Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category


Sometimes a Young Poet is Just Another Young Man Snared in the Agony of Love

December 27, 2012
"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

Last night I read a short essay on the poet John Keats. The essayist begins by stating the obvious–that is, something anyone reading the essay would know: that “Keats did not finish his career.”He adds that “No issue is more significant, in closing the book on Keats’ life as poet, than choosing a poem to conclude.” Really? Nothing about Keats is more significant about Keats that a “final poem”? I wonder.

After what I interpret as some factitious equivocation, the essayist chooses “This Living Hand”  to be the “final poem.” It is, granted, a mysterious poem, “a fragment without a name.” The lines were jotted down in the manuscript of another poem. The question seems to be–the right one it seems to me–what the poem meant to Keats? What was its genesis? To whom was the poem written–or was it, as some say, words out of the mouth of some character Keats planned in another work, a play, some scholars suggest? Nobody  knows for sure, but I, like the essayist, can guess, and my guess is different from his. Here’s the poem:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it toward you–

The writer of the essay says the poem “fails” if it is read through Fanny Brawne’s eyes: “its tone becomes bullying and painful, its mixture of horror and pathos appears too selfish to carry a message of love.” The poem read this way is repellent: we “draw away” from it. The essayist prefers to think of the poem as a “gift” to the reader: And insofar as it is qualifies as such a poem, it offers only the dimmest hope for poetic survival. By investing his hope in the reader’s conscience, not in his own imperishable work. . . Keats resigns his fate to strangers. At best he must trust our ‘wish.'”

In other words, the poem is written by a death-doomed Keats, a dying young man aware, too aware, of his fleeting mortality, and he cries out to the reader to remember him.

Well, in the words of the sardonic Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” If one, for example, looks at some of Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne, one doesn’t find a bright young poet, his sails plumped with sweet winds of restraint and beauty: one finds a petulant and jealous young man, one who wonders painfully if “his girl” is bestowing intimacies on some other man. Why would we resist the notion of Keats being a young man in love, torn with all the vexations a star-crossed affair can bring? After all, he was dying, and he knew he was dying–and he was heartsick about it. On his death bed, he asked that his friends not speak of Fanny. Any mention of her, he said, went through him like a spear. I don’t know why the critic would deny to the young man Keats that which he, the critic, would freely admit about himself when young. Poets, no matter how great, can be foolish about women, foolish about many things. Didn’t Auden forgive Yeats for the dead poet’s silliness? Can’t we forgive Keats for crying to Fanny, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone”? It could be, too, that if by some miracle Keats had lived, worn into old age, he would have, later in his life, dismissed the poem in question, smiled at his youthful effusions.

I don’t know for sure. Who does? The essayist may be right about Keats. I, however, don’t think any less of Keats if this poem was written about Fanny Brawne, don’t find it hectoring in the extreme, bullying, repellent; and I can’t believe–every sinew and fiber of my imagination, everything I know from experience–the lines, just these few written in a manuscript, are from some play Keats planned to write. Mind you, they might have been. No one knows for sure, but my heart tells me the lines were self-indulgent. I don’t mean necessarily in a pejorative way, only in that Keats wrote the poem in response to the emotional turmoil stirred within him by his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, contra the essayist, I believe that did Fanny read the poem she would have immediately seen the love in the poem. She would have, I think, understood the poem. I can’t imagine her thinking, “How selfish he is.” She would have discerned the passion in the poem, one born out of confusion and despair and yearning–but not a passion burdened and fettered by selfishness.



August 14, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

This morning I ran across something Walker Percy had to say about how, as a price of adapting to the world, we must accept the notion of habit. It’s a way of making the world less threatening. It’s hard to believe a self-conscious creature could live without accepting some habits. We like to believe the world more predictable than it is. Percy notes, however, that habit distances us from the world, obscures our “seeing.” Habit cuts us off from a primary response to the world. Our vision becomes like our speech: overloaded and meaningless with clichés. We experience the world through a hazy veil. Percy gives a clever and perceptive anecdote:

A man in Boston decides to spend his vacation at the Grand Canyon. He visits his travel bureau, looks at
the folder, signs up for a two-week tour. He and his family see the tour, see the Grand Canyon, and return
to Boston. May we say that this man has seen the Grand Canyon? Possibly he has. But it is more likely what
he has done is the one sure way not to see the canyon.

