Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


To What End?

January 10, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

An aspect of Ernest Becker’s work that has always intrigued me is his treatment of anality. In The Denial of Death he characterizes it as follows: “ … it reflects the dualism of man’s condition—his self and his body. The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” Later he states, “To say someone is ‘anal’  means someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.”

In reflecting on the symbols of culture it occurred to me that it might be instructive to examine the symbols associated with that most important of consumer products, toilet paper. Regarding our dual nature and death anxiety, toilet paper is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. When we do an internet image search of toilet paper, what do we find? My search uncovered a variety of symbols but they seem to cluster in a few groups. Babies are popular, as are a variety of cartoon animals, bear cubs and bunnies, butterflies and puppies. The famous big bear who does his business in the woods is conspicuously absent. Why are these images chosen? Newborns represent the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from death. They reflect life itself, specifically new life and regeneration, a transcendence of death. Denial is accomplished through counter symbolism. Psychologically it is similar to the tagline for my mother’s assisted living retirement community: A Sunrise Community. The bears and bunnies are not depicted realistically but rather as a form of unreality, colored pink or blue and sporting  a big ole smile. Denial or repression is accomplished through fantasy. What are we to make of this? I’m not sure, but perhaps a little more time roughing it in the woods would be a good thing. An unexpected and interesting result of my search was the discovery of toilet paper used  to smear political opponents, i.e. Bush, Obama, Osama bin Laden. Here, the connection between death anxiety and the annihilation of enemies is clear.

Finally, regarding the topic of anality and death denial I would like to recommend a short film that I use in my classes. It is only ten minutes long and readily available online. The title is Our Time Is Up and it tells the story of an anal psychotherapist whose imminent death changes his perspective. While the film plays fast and loose with therapeutic techniques, it nevertheless clearly shows the effects of death denial and the benefits of working through that denial. You can view it below.


The Plot of Mind Is Death, But Its Telling Is The Adornment Of Time.

December 30, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What do we make of Hemingway’s observation that every story, if we take it far enough, ends in a death? I attribute this observation to Hemingway to give the idea a beginning, to start a narrative. Of course this convention of attributing ideas to named persons, is another means of fighting off death, of keeping the accounts of immortality in order, of enforcing the rule that this idea should not go in the coffers of an animal with the symbolic label “Henry Richards” but to the symbolic being, “Ernest Hemingway” who now is no longer an animal, has no bones a molderin’ in the grave. That bone pile in Ketchum Ohio belonged to the biggest game animal that Hemingway ever shot, although he authored no story about the hunt or the kill. He slew, of course, his animal self.

This essay starts by assigning a starting point to the idea the essay itself addresses, but you, dear reader, are anticipating the essay’s end, its wrapping up, at best its coda containing a codex (and it already contains a death). Hemingway is much like the idea I am treating here: the idea that all stories end in death if taken far enough. It is not a coda or codex that Hemingway “comes to”. Hemingway never arrives but carries, as in arithmetic you carry values higher than the “place” will hold,  a sum of purposes, influence, a thematic force that dips in and out of time, lifts the lid on the tenses that hold the pending additions we call life, like dry parsnips dangling from the root cellar.

In writing these sentences, I stumble over pronouns: he, his, I, my, you, your, we, those other holding places, temporary marks [Latin temporārius, from tempus, tempor-, time.] in pencil that we use to carry over the official columns of identity. Pronouns are more oblique than the usage we could adapt to hold time and identity in abeyance. We could stick to the passive voice, or refer to “one”, or in a heroic tale “the One” or referring to someone within in earshot “that one”. (One recalls the symbolic stripping McCain gave Obama during a televised debate. Suddenly it was–in McCain’s mind at least, it seems–a private conversation between McCain and millions of white listeners together considering “that one”, no longer a you or he (an addressable subject) but an object, an objection, an obstacle. The tone was a bit conspiratorial, but supported by a fine old convention carried over from slavery, Jim Crow, and the cold war of the Civil Rights era. But one believes one knows the end of that story.) Or one may leave off quotation marks altogether. Say everything fresh.

