Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)

My children

My children

The city needed lawyers.

– Alister McGrath, from In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

That epigraph has little bearing on this post. I just like the idea of a city needing lawyers. Remember all of those American constitutional lawyers flying to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union? Those were heady days. There’s reason to conclude that Putin has since retained other counsel.

1 John's opening in Tyndale's version
1 John’s opening in Tyndale’s version

Anyway, Geneva needed lawyers, and John Calvin needed work. The rest is history. But I’d like to refer to a little of it here as an introduction to a particular English translation of 1 John 1:1 that has resonated with me a lot lately.

The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a fruit of Calvin’s association with Geneva’s Protestant Reformation, and it remained the most popular English Bible for decades after the King James hit the presses in 1611. Between 1578 and 1616, the “Geneva Bible” also became the common name given to a number of very similar translations, Alister McGrath reports. Christopher Barker, to whom Elizabeth had granted sole publishing rights to the Geneva, would modify the text based on the work of English exiles in Geneva.1 (Why would Elizabeth grant a license to a Bible she didn’t really like? It was complicated, but the biggest factor was the Geneva Bible’s overwhelming popularity in England. Elizabeth was no fool, as I’m sure you know.)

I’m really into how one of these “composite” Bibles (as McGrath calls them) – a 1599 version – renders that first verse, and the next three, of First John.

First John opens like John’s gospel, though the syntax isn’t as grand and doesn’t echo Genesis’s opening as directly. The Word is still the subject, but it’s not the grammatical subject; “That which” is, or, I guess, “was”: “That which was from the beginning.” The epistle’s opening discards the gospel’s anastrophe (“In the beginning was the Word”) for a series of subordinate clauses that makes the subject the object. The epistle sounds flatter, too, and without the slight reverb; we’re exchanging Lawrence Olivier’s intonations for maybe Calvin Coolidge’s.

1 John’s opening in an early Geneva version

The audiences and purposes differ, too. The gospel’s stated audience is those who haven’t heard or believed in the Word, but the epistle’s audience is “my little children.” The gospel’s purpose is that, “believing, you might have life in his name.” The epistle’s purpose – bringing the readers into equal fellowship with the Word the witnesses have seen, heard, and touched – is as focused as its syntax is unfocused. My 1599 Geneva puts all of verse 2 in parenthesis and interrupts verse 3 with an “I say” just to signal that we’re trying to complete the sentence the epistle starts with. Just to clean things up for the English eye and ear.

Now we’re getting to what I love about the 1599 version of 1 John’s opening. Where Tyndale (an earlier New Testament version) has “which we have sene with oure eyes which we have loked vpon and oure hondes have hadled,” my 1599 Geneva adds words to create an incredulous tone through an occasional iambic meter:

That which was from the beginning, which wee haue heard, which wee haue seene with these our eyes, which wee haue looked vpon, and these handes of ours haue handled of that Word of life, [emphasis mine]

I can see John, standing before his children, pointing his index fingers to his eyes at “seen” and “these” and “eyes,” and repeatedly moving his outspread fingers away from his breast to the rhythm of “hands” and “ours” and “handled.”

You need a fix of incarnation or immanence? Meditate on this, children.

° ° °

We’ll be in the flesh at Kenyon for B’s senior art show this weekend. Very excited about it. So nice to have the four of us together again.

For her wide-ranging project, B’s been bringing in extra help – a physics professor to help her with electrical issues, some kind fellow students to help her with installation and other matters. Before she started, she knew almost as little as I do about physics, but her outreach to the physics professor landed her this semester in what has become one of her favorite courses, a survey of the physics involved in different gadgets, some of which the students get to create. Kenyon’s been a good match for B’s art because she wants to incorporate stuff outside of traditional art-think (whatever that is).

Her two-week spring break ended today. It really wasn’t a break; she and her fellow senior art majors, about twenty of them, had moved into some new dorms and had worked on the ten-day show that opens Wednesday night.

° ° °

I don’t know how many winter breaks we’ve had. We celebrated the season’s fourteenth snow day today after last night’s nine inches. So today I shoveled, napped, and graded essays. We’re now a day shy of missing three weeks of school. We’re also a day shy of using up all of our fifteen-snow-day allotment. After Day Fifteen, they’ll extend the school year further into June.

It snowed some more today after school was canceled, and it stayed below freezing all day, too, but they’re still making us go back tomorrow. It’s possible, though, we’ll get another snowstorm before the month’s over, according to the weather bureau’s long-range forecast. After all of this, I’d hate to leave that last day on the table.

