The mysticism of Abraham Lincoln

[book cover]When I was eight or nine, a relative gave me my first Lincoln book, The Abraham Lincoln Joke Book.  I loved how Lincoln folded himself onto the cover and how he held the book I held in his hands.  It drew me in: I figured that the Lincoln on Lincoln’s copy would also be holding a book with Lincoln on the front, holding, in turn, his own copy of Lincoln.  Ad infinitum.

It made me think about the recursive images of round frames my sister and I created afternoons at my grandmother’s apartment around that time by forcing her boudoir’s hand mirrors to face each other.  We reflected on eternity: was time involved?  It was hard for me to look into one of those paired mirrors without seeing myself seeing myself many times over, stretching out like mystic chords of memory.

You read enough Lincoln books and you start to see that the books are as much about the authors and readers as they are about Lincoln – that they provide more mirror than window.  The history of the history of Lincoln includes some mighty wide swings in several directions, though mostly from “revisionism” and back.  And no decent Lincoln book gets five stars on Amazon because a lot of people who favor the South’s cause in the Civil War give it bad reviews.

I think the relative who gave me the joke book would herself have given Lincoln about three stars.  Since growing up, I’ve discovered that she has ambivalent feelings about Lincoln, not uncommon for Virginians of her generation.  His party affiliation gives her some heartburn (she is a liberal Democrat, and I think you’d have to grow up here to understand how Lincoln’s Republicanism would be a strike against him even today), and her lineage, which is a large part of anyone’s self-understanding, includes some Confederate soldiers and officers.

But my relative’s ambivalence chiefly comes down to the war.  Although she fully supported the Civil Rights movement and has been a model to me of an active social conscience, she still justifies the South’s succession.

If you opt in, the argument goes, you can opt out.  She also invokes Jefferson – an authority who would settle things around these parts if he hadn’t been so conflicted about things that still bother us – who stated, rather ominously late in life, that “every generation needs a new revolution.”

Lincoln liked to quote Jefferson, too, but mainly to throw Jefferson’s most famous phrase into the teeth of his Democratic opponents, politicians like Stephen Douglas who saw Jefferson as their hero.  In an 1859 letter declining an invitation to speak at an event honoring Jefferson, for instance, Lincoln said:

All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Antebellum Southerners and Democrats didn’t know what to do with Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.”  Some rationalized it, and some, like John C. Calhoun, the great philosopher of secessionism, understood that “all men” included blacks and consequently attacked the Declaration’s equality clause as error.

But the clause was the center of Lincoln’s political thought.  He famously described the Declaration of Independence as the source of “all the political sentiments” he had ever entertained, and he saw the Constitution as mankind’s greatest attempt at bringing the Declaration’s “abstract truth” into a functioning government.  The Constitution was to be defended at all costs, despite its flaws, because the Declaration’s ideals would otherwise fall along with it.  Lincoln’s political moderation found its fullest expression in his strict adherence to the Constitution, including all of its flawed provisions, such as the one requiring adherence to laws requiring the return of fugitive slaves.

Leading up to the war, Lincoln struggled to hit the proper note between his idealism and his moderation.  Allen C. Guelzo’s excellent book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, is the story of how Lincoln worked out his idealism and moderation in the context of a political campaign and the polemics of Stephen Douglas, his talented opponent.  Early in his 1858 campaign for Douglas’s Senate seat, Lincoln tried his audience out on the equality clause’s racial ramifications:

“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man,” as though there were no differences between men big enough to negate their natural equality.  Let us even discard all the blathering about “this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position.”  Instead, let us “unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Guelzo 82)

Guelzo goes on to describe Lincoln’s audience’s reaction to this peroration as “a frozen burst of silence.”

Lincoln learned to dial it back, later emphasizing a distinction between natural rights, which included freedom from slavery, and civil rights, which included voting and marrying whom one wished to.  Douglas was railing, rather effectively in the racist society that existed in antebellum Illinois, about “Black Republicans” (all Republicans were “Black Republicans” then), “nigger equality,” and “amalgamation.”  Lincoln countered in his fourth debate with Douglas: “I do not understand that because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.”  But the political damage was probably done to his senatorial hopes, thanks to Douglas’s race-baiting as well as Lincoln’s own “house divided” remarks in accepting nomination for the Senate – remarks that reinforced Democrats’ claims that Illinois Republicans were abolitionists who would sacrifice the nation to pursue their cause.

