Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 3

So all of our learning happens by analogy.  As we come to understand, we name things in two basic ways:  we give the same names to things which we see as “like,” though we know they are not necessarily “the same”; and we specify to find which ways an individual can vary and still be essentially “the same” (accidental differences, same genus, same species), which ways individuals can vary and still be “like” (same genus, different species), and which ways individuals cannot vary and be either “like” or “the same” except accidentally (different essences).  As our mental organization improves, we must frequently revise our understandings; the recognition of more and less “fit” analogies is a crucial skill for anyone who wants to reason skillfully.

And with many things–with almost all terrestrial things, things that we can observe with our senses, measure, manipulate, build, or participate in bodily in some way–we are able to specify our meaning so completely that there is no reason we cannot be confident that when we use the same name of two things, we mean they are “the same” (same genus, same species).

For example, when I say “those are both Shetland ponies” or “those are both triangles,” you would not think that one was a cute little baby quarter horse or that one was a parallelogram with a very short side.  You would understand that I am intend to use the name univocally.  “Univocal predication” happens when we use names in a way that assumes that whatever is so named is actually “the same” in essence as other things receiving that name.

In almost all things, then, we tend to place a very high value on univocal predication–on carefully stating our claims using only terms that the hearer can understand univocally, and arranging them so that the hearer can simply affirm or deny the entire claim.  Many philosophical conversations begin with a concern for whether and how it is possible to speak univocally about all things, but this is not only an abstract concern; every contract, and all laws, and almost every conversation between parents and six-year-olds, turns on the problem of avoiding equivocation, or the use of “equivocal predication.”

Let’s return to our example of the small child exclaiming “Bug!” at an insect, a raisin, and the dog (but not a VW Beetle).  The child is learning by analogy, and eventually learns to specify properly and to remove the raisin and the dog from the category; at this point the child seems prepared to use “bug” univocally, referring only to insects.  Whenever the child says “bug,” he now means a fly, a beetle, a mosquito, a roach, a cricket, a grasshopper, etc.  Of course, this takes a lot of learning, and continues to have gaps; the child will discover that a butterfly is usually not thought of as “a bug,” and neither is a spider; terms like “insect” and “beetle” will prove more useful for being more perfectly univocal.  He will learn, in short, that even the univocal sense of “bug” is a relatively fixed point in a larger field of learning and understanding; this univocal usage is built on analogies, and occupies a place in a larger web of more generic and more specific language.

When his big sister teases him by saying, “I see a bug!  It’s right in front of you!” so that the child searches the whole front of a VW Beetle for a cricket or moth or fly, though, the child will learn about equivocal predication properly so called.  We can simplify equivocation by talking about seemingly univocal claims that use terms that have one meaning for the speaker and another for the hearer, though that misses some of what’s happenning with regard to the analogies by which we learn and which also yield, in specific contexts, univocal or equivocal claims.

Big sister’s teasing turns on swapping analogies:  the VW Beetle is often called a “bug” because beetles (hard-carapaced insects) are among those we regularly refer to as “bugs”; the child who has just learned that “bug” does not mean raisin or dog, though, will look for anything except the car.

This teasing (like much teasing) turns on equivocation, and tends to help the child learn the limitations of his understanding.  Obviously, unintentional equivocation would be a failure; deliberate use of equivocation to deceive would be a lie, just like speaking a blatant falsehood.

So to speak analogously is to understand the name as having a general sense that must be specified before one can speak univocally; to speak equivocally is to use the name as though specified, but without specifying.  Because confusion and deception often enter our discourse through equivocation, we generally strive to speak univocally.  Because all the terms in univocal language are learned in analogy, and refined through analogous discourse, though, there can be no question of any particularly significant conversation proceeding solely in univocal terms.  As long as there is learning going on, or matters are being discussed in any terms beyond the most narrowly transactional and concrete, at least some terms in the discourse require interpretation based on the fitness of analogy after the univocality of all known terms is established.  

Nor is all equivocation bad:  all puns, and many other verbal effects, turn in part on equivocation, and draw our attention for humorous or significant effect to possibilities beyond those available in univocal discourse.  Such effects, however, depend on the univocal discourse for their truth, and refer through it to the analogical discourse that generates the univocal discourse.

Remember, then:

  • When the child learns the word “Bug!” for a beetle, and applies it to insects, raisins, and the dog (but not the VW Beetle), the child is using language “analogously,” and will learn by specification which analogies are fit and which are not;
  • When the child learns to use “bug” for a range of insects, and to exclude butterflies and spiders, the child begins to use “bug” univocally;
  • When big sister teases the child by saying “Look out!  there’s a bug in front of you!” when they stand in front of a VW Beetle, the child is confused because big sister has used “bug” equivocally.

Because this understanding is essential to your grasping why we say that we can only speak of God analogously.  [we’ll proceed there in Part 4]

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 2

It all begins with “that’s not true, it’s just metaphorical.”

And it ends badly, unless it gets converted into something like this:

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

What we need, then, is a proper term that expresses the basic movement of mind common to all learning, and especially important when learning about God:  “not only this, but definitely this.”

There are several ways to point out the necessity of this move–which is essential to what we mean by analogy–in all learning.  Consider a small child who is first learning to name things, who sees a small beetle and exclaims “bug!”  The child has heard his parents and others point to bugs, shoo bugs, stomp bugs, or pick up bugs and show them to curious eyes.  The child then, excited to have connected thing and name and flushed with praise, eager to dramatize the world and imitate and please the big people, exclaims “bug!” at the sight of a spider, a raisin, perhaps even the dog (but probably not a VW Beetle).  The child is not yet sufficiently familiar with bugs, spiders, raisins, or dogs to have a firm basis for distinguishing them (or for making the leap to an automobile), so siblings and parents and friends correct the names, “No, spider.”  “That’s a raisin.”  And so on.  Some of the candidates are easily distinguished; the dog was not very much like a bug, after all.

We can easily establish the basic movements, here, and they are the movements common to all thought, all education, all reasoning:  the recognition and assertion of similitude, and the recognition and assertion of difference.  Simplistic reductions of the arguments in language theory since Saussure often assign to language only the role of delimiting differences, but the existence of poetry and toddlers ought to be enough to suggest the poverty of such a reduction.  No, in both understanding and language, which are the interior and social manifestations of human rational soul, we proceed by discovering specifiable relationships of likeness-across-unlikeness and unlikeness-in-likeness that permit differentiation to occur within a unified field.


This can be described several ways.  Downstream from the Modern Western Philosophy tradition, I have long been accustomed to using the language preferred by Kant et al, of “synthesis” and “analysis.”  Like Coleridge, and similar to Pierce (who spoke of “prehension”), I am inclined to disagree with the general notion after Kant, that the “sensuous manifold” is essentially an undefined “given,” so that analysis (differentiating, delimiting) is the basic movement of thought, after which synthesis can begin.  We all agree, however, that there is an expansive movement of understanding that strives to “take it all in,” a movement that reciprocates with an effort to “sort it all out”; and that these movements of understanding are intimately related to the use of language to “name the beasts” and to remark their differences.  These are not manifested as discrete processes, but as reciprocating movements within every act of understanding and language.

Of course, we can also use a different way of speaking about this, if we hark back to the Thomistic and even the ancient tradition and accept the need to speak of “genus” and “species” in order to discover the “essence” of each thing we perceive and name.  Roughly, we need to know “what kind of thing” we are discussing, and we need to know “in what ways individuals of that kind can vary” in order to correctly understand and properly name that thing.  If we locate the individual by partially species characteristics and partly accidental characteristics (variations that do not distinguish individuals of that kind), then I am likely to have a confused understanding.  The obvious parallel is in zoological taxonomy, where creatures have sometimes been classified by characteristics which, upon further examination, may not sufficiently describe them.  A humble example is our child, who exclaims “bug!” at the dog because it crawls on the ground, at the raisin for its shape and color, etc.  The entire effort of careful description rests on this idea that there is an “essence” by which every properly named thing takes place and is made manifest, and that this “essence” is the ground of our hope for the intelligibility of that thing–our ability to properly understand and discuss it.

One can also imagine the problems that would arise by disregarding splashes or orange paint when identifying blackbirds, or spilling white paint on a cartoon cat in the vicinity of Pepe le Pew.

But this means that all learning proceeds by analogy, that is, by recognizing the similarity in dissimilar things, first looking at them “generically” and then attempting to “specify” them, correcting ourselves when we realize that our specification leaves no generic similarity:  Both koala and Kodiak are mammals, and for a variety of reasons we often call both “bear,” but upon careful specification we realize that there is no generic similarity between “bear” as used of koala and “bear” as used of Kodiak, because the shared meaning between them is almost exhausted in the higher orders of classification (vertebrate, mammal, etc.)–the koala does not share with the Kodiak what the brown and the black do; the koala’s differences from the Kodiak are not differences of species (in the philosophical sense) but of kind (genus).

So that’s the common form of analogy–the movement between unlikeness and likeness necessary to discover the generic and specific descriptions of each thing.  This movement continues as long as we continue to learn, but also bears the fruit of increasingly definite knowledge of increasingly many things in increasingly fit relations–that is, understanding.

And we’ll turn to understanding God, and to the problem of equivocation, next.

The Importance of Analogy (or, how to avoid dualism and make learning possible)–Part 1

I want to try to help folks escape some boxes of bad reasoning we keep getting locked into. The classic form of the trap I’m going to describe sounds much like a verbal typo I made when talking to the RCIA last Sunday: referring to the perfect charity in which all three Persons of the Trinity dwell, I said, “And that’s why we say God is three, not just one.”

Now, in my case, I specifically did not mean to deny God’s unity and simplicity, and I instantly mocked and corrected myself. Obviously what I meant was that “we say God is three and one; we do not merely say that He is one.”

But many, even some of the best and most important teachers I hear around me, seem prone to use this “not…but…” structure systematically and under the impression they are helping people to go “deeper” by wedging them from a lesser to a greater.

A typical version of this is an exhortation I grew up hearing often with regard to letting the love of Christ draw us into friendship with God: “It’s not enough to have a head knowledge, you have to have a heart knowledge.” Obviously it is possible to rescue the sense of this statement (“Comprehending language about God is not the same as being God’s friend”), but in practical terms its force is almost always turned in the wrong direction (“Reasoning about God is not as important as having strong feelings about Him”).

And a helpful indicator of the pernicious cultural force of such “not…but…” structures is their frequent coexistence with their exact negations in the same belief systems, or as the equal and opposite axioms of rival systems. When such tendentious structures dominate a dispute, both sides become impervious to reason (and often unable to notice that they may be united in their failure to accept the same truth). For example, it would be very easy to find revival preachers from my youth who would plead, “It’s not enough to have a head belief, you have to have a heart belief!” shortly after expressing contempt for “sentimental religion that has no truth” or sorrow for those who are “sincere, but sincerely wrong.” Such a preacher may well be right on the merits, when given the most charitable possible construal by a very careful reader (for example, when saying that one must believe with firm faith that Jesus Christ was the God-Man sent to save us all from sin, then criticizing those who want to believe Jesus and Mary were special but deny the Virgin Birth as history); but he cites as truisms an incoherent arrangement of sayings in which the privileged term can swap as needed.

This is a fairly trivial example, but the history of Christian doctrine is littered with the shipwrecks of those who started with someone’s “not…but…” and noticed only when grave harm had been done to lives and reputations and teachings and the unity of the Body of Christ that the “not…but…” was an imprudent rhetorical gesture, not a reliable saying.

We’ll talk eventually about illegitimately converting intensive & extensive claims (a helpful critique I encountered in Stephen Prickett’s Words and The Word and have not seen many others explain), but for now just take two examples of “not…but…” that have caused serious problems in the Body of Christ: “not works but faith” and “not a religion but a relationship” (I’m open to your thinking of more, but be sure you don’t just pick the negation of your preferred “not…but…” as an erroneous “not…but…”!)

But, for now, to get us heading in the right direction, here’s a paper I gave at the Southwest Conference on Christianity & Literature in 2014 that deals with several things–not least the concept we need to revive to cure quite a few of our discursive ills:

“Can Poetry Matter?”—Definitely, and With Many Voices
Peter G. Epps
Southwest Conference on Christianity and Literature
November 14, 2014


Now in earnest he means to honour the gods who have blessed him,
Now in truth and in deed all must re-echo their praise.
Nothing must see the light but what to those high ones is pleasing,
Idle and bungled work never for Aether was fit.
So, to be worthy and stand unashamed in the heavenly presence,
Nations rise up and soon, gloriously ordered, compete
One with the other in building beautiful temples and cities,
Noble and firm they tower high above river and sea—
Only, where are they? Where thrive those famed ones, the festival’s garlands?
Athens is withered, and Thebes; now do no weapons ring out
In Olympia, nor now those chariots, all golden, in games there,
And no longer are wreaths hung on Corinthian ships?
Why are they silent too, the theatres, ancient and hallowed?
Why not now does the dance celebrate, consecrate joy?
Why no more does a god imprint on the brow of a mortal
Struck, as by lightning, the mark, brand him, as once he would do?
Else he would come himself, assuming a shape that was human,
And, consoling the guests, crowned and concluded the feast.
But, my friend, we have come too late. Though the gods are living,
Over our heads they live, up in a different world.
Endlessly there they act and, such is their kind wish to spare us,
Little they seem to care whether we life or do not.
For not always a frail, a delicate vessel can hold them,
Only at times can our kind bear the full impact of gods.
Ever after our life is dream about them. But frenzy,
Wandering, helps, like sleep; Night and distress make us strong
Till in that cradle of steel heroes enough have been fostered,
Hearts in strength can match heavenly strength as before.
Thundering then they come. But meanwhile too often I think it’s
Better to sleep than to be friendless as we are, alone,
Always waiting, and what to do or to say in the meantime
I don’t know, and who wants poets at all in lean years?
But they are, you say, like those holy ones, priests of the wine-god
Who in holy Night roamed from one place to the next.
Holderlin “Bread and Wine” 6-7

This conference poses the question “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” I suggest that this question is roughly the same as that asked in the title of Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” If literature and literary study make any substantive contribution to the common good, it must be because both poetry and criticism are bound up with the active life in much the way teaching is, as a traditionary and culture-making work. The cultural moment that leads us to ask such questions as “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and “Can Poetry Matter?” is also the moment for which poems such as Holderlin’s “Bread and Wine” were written. As those who concern ourselves with poetry “in lean years”—also translated “the destitute time”—we will certainly want to take counsel in the matter. Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Martin Heidegger and Francis Schaeffer, and picking up some guidelines from St. Thomas Aquinas, I hope to identify some of the material conditions for a poetry that keeps faith and matters.

Heidegger famously wrestles with the nature of “the destitute time” in his essay “What Are Poets For?” and related works from late in his career. Heidegger expands on Holderlin’s image of the “lean years” during which the vatic stance of Romantic poets becomes anachronistic and poetry itself comes to be seen as a luxury product irrelevant to all but a narrow class of consumers. On Heidegger’s reading, “the destitute time” comes to characterize not just a seasonal dearth for poets, but an entire season of world history. Heidegger summarizes his view of the role art works play in the unfolding of history as follows in an earlier essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Art as poetry is founding, …instigation of the strife of truth: founding as beginning.…This foundation happened in the West for the first time in Greece….The realm of beings thus opened up was then transformed into a being in the sense of God’s creation. This happened in the Middle Ages. This kind of being was again transformed at the beginning and in the course of the modern age. Beings became objects that could be controlled and seen through by calculation. At each time a new and essential world arose. (74)

It would be easy to dispute Heidegger’s reading of the history of ideas, here, but his interpretation of the relation between the work of art and the world as a scene of human work is plain enough. When human working comes to be conspicuous enough to draw attention to itself as human working, it does so according to some available understanding of how the world comes to be as it is and of what materials and methods permit humans to work in a distinctively human manner. As a result, any work of art is most fully realized when it most wholly participates in the creation of the world in which humans can work creatively.

If Heidegger’s interpretation of the relationship between work and world is substantially accurate, then truly great art is most possible—and most recognizeable—when a great “beginning” is at hand. In “What Are Poets For?” Heidegger elaborates this understanding from Holderlin’s question about “the destitute time.” He begins by interpreting “Holderlin’s historical experience” in which “the appearance and sacrificial death of Christ mark the beginning of the end of the day of the gods” (89). If Christ’s Passion marks the demise of all other gods, then what Holderlin sees as Christ’s withdrawal from bodily presence within the world leaves humanity bereft of fresh material evidence of divine presence and action. Heidegger asserts that “the default of God which Holderlin experienced…means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it.” This time “becomes ever more destitute” until “it can no longer discern the default of God as a default” (89). “At this night’s midnight,” he says, “the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). It follows that to “be truly a poet in such an age,” one must first have survived experiences and thoughts that “have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Such poets cannot readily rely on widely shared assumptions about the manner in which the world comes to be the scene of human work; rather, they “must especially gather in poetry the nature of poetry” in order to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” It is to precisely such poets, Heidegger suggests, that “we others must learn to listen.”

This frequently repeated observation is the occasion of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of Heidegger’s views on art. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer argues that

When [Heidegger] says, “listen to the poet,” he does not mean that we are to listen to the content of what the poet says. Content is immaterial—one might have six poets all contradicting each other. It does not matter because the content is in the area of rationality, the lower story. What matters is that such a thing as poetry exists—and poetry is placed in the upper story. (Trilogy 246)

To clear away the brush, we must not fail to note that Schaeffer’s remark ignores exactly what we just heard from Heidegger—that “We others must learn to listen to what these poets say.” That is, particular poets who write in particular ways about particular things, and not anybody who happens to pen verse, can be judged to be “on the way to the destiny of the world’s age.” Heidegger does at least hint a framework for discrimination, so it is not in this sense accurate to say “Content is immaterial.”

More critically, Schaeffer depends on a reductive understanding of “rationality” (Trilogy 124). Like most of the modern thinkers he surveys, Schaeffer presupposes that only univocal true propositions are rational. Although the “whole personality is involved” in the intercourse of revelation, univocal speech is its sine qua non: Schaeffer’s “rational” Christian takes “A is A and A is not non-A” as “the basis” and subsequently engages all other elements of “personality” as a “response” to “what God has said.” If he does otherwise, the Christian “loses his way.” Schaeffer acknowledges that “to add things to rational verbalization” can “enrich it” in the sense that “poetry undoubtedly adds something to prose form.” In just the way some non-rational “personality” is part of a “response,” so some non-rational “something” can “enrich” the “prose form” of “what God has said.”

Schaeffer’s confrontation with Heidegger thus leaves the Christian seeking to make poetry matter with no very satisfying result. Schaeffer’s comment that “Content is immaterial” for Heidegger suggests that the content should be material, should make a concrete difference to the reader; and indeed Heidegger’s criteria for discrimination do not seem very concrete. Despite this, we have seen that Heidegger does not in fact commend “bare poetic form”; and Schaeffer’s reduction of “personality” and “poetry” to a non-rational “something” that can “enrich” univocal speech but also threatens it with irrationality seems to be an example of the thinking that marks “the destitute time.”

We turn, then, to Thomas Aquinas. Although after his time Scotus will persuade most metaphysicians that “being” is a univocal term, Thomas has a fully developed understanding of analogy. As the protégé of Albertus Magnus, Thomas seeks a unified field of knowledge; as a Dominican, Thomas is the paragon of that order’s effort to finally rid the Church of dualist heresy. When Heidegger asserts that the Middle Ages converted the world “into a being in the sense of God’s creation,” he is referring to the Aristotelian synthesis that completed Augustine’s Platonic hermeneutical efforts, a synthesis effected by Thomas. And when Schaeffer attempts to trace the bifurcation of modern thought into “upper” and “lower” registers back to its pre-modern roots, he starts from the basic nature/grace distinction found in Thomas.