Percy explains why the man has not seen the Grand Canyon, not really: “the Grand Canyon, the things as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind.” A lady with whom I once worked, in telling of her trip out West, told me not to waste my time on seeing the Grand Canyon, for it “was nothing but a big damn hole in the ground,” a comment that told me much more about the woman than about the Grand Canyon.  A man who toured Europe for three weeks told me all he saw was a “lot of old buildings.” About all he had gleaned from his trip is that London is expensive, Rome is dirty, and the female performers at a show he saw in Paris went topless. Henceforth, all Paris will mean to him is a bare tit.

William Blake said pretty much the same thing Percy does. Blake said we must learn to see through the eye, not with the eye. To see with the eye is to see with habit; to see through the eye is to see anew, with imagination. I think this is what Emily Dickinson means when she tells the skeptic that the song of the bird is not in the bird, but “in thee.” Habit obliterates the world of Awe, before which we ought to stand with fear and trembling, the mysterium tremendum of seething creation. It’s a scary business; habit helps us assuage the fear, good old habits and the usual illusions.

Wallace Stevens proves to me, though, that one need not go in search of Grand Canyons; the world outside of one’s window is full of revelation for one who will see, a revelation that Stevens calls “the angel of reality,” an angel with “neither ashen wing nor wear of ore,” one “without a tepid aureole, /

Or stars that follow me, not to attend, / But, of my being and its knowing, part.”

I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.

Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight, you see the earth again,

Cleared of its stiff and stubborn man-locked set,
And, in my hearing, you hear its tragic drone . . . .

But habits can be good things. When I ran an errand this morning, both going there and returning home, I stopped or went as the traffic light told me. Routine is not inherently wrong. It is the thing, in fact, that saves us from chaos and terror.


Hollywood does Becker

July 10, 2012

TDF Guest Don Emmerich

What we can’t think about: In the following essay, I recommend the recently-released film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and discuss how it illustrates many of the insights found in the works of Ernest Becker.

“The final mission to save mankind has failed,” a radio announcer declares.  “The 70-mile wide asteroid known as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time.  And,” the announcer continues, his voice gradually taking on a more chipper tone, a tone reminiscent of Casey Kasem announcing the week’s Top 40, “we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites.”

So begins Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a film that comically—and beautifully—illustrates the different ways people deal with the awareness that they’re going to die.  Several characters respond by putting their trust in different transference objects.  Some, for example, go about buying more insurance, seeming to believe that their wealth and preparedness will save them from the giant asteroid set to obliterate the planet.  “I’m afraid the Armageddon package is extra,” Steve Carell’s character tells one of his clients.  “That protects you and your family against any sort of apocalyptic disaster—asteroids obviously, famine, locusts…”

Other characters immerse themselves in their jobs, carrying on as though everything is normal.  Carell’s maid, for instance, keeps showing up to clean his apartment.  When Carell kindly suggests that she instead spend her last days with her family, she assumes she’s being fired and begins to cry.  Only after he agrees that she can continue cleaning the apartment does she regain her composure.  Her denial, it seems, is so great that the planet’s impending destruction doesn’t even register.

This latter scene reminds me of one of my favorite Becker passages.  “Gods,” he writes, “can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for.  But as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble.  Most men spare themselves that trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as society maps these problems out for them” (The Denial of Death, 178).

So, in other words, many of us are like the maid, so consumed with the minutiae of our lives that we don’t have time to confront life’s bigger issues.  More disturbingly, many of us are like a group of rioters we encounter later in the film.  Unlike the maid, these rioters have responded to their imminent deaths by looting their neighborhoods and brutalizing anyone they can get their hands on.  Their actions illustrate Becker’s argument that the fear of death often leads to scapegoating and violence against others (Escape from Evil, Chapter 8).

Needless to say, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a feel-good movie.  Early into it we learn that, just as in real life, we’re not going to be given a clichéd Hollywood ending; we learn that this fictitious world really is going to end and that everyone really is going to die.  And yet the film gives us hope, much in the same way that Becker’s writings give us hope.  The hope comes not from a mystical revelation that life has a transcendent meaning and that we have souls which will survive death.  The hope is that each of us can live happier, more fulfilling lives and that the key to such lives is self-awareness.