Lincoln was usually more effective when he permitted his idealism to burn like a slow, invisible fuse as he defended his moderate constitutional views.  In his 1860 Cooper Union address, probably his best speech setting out Republican orthodoxy on the slavery issue, Lincoln made the historical and constitutional case for his party’s view that slavery should be restricted to the states where it existed and should not be brought into the territories.  The audience’s and press’s responses were electric, and the speech, more than any other single thing that Lincoln did, got him elected president.

Lincoln’s remarks about the Declaration’s equality clause served him much better in the war than they did during his 1858 campaign for the Senate.  As his Gettysburg Address demonstrates, the clause was the lynchpin that held together what had developed into two war aims: the explicit aim of preserving the Union, and the implicit aim – for the abolitionists, anyway, after the Emancipation Proclamation – of ending slavery.  Union men who cared not what became of slavery were fighting to make sure self-government “shall not perish from the earth,” and abolitionists, some of whom years before had supported the overthrow of the Constitution, which protected slavery, were fighting to further the proposition that all men are created equal that the Constitution was designed to protect.

The equality clause became more than the means Lincoln used (in his own mind, at least) to hold together the Union’s disparate war aims, however.  It also became the means by which Lincoln changed America’s view of itself.  The political and religious aspects of the equality clause became a pair of mirrors that allowed Americans to see themselves as both already and not yet – already a co-signer of the Declaration though not yet corporately a full partaker in its promise.  This view came in handy in subsequent struggles to give the equality clause fuller breadth – the women’s suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement, for instance.

Lincoln was a mystic, I believe, in the sense that Paul the Apostle may be called a mystic. Paul’s genius, according to Albert Schweitzer in his book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, was in suggesting to Christians disappointed in Christ’s failure to return in their generation that eternity began at Christ’s resurrection and that they now live, by virtue of their association with that resurrection and in a personal and broadly mystical sense, in both time and eternity.  Eternity, like Lincoln’s notion of equality, was both now and not yet.

Lincoln’s America faced a crisis similar to Schweitzer-Paul’s Christianity.  Just as Early Christians had been looking for their redemption on only an outward and a chronological level, antebellum Americans had been looking to advance republicanism over only time and territory.  Douglas believed America’s territorial advances through Manifest Destiny would help to spread republicanism over the world to the detriment of the world’s oppressors.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which rekindled Lincoln’s political ambitions in 1854, was, for Douglas, a way of settling the slavery question so America’s territorial expansion could continue without distraction.  Lincoln felt that slavery and its expansion under Kansas-Nebraska detracted from the moral force of American republicanism, and he said as much in his first speech concerning the Kansas-Nebraska act in the fall of 1854 in Peoria:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.  Let us repurify it.  Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and the policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.  We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations.

As Harry Jaffa says in his book Crisis of the House Divided, Lincoln believed that America’s “primary action on the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85).

Lincoln met republicanism’s darkest hour by expanding Jefferson’s notion of “all men are created equal” beyond a compact of citizens who lived fourscore and seven years earlier:

The “people” is no longer conceived in the Gettysburg Address, as it is in the Declaration of Independence, as a contractual union of individuals existing in a present; it is as well a union with ancestors and with posterity: it is organic and sacramental. (Jaffa 228)

Lincoln viewed the equality clause as affording each American a relationship, in an almost mystical sense, with the Founders through which he may, if he wished, see his signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, just as Paul taught Christians that they were, in a mystical sense, crucified, buried, and resurrected in this present life by virtue of Christ’s resurrection.

By holding the book that Lincoln held, we hold the Founders’ book, too.

Lincoln’s concept of political religion didn’t start off so grand, but it matured over a quarter century.  Lincoln’s first prescription of “political religion” was in 1838, when he used the phrase to assert that adherence to law should be taught like religious precept.  I think his concept of political religion grew in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act just as Christianity grew out of Judaism.  The 1850’s amounted to political religion’s second act involving redemption for a nation that had violated the laws not just of man but also of nature.  The openly religious language of Lincoln’s second inaugural is his most famous expression of his more developed political religion.

