by easy answers or wishful thinking.   And that ethic applies to herself as well as to her “wild God.”