Consider this anonymous lyric from c.1300 AD; it was probably silently read or recited as a form of prayer. (Note that there are many manuscript variations on this poem, and I’ve chosen the one I like best; many of the others replace the “see” in the first line with the far inferior “think”.)
Whan I on the rode see
Faste nayled to the tree
Jhesu my lemman,
I-bounde blak and blody,
And his moder stonde him by
Wepying and Iohan;
His bak wyth scourge i-swongen,
His side depe i-stongen
For synne and love of man:
Wel oghte I synne lete
And neb wyth teres wete,
If I of love can.
Modernized, it’s not quite as beautiful, but is still worthwhile. (I’ve left “lemman” untranslated (it means something like “beloved”) for the sake of the rhyme, and because it’s a valid, if rare, modern English word.)
When I on the rood see
Fast nailed to the tree
Jesus my lemman,
Bound black and bloody,
And his mother standing by
Weeping, and Johann;
His back with scourge struck,
His side deeply stung,
For sin and love of man:
Well ought I leave sin
And face with tears wet,
If I of love can.
I like this poem, and find it quite complex. I’ll admit it’s not lyrically impressive, if by that we mean combining nouns, verbs, and adjectives in striking and unexpected ways, but I still think it achieves some rather impressive linguistic effects.
Look, for example, at how the poem is made up a single sentence, and not a descriptive one. “When I on the rood see / … / well ought I leave.” It’s a poem about what ought to happen when he looks at the cross–presumably, when he looks at a sculpture or painting of a cross, perhaps in a psalter. This when/ought structure makes the poem infinitely more complex than a simple ekphrastic description. Imaginatively recreating the scene is not enough; the speaker insists on (though does not necessarily accomplish) interior conversion.
Consider, also, the use of parallelism, and its interruption: how the last line of the first stanza jars the ear. The speaker sees: Jesus, bound …; his mother, standing …; and Johann. The first two are in a parallel, of sorts, one getting a past participle and the other a present. But why doesn’t Johann get anything? This is two questions, really: why mention Johann without giving him a participle? And why make the ending of the stanza so abrupt?
Why mention Johann? His presence in the scene stands in for that of the speaker: Jesus, the Christ, can suffer, Mary, the sinless one, can weep, but the sinful Johann, like the speaker, cannot weep; he can only look on stoically. The lack of a Johannine participle suggests that, for the speaker as well as for Johann, seeing doesn’t count as doing anything. Something more–weeping–is required.
Why the abrupt ending? The first stanza ends not because the description of the scene has been completed, but because the speaker can’t keep his eyes off the violence done to the suffering Christ; his eye moves immediately from Johann back to Jesus on the cross, and he describes the same thing over again (his back with scourge struck, his side deeply stung) because nothing he can say seems adequate. The way the first stanza ends reinforces our sense that what the speaker sees on the rood is all that matters.
Another fascinating choice of words: after Christ dies “for love of man,” the rhyme reverses the phrase: “If I of love can.” Prepositions never translate well; the “of” in the final line here means something like “with,” but also something like “from.” Can he look at the crucifixion with love? Can he look from love? Love becomes here almost a physical location from which to look out at the crucifixion; Mary stands there, Johann and the speaker do not, and hence they do not weep–though they know they should.
We often think of the medievals as excessively emotional, crying and weeping and raging at the drop of a hat, like children. And there’s certainly something to that; but that doesn’t mean they are children. This poem doesn’t take the catharsis tears offer for granted; concern that whoever recites it will not be moved to tears is exactly its subject matter. Medievals worry constantly that the emotions they have–especially the emotions they have in response to religion–aren’t strong enough. They worry that though they act emotionally they are dead inside, that the emotions they possess are not authentic. In this, I think, they’re rather like us moderns–though of course, for them, “authenticity” means something very different.
Wystan Hughes Auden wrote poetry for forty-five years, 1927 til 1972. And yet, strangely, while I consider him one of my favorite poets, almost all his poems that I feel as if I “own” come from a single five year span, ’37-’41. I’m quite sure I’m not alone in this. Most people I’ve talked to find his later poetry for the most part unbearable; they differ only in whether or not they enjoy the cryptic first ten years.
