Okay, Cosmo drinkers out there, maybe I was a little hard on you yesterday, with the hypocrisy comparison. I don’t want to get bonked on the head with a Kate Spade bag the next time I step out, so I’ve chosen to feature a cocktail nobody’s heard of, the Pain Killer. It’s made with dark rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, nutmeg and orange juice, which makes it a natural for drinkers who are underage, hung over, or hiding something under the cover of strong fruity tastes. The Pain Killer is as shocked as his parole officer to learn that, wow, there’s rum in this drink.
I propose that the pain being killed is the pain of discovery. Imagine how a banana feels, being peeled. Now imagine what happens if you peel a hypocrite, who offers a pretty juicy, irresistible, banana-like target. John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Roy Ashburn, these were media feeding frenzies for a reason. We love to watch hypocrisy get squeezed out of its sanctimonious rind, we have powerful urges to see it exposed, and every once in a while, we are gratified by a set of overwhelming facts, perhaps caught on video or confirmed by thousands, that comes along to slice right through that ignorant bliss. But unlike bananas, hypocrites don’t just sit there. They react, seeking to replace the discomfort of exposure with an artificial bliss induced by rum. Into this Pain Killer also go strained rationalizations, false apologies, and flat-out denial of the facts, no matter how glaring they are.
There is one other possibility: the honest confession. I call this the Papaya Smoothie response. It is rarer, but a lot healthier. It has no alcohol, for one thing, just lots of fruit with honey as a natural sweetener, and it is the consistency of cheerfulness. If you’ve ever listened to public radio during a pledge drive, you might have noticed Ira Glass showing off his knack for finding people who cheerfully admit their hypocrisy after it is pointed out to them. This is no small thing. He gets people on the telephone who are rumored to listen to NPR without donating to it. He asks them if, indeed, the rumors are true. They groan or laugh and fess up. Then they write a check. Cheerfully.
I’m no Ira Glass, having never found anyone who is cheerful during the pointing out process. I mostly find Pain Killer types, especially ones who rationalize. For example, a dear friend used to merge into an already crowded highway during morning rush hour like this: he’d stay in the merge lane until the last possible moment, until he was practically driving sideways on the concrete barrier, then he’d insert his car ahead of all those other cars patiently waiting their turn. We call this behavior Budging in Line, and it dovetails with hypocrisy’s penchant for holding others to standards (or traffic laws) it has no intention of following.
I discussed this driving behavior with my left-leaning force-for-good-in-the-world friend. What gives with the Budging? Does it not smack of thoughtlessly capitalistic, Me-First individualism? Apparently not, because he proceeded to deliver a dissertation on how his driving was serving the common good of the traffic—the only reason he cut in front of other cars was to do them a favor.
Our politicians are even less prone to cheerfulness when their hypocrisies are called out than my friend, but they’ve learned not to rationalize. Instead, they have press conferences, where they usually fail to apologize for being hypocrites, preferring to apologize for lesser and more flattering offenses: “mis-speaking” is popular, as is the offense of sticking to their principles when they should have caved in immediately to political expediency, or my favorite, just today, from oil industry cheerleader and Texas Republican Joe Barton, an apology for how other people misconstrued his deep sympathy and good heart in his earlier apology, which was to BP's Tony Hayward for "Obama's shakedown" of him. Barton went with “mis-speaking,” but credited it to someone else.
Confused? At least we don’t have to contemplate any powerful religious institutions failing to face bald facts about the gap between what their members do with what they preach. Whew! They’re way too busy excommunicating a nun at a Phoenix hospital for saving a woman’s life to have sexually abused thousands of children they’ve suffered to come unto them. And even if one or two clergymen were pedophiles—not that any are, I’m just sayin’—we all know those poor, poor priests would be victims of “media frenzies” in a “secular" age.Okay, enough of that icky scenario. Thank goodness it hasn’t come to pass, while the Pain Killer still edges itself onto coasters and bev naps the nation over. Much as I like a nice, fruity rum punch, I’m going to aspire to Papaya Smoothie. Call me, Ira. I’m ready.
The problem with Latin is that it sounds all egg-heady. Cocktails, which could conceivably both have eggs in them and go to your head, nonetheless rarely have egg-heady names. Would you raise a Pulchritude to your parched lips? Nope, it’s an American Beauty. Sip a Vehicle? Sorry, try a Sidecar. Our Old English, Celtic and Anglo Saxon words just sound better to put in your mouth. They’ve got chewier textures, a whiff of sensuality, the promise of tasting good. Browse a bartending guide and you’ll find Fizzes, Flips and Rickeys, Cobblers, Coolers and Kirs, Sours, Slings and Sledgehammers, Sharks, Derbies, Zombies and Knickerbockers. But Latinate names? I count only five that even come close.
The first two that spring to mind, Cosmopolitan and Metropolitan, are both from the Greek, -politan meaning citizenship, and the prefixes from words for world and city. The Cosmopolitan is the citizen of the world, the Metropolitan of the city. Greek, as we know, is not Latin, but these two words do sound a bit egg-heady, and so they share the problem of Latin, a disembodiment from the senses. Another candidate is the Ideal Cocktail, idea- again from the Greek word meaning to see, which implies that our ideals are more tangible than we think. Judge is Latinate, and there’s a Judge, Jr. cocktail—does that count? I don’t think so. The name is so clearly straining to convert the beverage into a person, and no matter how Latinate a person’s name, a person remains rooted in the body. Personification, an egg-heady word, trumps egg-headiness. Personification in fact does the opposite of how it sounds.