Dana Gioia, whose 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” helped pose the question for this paper, suggests a key reason why we might listen to Thomas in his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today.” He points out that while “theology…is important” as expressed in “formal analytical thought,” such dialectical instruction does not address “the fullness of [people’s] humanity” (40). He continues by saying that

A great strength of Catholicism had been its glorious physicality, its ability to convey its truths as incarnate. The faith was not merely explained in its doctrine but reflected in sacred art, music, architecture, and the poetry of liturgy. Even St. Thomas Aquinas knew there were occasions to put theology aside and write poetry.

Gioia goes on to point out the problems that the Church has faced in calibrating its response to “the destitute time,” noting especially that it has sometimes succumbed to “the graceless architecture, the formulaic painting, the banal sculpture, the ill-conceived and poorly performed music, and the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies” that tend to exacerbate rather than heal the division between a secularizing culture and a world-changing Christianity (41). This division has been internalized when “eager, well-intentioned reformers” acted without “respectful understanding of art itself” because they “saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.” As we have seen, this reduction of works of art to “functional entities” is what both Heidegger and Schaeffer object to—and what they both seem to do themselves.

Thomas Aquinas, then, points us toward a vision of poetry that matters in two ways: by his teaching about the intelligibility of creation, and by his own poetry. Aquinas asserts that “man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason,” and that therefore divine revelation must be given so that humans may “direct their thoughts and actions to the end” (ST I.1.1). Because the Creator must necessarily exceed what unaided human reason would devise, and what we could communicate widely and accurately by merely dialectical means, Thomas says that “in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely” there must be “a sacred science learned through revelation.” This “sacred science” is indeed intelligible and communicable, but its proper principles are spiritual and “obtained by revelation,” so that “we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation is made” (I.1.8). Nonetheless, “human reason” in the form of both dialectical procedure and appeals to secular wisdom are necessary to the “sacred science,” as Thomas says, “not, indeed, to prove faith…but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine.” Notice the relationship between the realities of creation and revelation, here, and the means of reasoning about them: the real is intelligible, and revelation is credible, but dialectical method serves in elaboration and definition, rather than as the foundation or sine qua non of faithful reason.

This, then, is the setting for the observation of Aquinas that “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” so that “natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: ‘Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ.’” In such a setting we can begin to see how poetry might have a serious cognitive role. I think of the ending George Herbert’s famous poem “The Collar”:

Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Childe:
And I reply’d, My Lord.

Like so many of Herbert’s works, the poem represents an adjustment of speculative thought to a reality in which willingness to accept the condition of a creature is generally a precondition to understanding as well as to happiness. Thomas is everywhere concerned with the necessity of adjusting our whole being to a reality we did not create and which we are alienated from by original sin as well as our own actual sins.

In such a world, the Platonic objection that “Holy Scripture should not use metaphors” because “similitudes and figures [are] proper to poetry, the least of all the sciences” is met with the solidly Thomistic assertion that “it is befitting Holy Writ to put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (ST I.1.9). Thomas argues that “it is natural to man to attain to intellectual truths through sensible objects,” and that it is especially important to do so when we consider those who do not have the time or aptitude for extended theological reflection: it is fitting “that spiritual truths be expounded by means of figures taken from corporeal things, in order that thereby even the simple who are unable by themselves to grasp intellectual things may be able to understand it.” This use of concretely intelligible figural language does not threaten reasonable faith with irrationality because its sensuality is chaste; its end and scope are both more definite and more total than the poetry envisioned by the Platonic critic, as Thomas says: “Poetry makes use of metaphors to produce a representation, for it is natural to man to be pleased with representations. But sacred doctrine makes use of metaphors as both necessary and useful.” For poetry to matter, it must function within the horizon of intelligible reality; it must be more totally intelligible and responsive to the creaturely condition than dialectic, not less; and it may decorate, but must not distract from, the essentially human work of participating in creation.

In order to act in this way, a poetry that matters will require skillful use of plurivocal, rather than univocal, signification. Rather than oscillating between a flawed dialectic that insists that only univocal propositions are really intelligible and a self-defeating dalliance with unlimited equivocation, poets especially must re-learn the philosophical meaning of analogy and the proper sense of allegory. This follows from two basic insights specific to monotheistic revealed religions, and most fully developed in Catholic Christianity: first, that God is incomprehensible yet reveals Himself intelligibly; second, in the words of Thomas, that “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” The first insight tells us that we must understand analogical terms as an alternative to univocal and equivocal terms. Univocal terms always take their meaning from a comprehended prior experience of an object; even discounting the residue that escapes comprehension in such terms, the very idea of divine revelation means that some terms must use comprehended prior experience of one object to make intelligible to us what we cannot comprehend and have not yet experienced. Properly speaking, such terms are analogical: they trade on what we do know to sketch what we cannot yet know. As surely as all teaching involves dialectic, all learning begins with analogy.

The second insight tells us that history itself will already be laden with multiple significations when we come to formulate it in words, so that adjusting the whole person to reality will require language and art that can re-enact in the reader the simultaneous unfolding of multiple truths in one event or process. Thomas provides us a key reference point for the developed understanding of allegory, beginning with his Augustinian observation about “words” and “things themselves.” We may say, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”; and in so doing, we recognize that the double sense of “charged” as both “vitally filled” and “formally accused” is not an ornament or distraction, but a more completely true statement about world history than could be achieved in univocal terms. When the speaker of “God’s Grandeur” asks “Why do men then now not reck his rod?” we see “then” taking on both the sense of historical reference (“then [and] now”) and the sense of implication (“if…then”). On the one hand, ignoring the Creator’s authority is a perennial act of human culture; on the other, after “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” it seems especially contrary to reasonable expectation that people would not see the harm that follows from a refusal to adjust to their creaturely status. Far from involving a flight from the scandalously sensual into the safely abstract, then, proper allegorical reasoning develops the insight that the historical unfolding of creation is laden with significance even before human reason and divine revelation explicitly account for that significance. If dialectic serves to find the most definite and unmistakable expression currently available of certain truths about that unfolding, then poetry may well serve to protect dialectic from devolving into reductionism.

Poets armed with this understanding of human language’s role in an intelligible creation should find no lack of interesting and controversial subject matter, but should be able to set it in perspective. As Gioia says, “Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil…. Indeed, all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God” (35). Yet this pervasive “invisible presence” is by its very invisibility prone to become the “default of God” in the experience of a poet such as Holderlin or a philosopher such as Heidegger; we cannot finally distinguish on the basis of words between the verbal mysticism Schaeffer deplores and the complex participation in creation that poets seek. Reduction to univocal discourse only makes the problem worse, as dialectic replaces poetry. For poetry to matter in this way, then, divine revelation must occur “visibly and unequivocally” in the material world. Poets are powerless to conjure this, but they should attend to any proclamation of such an occurrence.

Fortunately, the same Creator who authored Sacred Scripture and reveals Himself through Creation has also ordained sacraments by which a Church is constituted—most especially the Eucharist, by means of which the faithful are really made present at the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and the Resurrected Christ really does make true the Words of Institution, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” The faithful who receive acclaim this reality, saying, “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.” And it is to that reality that St. Thomas Aquinas adverts in his most compelling and definite language about the relationship between definite material substances and events, specific words, and the participation of humans in the creating and redeeming work that God does through them. These, then, are the realities par excellence: the Creation as considered through the unfolding of the New Creation into which we are incorporated already by Baptism; the Redemption as accomplished once for all in Christ and made present “visibly and unequivocally” in the Eucharist; the mutual consent of man and wife that makes each responsible for the whole life of the other, and the fidelity of Christ and His Church that makes her ministers His speech and act in the world; all this conditioned on a Christ who, St. Thomas says, is both Word and Image in an analogical sense, one that suggests the possibilities of words and images but escapes reduction to our later words and our remembered images.

It is this reality which leads St. Thomas, as Gioia says, to put down the pen of scholarship and take up the pen of poetry, giving us the Corpus Christi liturgy which is still used for some of the most solemn celebrations in the Catholic faith: Pange Lingua; Adoro te Devote; Sacris Solemniis; Verbum Supernum; Lauda Sion. (sing a bit of Tantum Ergo if possible) In a culture experiencing “the destitute time,” poetry can matter when poets called into close contact with the definite and plurivocal nature of the sacraments wrestle with the implications of that understanding for every part of life. Our culture’s rapid political and epistemic pendulum swings merely perpetuate the “divided field” of human reason that Schaeffer correctly diagnoses, but cannot cure with univocal propositions. It ought to be possible, however, to engage in a poetics of adjustment to the status of creature that richly explores analogical language and the allegorical understanding of history and lived experience; this should be most possible for those richly engaged in the sacramental life of the Church. One model I might propose is Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the dying man grapples with the existential sense of impending oblivion, aided by angels, ministers, and friends cooperating in prayer. For poets “in lean years,” and I suggest for poetry in general, the alternative to this obedient and unfolding vision is to live as Gerontius fears to die:

As though my very being had given way,
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
And turn no whither, but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss

Works Cited
[paper written for oral delivery. Resource links follow.] [Schaeffer] [Holderlin] [Summa] [Gioia 2013] [Newman] [Herbert] [Hopkins] [Gioia 1991]

Samson and Dido, and some reflections on the distance travelled

Well, if you ever doubt that I was very sincere about being a Protestant when I was one—which was, after all, the first 37 years of my life—there are a few short cuts to putting those doubts to rest.  One of the most straightforward is to look for anything I wrote in my middle twenties that mentions Milton (as we’ve already seen once or twice).  This paper is no exception—written in Fall 2001, as I began my doctoral coursework in my third year of graduate school (I had worked out about half of my M.A. thesis by midsummer 2001, and would finish and defend it in 2002), it has some pretty characteristic errors about English religious history and still uses the general organizing principle I had inherited from generations of Protestant and Baptist forebears:  one in which “toward Rome” is the direction of corruption, while outside truth and error are free to contend until we are enlightened. 

This dramatization of church history is an understandable polemical response to the way England’s religious history unfolded, with the erratic political and religious manipulations of Henry VIII spawning both a schismatic but traditional Anglicanism and the more radical Reformed impulse that flourished especially in the brief reign of Edward VI, before Mary Tudor’s brief (and defensive, and vindictive) restoration of the Church—impulses which last throughout Elizabeth I and the whole of the Stuart monarchy, including Interregnum and Restoration.  Viewed wholly from within the assumption that truth lay somewhere within the English tradition of Protestantism, then, the Established Church and the Dissenters seemed to be contending for the right to claim the mantle of the true Reformation (the true rescue of New Testament Christianity from “Romish” corruptions).  All the while, of course, subtle political forces, mostly foreign and always sinister, plot to take advantage of this conflict and make England Catholic again (and here insert the absurd Catholic terrorist-hero wannabe Guy Fawkes, and also the Titus Oates perjuries that make up “the Popish Plot,” and later the Know-Nothings, the Kluckers, Lorraine Boettner, Jack Chick, and other hacks).

Anyway, if the more lurid speculations at the fringes of the tradition I was reared in (and we were never intentionally “fringy” in my family or congregation) had begun to lose their grip, the basic narrative was still firmly in my head in 2001.  What was also in my head were all those Church Fathers I had read back in 1998-99, though, and conversations I had been having with Catholics and Presbyterians about the history of our understanding of various doctrines.  I was definitely in reaction, at this point, having felt that I was unable to answer clearly some persuasive arguments on the subject of Baptism (though for years to come it would be my visceral mistrust of infant baptism that kept me at arm’s length from the Presbyterian congregation I spent most of my Sundays with); I was trying to shore up what I felt were deficiencies in my arguments for what I remained convinced was the right understanding of the history of my faith, and thus of that faith itself (for “what have you that you have not received?”).

Also, this was the Fall after I had taken my Latin class and translated the portions of Aeneid here discussed for myself.  Returning to Milton while using my fresh Latin was too good an opportunity to pass up, and this seminar gave me the perfect opening.  The paper itself is only middling, but I like the basic reading:  Samson and Dalila are, in the structure of their poem, role-reversed to Aeneas and Dido; comparing the mapping of characters to situation with the mapping of traits to characters (some are transferred to the “wrong” character) helps to underscore some of Milton’s specific innovations and emphases.

Here, then, a seminar paper from Fall 2001, revisiting what I still consider to be a far undervalued poem, Samson Agonistes:

Peter G. Epps
Conference Paper
Foundations of Medieval Literature
Dr. Jill Havens

Samson and Dido

Arma virumque cano. (Aeneid 1)

A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on.  (SA 1-2)

From the very first, Virgil’s great epic speaks of “arms and the man,” or, as Fitzgerald translates it, “warfare and a man at war.”  Aeneid is, after all, public poetry–written with a civic purpose and a particular political aim which both undergird and limit its more broadly humane agenda.  In this respect, perhaps above all others, Milton’s works can well bear comparison to Virgil’s.  As an accomplished Latinist, Milton’s imagination is utterly permeated with Virgilian imagery, and his rhetorical stance both echoes the vatic stance in Virgil and foreshadows the more pronounced vatic stance of the Romantics.  The Virgilian contexts of Paradise Lost have been thoroughly, though still far from exhaustively, explored.  In Samson Agonistes, however, Milton presents another sort of man, disarmed but very much at war, and in doing so invokes once more his great poetic ancestor.

I find, to my surprise, that few critics have examined the presence of Aeneid in the text of Samson Agonistes, particularly in Samson’s encounter with Dalila.  The meeting is immensely redolent of Dido’s encounter with Aeneas in the underworld, and Milton’s revision of this classic confrontation provides fruitful suggestions about Milton’s poetic progress beyond Paradise Lost.  I propose to examine the Samson/Dalila dialogue in light of the Aeneas/Dido meeting in Book VI of Aeneid, and in so doing to suggest that Milton’s increasing alienation from Restoration culture accelerates the growth of proto-Romantic tendencies already present in his writing.

The parallels are fairly numerous, but let me suggest a few which lend weight to the comparison.  Both Dido and Samson, having been betrayed in marriage, eventually die by their own hands.  In both cases, the marriages transgress cultural boundaries; in both cases, the marriages fail because national loyalties supersede marital fidelity.  Perhaps most significantly, Samson and Dalila provide as clear an instance of the historic enmity of Israelite and Philistine as Aeneas and Dido of the blood feud between Rome and Carthage.  The material of the Samson and Dalila story, of course, is not original to Milton; yet he alters it significantly in ways which parallel both his own biography and the Aeneid more closely than the Biblical account.

More specific parallels to Virgil’s work in the Samson/Dalila scene include Dalila’s speech about Fame:

Fame if not double-fac’t is double-mouth’d,
And with contrary blast proclaims most deeds,
On both his wings, one black, th’ other white,
Bears greatest names in his wild aerie flight.  (971-4)

Milton here puts in Dalila’s mouth a clear echo of Virgil’s Rumor, the “smut-goddess” (dea foeda), who flies over the city, listening and spreading rumors and scandals (4.173-88).  The parallel is made clearer when we recall that Milton would have read Aeneid exclusively in the Latin; thus his “Fame” is an aural, as well as a literal, translation of Virgil’s Fama.  Dalila, of course, is seeking to defend herself against Samson’s accusations; she argues that what is infamy to the Israelites will be glory to the Philistines.  Appealling, however, to the duplicitous nature of Fame, she may only reinforce our impression of her own duplicity.

Another significant element binding Samson Agonistes to Aeneid is the pervasive nautical imagery which forms the backdrop for the dialogue of Samson and Dalila.  Upon her initial approach, Dalila is figured by the Chorus as a “thing of sea or land” which

Comes this way sailing
Like a stately Ship
Of Tarsus, bound for th’ Isles
Of Javan or Gadier
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails fill’d, and streamers waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play.  (710-9)

Similarly, Dalila invokes marine metaphors in her final tirade against Samson, saying,

I see thou art implacable, more deaf
To prayers, then winds and seas, yet winds to seas
Are reconcil’d at length, and Sea to Shore:
Thy anger, unappeasable, still rages,
Eternal tempest never to be calm’d.  (961-5)

Finally, Samson, in his riddling debate with the Chorus upon Dalila’s departure, asks, “What Pilot so expert but needs must wreck / Embarqu’d with such a Stears-mate at the Helm?” (1044-5)  These nautical usages resonate readily with the original meeting of Dido and Aeneas in Books III and IV of Aeneid, in which every major turn is conditioned by the sea.  Aeneas is driven by a storm to the Punic shores, and is convinced by fear of rough winter seas to stay in Carthage; he provisions his ships secretly to depart; and Dido attempts to send the Carthaginian fleet to stop Aeneas before she resolves on her own death.  The narrative of Aeneid is, as in Homer’s Odyssey, moved along primarily by the stages of a sea-journey.  Samson Agonistes, having only one major location, maintains its scene progression by the changing nature of the dialogue as each new interlocutor comes to challenge, tempt, or encourage Samson.  That Samson and Dalila are connected, first and last, by their participation in the marine imagery which frames Dido and Aeneas helps tie the two accounts together as surely as an explicit allusion.

Indeed, the absence of the explicit classical allusions so common in Milton’s other writings is a major feature of interest in Samson Agonistes.  As Flanagan notes,

Milton is remarkably restrained for what he leaves out or what he rejects from previous poetic devices or banks of allusion. [. . .] Milton’s topical or timely allusions–to decadent aristocrats or priests, for instance–would have had to be kept under veil, considering that Milton in 1671 was labeled a regicide and might have been imprisoned or even executed for such “treason.”  His imagery is not Christian; his dramatic poem is parallel to a number of Greek tragedies, but not slavishly imitative of any other play; and he is too proud to imitate any contemporary tragedy, not even Hamlet or King Lear.  His “Dramatic Poem” is an affront and a rebuttal to the entire world of the Restoration stage.  (793)

This “affront,” of course, is entirely in keeping with Milton’s personal and political relationship to the Restoration.  As Cromwell’s Latin Secretary and an active anti-prelatical writer, well-known for his public defense of the execution of Charles I, Milton can hardly be expected to have welcomed the Restoration in any sphere.  The movement of the neoclassical writers, as instanced in Dryden, away from Parliamentarian leanings into ardent Royalism; the growing suppression of Puritan and Nonconformist thought under an established church heavily leaning to Roman Catholicism (witness Dryden’s own journey from Puritan roots through Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism); and the increasingly popular, secular, and even obscene entertainments of the Restoration stage could not but have enraged Milton.  In this environment, we find the ever-combative Milton quite prepared to dispense with his own densely allusive classicism in order to depart sharply from the neoclassical trend.

Milton’s rebellion against neoclassicism prefigures the Romantic rebellion of a century later.  Unlike the Romantics, however, Milton was so thoroughly steeped in the classical and Christian traditions that shaped his poetics that he effectively grafts himself onto the classical tradition despite the absence of obvious allusion.  As Flanagan says, “It is to Milton’s credit that [. . .] the audience or reader does not notice [the Greek tragic form] at all, just as one does not notice similar classical rhetorical divisions in Aeropagitica” (794).  By absorbing the Greek dramatic form (as Virgil before him) and Latin classical material, particularly Virgil, Milton writes himself into the main tradition itself, choosing to join the classical tradition directly rather than alluding to it as his Restoration contemporaries did.  Far from rejecting the classical, Milton rejects the neoclassical movement precisely by a seamless integration of classical form with Hebrew matter, subverting his political, religious, and cultural rivals by engaging them on his own highly original (though robustly traditional) terms.