Consider: “As I Walked Out One Evening”; “Lullaby”; “Musée des Beaux Arts”; “Elegy for W.B. Yeats”; “Elegy for Sigmund Freud”; “Law Like Love”; “At the Grave of Henry James”; that’s just a few of the ’37-’41 highlights. There’s a few wonderful later poems, e.g. “In Praise of Limestone” (’48), “The Shield of Achilles” (’52), “Vespers” (’54), “The More Loving One” (’57), but in comparison to ’37-’41, very few. As for the early Auden, well, there’s only a handful of poems I truly like, and none, perhaps, that I love, though many are undoubtedly clever. I do enjoy “The Secret Agent” (’28):
Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
To this new district, but who would get it?
He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.
At Greenhearth was a fine site for a dam
And easy power, had they pushed the rail
Some stations nearer. They ignored his wires:
The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.
The street music seemed gracious now to one
For weeks up in the desert. Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already. They would shoot, of course,
Parting easily two that were never joined.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I read through Auden’s poetry for class (I’m up to ’58). In a way it’s easily explicable. A story: Early Auden was tortured, brilliant, and arrogant, and took it out on his audience; he gave us cryptic formulae that resonate strongly with current intellectual trends (Marxist, Freudian) and surely mean something, but refuse to divulge what. Then he started putting his thoughts in order and seeking to be ethically serious; he began to use poetry not to confuse us, nor to enchant us, but to show us his (and our) confusions and hopes and fears; and, in ’41, he converted to Christianity. Then, all too quickly, he became courageous in his Christianity and complacent in his composition; theoretically, he made himself into a brilliant critic of the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical, but for that very reason, poetically, he reduced himself to a studious craftsman building crossword puzzles and jargon-filled sestinas. Though, still, with flashes of brilliance here and there.
There’s something unsatisfying about this. Perhaps it’s just that Auden is so obviously self-aware, and I struggle to believe that he couldn’t see what was happening to him. He may have convinced himself it was necessary for ethical reasons, but he surely knew that it made his poetry weaker, as poetry. Did his new view of poetry come upon him as liberation or as a trap?
The main character of “The Secret Agent” can be taken as the ego, negotiating the frontier between Id and World, failing until too late to recognize the importance of the unconscious; or the isolated individual, navigating a world fallen into political disarray; but first and foremost, I think, the poem is spiritual autobiography, and perhaps an attempt at prophecy. Does it succeed? Here’s the story it tells: From his youth Auden sought to open up a new kind of poetry and a new understanding of the human. He thought that by returning to the satiric tradition he’d found it, but then no one followed his lead. He pursued it until he found himself in a desert, parched for poetic inspiration. He longed for a poetry of love not just civility (cf. his “Dichtung und Wahrheit, an unwritten poem”), but convinced himself that it was impossible, and knew his successors would condemn him for his failure.
I dunno. Maybe.
Last night I had a long conversation about what role, if any, probabilistic evidence should have in our reasoning about “the things that matter” (meaning, I suppose, the fundamental structure of our relationships with each other, the world, God, ourselves.) What are we to make of language like this:
- “Considering all the arguments for and against, I hold there to be a 90% chance that God exists, and so call myself a deist.”
- “Considering all the arguments for and against, I’m 95% certain I should marry this woman, and so will do so (if she consents).”
- “Considering all the arguments for and against, I’m 99% sure he committed the crime, and so vote to convict.”
Has it any place in philosophical discourse?
The class for which I’m TAing has recently been reading Plato’s Gorgias, in which Socrates has this to say about refutation (in Donald Zeyl’s translation):
[471e] My wonderful man, you’re trying to refute me in oratorical style, the way people in law courts do when they think they’re refuting some claim. There, too, one side thinks it’s refuting the other when it produces many reputable witnesses on behalf of the arguments it presents, while the person who asserts the opposite produces only one witness, or none at all. This ‘refutation’ is worthless, as far as truth is concerned, [472a] for it might happen sometimes that an individual is brought down by the false testimony of many reputable people. Now too, nearly every Athenian and alien will take your side on the things you’re saying, if it’s witnesses you want to produce against me. [...472b...] Nevertheless, though I’m only one person, I don’t agree with you. You don’t compel me; instead you produce many false witnesses against me and try to banish me from my property, the truth.
In other words: truth does not depend on popular consensus. This is not an epistemological claim about how to tell, “objectively,” what is true; it’s an ethical attitude, a decision to live on the estate of truth. Socrates would abandon his rightful property were he to allow the beliefs of others to determine what he holds to be true. But it’s also grammatical: to assent to a statement X, not because one understands it to be true, but because others assent to it, simply doesn’t count as holding it to be true. Knowledge requires understanding, requires being able to stand behind an account (logos) of why what is true, is true. And once Socrates can do so, the number of witnesses on the opposing side doesn’t matter.
