Monday, March 7, 2011

Devil In The Details (Part 3)

Note to visitors:  This is the final section of a three-part post.  It reprises earlier themes, re-employs the Theology of Meaning diagram shown in Part 2, and discusses the middle area of that diagram.  Several music playlists are located in appropriate areas.  (Please refer to Devil In The Details (Part 1) and Devil In The Details (Part 2) for background up to this point.)
  


In a 1980 class one morning, a teacher said, "Disciples always kill their masters."  Meaning: a creator with a singular vision attracts followers; those followers will learn, translate, teach, but also form discrepant narratives of what The Master Really Meant; upon death of the Master, surviving disciples will keep the gospel alive, memorializing its Message through diverse explanations and translations.  Squabbles and rifts break out because the disciples have singular understandings of what they heard and read, despite having attended the same lectures, read the same texts.

The problem aggravates when first-generation disciples die and succeeding generations grapple with textual interpretations, a problem further compounded when the Message is spread to and understood by people in other cultures and historical eras.  The eventual difference between what Jesus, Marx, or Freud actually said and subsequent renderings of what he said becomes vast.


As John Taylor (1580-1653) put it:

     God sends meat, and the Devil sends cooks.
     (Works [1630], Vol. II, p. 85)       

Interpretation issues are not confined to masters and disciples.  In everyday life, I need only reference my last argument with someone. The gap between what I said and what someone heard may be vast.  A data field is seldom clear-cut, as any judge, theologian, umpire, or marriage counselor knows.  Consider the permutations of a joke or piece of music over time, or the various understandings of a crossword puzzle clue.  Meanings slip about and change depending on the listener, the situation, the era.  The word "niggardly" is an etymologic cousin to "niggling."  Both derive from the Old Norse verb nigla –– which meant to be fussy about stupid stuff.  Yet today "niggardly" can be culturally charged, because of its phonetic similarity to a racial insult.  

We don't really control what our words mean.

That said, there are honest and dishonest interpretations of meaning. Dishonest renderings rend an original whole into bits, then re-present those bits as a new whole.  Libel, slander, malicious gossip are forms of such debased meaning-making.  They occupy Hell Major in the Theology Of Meaning chart (below), and were discussed as devilish perception in Part 1 and Part 2 of this post.

Malicious wordplay was also contrasted to the godlike perception of Heaven: creative meaning-making that unifies elements within a person and also connects unrelated persons to one another.  Such as what happens with a poem, catchy phrase, or other creative word-art.
If it hooks my attention, stays with me, seems to speak to me and for me, then I feel more pulled together and braced up.  I also feel less isolated, being part now of a group
 whose members are felt to share a common wavelength.  If a line from a poem speaks to me, I'm simultaneously in relationship with the poet (though he or she doesn't know it), and I'm also in fellowship with admirers of that poet (though they don't know it).

Here is Garrison Keillor on the subject of good poetry:

     The meaning of poetry is to give courage.  A poem is not a
     puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve.  It is
     meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise
     and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your
     socks, wake up and die right. ... what really matters about
     poetry and what distinguishes poets from, say, fashion models
     or ad salesmen is the miracle of incantation in rendering the
     gravity and grace and beauty of the ordinary world and thereby
     lending courage to strangers.
     (Good Poems for Hard Times), 2005, p. xvii)

A good metaphor pulls together subjective impressions into a phrase that speaks for an individual ––  a phrase that materializes a less formed piece of that person's story, that real-izes something.  Its voice is so evocative that it also "pokes" other people, capturing some essence of their story.  An "incantation," it casts a spell and binds.  In Part 2, Paul Simon's metaphor of "a bridge over troubled water" was used to illustrate such godlike perception.  That metaphor crystallizes one aspect of "the gravity and grace and beauty" of human love, and it also feels true to the experiences of others.  It unifies.