As with his Romantic descendants, Milton’s choice of subject matter has deep personal resonances.  In choosing to represent the blinded Samson, of course, Milton reminds us of his own blindness; we will feel, even if we are not willing to defend it critically, that many of Samson’s lines ring a little too true, carry a little too much emotional charge, to be entirely separated from Milton’s own life.  Samson is not only blind, though; like Milton in 1671, he is politically isolated, the frustrated defender of a people who are not only conquered but content to be so.  Like Milton, whose divorce tracts indicate the vehemence of his feelings about his first wife, Mary Powell, Samson feels betrayed by the women in his life.  The woman of Timna has gone to another husband after Samson learned of her betrayal, and Dalila has betrayed him to his current captivity.  In another, more subtle way, though, Samson accuses Dalila of attempting to betray him again–to seduce him with thoughts of domestic ease and comfortable age, thoughts which to the born warrior Samson are worse than prison.  Milton, of course, was himself living the life Samson refuses–though with a third wife of his choice, and in the company of his daughters, under the protection of Andrew Marvell, whose intercession prevented his execution as a regicide.  Milton being ever the martial spirit, I find it hard to believe that he did not, in dark moments, wonder if he should be locked in a losing battle rather than taking his ease among his decadent Restoration contemporaries.  I am tempted to suggest that, in representing Samson’s father Manoa as seeking to ransom Samson, but coming too late with word of his success, Milton draws upon his own protection by Marvell; if so, then Samson Agonistes becomes a tribute to a lost chance at martyrdom.

At any rate, Milton’s changes to his Biblical source material do tend to make it resonate more clearly with Aeneid and his own experience.  The key change in the Samson and Dalila encounter is that Dalila is portrayed as Samson’s wife.  While the original story does not preclude a marriage, the account in Judges 16 and 17 seems to set up a dramatic progression from the woman of Timna, who Samson marries, to the harlot in Gaza, and from the harlot to Dalila.  By marrying Samson to Dalila, Milton underscores the betrayal and alludes to his own writings on divorce; the allusion becomes starkly visible when Samson tells Dalila, “Thou and I are long since twain” (929).  Having already been separated from another wife, Samson announces that, to his thinking at least, his marriage to Dalila is also ended.

In addition to the parallels in Milton’s own writing, though, the Dido and Aeneas conversation in Aeneid strikingly parallel Samson’s marriage to Dalila.  Virgil’s narrator clearly establishes the ambiguity of the solemnized but never publicized marriage of Dido and Aeneas.  As Fitzgerald translates it,

Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno
Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top.
That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow.  Dido had no further qualms
As to impressions given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage.  Thus, under that name,
She hid her fault. (4.229-238)

The presence of the gods appears to give warrant to the marriage, but Dido herself is portrayed as self-deluded, believing that a secret marriage could truly cover the fault of a secret love.  The narrator clearly regards the situation as ambiguous–the gods are “witness to the marriage,” but no one else is; and Dido, who has engaged in a secret love, “called it marriage” to conceal “her fault.”  We are left to wonder what Aeneas thought until his argument with Dido upon his departure, when he says, “I never held the torches of a bridegroom, / Never entered upon the pact of marriage” (467-8).  For Aeneas, a secret marriage is no marriage at all.  In much the same way, for Samson a marriage betrayed is no marriage at all; as he says to the Chorus, “Love-quarrels oft in pleasing concord end, / Not wedlock-trechery endangering life” (1008-9).

This equivocal understanding of marriage is reflected in Milton’s problematization of the roles of Dido and Aeneas as recast in Samson and Dalila.  The main pattern clearly identifies Samson, the self-slaying betrayed spouse, with Dido; this leaves Dalila in the role of Aeneas, the visitor to the underworld who vainly begs forgiveness.  At the same time, Milton cannot allow himself to cast Dalila as heroic; she receives the weaknesses of Aeneas, while Samson is allowed to gain a number of his strengths, including the fortitude to take his enemies with him in his suicide.  Dalila, in turn, receives some of Dido’s strengths, particularly her vehemence and bitter reflection upon the warrior’s preference for combat and public duty over private security and harmony.  By rearranging the traditional roles in this way, Milton carves out a space for his own particular version of the hero, combining a proto-Romantic sense of conflicted, solitary introspection with the civic motivations of the Virgilian hero.

The account of Dido’s meeting with Aeneas in the underworld and Samson’s meeting with Dalila in prison follow roughly the same pattern.  In Book VI of Aeneid, Aeneas approaches Dido and addresses him.  He weeps, expresses his regret at her suicide, claims the harm was greater than he expected, and attempts to justify himself by an appeal to religion.  His appeal to religion, of course, also invokes the arguments from civic duty which he had previously made in Book IV; the will of the gods, for Aeneas, was the founding of a city.  Dido, however, is implacable:

Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate
The burning soul, savagely glaring back,
And tears came to his eyes.  But she had turned
With gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke on,
Her face no more affected than if she were
Immobile granite or Marpesian stone.
At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove. (628-635)

Interestingly, Dido returns in the underworld to Sychaeus; like Samson, she has been married before.  In returning to her dead husband, Dido emphatically announces the breach of the marriage.  She seems, like Samson, to find that “wedlock-trechery endangering life” ends the relationship; like Samson, she only resolves the equivocal nature of her marriage with her own death.

Samson’s encounter with Dalila is much longer than Dido’s with Aeneas, but this difference can largely be accounted for by the greater scope of Virgil’s work.  If the material from Book IV which the meeting in Book VI draws upon is included, the two have roughly similar bulk and complexity.  The pattern of the two meetings, however, is much the same:  Dalila approaches Samson, weeps, expresses her regret for the outcome of her actions, claims the harm was greater than she expected, and attempts to justify her actions based on civic and religious duties.  Samson, like Dido, is implacable:

No, no, of my condition take no care;
It fits not; thou and I are long since twain;
Nor think me so unwary or accurst
To bring my feet again into the snare
Where once I have been caught; [. . .]
If in the flower of youth and strength, when all men
Lov’d, honour’d, fear’d me, thou alone could hate me
Thy Husband, slight me, sell me, and forgo me;
How wouldst thou use me now, blind, and thereby
Deceiveable, in most things as a child
Helpless, thence easily contemn’d, and scorn’d,
And last neglected?  (928-44)

More aggressive than Virgil’s Dido in the underworld, but reminiscent of her rage in Book IV, to which her “savagely glaring” countenance bears witness, Samson harshly excoriates Dalila for her unfaithfulness, refusing all her offers of comfort as more maneuvers to use him as a tool for her own lusts, be they physical, political, or financial (and they are, by turns, all of these).

The key distinction, of course, between Samson Agonistes and Aeneid is that Samson is in the “underworld” of prison; unlike Dido in Book VI, his suicide is still future.  Unlike Dido, Samson’s suicide will partake of the heroic ethos, using his death (which he counts inevitable) to further the defense of his people against their oppressors.  Unlike Aeneas, Dalila’s great act of civic duty is already in the past, and in the poem’s religious context is a false duty.  Still, Milton gives considerable play to Dalila’s perspective, allowing her to argue at length that her betrayal of Samson will give her glory among her people as surely as Samson’s feats give him glory among his.  Only the Chorus, and the decisive results of Samson’s final act, reveal clearly that Dalila is “a manifest Serpent by her sting / Discover’d in the end, till now conceal’d” (1098-9).  With one cleverly punning line (not only is her sting found out at last, but it resides in her “end” in a sexual sense, and also in her “end” in the sense of intention), the Chorus sums up the character of Dalila.  Acting the role of an Aeneas, a betrayer of hearth in favor of civic duty, she may call into question the legitimacy of his great betrayal; but she certainly reveals herself to be less than heroic.

In the end, the Miltonic hero is revealed to be a problematic one; as Flanagan asks, “Could Milton have been celebrating the glory of an isolated terrorist?” (795)  In one sense, I would answer, “Yes.”  Certainly, Milton does view Samson’s repudiation of Dalila, his rejection of a life of dotage with an unfaithful woman in favor of his public duty as defender of an ungrateful people, as heroic.  In so doing, he actually casts Samson back in the role of Aeneas, the warrior who must reject domestic happiness in favor of civic achievement.

By reversing the heroic roles in the encounter with Dalila, however, Milton brings this simple equation into question.  If Samson is Dido, betrayed to death by an enemy motivated by civic duty, then he is also–on his own account, and with reference to Dido’s–betrayed by his own weakness.  Samson crosses the boundaries of his civic duty, as does Dido, by a “secret love” which has dire consequences for his role as protector.  If Dalila, like Aeneas, betrays her spouse in answer to the call of the gods and lust for glory, then surely Samson’s own resemblance to the heroic Aeneas raises questions about both characters.

Milton’s hero, like the much-celebrated “Byronic hero” of the nineteenth century which he strongly anticipates, is not a hero because of intrinsic strength.  Inwardly, he is weak and conflicted, drawn by contradictory impulses toward voluptuousness and self-destruction.  Unlike the Byronic hero, however, Milton’s Samson does not die vainly; and he is not converted to a life of peaceful dotage.  That his death, like Dido’s, is the tragic consequence of weakness exploited by betrayal is certain; that his death fulfills, in the only way left to him, the calling for which his strength was given, indicates the possibility of hope even in tragedy.  Here Milton’s Christian vision fulfills the promise of the Hebrew original, while superseding both its classical antecedents and Romantic successors:  the power that matters to Milton is extrinsic, divinely granted, and while its abuse has dire consequences, it remains always ready to transform life and culture.  Milton’s solitary hero may be, by his own weakness and lack of vision–figuratively and literally–a tragic waste of a much greater potential; but he is made adequate to the task at hand, and in his death accomplishes what Milton in 1671 could only dream of–and write about.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans.  The Aeneid.  Virgil.  New York:  Random House, 1990.

Flanagan, Roy.  Introduction.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.  784-798.

Milton, John.  Samson AgonistesThe Riverside Milton.  799-844.

Virgil.  The Aeneid bks 4, 6.  Latin Poetry.  Wilber Lester Carr and Harry E. Wedeck, eds.  Boston:  D. C. Heath and Company, 1940.

Rhetorical Analysis of John 1

Here’s perhaps the most excessively detailed Sunday School lesson plan I’ve ever imagined—but the exegesis was absorbing, and let me work out some thoughts I was having at the time.  You’ll notice some infelicities:  I discuss Biblical, Pastoral, Systematic theology but have not, yet, in 2001, learned much at all about the fourfold sense; I am pretty fluid with my Greek-word and English-word exegetical conclusions all at once (though I can say I looked up information on the Greek for every word, here, and that at the time I was doing ancient language study, so I wasn’t completely incompetent at that).  And it’s clumsy to have regarded John’s Gospel as fundamentally written for first proclamation, rather than as a theological and liturgical filling out of the work the Synoptics had done.  In any case, the main analysis of John’s craftsmanship of the opening verses of his Gospel, especially his confounding of both Greek and Hebrew expectations, still seems to have merit, I’d say:

johnpg01.png johnpg02.png johnpg03.png johnpg04.png johnpg05.png


Inkandescence by Peter G. Epps–a brief rundown

I’ve added a lot of small projects and ways to find my work–ways I hope my work can be useful to you and perhaps help me to continue working and to support a family–especially in the past year.  Here’s some information about my publications and projects in a single post (much of which can be found elsewhere on

Poetry Collections

The Clay Pot is the fourth small collection of poems I’ve put together. The first, Depth Perception, used a sonnet cycle I had just written as the organizing principle for a number of pieces ranging from juvenilia on up. One major reason for assembling that collection was to fix in place most of those works, so I could stop tinkering and reshuffling and move on to fresh compositions.

The next two, Unanswered Rhymes and Going Home Words, were assembled and published nearly together, but the bulk of Unanswered Rhymes is the fragment of narrative verse I call “the poetic Roland.” Both of these collections include poems from my graduate school years and my travels in Europe and Japan; as the title suggests, Going Home Words especially comprised these poems with a number of pieces that reflect on my re-adjustment after three years in Japan, my completion of the doctorate, and my first couple of years in the professorate. Most importantly, Going Home Words brackets my marriage and conversion to the Catholic faith, the significant moves and career changes that entailed, and the spiritual journey that drove me home in all these senses.

Each of these collections, then, in different ways, represented an end of one process of living and learning, and of development as a poet, while marking a new sense of what my “mature” poetic style should be. It is my hope that The Clay Pot is the best collection yet.

I have enjoyed using services to publish these works. I also represent my work on Amazon, at goodreads, on my FB Author Page.

Inkandescence Products

One of the strongest reasons that “incandescence” merged with “inkan” to become my trademark is the power of luminous moments like sunrise, like encountering an ancient river in the middle of a busy city, like walking in the hills among fall foliage. My first art designs, and still my signature pieces, are scenes from my 2002 visit to Prague that capture all three. Over the past several years, I’ve carefully rolled out a selection of designs for postcards and mugs at I have many more in the queue behind them.

I’ve organized my designs into three main categories:

  • Inkandescence Abroad
    features postcards from my travels, with related paper products.
  • Insert Coffee Here is a
    line of mugs with various photographic, poetic, and travel themes.
  • finally, Mystic Haiku Mugs are a fun use of the “morphing mug” concept,
    revealing an image of coffee and a haiku when the cup is full of hot liquid.

A few more bona fides

You can go to or just click on the card below to download a vcard: pgecard

Preventing Plagiarism by Teaching Rhetoric Properly

Preventing Plagiarism [PDF] is a talk I first gave at Belhaven College in a Faculty Meeting in 2010.  This is actually my preferred version (I had to substantially shorten & visually simplify the final because of time/context limitations), the “director’s cut,” so to speak.  This is not just about plagiarism:  the principles here are the core of my work in Rhet/Comp, the principles around which I have intentionally organized my teaching practices.






























Getting Warmer—on education in Comenius, Milton, and Locke, compared

Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey’s seminars Fundamentalisms in Literature and The Bible & Literary Criticism were epochal events for me.  The depth and breadth of the reading and the ambit of the discussions demanded that I deepen and adjust my thinking, if I were to be at all consistent with my own commitments to learning that was true, morally useful, and spiritually enabling.  Persuading me to research Amos Comenius for my seminar paper, among other things, pushed me out of my somewhat too facile notion of the relationship between Milton’s religious and political commitments and the medieval and “scholastic” backdrop.  The comparison to my earlier piece on Milton and Locke is pretty bracing, though I was still working the same “patch,” so to speak.

The results would be some time in arriving:  you can see that I have a drastically flat notion of “analogy” here, and that I was so preoccupied with sorting out useful education from useless verbiage that I was pretty ready to grant that Latin education fell into the “useless verbiage” category (when what I truly had in mind was the likes of psychoanalytic literary criticism).  But you can also see a huge concession already buried here—that scholasticism and what these writers disliked in the 17C “schoolmen” were not necessarily the same thing.  Ten years later, I would be reading the Summa Theologica on a train across the country, trying to re-think the anti-metaphysical stance I had so carefully espoused since my late teens—trying to find the link between the truths I understood and the Presence I knew in the Eucharist.

Here, then, a paper on “Dissenters” that does not identify orthodoxy all that well, yet—and one of the first points where I espouse my strong preference for never putting children in schools at all.

Peter G. Epps
Fundamentalisms in Literature
Dr. D. L. Jeffrey
May 7, 2001

Comenius, Milton, Locke:  Three Dissenters on Education

For conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the United States, the twentieth century saw a rapid succession of changes in educational thought.  The Puritan emphasis on education, visible in everything from the “Ye olde Deceiver Satan” act to the early colonial founding of most of the Ivy League schools, eventuated in a system of mandatory universal education and the growth of public schools.  As the Ivy League schools and their peers left behind their Christian moorings, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists began to found their own colleges and seminaries; in the same way, the failure of public education in a secular state to achieve Christian educational goals led many to form private, Christian schools.  Not content with merely adapting the methods of public education to a Christian subculture, however, many have gone the farther step of educating their children at home, either personally or with the benefit of tutors.  These three broad stages can be mapped onto three important texts on education by dissenting Christian thinkers:  John Amos Comenius, John Milton, and John Locke.  A brief examination of some critical elements of their theories reveals certain traits common to most Evangelical and Fundamentalist thought about education, and provides some fruitful insights into the tension between universal education and dissent.

Common Ground.  One key feature shared by Comenius, Milton, and Locke is their resistance to scholasticism, to the medieval and Renaissance reliance on classical authorities.  In The Great Didactic, Comenius flatly rejects the teaching of “the names of heathen deities, the myths connected with them, and the religious observances of the ancients, as well as the productions of scurrilous and indecent poets and dramatists” (91).  While his own system significantly reflects scholastic structures, he argues that “Nothing . . . should be learned solely for its value at school, but for its use in life” and that “anything is unnecessary that is productive neither of piety nor of morality and that is not essential for the cultivation of the mind” (91).  Milton, in his turn, blames the failures of “the usuall method of teaching Arts” on “universities not yet well recover’d from the Scholastick grosness of barbarous ages” which leads students to “hatred and contempt of learning, mockt and deluded all this while with ragged notions and babblements” (981).  Locke likewise complains that, were Seneca were to see the universities of the day, “he would have had much more reason to say, as he does, Non Vitæ sed Scholæ discimus, we learn not to Live, but to Dispute; and our Education fits us rather for the University, than the World” (199-200).  Each reflects the same basic concern with the scholastic method as it survived, though already heavily modified, in the seventeenth century university:  it teaches pedantry, but fails to achieve the fundamental goals of education, which are practical and ethical.

The emphasis on the practical, in turn, reveals another significant area of common ground among Comenius, Milton, and Locke:  all three are fundamentally empiricists, grounding all knowledge in sense experience.  Comenius calls “a golden rule for teachers” that “everything should, as far as is possible, be placed before the senses” (95).  His defense of this rule reflects Bacon and anticipates Locke:

the commencement of knowledge must always come from the senses (for the understanding possesses nothing that it has not first derived from the senses).  Surely, then, the beginning of knowledge should consist, not in the mere learning of the names of things, but in the actual perception of the things themselves!  It is when the thing has been grasped by the senses that language should fulfill its function of explaining it still further. (95)

Milton concurs, stating that “our understanding cannot in this body found it selfe but on sensible things, nor arrive so clearly to the knowledge of God and things invisible, as by orderly conning over the visible and inferior creature” (980).  Thus “Language is but the Instrument conveying to us things usefull to be known,” a tool which is worthless even to “a linguist . . . if he have not studied the solid things in [languages] as well as the words and lexicons” (980).  To establish Locke’s empiricism would, of course, be redundant; like Comenius and Milton, he is impatient with linguistic pedantry:

The learning of Latin, being nothing but the learning of Words, a very unpleasant Business both to young and old, join as much other real Knowledge with it as you can, beginning still with that which lies most obvious to the Senses, such as is the Knowledge of Minerals, Plants, and Animals; and particularly Timber and Fruit-Trees, their parts and ways of propagation:  Wherein a great deal may be taught a Child, which will not be useless to the Man.  (280-81)

Evangelical and Fundamentalist resistance to pure learning, to the broadly humanistic ideals of the academy, finds its grounding in the anti-scholastic, practical, empirical bias of these authors and their peers.  Annoyed with the “vain disputations” and “strifes about words” all too common in the university, Christian thinkers who can scarcely be called anti-intellectual (indeed, like Comenius, Milton, and Locke, many have been among the chief intellects of their days) have repeatedly tried to refocus education on its central task, which Milton summarizes in Baconian phrase:

to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection. (980)

Such an intensely Christian, ethical vision, played out in the realm of “sensible things,” may lapse, in the hands of enthusiasts or the indolent, into shoddy thinking and hostility toward an ill-defined band of “scholars”; but it can hardly be branded anti-intellectual except by the wholesale exclusion of God from the realm of intellect.

The Enlightened Eye.  Given their empiricism and the instrumental view of language that accompanies it, that Comenius, Milton, and Locke using seeing as a metonymy for knowing is hardly a surprise.  The image of the sun’s light reflecting off objects, which shape the light to the eye which casts its glance toward them, is pervasive in modern Western philosophy and, for that reason, throughout the culture.  While the language of familiarity has not been totally eclipsed, “to see” and “to know” have become so nearly synonymous that one’s “viewpoint” and one’s “position” are not clearly distinguished, despite the very real possibility of difference between how one perceives a situation and where one stands on an issue.  “Understanding” has thus become deeply equivocal, as an “understanding” person is reduced to being merely “thoughtful” (though quite possibly not a “thinker”), while one can “understand” cognitively without truly “understanding” in some, usually unspecified, affective sense.  “To be familiar with” a body of information is taken for a diminution of “to know” that information, while a “photographic memory” is valued for its ability to exactly recall certain data upon a single observation.