But this is not an arrogant Romantic self-reliance; conversation is supremely important to the Socrates of the Gorgias. “[485a] And what kind of man am I? One of those who would be pleased to be refuted if I said anything untrue, and who would be pleased to refute anyone who says anything untrue; one who, however, wouldn’t be any less pleased to be refuted than to refute.” The difference is that conversation means responding to the account the other gives, trying to see whether you too can stand behind it, trying to convince them to join you if you cannot join them. There’s no counting involved. Socrates would not put it in these terms, but would, I think, agree with the following statement: probabilistic attempts at certainty fail because they forget that arguments are made through language, by persons, and seek to enter into the truth; they treat logoi as empirical data points.
So Socrates would have no truck with “Considering all the arguments for and against, I hold there to be a 90% chance that God exists.” That’s fine for practical things (though not ideal), but intolerable (and unethical) when dealing with “the things that matter,” the things that structure how we make sense. But then: can we ever know anything about “the things that matter,” other than that we know nothing? These things, after all, aren’t going to just wait around for us; if we refuse to stand behind any account of justice, or the good, or love, or God, until we understand it fully, we are, in fact, accepting that we will die before we are ready to stand anywhere, to make any sense.
The practical urgency of this dilemma comes out most clearly, perhaps, in the criminal justice system, which (unlike most aspects of our democratic government) requires jury members to be in complete agreement about the guilt of the accused, and requires them to consider that guilt not just probable, but “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That phrase doesn’t, I think, have a formal definition, but I take it to mean “the prosecution must offer an interpretation of the available evidence that demonstrates that it is the only possible interpretation to which any reasonable person could assent.” 99% certainty that he committed the crime is neither sufficient, nor necessary, nor relevant. The jury isn’t being asked to give its best guess, it’s being asked to stand behind the decision it makes.
At the same time, of course, each jury member is told to step outside himself and inhabit the common-sense-driven mind of the “reasonable man.” If I were a philosopher in the midst of an existential crisis, no longer certain that the external world exists, it would be impossible for me to stand behind any judgment I make as to the accused’s guilt or innocence, but if I were to allow that to influence my decision I would fail to properly execute the office of juryman. I would fail, too, if I were a conspiracy theorist who thought that criminals were never guilty, but were always framed by the police. I would also fail in the office of juryman if I refused to vote in accordance with the “reasonable man” of a society that held that people named Jones were always criminals. I don’t think Socrates would much like the legal fiction of the “reasonable man.”
Socrates was known to be courageous in battle, and, of course, when he was on trial in the law-courts. My class is about to read the Apology, where after his conviction and death sentence Socrates has this to say about certainty in the face of death (Grube’s translation)–note, too, what Socrates says about what it means to be a juryman rightly so called:
[40a] To you, as being my friends, I want to show the meaning of what has occurred. A surprising thing has happened to me, jurymen–you I would rightly call jurymen. At all previous times my familiar prophetic power, my spiritual manifestation, frequently opposed me, even in small matters, when I was about to do something wrong, but now that, as you can see for yourselves, I was faced with what one might think, and what is generally thought to be, the worst of evils, my divine sign has not opposed me, [40b] either when I left home at dawn, or when I came into court, or at any time that I was about to say something during my speech. Yet in other talks it has often held me back in the middle of my speaking, but now it has opposed no word or deed of mine. What do I think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. [40c] I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what was right.
His language sounds mystical, but I don’t think he means anything by “prophetic power”/”spiritual manifestation”/”divine sign” other than “the sense I have, because I attempt to live in the truth, of whether or not what I am about to say will exile me from the truth.” He dies a martyr to truth, and that whatever doubts he has about the exact nature of justice, temperance, prudence, courage, piety, etc, he has no doubts about the correctness of this decision.
If anything troubles me about the figure of Socrates in his hagiographic aspect, it is his marriage. His wife was said to be “shrewish,” but that’s likely because Socrates didn’t do anything to support his family, preferring to discuss philosophy all day with whomever would listen. Did Socrates take his decision to marry seriously–the way a philosophically reflective person of today would–or did it happen to him as a matter of course, as something imposed on him by custom, before he began to devote his life to philosophy? The Biblical prophet Hosea married Gomer, a prostitute, as an emblem of God’s love for the unfaithful Israel. If Socrates’ relationship with Xanthippe shows us anything, it shows us the dark side of his view of the body as fundamentally an encumbrance, a nagging annoyance.