In reprising these poles of Heaven and Hell Major, consider this passage from Love And Will (1969), by Rollo May:


     Satan, or the devil, comes from the Greek word diabolos     

     "diabolic" is the term in contemporary English.  Diabolos, 
     interestingly enough, literally means "to tear apart”
     (dia-bollein).  Now it is fascinating to note that the diabolic
     is the antonym to "symbolic."  The latter comes from
     sym-bollein, and means "to throw together,” to unite.
     There lie in these words tremendous implications with
     respect to an ontology of good and evil.  The symbolic 
     that which draws together, ties, integrates the individual in
     himself and with his group; the diabolic, in contrast, is
     that which disintegrates and tears apart.  (p. 138)


This passage is intriguing.  The symbolic expands and unifies a field, generates a broad palette of associations and evocations.  We feel bigger, part of something, lifted up, Heaven-bound.  By contrast, the diabolic breaks up a field, constricts and fixes meaning, leaves us diminished.

To elaborate (albeit loosely), this is similar to the differing effects a sign and a symbol have upon us.  A sign prescribes a fixed meaning.  Take this one:

When I see this sign I stop.  It tells me what to think and do.  It controls me and there is, in fact, not that much of "me."
I do not as a rule sit at a STOP sign lost in reverie, immersed in and expanded through imaginative fantasy, pleasantly associating to the color red, the punch of block letters, the curve of the S, the octagonal shape.  I instead contract myself into a highway object, an obedient and attentive driver.


(However, were I in an art gallery looking at the same sign, I might indeed allow for creative meandering, for symbolic play.  So the context for perception is important: some spaces are temples for reverie, some are not.)


I am not suggesting that signs are diabolic.  I am suggesting that some people take a data field, with its furrows and hillocks of meaning, and turn it into a flat surface.  This is what the scurrilous blogger did to Shirley Sherrod (see Part 1) when he sliced her speech into bits, reworking parts into a new whole so as to libel her.  A field became a point, a complex narrative became a "sign" of Ms. Sherrod's alleged racism.

To underscore this point, I cite Isak Dinesen (1885-1962):


     What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely
     set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red
     wine of Shiraz into urine?
     ("The Dreamers," Seven Gothic Tales [1934], p. 275) 
   
In a just world, and were fiction fact, we would consign this blogger to the 8th circle of hell in Dante Alighieri's Inferno (1314) –– the region set aside for the fraudulent: flatterers, seducers, sorcerers, astrologers, false prophets, corrupt politicians, sowers of discord, scandalmongers.

Smiley.svg
SMILEY FACE
Finally, here is a whimsical illustration of the hellish versus the heavenly, the sign-like versus the symbolic.  Here are two smiles.

Smiley Face fixes meaning, it is directive and a bit of a bully.*  A cousin to canned sitcom laughter, it tells us, "This is funny, start laughing."

MONA LISA 
By contrast, Mona Lisa invites associative reverie, lets us feel we are meaning-making subjects with ideas of our own, not objects of outside direction.  She doesn't treat us like dolts, and instead we feel enlivened.  Something is abuzz in our minds and this elusive "something" is our moment in Heaven.  *(It seems churlish to link Smiley Face with Hell Major: Smiley's not that bad.  But while I recognize that Smiley Face lacks the malevolent divisiveness of Hell Major's denizens, I use it here as an expedient foil to Mona Lisa.)




THEOLOGY OF MEANING

Now we can not all be artists and poets, although there are some who spend most of their time in Heaven (singer-songwriter John Gorka, for one).  Nor are we all schemers and hucksters, although Angry White Man news commentators come close, seldom slithering from their burrows and rockpiles in Hell Major.


JOHN GORKA IN HEAVEN

The rest of us routinely shuttle between Earth and Hell Minor, stops in the middle theological ground of everyday meaning making, the region where we muddle along as best we can given the way we see things.  I'll go out on a limb here and argue that most of us mean well most of the time, that we are not inherently nasty and devious.  The trick is in how we see, broadly or narrowly, clearly or obscurely.