In the film’s final scene—which is so beautiful and powerful that, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t describe here—we see that self-awareness is terrifying.  And yet we see that it is only through such awareness that we’re able to extricate ourselves from the idols which rule most of our lives.  For instance, it is only the film’s self-aware characters, those who have accepted that the asteroid really is coming, who are able to get past their own neuroses and form genuine and loving connections with others.  Carell’s character in particular has what Irving Yalom calls an “awakening experience,” a confrontation with death that shakes him from his self-delusion and apathy and causes him to live a life of intention and value.   (See Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death).  Again, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t say any more about it here.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World certainly doesn’t provide the perfect Beckerian solution to the problem of existence.  For Becker prescribed that we embrace both self-awareness and a Kierkegaardian-like religious faith.  Both, he believed, are equally necessary.  Yet I can’t help but consider this a very Beckerian film.  It sends the message that people in our death-denying culture most desperately need to hear, that message being—to quote Yalom—that “[a]lthough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death [that is, the awareness of death] saves us” (33).



June 29, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

This afternoon, a gorgeous fall one, as I lay in the hammock–I was home alone, my wife’s having gone shopping with her sister–the dogs barked, which meant somebody had come onto the porch. I got up, walked around the corner of the house, saw a man I used to work with. In town on some matter, he told me, he thought he’d come by. He lives forty of fifty miles away, and I had not seen him in a few years. I told him, though it was not exactly true, that I was about to put on the coffee, would he like some. He said he would. After the coffee brewed, we each poured a cup and sat by the pool. The talk was the usual banalities, comfortable talk, exactly what talk should be on a bright afternoon by the pool between men who really don’t know each other all that well. He did tell me that Mr. Randolph Mouzon (not his real name) had died, apparently of old age. “He was the richest man in the county,” he told me. “He must have owned several thousands of acres of land. Money can’t buy everything in this world.” He gravely uttered this cliché, as if he were the first person to come to such a conclusion. Oh, it’s true: money can’t buy everything in the world, but nothing, whether it be money or sterling virtue or supernal knowledge can acquire everything in this world.

I had heard of Mr. Mouzon. On my way to and from college, years ago, I passed his big house in the country. Yes,  Mr. Mouzon was rich, as rich as some kings I guess, as wealthy as Midas and Croesus and all the rest of the fabled rich we drag out to make comparison. He was a rich man for a very long time. And then he died.

So now he’s just another dead man, but, no, I didn’t express such sentiments to my guest. As is the wont of men, we quickly forgot Mr. Mouzon, his wealth and his death, and talked of other matters, gentle, placid talk, easy conversation, devoid of ambiguity or depth, of anything likely to spark argument, so scripted to be courteous and polite that it could be called a social rite, one filled with bromides and clichés. In other words, it was just the right kind of talk for my guest and me to have. It wasn’t the time to unriddle the mystery of existence, the anxiety eating at the human heart. My guest did not stay long. He drank his coffee, and not long afterwards he left. He and I are not good friends, so we talked just long enough, both of us having the good sense to end the session before either of us became uncomfortable. He and I played by the rules. It made the episode pleasant.

When he left, I got back into my hammock, content to lie alone in the afternoon, just look at a few thin cirrostratus clouds scratched, as if by a cat, in the blue sky. Noticing the sun lower in the sky, I thought that the days are much shorter now. Thinking about Mr. Mouzon’s death, the impotence of his wealth to keep him out of his grave, I remembered a poem from the Greek Anthology:

       I am the tomb of Crethon; here you read
His name; himself is number’d with the dead;
Who once had wealth not less than Gyges’ gold;
Who once was rich in stable, stall, and fold;
Who once was blest above all living men–
With lands, how narrow now, how ample then!