The conversation I had last night recalled these passages from Plato to my mind, and today at mass I could not help but be struck by the resemblance between the words of Socrates I quoted from the Apology and the words of the Gospel reading today (Luke 21:10-19, in the Douay-Rheims translation):
 Then he said to them: Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  And there shall be great earthquakes in divers places, and pestilences, and famines, and terrors from heaven; and there shall be great signs.  But before all these things, they will lay their hands upon you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and into prisons, dragging you before kings and governors, for my name’s sake.  And it shall happen unto you for a testimony.  Lay it up therefore into your hearts, not to meditate before how you shall answer:  For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist and gainsay.  And you shall be betrayed by your parents and brethren, and kinsmen and friends; and some of you they will put to death.  And you shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake.  But a hair of your head shall not perish.  In your patience you shall possess your souls.
Socrates would have no difficulty embracing these words were he told that the logos itself had spoken them. Nor would he take them to be promising a miracle; for him, the immortality of the soul is no miracle, rather the most reliable of truths. But if he were told that it was Jesus of Nazareth, and that what is being promised here is a resurrection of the body? Socrates refuses to say “I hold there to be a 90% chance that it is Good to seek for Truth”; but what about “I hold there to be a 90% chance that the Resurrection took place”? How can knowledge of an historical event, especially an historical event that is by its very nature an exception to the rule, not be empirical, rather than rational? “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness….”
I’ve been in NYC for the last few days and got a chance to go to the René Magritte special exhibit that’s running at the MoMA. I’ve always respected Magritte but never paid much attention to him, and have never really put the effort into understanding what he’s up to. But now, after spending an hour in a room full of Magritte paintings?
I still don’t understand him, and I think he looks like T.S. Eliot (though Eliot was a good ten years older)–aristocratic nose, slicked-back hair, always in a suit and tie. In appearance, if not in artistry, more bourgeois than bohemian–certainly nothing like those prophets/profiteers Ezra Pound and Salvador Dali with their astonishing mustaches.
Also both quite intellectual–and legitimately so, I think, though there’s also a bit of gamesmanship involved. But that kind of thing plays better, I think, in poetry than in painting. An Eliot poem: a new (even if ancient) thought presented in a new (even if ancient) way. A Magritte painting: a new (even if ancient) thought presented in the style of a mid-century hand-painted advertisement.
Though perhaps that’s the point; perhaps attachment to form, to some relationship between form and content, is bourgeois. The point is to transcend the aesthetic and enter the realm of thought. To which I say: to hell with that.
But I also can’t accept that that’s (all) Magritte is doing. If the point was the thought he would just be lazy, the way Paul Klee (another rather intellectual artist) sometimes seems like he’s just being lazy in the execution (though in Klee’s case it can perhaps be excused as childlike playfulness). Or he would just be a “conceptual artist”; instead of the above painting (which must have taken Magritte several days at least to paint) he would simply give the same title to the following sentence: “The painter (which is myself) looks at an egg and paints a bird.” Instead Magritte painted it–painted it to with dull, lifeless, photographic precision, and painted all of it.
Why? I wish I had an answer; I like the painting, and want to justify it. But my art theoretical skills are not nearly good enough. Still, when I consider why I prefer looking at “Clairvoyance” to looking at, say, “The Persistence of Memory,” I realize: It’s the motion and the lack thereof. It’s how the painter translates egg into bird while the paintbrush hovers midair; how the bird in the painting-within-a-painting flaps its wings, but doesn’t appear to move. And how the background doesn’t force us to inhabit a vast universe but gives us a soft calm closed-off space almost like the interior of an egg. It’s dull, flat, but flatness, as I’ve said before, can be a virtue; it’s an opportunity for contemplation.
Magritte began as a futurist, but grew out of it, perhaps, when he realized the machine-world wasn’t an alarm clock that would wake everyone up, it was a train that would bring them to work every morning; and that art doesn’t need to wake people up, it needs to help them think, which is something different.