Take that speck in the high sky; is it a bird, a plane, Superman, a doomsday comet?  We humans share a multiplicity of perspectives, interpreting data according to our lights, histories, expectations.  On a clear day, we reflect on that speck, considering light, mass, velocity, motion –– ruling out comet, say, because the object zigzags –– and eventually we settle on a nuanced understanding of the phenomenon. (A thank-you here to physicist friends Clari, Marco, and Martin.)
On these clear days we are on or near Earth.  Our interpretations of data allow for multiplicity, we wait for meanings to unfold, let new or disconfirming data inform our views, and thus tolerate ambiguity and difference –– thereby accepting the same shadings in meanings that we allow for in dialects.  Life on Earth is inherently variegated, after all. We differ from one another, even differ within our own selves from time to time, mood to mood, age to age, situation to situation.  It is something of a marvel that we are grounded on Earth as much as we are, that we get it right as often as we do.

   The Best of My Love:
   Eagles

Of course, even when we see clearly we may not be happy.  As the Eagles (1974) demonstrate in "The Best of My Love”:

     I'm going back in time
     And it's a sweet dream
     It was a quiet night
     And I would be alright
     If I could go on sleeping


     But every mornin'
     I wake up and worry
     What's gonna happen today
     You see it your way,
     I see it mine
     But we both see it slipping away
        
     You know we always had each other, baby
     I guess that wasn't enough   
     But here in my heart
     I give you the best of my love

These aren't happy lines.  Each morning an upset lover sees the lay of the land and knows it won't support two.  It's not that he and his partner don't have all the facts or that some greater understanding will resolve their difficulties.  Accepting difference undergirds happy unions but it doesn't guarantee them.  We can see what's going on yet not necessarily survive it as a couple.

That's everyday life on Earth and Earth is not paradise.  However, Earth isn't so very far from Heaven and sometimes we enjoy contemplative glimpses of its light.  Such as when we relax companionably with a sunset at day's end, our minds unwound and receptive ... and an impromptu thought or novel perception occurs.
This is a bit of paradise.

More often, though, when we leave Earth it is not toward Heaven we head.  With impressive ease we drift into Hell Minor, the place of blinkered perception, where multiplicity is lost and interpretations of what's happening are corseted by allegiances, fears, plodding over-analysis.

MONOPOLY BOARD GAME
To put this geographically, Earth is as close to Heaven as it is to Hell Minor, yet routinely we make more frequent visits to the latter.  We have glimpses of Heaven yet ride commuter trains to Hell Minor.  As if we were standing on the GO square in MONOPOLY, equidistant between Boardwalk and Mediterranean Avenue, yet carried by the game's structure toward the distressed neighborhoods and away from the richer digs.  (Oh, and speaking of language meanings, Mediterranean Avenue and its adjacent neighbors, Baltic Avenue and Oriental Avenue, share names that are distinctly culturally charged.  They're unlike the Waspy-sounding neighborhoods of St. James Place, Marvin Gardens, Park Place, or the all-American neighborhoods named after states, like New York Avenue, Illinois Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue.)


Not only is Hell Minor easier to get to than Heaven, it is curiously adhesive.  Once we start mucking about in it, we have the devil of a time getting clear.

What is the nature of this easily accessible, oft-visited, adhesive place?

In the Theology of Meaning chart, Hell Minor divides into three subtypes.  Two of them, True Believer Perception and Fearful Perception were discussed in Part 1 –– these being ways of knowing in which ardent loyalties and paralyzing fears minimize complexity, narrow understanding, and prompt deluded action (see Part 1).  Afire with missionary zeal or crippled by fear, we lose sight of the long view and the wide view and are drawn toward the simple view.  The devil is in the overlooked details.