PAUL TILLICH PART 5: Mysterium Tremendum, Martin Buber,
In some of the typing about Tillich, and particularly about Einstein, I have found a dry taste forming in the top of my mouth. Never good. The dry taste is the result of the distance between a conceptual discourse about religion and the lived experience of religion.
By an experience of religion, what I mean here isn’t the situation of day-to-day devotion. Rather, what Rudolf Otto would classify as an experience of the “numinous.” The “numinous” is from the Latin word for God, numen. As a word it is certainly much preferable to “godious,” infinitely lovelier and less off-putting. (The word “godious,” with all the overtones of “gaudy” and “odious,” could perhaps work as an adjective for the gold-painted thrones one occasionally spots on a religious network.) It is good to make yourself smile. Anyhow, as there is not our English word “God” to evoke whatever feelings we have when we read or hear this word, the “numinous” has less tendency to devolve into an issue of belief. The “numinous” is not some experience that one is excluded from for a creed or a lack of a creed. It is on a broader level. You could call a numinous experience an experience of great depth. Experience might not be the right word. Perhaps it is what Martin Buber, the Hassidic mystic and philosopher, would refer to as an “encounter.” An encounter is deeper than an experience, in his thinking, and always takes the character of “I-thou.”
I should touch on Buber briefly. Buber says that every time we use the word “I,” we are actually using one of two conjunctive words: “I-it” or “I-thou.” When we say “I,” we are always meaning “I-it” or “I-thou.” A friend of mine, an Israeli chef named Ido, turned me on to him, and the first thing he mentioned was that in Buber’s thinking we are always all of us in a state of relationship. “Eef I think about Buber, I become I-tomato, I-knife, I-window, I-hand holding knife handle, I-hair on my head, I-bald spot, I-subway pole.” He is very right. To think about Buber is to engage your relationship with whatever it is you relating to, which produces a peculiar species of wonder.
Buber describes the “I-it” relationship as the surface relationship. He says we speak the “I-it” with just a part of ourselves. The “I-thou,” on the other hand, can only be spoken with the whole being. To have an “I-thou” relationship, be it with a mirror, a tree, a picture of your childhood pet, a poem, an icon, a person, et al., is to be momentarily in connection to the depth within that thing. You access the “You,” which is his name for the unbounded element, within it. This is not to say that you animate with human character, such as imagining that a tomato has a nervous system like yours, and cringes as you would if your head were about to be chopped into two. Buber says, “when Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.” This “Thou” is quite a bit similar to what Tillich means in his use of the “depth in all things.”
In the “I-thou” relationship, as all of us alive have experience of it, both sides are grasped and transformed by a unity that is greater than each individual entity. In an I-Thou relationship, the “ground and abyss of Being,” the infinite in the finite, call it what you will, stares back out of the finite. This is not to say that it grows eyeballs, blinks, but rather that you have a feeling of being seen, being known, being grasped. We have all felt this feeling. It is a religious feeling, but isn’t confined to religion. One thinks of a Rilke poem such as “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” All those Thing poems, really, that he writes after hooking up with Rodin. It isn’t necessarily always a feeling of terror....
Here is my favorite passage in Buber: “Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it. The accompanying feelings can be of greatly differing kinds. The feeling of Jesus for the demoniac differs from the feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is the one love. Feelings are entertained; love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth. Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its content, its object; but love is between the I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love ranges in its effect through the whole world. In the eyes of him who takes his stand in love, and gazes out of it, men are cut free from their entanglement in bustling activity. Good people and evil people, wise and foolish, beautiful and ugly, becomes successively real to him; that is, set free they step forth in their singleness, and confront him as Thou. In a wonderful way, from time to time, exclusiveness arises – and so he can be effective, helping, healing, educating, raising up, saving. Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. In this lies the likeness – impossible in any feeling whatsoever – of all those who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point – to love all men.
Let the significance of the effect in the third example, that of the creature and our contemplation of it, remain sunk in mystery. Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that craning of the neck in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being."
Let the significance of the effect in the third example, that of the creature and our contemplation of it, remain sunk in mystery. Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that craning of the neck in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being."
HELLO BEST AMERICAN BLOG READER(S). Good to be back for my third installment; today begins the draft, some of the most exciting few days of the year for NFL fans. Even during the Bengals’ despairing 1990s, in which the Bungles dug out lows nearly unimaginable in a league with such an even financial playing field, draft day was a day of wild optimism. As a young fan you hope for stars; as an adult, you feel yourself hoping for fixtures. You like the idea of your squad using a top pick on some blunt mauler of a guard with the staying power of a canned good. Someone re-signable, who’ll be in the lineup for a decade. I’m hoping that a fellow named Mike Iupati, from Idaho, falls to us this year. He’s just such a blunt mauler. Well worth a 21st overall pick. In the cold-weather divisions particularly, few things are more invaluable than depth on the line. Ah, football….In the name of these blog-posts maintaining at least a modicum of topical unity, I won’t dwell.
I would like to begin by picking up discussion of a document briefly touched on yesterday. This was at some point before I began un-systematically meandering through the Ontological argument for the existence of God. Thinking about those sentences, I can only smack myself on the forehead. I was like someone running all the way the around the base-paths without actually getting his foot on a single bag. If you would like to take in a piece de resistance (sp?) on the subject, read Tillich’s “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion,” which appears in Theology of Culture. Read especially the sections on the Augustinian Solution and the Thomistic Dissolution. All the ideas are laid out there and shine, simply.