This may all seem trivial, but it all relates to the end, because with human flesh (and it is not so with any of our animal relatives), if we fall upon the blades called pronouns, we bleed. The shield of ‘you’ does not save us from the sword of ‘I’, from the pronoun’s relentless rowing through time toward death. It is only for nonliving things and non- symbolic animals (including any-man-not-thinking) that this renaming is “pro” noun, an enhancement of the nomen and favorable toward it. Or to squeeze another drop of symbolic juice, this renaming is to the symbolic animal  “pro-noun”, as venomous as Eve’s interlocutor, pushing the person back into thingship to be a named and not a namer, out of the garden of the godly pro-subject. (I exhort you, dear reader, to speak a language that is pro-subject, that dances over the shoddy illusion of self, stomp-dances, taps, on the ego, crushes those scratched contact lenses that we try to make a unitary, but are no more singular than eyes, deer, water, an air, soil, earth, destiny, death, and like these contain a million transitory worlds dissipating back into clouds of stardust.)

Dear reader, we are more than halfway through our journey. Isn’t it always that way, Dante turning on his heels, (that beatific gaze from eyes long since rotted in their sockets) before he realizes there is nowhere to go but forward, where hope must be abandoned and retrieved, no place in nature except the mocking stairwell of time to go winding through, which is for us (and no other creature) an earthly purgatory of perils, until heaven or hell gives refuge, breaks our doubleness and give us single vision? For the symbolic man, time dances like this: moves to rhythms heard or unheard of, or to symbols coherent and inaudible. Time darts like a hummingbird sucking meaning from the tenses, those linguistic petals, hanging above us like purple orchids on green or rotting boughs, whose monumental trunks (broader than the hummingbird’s perception, tasteless to wanderlust tongue craving fruit) those druid’s rockets, roots bark blasting, and pulp, sap, and mapled blood against the infinite gravity of nothingness.

The hummingbird’s story (the mini-series of time on the boob tube of nature) started there in the last paragraph. Will the end be abrupt, from a net or a storm, an owl’s last chance for a meal before cloaking from the sun? Does winter carry the humming bird along–arboreal romance suspended for this episode-until the snow heavy winds engulf the story, like the white page engulfs the sentence never written, but is never permanently absent or fully present (our hummingbird, a sentence, time)? The clouds could be clearing, the blizzard buzzing from an avalanche of wings shedding the morning dew, the seasons themselves coming out of hibernation? The year yawns, the plot thickening toward death like sap to amber, a maple wound to cloying syrup?

The author may choose to start here as well. Yes, even this close to the end. The hummingbird makes no choice, but then the hummingbird has no character, no soul, does not stand on the occasion of a proper noun, raises no memorials, except a nest with eggs as bright with potential and ever moving as your own eyeballs, each of which could be a coda, the sign so much like null and also evoking the infinite crosshairs of life and death, the sign that directs the music and the dance to the tail of the tale, the mortifying cacophony of silence. But as St. Paul says, we must redeem the time because the days are evil. So I leave Hemmingway graveless, immortal in symbolic being, and you and I in our imperishable sarcophagi of pronouns and tenses.


Libertarianism?? No thank you!!

November 18, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The nice folks at the Cato Institute have a new website for us promoting their libertarian ideology ( Oy… Well, like many others, I also went through a libertarian phase back in early days of moral development, so I remain at least interested enough to view the introductory lecture that leads off this website. There, the lecturer summarizes libertarian philosophy as “Each person has the right to live his (sic!) life in any way he (sic!) chooses, so long as he (sic!) respects the equal rights of others.”

It made me smile to remember those heady days of youthful enthusiasm, then that would have been so convincing and full of wisdom to me. Now, however, I see that there are at least two major hidden assumptions in it that are clearly, demonstrably wrong, and fatal to the philosophy itself.

The first hidden assumption is that each individual has approximately the same amount of power in society, that is, the ability to executive his/her choices. If that were true, this philosophy would make sense. If that were not true, however, then this philosophy quickly reduces to the statement that those who have more power and ability to execute their choices are morally justified in doing so. Furthermore, it implies that less powerful people, pooling the power they do have (which is basically the power of numbers) so as to collectively counterbalance the power of those who wield superior power individually, are not morally justified in doing so. They are acting “tyrannically,” to employ a favorite term of libertarians.