Regardless of how “big” a man is in life, the size of his grave is the same as that of the “little” man. ( I fail to see, though, how this observation brings relief to the little man: a grave is a grave.) It’s true that the paths of glory (so says Thomas Gray in his famous poem about his stroll through country churchyard, it’s small cemetery) lead but to the grave, but, then, all paths lead to the grave. Emily Dickinson saw death as democratic, the beggar and the queen equal, and of course we know that poor Bartleby in Melville’s story about him now sleeps with kings and counsellors. I can’t see, however, how this fact—and it’s irrefutable—makes up for the wretchedness of Bartleby’s life.

For me, at least, the most profound and most poignant comment on this “theme” is Prince Harry’s address to the just-slain Hotspur, slain in battle by the Prince himself (Henry IV, Part 1):

Ill-weaved ambition, how much thou art shrunk!
When that this body contained a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
is room enough. .  . .

Such epitaphs make for good poetry, and if we aren’t careful, we catch ourselves nodding sadly at such revelations, but, my goodness, what is revealed? that we all die? that in the end we all end up the same? food for worms? Well, if death is such, then life takes on paramount importance. If the rich man and the beggar end up the same, then it seems to me it’s better to be the rich man, the happy man rather than the sad man, the wise man rather than the fool. The tragedy of Hotspur is not that he has become carrion for blind creatures burrowing in the earth but rather that his jaundiced and absurd pride cost him his life, scores of years in the happy bright sun, the caresses of that beautiful and witty woman who loves him.

Only schoolboys find Hotspur admirable. We might all be the same in death, but we aren’t the same in life–and if we have no control of death: it will come–we do have a certain amount of control over our lives. How much and to what degree? Well, that’s why some of us study our Becker, none of us knowing whether we will find a definitive answer or not, probably suspecting we won’t, but Becker, odd to say about a man who warns us not to look too long at the sun, offers us hope. It’s reductive, I know, but Becker says that knowledge is not as curative as hope.

“Hope is an illusion,” I have heard bright men say, educated men, and it’s true: hope might be an illusion. These same men declare that all is illusion. The statement can’t bear the scan of logic, the statement itself being an illusion, but never mind. Shakespeare says that we are but the “stuff dreams are made of” and “our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Life as illusion, life as a dream—how is one to make sense of things?

Dr. Neil Elgee would say, however, as he has said to me on more than on occasion: “If we cannot live without illusions then it’s best we choose the most life-enhancing ones.”



June 1, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

Another hot day here, a bronze sun sits blazing in a cloudless sky. A warm wind stirs the leaf-laden trees. The ripeness build and builds, growing fatter and fatter, slowly aiming for its apex. It’s early June. I hear no voices prophesying the fall from fecundity, the inexorable rottenness to come, this green and vibrant world heat-blasted and withered by the time August comes. How weary, finally, summer will become, how tiresome, how ragged and worn, its vitality leached out by the relentless heat, the long, scalding days, heartbreaking days.

After my workout, I came out of the large room out back, looked at the profusion of green washing the fig tree. Then I saw at my feet, lying there in the green grass, a dead mole, a little fellow not as big as my little finger. How tiny it was. He hadn’t been dead long because his grey fur (I wish I knew the names for the gradations of colors) still looked glossy in the June sunlight. Dead lay the creature. I did not see a mark on it, but dead lay the creature. I went inside the storeroom and got my shovel. I came back out, gently scooped up the dead mole, and walked over to the ground cover about the house and tossed the creature into it.

When I first saw the little mole lying dead in the sunlight, I thought, “How still death is.” Even in a world bursting with green, gone mad with it, death lies still in the sheets of light spilling from the sky.


The Arts

April 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart, but they are nevertheless my faith, firmly installed in the part of me where some people put religion.
What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time; only through art can we catch a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Greece or medieval Spain or pre-modern Japan.

Some months ago I copied down the above, failing to note who wrote it. I came across it today. I agree with what the writer says, but how would I convince the fellow down the street that he’d be better off with the arts than with his golf game with his pals? It seems to me that those who talk about the wonder of the arts are those who involve themselves in the arts. If someone comes to my door–and he or she has–and seeks to proselytize me for some religion, I politely send the person on his or her way. I am not interested in the offer of information this person says will transform my life. “Jesus,” this person at my door will tell me, “is superior to any book.” Although I’d sent this person from my door, I’d never add as the person leaves that art is my religion. Keats put this argument to bed long ago. If, as Kierkegaard or Rank or somebody said, psychology must ultimately be laid at the door of theology, so must art. In short, art cannot provide what the illusion of religion can. Art at its best is a friend, and it will have to do, perhaps, if one cannot sustain the illusion of theology. I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I do know that art is not God. We’ve read our Becker. We know aesthetics cannot answer the fundamental questions of humankind.  I’m not saying religion gives the right answers, but it gives answers.