The document that I mean to talk about is Tillich’s 1940 rejoinder (reprinted in the same book) to some religious statements made by Albert Einstein. Einstein’s comments, in which he rejects the idea and existence of a Personal God, roused a considerable amount of excitement at the time. One can discern that Tilllich was a bit miffed by it. His first point in the paper, after all, is that Einstein’s arguments would have failed to matter out of a different mouth, as they were “neither powerful nor new.” One can also discern that he was disheartened. The outbreaks of fear and anger, the schizophrenic God-affirming and God-denying that afterwards ran rampant, could only indicate a spiritual sickness in the religious communities. It could only indicate superstition, recidivism, suppression. If you read Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought: From its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, you’ll find in the chapters on religion and science that he was much more optimistic than he should have been about the relationship between the two realms moving forward. And really, there should by now have been a healing together, or at least a movement in that direction.
As for the Personal God, Tillich explains that “it is the common opinion of classical theology, practically in all periods of Church history, that the predicate "personal" can be said of the Divine only symbolically or by analogy or if affirmed and negated at the same time.”
What does this mean? That if you are a member of any Judeo-Christian religion you have no point of disagreement (or shouldn’t) with Einstein or anyone else as to whether a perfected and all-powerful being exists or does not exist. The answer is that such a being does not exist. There is no such being that has power as you have power, only to an infinite degree. There is no such being that has knowledge in his head as you have knowledge in your head, save to an infinite degree; such a being does not make choices as you make choices; he does not have, in each massive transcendent cell of his being, a Y-chromosome like a gigantic glowing tuning fork rendering his every cell transcendently male. Nor does he literally “send his son” in the way you might send someone to go do something you aren’t capable of doing yourself. Such a being could not do this because such a being doesn’t exist; the Personal God symbolizes; it inflects; it allows access to the dimension of depth in all that is, but it does not exist.
Says PT: “The concept of a "Personal God," interfering with natural events, or being "an independent cause of natural events" makes God a natural object beside others, an object amongst objects, a being amongst beings, maybe the highest, but anyhow a being. This, indeed, is the destruction, not only of the physical system, but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God. It is the impure mixture of mythological elements (which are justified in their place, namely in the concrete religious life) and of rational elements (which are justified in their place, namely, in the theological interpretation of religious experience). No criticism of this distorted idea of God can be sharp enough.”
He says more: “It is obvious that in the daily life of religion that the symbolic character of the idea of the Personal God is not always realized. This is dangerous only if distorting theoretical or practical consequences are derived from the failure to realize it. Then attacks from outside and criticism from inside follow and must follow. They are demanded by religion itself. Without an element of ”atheism” no “theism” can be maintained.”
(To Be Continued.)
I was all set to begin today with the statement, “Paul Tillich is not a great prose stylist,” and then go on to talk about what exactly it is that makes his English prose so lucid, so convincing, so compelling. Perhaps I will in brief. The short of it – the root of it – is that Tillich learns English according to what he already knows, namely Latin and Greek, and so is wary of the meanings of words that we as native speakers take for granted. There is a simplicity in sentence structure that almost can feel juvenile for certain whole books, as in Dynamics of Faith. It seems incongruous, at times, but wonderfully so. As many of his essays are adapted lectures, there is an orality to way the sentences unfold. Orality is about rate, as the ear is slower than the eye. He taught, and has that teacher’s ability to sense what is known and isn’t known, stop where he is, and break a concept down. There is a calmness and measuredness. Although certain practices irk him, he is never polemical, which is rare when one is writing about religion.
The plan was then to examine Tillich’s response to Einstein’s theological statements in 1959, which is a nice introduction to his viewpoint. Specifically, it a fine example of how the pond of Tillich’s onto-theological system receives the boulder of Athiesm without a ripple of disturbance…He likewise receives Freud, Nietszche, and has enlivening and enriching things to say at various points about their brilliant contributions to human thought. I should do this, at a certain point, as it might lead to good discussion of contemporary Athiesm. Anyhow, as I sat there thinking, outlining a course, my mind ran ahead….
To talk about Tillich is soon enough to talk about Ontology and the Ontological approach to the question of God. Paul Tillich is, perhaps first and foremost, an Ontologist. What exactly is Ontology? It’s definable as the branch of metaphysics that deals specifically with questions of Being. The roots are the Greek on, which means “being,” and the word logos, which means “word.” The logos, as Tillich traces it through history, is shown to refer not only to a word but what the word signifies. He also describes the logos as “the creative structure of the world.” All this is complicated. Ontology, at its basis, is simple. It can be called the beginning and basis of philosophy. It is the philosophical practice that someone with no philosophical training has the best chance of happening into while lying in his bathtub. It is an investigation of the fact that there is not Nothing, and wondering, just as Parmenides once did, why this Nothing is not. It is to simultaneously to wonder why Being is, and what Being is.
Of course that is only one way of describing it, and I am not one to say that I am fit to be offering any description at all. As I sat down several hours ago, out of curiosity, I flipped open the Wikipedia breakdown of the history of the ontological argument for the existence of God, which traces the major points made by the major players from Avicenna, to Anselm, to Descartes, to Leibniz, to Kant, to Bertrand Russell, et al. At the present moment, though not quite so devastatingly as an hour and a half ago, I feel profoundly humbled. Embarrassed, almost. The arguments that brilliant thinkers all through history have lain their minds, like tiny jellyfish, at the altars of….Whatever arrogance creeps up in you that you might actually get a good pile of understanding on any given subject, goes up in smoke in about one second when the enormity of your unknown is encountered….
I can remember wandering the 7th floor stacks one summer afternoon at the NYU library; I was 24, only a few months removed from the completion of an MFA; out of the blue, I found myself completely overwhelmed by the awareness that even if I lived to be 110, even if I blew no hours twiddling thumbs, unambitiously thumbing guitars, doing things for others, or watching sporting events, even if I ate only sandwiches and meal-replacement bars (foods that can be consumed while actively engaging a book) I wouldn’t have a chance against those stacks….Of course this sort of knowledge is available to you at any time you wish. You can always know that you will never set foot in every nation of the world. You always know that you can never memorize every word in your entire library, or read every book in any good library. You can be sure of it as you are sure you didn’t start the sun a-burning with a well-fired arrow. Yet when such awareness comes as, when it breaks in of its own accord, it is, well, let us just say it is different. Ultimately, I think we would all agree that it is a good thing….