The Gettysburg Address also expresses Lincoln’s mature political religion.  Its extended metaphor is that of birth, with early references to “brought forth,” “conceived,” and “dedicated.”  Calhoun and Douglas would have had no problem with “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty,” but they would have balked as soon as the birth analogy took its religious turn: “and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Lincoln’s audience knew that Jewish children, such as Jesus, were dedicated to God soon after their birth.  America’s Founders dedicated the new republic to a proposition, Lincoln was saying, and the blood spilled by the war dead – like Christ’s blood spilled on the cross – would lead to a second birth.  Lincoln concluded his address by referring to America’s political born-again experience as a “new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln’s political religion, then, added the concept of redemption and second birth to the political religion he received from the Founding Fathers.  After the war began, one might have updated Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria address, quoted above, to say that the Civil War dead, including those buried at Gettysburg, had washed the republican robe clean with their blood.

The Civil War was no “revolution” in Jeffersonian terms, then, but was the awful cost of a new covenant built squarely on the Founding Fathers’ ancient covenant.

Voters familiar with Paul’s epistles, particularly the Book of Hebrews attributed to him, would probably have been receptive, based on that familiarity alone, to the logic of Lincoln’s constitutional theory and to the force of his religious metaphors in its employment.

Lincoln’s and Paul’s “theologies” are similar in another major, related respect.  Paul described Jesus’ new covenant as an improvement over the earlier, flawed Mosaic covenant, and he associated the new covenant with the more prophetic and sketchy Abrahamic covenant that preceded the Mosaic one.  Lincoln did the same thing for America’s political religion: our second birth – our “new birth of freedom” – is a new covenant that looks back before our flawed but necessary covenant, the Constitution, to our original, sketchy, rights-affirming covenant, the Declaration of Independence.

The primacy of Declaration’s equality clause in Lincoln’s constitutional framework invites a full examination of the Lockean natural rights undergirding the clause, rights which presuppose a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. To this day, however, most liberals and conservatives believe natural rights are too religious a concept to serve as an aid for understanding American constitutional law.  Jaffa, a Declarationist, has attacked the constitutional philosphy of Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia and has drawn fire from Bork in return.  Jaffa and other natural rights proponents say that, without a historical understanding of Lockean rights, we can become as disconnected from our national ideals as the South became as it radicalized in the quarter century preceding the Civil War and as the nation as a whole became under Manifest Destiny during the same period.

America is not a Christian nation.  Lincoln would never have found such a concept worth fighting for.  If one believes Lincoln, America is dedicated to a proposition and not to a god.  But that proposition requires a certain understanding of and respect for what the Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”  Our constitutional understanding, if seen through the lens of the Declaration of Independence, is, much more than are our laws, based on a Lockean understanding of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

All honor to Lincoln, born two hundred years ago today.  May we always have the courage to stick our heads between his dangerous mirrors when the need arises.

A slow president

Obama will win.  He will be an unpopular president during most of his term.  Republicans will gain seats in Congress during his administration. But Obama will help to reconnect our civic life with our constitutional values.  If he lives, he will be reelected.

Or he could lose this year.  Or win and be popular.  It just helps me to understand Obama by projecting him against a blank future.

Obama will be unpopular because he is chiefly concerned with reconnecting us with our national ideals.  This concern will cause him to take a very long time to make some important decisions, and many will view his protracted decision-making as evidence of a weak presidency.  His vacillation will be more pronounced in time of crisis, because he considers decisions politically (like all presidents), patriotically (like many presidents), and constitutionally (like few presidents).  By “patriotically,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our nation in the long run.  By “constitutionally,” I mean he cares how the decision will leave our Constitution and our relationship to it in the long run.

Because our national ideals and constitutional values are often at odds with short-term politics, his decisions – when he gets around to making them – will often be unpopular.  But the process even more than the product will drive many crazy.

In other words, Obama will be unpopular because he will be slow.  But Obama might just be as slow as the best of them: Abraham Lincoln.

