Friday, December 12, 2008

Love Makes the World Go Round

One of Virgil's most famous remarks is this: "Love conquers all." It's from the classic Eclogue 10, Gallus, and the somewhat larger context is this: "In hell, and earth, and seas, and heavens above, / Love conquers all; and we must yield to love." That final remark is very important, for love can only conquer all, if we yield to it. This sentiment finds a new expression in one of the most famous late-classical and early medieval works, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. This work from the sixth century AD is also, among other things, a work written in prison, where its author was falsely sent for a year (as I recall). The work has to do with Lady Philosophy who comes to console the prisoner (Boethius) to lift his despair.

What is amazing about this text is that its "message" has a lot to do with Thoreau's (though I doubt that Thoreau simply imitated it). Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius by telling him about the transitory nature of all earthly "goods," and by advocating the cultivation of the pleasures of the mind (This, in essence, is what Thoreau also endorses). The world's evils can be, thus, overcome by "virtue." At the heart of Lady Philosophy's message is the idea that it's love that makes the world go round. The relevant chapter has a song devoted to the idea that love is lord of all. The final lines of the song go like this:

Tribes and nations Love unites
By just treaty's sacred rites;
Wedlock's bonds he sanctifies
By affection's softest ties.
Love appointeth, as is due,
Faithful laws to comrades true—
Love, all-sovereign Love!—oh, then,
Ye are blest, ye sons of men,
If the love that rules the sky
In your hearts is throned on high!

What is also present in this song (and idea) is that it's "divine" love that we must - to use Virgil's words again - submit to. It's the love "that rules the sky" (divine love) that must come into our hearts. So love is the greatest good for us. Without it, we are nothing (as is also writ large in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians).

W. H. Auden included this same idea in the original version of one of his poems ("September 1, 1939"), where he gives expression to it this way: "We must love one another or die."

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Poetic faith"

In Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge brings up one of his most famous dicta, the "willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith." I was watching a movie the other day on DVD. It's not a great movie, but it's entertaining enough in its own way. It's one of those movies that explores a man in freakish and cruel control of a woman - in this case a husband who imprisons his wife on a secluded island in a wilderness somewhere. The movie is Devil's Pond (2003) and it stars Kip Pardue (as the husband) and Tara Reid (as the wife). The blurb on the back of the DVD says this:

"What starts out as a romantic honeymoon getaway soon turns into a nightmare when [the wife] finds out that her new husband has no plans of ever letting her go. Trapped on a deserted island with no communication to the outside world, [the wife] realizes that only one of them will make it off the island alive!"

I don't think I'll spoil the movie for you (if so, sorry about that) when I tell you that, of course, after immense and at times bloody struggles it's the wife who manages to escape - and this is also what we as viewers ardently desire and long for. For most of the movie all we see is the two of them, alone on this deserted island. So where does the "suspension of disbelief" and that famous "poetic faith" come into the picture? Well, as you know (if you have ever had the pleasure of watching a movie on a DVD), these disks have a lot more on them than just the movie itself. Like a behind-the-scenes account of how a given movie was made. It's when I watched that part of this particular DVD that the idea of the "suspension of disbelief" and the "poetic faith" that it constitutes popped into my head. When I watched this part of the DVD, all my "illusions" got busted. The couple was not alone on that island. In fact, there were more people there than I thought that small island could possibly accommodate. No need to list them all. The director was there as well as the whole "motley crew," including stunt doubles.

After I had finished watching this part of the DVD, I had decided to watch the movie itself again. I wanted to see if I could still watch the movie as if by some magic I was merely witnessing events that were actually happening and that only I could see. For isn't this what happens when we watch a movie by ourselves? Even if we watch it in a theater, don't we feel that we are allowed to see something that's actually happening right in front of our eyes? Indeed, we allow ourselves the pleasure of the illusion that is always already created by a whole bunch of people behind the scenes. We see happenings that are made up, that are fictitious, and that are made up slowly by a whole bunch of people. (And, of course, we really know this behind, as it were, our own scenes.)