Despite the desperate battle modern philosophy and linguistic analysis has fought to escape the essentially metaphorical nature of language, to eliminate the poetry from rhetoric and the rhetoric from exposition, the empirical nature of knowledge (as best described by Locke, whose own stance on rhetoric contra the scholastics creates some inconsistency in his views on rhetoric and poetry) necessarily implies that descriptions of such mental processes as knowing will be constructs of ideas from sensible experience; that, in other words, all language not directly referential to concrete realities (and perhaps even that) is intrinsically metaphorical, relying on analogy and other devices to convey meaning.  The discourse of education theory in Comenius, Milton, and Locke is informed by the imagery of the student as the eye receiving the light of nature and art; and their key differences lie in the ways Milton and Locke vary from the natural models used by Comenius.

Comenius is very explicitly analogical in his approach to education theory.  He opens the exposition of his general directions for classroom management by saying,

Let us choose the sun for imitation, since it affords a striking example of the operations of nature.  Its functions are laborious and almost unlimited (namely, to send forth its rays over the whole world and to supply all the elements, minerals, plants, and animals, of which countless species exist, with light, warmth, life, and strength), but it proves equal to them all, and every year fulfills the circle of its duties in the most admirable manner. (70)

He proceeds to give an eight-point enumeration of the sun’s work, which he maps onto eight directions for the teacher.  Among the most important are “The sun does not occupy itself with any single object, animal, or tree; but lights and warms the whole earth at once,” which gives rise to “There should be only one teacher in each school, or at any rate in each class”; and “It causes spring, summer, autumn, and winter to make their appearance in all lands at the same time,” from which Comenius concludes that “The same exercise should be given to the whole class” (70-71).  The slight inaccuracy of some elements of the analogy–such as the seasons coming “in all lands” simultaneously–only illustrates some of the vulnerabilities of the metaphor.

Education is, for Comenius, a mass product.  The chief advantage he claims for his system is “that the whole circle of the sciences might be completed with an ease that surpasses our expectation, just as the sun completes its circling course through the heavens every year” (71).  His comments on method are designed to answer the objection he puts in the mouth of a hypothetical reader:  “But these projects are too wearisome and too comprehensive . . . What a number of teachers and of libraries, and how much labour will be necessary in order for such universal education to be given!” (67)  In Pampaedia, Comenius defends at length his views on universal education, “by which we seek to give man, the image of God, whatever is possible for the greatest glory he can attain beneath Heaven” (117).    The light metaphor continues to dominate his language as he continues:

I feel the necessity is laid upon me to demonstrate as clearly as the sun shines in the heavens, this triune truth.

(i)  As fervently as we love God (whose glory has the right to see His image before him as glorious as possible), and as sincerely as we cherish Christ (whose kingdom is the kingdom of light), and finally as truly as we hold dear the human race (the greater part of which is still engulfed in darkness), so truly, sincerely and deeply must we desire to drive darkness away from everywhere and that light should shine more brightly in all minds.  (121-22)

The goal, then, is that every person should be given sufficient “light” to understand the world around him and his relationship to it; the assumption, which like the light metaphor is most readily traceable to Plato by way of Plotinus, is that one invariably “sees” truth if one is given light.

This natural-process model, however, runs into difficulty the more closely the relationship of the individual student to the mass-produced education is examined.  Comenius argues in The Great Didactic that “the keener the teacher himself, the greater the enthusiasm that his pupils will display” and that

the presence of a number of companions will be productive not only of utility but of enjoyment . . . since they will mutually stimulate and assist one another.  Indeed for boys of this age emulation is by far the best stimulus. (72)

He goes so far as to suggest that larger classes are better because information not clearly gathered from the hearing of the lesson can be gained from classmates, so that each student will end up in possession of the whole lesson, “since one mind has an invigorating effect on another, and one memory on another” (72).  He illustrates this by analogy to baking and brickmaking, to the branches of a tree and the trunk, and again by the sun (72-73).

With the return to the light analogy, though, Comenius begins to qualify his assertions slightly.  In defense of his idea that the large class will stimulate collaboration, he notes “that the sun’s actions may be assisted by the lie of the ground, because the rays that collect in the valleys give a higher degree of warmth to this region” (73).  He seems to argue that students who excel (mountains) will form pockets in which less innately apt students (valleys) will receive “light.”  This first concession to the differences of students, however, becomes more pronounced later.  In his discussion of classroom management, Comenius recommends that “the teacher, as chief inspector, should give his attention first to one scholar, then to another, more particularly with the view of testing the honesty of those whom he distrusts” (77).  This individual attention is to take place in a classroom where the teacher must

never give individual instruction, either privately out of school or publicly in school, but teach all the pupils at one and the same time.  He should, therefore, never step up to any one scholar or allow any one of them to come up to him separately, but should remain in his seat, where he can be seen and heard by all, just as the sun sends forth its rays over all things.  (74)

The tension between the teacher’s need to give completely uniform instruction and the need to be “testing the honesty of those whom he distrusts” is illustrative of the larger difficulty in mass-produced education:  the problem of inclination.  Despite the desire of many educators to provide the same advantages of education to all, not all students share the same level of desire or aptitude for education; nor does education have the same effects in all students.

Comenius deals with the problem of inclination by suggesting that “knowledge is unsuitable when it is uncongenial to the mind of this or that scholar” (91).  Therefore, as “the teacher is the servant and not the lord of nature . . . he should never attempt to force a scholar to study any subject if he see that it is uncongenial to his natural disposition” (92).  The teacher is thus tasked to understand the individual dispositions of his students so as to pass over requiring any student to learn “uncongenial” subjects, while finding ways to be “testing the honesty” of the student, while interacting only with the class as a whole, never with any particular student.  The result of this practice, as modified by Deweyan pragmatics, can be seen in modern public education:  lowest-common-denominator teaching which fails to challenge the gifted, fails to stimulate the underachieving, and is crippled by its inability to draw an ethical response from the student.

Milton’s model, like the Christian school movement’s response to public education, varies only slightly from the mass-produced education of Comenius.  Rather than a single teacher with as large a class as possible, Milton conceives of

an Academy [of] a hundred and fifty persons, whereof twenty or thereabouts may be attendants, all under the government of one, who shall be thought of desert sufficient, and ability either to doe all, or wisely to direct, and oversee it done. (981)

The emphasis throughout Milton’s Of Education is on learning as a product of interaction with others through language, rather than a seeing.  While this learning is informed by the “light” metaphor, Milton’s awareness of language gives much greater prominence to the individual student’s learning from the author through a text.  Thus, the grounding of “understanding . . . in sensible things” is immediately, by reason of the incapacity of every student and every culture to learn all things directly from nature, transferred to “the languages of those people who have at any time been most industrious after wisdom” (980).

An important feature of Milton’s teaching model is that his students are in school only from the ages of twelve through twenty one (981).  Rather than attempting to shape students from a very early age, Milton leaves them in the home until their admission to school, which will presumably be elective rather than universal.  By providing continuity of instruction and environment throughout the school years, and allowing the parents to be the formative influence throughout early childhood, Milton provides important palliatives to the problems of Comenius’ system.

Most significantly, Milton modifies Comenius’ emphasis on knowledge as “light” by which minds are passively illuminated to God, emphasizing instead the role of persuasion in the formation of character.  Comenius is not, of course, unaware of the need for moral teaching; but his emphasis is on the totality of education as enlightening, as inherently making man better.  Milton, on the other hand, is more concerned for the perils of education without moral grounding:

[Universities] present their young unmatriculated novices at first comming with the most intellective abstractions of Logick & metaphysicks:  So that they . . . do for the most part grow into hatred and contempt of learning . . . till poverty of youthfull years call them importunately their several wayes, and hasten them with the sway of friends either to an ambitious and mercenary, or ignorantly zealous Divinity; . . . instilling in their barren hearts a conscientious slavery.  (981)

Therefore, he qualifies his image of the teacher with an additional consideration; the teacher must be able to “lead and draw [students] in willing obedience, enflam’d with the study of learning, and the admiration of vertue” by means of “proper eloquence to catch them with, . . . mild and effectuall perswasions, and . . . the intimation of some fear, if need be, but chiefly by his own example” (982).  Unlike the teacher in Comenius, who is to interact as a distant sun with his class, enlightening them to know the good and expecting them to be naturally drawn to it, Milton’s teacher is a persuader, an orator to extol right living.  Most importantly, Milton’s teacher leads by example, an example formed by daily interaction with students in the academy Milton proposes.

Milton does not address the problem of inclination so directly as either Comenius or Locke does, but his understanding of the magnitude of the problem shows at the end of Of Education, when he recognizes (with perhaps a dash of Miltonic pomp) that “this is not a bow for every man to shoot in that counts himself a teacher; but will require sinews almost equal to those which Homer gave to Ulysses” (986).  Milton’s teacher is tasked to provide a moral example as well as effective moral suasion and sound instruction to over an hundred students; even with Milton’s somewhat more generous allowance of assistance than Comenius’, and even granted Milton’s assumption that the children of the nobility would come to school already inclined to learn, the task is daunting.

Locke’s educational model is, like those of Comenius and Milton, informed by the image of the eye receiving light; it must needs be, as Locke’s own Essay Concerning Human Understanding opens with the image:

The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see, and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself:  and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance, and make it its own object.  But . . . whatever it be, that keeps us so much in the dark to ourselves; sure I am, that all the light we can let in upon our own minds . . . will not only be very pleasant, but bring us great advantage. (55)

It is very difficult, however, to find instances of this image in Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  Indeed, gustatory, tactile, and aural descriptions of teaching all seem more common than visual ones.  Locke favors the idea of engraving on metal or impressing in wax over the idea of the enlightened eye, and concerns himself more with moral example than with any other object of education.  Indeed, taking up the question of tutelage versus classroom education, he says,

‘Tis Vertue then, direct Vertue, which is the hard and valuable part to be aimed at in Education . . . All other Considerations and Accomplishments should give way and be postpon’d to this.  This is the solid and substantial good, which Tutors should not only read Lectures, and talk of; but the Labour, and Art of Education should furnish the mind with, and fasten there, and never cease till the young Man had a true relish of it, and placed his Strength, his Glory, and  his Pleasure in it. (170)

This emphasis on moral formation as the primary goal of education leads Locke to emphasize the relationship between parents and children, and to prefer well-chosen tutors as the constant guardians of a child’s character.  Thus Locke strongly opposes sending children off to school.  He admits that “Being abroad . . . will make him bolder, and better able to bustle and shift amongst Boys of his own age; and the emulation of Schoolfellows, often puts Life and Industry into young Lads” (165).  Just the same, he argues that

till you can find a School, wherein it is possible for the Master to . . . shew as great Effects of his Care of forming their Minds to Virtue . . . as of forming their Tongues to the learned Languages; you must confess, that you have a strange value for words, when . . . you think it worth while to hazard your Son’s Innocence and Virtue, for a little Greek and Latin.  (166)

Tutelage, as begun under the parent and continued under the tutor hand-picked by the parent for the moral well-being including the intellectual growth of the child, provides the strongest form of the moral suasion and example Milton sought.  It solves the tension in Comenius between the need to teach the whole class and the need to check up on individual students.

Tutelage also provides a solution for the problem of inclination; by constructing an entire lifestyle in which learning can be fitted to the inclinations of the student, the parent and tutor are able to carry out Locke’s instruction that “None of the Things they are to learn should ever be made a Burthen to them, or imposed on them as a Task” (172).  Instead,

Change of Temper should be carefully observed in them, and the favourable Seasons of Aptitude and Inclination be heedfully laid hold of:  And if they are not often enough forward of themselves, a good Disposition should be talked into them, before they be set upon to do any thing. (173)

No solution, of course, is entirely without the final obstacle:  human perversity.  While Locke’s model removes the obstacles present in Comenius and Milton, even he must finally admit that there is the possibility of “a manifest perverseness of the Will” (179).  In the home, however, Locke finds the remedy of corporal punishment appropriate for “obstinacy, which is an open defiance,” in a way which would be inappropriate for the schools envisioned by Comenius and Milton (179).  Even then, the goal remains to punish “till the Impressions of it on the Mind were found legible in the Face, Voice, and Submission of the Child,” and to do so very rarely.  Failing all remedies, Locke acknowledges the ultimate inadequacy of theory:  “If it be any Father’s Misfortune to have a Son thus perverse and untractable, I know not what more he can do, but pray for him” (186).

Locke’s solution has one obvious problem, of course:  it is very hard to imagine a one-to-one correspondence of adequately educated parents, or adequately concerned tutors, to potential students.  It provides, however, for those parents who are able, a model of what is most desirable in education; and, for the classroom teacher, awareness of the ideal to aim at provides a corrective to the excess optimism which Comenius and even Milton fall into.  Modernism in education, believing all too readily that students were eyes waiting to be enlightened, has failed to address the ear and the heart.  Locke’s Some Thought’s Concerning Education should call teachers and parents to an awareness of the need for education in the etymological sense, a “drawing out” of the moral response to the truth presented in speech, text, and example.

Works Cited

Comenius, John Amos.  Selections.  Classics in Education 33.  NY:  Teacher’s Col P, 1967.

Locke, John.  The Educational Writings of John Locke.  Ed. James L. Axtell.  London:  Cambridge UP, 1968.

Locke, John.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ed. Roger Woolhouse.  NY:  Penguin, 1997.

Milton, John.  The Riverside Milton.  Ed. Roy Flannagan.  NY:  Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Herbert and Confession, in one sense

This is one of my favorite pieces from early in grad school, as it has so much just plain fun study of the details of a great poet’s craft—and one of a pair of special favorites (the other being John Donne).  I also got to enjoy working with T. S. Eliot’s line of criticism on the metaphysical poets, something that has become an important landmark for me.

There are a couple details that might be of interest, here.  First, the discussion of “The Quip” is especially interesting, and I think my reading holds up pretty well (though it may not be as surprising as I thought at the time).  Second, my reading of what “confession” is holds for one sense of confession, but turns on a mistaken notion that “confession” should be parsed as “to speak with” rather than having its own proper meaning—and a too-narrow interpretation of the meaning of “speak with” rather than any of the other senses in which “to confess” is used in English.  This is a common false etymology, but improved knowledge both of the history of English and of the Latin makes it obvious it is a mistake.

Finally, the conclusion of this paper is—and I am surprised to remember this—perhaps the cleanest statement of the critical insight I was to work for the next several years (during which I would often style myself a “post-structuralist fundamentalist”).  Here is a paper, completed in May of 2000 for a seminar on the metaphysical poets, and the argument sketched here is the one I would be capping off with my dissertation, completed in 2009:

Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

I would eventually be quite satisfied that I had made that argument—and quite unable to live with the results.  But the effort of scrutiny, and the effort to subject all claims to the authority of the Word of God, was not wasted.  It just needed to be liberated from some errors, and understood in its own proper frame of reference.

Here, then, one of my favorite pieces of criticism from my early graduate school days:

“Dark as Day”:  Speaking with God in Herbert’s Temple

T. S. Eliot says of George Herbert that “it was only in the Faith, in hunger and thirst after godliness, in his self-questioning and his religious meditation, that he was inspired as a poet” (21).  Herbert’s poetry, though neglected like much of the poetry in the metaphysical tradition, has long thrived in the Christian community.  Reading the lyrics from The Temple as isolated pieces of didactic or inspirational verse, however, diminishes the power of Herbert’s language.  Examining The Temple through a more subtle lens discloses a complex craftsmanship designed to enable reader and speaker alike to find an authoritative, true voice through the Christian practice of confession.

To confess is, in its etymological sense, to “speak with” (not to) another; in religious contexts, to confess is to “speak with” God.  When the Christian believer admits to his sin and acknowledges its heinous character, the believer is saying what he knows God has said about sin.  Confession is not, however, limited to sin; any utterance of the believer speaking what he knows God has said is a confession.  Thus Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (10:9).  Herbert’s poetry reflects the centrality of verbal confession in the Gospel and reveals a sophisticated understanding of confession as utterance, using the play of authority and indeterminacy to underscore the relative roles of God and man.

If confession is “speaking with” God, then it bears a special relationship to all other utterances of mortal humanity.  Instead of claiming authority, the confessing believer specifically disclaims authority, accepting instead the authority of God over his speech.  Because all truth and all right volitions must accord with the word and will of God, the act of confession reveals all other speech-acts as invalid claims of authority.  By tracing each to some choice contrary to the expressed will of God (a sin), confession reveals the contentless incoherence of such unauthorized utterances, deconstructing them into their component volitions against God.  Having unravelled the false authority of the self, confessional speech explores the potential for authoritative speech by groping for the language needed to give form to the experience of revelation; this authority is found in the affirmation of authentic words of God, “speaking with” God the truths revealed.

A ready example of the first stage of confessional speech occurs in the aptly-named “Confession” (118).  The speaker, wracked by griefs brought by “God’s afflictions,” finds that “they are too subtle for the subtlest hearts”and evade all attempts at self-protection.  Indeed, the central paradox of the poem is that to attempt such protection is to guarantee penetration:  “no locks . . . but they have keys.”  Openness is the only means of protection, but only because it is not a protection at all:  griefs “cannot enter; / Or, if they enter, cannot rest.”  Even to define openness as protection fails; all self-protection from divine “torture” is, as if by definition, guaranteed to fail.  The point is carried home vividly in a clever line which almost undercuts the poet’s whole enterprise:  “fiction / Doth give a hold and handle to affliction.”  The poet’s craft is the creation of fictions, but it here appears as a handgrip to affliction.  In order to escape the trap of “God’s afflictions,” the speaker must literalize his own metaphor; rather than seek protection against trials, he must be open to the God who sends them–and who also forgives.  The final stanza gives an explicit statement of the theology of confession:

Wherefore my faults and sins,
Lord, I acknowledge; take the plagues away:
For since confession pardon wins,
I challenge here the brightest day,
The clearest diamond:  let them do their best,
They shall be thick and cloudy to my breast.

A second example occurs in “Divinity” (126), as the speaker observes the way men “cut and carve” the “transcendent sky” of theology with a demand for “definitions.”  These “questions and divisions” obscure the truth:  the “wine” of Christ’s blood is “thickened . . . with definitions,” his “seamless coat” is “jagged” (torn), and “faith lies by,” waiting to be called upon.  The speaker accuses these modern Pharisees of converting simple commands into “dark instructions” and “Gordian knots.”  As in “Confession,” the speaker’s response is simple and literal:  without debate over such issues as transubstantiation, he chooses “to take and taste what [God] doth there design,” for this “is all that saves, and not obscure.”  The confessional affirmation of the words of God in Christ, “Love God, and love your neighbour.  Watch and pray. / Do as ye would be done unto” is the only source of clarity; the affirmation underscores the irony and futility of scholastic confusion over things which the speaker sees to be “as dark as day!”

Herbert’s puns and sudden transformations of meaning exploit indeterminacy of signification to produce an effect more significant than the simple reference of the words themselves.  The experience of suddenly recognizing a pun, especially such dignified, serious and multi-layered puns as Herbert sprinkles throughout his work, cannot be reduced to mere plurality of meaning.  The pun demonstrates a real likeness through a seemingly arbitrary similarity of spelling or pronunciation.  By using a pun, the poet creates a metatextual space in which the reader must grapple with realities only partially voiced by the speaker.  That a pun is possible hints at the richness of the reality the text purports to represent; that it takes a pun to reveal this richness points to the limitations of human language.  These hints beg inference to the reality behind the pun, even as they demonstrate the need for an authoritative word to give full form to revelation.