We’re familiar with most of the parallels between Lincoln and Obama, of course.  Both men are Illinois lawyers who never run anything, really, before becoming president.  (I refer to Lincoln in the present tense for ease of comparison.)  Both men grow up distant from their fathers, one emotionally and the other physically.  Both men are seen as theorists and orators whose talents arguably would be more suited for the legislature, but both men are drawn to the presidency not by ambition alone but by a desire to address fundamental discrepancies between what our nation was meant to be and what it is.  Before his presidential campaign really begins, each man becomes nationally known initially only for a single, electrifying speech he gives in the Northeast to party faithful.  The campaigns of both men emphasize their candidates’ humble origins and deemphasize their candidates’ careers in law.  Both men win their party’s nominations as dark horses against highly favored candidates from New York, favorites who many party leaders fear would be too divisive in a general election.  Each man benefits from running at the end of his rival party’s unpopular administration in an election year favoring his own party’s general prospects.

Some of these parallels are almost as meaningless as the ones I read as a child between Lincoln and John Kennedy (e.g., the myth that each had a secretary who shared the other’s last name).  For me, though, the most important parallels between Lincoln and Obama have to do with what makes them both slow executives: a driving desire to connect policy and public with constitutional ideals and broad principles.

Obama takes a long time to respond concerning important matters.  When he finally responds, he responds conceptually, sometimes to good effect and sometimes not.  He is slow to distance himself from Reverend Wright.  When he finally reacts to the public’s distaste for the clips of Wright’s sermons, though, it is in the form of a critically acclaimed speech that addresses race in America in fresh, constructive ways.  Then he is slow to respond to accusations that he is unpatriotic.  He finally reacts with a speech just before Independence Day this year that advocates a broader, less divisive concept of patriotism.  It is not a stirring speech, though, and it is not as well received as his earlier address on race.

Lincoln’s final speech is to a fired-up crowd that comes to the White House to celebrate the successful end of the Civil War.  Lincoln uses the occasion to offer an olive branch to the South and to outline a generous philosophy for admitting the succeeding states back into the Union.  Disappointed, the crowd starts to thin out before the speech ends.

Whether or not Lincoln’s and Obama’s more-important speeches are successful, they are usually theoretical in nature, connecting current events with broader themes.  Both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches generally make for terrible sound bites, since neither Lincoln nor Obama relies on cute turns of phrase.  Their rhetoric has a lawyerlike force that requires a longer attention span.  Fortunately, both men know how to keep their audience’s attention.  Both men are good writers, and one could use the best of both men’s writings as texts for teaching both rhetoric and prose.

But most of the force in both Lincoln’s and Obama’s speeches comes not from their literary and rhetorical skills but from the way they connect current events to constitutional values our government fails to live up to.  Indeed, both men know constitutional law well: Lincoln obsessively studied it late nights during the 1850’s in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Obama taught it for over a decade.

But this same felt connection to forgotten national values – values rooted in involved political and legal theory – that makes both men electrifying speakers also makes them slow executives.

Lincoln claims as president-elect that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”  For sure, Lincoln is a political animal; Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon famously describes his political ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”  But Lincoln’s claim about his political thinking is a fair one.  As president, his decisions are generally made to advance a Whiggish view of the Declaration of Independence, a view that is best expressed in his Gettysburg Address. (See Allen C. Guelzo’s Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President for an explanation of the Whig philosophy behind Lincoln’s political thought.)

At the war’s outset, the North has one goal: preserve the Union.  After the Emancipation Proclamation, the North adds the destruction of slavery to the original war aim of preserving the Union.  The Civil War amendments, bracing in their simplicity, accept African Americans as citizens.  And, long after Lincoln is dead, the Gettysburg Address helps the nation coalesce its constitutional thinking around “all men are created equal” as a guiding principle.  Lincoln takes advantage of a war he never intentionally prolongs to fundamentally change our relationship to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (not to mention the Northwest Ordinance and several other founding documents – heck, he helps change how we look at the Founding Fathers).  For Lincoln, a change in what we all believe is change you can believe in.