When I was a young professor of English, I tended to be a little dogmatic about the salutary and restorative and redemptive power of literature. I used, in one form or another, the arguments used above. I don’t think my dogmatism, my insistence, drew many of my students into my camp. It did not take me long to realize the futility of preaching the power of art. It my case the art was, of course, literature. Hectoring students, braying about the beauty of literature, implying books and poems could usher one into regal realms reflected no more than my passion–and, if the truth be told, an attempt to stifle my own doubts about the worth of literature. I sometimes wondered, “To whom are you really talking?”

I had no real facts to support my position. I decided that I could do no more really than let literature speak for itself. It didn’t need me as zealous advocate, a position that, no matter how tactful one wants to be, always smacks of snobbism, a looking-down on. Though I had no idea how to do it, I figured out that all I could do was, somehow, embody literature, not in any grand or exaggerated way. I just quietly stood up for literature. My students, because for the most part they liked me, listened to me, many of them pleased that I thought them worthy of literature–but they never understood what the fuss was about. They understood–and maybe I did too–that even though literature meant much to me, it would never mean much to them. As I grew older I accepted this realization with sanguine resignation.

Saturday afternoon, in the huge ball and dining room of the Hilton Hotel, I sat with approximately two-hundred others at a wedding reception. An orchestra played charming music, a chanteuse, a lovely young woman, sang the old standards (Gershwin, Porter, and others), and people drank wine and champagne. For the most part the people in that room were successful people by any standard. This was a collection of professional people, many of them wealthy, most of them educated.

I’d venture to say, though, that practically all of these people care no more for the joys and splendors of literature than did my students when I taught. For sure, they don’t think they have somehow missed out on one of the lovely things about life. I don’t know for sure but I’d wager than nobody in the room, save yours truly, ever reads poetry for simple enjoyment. Am I supposed to feel superior because I do? I told Dr. Elgee once that in all my years of trying to encourage others to read Becker’s Denial of Death, I cannot count one convert. I decided it was time to quit trying.

I am grateful I have a love for poetry and literature (and for Ernest Becker), but I have it simply because I have it. I have no idea why I have it. When one man who has recently retired, complained to me and a small group of others that he, now that he was retired, was pretty much forgotten, his opinion no longer sought, that he had become a “nobody,” I found myself talking about King Lear, but it took only a moment for me to understand that nobody in the group of men with whom I found myself knew anything about Lear and its relevance to the conversation. For me to persevere in dragging poor old King Lear into the discussion would have been pretentious on my part, a pompous display. It was neither the time nor the place to talk about Shakespeare. I shut up, hoping I done so before I made a complete ass of myself.

I’d be lying, though, did I not confess to the members of the EBF that I felt “luckier” than this small group of men with whom I talked, most of them about my age, most of them retired, most of them possessing more money and financial savvy than I.  Yes, it’s true I feel “luckier” than they because I do have literature, but I doubt whether I could convince them that I am more fortunate than they are. It’s true, too, that I am hardly objective, a disinterested judge in this evaluation of who is lucky. In fact, push these men and they might admit that they think I have wasted my life fooling around with books. They probably say just this to each other when I am not present. These men, some with whom I grew up, might say that my choice of how to live my adult life created a gulf between them and me, subtle, but nonetheless a rift. It’s how it is, but, still, it’s a little sad for both sides in this case. I do understand that neither they nor I think about rifts and gulfs to any large degree, but we all know our choices in life lead to an incongruence of sensibilities.

I have come to believe that those who prate of the joy of art to the general public are tedious. I find it tiresome that the man above can say that art is his religion. It’s annoying for a man to keep telling others how cultured he is, how sensitive. Life is messy for all of us. We see through a glass darkly, whether we spend our time counting our money or counting our books. When Emily Dickinson says that ” There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away,” I believe her. Most people, however, wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s best that we sail away in our books quietly, without shouting out to the world that we are embarking.


