If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to My breast.

-George Herbert

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Friday, July 16, 2010

ROBERT BLY: Call and Answer

Another thought provoking poem from Robert Bly. It needs to be listened to three or four times.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Crime and Punishment

I recently finished reading Dostoyevsky's novel, Crime and Punishment, and have been pondering the similarities and differences between the characters of Sonya and Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov, a desperately impoverished university drop-out living in St. Petersburg in 1865, has developed a theory, based on historical observation, that the man of genius, the superior man, in view of his potential for becoming a benefactor to humanity, may commit murder if to do so will catapult him to the position of power and influence for which he is destined. Consequently, Raskolnikov works out a plan to murder an old pawnbroker and steal her money. He reckons that, with 3000 rubles, he will, as a gifted and promising student of the law, be enabled to commence a career which will benefit thousands, and his one act of evil will be more than compensated for by his future largesse, particularly since the victim of his crime is an avaricious old woman who profits from the wretchedness of the poor. The murder is carried out, but Raskolnikov's scheme goes awry when he is unexpectedly confronted with the pawnbroker's innocent and simple-minded sister, whom he had expected to be away, and is compelled to murder her, as well, to conceal his moments-old crime. He loses his nerve at this point, and flees the scene without even stealing his victim's money. This precipitates a moral crisis which manifests in Raskolnikov as physical and mental breakdown, since he is unable to recognize the moral dimension of his situation.

Sonya is an angelic young woman who becomes Raskolnikov's savior. She is a prostitute who has taken to the street solely to support her destitute stepmother and half-siblings because, otherwise, her father's uncontrollable alcoholism would shortly render them homeless. Like Raskolnikov, Sonya engages in transgressive behavior, in vice, for the purpose of aiding others. However, unlike Raskolnikov, her integrity and purity of spirit remain, for the present, intact. Why?

First of all, let me say that from the point of view of history, of purely natural reason, Raskolnikov's theory is correct. Leaders of nations and great movements cannot exist without murder, usually on a grand scale; and if they do not lose their nerve, and above all, if they succeed, far from being regarded as criminals, they will be revered as national heros. After all, by the death of thousands, millions are benefited. All this depends, however, on the absolute suppression of the supernatural principle of the infinite value of the human person. When this principle is recognized, there can be no more question of sacrificing another's life for the greater good...because nothing can be greater than that which is of infinite value. All purely natural scales of valuation and judgement are rendered meaningless. There can be no more question of recognizing "great" men and women apart from the "common herd". Raskolnikov fails, his nerve fails, because his essentially good heart is not as hardened against humanity as is his proud, immature and susceptible mind. It is precisely this conflict between mind and heart, exacerbated by extreme poverty, which plunges Raskolnikov into illness and near-madness, and which serves as the central conflict of the novel.

While Raskolnikov consciously holds to the natural ethic of human worth and the will-to-power described above, and is therefore motivated by a desire for self-aggrandizement, Sonya's descent into vice has no ulterior motives and no stimulus of pride. It is her humility, her Christlike willingness to suffer for others, and her concomitant sensitivity to the suffering of others, which preserves her spiritual virginity - if one may use the phrase - intact. She is the one who is able to make Raskolnikov understand that he is loved in spite of his crime and failure, and consequently to understand, finally, the true nature of his crime, whereupon repentance and healing become possible.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Rembrandt's "The Blinding of Samson".

What can one add to this masterful production of Rembrandt's genius? Listening to Bly's poem while contemplating this great painting is an interesting experience. I think there is some validity in Bly's insight that Samson is a solar figure, especially if one considers that the sun is a symbol of full, Divine, consciousness. In that context - thinking of Bly's marvelous poem - the men who are coming to blind Samson represent those persons and forces which have an interest in destroying, obscuring and veiling consciousness in our world, because the accomplishment of their desire requires that destruction.

In Rembrandt's picture, Samson is wrestled to the floor of a tent which looks, for all the world, like a cave. There is a blaze of intense light at samson's feet, outside the cave, while inside all is increasing darkness. Is the tent Plato's cave bereft of light? Is Samson the judge - the philosopher, the lover of wisdom - who has been seduced into believing that the ephemeral world of the senses is the real world, and has thus been blinded to the realm of divine ideas?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Blinding of Samson

Bly is the greatest poet I know of still alive and writing in America, and his genius simply increases with age. I think I should really have included him in my list on the previous post. He's better than comic books!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Good America, Bad America

I have a theory that each model of government requires of it's adherents an attitude which correlates with it's essential nature in order for it to operate at an optimum level. For instance, a genuine monarchy, an essentially conservative form of government, cannot function beautifully unless the majority of subjects at every socio-economic level are conservative in the most salutary sense of the word. Likewise, a democracy, because it is a fundamentally liberal form of government, cannot achieve it's full potential until the majority of it's citizens are truly liberal. Where government is concerned, the highest form is that which makes the people as a whole most contented, most creative and most virtuous. I think it would be quite possible to make a convincing argument for the soundness of both monarchy and democracy on the basis of that criterion.

The problem with America is that a slender but perennial majority of it's citizens labor under the burden of being forced to endure the rule of a liberal form of government while clinging to more or less conservative convictions. They are therefore constantly attempting to wrench American polity away from it's liberal constitutional foundations in order to tell everyone what to do and think, in accordance with their understanding of traditional values. Yet, at the same time, their patriotism (a profoundly conservative virtue) compels them to pay homage to the very constitution that undercuts their most cherished political inclinations. That is a formula for crazy, and it works! This is why we have a huge chunk of fundamentalist, yokel citizenry which hates and mistrusts it's duly elected government, yet considers itself fiercely patriotic. They have homes full of firearms against the day they will have to do battle against their overbearing, socialist leaders; yet they are ready to kill and die at the drop of a hat whenever those same leaders tell them to. This is why American democracy is so very slow to progress, and so very slow to outgrow it's vices, the foremost of which is war: a huge group of Americans who hate America need to prove they love America by continuously inventing and destroying her enemies. Even domestic policy initiatives are dubbed "wars" by their promoters: the "war on drugs", for example.

This is depressing for liberals like myself. But in the interests of balance, positive thinking, and Independence Day, here is a list of the 25 people and things which reveal to me personally, in one way or another and in no particular order of precedence, the distinctive beauty and quirky sublimity of the American Spirit. (There are so many more, of course. What's on your list?)

1. Walt Whitman
2. Jazz and Blues
3. Baseball
4. Bob Dylan
5. Bruce Springsteen
6. Martin Luther King Jr.
7. Joan Baez
8. Johnny Cash
9. Emily Dickinson
10. John Muir
11. Thomas Merton
12. Bluegrass
13. Rock'n'Roll and Folk-Rock
14. Diners
15. The National Parks
16. Clint Eastwood (That's what I said!)
17. Sinatra
18. Comic Books and Cartoons
19. Billy Holiday
20. Duke Ellington
21. NYC (The quintessential American melting-pot)
22. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I just had to stick that in!)
23. Katherine Jefferts Schori (Yeah, I really think so!)
24. Woodstock
25. The Beats

So Happy Birthday, America! Please try to behave.