In any event, to return to this Wikipedia breakdown: what is the ontological argument for the existence of God? You’d perhaps be better served typing the subject heading and reading for yourself. Or maybe you wouldn’t, as it doesn’t really lay the argument out, or describe how it feels, or describe what causes it to feel the way it does….Bertrand Russell, in the two-paragraph booth Wikipedia gives , speaks of the ontological argument as fallacious-seeming to a modern mind. Yet he speaks also of the difficulty of finding exactly where the fallacy lies. One might compare the Ontological argument then to a patient who is greenish and queasy, but resists an exact diagnosis. “I see a man that clearly is sick,” speaks herr doctor, “but I know not with what.” Wikipedia points out that he quote from Russell, “Great God in his boots! The ontological proof is sound!” was uttered early in his philosophical career. There is something about those exclamation points that is characteristic of the ontological realization. There is a tremendous bang that it gives off in the mind; what sadness then, when, as the mind moves, this magnificent and multi-colored firework, this beautiful boom, is re-imagined as a paper sack “filled with air and given a good smack.” We want that feeling of truth to be exploding in us each moment, and if we feel that it doesn’t, we feel we aren’t in the truth.
So, again, what is the ontological argument for the existence of God? If we are Paul Tillich, we must first sigh a great continental European sigh, because we know “the existence of God” is not a possible verbal construction, and the ontological argument is not an argument….Nevertheless, in the ontological “argument,” it is conventional to say that the existence of God precedes knowledge. This is what Wikipedia means. To say that it precedes knowledge means that it precedes the cleavage of “Oneness” into subject and object. For there to be knowledge, there has to be something to know and someone to know it. God pre-cedes knowledge and super-cedes knowledge, because in God alone subject and object are one. There is no knower and no known, only that one substance which cannot even be said to be both knower and known equally. Those distinctions into subject and object do not yet exist. Likewise, in the ontological conception of God (which is, once again, utterly and absolutely paradoxical, as God cannot be conceived) essence and existence are one.
What does it mean, the statement that in God alone essence and existence are one? What is essence, first of all? Essence, answers the question as to what a thing is. What is it, this piece of the universe I am beholding? It’s an apple core; a desk; a wheel. Whatever it is that makes it what it is that thing’s essence. To ask then, “What is something essentially?” seems like a redundancy, but of course it is necessary when one is talking about a complex entity. A corporation like McDonalds, that says it is essentially a real-estate holding company, and not a conglomerate of red-and-yellow buildings that serves chip greasy thin burgers, separates its “whatness” into surface and depth. On the surface, what it is is a chain of burger joints. On a deeper level, what it is a real estate holding company. Essence, you could say then, is the answer to the question as to what a thing is in the “deepest” sense possible.
“Existence” answers the question that a thing is. If you walk around your living room, and keep walking, and say to yourself, “A chair would look nice over here,” the chair that you speak of, the object of your want, has essence but not existence. The chair that you are sitting in, if you’re sitting in a chair, has both essence and existence. What is it, that four legged or swiveling structure currently supporting your weight? It is a chair. Does it exist? Yes, one would be inclined to say. Despite our awareness that quarks and string theories are dancing through each pebble and leaf of the particulate world as we sit, and that on a sub-atomic level nothing actually ever touches anything else, we must park our idea of a ground somewhere. Rather, this idea parks itself somewhere. The chair you sit in possesses existence; otherwise you would collapse to the floor. (See: Stephen Daedalus kicking the stone along Sandymount Strand (in homage to Samuel Johnson), in Book I of Joyce’s Ulysses.)
To return: “In God alone essence and existence are one.” What does this mean? A different, and better way to state it would be that God is a word for that state in which essence and existence are one. If we say they are one, essence and existence, we mean that they are the same. Essence is existence. This is different from metaphor, at least metaphor in practice. It’s a stronger is than the is in metaphor, or implied in most statements of metaphor. Take some metaphorical lines of poetry like Robert Bly’s, “The bear between my legs / has one eye only / which it offers to God to see with.” This contains, by implication, the statement, “my penis is a one-eyed bear.” This is not a genuine statement of shared identity. It is not a statement of truth, and we all know this. It’s a statement of poetry. The lines are an expression of boldness. In the context of the poem – a fine symbolist love poem – love has excited the poet to a great boldness of speech. That we are necessary to existence is perhaps the boldest thing that can be said.
Again, though, God’s essence is existence. Not God’s existence, but existence itself. What God is is that Being is. You are ended up in Meister Eckart’s notion of God as Being itself. This is a simplification, but it is what provides the ontological bang. There is no leap of faith involved, because one has not arrived at the conclusion that some gigantic whim-ridden Father with two metric tons of white facial hair MUST and NECESSARILY exist, and that He has breathed existence into everything out of His puffed-up, Dizzy Gillespie cheeks. No such absurdity. One looks out the window, and, by encountering Being, which is in the tree bark and the grass blades and air and the puddles, in all things that are, feels suddenly and without embarrassment or guilt or foolishness or superstition that he can use this word: God. That’s what you might call the ontological bang. To quote Goethe: “So, waiting, I have won from you the end: God’s presence in each element.”
