Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sometimes It Needs Only a Word, Some Things to Take Into Account

Restless, just back home today from another sojourn, this time a musical one with words inadequate to convey it, a road trip for music's sake, unable to sleep tonight, probably, knowing my own habits and tendencies, knowing I'll probably end up curled up on the couch rather than in bed, worn out finally by tiredness, still, too tired to sleep, mind still spinning from two long days of driving home after the music seminar, turning at last to those small books, some taken with me on the travels, to be read in the tent in the morning, or over breakfast, or just to keep in the breast pocket, a talisman, others pulled at random from the shelves once home, restless, late at night, pulled down to read on the couch even as the mind whirls and the eyes begin to fail.

And everything begins to converge. To find some kind of connected meaning, or meanings, gathered together as though intentional, as though planned, as though guided by a hand unseen in any light the eye can see, that inner light of the true human. And it all ties together, and somehow connects. Perhaps it's only that it's late at night and I'm writing this as a way of avoiding going to bed. But perhaps there are indeed connected threads of meaning here.

Man is nourished by the invisible. Man is nourished by that which is beyond the personal. He dies from preferring their opposites.
—Jacques Lusseyran, from Against the Pollution of the I

The great Lusseyran, made blind in an accident at age eight, an organizer of the French Underground during the Nazi Occupation of France, a survivor of Buchenwald, who went on to obtain advanced degrees, and teach many. Lusseyran, who admitted to no limits, and who wrote and spoke often about the inner light that being blinded had allowed him to see. The inner light that both gave him hope, and heart, and the poetry of living, and which was also useful as an absolutely accurate lie detector during the Resistance in Paris. Lussyeran, whose legacy in English translation is only two or three books, but among the most luminous of the 20th Century, as luminous as Pacem In Terris, as Thomas Merton, as others, who all echo through each other's thoughts.

Discovering recently one more unknown Thomas Merton book, Peace in the Post-Christian Era, written in 1962 but published only in 2004. A book censored and stopped by the Abbot-General of his Trappist order, who told Merton to stop writing about peace and war. But the book was printed in mimeo, and distributed by hand, only a few hundred copies, but some made it into the right hands, and the book probably influenced the Second Vatican Council in 1962 through 1965, and probably influenced John the XXIII's encyclical Pacem In Terris, which profoundly influenced Frederick Franck, and gave him a name for his home in upstate New York, which became a place for his iconic artworks and buildings and work in stone and steel, which I visited in May earlier this year and which moved me so deeply, as I anticipated, that I can still barely speak of it, or what I experienced. Sometimes you reach the end of words, sometimes it needs only a word, and there are some things to take into account.

On my travels this past month I took with me a small volume titled The Pocket Thomas Merton, which, along with Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior, has been one of those breast-pocket talismans as I went through the day. Both Merton and Basho rode along with me, these past two days, nestled among the detritus of travel on the passenger seat of my truck, as I drove home.

The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It pre-determines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own thought. Propaganda makes up our minds for us but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to.

This is one of the few real pleasures in life left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. And this someone else is not a personal authority, the great mind of a genial thinker, it is the mass-mind, the general "they," the anonymous whole. One is left, therefore, not only with the sense that one has thought things out for himself, but that he has also reached the correct answer without difficulty—the answer which is shown to be correct because it is the answer of everybody. Since it is at once my answer and the answer of everybody, how should I resist it?

—Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton would be pleased that his writings still mean so much to the current world. His would be equally dismayed that his words were still so relevant to our social conditions that have in some cases changed not at all, in other instances have worsened. He would be appalled at how necessary we find his writings now more than ever. He would be both horrified by and resigned to our contemporary tyrannies we inflict upon ourselves and each other.

When I read Jacques Lusseyran, or another survivor of a WW II concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, I read words written by minds that were made truly free by the circumstances of confronting the end of existence very often, very personally. I encounter minds truly free, in every way, from the conventions of social politeness. Minds truly free because they have actually thought things through for themselves, by themselves, and not settled on everyone else's answer. Merton was another freed mind, freed by early encounters with death and dislocation, a mind who had to write in order to know what he himself thought, and who created meaning as he went along. Frankl wrote often about how we create meaning out of the search for meaning itself.

Here's a truth that few will tell you: Our much-honored legal system doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything. That it does is a lie. We are all free to do anything we want to do, at any time. It's a matter of choice. All the legal system does is remind us that their are consequences to our actions, some more than others. The laws of conduct that we impose upon ourselves are a set of expectations about social interaction and relationship, encoded in the language of both civil rights and of authoritarianism alike.

Sometimes all it takes is a word to remind you that you are truly free, that you have always been free, that you will always be free. And that every choice has meaning, even if only the meaning we choose to give to that choice. And that every action has consequences, that nothing happens in a disconnected vacuum. Our modern, and post-modern, sense of alienation is as much as cultural ideology invented by our times as all those ideologies from previous eras in our culture that we, in our post-modern hipness and irony, mock. In fact, contemporary hipness and irony, especially in literature and the arts, is as stale an ideology as anything it itself condemns. Once, it was meant to break us out of complacency: now it has become a newer complacency. It only takes one idealist at a time to remind us how far off-course we have let ourselves stray. Such voices are rarely without controversy.

This is what prophets do: warn, remind, cajole, threaten us with the truth. Prophets don't prevent anyone from doing anything. But they do remind us that there are consequences to what we do, what we choose to do, consciously or otherwise. We are free to act, to create meaning. But we had better know what the price will be.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In my last novel one of the characters, a priest as it happens, puts into words for the two protagonists a simple truth: "There are no reasons for unreasonable things." Writing this was a revelation to me because I'm a man who looks for meaning in everything. And yet there are things I've done in my life that don't make sense, where I have, and sometimes consciously, gone against what would have been reasonable to do at the time. I have looked back on those times and tried to find reasons hoping that they would come to the surface with the passing of time but they never have.

I've been thinking a bit of late about the idea of 'emotional meaning' which I suppose is a way of complicating saying that something feels right. Rightness and wrongness are intellectual constructs but we combine them into the oil-and-water mix that is 'felt right' because that's how we intellectualise feelings.

Feelings, like music, which you began talking about, are untranslatable, at least, when they are translated much is lost. What I'm trying to say is that meaning is not the be all and end all and looking for it can sometimes be very frustrating. Sometimes we dress up things in meanings because we're uncomfortable with them naked.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's a Zen-like truth: that there is no inherent meaning, and that we construct meaning because we think we need it. The endless search for the "why"s of things.

Sometimes there is no "why," there's just an "is." I get called a nature poet, of course, since some of my poetry is based on experiences in nature and of nature—as opposed to the endless poetry about human relationships; which of course is the subject of almost every pop song lyric ever written, some sort of human relationship—but in fact my subject has never been "nature" at all. (We are not separate from nature, we only think we are. I love the hawks and eagles and foxes and coyotes one can observe in The City, for example.) My subject has always been to point out that some things just are—that simple "is"—and need neither explanation nor justification.

There are no reasons for some things, in any way, reasonable or otherwise: they simply are what they are.

5:48 PM  

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