In “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay,” Kathleen J. Weatherford discusses the well-known sun/son pun:

Both “the sun” and “a son” provide “light” and “fruit”; both chase away “dimnesse”; both bring “new discov’ries of posteritie.”  Of course, the real point of the poem is that our name for Christ, “The Sonne of Man, “ (l. 14) is the most significant meaning of “Sonne,” which fully embraces the other two. (22)

Weatherford also traces Herbert’s musical and metrical imagery at some length, centering her inquiry around the word “measure.”  She pauses to discuss the complex of puns in “Grief,” noting that

In line 16 . . . “measure” can mean meter, poetic lines, and poetry, as well as music and, more specifically, the time or rhythm of a piece of music and an action taken as a means to an end,  an expedient . . . In line 18 it means both meter, poetic lines, poetry (and the corresponding musical terms) and moderation. (25-6)

The heavily-laden pun on “measure” in the final lines of “Grief” is especially appropriate, because the existence of the pun suggests the swell of experience beyond the reach of mortal language–in a passage where “measure” itself is explicitly revealed as grossly inadequate to the task of expressing the speaker’s grief; he must end with an unmetrical “Alas, my God!” (154)

In her book Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert, Mary Ellen Rickey notes a number of other puns to be found in The Temple.  Notable among these are the images of “starres” and “griefs” as the “foil” of “vertues” and “sinning” in Herbert’s “The Foil.”  Rickey points out that, in addition to an opponent or weapon, “foil” can have the sense “of a thin sheet of metal commonly set under jewels to enhance their brilliance” (64-5).  She further points out the consistent use of the pun in words such as “toil” (“to fight as well as to labor”) and “foul” (“both loathsome and a breaker of the rules”) throughout the poem (65).

Rickey also examines “The Family,” calling it “one of the most unfortunately neglected of Herbert’s poems” (67).  Once more the use of language is clearly confessional, tending to point out the inadequacy of the mortal speaker’s attempts to order his experience, as Rickey says:

[Herbert] exemplifies this order [of soul] by means of two figures:  human faculties exercised in consort make music, whereas indecorously indulged they produce noise; and, as the title indicates, the faculties of the well-ordered man are a happy household, a fitting seat for the Lord to occupy.

Unruly thoughts make a noise, but each sounds as insistently as if it were taking a musical part; the noise is loud to the eares, since it follows no rule.  Yet rule is also suggestive of a kind of family imagery; puling, too, is significant . . . as the sound which the children . . . might make.  (67) [I think here of Jacques’ representation of an “infant–mewling and puking” in As You Like It.]

In both layers of the imagery, as well as the puns used to convey them, the poet uses confessional language to identify the disorder within as the product of a lack of authoritative speech, of “rule” in both the musical and the familial senses (corresponding to the double meaning of “authority” as authorial control and executive power).

The pun points to the more complex realities which lie just beyond the bounds of mortal language, but it is Herbert’s sudden transformations that set the stage for authoritative speech.  In poems such as “The Quip,” a single word or phrase is used throughout the poem, but its full meaning does not become apparent until the ending.  This eschatological structure echoes the structure of Christian experience, with a series of assertions validated by a final, authoritative act of God.

“The Quip” (102-3) turns on the verb “answer,” repeated in a refrain-like line in the second through the fifth stanzas and twice more (once as a noun) in the sixth stanza.  In each of the four middle stanzas, a different representative of “the merrie world” tempts or taunts the speaker in a different way.  The speaker answers none of these hecklers, instead repeating, “But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.”  In the final stanza, the meaning of this elliptical response is made clear:

Yet when the hour of thy design
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

The “answer” which validates the speaker’s response to each tempter can be read either as an indirect or a direct quotation:  it may read “say [that] I am thine,” indicating the Lord’s possession of the speaker; or “say, ‘I am thine,’” indicating the speaker’s possession of the Lord.  Edgar Daniels collapses this ambiguity in favor of the direct-quotation reading (12).  No critic, however, has examined the possibility that this ambiguity between direct and indirect quotation is deliberate.  The multiple possible meanings of the oft-repeated word “answer” make this deliberate ambiguity the most probable reading.  By phrasing the answer itself ambiguously, Herbert compels the reader to investigate just how the “answer” fits each question.  In stanza 2, “Beauty” asks, “Whose hands are those?”  The answer in this case is a simple answer to a question (OED 12) which requires the indirect quotation (“God, say that I am thine”).  Stanza 3 poses a musical question that demands an “answer,” this time in the form of an choral response (OED 17) which requires the direct quotation (“God, say, ‘I am thine’”), since God must be doing the figurative singing of the “answer” to jingling coin-music; this also answers the draw of money, as God is a much richer possession.  In stanza 4, “brave Glory” insultingly snubs the speaker; the logical “answer” is to respond in kind (OED 25); this stanza can accept either the direct or indirect quotation, as “Glory” is left out either way (“say, ‘I am thine [not Glory’s]’” or “say that I [not Glory] am thine”).  Stanza 5 prepares the reader for the conciseness of the final “answer” by confronting the speaker with “Wit and Conversation,” who, like Job’s less-than-helpful friends, wishes to “make an oration.”  The “answer” is the answer of an advocate, one who makes a speech in another’s interests (OED 2).  Here both senses of “I am thine” are invoked precisely with a view to the compression involved in the speaker’s ideal defense.  The compression and rapid transformation of the penultimate line constitutes a breakthrough:  the indeterminacies of language are rapidly condensed into clarity by an authoritative declaration from God.

In “Clasping of Hands” (147-8), Herbert uses the duality “thou art mine, and I am thine” again to achieve a transformation of perspective.  Beginning with the realization of mutual possession reached at the end of “The Quip,” a clever series of reversals confront the reader with an even bigger truth about the relationship between God and the confessing believer.  The first transformation occurs when the speaker realizes that he cannot be authentically himself unless he first belongs to God; the second when he sees that by being God’s, he is also his own.  This is precisely the goal of confessional language:  to reduce to incoherence utterances based on self-authority and to acknowledge that one’s only authority over one’s speech-acts comes from “speaking with” the one authoritative speaker, God.  “Clasping of Hands” pursues the logic to its end, saying, “If I without thee would be mine, / I neither should be mine nor thine,” and closes the second stanza with a direct appeal for divine intervention:  “O be mine still!  still make me thine! / Or rather make no Thine and Mine!”  The last line powerfully figures the unity which results from total correspondence of volition, from perfectly “speaking with” God, and recognizes that such perfection requires a divine fiat.

“Home” (99-101) enacts the final stage of confessional speech, the full recognition of authoritative speech as a positive “speaking with” God.  In “Home,” the speaker’s focus is eschatological; the confession, repeated in the refrain, is the speaker’s plea to God:  “O show thyself to me, / Or take me up to thee!”  The speaker’s yearning to be united with his Lord is passionately presented as a complaint against further delay.  The speaker’s imperfection, though, is revealed by the frantic tenor of the poetry and by the telling break in metrical regularity at the end:

Come dearest Lord, pass not this holy season,
My flesh and bones and joints do pray:
And ev’n my verse, when by the rhyme and reason
The word is, Stay, says ever, Come.

The speaker’s “rhyme and reason” alike are broken by the dichotomy between his present life and the life he seeks.  In the end, though, his affirmation wins out even over the limits of his poetry as it has over the limits of his life; he “speaks with” God in affirming his desire for the soon coming of the Lord (compare Revelation 22:17ff).

In one of the most complete confessional poems in The Temple, “The Cross” (154-5), the speaker finds himself confronted with the loss of “power to serve,” of “abilities,” “designs,” and “threat’nings” after a life of privilege and high expectations.  The speaker’s self, family, wealth and plans are all invested in seeking God’s “honour” and “renown”; yet he finds that he is “a weak disabled thing, / Save in the sight thereof, where strength doth sting.”  With this line, simply stated and left, the speaker offers the thread that unravels all his self-authority, realizing the paradox that mortal strength becomes weakness in the presence of God.  Thus, “things sort not to [the speaker’s] will” despite apparent good intentions; God continually “turnest th’ edge of all things on me.”

The final stanza of “The Cross” resolves the tension into triumph in a dense succession of images.  The word “cross” carries a number of meanings, including ill-tempered; pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion; contrary, as in “at cross purposes”; or having to do with the believer’s identification with Christ’s death.  The final three lines use an extremely convoluted syntax to emphasize the power of “speaking with” God in identification with Christ’s death.  The main clause is the last phrase, “Thy will be done,” the words spoken by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  These words, however, are recorded by the speaker as “my words”:  the speaker claims authority over this utterance.  This claim, far from being self-authority, is based in his identification with Christ, effected by the words “cross actions”; the speaker realizes, when he uses that loaded pun, that the “contraries” have been taken away by Christ’s death–that only the speaker’s clinging to self-authority creates the struggle.  Without his sin, there would be no “contradictions”; as self-authority is sinful, these “contradictions / Are properly a cross felt by thy Son.”  Identifying with Christ’s death enables the speaker to share Christ’s authority over the utterance, “Thy will be done.”  The phrase “with but four words” modifies “be done,” so that the utterance becomes the fact; like God’s creative speech-acts in the beginning, the speaker’s “speaking with” God “Thy will be done” is itself the doing of God’s will.

Herbert’s exploitation of the boundaries of language allows for a robust challenge to mortal self-authority over acts, including speech-acts, while preserving the possibility–indeed, insisting on the necessity–of authoritative utterances.  Herbert’s ability to bridge the gaps of language rests on his belief in the possibility of a real relationship with a transcendent God who made Himself known by Incarnation as the one authentic speaker, a speaker whose words have been recorded by and through others in the Scriptures.  Accepting such an authoritative Word, Herbert finds no danger in pressing language to the breaking point in order to illustrate the fact that no human speech-act has any final authority except where it is continuous with divine utterance, and that any claim to self-authority is futile, even sinful.  Through his use of confessional language, the language of the soul “speaking with” God, Herbert negotiates a path from the false certitude of self-authority, through the deconstruction of self-authority into sin and incoherence, to a tentative groping for the words to order revelation–a path which finally lays hold on the words of God Himself as the only sound basis for authoritative utterance.

Works Cited

“Answer.”  Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  CD-ROM.  Oxford U P.

Daniels, Edgar F.  “Herbert’s The Quip, Line 23:  ‘Say, I am Thine.’”  Explicator.  September, 1964.

Eliot, T. S.  George Herbert.  Harlow, Essex:  Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1968

Rickey, Mary Ellen.  Utmost Art:  Complexity in the Verse of George Herbert.  U Kentucky P, 1966.

Tobin, John, ed.  George Herbert:  The Complete English Poems.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.

Weatherford, Kathleen J.  “Sacred Measures:  Herbert’s Divine Wordplay.”  George Herbert Journal.  15:1.

Getting it Wrong, but Still Learning

I already posted a brief excerpt from the huge undergraduate paper I did that turned out to be badly wrongheaded, but the simple truth is that without that work almost nothing I know or teach today would have been worked into me in the manner it now has.  I don’t want to sell short the real danger of exceeding all reasonable bounds in argumentative zeal and ending up in dangerous heresy; but I want to point out that riches to be gained by sustained engagement with the history of Christian teaching, and sustained effort to reason vigorously and rigorously about the faith, are hard to overstate.

And, really, when I read some of this today, I wish profoundly that there had been someone equipped with a solid understanding of patristic and medieval theology, and a Catholic approach to them, to sit down and talk with me about this work.  I am not sure I would have been responsive (though I would be strongly influenced by several explanations of Catholic understanding over the next few years).  At any rate, I would like to be that person for others on a similar path.

Here, then, some excerpts from near the end of “Original Sin:  Origin of a Doctrine,” that seem oddly similar to the decrees on Justification from the Council of Trent–an assertion both I and my interlocutors at the time would have regarded as an accusation!  We learn; we learn.

An excerpt on the role of Resurrection in Justification, as I speculated at the time:

If God were willing for the entire universe to simply annul itself by means of sin and death, then there would be no problem except the question of why God would create a universe, only to let it die. If any are to be saved, a just God must have some way to save them without simply commuting the sentence. This provision is in Christ, and in God’s infinite wisdom and eternal foreknowledge is made possible by the very curse which makes the universe just. It is just, and necessary to justice, that the natural consequences of universal sin be universal death; but the curse makes death a condition of human existence itself, hence itself contributing to sin. If no man lives in a cursed human body sinlessly and dies, then the curse is absolutely just and efficient, closely and directly relating the opportunity to sin, the sin and the result so as to provide minimal suffering and ambiguity. Death makes the universe as pleasant as it can be with sin in dominance. However, if one man in a cursed human body were to live sinlessly and still die, then justice would not only allow, but in fact require, that the curse be altered. The result is that, while death still results from sin in the world, there is now a new life as well, a resurrection from the dead. In that life, as in this, those who are obedient will be blessed with fellowship with God and their fellows; those who are disobedient will be cursed with that which they choose, separation from God and the natural consequences of continuing death in an immortal body.

It is finally the promise of the resurrection that is the distinctive hope of the Christian. This is the ultimate thing man is unable to do; no man can act when he is dead, much less create life in his death. God alone could provide the means by which men who in their sinfulness were already left for dead, who were naturally subject to the condemnation of death and who spent their lives earning that sentence, could be brought to life after their death. God alone could make it possible for sins to be expiated (by the justice of death for sin) and at the same time for salvation to be possible (by the justice of resurrection for Christ’s obedience, with eternal life for believers). God alone could at the same time punish and forgive, love and judge. God alone could exercise justice and mercy in such an absolute fashion that neither compromises the other in any detail. Man cannot solve this problem for himself; he cannot create new life; he is entirely dependent upon the grace of God, and must in faith submit to that which that grace demands of him in order to partake of that glory.

A footnote that shows that God was “breaking in” even where my arguments were colliding with each other in painful cacophony:

Of course, the actual course of action taken (resurrection of all men, with the promise of eternal life to those who believe and obey Christ) is only one of several possible courses that would still be just. Rather than resurrect all on account of the one unjust death, God could have a) caused the curse to be individual, rather than general or b) prevented Christ’s death. However, neither of these would have accomplished the assumed end, which is the salvation of sinners. Therefore, God’s plan of redemption, which includes the curse itself, is based in an economy of love, not natural necessity.

(Yes, I added that emphasis.)

And something still a little too close to semi-Pelagian, but on the way to agreement with the councils of Orange and Trent (a long road yet ahead):

Since justification means “to be made just,” and being just is a fundamental statement of man’s moral state, justification without moral change is a word without meaning. For God to act as if people were just without truly making them so is for God to be arbitrary, unjust and untruthful. There can be no movement toward a state of justification, or a state of always being just in one’s actions, made on paper. Justification must be a moral, rather than a forensic, change. Second, all of these notions are based upon and perpetuate the conception of moral qualities as substance, rather than volition. One cannot be given righteousness; one must be taught to live righteously, and must choose to do so. Nor is righteousness transferrable; it is irrevocably a quality of the man who acts righteously. Whatever can be understood of justification must be understood in these terms, or it is meaningless.

Justification, therefore, is a moral transformation identical with the act of faith in God’s promises. Abraham clearly exemplifies that, as do the “men of old” in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. To separate justification from faith is anti-biblical. Faith is made possible by God, Who perfectly performs His promises; the grounds, opportunity, understanding and even desire to act are provided by God. None of this is of man; nor is the substance of the Christian hope provided by man. Man cannot make himself alive after he is dead; man cannot reverse his own moral downfall; God must make this possible in Christ through His Spirit. Man, however, must exercise faith by ceasing to resist God’s Spirit, by ceasing to suppress the truth in his injustice and lawlessness. This is the great and eternal truth of the Gospel, one which must not be allowed to fade with time, regardless of the years of theories and traditions which have obscured it.

My Recent Article—another Christianity & Buddhism interaction

The journal of the MLA Conference on Christianity & Literature recently published my article “Before a Fall:  the role of the interpreter in Endo’s Silence”; one of the key moments in that work is an extended discussion of some differences between Christian understanding of God and certain ideas that have become common in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as these are reflected in the words of a character called only “the interpreter,” who helps to lead Endo’s protagonist Rodrigues to his apostasy (whether temporary or permanent) at the climax of the novel.

This gets really rather technical, so do fasten your seatbelts.  Here’s the relevant section from that article:

Buddhist-Christian dialogue and the interpreter’s summation

The third point of interest in the interpreter’s summation is complex, but worthy of extended treatment.  In this summation, the interpreter’s effort to force Rodrigues to adopt a secular standard for evaluating religious beliefs and practices adopts the protective coloration of ambiguous religious language:  “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” (146).  Much that has made Silence both appealing and controversial among its twentieth century Japanese and American audience can be unpacked from this sentence.

The studied ambiguity of the religious language the interpreter uses can be glimpsed in the supplemental “simply” in this translation.  “Simply” here marks the suppression of a complex process of truncation and deflation which makes mercy “simply” (or “merely”) a negative quality of the individual’s subjectivity; to call on another to “abandon self” in this sense begs the fundamental religious question of to whom or for what the self should abdicate its apparent self-authority.  This call also tacitly denies that the self in question is already abandoned to or participating in some larger order, such as the priest’s religious vocation and his receipt of holy orders.  It is impossible to escape the signal irony of the gleefully cruel interpreter describing this enforced religious migration as “the path of mercy.”  The reference to “the old bonze” instructing “Chuan” (Ferreira), who now wears Japanese religious vestments, evokes the history of Christian-Buddhist dialogue in the twentieth century, which has often been carried on in terms of the relationship between Zen and Continental philosophy.  The language of the interpreter’s summation is at least as suitable in that conversation as in any conversation that might have been held in Tokugawa Japan, and probably much more suitable.

A key point in that dialogue is, as Steve Odin has pointed out, “the mutual encounter of two monumental ideas:  Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness)” (71).  John T. Netland thinks that Endo has arrived at an understanding of kenosis in terms of “radically self-denying and culture-transcending love” in the course of his career, culminating in the character of Otsu in Deep River.  Netland says that “In Silence this love is the self-negating invitation of the emaciated Jesus on the fumie who permits Father Rodrigues to apostatize and who reaffirms his presence to the disgraced apostate” (“From Resistance to Kenosis” 192).  According to Netland, “always this love finds its origins and supreme expression in the broken body of Jesus hanging limply from the cross of Calvary.”  Netland thus suggests that Endo’s “self-negating” model of “radically self-denying […] love” remains essentially Christian, though he admits that such “radical love […] is not easily accommodated within the theological boundaries of Christianity” to an extent that makes Endo’s work “disappointing to Christian readers who wonder if this singular devotion to divine love weakens the soteriology of the cross” (192).  Netland points out that Endo’s “reluctance to use the language of atonement and justification” and “selective emphasis on the self-emptying love of Jesus” have systematic consequences (193); this approach “renders traditional theological boundaries permeable” so that Endo’s work represents “ambiguous spaces where Christian theology diffuses into a more inclusive, if theologically imprecise, ethic of love.”  Netland maintains that even though Endo “creates a blurred soteriology” he nonetheless successfully “assumes a transcultural point of moral reference” in a way that “points us to the mystery of Christ’s kenotic entrance into human history” (194).  The interpreter’s specific arguments, though, challenge the notion that this putative “transcultural point of moral reference” is distinguishable from a wholly secular determination of moral value that treats religious truth claims as culturally contingent.