The third subtype, Systematizing Perception narrows perception in a paradoxical way.  Unlike True Believer or Fearful Perception, Systematizing Perception suffers from too much data because of over-analysis and over-inclusion of details.  We have all the facts but miss the point.  We crisscross a territory and capture all its details, but we fail to sort foreground from background, fail to prioritize.  


The devil hides in plain sight, in the weighty glut of details.  

Sadly, this subtype of Hell Minor is well known to me, and I will return to it shortly, (ironically) after this list of systematized details:

  • Hell Minor comprises three sub-parts, yes, but these interconnect and inform one another ––  such as when True Believer Perception recruits Systematizing Perception in relation to a cherished tenet.  The adherence of the True Believer is bolstered by the gravitas and byzantine complexity of systematized articles of Faith; blinded by the light of Faith the True Believer sidesteps Fearful Perception. Faith's radiance crowds out disconfirming data and for some time the cult member, cuckolded lover, culture-bound innocent can remain devoutly unaware of any greater surround.  Belief systems immunize against the disorganizing anxiety to be felt should organizing truths be revealed as vagrant and false. 
  • Hell Minor's three subtypes are a sketch of the complexity of what's out there.  Hell Minor is surely broader than what these subtypes suggest.  Still, as a first pass through this territory, I have found allegiance, fear, and sprawling fussiness to be typical inhibitors of nuanced perception.  For now, they strike me as foreground features.
  • A geographical note: Hell Minor faces the side of Earth facing away from Heaven.  It is far from Heaven because it is a pressured place, where demons of allegiance, fear, and pedantry continuously poke with pitchforks.  Now when poked by something we necessarily feel stress.  Thus by its very nature Hell Minor rules out rest, relaxation and reverie –– this last being the very key to Heaven (see Part 2).  It would be easier for a True Believer, Fearful Perceiver, or Systematizing Fussbudget to slip through the eye of a needle than to waft through the climes of Heaven.
  • A moral addendum to the geographical note: uncomfortable (or deludedly comfortable) as Hell Minor can be, it is still a long way from Hell Major –– because blinkered meanings, however limiting, are not intentionally hurtful and divisive. Our partial understandings can episodically lead to horrific outcomes, as in religious crusades, ethnic cleansings, tribal revenge killings, but even when they do there is often at least a delusion of rectitude.  More typically, in everyday life we visit Hell Minor whenever we say and do stupid things, sometimes stunningly thoughtless things.  Yet again, we are not inherently diabolical.  Our true-believer sister, our fearful friend, our systematizing boss, they drive us crazy but they are not evil.  Their damage is real but it is collateral fallout from people sincerely misinformed, under-informed, over-informed.
  • A second moral addendum: we can have a well-intended, if screwy, perception yet not be in Hell Minor.  As long as we can take in corrective feedback and revise our perspectives, we're still living on Earth.  We all get it wrong sometimes, the issue is whether we can learn from our misjudgments.
  • Now let's return to the Systematizing Perception subtype. Its plodding over-analysis brings to mind another classroom memory, from 1970.
An instructor was describing forms of government.  After citing aristocracy, autocracy, theocracy, plutocracy, democracy, he arrived at bureaucracy, which he defined as "rule by nobody," and which he argued was dominant in contemporary American government.

"Bureaucracy" and "system" are not exactly synonyms, but they overlap in that both are slow to gain direction and moral footing.  A system's bureaucratic parts are beset by data, with attention diffusing over every past, present, and potential feature in that system's landscape.  This fosters inertia, an inertia that may reflect systemic exhaustion in the face of information overload, or may reflect poor communication within the system's parts, or result from conflicting rule-sets and catch-22's.*  Or it may be all these things, but importantly inertia precludes action and responsibility.  Bureaucracies are not nimble.  Adaptive reorientations are
 slow to emerge from the welter of details and no one seems in charge or accountable.  *(My friend Martin defines bureaucracy as "rule by rules.")