This being All Soul’s Night, it would appropriate to post about the Yeats poem of that name, but I am instead going to write about a different poem that shares many of the same themes: “Byzantium.” Note that I don’t mean “Sailing to Byzantium,” which, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite poems, but rather that poem’s much more bizarre sequel. I’ve had “Byzantium” in the back of my mind for years–who can forget that astounding last line, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”?–but I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of it. Having spent the last week obsessing over it (and inadvertently memorizing it), I’d like to think I have a better grasp on it than I did, but I must admit, there are still things about it that baffle and frustrate me.
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
The plot of “Sailing to Byzantium” is fairly straightforward: the poet grows old, he wants to leave behind the world of flux for one of permanence, so he has come to Byzantium and hopes to learn from its sages and turn into a golden bird. But “Byzantium”–what exactly is going on here?
The initial scene is vivid enough. The day is ended; the soldiers and whores have gone to bed; the midnight gong sounds; the dim celestial lights make cathedral dome a mirror of the sky above and strip from those still awake all human complexities, all color and warmth. And leaving–what? An “image, man or shade” appears–which is what, exactly? A guide to the underworld, perhaps? And then a golden bird–does it appear alongside the shade? Does the shade lead us to it, guiding us through the streets of the city towards the palace where it sits and sings? I don’t know that there’s any concrete movement envisioned here, just vague image-association. We end up at the cool agonizing flames dancing in the dolphin floor mosaics of the Emperor’s pavement. Then, in that fantastic, frustrating, final stanza, we zoom away from the dancing floor, past the smithies (whatever those are) and marbles (but weren’t the floors mosaics?), out to the actual dolphin-torn sea, and we hear again the gong, but now as if we’re hovering over the water, threatened by the violence of the waves.
The plot is confusing, perhaps, because there isn’t really a plot, there’s just a vision, a vision that can’t be fully understood, that the speaker can only fitfully attempt to analyze: “shade more than man, more image than a shade.” But what does it mean to say it’s a vision? “A mouth that has no moisture and no breath / Breathless mouths may summon; / I hail the superhuman; / I call it death-in-life and life-in-death”: that’s not an attempt to put into words a confusing image, it’s an attempt to put into words a vague idea, an intellectual specter. It’s the feeling you get at midnight or three a.m. after sitting and reading in the cold and dark for far too long after everyone else has gone to bed. Sitting and reading, not history or philosophy, but literature; reading not for practical or intellectual reasons, but because the book has you entranced, seems to summon a spirit from beyond the grave that will, any minute now, reveal the hidden meaning of the universe and guide you away from the dull pains of earthly existence towards the decadent immortality of Byzantium. Then the book ends, dawn breaks, and you’re thrown back into the fury and mire.
From W.B. Yeats’ great essay “Per amica silentia lunae”–that is, “through the friendly silence of the moon.” Poets, heroes, saints, masks, Daemons, sweethearts, gyres, world-spirits, it’s all there, in classic Yeats fashion–sonorous, enchanting, perhaps fatal.
We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and, smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders. I think, too, that no fine poet, no matter how disordered his life, has ever, even in his mere life, had pleasure for his end. Johnson and Dowson, friends of my youth, were dissipated men, the one a drunkard, the other a drunkard and mad about women, and yet they had the gravity of men who had found life out and were awakening from the dream; and both, one in life and art and one in art and less in life, had a continual preoccupation with religion. Nor has any poet I have read of or heard of or met with been a sentimentalist. The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self, as one may choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality. The sentimentalists are practical men who believe in money, in position, in a marriage bell, and whose understanding of happiness is to be so busy whether at work or at play, that all is forgotten but the momentary aim. They find their pleasure in a cup that is filled from Lethe’s wharf, and for the awakening, for the vision, for the revelation of reality, tradition offers us a different word–ecstasy. An old artist wrote to me of his wanderings by the quays of New York, and how he found there a woman nursing a sick child, and drew her story from her. She spoke, too, of other children who had died: a long tragic story. “I wanted to paint her,” he wrote, “if I denied myself any of the pain I could not believe in my own ecstasy.” We must not make a false faith by hiding from our thoughts the causes of doubt, for faith is the highest achievement of the human intellect, the only gift man can make to God, and therefore it must be offered in sincerity. Neither must we create, by hiding ugliness, a false beauty as our offering to the world. He only can create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed wanderer. We could not find him if he were not in some sense of our being and yet of our being but as water with fire, a noise with silence. He is of all things not impossible the most difficult, for that only which comes easily can never be a portion of our being, “Soon got, soon gone,” as the proverb says. I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.