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.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satyagraha)

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Examples_of_civil_disobedience)

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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Winter's Tale

Winter came early to Minnesota in 2014.  November was as cold as January and February usually are.  I found my thoughts drifting to Shakespeare’s romance, with its theme of human failure and wrongdoing balanced with that of redemptive promise, just as the death of nature in winter is offset by the return of the sun to our northern hemisphere at the time of the solstice.

The play reminds us that we are in mythic territory with its title.  This is a “tale,” an old-fashioned story of wondrous events, not a realistic narrative.  By the time of Act V, bystanders characterize the events that have unfolded as “so like an old tale, that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” and yet it is all “true.”  And when, like Pygmalion’s statue, Hermione returns to life, we are reminded how art and love can foil nature and death and preserve truth. 

The Winter’s Tale is not for the literal-minded or the hard-hearted.  It requires appreciation for the truth of imagination and for the power of human love.

Paradoxically, however, at the beginning of the play it is the dark side of imagination and love that rears its ugly head.  King Leontes’ love for Hermione is polluted by jealousy as, on the flimsiest of evidence, his imagination feeds his fear that she has been unfaithful to him with his best friend, King Polixenes.  The words “affection” and “infection” recur to suggest how the heart’s affection can be contaminated.  He plots to have his friend murdered and, interpreting Polixenes’ escape as an admission of guilt, he accuses his pregnant wife of carrying his friend’s child.  When the child is born Leontes orders that she be taken away and abandoned to die. 

An oracle brings news that Hermione is innocent, but Leontes is so sick with infection that he refuses to believe it and condemns her to prison.  The contagion spreads as their son, Mamillius (who seems to foreshadow his own death when he states, “A sad tale’s best for winter.”), dies of a disease brought on by the false accusations against his mother, and then Hermione’s death from grief is reported.  These tragic losses finally bring Leontes to his senses and he vows to spend the rest of his life in penance. 

Meanwhile, the child, Perdita (meaning “lost”) is abandoned on the coast of Polixenes’ country.  The servant wants to save her, but a storm wrecks his ship; then he is chased and killed by a bear.  Having arrived at the nadir of tragedy, like the darkest night of the year, we reach a turning point, just as we do at the winter solstice.  Fortune shines and Perdita is rescued by a shepherd, who takes her home to raise as his own.

Sixteen years later Polixenes’ son has fallen in love with Perdita and, in a spring pastoral scene, the two are about to be betrothed.  The plot nearly turns tragic again, as Polixenes, watching in disguise with the servant who had helped him escape Leontes’ murder plot, suddenly reveals himself, threatens Perdita and her adopted father and orders his son, Florizel, never to see her again.  Once more the servant Camillo intervenes, helping Florizel and Perdita, along with her adopted father and brother, to escape.  They arrive in Leontes’ country, where they are welcomed by the King, who is still in mourning.  Polixenes and Camillo arrive soon after, true identities are revealed, forgiveness is asked for and received, father and daughter are reunited, and friends are reconciled. 

In the final scene of redemption, Leontes, Polixenes, Florizel, Perdita, and Camillo go to the home of Hermione’s servant, Paulina, to view a statue of Hermione.  Leontes is upset to see it, but then the statue comes to life; Hermione steps down; husband, wife, and daughter are reunited in forgiveness and love; Perdita and Florizel are finally betrothed; and everyone celebrates the miraculous happy ending. 

There are hints in the text that Paulina has kept Hermione in hiding all this time, but some prefer to read it as the supernatural event of an “old tale,” just as ancient people found something supernatural in the return of the sun at the winter solstice.

In either case, some have read the play as a Christian allegory of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and salvation, whereas others have viewed it in more universal mythic terms of death and rebirth.  And in fact, the text makes more pagan than Christian references.

It is well to note, though, that the death of Mamillius remains unredeemed.  Miracles, salvation, and rebith, it seems, have their limits; nature and human nature retain their imperfection; death and human wrongdoing endure.

Another theme of the play is that of nature vs. art.  While nature, including human nature, is “fallen,” human art has the power of redemption.  Most obviously, Hermione appears at the end of the play as a “statue” inside a chapel that is also an art gallery.  Even if we don’t read this literally, it is Paulina’s artfulness that has kept Hermione in hiding until the appropriate time, and it is her report of Hermione’s death that serves as the final blow that brings Leontes to a sense of his guilt and to his self-imposed penance, itself a form of human art.

The forgoing traditional reading of the play is to be expected from an “old tale,” but contemporary literary theory would look for its historical or political significance.  It can be found in the way that structural social power is wielded, and the way it is reinforced by the text. 

Leontes’ human folly is, perhaps, no worse than the average man, but, because he is king, it has much worse consequences: the death of his son, the abandonment and near death of his daughter, and what amounts to a kind of exile of his wife (assuming a non-supernatural reading).  Similarly, because Polixenes is king and head of his household, he can threaten a shepherd’s family and overrule his son’s marriage choice. 

Perhaps also because Leontes, as king, can wreck more havoc than the average man, he must suffer more punishment and undergo a longer penance.  However, in the end the social structure seems to be redeemed along with the personal lives of the characters.  Leontes has paid a price, but he is still king and structurally capable of wrecking more havoc, though one hopes he has grown in maturity and wisdom.  Likewise, while Florizel finally receives the blessing of his father in his choice of a shepherd’s daughter as his wife, it turns out that “daughter” is a king’s daughter after all.  The social structure remains intact.

One way in which the play undermines aristocratic superiority is found in the characters of the servants, Camillo and Paulina, both of who surpass their masters in wisdom and integrity.  Perhaps there is more ambiguity regarding social class than is immediately apparent.


While modern readers may reject the reinforcement of aristocratic social arrangement that does exist in the play, one hopes our own imaginative artfulness and human sympathy can enable us to transcend history and politics long enough to appreciate the universal message of both human weakness and human capacity for redemption.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Devil in Massachusetts

Marion Starkey’s 1949 study of the Salem witchcraft trials bears revisiting in light of the recent public hysteria over Ebola.

We like to flatter ourselves that we have progressed beyond the kind of mass delusion based on superstition, fantasy, and fear that resulted in the deaths of twenty innocent people in 1692.  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a repeat of those events occurring in 21st century America.  However, Arthur Miller, in The Crucible, found them a salient analogy to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, and we could cite any number of examples in recent history of persecution based on fears surrounding race, religion, gender, and homosexuality.

The Ebola scare, originating in West Africa, obviously has a racial component.  Would it be so scary, would we react the same if it had originated in Northern Europe?

In 1692 there were those who claimed the devil was attacking the spread of Christianity into the so-called “New World” by unleashing bands of witches on the God-loving people of Salem.  Irrational fears of the native “heathens,” not to mention the “voodoo” practices of the slave, Tituba, from Barbados, fed this religious fantasy.

In addition to documenting the seeds of the Salem events in the Parris household and the spread of hysteria through the village and into the courtroom, Starkey uses modern psychological theory to argue that the good people of Salem suffered from a kind of mass projection of guilt over their own “sins” onto certain individuals who were feared or disliked. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, in “Young Goodman Brown” and The Scarlet Letter (see post 10/24/12), had earlier dramatized the same phenomenon without the aid of modern psychology.

In the current Ebola scare, we project our fear and sense of vulnerability, not only onto the victims of the disease, but also onto anyone who had contact with them or who even looks like them.  We almost perversely ignore the medical and scientific facts of how the disease is spread in favor of our worst fears.


This contemporary scapegoating suggests that the 322 years between 1692 and 2014 may be shorter than we like to think.

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.