Of course all this can be philosophically disassembled, but I do not have the faculties or time to do it as of this moment. It is also theologically incomplete; I need to eat; I need to get myself out the door; tomorrow, or later on tonight, I’ll talk about Tillich and Einstein. This will give me an opportunity to speak in praise of Athiesm, at some point here, while offering some critiques. I’m going to see Seamus Heaney read tonight, and am quite excited. Be well till then! This is Matthew Yeager, signing off….
It is 11:17 PM as I begin, and my plan is to complete a brief introduction to the thinking of Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian thought by many, myself among them, to be the prior century’s great philosopher of religion, by 4 AM. I am also not extinguishing hope that I might pay a few bills, respond to several emails, get my white cotton jacket into a bucket of hot bleach water, and also check the box-scores, all while appeasing a small gray tabby named Charlie who’s addicted, at present, to a stuffed fish on a wand and string and will reenact the yowling pain of his birth unless I periodically make it jitter and dance around the apartment….We will see how all this goes, and hopefully by sun-up I’ll have felt some satisfaction.
I was raised as Catholic (“in the Roman Church” as Tillich would say) and received my formative education – my high school education – from the Jesuits. It was in courses in theology there that I first saw and heard Tillich’s name. He became lumped in my head with, oddly enough, James Joyce, whom I first learned of off a black-and-white poster tacked on a wall in my freshman English classroom. It was communicated, at different points, more in tone and less in details, that both Joyce and Tillich were beyond our powers of comprehension. Above our thinking level, above our reading level. As the bias you carry upwards as a student – even if you are student of video games or electric guitar – is for whatever it is that’s beyond you, I suppose I imagined Tillich with a bit of an aura around him. Especially at that age, you are striving to get into more inches of height, more knowledge of the world, more experience, and the thing is, you perhaps one of the horrors of adulthood is that you no longer are in a position where this shedding and this growing occurs with such seeming inevitability. Hence our mid-life piano lessons, karate classes, etc….Regardless, my first impression of Tillich was that he was a part of all I couldn’t yet then get at. He began, for me, in an elevated state. As much as a first impression can be said “to go over the falls in a barrel,” it can also be said to be the barrel into which all that follows is deposited. I suppose I am and should be aware of that.
If, in thinking of growth, in thinking of Tillich, I find myself thinking of Rilke, who wrote the processes of growth better than any poet (both in the Letters to a Young Poet and especially in those fantastic symbolist poems in Book for the Hours of Prayer), its worth pointing out that the two shared a common time, a common language, and common corner of the world. Tillich was born in 1886, a decade after Rilke. There are certain affinities between them owing to the fact they’re both coming out of that German Romantic symbolist tradition. Both, for instance, are into “depth,” the idea of depth, of this quality “depth,” which can be said to exist in all things as only Being exists in all things. In Tillich, it’s an indispensable concept in his whole systematic theology. As for Rilke, you need extra fingers to count the places where “depth” appears as a symbol for God, the true self, the true poem, a conflation of everything of all that is grown into, and more. Think of all those directional metaphors: in, out, up, down, rising, falling. Whether one is moving inward or outward, all this movement was perceived, symbolically, as one direction; you could say that direction was toward whatever reality it was this word “depth” was capable of implying (or, to use Li Young Lee’s word, “inflecting.”)…. One way the two of them, Rilke and Tillich, differ is in attitude to their tradition. Rilke, in his formative years, of course felt estranged from every tradition. Black coat wearing, roses in his buttonholes, swaying through the gloom, not holding down a job, estrangement was part of his conception of himself as a poet. By this belief in his total estrangement, he was able to court originality, and by that originality reel in those big revelatory poems. Very well done, Rilke. There isn’t quite the emphasis on aloneness, on singularity, in a field like theology as there is in a field like poetry. Perhaps that accounts for some of Tillich’s love for his native soil. He felt strongly for the Weimar Republic of his youth and its culture. Great painting, great music, great theology. Incredible philosophy, probably the best since the Greeks, was happening in Germany the last fifty or sixty years of the 19th century, and Tillich, in an essay in Theology of Culture written later in his life, in America, makes no bones about how those in that cultural milieu were aware and proud of it.
I don’t want to get into a biographical outline of Tillich’s career; I was hoping to lay him down in a few broad brushstrokes, and be onto ideas, particularly his ideas on symbols and revelation, and what they might especially mean to all those engaged with poetry. It must be mentioned, though, because it deserves mentioning, that Tillich was one of first and most outspoken opponents of Nazism. In even the shortest biographical sketches, in two sentence taglines, this tends to be mentioned. He was very much a public intellectual, a chaired professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Frankfurt, and he began speaking out against the party in 1929. The rhetoric, the concept of a nationalist soul, had begun showing up in his classrooms, and he was prescient in regard to its implications. When Hitler came to power several years later, Tillich was ousted from his professorship and forced to leave the country. This was in 1933. Though he didn’t yet know English, he was given refuge at Union Seminary, in uptown Manhattan. He was in America for the duration of the second World War, and was among those prominent voices radioed into central Europe throughout.
Regardless one’s attitude toward religion, one cannot help but admire this. There was no schism in him whereby he could blithely ignore the political realm while continuing to engage in philosophical and theological querying. There are people capable of chairing philanthropic boards, reading philosophy, etc., and then going out to dinner and insulting an entire wait-staff over a drip of wine, or looking at a homeless person and saying out loud, “Ugh. Can’t we bag this trash and bury it in Staten Island?” while pinching their nostrils histrionically. These are the most horrifying kinds of people, because they should be better than that. Emerson references these sorts of folks at the beginning of “The Poet,” in that fantastic analogy of a stick rubbed with another stick, which becomes warm only in one spot while the rest remains cold. He uses this to describe those who have headfuls of literary history or those who can vibrate to great music and visual art, but whose whole beings have not been enlivened by their pursuits. If an education in the humanities fails to instruct the entire being, it is ultimately a botched education. We all, on some level, believe this.