Lincoln is derided as slow and vacillating, and this perception is accurate.  During the first months of his presidency, for instance, he seems to take forever to decide how to respond to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter.  Like any president would, Lincoln considers his options from a political and military standpoint.  Like few presidents, though, Lincoln considers his options from a constitutional standpoint, too.  I do not mean only that he considers whether various actions he could take would be consistent with the Constitution.  Lincoln considers also whether his options would preserve the constitution and augment its role in our civic life. Changing a country’s constitutional viewpoint is slow work advanced only by an astute and principled politician with a cool temperament.

But his constitutional scruples make Lincoln come across as weak and slow.  Lincoln is slow by nature, too; someone who generally likes to weigh matters long past the time the country or the Congress wants him to act.  He is slow to fire generals and cabinet members, and he is slow to take offense, even when his failing, top general who despises him walks past his own study where he knew Lincoln is waiting to speak to him, and goes to bed.  He almost loses the war, and he almost loses the 1864 election to that same general who has a completely different view of the Constitution and of the North’s proper war aims than he has.

Obama responds to his opponents’ unfair attacks with preternatural patience – a patience that frequently drives me crazy.  Like Lincoln, Obama doesn’t respond in kind to many attacks, and he seems to believe that the public can be drawn to act by “the better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s phrase.  Obama appears not to see the danger in his opponents’ unfair charges even though he frequently says that he does.  This vulnerability attracts a following of people who wish to protect him.  Together, they give millions of dollars each time one of his opponents attacks him in a particularly unfair and potentially effective manner.  Lincoln also frequently finds himself explaining his failure to strike back at opponents, and his inside people are insanely loyal and protective of him, too, according to one of Lincoln’s biographers, Stephen Oates. People who know Lincoln or Obama well often describe a certain vulnerability they sense.

So maybe Obama’s slowness comes from his need to sound out how each of his options may square with broader principles, as I suggest here.  Or maybe he’s slow because he’s a listener and a negotiator, a problem-solver and a consensus-builder (perhaps, like Lincoln, starting with his powerful cabinet – see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln). Maybe Obama is slow because he’s stubborn: he’s not easily intimidated or goaded or tricked into reacting.  He could be slow also because he’s simply more comfortable weighing major decisions over a period of time.  He’s slow, though, for some or perhaps all of the above reasons.  Today even more than in the 1860’s, Americans seem to prefer a take-charge, decisive CEO-type in the White House, and that’s neither what they got with Lincoln nor what they’ll get with Obama.


East Coker on the rebind

I love East Coker. I do. Last night I patched up my thirty-year-old copy of Eliot’s Four Quartets with clear packaging tape. When I was in college, one of my friends paid twenty dollars to rebind my twenty-five-dollar, leather-bound King James Bible for my birthday. But by last night no one had offered to rebind my $1.65 Harvest Book paperback edition of Four Quartets. Maybe I’m supposed to have internalized all the words I need by now.

The paper is thick, and the pages haven’t yellowed at all. The top edges of the pages have inexplicable, rusty freckles like the ones on my arms. I’m also “in the middle way.” In fact, I’m as old as Eliot was when he wrote East Coker.

Since when is fifty “the middle way,” by the way? Was Eliot flattering himself? My life divides neatly into smaller, decade-long lives, as if I were leading six different lives, and my fifties life makes me feel old, a lot like my thirties life did. My thirties were a little hard. I was out of shape and had lots of aches and pains. Some clock went off in my head at age thirty: I’m not married! What segments each of our lives?

What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And creatures of the summer heat,
And snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow?

When I was forty, I discovered the fountain of youth. An identity crisis and a slow recovery made the world seem new. I started an exercise-and-diet regime and a new career. I rediscovered poetry. My forties fulfilled the promise of my twenties – all of that Bible study and those fifty-four hours of English courses. But old age seemed to return with vigor last year about the time I turned fifty. For the first time, I know in my bones that most of my life has passed.

But, as I say, my youth and old age seem to come and go.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

A lifetime burning in every moment. “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past,” says the Preacher.

I was twenty when I wrote the first marginalia in my Four Quartets. What gets across the naiveté: my balloon-like script or my borrowed thoughts? Today my handwriting looks more wrinkled – more nuanced, I think. In college I wrote “the neg. theology” beside these lines:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

I remember the professor mentioning negative theology, which was the first time I had ever heard of the idea. I remember thinking that it sounded rather holy and cool, kind of like the essence of what my Jesus buddies and I were after in pursuing our very positive theology.