  1. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, at 128.

A goal of good lit crit: humanity

This post is from a letter I wrote a friend as part of correspondence we had in 2011 that touched on the purposes of literary criticism.

3PictureGeorgeSteinerOne of the things I love about [literary critic George] Steiner is how the development and state of language, and even the act of reading, are ultimately moral issues for him.  People who genuinely love Shakespeare can commit atrocities of twentieth century magnitude, he asserts.  So we have to be affected by what we read.  One of my favorite lines from one of the Language & Silence essays (“To Civilize our Gentlemen”):

In I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism we find the following:

The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well.  If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.

To which the answer should be: No, we have become men.

He sees a link between Calvinism and historicism (and positivism) in the field of literature that Harry Jaffa seems to intuit in the field of political science (and of course Steiner has lots to say about the relationship of literature and politics).  Calvinists and historicists (strange bedfellows . . .) don’t recognize what one might call a divine spark in human nature, and so projects such as self-government and even humanity (humane, human-ness) become impossible. (This is the irony of Calvinism, to me.)

3PictureBookSteinerLanguageSilenceSteiner seems to have struggled long and hard with his calling.  He is a critic who in some essays seems almost to apologize for his calling’s existence.  But that struggle, I think, won him a clearer notion of what a true critic does than I have yet read anywhere else.  (I celebrate his understanding of criticism, but I celebrate his own humanity even more, which gives me hope that my own struggle with the inconsistencies of writing and silence, while they may never make articulated sense, may transform something in me one day.)  He thinks good criticism can “show us what to reread, and how.”  (There are a lot of books out there; lots of first reads, even, to choose a second from among . . .)  “Secondly, criticism can connect.  In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian.”  And the third purpose makes a helpful distinction between a reviewer and a good critic:

There is a distinction between contemporary and immediate.  The immediate hounds the reviewer.  But, plainly, the critic has special responsibilities toward the art of his own age.  He must ask of it not only whether is represents a technical advance or refinement, whether it adds a twist of style or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence.  What is the measure of man this work proposes?

And the final defense of lit crit in this same essay (“Humane Literacy” (1963)):

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted.  It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight.  Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary.  But it has never counted more.  Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

I just want to stand up and shout.

I love what you say about practicing lit crit before embarrassing ourselves in public, and I think Steiner is with us there, too:

. . . what the critic hopes for is a qualified assent, a “Yes, but . . ” which will compel him to reexamine or refine his own response and lead to fruitful dialogue. . . .  No less than an artist — indeed, more so — the critic is in need of a public.  Without it the act of ideal reading, the attempt to re-create the work of art in the critical sensibility is doomed to becoming arbitrary impression or mere dictate.  There must exist or be trained within the community a body of readers seeking to achieve in vital concert a mature response to literature.  Only then can the critic work with that measure of consent which makes disagreement creative.  Language itself is the supreme act of community.  The poem has its particular existence in a “third realm,” at a complex, unstable distance between the poet’s private use of words and the shape of these same words in current speech.  To be realized critically the work of literature must find its complete reader; but that reader (the critic) can only quicken and verify his response if a comparable effort at insight is occurring somewhere around him.

(From his essay “F. R. Leavis.”) It reminds me of Calvino’s and Walter Ong’s thoughts on the reader’s essential role in creation.

Schoodic Peninsula

Victoria and I have gone on two trips alone, our honeymoon in 1991 and a trip to Northern New England twenty years later as an anniversary celebration. When we left D.C. in July 2011, temperatures there were forecast to reach 108 degrees. It was 97 in Portland soon after we flew there, and a couple of the locals told us that it hadn’t gotten that hot since they’d lived there. It slowly cooled off during our eight days driving around Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Here’s an email we wrote home to parents and children.

3PictureNewEngland2011Maine

Dear Mom, Pop, Bethany, and Warren,

We spent the morning and early afternoon exploring the Schoodic Peninsula version of Acadia National Park.  It’s more beautiful and accessible than the far-more-popular part of the park across the water against Bar Harbor.  We probably saw no more than twenty other tourists at the park today. We were outnumbered by the biologists, over a hundred and ten of whom were on the peninsula for “Bio Blast,” a conference and research weekend of some kind focusing on the park’s animal and plant life.

3PictureNewEngland2011SchoodicHarbor

Our waitress at the bed and breakfast this morning saw Victoria’s Kenyon shirt and exclaimed, “I almost applied there!”  She had just graduated from the peninsula’s local high school, and she’ll be at Georgetown this fall.  Based on that, I asked her if she was her class’s valedictorian, and she said yes.  She intends to major in public policy; of course, Georgetown is great for that.