I take it for granted that empirical investigation would lead all thinking people quickly to the conclusion that there is not anything even approaching an equal distribution of power among individuals in our society (or any other, as far as that goes, not even small voluntary associations.)

The second hidden assumption is that each individual functions within a sort of atomistic sphere of “personal space” in which his/her actions have no impact on others. Thus, the implied social contract of mutual respect offered by libertarianism is, “you stay in your bubble and I’ll stay in mine.”

This is a highly ideologically constructed view of reality, to say the least. In the social sciences, we mostly adhere to a very opposite view, a view that is usually called an “eco-systems” perspective. Even in the hermetically sealed social science, that is, economics, there is increasing dissatisfaction with this view any time one of its practitioners tries to be interdisciplinary (for example, the behavioral economists), though preference for the autistic view remains strong because it yields the kind of “clean data” economists love, whether or not that data has any relevance to actually existing conditions of life.

In the eco-systems view, there are no isolated spheres of action. Any and all actions are understood to have effects and repercussions throughout the entire system. The effects may be large or small, but this has mostly to do with what one decides to measure and the tools employed to do so (and most effects and repercussions are unknown entirely because they aren’t even on the radar screen of our attention at the moment – we only recognize them retrospectively, sometimes decades later, and wish we had acted differently back then.)

One might argue that the eco-systems perspective is also a highly ideologically constructed view, and I would agree. But I would also argue that it corresponds much more closely than the libertarian alternative to the current understanding of our environment found in the natural and life sciences, and is also much more compatible with a religious/sacred/spiritual worldview than its libertarian opposite.

Obviously, if you conceive of the world we live in as one of constant interaction with effects, repercussions and consequences reverberating through the entire ecosystem for perhaps decades to come, you quickly arrive at a very different understanding of private property rights than outlined in current libertarianism. It’s no small point to notice that, in a world of now seven billion people, it is exactly the area of property-use-promoting-personal-gain as opposed to property-use-promoting-general-welfare that quickly takes front-and-center focus in any libertarian definition of “freedom.”

I would only invite to ask which view (libertarian or eco-systems) corresponds more closely with a scientifically-honed sense of empirical reality. The answer is obvious. Libertarian philosophy is valuable, at best, only as an adolescent phase through which one passes on the way to incorporation into a more well-rounded political adulthood.


Imperfect Sympathies

November 1, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Late yesterday afternoon I pulled from the shelves my copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, leafed through it, and settled upon the essay “Imperfect Sympathies.” After reading the essay, I am not sure how I should respond to it: whether I should applaud Lamb for his honesty, his eschewing of the easy solution, or whether I should find his views ugly. I am equivocating here. I know exactly how I feel about Lamb’s words in this essay.

He begins the essay by quoting from Browne’s Religion Medici: “I am of a constitution so general, that it consorts and sympathies with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather idiosyncrasy in anything. Those narrow prejudices do not touch me, nor do I behold with prejudice the French, Italian, Spaniard, or Dutch.”

Lamb accuses Browne of being “mounted upon the airy stilts of abstraction.” Lamb admits the can “feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess. I can look with no indifferent eye upon things or persons.” He is, he says, “in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices.” He says frankly that he can be a friend to a “worthy man who upon another count cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.”

He says, for example, that, though he has tried all his life, he cannot like Scotchmen, and he assumes they cannot like him. He spends several pages explaining, cleverly I might say, his problem with the Scotch.  From what I can glean, Lamb finds the Scotch imperfect thinkers, dogmatic, blind to nuance and irony and humor, absurdly literal. (Here I recall that Dr. Johnson was markedly anti-Caledonian, though one senses in Johnson a bit of acting, as if he feels a need to bolster the notion of himself as a curmudgeon.)