I am not a European historian. I mean, I’m a bleeping bartender; that’s the best solution I’ve found for how to make enough money to stake off enough time to engage regularly with poetry….I suppose I should learn more about the upheaval that was taking place in Germany after WWI and before WWII. I’ve seen the staggering inflation numbers. It is difficult for me, and for all of us as Americans to wrap our heads around those sorts of percentage. While we’ve seen our gas prices climb in recent years, and been plunged into fear as to our economic future, we’ve never on American soil seen a loaf of bread suddenly going for $100, a pair of basic shoes going for $3000 dollars. A perspective that would allow us, every now and again, to imagine walking into a bodega and finding that a roll of paper towels is beyond our purchasing power would be an improvement in us. This is very different than imagining being utterly destitute in a stable economy.
In any event, it is his ontological religious perspective that enables Tillich to understand Nazism, at its inception, as “daemonic.” That is the term “daemonic” that he, the most intellectually and verbally careful of religious thinkers, trots out. His concept of daemonic structure is one in which an aspect of an entity, be it a self or a society, that should not be the object of ultimate concern is elevated into the role of ultimate concern. “If a national group makes the life and growth of its nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns – economic well-being, health and life, family, aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice and humanity, be sacrificed to this ultimate concern.” It is in that word, daemonic, where he is more a theologian than ontologist; it is a viewpoint of classical theology that good and evil reside within things, whereas truth and falsity reside only in the mind. This is Aquinian; if you read Tillich, you find it’s one of the few points where he could be said to agree with Aquinas.
It is as of now 3:35 in the morning; I have not arrived anywhere near where I’d hoped to arrive. More from me on Tillich later on tonight. I swear this will get very interesting at some point soon. Be well, blog readers; I will too, and thanks so much for your time.
This is a love letter.
Not an exegesis. Not a manifesto. Not a new notion.
This is a thank you note.
I met Andrew Hughes in January 2002, during my final residency at the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Andy was the first editor outside of a school literary journal to accept a poem of mine for publication. He and Whit Griffin started Tight in 2001 while undergraduates at Bennington. I was fortunate enough to be included in the second issue, which also features work from Jonathan Williams, John Coletti, Russell Dillon, Stephen Sandy, Anselm Berrigan, Amy Gerstler, Pierre Joris, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Jackson Mac Low. If you happen to find a copy, you really should buy it.
When the Vermont Studio Center restructured in 2007, my position as Writing Coordinator was eliminated. Andy, in the midst of getting his own MFA from Brooklyn College, suggested we move in together. We did, taking up residence above Kevin's Restaurant in downtown North Bennington, Vermont. Andy dubbed our apartment "Villa America" after one of Gerald Murphy's paintings, at the time (fall 2007) on exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art. Andy, Whit, and I would resurrect Tight and put out three more issues, all of which I recommend with extreme prejudice (Tight 3, Tight 4, Tight 5).
"Chest Fever" was written as a reaction to "The Weight." It is what Robertson refers to as a "vibes" song. "At the time I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute, where are we going here with Buñuel and all of these ideas and the abstractions and all of the mythology?' This music, for us, started on something that felt good and sounded good and who cares. 'Chest Fever' was like, here's the groove, come in a little late. Let's do the whole thing so it's like pulling back and then it gives in and kind of kicks in and goes with the groove a little bit. If you like 'Chest Fever' it's for God knows what reason, it's just in there somewhere, this quirky thing. But it doesn't make particularly any kind of sense in the lyrics, in the music, in the arrangement, in anything."
The beginning always remained a showcase for Garth Hudson. On the recorded version he opens with a bit of Bach's Toccata & Fugue In D Minor. He adds, though, with a whimsical smile, "After that it becomes more unqualifiable, more ethnic." Hudson's intro eventually evolved into what became known as "The Genetic Method."
I started paying more attention to Ezili Freda after last week's earthquake, the one that devastated Haiti and finally summoned the world's eyes, all at once, to this small Caribbean nation. She is one of the Lwa, a pantheon of immortal spirits in Vodou who wield their powers on behalf of the devout. Her likeness has sort of followed me around over the years.
I've seen her on prayer cards at sundry Miami mini-marts, and sitting on my kitchen counter is my grandmother's statue of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, who is often associated with Ezili Freda.
Someone once gave me a white sequined Vodou bottle with her head and shoulders stamped across the front. Then, driving around Little Haiti, I looked over while waiting at a light and there she was again- painted across a big slab of plywood and propped in a storefront window.
Of course I pulled over and asked if the painting was for sale. I am a big fan of folk art and if it includes any kind of religious iconography, all the better. I think I find it irresistible, the unpretentious mishmash of art and fairytales and faith.
Ten minutes and $75 later, I was heading back to work with the Lwa of love and pleasure strapped into the passenger seat.
The portrait is a crude one, with flat perspectives and an angelic face a child would draw, remembering to dot the center of each eye with a nubby, tiny pupil. Since I first brought it home, the painting has hung above the sofa, on a red textured wall, near a window that faces the inlet, and in our shoebox of a foyer. None of these locations ever seemed quite right. Finally, last year, we hung it in the hallway over the antique bookshelves that are stuffed with most of my poetry books.
Today I learned Ezili Freda loves jewels, anais perfume, and sumptuous linens. Her symbol is the checkered heart. She wears three wedding rings, one for each of her consorts: Danbala, Ogu, Agwe. She rules over the home, can assist in matters of fertility, and, oh yes, she serves as muse to writers, as well as painters and musicians.