“I’m interested in school reform,” she told us. Her school had been a failing school under the Maine system, which, she said, rates schools solely on SAT scores.  That’s bad for schools like hers, in which many students have no intention of going to college.  She received a grant and was the student representative on some committee that led to the principal being fired.  Talk about turning lemons (a bad high school) into lemonade for the ol’ college application.

3PictureNewEngland2011Schoodic2

Another waitress served our food, but her accent – she was from Mississippi, as it turned out – was so strong I couldn’t make out “eggs” until I had her repeat it twice for me.  She returned to the kitchen, and then the couple at the table beside ours burst out laughing.  They were from Germany and spoke fluent English with thick accents, too.  “We are so glad to hear that you couldn’t understand her, either!”

We had a grand time talking.  Evidently in their sixties, the two of them were stateside for three weeks and were spending it mostly the way we’re spending our one week, if you substitute Boston for our Portland.  He had a new camera that he was researching and using a great deal, to his wife’s occasional consternation, so they were our mirror peregrine images. We ended up comparing cameras and taking pictures of one another on the inn’s lawn.

3PictureNewEngland2011BarHarbor

After visiting a locally famous glass shop, we left the peninsula and drove to New Hampshire. We’re staying at a renovated railroad hotel constructed in 1843 in the middle of a small town that hugs the White Mountains. Large rooms, tall ceilings, very wide halls, and grand staircases. We have room no. 1, a corner room on the second floor facing the street.  There’s a second-floor porch next door to our room, and we sat out under the large, neon sign and watched the sporadic street life below. It was almost unfair, the perch we had for eavesdropping in this quiet town. The hotel feels slightly seedy and rundown, which I like.

3PictureNewEngland2011NewHampshire1

We had eaten dinner on the way here at a barbeque pub in a small Maine town on the state border.  The towns in southwest Maine that we drove through today often have beautiful views of nearby lakes and mountains.  We saw a large fair crowded with a lot of water activities. Most towns seemed to have a sybaritic air that seemed entirely absent from Eastern Maine.

Driving through the White Mountains at dusk was beautiful.  We’ll take the train to the top of Mount Washington tomorrow.

We miss you all.

Love,
Peter

3PictureNewEngland2011Schoodic5

Ice, hail, & the reign hereafter

For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.

Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.

3PictureIcedPine

So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)

The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.

And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.

Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?

Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?

If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)

Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.

Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.

Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:

. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)

Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:

Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)

In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.

Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3

The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.

But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:

. . . Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . .  (1.5.38 – 46)

Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.  (2.3.91 – 92)

Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.

The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)

Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6  For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:

The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7

In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.

In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:

If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)

These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)

Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:

. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with  the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10

The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.

When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:

SECOND APPARITION
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends

MACBETH
Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)

By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.

These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.

Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:

“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13

It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15

But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.

The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16

At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:

SEYTON
The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)

It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.

Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.

None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17

As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.

If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.

If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.

  1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297.
  3. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play.
  4. Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62.
  5. Id. at 63.
  6. Id. at 62.
  7. Id. at 13.
  8. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207.
  10. Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46.
  11. 5.3.15-16
  12. Niebuhr, supra, at 25.
  13. Id. at 26.
  14. The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions?
  15. Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
  16. Berman, supra, at 49.
  17. Niebuhr, supra, at 6.
  18. Id. at 8.
  19. Id. at 14.

Blogging and privacy

I’ve always thought my blog would be more interesting if I could be as free to write what I think in it as I am in my journals, letters, and elsewhere. I’ve tried to offset the constraint my necessary privacy causes by developing a certain alacrity and dispatch in my blog writing. In the past, I’ve tried to trick myself a few ways, such as starting a blog sidebar called “Marginal” to approximate the quick and dirty marginalia I write in books. It led neither to the ease nor to the frequency of writing that I had hoped, but it did give me a good way to less self-consciously build on thoughts examined in earlier posts. So it’s still around.

This weekend, while I was looking at old journals and letters for an unrelated purpose, it occurred to me that, in some cases, the passage of time makes it easier to post things I wouldn’t have posted when I had written them. I guess I feel like, in some sense, I’m not the same person I was, so there’s less to be private about. So, in my newest effort to balance privacy with better writing, I’m going to post over the next while a few old journal entries and letters with the new blog posts.