On Blacks Lamb says, “In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity.” He says he has always felt “tenderness towards some of these faces–or rather masks–” he has met in the street. His comment about masks is a perspicacious one. Then Lamb closes the matter about Blacks: “But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and good nights with them–because they are black.” I must say Lamb’s attitude toward African-Americans is much like that of many of the white Southern establishment had during the days of segregation. Men who would never cheat or harm a black man would not share a meal with him. I recall someone’s telling me that if he and a black man were in a room when night fell and the room contained only one bed, he would flip a coin with the other fellow for the right to sleep in the bed but that he would not share the bed.

Lamb, as we might imagine, has no use for Quakers. They are, he says, “given to evasion and equivocation.” Lamb disdains their austere lifestyle. Lamb likes “books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguity, and thousand whim-whams. I should starve at their primitive banquet.” His appetites are too high for the meager fare the Quakers provide..

I have saved for last Lamb’s appraisal of the Jews. He has, he says, “in the abstract, no disrespect for the Jews. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation.” He admits that “old prejudices cling about me.” Standard stuff, right, but then Lamb says something that, considering the sad history of the twentieth century, I had to think about for a while:

“Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side–of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our fathers and theirs, must and ought to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few words, such as candour, liberality, the light on nineteenth-century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.”

Auschwitz would prove Lamb right about the ineptness and essential fraud of a few words, of the liberal hope that progress had led to a burying of hate, to a state of social bliss. Lamb goes on to say that he does “not relish the approximation of Jews and Christians.” He finds it “hypocritical and unnatural.” He does “not like to see the Church and the Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of an affected civility.” Lamb drags out the old shibboleth that Jews are interested in only “Gain and the pursuit of gain.” And he genuflects to the notion that Jews are shrewd, intelligent: “I never heard of an idiot being born among them.”

Of course one can take the essay in different ways. Some might say that Lamb is blindly prejudiced and bigoted, accuse him of being a racist, though the charge of “racist” is made so often these days that it sometimes ceases to have meaning and has become little more than a tired bromide. Others might say he is stressing tolerance but abjuring the notion that we must all love one another. “You can expect me,” Lamb might be saying, “to respect any worthy man, but you cannot expect me love every worthy man–or long to associate with him.” He seems to prefer associating with those who are most like him, those who relish in life what he does. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself his or her view of Lamb.

Certainly, my knowledge of Lamb, the kind of man I have assumed him to be, comes into play, and I have a hard time picturing him as a slavering racist or rabid anti-Semite. And yet we have his words, and they contradict that picture of the always slightly bibulous Lamb, always with a ready quip, a congenial man full of bonhomie, the life of the party. Some might say, “Well, he was a complicated man, a man with his quota of flaws.”

I’d wager that every member of the EBF is a complicated person, each one of us too with our quota of taints, some of us carrying too many. I’d wager too, though, that no member of the EBF can read Lamb’s essay “Imperfect Sympathies” and not be mightily troubled, even not, to put it simply, disgusted.


The Psychic Bartender: Killing till We Get It Right

September 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

The media’s 9/11 memorial drill was almost as painful as the original attack on the World Trade Center.  Like Big Brother’s loudspeakers, the TV in the bar played the same message over and over, demanding that you never forget the cruel attack and the heroic response.


One problem is that there is no sane way to feel about a massively choreographed media “ritual” devoted to an evil suicidal rampage.  The terrorist predators are dead.  The victims are gone.  Like most media programming, the “memorial” openly sought to manipulate morale.  In theory, you’re supposed to relived the horror of the murders – impact, fire, falling bodies, collapsing steel symbols of national self-esteem – and then you find consolation in the sacrificial heroism of the “first-responders” and survivors, who either perished in the disaster or managed to control their soul-destroying grief.

Don’t get me wrong.  They died, they suffered.  The torment was real.  But the need to replay those agonies over and over again has turned the crucial media footage into advertising clichés as famous as the McDonald’s golden arches.  After the hundredth repeat of planes exploding into the towers and firemen excavating rubble, imagination gets numb.  You stop experiencing what the cues represent, just as you no longer really see the same old billboard you pass every morning for months on your way to work.  It’s like trying to show love by saying “I love you.”  In short order habit kills the phrase and you find yourself having to say, “No, I really – really really really – love you.”  How much is enough?

The only way of overcoming the numbness of habit is through personal experience: those facial expressions and vocal notes – the behaviors – that show another person that you’re present and that you mean it.