Netland’s account does not penetrate to the heart of the matter because he does not attend sufficiently to the blurring of the term kenosis in the interreligious discourse indicated by the interpreter’s reference to the “bonze” (Buddhist monk) who instructs the apostate Jesuit Ferreira that Buddhism and Christianity converge on the effort to “abandon self.”  Renée D. N. van Riessen helpfully clarifies the usage of kenosis:  “Traditionally kenosis expresses the descent or approach of the Transcendent to earth” (180).  Such a “descent or approach” modifies the transcendent being (“the Infinite, or God”) in relation to beings on “earth” so that transcendent being “is no longer a lofty and elevated idea that prefers to remain by itself and can only be understood by itself,” an entelechy like “the representation of God in the philosophy of Aristotle.”  Instead, “A kenotic representation of God’s relationship to reality” posits “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it.”  He suggests that Vattimo’s philosophical appropriation of kenosis goes too far in “trying to argue that being itself is subject to a process of weakening in its historical development” because “the time of the world view (as Heidegger called it) is over. Thinking has gradually become ‘secularised’” (202).  Thus Vattimo’s account boils down Christian kenoticism to say that, “influenced by the story of the emptying of God in Christ, a process is going on in our culture in which man is learning to conquer the violent nature of the sacred and of social life.”  Such a reduction of kenosis to secularization strongly resembles the interpreter’s call for the Jesuits to “leave us in peace” after forcing them onto a “path of mercy” that substitutes a range of secular efforts for the practice of the Christian faith.

Odin’s work on kenosis in Buddhist-Christian discourse clarifies this parallel between the interpreter’s summation, Vattimo’s metaphysical reduction of kenosis, and Netland’s quasi-kenotic “ethic of love” interpretation.  In his critique of “the mutual encounter” between “Christian kenosis (self-emptying) and Buddhist sunyata (emptiness),” Odin provides the key to understanding the instruction “the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self” that the interpreter relays from the “bonze.”  Odin acknowledges that “Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions” strongly resemble each other in that “the process of self-emptying becomes the pattern for true discipleship” (72).  This resemblance consists in the similarity between kenosis and “the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in its standard definition as anatman (no-self, selflessness, or non-ego)” (71).  The Buddha’s coming to conceive all things through the concept sunyata is “the model of enlightenment in Buddhism” insofar as the Buddha came to view the world as definitively and exclusively populated with objects of moribund desire, so that conceiving that which desires (the self) as itself an intrinsically ephemeral manifestation of that moribund desire becomes the central movement of Buddhist “enlightenment,” the realization of anatman.  Twentieth-century Buddhist-Christian dialogue presses the superficial similarity between kenosis and sunyata in much the manner suggested by the interpreter in Silence.

As Odin states, a perceived identity of kenosis and sunyata has become a cornerstone of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, especially in light of the work of thinkers in the Japanese Buddhist tradition of the Kyoto School, whose “project of relating kenosis to sunyata is a form of syncretism that is developed in the framework of a kenotic buddhology” (77).  Odin traces this juxtaposition throughout the work of the Kyoto School, from Nishida to Abe (73-75), but he proposes that the work of Nishitani Keiji offers the clearest examples of “identification of Christian kenosis with Buddhist sunyata or emptiness in its meaning as anatman or non-ego” (77).  Specifically, Odin cites Nishitani’s assertion that “What is ekkenosis for the Son is kenosis for the Father.  In the East, this would be called anatman, or non-ego.”  Odin’s summary suggests how much Nishitani’s approach modifies the understanding of kenosis found in van Riessen’s summary of the traditional teaching:

Nishitani calls for a shift from the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as “self-sufficiency” toward a completely nonsubstantialist ideal of divine perfection as “self-emptying,” or, as it were, “making oneself empty” (onore o munashikusurukoto) as espoused by both the Christian kenosis and Buddhist sunyata traditions.  However, of special importance here is Nishitani’s primary distinction between the original kenosis or self-emptying of God and the derivative ekkenosis or self-emptying of Christ. Kenosis is the original condition of “having made Himself empty,” which is essentially entailed from the beginning in the idea of the divine perfection of God, whereas ekkenosis or the activity of self-emptying love as typified by Christ and the command of man is the embodiment or practice of that perfection. Hence, the kenosis of God is the origin of the ekkenosis of Christ. (74)

Recalling that the fundamental meaning of kenosis, as seen in van Riessen, is “a descent or humiliation that is not contrary to God’s transcendence, but rather an articulation of it,” the shift in meaning proposed by the Kyoto School is evident.  Kenosis proper is now construed as a condition of divine being, a part of what is meant by naming “God,” while God’s self-disclosure through what Christians call kenosis—Christ’s descent to humanity in the Incarnation—is now seen as a “derivative” movement.

As Odin points out, “The Kyoto School project of relating kenosis to sunyata” represents a contribution to “a kenotic buddhology rather than a kenotic christology as such” (77).  Like Christian teaching about kenosis, Nishitani pushes off from the “the philosophy of Aristotle”; like Vattimo, however, Nishitani gives the term a radically different meaning.  By eliding the difference between Aristotelian and Christian conceptions of God, Nishitani pushes off against “the Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal of divine perfection as ‘self-sufficiency’” (Odin 74).  A properly Aristotelian view differs from a scholastic view precisely insofar as scholastic philosophy is Christian, that is, as the scholastics understood the kenosis of Incarnation to be the central fact of Christian revelation.  To conflate these views into an “Aristotelian/Scholastic ideal” masks the double movement from Aristotle to Aquinas and from Aquinas to the scholastics; it also masks the subsequent movements of thought that give Nishitani’s words, and the interpreter’s, a force today that they could not have had in the sixteenth century.

Despite the contextual differences, Nishitani and the interpreter employ the same rhetorical strategy.  The interpreter quotes the “bonze” as saying that “the path of mercy simply means to abandon self,” while interpreting “abandon self” under Japanese Buddhist assumptions.  When Nishitani prefers an understanding of kenosis which makes “‘making oneself empty’ (onore o munashikusurukoto)” the “ideal of divine perfection,” so that the Christian should imitate Christ (in his ekkenosis) as one who realizes the sunyata (emptiness) of a God whose divinity consists in perfectly manifesting anatman (no-self), he is making excellent Buddhist sense over against a misrepresentation of the Christian teaching of kenosis.   To use Christian vocabulary under such assumptions is to reduce the facts of God’s self-revelation that form the core of Christian faith to mere instruments for realizing sunyata; it shrinks hope until it can envision only the objects of moribund desire.  Especially under the conditions the Japanese authorities have created by persecution, the interpreter and the “bonze” seem eminently reasonable in suggesting that the only remaining senses in which Christian ethical teaching could be interpreted would demand apostasy.  They thus work a direct reversal of the sense in which a Christian is taught to “abandon self.”

Endo’s own Catholic baptism and the Catholicism of his Christian characters are chief contributors to the tension within his work, so it is hardly surprising that the interpreter’s words resonate far beyond their putative seventeenth-century context in this way.  As if to refute the interpreter’s misprisions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent declaration Dominus Iesus authoritatively restates key elements of Christian teaching about the Incarnation, especially in the context of interreligious discourse.  It points out that teachings which make “the revelation of Jesus Christ […] complementary to that found in other religions” are “in radical contradiction with the foregoing statements of Catholic faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ” (6), then summarizes that revelation as follows:

The truth about God … is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity.

Such teaching expands, rather than eliding, the gap between Christian faith in God and a narrowly Aristotelian conception of deity.  Likewise, the Christian response to the kenosis of Incarnation leads the Christian to “abandon self” in a manner quite different than the Buddhist realization of sunyata as anatman would suggest:

The proper response to God’s revelation is “the obedience of faith (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the revelation given by him.”  (Dominus Iesus 7)

From the standpoint of Catholics like Endo and his protagonist Rodrigues, the choice which the interpreter offers should not be understood as between two interpretations of Christianity, or between two interchangeable religious interpretations of an essentially secular situation.  For Christians to “abandon self” means to yield “obedience of faith” to the singular revelation of God in Christ Jesus.

If, as Odin concludes, the fusion of Buddhism and Christianity apparently effected by the identification of kenosis with sunyata is an illusion, so must be the connection the interpreter suggests between “the path of mercy” as a religion-tinged secular effort to achieve social goods (“to help others”) and this syncretistic interpretation of the command to “abandon self.”  As Mark Williams has recently pointed out in a very important critique of interreligious themes in Endo’s work, in mid-career Endo already acknowledges that he is “indebted in equal measure to the Buddhist preoccupation with knowing the self and the Christian focus on redemption” (120).  In the character of the interpreter, Endo seems to dress twentieth-century interreligious discourse in seventeenth-century garb.

Developing the Dialogue–ETS Paper 2010

I’m continuing my little subtheme of papers addressing Buddhism in some way.  This piece is actually the most direct discussion, but unfortunately it was a fairly hastily written conference paper.  My second conference of the year, and my first time attending that conference, Evangelical Theological Society Conference 2010 was overshadowed for me by the trip I was taking to meet Sarah, my own rapidly growing conviction that the Catholic Church was where the Truth resided, and my almost desperate exhaustion–having transitioned jobs to my second evangelical faculty post, only to face moving on immediately.  A topic I had hoped to give slow, deep reflection to therefore became a quick summary, with no likelihood of an immediate resumption of the conversation.

Still, I think I was getting at something real, here, and I hope to have an opportunity to follow up on it.  Here, then, my rough-and-ready speaking text of my 2010 ETS submission:

The Time of God’s Long Suffering:
Reading the New Testament in Response to a Buddhist Problem

Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society
Atlanta, Georgia
November 17, 2010

Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation[.]
1 Peter 3:8-15

Most of you will, as I do, tend to immediately read this passage with attention to two key contexts: the context of individual reassurance or exhortation, and the context of discussions among various eschatological systems. Obviously, the passage should be read in these ways. Let me ask you, though, to set those aside for a moment, and look more directly at the language of time itself, here. The “thousand years” and “one day” paradox suggests that God’s interactions with time are subject to compression and dilation relative to His concerns. The time frame of calendars and clocks, though part of the order of Creation, is not absolute. Instead, the Epistle’s readers are oriented to a time frame in which “the Lord is not slow […] but patient”; in which God’s reluctance to end the age before “all should reach repentance” will give way very unexpectedly, “like a thief,” and violently, even to the point of a distillation of the material cosmos to its personal, spiritual quintessence.

Perhaps most strikingly, the reader so oriented becomes a participant in this timing, “waiting for and hastening” the end while simultaneously able to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” From this brief reading, permit me to extract a framework of four assertions for later use:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe a framework like this should permit us to address Buddhist thought on its own terms, while still reasoning consistently from the language of Scripture.
Now, before I proceed, let me hasten to offer three disclaimers—yea, I will give four qualifications. First, I know that just “one small step for a man” from what I’ve just said lies a fruitful and ancient discussion of chronos and kairos in rhetoric and history. I would love to hear from some of you who are more deeply involved in that conversation than I am; I am sidestepping that discussion. Second, I am keenly aware that the readings from 1 Peter, Luke, Romans, and 1 Corinthians that I hope to offer, today, will hardly be groundbreaking—indeed, I hope that I will say nothing absolutely new. I hope only to emphasize certain elements of these texts that speak to a certain juncture in a certain discussion.

Third, when I turn to face Buddhism, I am aware of a double criticism that can be made against my main sources, which are Japanese Buddhists from the Kyoto School. Scholarly Buddhism is not folk Buddhism; and Japan’s uptake of Buddhism is idiosyncratic within East Asian context, even before we turn to Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent. I have done what I may within my background reading and selection of sources to deal with these known issues by using sources from both main traditions of Japanese Buddhism, privileging their direct interactions with Pali source texts, and staying as near as I may to “mainstream” collections of the teachings of the Buddha.

Beyond that, and fourth, I say to you that I very humbly offer these comments as an attempt to mark some clear connections within a Christian conversation that answers to a Buddhist conversation. When I say that these passages provide us with answers, I definitely have in mind neither the insistence of fact against the question, nor the reduction of the question to the scaffolding used to renovate it, but the apologia of a faithful response in another’s conversation, and a hope that can bear questioning.

While my personal hopes definitely have to do with the interaction of committed Christians with East Asian culture, I have also developed a keen interest in the convergence of Continental philosophy with Buddhism. There has been a steadily growing (though very uneven) interaction of Western philosophy with Buddhism throughout the past two centuries, correlating very precisely to the growth of a post-Christian consensus in the societies once comprised as Christendom. Nietzsche’s Antichrist at one point addresses the relationship of Buddhism to Christianity under the very late Nietzsche’s abrasive criticism of both religions. Significantly, Nietzsche compares the two in terms of the theology of sin: “Buddhism is the only really positive religion to be found in history, even in its epistemology (which is strict phenomenalism)—it no longer speaks of the ‘struggle with sin’ but fully recognising the true nature of reality it speaks of the ‘struggle with pain’” (17). Nietzsche does not have a particularly close understanding of Buddhism, but he does identify the difference in emphasis between Western philosophy and Buddhism reasonably well.

Equally imprecise, and apparently contradicting Nietzsche, J. Estlin Carpenter’s 1923 Buddhism and Christianity differentiates the Christian response to suffering from Buddhism as follows:

The revelation of the Rule of God instead of ending “the age that now is” has indefinitely prolonged it. And it has not altered its external conditions. The world is as full of the pains of sickness, the decrepitude of age and the sorrows of death, as it was when the son of Suddhodana first learned of them on his pleasure-drives. […] And we have not the insight claimed by the Buddha to relate each smart to some incident of wrong in a distant life. Christianity can never explain suffering. In the mingled web of pain and joy which is woven into every lot, it can lay no hand upon the ill and say “This is thy desert.” Under the Rule of God it has another word, “This is thy service.” (62)

Of course, from Carpenter’s later and fairly liberal standpoint, Nietzsche’s distinction between “struggle with sin” and “struggle with pain” has fallen into disuse; “sin” is simply one of the “external conditions” in the “mingled web.” What is interesting, however, is that Carpenter appears to believe that the Buddhist idea of karma definitely calls for one-to-one consequences for acts, while Christianity does not do so. Carpenter’s view seems to accord well with Christ’s rebukes concerning the man born blind or the sacrilegious murder of some Galileans, but also seems to ignore the principle of sowing and reaping, as well as the trial by works of Romans 2.

Both Nietzsche and Carpenter have tapped something, though, which is of crucial importance when trying to bring the Buddhist understanding of suffering into contact with the New Testament. As Carpenter’s assertion “Christianity can never explain suffering” suggests, Buddhism regards suffering as the trace, and also the essential determination, of being sentient. Suffering both marks and is the fact which consciousness explains. Christianity, however, has typically taken suffering as indicative, not of the nature of being, but of a defect within a goodness either remembered or anticipated. Christianity typically tries to account for the defect so as to distinguish the ill and its causes from the creature and its goodness (hence the perennial “problem of evil” is accompanied by the “problem of pain”). Buddhism, on the other hand, typically tries to account for sentient being’s apparently intrinsic capacity for suffering.

For Takeuchi Yoshinori, both religious and philosophical efforts have as their focus a “conversion,” the core of which is a shift from thinking of suffering as an individual experience to thinking of the individual consciousness a form of suffering. Takeuchi proposes in The Heart of Buddhism that “conversion is said to begin with self-purification, with a catharsis of soul” for “mystical traditions of all times and places.” He further differentiates “mere morality or ethics” from “purification that follows on conversion” in such traditions, for the latter “stands on a higher plane.” Takeuchi suggests that “such purification is permeated throughout by the problem of the impermanence of all things, by the problem of life and death,” but this problem is not merely a matter of finite lifespan. For this reason, Takeuchi criticizes “neo-Kantianism—along with the liberal theology based on it” for being “fettered to the immanentism of human reason and hence [. . .] only impeding our view of that abyss of death and sin and nihility that opens up under our very feet as the fate of being human” (72-3). Like the Curse of Genesis 3, the problem as Takeuchi takes it up is bound up with all of the joy and suffering of mortal life. For Takeuchi, this understanding of human moribundity tightly links traditions as varied as yogic Hinduism, various Buddhisms, medieval Christian mysticism, and post-Christian existentialisms. The crucial insight, he suggests, is a universalizing of the confrontation with suffering: “Without the memento mori, without an accompanying awareness and appropriation of death in the depths of one’s own being, those reflections become nothing more than pathological abnormalities.” Reflection on suffering which leads one to relate to such suffering as a defining feature of sentient being, rather than merely an unpleasant experience for such a being, is the essence of the “conversion” Takeuchi has in view.

In Takeuchi’s writing, the “turn” involved in this “conversion” hinges on the subject’s becoming conscious of what Buddhists term “dependent origination.” Takeuchi suggests that this conversion is often described in the “fundamental experience of artists and poets,” who in their self-conscious acts of representation may “experience an immediate embodiment of the dynamism of world and body, other, and life prior to the distinction of subject and object” (74). The writer whose characters “take over” the work, the carpenter who sees what the wood “wants to be,” the painter who realizes that he and his painting are illuminated by the sun no differently than the things he paints, are all having experiences that hint at the principle of “dependent origination.” Takeuchi describes “dependent origination” as follows:

the subject that, seen from the world, is part of the world, constructs its own being-in-the-world co-dependently and correlatively with the world, and yet does so as its own activity. [. . .] We may liken it to dreaming: when we dream, we live in correlatedness with the world of the dream and, through the phenomenal identity of dreamer and dream, keep the dream alive; but as soon as we become aware of this correlatedness, we have already awoken. (80-1)

Takeuchi extends this similitude of “dreaming” when discussing the consequences of a developed consciousness of “dependent origination”: “at the moment one awakens, the various sufferings that troubled the world of sleep are awakened to in the realization, ‘it was only a dream; I was sleeping’” (91). He proposes that the conditions for the construction of world and self “are only grasped in their primary sense when their essential determination is sought in terms of their extinction, when they are seen as past essences, as things that were.” The subject having awakened to the understanding that something which suffers—the subject, the self, personally and globally, as self or as deity—has originated through moribund desire, the practice of disassociation from such desire should cause, not a turn within that self, but a return to the world precisely as a universal suffering within which one need not be perturbed.

For Keiji Nishitani, this form of “conversion” is a key distinction between Buddhist and Christian responses to the nihility of secular life (its ultimate negation of its own ground for significance). Nishitani contrasts the Western responses of post-Christian figures such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, in which “nihilism is dealt with on the horizon of the so-called ‘history of being,’” with the Eastern response, in which a nihilistic crisis has not occurred (168). He argues that “the East has achieved a conversion from the standpoint of nihility to the standpoint of sunyata [or Emptiness, No-Thingness].” Rather than picture suffering as a disease or disorder within the individual, Nishitani’s Buddhism describes “the ‘sea of samsaric suffering,’ likening the world, with all its six ways and its unending turnover from one form of existence to another, to an unfathomable sea and identifying the essential Form of beings made to roll with its restless motion as suffering” (169). Thus, although “the nihilism of modern Europe […] could not help but awaken to itself as something pervaded by a Great Suffering,” Nishitani praises the Buddhist response which “goes a step beyond the existential self-awareness of suffering to speak of a ‘universal suffering’ where ‘All is suffering,’ and to recognize in suffering a basic principle.” In fact, Nishitani measures the post-Christian Western response to suffering in the person against Buddhist principles and suggests that “It might not be wide of the mark to suggest that Buddhism’s explanation of suffering as one of its Four Noble Truths—the ‘Truth about Suffering’—be regarded as an advance beyond the existential awareness of suffering to an existential interpretation […] of being-in-the-world.”

In other words, the Buddhism represented by Nishitani and Takeuchi affirms that suffering seen or experienced by the individual provides a hint toward a higher understanding, a re-interpretation of the cosmos from the standpoint of suffering. If suffering, whether by undesireable inflictions or unsatisfied desires, affects all things—and if death bounds every individual life within suffering—then suffering must be a more fundamental principle of sentient being than the pain and disease that bring it into consciousness. From this standpoint, the enlightenment for which the Buddha received that name is the belief, psychologically necessary and consistent with our humanity, that suffering is the reality of which particular individual thoughts, desires, concerns, lives, deaths, and discontents are the shadows. To perceive the world from the standpoint of all suffering would be, ironically, to cease to suffer any particular pains as any particular person. As a common Zen-inspired tea scroll says, “Nothing happens”; or rather, as the implied commentary says, “Things happen, but they happen to no one.”