An example.  The 2/21/11 issue of Newsweek carried the cover story, "How Obama Blew It In Egypt," a story about conflicting directions, indirection, indecision, and ultimately a delay in moral clarity.  This is an example from the world stage (and perhaps not the best one, given the repressive sequelae in the wake of the Arab Spring).  Closer to home, any one of us can get lost in details, covering so many bases that we immobilize ourselves, undergoing death by dithering –– when we're obliged to write a paper for some rite of passage, make plans for a wedding, make sense of health insurance documents, prepare tax returns.

Here, for example, is the preoccupied businessman from The Little Prince, by Antoine De Saint-Exupery (1943).  The little prince has come to the 4th planet in his travels through space.  He finds a businessman there, the sole occupant of the planet.  The man is sitting at a desk in strained, exasperated solitude.  He is counting up stars:

     Five-hundred-and-one million, six-hundred-twenty-two

     thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one.  I am concerned with 
     matters of consequence: I am accurate.  (p. 45)

The businessman thinks he owns the stars, is certain they are his because he is certain they belong to nobody else.  His world is reduced to numbers and cataloguing, he has devolved into a human abacus. His character shows a feature strikingly common to all subtypes of Hell Minor, the absence of play.

Hell Minor is a serious place, with much tension and urgency but little that is playful, whimsical, spontaneous.  When we recall that unfocused awareness, spontaneity, and creative wordplay are associated with Heavenly meaning making (Part 2), we take the measure of what Hell Minor does to us.  At root, it kills joy and the suppleness of spirited living.




Hell Minor is pivotal in my Theology because it is the one zone open to amelioration.  Heavenly and Earth-bound perceptions require no betterment, while the slanderous spinners from Hell Major are beyond redemption.

Let's now look at Hell Minor’s three subtypes from another angle, distilling the three into two categories.  Each represents a moral malformation.

The first: a sphincter morality in which complex situations become narrowed into categories of acceptable or unacceptable, clean or stinky.  Both True Believer and Fearful Perception turn human multiplicity into something unclean and one-dimensional.  People are rendered into cartoons or flat characters, sign-objects rather than sentient subjects.

The second malformation may be worse.  It is the amoral obscurity or equivocation sometimes seen with Systematizing Perception –– when political systems are slow to respond to human rights abuses, gun regulation, killer viruses, global warming.  A worse failing because we expect more from top government counselors, to whom we look for leadership, than we do from fundamentalists and fearful people, whom reflexively we shut out when they come knocking with their agendas and alarums.

Both types of moral stunting are potentially ameliorable.  But how?  
In great measure, by installing a mental post-it note which says:

     There is likely more to this picture than we know or are
     being shown.  It is a loving act to take our time and be
     thoughtful.  But while we should be thoughtful, we needn't

     overthink it, needn't stall in endless mulling.  There is a
     distinction between creative reverie and obsessiveness,
     and we've a civic duty to speak up, contribute, be known.


Let me add here that I am using "loving act" in the sense proposed by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas*–– which is that love is knowing, a concrete, detailed knowing of the particularities of another.  One carries in mind the precise nature of another, the other's interests and disinterests, needs, wants, fears, dreams, regrets, etc.  Such knowing is a moral act: it counters apartness, isolation, diabolical division.  One holds in mind, and fairly accurately, the true nature of another.  One is thus wed internally to another.

Moreover, while a deep and broad knowing is a moral act, it will not by itself counter the lures of Hell Minor.  There is also an obligation in a social contract to speak up and participate in community life.  *(See blog posts, The Strangeness and Remember Me; see especially, "The Psychoanalyst's Multiple Functon," in Forces of Destiny [1989], by Christopher Bollas.)