Media and the arts have all sorts of brilliant tricks that create facsimiles of presence and conviction.  But in the end they’re still art, and treacherously ambiguous.  Lovers learn the cues, but so do con-artists.

And the problem is deeper than that, too.  The ancient conundrum in philosophy is that if you love the way your beloved embodies those ideals that you most cherish, then in a hilarious or nightmarish way, you’re in love with a version of yourself.  And beyond that, you’re actually using your lover and being love to substantiate your own needs: to make your conviction of “what’s right” real.

Okay okay.  In so-called real life we all find ways of finessing these dirty paradoxes so we can get on with life.  But be honest: when everyday life gets in trouble – when people are under stress or making fists – the desperate selfishness tends to come screaming to the fore.

And so the 9/11 memorial.  Yes, it dramatizes solidarity: you’re watching the ceremonies and the talking heads with others.  You’re not alone.  But nothing you feel can be adequate to the catastrophe.  You can relive your fear and then the reassurance of believing that the heroes will restore order, but that’s at least as much about you as it is those on the scene.  Basically, you’re using the catastrophe and the response to test your anxiety and reassure yourself. And as if that isn’t deflating enough, the whole exercise is also giving you a small, safe, thrilling chance to escape from the tedium of everyday blahs.

Can you transcend these creaturely limits?  Nah.  What you can do is recognize the reality and develop some tolerance and gallows humor about it.

It’s the way we’re built, pal.

And  here’s why it matters.

When the consolations aren’t enough, you can slip into emergency mode.  When the fear of death and injustice become too terrifying, you want to stamp out the threat.  Kill the offender, and you feel more alive and heroic.  You’ve survived, you’ve proved that you’re more deserving, more superior, more right.  If you happen to so invested in killing offenders that you own history’s most expensive military force, you can kill lots of offenders.  You can vicariously enjoy the pain of torturing offenders in imbecile TV thrillers such as “24” and the euphemistic media drone about “waterboarding” – which in reality is not just “torture” but actually killing somebody right up to the final moment of death.

If you still feel bad, replay the tape.  Redo the killing over and over again, the way you watch heroes mourn victims and crush criminals in prime time every night of your life.

So in this light, that memorial media marathon is reinforcing the reaction the 9/11 attacks.  The ongoing “war on terror” has slaughtered many more victims than the 9/11 attacks did – and dispatched staggering numbers of refugees to social death.  It’s damaged the soul: if you “support our troops,” you’re also supporting rage against scapegoats.  It’s been an obscenely expensive war, toxic with lies about the terrorists’ motives and corporate fraud. A decade later there’s no longer any doubt that the invasions were designed from the start to be an economic grab, especially for oil.  And what is oil, after all, but energy, wealth, vitality: it’s the antidote to death.  It’s anti-death.  Who wouldn’t be tempted to capture other people’s anti-death and bring it home in triumph?

You can see how dangerous the memorial marathon is.  It has to insist loudly and monotonously on it’s truth, or else it risks uncovering the shameful motives that undermine our sense of what’s right as disturbingly as the original attacks did.

And you can understand why the few such as Paul Krugman who have openly deplored the lies and shame of the post-9/11, have aroused a firestorm of rage.  Of course.  As Terror Management Theory would remind us, if you challenge people’s consoling rituals and dogmas, their underlying death-anxiety will bite you and them.  You become the offender.

What’s the answer?  Silence?  Hypocrisy?  Denial?  In that glittering lineup of bottles behind the bar – the sherries, rum, vermouth, single malts, brandies – we need some jugs of compassion and courage too.  Hey, the big jugs, with the handle, since they’re fragile if you’re banging around when things get busy.

In the meantime, while we’re waiting for the delivery driver to arrive with the really noble sauce, how about a little homebrew?

[view Kirby’s website at]


The Emotions of a Meadow Mouse

September 9, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Last night, because of no other reason than it was within reach and because it had been awhile since I looked through it, I picked Eight American Poets, and, propped up on two fat pillows, I read the selection of Theodore Roethke in the book—about twenty-five short poems, many of them anthologized many times– and one poem struck me. I don’t know why exactly, but I think the poem has to do with the “truth” of the world and how some men try to remedy the harsh reality, no matter how small and futile their efforts.