One key problem for the Christian, of course, is that this brilliant psychological strategy seems to amount to an evacuation of Creation—if all sentient beings were to achieve this enlightenment, then the world as we know it would cease to be full of people. If we remember the four tentative principles we extracted from the language of time and suffering in 1 Peter 2, though, I believe we can speak to the necessity which inspires the Buddhist to seek the life of a Buddha precisely by affirming the nature of our suffering as such. Let me review those assertions, briefly:

  • The time of Creation (world history, the history of the cosmos) is contingent, not ultimate or definitive even for the cosmos.
  • Events within Creation time are more significantly ordered by God’s concern than by clock-and-calendar chronology.
  • God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons.
  • Because of God’s concern, humans also participate in changing significance of Creation time.

I believe these can be proposed to the Buddhist as an alternative response to the understanding of the universality of suffering. We may, for starters, accept the standpoint of all suffering as a profound expression of the reality of a fallen world, in which every sentient being suffers and is both actively (in actual sin) and complicitly (in original sin) a contributor to the suffering, even noting the very close correspondence of key Buddhist texts to the truth expressed in James 1:2-21. Verses 14-15 are especially on point: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (The language in James 4 about the origin of social conflict in spiritual conflict is also very helpful, here.)

We will not, however, propose a practice aimed at assuming the standpoint of all suffering, a “conversion” in which all things personal are taken to be shadows obliterated by one’s turning to see them. We know that, in the process of repentance and mortification by which we are conformed to Christ, we will come to exclaim with Paul that “I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ lives within me” (Gal 2:20). Yet we will find ourselves compelled to confess that God’s interactions with Creation time are pre-eminently concerned with relationships among divine and human persons. Suffering, especially unjust suffering, not only stresses our sense of God’s justice and goodness; it also reinforces our understanding that, in giving good gifts, God is never concerned merely with our separate, inner, immanent happinesses. In Luke 18:1-8, in fact, Christ’s teaching that “they ought always to pray and not lose heart” deals not only with the participation of believers waiting for vindication in the divine economy of justice, but specifically affirms God’s own impatience on the subject: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” This impatience to vindicate Himself and His people over against the violence of human sinfulness, and to bring an end to suffering, is also the proper theme of the language in Romans 9 concerning the “vessels of wrath, doomed to destruction,” which God “endured with much patience.” We are, as Peter says in his Epistle, to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation.” Vindication—itself the urgently personal defense of those who cry out for deliverance from suffering and injustice—waits because of the similarly urgent and personal desire of a God who is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”

Because God is concerned with relationships among divine and human persons, the “turn” for the Christian believer is not from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering impersonally, but from a world of personal suffering to a world of suffering with Christ for others. This is the lesson of 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, especially “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. […] Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” The historic Christian affirmation of the communion of the saints reflects exactly this economy of suffering, proclamation, and intercession, which is also enacted in “the communion of the body of Christ.” As many other texts in Scripture teach, particularly those most concerned with communion (both as a sacrament and as koinonea in its manifold meanings in the Body Life), to become a believer in Christ and a follower of Christ is not to become merely a member of a voluntary organization for the promotion of common goals; it is to become part of a divinely managed historical order whose interrelations—like they myriad interrelations of your body and mine—are real in complex ways which defy our efforts to reduce them to manageable lists of principles, visions, or sociological constructs.
There is urgency to this understanding, however. For just as the Buddhist who realizes that laughter makes no sense when the whole world is burning must proceed to enlightenment or live in madness and misery, we must not leave our friend in possession of our understanding without awakening him to the whole timetable; the insistency of an divine and human interpersonal norm on an eventual righting and reckoning of things, and the choice that requires of those who realize it. In Romans 2:1-8, Paul reminds us of the right ordering of time once more, most pointedly when he asks, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”

As I have said, these are not the final thoughts, nor the answers which make the questions stop, in this conversation. I do believe, though, that by focussing on the language concerning our participation with God in God’s long suffering as constitutive of the time during which we live, we will make ourselves available to Buddhist thinkers as interlocutors who—unlike the god-talking atheists who primarily represent Western and even “Christian” thought to East Asian intellectual historians—believe the language of the New Testament itself speaks directly to the concerns Buddhist teaching seeks to respond to. And that, at least, must be an enriching of our discourse with the very words of truth.

Two out of Three–on Milton and Education

Here’s a piece from what I more-or-less regard as the “capstone” of my undergraduate work, the single-author Milton course I took with Dr. Hotchkiss in Spring 1999 at The Master’s College (end of my senior year).  Among my classmates was Esther Chua, now the head of that department; and we had a remarkable class presentation and candidate conversation from Grant Horner, a first-rate Miltonist who was hired into the department after that year [profiles here].

So this piece has a couple points of interest, aside from the way that a strong interest in Milton and in both Milton’s and Locke’s contributions on education were to blend into my special interest in Rhet/Comp and in Nineteenth-Century British.  One point is that I concede a lot to Milton, here, that I would (perhaps obviously) now be unwilling to concede concerning scholasticism and scholastic method; and I likely introduce the conflated sense of “classical,” myself.  If you’re very careful, you can see the cognitive dissonance between the Deweyan construal of “liberal arts” that I was formed in and my habitual rejection of pragmatism starting to work out; note the way that the “instrumentality” of language is a cipher for an awful lot that remains unarticulated, here.  My critique of Milton’s paradoxical adoption of an anti-rhetorical stance is one I’ll stand by, though there’s a lot of nuance needed (at the time I had no conception of the way that a Renaissance feud between “rhetoricians” and “dialecticians” was reverberating, here).  Likewise my critique of his deferral of writing (with quite a few years more experience, I think the idea of writing, translation, target-language composition was pretty astute for an undergrad, if perhaps a bit obvious).  And of course you will see on full display the strong sympathy I felt for Milton’s dissenting position, even making “protect dissent” a primary aim for educators.

Most quizzical, for those who were formed classically before engaging Modern Western philosophy, will be the way I seem to regard as structural a distinction between “scholastic and Aristotelian” or “Peripatetic” and rabbinical modes of philosophical discourse and instruction.  Of course, I inherited Milton’s own prejudice against the scholastics, and at the time it was amplified by a sense that the Augustinian tradition was fundamentally wrongheaded and included the “too Catholic” part of Christendom, including most Reformed thought, and certainly including the heirs of Aquinas.  It would be a decade later before I could really approach Aquinas without a kaleidoscope of wrongheaded assumptions interfering with my reading, of course; for now, simply note that an anti-metaphysical stance pervades this work, and that it ends up totalizing the individual will in alignment with a Divine Will that instrumentalizes all else; all mediation is either fallenness or directly the occasion of recognizing and aligning with the Divine Will.  It’s a common but utterly soul-sucking mistake for modern Christians, and the more seriously and rigorously you try to live by any such ontotheological program, the more damage it will do to your mind.

Having happily survived, I offer you this interesting, prickly, and flawed little response to Milton’s Of Education.

Review Essay
April 24, 1999

Milton’s Of Education spells out an aggressive curriculum for youth from twelve to twenty-one years of age. Based in Milton’s own thirst for learning, and his understanding of the importance of language and classical literacy, the program of education is designed to create scholars of encyclopedic knowledge, moral vision and military acumen ideally suited to the revolutionary and utopian Puritan political milieu in which Milton moved and to which he was so passionately devoted.

Milton’s primary innovation against the education of his day is in privileging substantial reading in a language over linguistics and composition. He protests the “time lost . . . in a preposterous exaction, forcing the empty wits of children to compose Theams, verses, and Orations, which are the acts of ripest judgment and the finall work of a head fill’d by long reading, and observing, with elegant maxims, and copious invention” (980,1). Milton does not lack concern for the technical aspects of language use; rather, he believes that it is a waste to ask those who are only learning classical language and literature to begin writing and disputing in language they have not fully learned. In essence, he demands a literacy that is cultural, rather than merely technical. His Puritanical tendency for the practical also insists upon an instrumental view of language, so that “though a linguist should pride himselfe to have all the Tongues that Babel cleft the world into, yet, if he have not studied the solid things in them . . . he were nothing so much to be esteem’d a learned man” (980). In reaction against this abstract learning of language detached from the literature itself, Milton proposes that the student be given the “preparatory grounds of speech by their certain forms got into memory” and immediately “led to the praxis thereof in some chosen short book lesson’d throughly to them” (981). Milton is convinced that as the student is thoroughly educated in the literature, he will learn the language both more quickly and more profitably than otherwise.

In a similar rejection of the tedium of classical education, Milton dislikes the tendency to immediately give the student “Logick & metaphysicks” (981), before they have a thorough cultural literacy. Their grammar and life experience still inadequate, the student is expected to cope with the foundational issues of human thought, “to be tost and turmoild with their unballasted wits in fadomles and unquiet deeps of controversie” (981). In Milton’s view, these issues are not to be entered into without a thorough body of knowledge, polished linguistic ability (derived from long study of the classical literatures) and extensive life experience. Milton’s experience suggests to him that students thus taught to dispute before they understand content, causes many to lapse into “hatred and contempt of learning” (981).

Milton’s alternative, then, is to create an environment in which cultural literacy may be inculcated in students without oppressive and abstruse classical methods. He recommends that the school be a large house and its grounds, fit for about “a hundred and fifty persons” (981). These 150 are to include about twenty attendants and one master. The entire education would be conducted in this school, “not needing a remove to any other house of Schollership” unless to study for a profession (981). He then lays out in detail a progression through the classics, beginning with grammar studied and exercised with the moral books and proceeding (in proper Puritan fashion) as rapidly as possible to the practical studies of agriculture, physiology, natural philosophy, mathematics, rudimentary medicine and military science (982,3).

One further innovation finds its way into Milton’s program at this point: he suggests that studies of these subjects should be reinforced by conference with their contemporary practitioners, such as “Hunters, fowlers, Fishermen, Shepherds, Gardeners, Apothecaries; and in the other sciences, Architects, Engineers, Mariners, Anatomists” (983). This continuing evidence of a concern for the practical aspects of learning is an important component of the Puritan ideal which contributed so greatly to the growth of modern science (and, less favorably, to the trade-school mentality of the modern academy).

The continuing progression of knowledge (ethics, drama, politics, law, theology) eventually culminates in the study of poetry, by which Milton means primarily the epic, dramatic and lyric forms which dominate classical studies (and Milton’s own writing). Such a proper education “would make them soon perceive what despicable creatures our common rimers and playwrites be, and show them, what Religious, what glorious and magnificent use might be made of Poetry both in divine and humane things” (984). Only at this point would Milton begin the process of “forming them to be able writers and composers in every excellent matter, when they shall be thus fraught with a universall insight into things” (984).

While Milton goes on to describe the exercise (mostly military drill) of his ideal academy, the real argument of his essay is captured in his expressed desire that students be “fraught with a universall insight into things.” In the end, Milton’s great enemy is provincialism of all kinds. He opposes the disputatious provincialism of the classical academy, locked away from practical learning by their abstruse speculations. He opposes the provincialism of the English, who ignore classical learning from a mistaken (in Milton’s opinion) notion of their superiority to the Latin cultures. In fact, even though he emphasizes the Puritan ideal of practical learning, Milton opposes the Puritan tendency to suppress drama and other potentially immoral and subversive learning. Milton’s view is that a student, wisely guided, will come through the learning process with sufficient insight to reject the shallow wit which hides the immoral, and to value that which is of lasting worth. This is in accord with Milton’s views on freedom of the press as expressed in Aeropagitica, and is a theme explored in Paradise Lost.

Insofar as Milton seeks to establish a universality of insight, his plan is laudable; it has, however, some vulnerabilities. First, Milton’s reaction against the wastefulness of asking young students to write an endless succession of meaningless assignments causes him to postpone nearly all writing to the end of a man’s education. Yet writing, like reading, is a habit gained from long practice; and while Milton is certainly correct to state that writing of worth develops only when cultural literacy is already present, it cannot then be said that no one who is not completely educated should avoid writing until his education is complete. Milton’s hypersensitivity to the misuse of the classical languages causes him to overreach himself here; his school would fail without opportunity for the students to respond to, and record their advances in, the literature studied. A better suggestion might be to allow students to write their first compositions in the vernacular, proceeding to translations of their earlier compositions into the classical languages, and then continuing with original compositions as their understanding of the literature flowered. However, Milton is almost certainly right to react against the concept (still current) that all learning must be exhaustively documented by assignments, grade-marking and other busywork.

A further weakness results from Milton’s clash with the classical establishment’s abuse of logic and metaphysics. To be sure, taking students who have only at long last mastered the grammar of the classical languages, and expecting them to contribute meaningfully to the knowledge of metaphysics, would be a fool’s errand; and so Milton correctly values it. This flaw in classical education seems likely to have resulted from an environment of orthodoxy wherein scholastic philosophy and patristic theology (supplemented with Aristotelian cosmology) were to be learned and not challenged, however dialogic the actual teaching method may have been. In such a system, the foundational value of logic and metaphysics were in forming assumptions upon which all other learning could be based, rather than to cultivate rational inquiry and protect dissent. However, Milton’s solution is to banish rhetoric completely from the curriculum, and to eliminate the academic discipline of disputation. The harmful results of such an overreaction are apparent in the modern academy, where the absence of foundational emphases on logic and rhetoric (in the classical, not the postmodern, sense of the term). Whereas debate has a long tradition, extending at least to the rabbinic method among the Hebrews and the Peripatetic tradition in Greek philosophy, the more recent emphasis on teaching as solely an instrumentality for the conveyance of information. This method stifles dissent and banishes metaphysics and logic to the closet, as they are of marginal pragmatic value at best (except in the exceedingly dilute form of “critical thinking”). In the end, it leads to the trade-school mentality; learning is valued solely for its real-world value (easily measured by economists), and that which is not so measured is forced to either re-interpret itself or become extinct.

However vulnerable Milton’s thought in On Education may be at these points, it must be said that his presentation is generally quite good. His curriculum begins and ends with language and literature, and contains a wide variety of highly useful studies. Perhaps the ardent Milton critic should first attempt to complete the reading list contained in On Education; the project would undoubtedly rob him of his resolve to question Milton’s credentials–or if not his resolve, certainly his energy!

Not Nihility—Mishima, Lovecraft, and a little Buddhism

I’m connecting this piece from 2012 to my series of posts that develop my running side-theme of interaction with Buddhism, though that is not necessarily the focus of the piece.  This conference paper is another that was unfortunately written under great time pressure, and it features some very coarsely edited material from my dissertation and my thesis.  I was trying to bring these two into conversation, and I think that generally I achieved that in this piece.  Given time, I would someday like to make a smoother version of this work; I am convinced that it gets at something common to all my major scholarship, and something very basically human.

Here, then, my paper prepared for a panel I shared with Geoffrey Reiter at a Science & Science Fiction conference held at ORU in Tulsa:

ORU Conference on Science and Science Fiction
April 12 & 13, 2012

When East and West Collide:
Hope and Imaginary Bodies in Mishima and Lovecraft

Absolute selfhood opens up as nonobjectifiable nothingness in the conversion that takes place within personality.  Through that conversion every bodily, mental, and spiritual activity that belongs to person displays itself as a play of shadows moving across the stage of nothingness.  [. . .]  It is the field commonly seen as “outermost” by the personal self and referred to as the external world actually present in the here and now, ever changing.  [. . .]  The “outer world” emerges here as a self-realization of nonobjectifiable nothingness, or, rather, makes itself present such as it is, in oneness with nothingness.

The field of true human existence opens up beyond the outer and the inner, at a point where the “shadowy man” is in oneness with absolute selfhood.  We have here an absolute self-identity.  Thinking, feeling, and action are, on every occasion, entirely illusory appearances with nothing behind them, the shadowy heart and mind of the shadowy man. 

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness


There are few obvious similarities between Yukio Mishima and H. P. Lovecraft, but at first glance many readers will be hard put to tell which author penned the following lines:  “It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly. ”  These words from Mishima’s Sun and Steel describe a phase of his development as man and writer in which his “stubborn refusal to perceive [his] body” could be accounted for by his longing for “the ideal body” that would “be absolutely free from any interference by words.”  Mishima’s idealization of what Shu Kuge calls “‘existence’ not yet translated into discursive language” could bear comparison to Lovecraft’s dream fantasies, his life-long memory of his childhood terror of “Night-gaunts,” and his fascination with things we cannot conceive before, beneath, and beyond our individual and collective consciousness, things that might turn out to be (literally) unutterably significant.  Focussing on Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider” and selections from Mishima’s Sun and Steel, I want to look at the ways that bodily experience of consciousness expresses nihility in both.

In bringing these two writers together, I am not only bringing an American and a Japanese writer onto the same stage, but attempting to build a bridge between various elements of my own research and teaching.  (In keeping with that goal, let me point out that significant portions of this paper are derived from earlier works whose arguments I am here advancing.)  In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” then, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work from the Coleridge-Poe-Lovecraft tradition which has helped to invest much of the field of science fiction, fantasy, and horror with significance.  In Mishima’s Sun and Steel, we are looking at a quasi-autobiographical work situated squarely at the confluence of Romantic and existential “Western” thought with the “Eastern” though of Japanese Shinto-Buddhist culture.  As with the works of Coleridge, or of Friedrich Nietzsche or Antonin Artaud, these radically global and personal works of Lovecraft and Mishima both assert and reject a radical opposition between life as articulated in significant actions and utterances and life idealized as an inarticulate, pre-discursive unity.  Like Mishima’s “I,” the first-person speaker of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” finds his whole body of experience nauseating when he finally perceives his body.  We will begin by looking at how Lovecraft’s “Outsider” responds to such self-knowledge, then proceed to draw the parallel to the response Kuge reports from Mishima:  “The surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.”

“The Outsider”

The foremost editor and promoter of Lovecraft’s work, S. T. Joshi, characterizes Lovecraft’s 1921 story “The Outsider” as “haunting and inexhaustibly interpretable” (85).  Yet Joshi seems to find the story difficult to interpret, saying that “on the face of it, the tale makes little sense” and that “it is still hampered by conceptual difficulties, excessive derivativeness, an unfortunate reliance on overheated prose, and a ‘surprise’ ending that cannot be much of a surprise to many readers” (87).  It seems odd, though, to single out “The Outsider” as an example of “overheated prose,” as Lovecraft’s penchant for overwriting persists throughout his career.  Lovecraft did acknowledge that the story “represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its height” (qtd. in Joshi 86), and this accounts for much of its difference from Lovecraft’s later work.

More importantly, though, this dependence on Poe answers Joshi’s protest that “The Outsider” elicits no surprise at the end.  On this point, Joshi seems inexplicably insensitive to the conventions of the genre.  Both Poe and Lovecraft would tell him, in their critical writings, that the effect of such tales as “The Outsider,” in the tradition of Poe’s “William Wilson” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not surprise at all, but dawning awareness.  The reader does not experience a sudden and unexpected reversal of expectations; rather, the reader experiences a sudden confirmation of a pattern suggested but not proven by the events of the tale.  The mind, sensing the pattern, is drawn to look for confirming evidence, always suspecting the possibility of a reversal; as the evidence mounts, the conclusion begins to seem inevitable and the progress of the narrative at once inexorable and seemingly interminable.  When the sudden confirmation comes, all the evidence and suspicion–and the terror of the imagined possibilities which are not confirmed–is allowed to fall into place, effecting a sudden transformation in the reader’s perspective on the story.  Careful reading of such a story, then, should pay careful attention to problems of memory and perception that might appear as “conceptual difficulties” upon a first reading.