Here are two musical examples of blinkered situations in which remedial post-it notes might have been helpful.  The first is sadly winsome.  It is "All Night Cafe" by Live Bait, from their 2007 album
Willie and the String Band:


   All Night Cafe:
   Live Bait


The setting: a down-home boy has a crush on a waitress, in a cafe forgotten by time and the interstate.  He is certain, on the basis of little data, that she's not right for him.  Worse, he keeps his dreams and fears to himself, doesn't speak up.  We listeners feel a potential connection slipping away.

I will start with the second verse:

     Now Connie's waitin' tables and she's
     Got the late shift at the All Night Cafe    
     She's saving up for school and,
     Oh yeah, it's true, she's goin' to move away.
     For she's a social climber and he's a good-timer
     That's how he sees it, what else can he say
     The sun's goin' down on the outside of town
     On Rock n' Roll Johnny and the All Night
     Cafe.

     Now Rock n' Roll Johnny feeds the jukebox
     And he punches up another song
     He knows every hit for the last ten years
     And now he sings along
     He sings ooh ooh I love you baby
     He sings ooh baby hey hey hey hey
     Rock n' Roll Johnny has fallen for Connie
     But she's saving her money and moving away
     From the All Night Cafe

     Now someday's you're blind
     Someday's you're near-sighted     
     Today it's clouded over     
     And he only knows he loves 
     Her good-time company
     For she's a social climber and he's a good-timer
     That's how he sees it, what else can he say
     The sun's goin' down on the outside of town
     On Rock n' Roll Johnny and the All Night Cafe...
     And the All Night Cafe

Rock n' Roll Johnny can't see beyond a cultural perspective in which higher education and moving away equate to social climbing.  He himself is a "good-timer," and what he notices and loves in Connie is essentially what he likes in himself, "good-time company."  Her aspirations for schooling are perplexing and dismissed as elitism.  The region of Hell Minor that Johnny inhabits is largely that of the True Believer, with perhaps a dollop of Fearful perception as regards the wider world outside his familiar reality.

A second musical example is Bob Dylan's sharply drawn "Ballad Of A Thin Man" (1965):

Here, the narrator is utterly lost and isolated, drawn increasingly into a world of meanings for which he hasn't an access code.  The song charts a fearful uncertainty about what's going on, what things mean, and how the narrator might fit into this looking-glass place.

   Ballad of a Thin Man:
   Bob Dylan


Here are its first two stanzas:

     You walk into the room
     With your pencil in your hand
     You see somebody naked
     And you say, Who is that man?
     You try so hard but you don't understand
     Just what you will say when you get home
     Because something is happening here
     But you don't know what it is
     Do you? Mr. Jones
     
     You raise up your head
     And you ask, Is this where it is?
     And somebody points to you and says, It's his
     And you say, What's mine?
     And somebody else says, Where what is?
     And you say, Oh my God, am I here all alone?
     But something is happening
     And you don't know what it is
     Do you? Mr. Jones

Fearful, disoriented, and unequipped to draw any significant or steadying conclusions, Mr. Jones has gone to hell.
 


We are nearing the end of this lengthy three-part post.

MUDDLING-THROUGH SONGS

To sum up:  There is a moral dimension to how we make sense of things.  Our understandings matter and the words we use to convey them matter: they can be connective tissue or a tissue of lies.

How we know one another matters, and when we deeply know one another it is a loving act.  Some understandings bring us together, fostering social and relational cohesion.  Some understandings leave us isolated and in the dark, these fanned by the intensities, fears, and over-methodical mires that visit us all.
And some meanings are intentionally hurtful and divisive, the stuff of slander, distortions, lies.

Perhaps it would help to place a cautionary post-it note in our minds, as outlined earlier.  What also would help are states of reverie, as these states relax mind, fostering wider understandings and novel perspectives.

As for falsifiers and slanderers, I don't know what could help.  They are actually doing their worst given the way they see things; or put differently, they are doing their best to sow discord given the way they manipulate facts.  They seem immune to moral development.