But doesn't this also happen when we are reading a novel? We don't think about how the story of the novel was made up. We just get into it and "see" what happens in it just by reading the words on the page in front of us. We don't think about the fact that a given writer wrote those words - on paper in the old days, on a computer's keyboard these days. And if we are reading a physical book, we don't stop to reflect on the fact that it had gone through its own "motley crew" before it became a physical book. Like an editor and a copy editor, and then the printer and the binder, etc.

Coleridge was simply giving verbal expression to something that we as human beings are apparently wired for: the capacity to overlook the making of a movie or a book in order to just see the story unfold, and to believe that what we are seeing is really happening right then and there. This is just one of the miracles of the human mind. According to one scientist, Robert A. Burton, M.D., "[e]ach neuron's DNA provides general instructions for how a cell operates and relates to other cells; it does not provide instructions for logic, reason, or poetry. And yet, out of this mess of cells comes Shakespeare and Newton. Consciousness, intentionality, purpose, and meaning all emerge from the interactions between billions of neurons that do not contain these elements." [The quote is from Dr. Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You Are Not (New York: St. Martin's Press: 2008)]

It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that the mind is somehow more than the brain, that it's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Yet the mind, according to scientific consensus, is nothing more than what's generated by the brain and its billions of neurons. We can only wonder at what appears to be nothing short of a miracle. Ah, that "willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith" is alive and well, as long as we ourselves stay alive and well. And one of the ways in which we may enjoy this miracle of the human mind is by watching movies or reading novels or poems. Isn't this just incredible? Yet don't we believe it anyway?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"A Window to Another's Soul"

My title comes from a quote by a brilliant novel with the unlikely title of Harvey & Eck. It's written by Erin O'Brien, and in its way it's a breathtakingly enchanting latter-day epistolary novel. Which is what the novel that's usually acknowledged to have been the first English novel was, too (Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded). Ah, letters written over a period of time and strung together in chronological order can unravel a wondrous tale. I intend to write more about Harvey & Eck elsewhere, but right now I want to zero in on a quotation from the book, and say a few words about why the passage in question is so incredibly dazzling in its "message." I do want to situate the quote, though, to set it up, as when someone sets up a scene from the preview of a movie.

The novel consists of letters written by a young woman who happens to be pregnant and angry (for reasons that I won't spoil for my readers here). She begins to write letters to a "stuffy" librarian, and she actually mails them to him. But she doesn't give away her telephone-book identiy (for lack of a better term - I was going to say "her true identiy," but that won't do, because that's exactly what we get in her letters). In any case, she signs her letters as "Harvest Moon" (which in time is shortened to "Harvey"). The person she is writing her letters to is a certain Timothy J. Ecklenburg (later shortened to "Eck"). The "stuffy" librarian begins to write letters to Harvey as well, except he can't send them, since he doesn't know her telephone-book identity. To make a long story short, let me just say that in the process of reading Harvey's letters as well as in that of writing his responses, Eck undergoes a significant change. The correspondence with the angry young pregnant woman humanizes him and ends up giving him a new lease on an emotionally satisfying life. At a fairly late point in the novel, our librarian says a wondrous thing about books:
There is nothing further from calm than a shelf full of books. For these are the screams and the shouts and the moans of humanity, quiet only on the outside. Each volume might appear dignified and solemn as it sits between its brethren, but all of that changes as soon as you open the pages and look through a window to another's soul.
This is as good a description of what a book is as it gets. For, indeed, what we find in a book while we are reading it is a human being talking to us from the depths of his "soul" to the depths of ours. Much has been (and more will be) written about the art of reading, but we can't get away from the essence of it. When I read, I am in touch with another human being in a most intimate way. I let him or her enter my mind and take over my person, for the duration of the reading. The French critic Georges Poulet has a brilliant essay about this called "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority." In this essay when Poulet talks about criticism he is actually talking about what happens in the act of reading. "Every word of literature is impregnated with the mind of the one who wrote it." Which is why "to understand a literary work . . . is to let the individual who wrote it reveal himself [or herself] to us in us" (italics Poulet's).