The poem I read and mused over is titled “The Meadow Mouse.” The poet finds a baby mouse in the meadow, small enough to cradle in Roethke’s big hand, the little creature trembling, almost sure to die if left alone in the meadow. Roethke takes the mouse home, where he feeds it “three kinds of cheese” and gives him water from a “bottle-cap watering-trough,” and then the little mouse sleeps, “His tail curled under him; his belly big / As his head; his bat-like ears / Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.”

And the poet, the man, the always hopeful self-conscious human creature, thinks,

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.

The poet, like most of us, is a self-conscious creature constructed of  “seems.” The mouse “seems” to recognize the man, no longer tremble at his approach. The gentle poet, the man who so much wants the world to show more compassion, finds comfort in illusion. Who can blame him? The universe might not care about the abandoned and doomed meadow mouse, but the poet does–and it is his caring that defines a man’s life, this “unnatural” quality a man can create within himself. We’d not say that one of the attributes of nature is compassion. Nature is beyond such terms as “compassion” or “guilt.”

Why, after all, should the man care about the meadow mouse? He just does. Many of us care about such things. Some people wouldn’t care. It takes a tremendous leap of the imagination, imagination arcing over knowledge, to birth compassion. Schopenhauer says that the highest virtue, the supreme thing self-conscious can give to us, is empathy. We can “imagine” how another person feels.  A lot of us simply can’t get used to the truth that much of life, sentient life, is filled with suffering and anguish. We sometimes think our concern will somehow supersede the order of things, the way things are. Becker says, “ . . .what we call the human character is actually a lie about the nature of reality.” The nature of reality is hard to take.

We can break our hearts loving this world, but it never glances in our direction, never returns our love. Still, we love, and some men rush to alleviate suffering–even to save the meadow mouse, trying to save one mouse while the gimlet-eyed hawk and the big-eyed owl and the gray cat prowling grassy field beyond my study window seek their prey, all under the blue sky and sighing wind in the trees.

We see the bent-beaked hawk riding high in the sky, spy the gray cat mercilessly stalking through the field. Sometimes at night, on a still night, I can hear the mournful cry of the owl seeping from deep in the swamp. We know the owl hunts at night. It is I who describes the owl’s cry as mournful, the illusory character projecting itself on reality, creating things that are not: owls don’t mourn. We, however, identify with the meadow mouse, and as absurd at it is, we will, if given a chance, attempt to save the helpless creature.

I have stopped my truck and removed the slow-crawling turtle from the busy highway, but even though I tried, I could not save the piglet from my dog’s primitive fury, from the blind instinct running in his blood. Walking the dog in the country, the dog way ahead of me, I heard terrible screams up the dirt lane and around the corner, and though I ran, I was too late to save the piglet, which had somehow wandered off from from where he should have been. I was horrified, but it’d been futile to blame the dog, this creature who likes nothing better than to climb into my lap when I sit reading in the recliner, who sleeps under my desk as I write, his head lying upon my right foot.

The innocent murderousness of the world disturbs us, but the world has no mercy: it is a great killing machine, a greedy but blind and dumb drinker of blood. (I will not speak of the not so innocent murderousness of the human animal; that will make for another essay.)

So, yes, the poet did his best to save a meadow mouse. He made a noble gesture into the void, into yawning infinity. It might be an absurd gesture, but it’s far from meaningless.

The next morning the little mouse is gone:

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?–
To run under the hawk’s wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,–
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

I think most of us would willingly go forth with the poet to save the meadow mouse. We too would stand over the little thing as it slept. We too would want to protect it from the ravages of the natural world, knowing full well we could not. But we’d try anyhow. The next morning, as the poet did, we’d find the little mouse gone. We’d imagine its making its way through the meadow while overhead the hawk, its keen eyes missing nothing below, prepares to dive, elegant feathery death falling like a stone through the blue and gentle morning, plummeting ruthlessly and efficiently down upon “All things innocent, hapless, and forsaken.”