Of commonplace books, journals, readers, & epigraphs

John Locke kept something called a commonplace book. It wasn’t a journal, and it wasn’t quite a scrapbook. It was a collection of excerpts he found significant from other people’s books. He’d copy out the passages by hand and then refer to them in his ever-expanding index so he could find them again.

3PictureFlowerGraffitiIf I were Locke, I’d leave lots of room in the margins for my notes and coloring. My journals for years have been part scrapbooks and part commonplace books, though I haven’t followed Locke’s lead in indexing them. I do number my journals’ pages and cross-reference with those numbers in the pages’ margins, which is about as much organization as I may ever need. Annie Dillard, by comparison, indexes her journals. But I don’t pretend to be Annie Dillard or John Locke, who both organized their private writings in part to help them write books they intended to publish. Wouldn’t it have been cool, though, to have been Thomas of Ireland, a fourteenth-century writer known only for his anthologizing?

Locke, for his part, didn’t pretend to have invented the commonplace book; things in this general genre have been written since antiquity. In Thomas’s time, monks copied excerpts of books into “florilegium.” Harvard’s library website reports that “The florilegium, or ‘gathering of flowers,’ of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes.” Locke, in fact, published a commonplace book organizing Bible verses into eighty-nine topics and many more subtopics.

Locke’s Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible reminds me of today’s books often called readers, which amount to a Whitman’s Sampler of an author’s work. A reader is often a good way for me to introduce myself to a writer or to a broader sampling of her work. My favorite readers include The Faulkner Reader, The Virginia Woolf Reader, A Thomas Merton Reader, and Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Of the four, only the Nouwen reader seems to be in the spirit of a florilegium: it’s organized by topic and includes short enough excerpts from the author’s works to resemble something someone might have first complied for his own edification.1 A more Middle Ages-style reader of Merton’s work might be Robert Inchausti’s compilation Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, which contains very short, sometimes aphoristic passages and focuses only on what Merton wrote about writing.

Locke was moved to write about writing commonplace books. Locke had his own method for keeping his commonplace books, and his friends urged him to publish a letter he had written another friend on how to keep a commonplace book. A lot of the resulting book has to do with how to keep that running index.

Locke intended his commonplace books mainly as research tools, but I copy out others’ work to benefit my devotional practice and learning. There’s something digestive about copying out something that appeals to me. Writing something out slows me down enough to begin to think about the passage in new ways. I now buy the big art journals so I’ll have lots of room for marginalia that I sometimes break into while copying.

I do dream about writing a book, but the happiest part of my dream is selecting the book’s epigraphs. If I wrote a book, I’d audition hundreds of short passages and herald each of my chapters with around a dozen different epigraphs. I often find myself collecting quotes anyway, not to comment on them but simply to juxtapose them, to put them on the same page and watch them support, expatiate, refute, or qualify one another. A really good pairing seems to create an energy, and sometimes a friendship, much like imaginative and successful pairings among guests at a dinner party. And by the time my quotes have found their place cards, I find I have nothing to say and less reason to say it. My own book would end before it began, then, after a few extended sections of epigraphs. But I would have compiled a commonplace book.

Above: “Red graffiti drawing of flower on stone column” by Horia Varlan. Used by permission. Below: from my journal. Text in green ink is from Robert Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth.”

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  1. I’m currently reading a similar reader – organized topically with shorter excerpts – entitled Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Education Theory.  It complies a good deal of what Montessori wrote in books, journals, and letters relative to her education theory.

Despite everything, why we can act

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.

– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

3PictureNiebuhrTimeCoverMargaret’s comment here yesterday, which includes the above quote, may trigger the objection that someone may legitimately choose not to act if the formidable opposition presented by a society’s philosophical foundation or zeitgeist dissuades him. And under Freire’s terms, this inaction would make one’s reflection “no true word.”

I think Reinhold Niebuhr meets every larger objection to action here:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

– Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (page 63)

Restless

(To turn the video’s sound on or off, mouse over the video and click the sound icon.)

At the gym this morning, listening to Lawrence Cahoone’s Teaching Company course, The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida. Cahoone points out that Copernicus and Galileo were in part a resurgence of Platonic thought. Copernicus’s strong proof of a heliocentric universe and Galileo’s explanation of inertia contradicted Aristotle and human experience, and Plato had always favored math over observation.

Plato would have liked Vine, too. The clip is short enough to suggest its subject’s form. And without the form, perhaps, we live inside a six-second loop, our narratives amounting to a kind of shadow theater.

While today’s snowstorm tonight will subside, tomorrow will shift with its own grace.