Why did I like Four Quartets back then? I remember liking the somewhat stiff diction that circled around on itself. The “dust in the air suspended” and the roses and bowls reminded me of quiet rooms of now-dead relatives and their loud, slow-ticking clocks. There was something quieting and alarming about rooms like that, and you can’t experience them after middle age. You’re too busy remembering them, outfitting them.

Earlier in his career, Eliot used the inherent contradiction of his language (his diction and syntax are at once kind of stately and creaky) to saturate his voice with irony. But Eliot uses his contradictory language in East Coker to achieve something quieter than irony; he achieves a kind of wisdom-poem, and his language seems perfect for an examination of negative theology. All that dust in the rose bowl and all that shadow fruit, all those footfalls in the garden. It’s an elegant and “a worn-out poetical fashion” all at once. In his end is his beginning.

But little in East Coker would have made sense to me in the beginning except for some of the more aphoristic and outwardly Christian portions of it. My overall attraction to it was inexplicable. Perhaps my spirit had found a kind of blueprint.

My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

East Coker is built on an Ecclesiastes chassis, and, as with Ecclesiastes’s body, you can’t tell if it’s coming or going. Old age, darkness, wisdom, despair, writing, and life cycles of people and families and civilizations circle around one another. East Coker has Ecclesiastes’s “a time for”’s, and it has a loosened pane and a tattered arras for Ecclesiastes’s loosened silver cord and broken golden bowl. The sun also rises:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence.

A lot of people think Ecclesiastes is depressing, and a lot of people think East Coker is depressing, too. But those people don’t understand apophatic theology, I say. The only thing that seems to depress Eliot in East Coker is his writing.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate . . .

The subject of preaching and writing is the toughest part of Ecclesiastes for me, too, because the moment preaching and writing point to negative theology (the “goads” and “nails” below, perhaps), they also create a chasm between positive and negative theology:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Do you feel the chasm? After all he went through, the Preacher was stuck looking for acceptable words.

According to the negative theology, God is ineffable, so suddenly you have a problem if you want to explain him or the dance he set in motion around him. Here’s the other point in East Coker where Eliot seems to throw down his pen:

That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.

These appearances make the poet a subject of his own poem. As Eliot moves from the irony of his early poetry to negative theology, he replaces the anti-heroes of his early poetry with his narrator – himself. Ecclesiastes is a personal book, a working through, a seeker’s journal, and East Coker is, too. Eliot’s ancestors emigrated to America from East Coker.  He chose the poem’s opening and closing lines for his epitaph on the commemorative plaque in the church where his ashes are buried — St. Michael’s Church in East Coker.

In East Coker, the only anti-hero – the only fool – is the narrator, since anyone who preaches (or writes about) the negative theology is a fool. Ask the apostle Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians deliberately preached it in a clown suit.

East Coker shares Ecclesiastes’s ambivalence toward old age and wisdom just as it does toward writing. In East Coker, old men have nothing positive to offer the young.

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom resides in the darkness of God, and the only thing old men have to offer is something negative: the loss of themselves, a kind of death before death.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

But works like Ecclesiastes and East Coker are meant for the young as well as the old. In fact, East Coker reconciles the young and old, the ends and beginnings, in darkness. Perhaps Ecclesiastes and East Coker lend a little mystery to life, or at least to old age. I remember thinking as I read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as a teenager, “Maybe the hoary head is a crown of glory, after all.” Young people feel a connection with a long, authentic life, or at least I felt such a connection back then. Even if I couldn’t decipher the old stone in my youth, I could at least carry it around with me.

Ecclesiastes ends rather perfunctorily: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” I can hear Thoreau rage against this ending, much as he declaims in Walden against the Westminster Catechism’s summary of man’s purpose: to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Suppose Shakespeare had taken Polonius’s famous aphorisms early in Hamlet and had put them in the prince’s mouth at the end. That’s the feeling I get from Ecclesiastes.

To be fair, Ecclesiastes’s end seems to focus on its younger readers – all of us, I guess, with beginner’s mind – since the fear of God and the keeping of his commandments may lead us, by God’s mercy, into the dark night the Preacher and John of the Cross and Eliot’s other mystic heroes believe in.  (And “Fear God, and keep his commandments”: if those ain’t “acceptable words,” I don’t know what are.)