She is the inspiration behind several works by the late Andre Pierre, one of Haiti's most noted visual artists who was also a practicing houngan, or Vodou priest.
(Left, Andre Pierre)
"I do what I want with the spirits," he once said, "and they do what they want with me."
I am not a practictioner of Vodou. But I might imagine what Ezili Freda would want from me is to remember she was there. Before the earthquake in Haiti, she had simply receded from my sight line. I'd see her hanging between the bathroom and the bedroom, beside a concert poster for a long-gone Pitchfork festival. But I wasn't really looking. She had just become part of the walls and the furniture and everything else we walk and sleep beside without really noticing.
I'm worried the same thing is already happening to Haiti, although even as I write this there's a telethon raising money, and there are special broadcasts and reportage abound. But there's other stuff now jostling for our attention: mudslides and tornadoes in California, the Supreme Court giving even more might to the far-too-powerful. It all keeps marching on and with great clamor.
How will I remember to keep my eyes on Haiti? I hope to do it in the details. I'm listening to Boukman Eksperyans again, whose record Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads) I wore out while living on Miami Beach many years ago in a dinky studio three blocks from the ocean. I'm remembering the righteous okra and homemade lemon soda I used to have for lunch at Chez Rosie, just down the street from the paper I wrote for in downtown Miami. Or the time I paired up with photojournalist Carl Juste on a story about salsa classes, how his singular scratch-and-gravel voice helped me find him in a salon crowded with wistful dancers. I'm trying to keep my eyes on Haiti by pulling whatever I know of her closer to me. So far, it's working.
Last evening Stacey and I went to see the highly touted movie "An Education." It is a well-acted British film set in London and Oxford in 1961; the young (24) actress Carey Mulligan won rave notices for her portrayal of the under-age heroine, Jenny. The plot line is familiar: the movie is a busted fairy tale, in which the ordinary girl becomes a princess until the moment when her savior turns out to be a frog.
Nothing prepared us for the anti-Semitic line running through the movie. The charming cad -- who turns out to be a con man, a parasite, a philanderer, a thief, and a pervert -- is repeatedly identified as Jewish, gratuitously, for religion plays no part in the seduction narrative. Nothing requires that he be Jewish -- except the perpetuation of a stereotype, the demonizing of "the other," for allegorical purposes. The characters who reflexively voice their anti-Semitic prejudices -- the headmistress of Jenny's school, played by the redoubtable Emma Thompson, reminds the headstrong student that "the Jews killed our Lord" -- are not repudiated but vindicated by the turn of events in the movie. I found this element of the film most chilling, a disturbing reminder of the "genteel" anti-Semitism that I remember from my own time in Britain, and I scratch my head wondering why the vast majority of the critics overlooked this point. David Edelstein, in New York magazine, was an exception: "The story's most obvious lesson is 'beware of Jews bearing flowers.'"
Here is an excerpt from Irina Bragin's excellent piece, "The Wandering Jew in An Education: the Anatomy of an Anti-Semitic Film." -- DL<<<
We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA.
From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard) proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: “I’m not a Jew.” David: “No, I am. I wasn’t ... accusing you.”) Like the predatory creature characterized in “Der Ewige Juden,” Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny “three five-pound notes” to drive her cello home safely out of the rain; “I’m a music lover,” he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.
Read the rest of Irina Bragin's piece here.
In a narcissistic slight of hand actor Michael O’Keefe interviews himself about his poems, Christmas and other matters significant to him and him alone.
Q.: Michael, nice to have you here.
A.: Pleasure to be had and here.
Q.: You’ve published a book of poems recently.
A.: You’re quite right about that.
Q.: But enough about poetry tell me about the meaning of life.
A.: Hey, let’s get back to poetry, Interlocutor. Unemployed actors know very little about the meaning of life. They can’t even hold a job in the real world. That’s why they became actors in the first place.
Q.: How did you become an actor?
A.: I was dropped as a child.
Q: And why publish a book of poems?
A.: I thought you’d never ask.
Q.: Oh, I wouldn’t leave you hanging.
A.: No, but you sure can’t interrupt a guy who’s trying his best to say something about poetry.
Q.: Sorry. I’m all ears. Tell us about your poems.
A.: The book is called “Swimming From Under My Father,” and…
Q.: Why not just “Swimming Under,” or “Swimming From?” Why “Swimming From Under…?”
A.: Oh for Christ’s sake. Can’t you keep quiet?
Q.: I hardly think using Christ’s name in vain on Christmas Eve is an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday.
A.: And I don’t badgering me with interruptions is the way to interview me about my writing.
Q.: I’ll be the judge of that. Your first blog for BAP was about Christmas and Barbara Stanwyck. Do you think the reason you’re single at your advanced age has anything to do with an inability to connect with someone in the real world? And isn’t that why you hold Ms. Stanwyck in such high esteem? She is, after all, only an illusory presence for you.
A.: Advanced age? Have you ever been knocked cold by an interviewee? Because, Brother, I am about to sock you in the jaw.
Q.: Whatsa matter? Did that hit close to the bone?
A significant pause ensues as Mr. O’Keefe waits for Mr. O’Keefe to collect his thoughts and regain his composure.
A.: William Carlos Williams once said that while it is difficult to get the news from poetry men die miserable deaths every day from lack of what is found in its pages.
Q.: (In an Irish brogue) Did he now?
A.: When you did become Irish?
Q.: (Continuing the Irish brogue through out the rest) Ach, get away. Sure, I’ve been this way all along.
A.: Look, I only have so much time. Can we please just settle into a conversation about my poems?