There is more to reading than meets the eye. If we are reading the way we should, with the same spirit with which (according to Emerson) the text was written in the first place, we become one with the writer. As Nobokov used to be fond of saying, good readers identify not with the characters in a book, but with the writer who wrote it. It is easy to do this with Erin O'Brien's splendid epistolary novel. I couldn't put it down, as the saying goes. And if you happen to pick it up, you might just have the same experience.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

That Autobiographical Touch!

Early in his Summing Up W. Somerset Maugham makes two interesting statements. The first is this: "Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other." The second is of a different nature: "The gift of speech, as we know it, is not often accompanied by the power of thought." It seems to me, though, that without "the power of thought" neither fact nor fiction in a work of literature can be of enduring quality, what used to be said to pass the test of time. I also keep thinking here of T.S. Eliot's triune hierarchy: information, knowledge and wisdom, in ascending order - for wisdom is the goal, knowledge moves toward it, and information is needed, well, to inform knowledge. But the true end is wisdom.

I am not sure where I come in as a writer, but I hope somewhere that's a good place. You see, I have just gotten a collection of my short stories published, The Heart Ages, But It Doesn't Grow Old. And in re-reading my own stories - a few of which I wrote quite a number of years ago - I keep finding bits and pieces of my self. Was I always conscious when these slipped into the pages of a story here and there? I am not sure. I do recall that when I wrote the opening paragraphs of one of my stories, "The Mermaid and the Madman," I "stole" an episode from my childhood, a moment that's 100% autobiographical. It somehow inevitably fit into and got the ball rolling with that particular story and its touch of "magic realism."

Do we as a rule strive for something more than just entertainment, even if unwittingly? Do we strive for what Wordsworth called that "something far more deeply interfused"? Whatever true wisdom may be, it must be something insightful, something that gives the reader what Oprah is fond of calling "Aha moments." A sudden vision of heretofore unrealized thought infused with a feeling that "this must be so." One never knows when something like this will slip into a story or a poem. But it's probably the secret reason behind all our efforts as writers.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?"

This famous line from Shakespeare's As You Like It (III, v, 82) is actually in quotation marks in the play. The line is a quote, of course, from Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander. The line is spoken by Phebe, a minor character in the play, a shepherdess who has fallen for Rosalind disguised as a young man, and whom another minor character, the shepherd Silvius, loves. What is interesting about the line is the one that precedes it, which is "Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might." And then comes the famous question. What I find fascinating about the two lines together is that Phebe should know of Marlowe's poem (who has died by the time of the story of the play) - nay, that she should have read it and be able to quote from it. This is highly unlikely, though nothing - it seems - is impossible in the Forest of Arden.

It is, obviously, Shakespeare himself who knows of and has read Marlowe's poem (who has died in 1593). This is a rare bit of scholarship on Shakespeare's part. And what is of further interest in the line is that in many of Shakespeare's plays love is frequently love at first sight. It seems that the Great Bard believed in this from Romeo and Juliet on through The Tempest. In that final Serene Romance, as it is usually called, love at first sight happens simultaneously to both Ferdinand and Miranda, just as it has also happened "long ago" to both Romeo and Juliet in that lovely "pathetic tragedy" where love cannot conquer all. And, indeed, in the annals of love, love at first sight is a wonderful thing. Would it always work in real life as well! There may well be times when it does, but what makes it sustain itself is another matter, a deep and abiding mystery. Scientists may question what poets seem to know for sure. And in our heart of hearts we are all, I think, poets when it comes to love, especially perhaps when it comes to love at first site.