Art and Death in Louisville, Kentucky

March 27, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Perhaps this would have been more appropriately titled “Art, Death, and You,” because with this post I’d like to invite you to explore the 2012 Motherlodge Festival in Louisville. Motherlodge is the brainchild of professional drummer Ray Rizzo. In short, it is a semi-annual cultural exchange between the two cities where Ray splits residence, Louisville and New York. In the Spring, artists, musicians and actors based largely in New York travel to Louisville to share a bite of the Big Apple with Kentucky. In the Fall, Kentuckians reciprocate with a visit to New York. Now in its fourth year, the festival has improved and expanded every year. This year we want to do something new, which is to invite friends of the Ernest Becker Foundation to not only observe, but also participate in the process. Several of the scheduled events will have Beckerian themes. This is by design. As I’ve argued in previous posts, artists are the re-mythologizers of culture and a re-mythologization of death is a necessary component of getting past the denial that grips us. Recall how Becker explains that it is the artist who can confront the terror of mortality by transforming the anxiety through creativity.

The entire schedule for the festival is available at The schedule can be found under the heading Spring Motherlodge 2012. While the entire festival is wonderful, here are a few specific events that will be of particular interest to you:

  • Artist Jim Gavenus will create an opportunity to explore death through an exhibition of photographs of people at the moment of their passing.
  • Crawling Between Heaven and Hell is a retelling of Hamlet, but set in 1920s rural America. Themes of mortality, power, and denial flow through the entire work.
  • A long table discussion of Becker and death anxiety featuring members of the coroner’s office, a police officer involved with gang violence, members of the Joseph of Arimathea Society who provide burial services for the indigent, a hospice nurse, and others.

The long table discussion will allow participation through Facebook by members of EBF and we encourage you to post questions and comments to the live stream of the event. Here are directions for doing just that. The conversation will be at 3:30 EST on Saturday, March 31.

How to use Facebook chat while watching live Motherlodge shows. All for free!

1. Check out the schedule of live broadcasts listed below the player.

2. During a broadcast, click the Facebook “Check in & Chat” button on the right sidebar.

3. Log in with your Facebook info.

4. In the next window, write a message to invite your friends to chat and click the “Post to Wall” button.

5. You’re there! Enjoy the live broadcast and chat with other people watching online.

This Motherlodge Festival offers a great opportunity to bring artists together with academics, health care professionals, and others to create a richer and more creative dialog about Becker.  Two sets of communities are coming together. Artists are getting exposure from your viewing and participation and the artists are in turn being exposed to Becker and the EBF. This is a small start toward what the dreamer in me hopes will be an ever expanding conversation that produces concrete results. The door is open. Drop in.


Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas

March 20, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

With song titles such as Going Home, Amen, Come Healing, and Darkness, it is not surprising that Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, resonates with themes that Ernest Becker addresses. Indeed, in a New York Times interview Cohen stated that the work is a reflection on mortality. With an able assist from lyricist Patrick Leonard, Cohen engages with central questions, confronts primal fears, and describes a life lived forward in a way that both gnaws at and comforts the listener.  Minimal arrangements coupled with a gravely monotone spoken-word delivery produce a drone that has the effect of hearing prolonged Tibetan chanting. You could easily miss gems like this from the song Banjo in which Cohen describes impending death: “It’s coming for me darling, no matter where I go. Its duty is to hurt me. My duty is to know.”  The duty to know? That sounds like the response of a person who has taken up the task of wrestling with unrepression: someone who has seen the future and refuses the seduction of denial. With this post I would like to explore the lyrics of a particular song, Going Home. Take time to consider these  lyrics.