Q.: I’ll not be badgered by ye, ye unemployed actor with yer high falutin’ book a poems. Poems is it? What’s next? Philosophy? From an actor yet. Bollocks!
A.: God, you’re a nuisance. What does “Bollocks” mean anyway? I hear Irish and English people use it frequently but no one’s ever made clear what it means.
Q.: It means, “testicles” ya ignorant git.
A.: Gross. How the hell did that ever make it into the lexicon of modern speech?
Q.: Oh no ya don’t. I’ll be asking the questions around here, Mr. Fancypants.
A.: These are jeans.
Q.: And I’ll wager ya spent hundreds of dollars on them.
A.: What if I did?
Q.: Yer not a real poet. Real poets suffer fer their art. You wouldn’t find Jane Hirshfield or Henri Cole in a pair of jeans that cost hundreds of dollars.
A.: Perhaps you’re right about that.
Q.: A course I’m right. And that’s all the time and space we have.
A.: I thought space-time was unlimited. Kind of like a fourth dimension. I’ve heard string theorists go on about it.
Q.: Brilliant! Next time I’ll interview one a dem. Tune in next time for, “String Theory. Math or Religion? You decide.”
A.: Oh, bollocks.
“If it makes them pray, that’s OK,”
said Rev. Father John Straathof, of
MilknHoney was in a bad place about to cast herself into the sea when something brushed her foot. Driftwood. “With the face of Jesus starring at me.” Now her life is fine “and i wish upon whom every is to win this will have the same fortune I did.”
Starting bid, $15. It didn’t sell.
But other items have, of course -- the $28,000 grilled cheese sandwich the off-shore casino bought for publicity, the sandwich nibbled, Our Lady’s face discovered, all of it wrapped in cotton, kept in plastic. And it never molded. Miraculous. It brought the owner luck, frequent wins at the casino, not to mention fame and twenty eight thousand dollars on Ebay.
For I Will Consider Your Dog Molly
by David Lehman
For it was the first day of Rosh Ha'shanah, New Year's Day, day of
remembrance, of ancient sacrifices and averted calamities.
For I started the day by eating an apple dipped in honey, as ritual required.
For I went to the local synagogue to listen to the ram's horn blown.
For I asked Our Father, Our King, to save us for his sake if not for ours,
for the sake of his abundant mercies, for the sake of his right hand,
for the sake of those who went through fire and water for
the sanctification of his name.
For despite the use of a microphone and other gross violations of ceremony,
I gave myself up gladly to the synagogue's sensual insatiable vast womb.
For what right have I to feel offended?
For I communed with my dead father, and a conspicuous tear rolled down
my right cheek, and there was loud crying inside me.
For I understood how that tear could become an orb.
For the Hebrew melodies comforted me.
For I lost my voice.
For I met a friend who asked "Is this a day of high seriousness," and when
I said yes he said "It has taken your voice away."
For he was right, for I felt the strong lashes of the wind lashing me by
For I thought there shall come a day that the watchmen upon the hills
of Ephraim shall cry, Arise and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord
For the virgin shall rejoice in the dance, and the young and old in each
other's arms, and their soul shall be as a watered garden, and
neither shall they learn war any more.
For God shall lower the price of bread and corn and wine and oil, he shall let
our cry come up to him.
For it is customary on the first day of Rosh Ha'shanah to cast a stone into
the depths of the sea, to weep and pray to weep no more.
For the stone represents all the sins of the people.
For I asked you and Molly to accompany me to Cascadilla Creek, there being
no ocean nearby.
For we talked about the Psalms of David along the way, and the story of
Hannah, mother of Samuel, who sought the most robust bard to remedy
For Isaac said "I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for
For as soon as I saw the stone, white flat oblong and heavy, I knew that
it had summoned me.
For I heard the voice locked inside that stone, for I pictured a dry wilderness
in which, with a wave of my staff, I could command sweet waters to flow
forth from that stone.
For I cast the stone into the stream and watched it sink to the bottom where
dozens of smaller stones, all of them black, gathered around it.
For the waterfall performed the function of the chorus.
For after the moment of solemnity dissolved, you playfully tossed Molly into
For you tossed her three times, and three times she swam back for her life.
For she shook the water off her body, refreshed.
For you removed the leash from her neck and let her roam freely.
For she darted off into the brush and speared a small gray moving thing
in the neck.
For this was the work of an instant.
For we looked and behold! the small gray thing was a rat.
For Molly had killed the rat with a single efficient bite, in conformance
with Jewish law.
For I took the rat and cast him into the stream, and both of us congratulated
For now she resumed her noble gait.
For she does not lie awake in the dark and weep for her sins, and whine about
her condition, and discuss her duty to God.
For I'd as lief pray with your dog Molly as with any man.
For she knows that God is her savior.
from Operation Memory by David Lehman (Princeton University Press, 1990)
Think of it: You’ve just created earth and sea, built the most dangerous playground in history, and you’re about to populate it with cunning delinquents with a thirst for justice. You’re considering opening a customer service department, hiring a publicist, when… What’s that? You say you’ve been wronged by volcano, fire, earthquake, struck by lightning, drowned or shipwrecked, fallen and can’t get up, and you’d like to talk with God’s attorneys? Sorry, no listing.
Neuroscience is determined to prove human brains analogous to computers, and soon no educated Bio 101 student will have any reason to believe in the existence of a “soul” unless the poor kid’s religious. (Why do we love? Look at the scan: pleasure centers here, here and here.) A nation of individuals who see themselves as soulless—what a hell that’ll be.
This one comes to us courtesy of Joy Katz, our Significant Mother. Thanks, Joy.
Any other menorah photos out there? Send 'em in, sized for the internet (no jumbo files, please!) -- sdh
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.