Rejection and Knowing: A Poem

I just came across a poem by W. S. Merwin about John Berryman, and for me it couldn’t be more timely. (H/T: Austin Kleon’s newsletter: 3/29/2019).

I’m not familiar with much of Berryman’s poetry, though I do love his poem, “There Sat Down, Once, a Thing on Henry’s Heart.” I especially enjoy this video of him reciting it:


And here’s Merwin’s poem.


I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

You Always Marry the Wrong Person

I’m really enjoying Matt Anderson’s email newsletter The Path Before Us. If you like ethics, philosophy, and Christian theology, then you’ll probably like it as well. Go sign up here.

Recently he’s been experimenting with the “Advice Column” format. He is a philosopher of ethics after all, and an advice column is fertile ground for considering questions of ethics in relation to concrete examples. I say “experimenting” because he’s not interested in writing a full-fledged advice column. He truly is more interested in the philosophical and theological underpinnings that shape our approach to the ethical dilemmas of everyday life.

At the end of each letter he includes a quotation of some kind. Mostly these come from Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Oliver O’Donovan, and G. K. Chesterton. If you know anything about Matt, then it’s no surprise that these four figures make a regular appearance.

At the end of the most recent issue on the question of bad marriages, he gives this quotation from Hauerwas:

“Moreover, that is why I always taught ‘Hauerwas’s Law’ to my classes in marriage and the family at Notre Dame: ‘You always marry the wrong person.’ Like any good law it is, of course, reversible. You also always marry the right person. My law was not intended to instill in students a cynical view of marriage, but rather to help them see that the church rightly understands that we no more know the person we marry than we know ourselves. However, that we lack such knowledge in no way renders marriage problematic, at least not marriage between Christians; for to be married as Christians is possible because we understand that we are members of a community more determinative than marriage.” – Stanley Hauerwas

As far as marriage advice goes, I don’t think you can do better than this paragraph from Hauerwas. The idea that there is no such thing as a “soul mate” was one of the most liberating realizations I had as a young college student. Oddly enough, I have Plato to thank for that: his dialogue Symposium includes a speech by Aristophanes who tells a comical (and horrifying!) tale of what having a soul mate would entail–it includes ball-like people smashed together rolling around, suddenly split apart by lightening bolts from Zeus, etc. etc.

Despite having grown up in the Christian faith, I don’t recall anyone communicating to me the Christian vision of marriage like the one Hauerwas argues for. The more theology I read, the more I’m convinced that Hauerwas is right. Marriage is preparation for heaven, and it entails a process of sanctification akin to monastic asceticism. Learning to deny our inordinate desires and to seek the good of another requires a lifetime of work. It’s work that must be accomplished before stepping foot in paradise–the place where our individual wills will be aligned with God’s will, untainted by pride and selfish desires.

I know this vision of marriage doesn’t sound romantic in the usual sense of the word. But in reality, it holds the most romantic potential for married life–a life that eventually leads both persons to communion with God, the end and source of every desire. In a word, marriage can lead to happiness.

Dante’s Vision of God

Just finished reading Paradise with my students. As a final project, I had them try to draw Dante’s final vision. Here’s the passage from the end of Paradise and a couple examples of what the students came up with.

Within that brilliant and profoundest Being

of the deep light three rings appeared to me,

three color and one measure in their gleaming:

As rainbow begets rainbow in the sky,

so were the first two, and the third, a flame

that from both rainbows breathed forth equally.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That circle which appeared–in my poor style–

like a reflected radiance in Thee,

after my eyes had studied it awhile,

Within, and in its own hue,

seemed to be tinted with the figure of a Man,

and so I gazed on it absorbedly.

As a geometer struggles all he can

to measure the circle by the square,

but all his cogitation cannot gain

The principle he lacks: so did I stare

at this strange sight, to make the image fit

the aureole, and see it enter there:

But mine were not the feathers for that flight… (Esolen trans., Paradise 33.115-139)


Whence and Whither #4

1. Conservatives are bad at environmentalism. One reason, Ben Sixsmith argues, is that environmentalism has been hopelessly politicized, which has resulted in conservatives misrepresenting scientific data about climate change and getting their panties in a wad about how environmentalism is code for liberal progressivism. I don’t think he’s far off the mark here.

2. Gender is a social construct. Period. But let’s not pretend that it’s arbitrary or that 1950s America was a gender utopia (…much less was it consonant with biological realities). Christopher Shanon discusses Ivan Illich’s book Gender in relation to the ubiquity of bad arguments woven throughout contemporary discussion about gender. Here is my favorite paragraph for the article:

As with most of Illich’s writings, Gender has much to infuriate people across the political spectrum.  In one characteristic sentence, Illich writes: “To me, the pursuit of a non-sexist ‘economy’ is as absurd as a sexist one is abhorrent.”3  Here, he criticizes both progressives who reduce male-female relations to an equality that would abolish meaningful and ennobling gender distinctions, yet also conservatives who, in the name of defending “traditional” relations, are actually defending the subordination of women within a regime of sex.  For Illich, keeping women at home hardly qualifies as shoring up gender against sex, for the home has, according to his analysis, already long been transformed into yet another capitalist workplace: the stay-at-home mom is simply the low person on a totem pole—a single measuring stick of productivity and remuneration—that she shares with her more economically successful go-to-work husband.