Going Home
Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man a vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for the living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

The presentation of self-consciousness is quite powerful, is it not? The third-person running commentary we carry on within ourselves from time to time serves as the vehicle for a view of the self that is by turns loathing and affirming. The self-conscious presentation of the self to the external world coexists with knowledge of the man behind the mask. We hear the existential cry for transcendence, “a cry above the suffering” that is dashed against the hard stone of reality. It is Cohen’s ability to bestride both psychic worlds that is so intriguing. It nicely reflects Tillich’s famous “courage to be.” Cohen’s description of himself as an “elaboration of a tube” nicely reflects the evolutionary process as well as what Becker describes as the horror of the natural world, the global cafeteria of food in/food out. And yet, this tube is not frozen. It is moving. It is going home. And it is going home consciously, “without the costume that I wore,” a clear reference to the vital lie of culture. The contrasting feelings of mortal resignation and freedom from cultural roles inhabit a liminal world, the world where the falling angel meets the rising ape. As with Becker, there is no apotheosis. At song’s end, he is still in his suit, although he no doubt inhabits it differently than when he first slipped it on. With Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen faces his mortality by fashioning something, making an offering, so to speak, and dropping it into the confusion.


Misery Loves Company

February 21, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

This morning when I checked my e-mail I found a rather weepy one from a minister who writes to me from time to time, always writing dolorous, self-indulgent, and overly dramatic words. This time, in lamenting several impediments in his life, he quoted Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He repined that all he endeavored seem to fail, that all his hopeful dreams were as “momentary as a sound,”

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;
Brief as lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say, “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

Well, true enough, I suppose, but the sentimental preacher is wrong to take the above words and narrowly apply them to his own life. Just about anybody who knows anything about Shakespeare knows the quoted passage above, but few know Hermia’s response to Lysander:

If, then, true lovers have been ever crost,
It stands as an edict in destiny:
Then let us teach our trial patience,
Because it is a customary cross,
As due to love as thoughts, and dreams, and sighs,
Wishes, and tears, poor fancy’s followers.

In short, what the self-centered preacher needs to comprehend is that the tragedy of “quick bright things” fading into nothingness lies in the condition of mankind, not of a particular man. The human condition in many regards is hopeless and heartbreaking. Becker calls it a tragedy, this predicament in which we find ourselves. The truth is that the “jaws of darkness” will swallow us all, in time swallow the earth itself, and, some cosmologists say, the entire universe itself. If you’re like me you can’t think much beyond this small planet whereupon we find ourselves. We have to deal with the mess of our own lives; we can’t worry about the lives of Martians, not that Martians exist. It’s probably true that we care less about stars falling into one another, about the immeasurable cataclysms tossing galaxies as if they were match sticks; yes, we care less about these conflagrations than we do our own belly aches—and for good reason too.

I can understand my tender preacher’s grief at his lost dreams, at the sorrow rolling like a river through his life, but he’s wrong to think that life demands any more of him that it demands of any of us. I could advise him that it is futile to mourn what is not only inexorable but unavoidable. But this man doesn’t want advice; he wants consolation, wants sympathy. Of course, I won’t advise him of anything. He wants me to be complicit in his descent into self-pity, to echo him, “O God, isn’t it awful!” I will say nothing about his particular complaint. It seems as foolish to state this as to say, “The wind blows” or the “rain down does fall.” Oh, how he’d bristle with outrage did I tell him that he is drifting perilously close to solipsism.

The most I could tell him, the most I understand, is that we all have to go a hard road, often on a dark night, but we have no other option but to go it. Perhaps we should go it as cheerfully and courageously as we can. I think Samuel Johnson would agree with me. In fact, I suppose I really steal the notion from the great man. I don’t think he’d object.



February 1, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

After mentioning Robert Frost to a friend in an e-mail, I found myself reading him tonight. Frost is like Lamb and Hazlitt: he never disappoints one. I confess to liking what Lionel Trilling called the “dark” Frost (confirming that Frost was not an avuncular old man sitting around a pot-bellied stove and dishing out bromides). Frost is one of those poets who does not lie about the human condition–yet he is one, when all is over, who must be seen as somewhat of an optimist. Certainly, his poetry comes to terms with our living in a diminished world, the realization that the world will never really give us what we want: an affirmation for our existence, a supporting cry from the heavens, nature to nudge us with love.