I will close now with a poem I thought old-fashioned and sappy when I was fifteen: Sonnet 43 from Sonnets From The Portuguese, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861).  With a backward nod to Christopher Bollas's equation of knowing with loving, try reading it with that equation in mind:

     How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
     I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
     My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
     For the ends of Being and Ideal Grace.
     I love thee to the level of everyday's
     Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
     I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
     I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
     I love thee with the passion put to use
     In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
     I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
     With my lost saints, –– I love thee with the breath,
     Smiles, tears, of all my life! –– and, if God choose,
     I shall but love thee better after death.

There is a commitment to loving here, with the poet's essence realized and re-nourished through a knowing attachment to another.  When feeling lost, "out of sight" of and uncomfortable in her "Being," Browning restores herself through loving connection.

Interestingly, while the poem unwaveringly addresses "thee," it is really about the expansive soul-filled "I" of the poet.  We could imagine that this expansiveness has something of True Believer perception about it, that Browning is gushing.  Does she truly and fully know "thee," or is she simply in love with love?  I prefer to think otherwise, that hers is a perception broader than idolatory, one that compasses the north, south, east, west of the beloved.  A "soul" that stretches to its utmost depth, breadth, and height would seem capable of noticing small details and singularities in the other.

As when she says:

     I love thee to the level of everyday's
     Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight


This reminds me of the joy in giving, particularly when we get it right, when we know someone so specifically that our gift fits, when in some sense the two of us fit ––this is "Ideal Grace."  And so I'd rather think that Browning's commitment involves full attention to the loved one, a knowing that sees the whole as an amalgam of small constituent traits. Not one or two details, not a smile, a shape, or a pedigree, but a host of interests, leanings and aspects.

However, the closing line of Sonnet 43 dilutes the force of Browning's commitment.  Given her "lost saints," and her re-investment of "childhood's faith" in the beloved on this earthly plane, the possibility for love after death veers off course.  It's a strong statement, maybe a 19th century one, but the poem’s power lies in Browning's assertive commitment to love in the here and now, not the hereafter.  A commitment precious and dear because of shared mortality, because time runs out.  We find love, sustain love, and hold to it so keenly precisely because someday we're going to exit this stage.  This splendid poem would not suffer were it to drop the last line and end with "Smiles, tears, of all my life!"  (Although that would of course be a 21st century intrusion on an earlier sensibility, as well as an aesthetic intrusion into the unity of an artist's creation.)

Finally, the blunt fact of death returns us to meaning making.  We've only so much time, and partial or corrupted understandings are ever at hand.  It's important to try to get it right, remain open to shadings –– the "quiet" movements in ourselves and others.  And if it is true that most of us do the best we can given the way we see things, and that reverie does broaden our vision, and that wide-sight does support love and social cohesion, and that social bonds are primary and poignant because of our finite time here, then most of us are accidental theologians already.  We may as well be conscious about it.


2 comments :

Jan said...

Hi Kit,

I'm glad to see that you got the widgets working again! Friday night is my blog night, but prior to reading your blog I listened to Jill Bolte Taylor's talk on TED. She is a brain scientist who had a stroke and was experiencing it for quite a while before she realized what was happening. She had a blood clot in the left side of her brain, and explains the unique qualities of the left brain and the right brain. Anyway, her left brain was "online" sometimes, and silent for periods of time. When she was aware of only her right brain, she was in a state of Nirvana. She describes it quite eloquently.

Reading your post, I found myself thinking, "left brain" at some points, and, "right brain" at others (Heaven). I think it's interesting that I did that. I wonder what I would have been thinking had I not viewed her talk first. Anyway, as always, you have given me a lot to think about!

If you haven't seen her TED talk, you can view it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

Jan

Kit said...

Thanks Jan. I have Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight, but sadly it has joined a pile of partially read books by my bedside. I heard her speak on NPR once so I'm following (and very much appreciate) your very interesting connection. Thanks also for the link to Bolte Taylor's talk.

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