3. Tunes: Let the groove of Thom Yorke sink deep into your bones.

4. I just finished reading The Red Badge of Courage for the first time, and I loved it. It has inspired me to pick up Hemingway. I’ve set my sights on A Farewell to Arms–a book that has alluded me for too long. But now that I’m 30, I don’t think I’ll put it off any longer.

5. Alan Jacobs on the important difference between “Stock and Flow.”

Hemingway on War

This, from Hemingway’s introduction to the 1948 illustrated edition of A Farewell to Arms:

The title of the book is A Farewell to Arms and except for three years there has been war of some kind almost ever since it has been written. Some people used to say, why is the man so obsessed with war, and now, since 1933 perhaps it is clear why a writer should be interested in the constant, bullying, murderous, slovenly crime of war. Having been to too many of them, I am sure that I am prejudiced, and I hope that I am very prejudiced. But it is the considered belief of the writer of this book that wars are fought by the finest people that there are, or just say people, although, the closer you are to where they are fighting, the finer people you meet; but they are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.

Unfiltered: Persuasion

*Unfiltered (and unedited!) thoughts on the idea and practicality of persuasion*

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes:

Throw a blanket over a chair. In all likelihood, you would recognize immediately that there is a chair beneath the contours of the fabric. The blanket is not the chair, but the chair gives shape to the blanket. This is a possible image for thinking about a certain aspect of creation – the shape it is given by the Logos. For the Christian, the shape of the universe, and everything in it, points towards something beneath, within, and throughout it. The universe is not just a lot of things; the things make “sense.” And, not surprisingly, “sense” would be one of many possible translations for the Greek word, Logos.

In our world of secular materialism, we would not tend to think that “sense” is anything other than something our thoughts do. But this begs the question: why do our thoughts make “sense” of things. Where did their “sense” come from?

The Logos does not belong to the categories of “things.” It is not a mathematical principle, nor a law of physics. But both the principles of mathematics and the laws of physics point towards something else. In Christian theology, both are just blankets covering a chair.

The chair and blanket is a helpful metaphor for an aspect of the human experience that perplexes me often. It’s easy for me to despair of any possibility for true communication or persuasion among people who have a fundamentally different conception of what’s under the blanket.

Take, for example, the debate over abortion. How do people who believe the unborn is a fetus and people who believe the unborn is a child talk with each other in any meaningful way? To put it in the terms of the metaphor: the collection of cells and tissue is the blanket and the reality of the being underneath is the chair. For any progress to be made in such a debate would seem to require a complete overhaul of a person’s philosophical and theological presuppositions. Such a transformation would cut to the core of of an individual–a sense of identity and understanding of personal experience would have to be completely reinterpreted.

It would be easy to say, “Well, if that’s what it takes, so be it.” But it’s easier said than done. Who honestly wants to pull the rug out from under themselves like that? No one.

Buried in the issue of a debate like abortion, the whole world is at stake. “So,” in the words of Eliot, “How should I presume?” If you’re religious, can you hope to persuade anyone without divine intervention? And if you’re irreligious, can you hope to persuade without an existential crisis?

Maybe I’m making too much of it. But some days I wonder if it’s worth arguing with anyone unless you are willing to put your whole life on the line. I know that’s dramatic, but I don’t see a way around it if the goal is true persuasion.

For one perspective on the issue, I recommend listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Liz Bruenig. Liz argues that respect for human dignity and general hopefulness should motivate us to argue with one another. I think she’s right. To despair completely would enact a self-fulfilling prophecy:

Worried about being able to persuade someone? Don’t bother and you’ll know for sure that they aren’t persuaded!

I’d also add that it seems to me that true persuasion happens incrementally. To be persuaded is of cosmic significance, and no one person could survive a complete transformation of view/thought/experience. I just finished reading Dante’s Purgatory which impressed me with this reality. Not even sinners after death can expect to have their sin removed from them in its entirety. Such a surgical removal would annihilate a person. Cleansing, purification, transformation is slow and methodical. The sinners in Purgatory do not wish to rise too soon. When Dante meets Statius, a poet who had recently been released from his punishment, claims to have been surprised by his sudden desire to ascend. For the past five hundred years, he’s desired that his punishment last as long as necessary. And he did so without any idea of how long that might take.

So too with persuasion. No one will be persuaded of anything significant overnight. Someone who has believed that the chair shaped blanket covers a series of discrete cubes to give the illusion of a chair will not likely be convinced otherwise–that is, until argument and personal experience begin to converge and present a different picture altogether.