In any case, tonight I was stuck as never before by a few lines in “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” I can’t think of a poem that better portrays the loneliness of aging. It is an unpitying look, but, more so, it is an accurate look. The old man is alone. It is cold outside and dark. The frost is on the window panes. He can hear sounds from outside: “like the roar / Of trees and cracks of branches. . . .”  The log in the stove “shifted with a jolt” and startled the old man. Here the lines that for some reason moved me tonight:

A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

The poem is full of heartbreaking loneliness, though there is no indication that the old man is especially aware of his plight. We sense his mind is failing a little. We sense too, perhaps more than we’d like, the singular man at his end, the universe dark and cold, no help out there in the dark, no justice. And Frost, resigned to the world, does not speak of fairness. He does not pout at the hard truth.  It’s true: “One aged man–one man–can’t keep a house / . . .or if he can, / It’s thus he does it of a winter’s night.” The old man keeps the house the best he can. One knows tomorrow night will be the same. If we asked the old man about his plight, I suppose he might say what another hard-pressed character says in Frost’s “A Servant to Servants”: “I s’pose I’ve go to go the road I’m going: / Other folks have to, and why shouldn’t I?”

Donald Hall writes of how Frost hated to be alone, how he would not let a visitor leave, and if the visitor insisted on leaving, Frost would walk the visitor to his destination. We tend to forget that Frost was alone for a long time. His wife died in 1938 (he’d live until 1963). He had a son who committed suicide. One daughter died in childbirth and another was institutionalized for mental problems. Frost is not, of course, the “man” in his poems, but what man is like the man in his imagination? Like another great American poet, Wallace Stevens–though in different ways–Frost imposed an order upon the world, striving to establish the “momentary stay against confusion.”This is what Frost called a poem: “A momentary stay against confusion.”

But what I think of most when I read “An Old Man’s Winter Night” are the last days of Samuel Johnson, the sick old man, all alone, that thing he dreaded most of all finally coming to claim him. I’ve mentioned it before, but I can’t erase the image of the old man that Boswell gives us of the last time the two men met. They are in a carriage. The vehicle stops so that Johnson can exit and walk to his house. He asks Boswell to go with him. Boswell can’t. Boswell does not know it’s the last time he will see Johnson. And then Johnson, knowing he is going home to an empty and cheerless house, going to a bed in which his pain (he is very ill) and anxiety will not allow him to sleep,”steps away with a pathetic briskness.” Nonetheless it is a courageous leave taking, and though one is proud of Johnson, one winces too.

There is a lot in life to make us wince, but Johnson avers that to whine about it would be self-indulgent cant. That life is hard was to Johnson axiomatic. One didn’t complain. When times were good, one expressed gratitude. Oh, Johnson knew without peradventure that better than any king’s throne was a stool in a tavern and that no pleasure could equal a man’s being alone with a pretty woman in a post chaise. A good drink and a pretty woman: they are hard to beat.

How does a man keep a house on a winter’s night? How does a man keep a life? How does a man do anything? He does it the best he can. I think Johnson would have agreed. Johnson, as did Becker, asks the simple question: “Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate, / Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?” Of course each of us must. Johnson advises us, as does Becker, not to attempt to obtain the mercies of the skies; that is, to make sense of things, to gain privileged reward from natural law. One must, instead, try to have faith in something beyond humanity, a faith that, even if one will never know what it is, each person furnishes some part of the great scheme of the universe. I am sure most of members of the Ernest Becker Foundation can remember the last sentence in Denial of Death: “The most that any one of us can do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force.”

I don’t know the following is relevant to what precedes it, but it might be important for us members of the EBF to remember something Becker said in his deathbed interview with Sam Keen. I don’t know, have no idea really, possess no data at all, but I’d guess that most members of the EBF are atheists. We should note, whether we agree with him or not, what Becker says to Keen a few days before Becker dies. Keen says, “Your personal philosophy of life seems to be a  Stoic kind of heroism.” Well, I suspect few of Beckerians have any problem with Keen’s summing here. You might, however, if you haven’t read Becker’s response to Keen’s comment, be surprised at what Becker says: “Yes, though I would add the qualification that I believe in God.”

Both Becker and Johnson know that when the world is shed of all illusion, when things stand revealed for what they are, the only consolation available is a faith in something higher than humankind that redeems life, though neither man’s mind, and neither can ours, can encompass this Force that they thought, regardless of the impossibility of ever understanding it, life could be said to have a purpose.