But East Coker ends with a challenge to the old:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Eliot has given me a vision for my fifties, and maybe for my seventies if I go that long. (My sixties will take care of themselves, I reckon, like my twenties and forties.)

I carry my Harvest Book edition around now like I carried my pocket New Testament around as a teenager. In my beginning is my end.

Posted May 24, 2008.

The story of my birth

A postcard (improbably) of the Chamberlin, ca. 1912 (Lib. of Congress).

Each year my high priestess, not without blood, phones to recite the story of my birth. We danced by the Chamberlin against a night of few stars, she says, colonnade women and poplin men in brick-soled bucks on bluegrass. Heat lightning tugged at tankers in a dark offing.

We were at a point; you’ve seen the Chamberlin from a skipjack, rising and falling against sky and Hampton Roads, respectively; well, we rose and fell in the barest swell, I’m sure, the Navy Band’s brass and dress whites narrowly ruffled in black water. It was hot, a solstice hot, not unrelenting but apogeic; I think a June night is an anomaly and a celebration, brief as it is, and a summer night young enough to admit that summer hasn’t come, and 1957, too, the boom year of baby boom babies, the height of something you were born to fall from, and the top of a clock; I wanted you born by midnight.  I didn’t want you born on the thirteenth.

To the side, in a green, cotton dress, your grandmother, just five years older than you are today, her hair a black and silver you never knew, talked with her friends. I have never thought of her with either friends or dark hair, I think to myself, but later I realize that I had thought last year when Mom had called how I had never thought of her that way; this year, though – I think for the first time – I think: nor have I ever thought of her in a cotton dress.

Between numbers, after months of expansion, the contractions, the clock hands climbing and not falling, the heat a haze and not unrelenting – a presence and a midwife, really – and your father, excusing himself from his fellows, took me by an elbow, if you can imagine that.  His long, black Studebaker bent around Newport News Point to 50th Street and the hospital, ablaze above the James River and its own silent ships.  The doctor and I worked to have you born today; your father, outside, rocked on his heels.  11:43.  There you were, and she hangs up again.

I look out my window, appeased.  I cradle the phone.  I can see the same moon, now an infant, that floated below those ruffled colonnades.  But I reflect that the hospital is now a parking lot, and my June nights have become like asphalt, too, expanded and contracted by a hundred solstices, buckled like lips turned upwards for their mother’s kiss.

Bedtime poetry

For me, poetry is best read before bed, perhaps because the best of it makes the kind of dreamlike connections my body is preparing for, though I never see coming. And – who knows? – poetry may make my mind supple enough to dream well.

Like a vivid dream, good poetry always surprises. Fragments of life and thought add up to more than they should. Multiple readings of a favorite poem bear up like a compelling, recurring dream.

Experiencing a dream and understanding it (if the latter is possible) are two different things. The same goes for experiencing and understanding poetry. Experiencing a poem is like waking up from a dream struck at first with an inexplicable impression or feeling. I’ve been somewhere emotionally I wasn’t expecting to go. Understanding a poem, on the other hand, is like trying to reconstruct a dream’s events in order to explain its force.

I can’t really know a poem I haven’t experienced. I may be only fending off a poem by carrying on about its alliteration and assonance and allusions. After experiencing a poem, though, I might have some unacademic questions: Why do these weak fragments pulsate on the page? How do these six lines reduce me to tears? What is the poem inviting me to see about myself?

Analyzing a poem without experiencing it is like sending a rocket to the moon without ever tasting green cheese. To quote Thomas Merton out of context: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” I can take poetry courses and still live without poetry and the part of me that poetry would feed.

In a sense, something understood is something diminished; something apprehended is something locked away. No one stays happily married by solving his wife. We infixed a flag in the moon, but we haven’t solved it. Indeed, the moon may help to keep us from solving and benighting ourselves.

Poetry is like the moon. It comes and goes. It shows up in different guises. It can guide us on a journey. It can spare light in a dark time. To live without poetry is to live in a moonless world, or to sleep in an atmosphere sucked clean of dreams.