Don’t Pick the Buds

August 23, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

The below poem, “The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers” by Andrew Marvell is a pure Beckerian poem, by which I mean it moves from a simple and delightful sight of a pretty little girl among some flowers to a desperate and futile plea against blind fate and death, the movement from sweet illusion, simple decoration, to the apprehension of humankind’s greatest fear. The poem begins in jest, in good humor, Marvell having some fun watching the little girl at her play. He pretends she is a goddess; then he pretends she is, as if during the Middle Ages, a disdainful mistress.

The poem takes a slight turn in the fourth stanza when the poet once again suggests the little girl is a deity who can change the laws of nature. She “can reform the errors of the spring”: she can give tulips a sweet smell; she can do away with the thorns on roses; she can keep the violets from fading.  Marvell knows better, and so do we. Even for Marvell to make such a statement is to confirm the audacious falsity of them.

Then the poem makes the “crucial” and Beckerian turn, moving from the subject of the little girl obviating the irrevocably laws of nature to the much too common happening of Marvel’s time: an early death. Marvel knows we are helpless in the hands of blind fate. The healthy child can take sick today and be dead tomorrow–at least it was so in Marvell’s time. (Some say that T. C. was one Theophila Cornewall, whose older sister had died In childhood.) Suddenly, the poet is all seriousness. He urges the child not to pluck the the young buds of the flowers because the true goddess of the flowers, Flora, may punish the child that she too, the child that is, dies early. Some might say this interpretation is too dark, that the poet is dealing in poetic convention, that the ending of the poem is mere dramatics, almost done tongue in cheek. Perhaps so.

But it seems to me that a poem that begins in a flood of whimsy ends in terror. “Be careful!” he wants to cry to her, though he knows his cries are bootless and impotent. How helpless men are against the power of death. The poem seems to me to reflect a great mind following the truth where it leads. It is, I think, a very great poem. A man watches a child at play. She delights him. He lets his imagination run free. Then the poet’s mind goes the only real way it can go. “Gather the flowers,” he says to her (in his mind he speaks to her), “but don’t pick the buds,” for the child is a bud, and who knows what cruel fate is behind life ruthlessly and randomly picking the buds of human life.

The serpent is always in the garden, eh? Underneath the most innocent and sweetest of human ventures lurks the inexorable fate of humankind, all the darkness that lies beneath or behind or below and beyond all pretty little girls, all flowers, all arts, and all words. The incongruity contained in the poem is almost too much to bear, but the poet pulls it off. One might conjecture that the rhyme and meter of the poem make its truth easier for us to bear. After all, art is creative illusion at its apogee. This poem presents the human dilemma, the maddening contradictions and paradox of a self-conscious creature as clearly, though more succinctly, as do Becker or Rank. In an era when infant mortality was high, rampant, more the rule than the exception, who’d not see beautiful children as fragile buds being picked by the fell hands of merciless death? And who’d not, even in our time, if he or she looked with a cold mind, with a terrified but an honest imagination, at the field of flowers and contemplate that stuff out of which the sweet flowers grow, the great bone-yard and blood-blotter of the earth? Who’d not?

The Picture of  Little T. C. in a
Prospect of Flowers

SEE with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names;          5
But only with the roses plays,
And them does tell
What colour best becomes them, and what smell.

Who can foretell for what high cause
This darling of the gods was born?   10
Yet this is she whose chaster laws
The wanton Love shall one day fear,
And, under her command severe,
See his bow broke and ensigns torn.
Happy who can   15
Appease this virtuous enemy of man!

O then let me in time compound
And parley with those conquering eyes,
Ere they have tried their force to  wound;
Ere with their glancing wheels they drive   20
In triumph over hearts that strive,
And them that yield but more despise:
Let me be laid,
Where I may see the glories from some shade.

Meantime, whilst every verdant thing   25
Itself does at thy beauty charm,
Reform the errors of the Spring;
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair,
And roses of their thorns disarm;   30
But most procure
That violets may a longer age endure.

But O, young beauty of the woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flowers,
Gather the flowers, but spare the  buds;   35
Lest Flora, angry at thy crime
To kill her infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ example yours;
And ere we see,
Nip in the blossom all our hopes and thee.   40