In reading “The Outsider,” the most significant such memory problem concerns the status of the narrator.  The story’s first-person narrator repeatedly speaks of the oblivion-inducing “nepenthe” which comforts him; he says of the climactic moment of the tale that “in the supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me” (5); and the opening line of the final paragraph says that “nepenthe has calmed me.”  It is strange, then, that the very same paragraph closes with the narrator’s description of the “supreme horror” of the tale’s climax.  Upon a first reading, it seems impossible to explain the narrator’s ability to tell the story of an experience which he claims, while telling it, to have forgotten.

The speaker in “The Outsider” begins with a melodramatic pronouncement bewailing his memories:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.  Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (1)

From the very beginning, the typical Lovecraftian disposition toward memory is established:  it is a burden, even a curse, that the speaker would escape if he could.  Other examples abound:  the narrator of “The Shadow Out of Time” finds it a source of hope that “my experience was wholly or partly an hallucination” (275).  The narrator of “The Call of Cthulhu” opens his account by saying, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.  We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” (52).

“The Outsider” intensifies this horror of memory by passing from the “fear and sadness” of “memories of childhood” to a horror even deeper:  “And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other” (1).  The main tension of the story unfolds in the space created by these two statements about memory:  no matter how unhappy the slice of reality depicted by his conscious memories may be, the speaker would rather “cling desperately” to those memories than allow his “mind […] to reach beyond to the other.”  The speaker then describes the tale of his own growth and exploration of his surroundings, his descriptions giving the reader a clear understanding of what the speaker refuses to clearly acknowledge: 

I know not where I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible […].  The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. (1)

The narrator clearly signals his unreliability when he follows a statement about selective memory with a description beginning “I know not.”  In fact, the speaker’s memory is to be doubted at every turn, with the “smell […] as of the piled up corpses” being, in fact, a literal description rather than the metaphor intended by the speaker.  That the speaker found “nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strowed some of the stone crypts” reinforces the reader’s impression that the speaker has, himself, grown up in the crypts or catacombs beneath an ancient castle.  That the speaker considers these things normal clearly flags the distance between his perceptions and those of his audience.

The narrator’s circumlocutions leave the reader to piece together the significance of “the other” which the narrator is so eager to forget.  Progressively revealing elements of the unsurprising “surprise ending,” the narrator prepares his audience for a sudden transformation from suggestive uncertainty to confirmation.  In keeping with the genre and Poe’s example, the confirmation is delayed until the very end, even at the cost of some awkwardness.  The reader finds the narrator in a place so dark “that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for relief” (1) and follows his ascent, beginning when

in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky.  And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever beholding day. (2)

Having never seen the light, except that of candles and the gradations of twilight that exist even in the darkness of his world, the speaker nevertheless hungers for light; in this he echoes Poe’s critical appeals to a “thirst unquenchable” based on a “prescience of glories beyond the grave” which underlies all aesthetic appeals.  (Both of them, of course, are also refracting Plato’s parable of the cave through a lens of Christian apocalypticism.)  “The Outsider,” of course, is himself in the grave.  For the narrator in the story, the search for light will take him back up out of his grave, emerging into the world of the living in the first of the revelations for which the reader has long been prepared by the hints of the narrator:  “The sight itself was as simple as it was stupefying [. . .] there stretched around me [. . .] nothing less than the solid ground” (3).  In climbing the long tower up from his “castle,” the speaker has reached, not “a lofty eminence,” but the surface of the earth.  He emerges through a church, finding that “my mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the frantic craving for light” (3).

As he emerges, the speaker becomes “conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not wholly fortuitous” (4).  Here the narrator’s and the reader’s journey coincide:  both are becoming aware that this is not a quest after knowledge, but after memory; something has been forgotten which will be recalled.  As the speaker continues, he arrives at a “castle [. . .] maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me.”  Approaching the castle, he sees “open windows–gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry [. . .] an oddly dressed company, indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly” (4).  Here, it seems, is what he has been longing for; yet the reader is already prepared to ask whether this is “the other” to which the speaker referred; the audience is invited to wonder why the “latent memory” which guided him to this sight, the light for which he longed, was termed “fearsome.”

The answer is not long in coming:

I now stepped through the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.  The nightmare was quick to come; for as I entered, there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. (4)

“The nightmare” begins with all of the revelers fleeing in “clamour and panic” as the speaker enters the room (4).  Afraid of whatever could cause such a disturbance, the narrator looks around and approaches an archway, screaming “the first and last sound I ever uttered” as he sees “in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious fugitives” (5).  The speaker “cannot even hint what it was like,” but calls it “the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.  God knows it was not of this world–or no longer of this world.”  Of course, the reader familiar with the genre will have predicted what the story reveals in its last sentence:  the speaker “stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame [. . .] and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass” (6).

“The other,” then, is himself–is a view of himself in a mirror.  The usage of the phrase at the beginning of the tale, though, implies more.  “The other” is a thing “my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to,” analogous with but not identical to the physical reaching of his hand to the monster.  Hence, also, the speaker’s plunge is “from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realisation.”  “The other” represents a whole scheme of repressed knowledge.  As the speaker says at the moment,

In that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single and fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory.  I knew in that second all that had been.  I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own. (5)

The speaker, having been dead, has returned, less than human but still animated, to his home; his memories are dim and antiquated, but very much his.  Having once been a member of the “merry company” of the living, he has fallen into decay.  He cannot help but look at the brightly-lit revel, and risks everything all he knows to see its beauty; but he cannot see the beauty without being shown, immediately and drastically, his unfitness to participate in that beauty.

Elsewhere I have traced the relationship between Lovecraft’s horror fiction and the aesthetics of apocalypse in the Christian tradition that Lovecraft energetically defined himself against.  We may note one simple distinction between the Lovecraftian protagonist and the response of prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition at this point.  A prophet would follow this horror with a promise of restoration, a message of hope centered in the apocalyptic transformation of the believer into a being fit to behold God with loving desire.  In Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism, however, there is no place for hope and no grounds for such a transformation.  The only fit solution for “realisation,” then, is unreality.  Immediately following the moment of “soul-annihilating memory,” the speaker continues by saying,

But in the cosmos there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe.  In the supreme horror of that moment I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images.  In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. (5)

The “chaos of echoing images” could itself be a description of Lovecraft’s fiction, works which attempt to perform the sleight-of-hand whereby a culture which seeks to repress the irrepressible may both look on the “merry company” and forget the horror of its own unfitness.  Hence the central image, the all-important “realisation,” is always “inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable”; the speaker “cannot even hint” at it, but knows it for “a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny [cf. unheimlich], unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable,” a “nameless, voiceless monster” which earns “the first and last sound” of the speaker:  “a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause” (4-5).  The expression must be inarticulate because to articulate the “realisation,” to provide details of the life which the speaker remembers and then represses, would be to defeat the repression.  With no hope of transformation, Lovecraft’s narrator finds the only adequate response:  “In a dream I fled.”


Lovecraft’s 1926 essay “The Materialist Today” helps to generalize the significance of the narrator’s responses in “The Outsider.”  Ironically, the passage is bracketed with statements which, taken alone, would seem to run exactly counter to the fictional narrator’s flight into dreams:  “It is most sensible just to accept the universe as it is, and be done with it. [. . .] He will get most satisfaction in the end by keeping faithful to these things.”  The sentences between, though, tell the story:

All is illusion, hollowness and nothingness–but what does that matter?  Illusions are all we have, so let us pretend to cling to them; they lend dramatic values and comforting sensations of purpose to things which are really valueless and purposeless.  All one can logically do is jog placidly and cynically on, according to the artificial standards and traditions with which heredity and environment have endowed him.

Lovecraft here recommends to his reader precisely the course of action taken by the narrator of “The Outsider”:  the reader should “pretend to cling to [illusions]” just as the speaker escaped “in a dream.”

Such efforts to avoid certain kinds of knowledge at any cost are typical of Lovecraft’s “cosmicist” philosophy.  The universe, he claims, is purposeless; but the illusion of purpose is necessary for human conduct and emotional stability.  In a 1927 letter to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales magazine, Lovecraft defines “cosmicism” when he says

all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the cosmos-at-large. […] one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. […] when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown–the shadow-haunted Outside–we must remember to leave our humanity–and terrestrialism at the threshold. (209)

Ultimately, the nihilism from which some of his characters wish to protect the world is precisely what Lovecraft seeks to inculcate.  Lovecraft believes that, by facing the horror of a universe in which man does not matter at all, the reader will be forced to discard his illusions (among which, of course, Lovecraft would place religion) and to “jog placidly and cynically on.”  In Lovecraft’s materialistic universe, hope of the sort described by the Christian tradition is ridiculous; instead, as he wrote to Helen Sully in 1935,

What most persons can rationally expect is a kind of working adjustment or resignation in which active pain is cut down to a minimum. . . . This, therefore, should be the only norm in matters of expectation and endeavor (304). 

The experience of Mishima, and the troubling abandonment to dark fantasy of the living-dead narrator in “The Outsider,” suggest that this resolution is fraught with moral and bodily hazards.

The speaker’s flight is, indeed, an escape into a dream-world:  he joins “the fiendish ghouls that ride the night-wind”; but, after his “burst of black memory” has “vanished,” they are “the mocking and friendly ghouls” who “play by day” in exotic, faraway places (5).  Readers of Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, the dream-fantasies which revolve around his story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” will recognize the ghouls and their typical haunts.  While Lovecraftian ghouls may live in the subterranean reaches of the waking world, as in “Pickman’s Model,” and often haunt places where Lovecraft is wont to find stairways and gates between waking and dreaming, they are primarily creatures of the dream-world; only in a dream can the speaker “ride the night-wind” (5).  When we have taken a look at the parallel between this part of Lovecraft’s work and some elements in the work of Yukio Mishima, we will return to Lovecraft to build on this analysis, and hint toward a more general approach that will reach beyond the strictly post-Christian and Western horror fictions of Lovecraft.


As also happens in quasi-autobiographical works from Coleridge, Nietzsche, and Artaud, Mishima’s works foreground a struggle between the self of utterable, lived experience and the self idealized as prior to that discursive being.  In Sun & Steel, Mishima seems to echo Lovecraft’s “Outsider” in what we are meant to take as a critical commentary on Mishima’s own development:

Interestingly enough, my stubborn refusal to perceive my body was itself due to a beautiful misconception in my idea of what the body was.  I did not know that a man’s body never shows itself as “existence.”  But as I saw things, it ought to have made itself apparent, clearly and unequivocally, as existence.  It naturally followed that when it did show itself unmistakably as a terrifying paradox of existence—as a form of existence that rejected existence—I was as panic-stricken as though I had come across some monster, and loathed it accordingly.  It never occurred to me that other men—all men without exception—were the same.

[. . .]  Never dreaming that the body existing in a form that rejected existence was universal in the male, I set about constructing my ideal hypothetical physical existence by investing it with all the opposite characteristics.  And since my own, abnormal bodily existence was doubtless a product of the intellectual corrosion of words, the ideal body—the ideal existence—must, I told myself, be absolutely free from any interference by words.  (Mishima 11)

The “ideal body” in this passage represents the hoped-for unity prior to the discursive formation of the self.  The effort to construe the human subject in this way, in Mishima as in Lovecraft or modern Western metaphysics, leads to “a terrifying paradox of existence” which leaves him “panic-stricken” before a global problem:  “other men—all men without exception—were the same.”  Mishima’s response to this is helpfully summarized by Shu Kuge:

The “body” in Mishima’s thought is a metonymy for “experience” that is not yet translated into discursive language.  Mishima once clamored:  Why don’t people realize the importance of the depth of the surface?  The surface is the depth; in other words, the surface is not a representation or reflection of what is hidden beneath.  The surface is everything.  (Kuge 66)

For Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” of “the body existing in a form that rejected existence” (the very crux of Nietzsche’s assault on Christianity, and his critique of Buddhism, in The Antichrist) is ultimately resolved, beyond the naïveté of simple oppositions, by an insistence on the surface—on the very skin itself—as the phenomenal being, here, now, than which nothing else can be meaningfully represented.  This ultimately meant, for Mishima, that only the act of ritual suicide by cutting into the skin with a sharp blade, only at the peak of physical perfection, and only at the historical moment when he (vainly) hoped his public political act would lead to revolution, could be meaningful.

The example of Mishima thus presses the urgency of the problems from which Lovecraft’s “Outsider” flees into narrative oblivion.  As Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel points out, drawing a parallel between the bodily experiences of Pier Paulo Paolini, Michel Foucault, and Mishima, the “terrifying paradox” passage marks a “horror of incarnation” in response to which “the author undertakes a quest for an incorruptible ‘ideal body’” (218).  The metal of weights that Mishima uses in body-building transform him so that “his muscles” can be seen as “the steel that becomes the sword for his disembowelment.”  As Chasseguet-Smirgel describes it, such extremes as Mishima’s may “constitute the culmination of mute unconscious gnostic ideas” which “is often allied with an unleashed eroticism that does not accommodate itself to the limits of the body” or to any of the differences which mark bodily experience and ground discourse in living bodies.  Like the problematizing move which authorizes the dead narrator of “The Outsider” to repeat for us a tale which denies his memory and his death, such radical experimentation attempts to realize the unthinkable, to experience that which is inconsistent with the conditions of bodily life.

As a result, this radical experimentation (whether sexual, political, literary, or religious) repeats the moribundity of the desire which founds the discursive being in more radical fashion:  such radical experimentation “can lead not only to murder—an absolute possession of the object—but also to suicide—an absolute dissolution of the subject” (219).  If “the surface is everything,” then fatally piercing the surface, in a final physical refutation of discursive being, appears as a conclusion which is not only logical, but emphatically actual.  Thus suicide comes to be, as it is represented repeatedly in Mishima, something akin to “apotheosis” (220), at least in some wish-fulfillment fantasies.  Chasseguet-Smirgel concludes that such a “Foucauldian body” provides us with “a particularly striking example of the wish for a body that is disorganized, without hierarchy, and with perfectly interchangeable parts.”  Such a body is not merely local in its conception and representation; the rupture of the body, which in lived experience never achieves or recovers this idealized inarticulate state, seems to achieve what it represents, the “dismembered body” that “is projected upon society or even onto the cosmos, so that the frame of the world collapses and the heavens are disemboweled.”

Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” who is already dead, flees his unfitness for the beauty of life in a life-rejecting oblivion of abandoned fantasy; Mishima’s “I” in Sun and Steel flees his own discursive being, his life as a particular body situated within the world, through a program of intentional idealization by which body and words were whetted for their own extinction.  Confronting the bodily experience of consciousness with any degree of artistic and intellectual honesty within a framework that insists on a reductive solution to the mind/body problem, that is, poses both moral and physical hazards of the first order.  Under such a schema, the bodily experience of consciousness must be treated as an illusion or error, rather than (as the Christian tradition would suggest) a flawed experience of a really present unity.  Under the reductive schema, this illusion or error must be corrected by efforts to achieve or recover an inarticulate unity of thought and sensation, a wholeness without difference.  Lovecraft’s “Outsider” mimics the hero of a Platonic allegory in his ascent to enlightenment, but finds “soul-annihilating memory”; Mishima’s words describe the hardening of his body which prepared him to protest his integrity with his life, leaving us with the dilemma of an entire discourse reduced to a single term—its last, the gesture futile in its political meaning and abortive in its self-rejecting personal and literary significance.

We may return to Lovecraft, then, to see once again that this is not a condition unique to Mishima’s personality or culture.  I apologize slightly for deviating from my proposal to discuss “The Dunwich Horror,” which would have provided me with a more obvious alien-monster hook for a sci-fi conference.  I think the significance of the parallel between “The Outsider” and Mishima’s work is elaborated much more clearly by revisiting Lovecraft’s Dunsanian fiction, writings about outlandish worlds of outer and inner space which have a very different flavor than Lovecraft’s very late stories of interplanetary aliens and advanced pre-human civilizations.  In particular, the somewhat obscure story “Celephais” and the prose poem “Ex Oblivione” rather neatly connect the ambivalence of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” to the decisive rupture of bodily and discursive being in Mishima.

“Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione”

Given Mishima’s example, we need not be surprised to discover that the escape into illusion is represented as a suicidal journey in Lovecraft’s fiction, as well.  “Celephais” and “Ex Oblivione,” both written within a year of “The Outsider,” show clearly the relation between death and dream in Lovecraft’s tales.  “Celephais” begins with the following evocative passage:

In a dream Kuranes saw the city in the valley […].  In a dream it was also that he came by his name of Kuranes, for when awake he was called by another name. […] he was the last of his family, and alone among the indifferent millions of London, so there were not many to speak to him and to remind him who he had been. […] he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and write of his dreams.  What he wrote was laughed at by those to whom he showed it, so that after a time he kept his writings to himself, and finally ceased to write. […] Kuranes sought for beauty alone.  When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams. (26)

Like the narrator of “The Outsider” or Mishima’s “I,” Kuranes is fixated on a solitary pursuit of beauty.  Both are repulsed by society, and both turn to illusion instead of truth, leaving behind articulation.  Whereas the already-dead narrator of “The Outsider” has no real options, though, Kuranes is very much living; his escape into dreams is, like that recommended by Lovecraft in “The Materialist Today,” a deliberate choice based on what he takes to be a failure of revelation.  That “truth and experience” do not disclose beauty to Kuranes begs the question whether they “failed to reveal it” or whether he, like “The Outsider,” found it intolerable, repressed it, and escaped into dreams.  On Lovecraft’s view, of course, the question does not arise; revelation will fail, and the escape into illusion is “all one can logically do.”

Kuranes finds himself increasingly drawn into his dreams, so that “the more he withdrew from the world about him, the more wonderful became his dreams; and it would have been quite futile to describe them on paper” (26).  Indeed, so fully does he escape into illusion that “he grew so impatient of the bleak intervals of day that he began buying drugs in order to increase his periods of sleep” (31).  The drug element, somewhat unusual in Lovecraft (though not unique), is strictly instrumental to the process of withdrawing from the world into dreams.  Kuranes, having reached the point where he no longer functions in the real world, eventually walks out of it:

Then one summer day he was turned out of his garret, and wandered aimlessly through the streets, drifting over a bridge to a place where the houses grew thinner and thinner.  And it was there that fulfillment came, and he met the cortege of knights come from Celephais, to bear him thither forever. (31)

“Fulfillment,” of course, is a word which, like “salvation” or “enlightenment,” makes a teleological claim; and in the texture of the work, this suggests the ascent to paradise of a spiritual seeker.  Only by understanding that the dream-world is in no way susceptible of articulation in the world of “truth and experience,” by noticing that it is utterly neglectful of body and the realm of embodiment, can the reader discern between the poetic fantasy of the tale and the horror which lies beneath its surface.

“Celephais” does not follow any of the conventions typical of a horror tale; but it is precisely this absence of horror elements that makes the fantasy’s completion of the dream-escape trajectory begun in “The Outsider” so dark.  The language is beautiful, the images rich and exotic, and the story richly communicates a longing for transformation, the desire to gaze on sublime beauty.  The dream, though, is death itself.  The story ends by saying,

And Kuranes reigned thereafter over Ooth-Nargai and all the neighbouring regions of dream, […] and will reign happily for ever, though below the cliffs at Innsmouth the channel tides played mockingly with the body of a tramp who had stumbled through the half-deserted village at dawn; played mockingly, and cast it upon the rocks by ivy-covered Trevor Towers, where a notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer enjoys the purchased atmosphere of extinct nobility. (32)

It is possible to conceive of this as a sort of afterlife, and indeed in Lovecraft’s later story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” Kuranes re-appears and interacts with the protagonist.  At the same time, this afterlife is in the “regions of dream,” places of very questionable metaphysical status.

Like “The Outsider,” though, “Celephais” explicitly enacts its central illusion; for the reader is given fair warning that “it would have been quite futile to describe [the dreams] on paper” (26).  Whatever reality the dreams have is strictly the product of the reader’s willingness to suspend not only disbelief but memory itself; to leave behind even the demand for verisimilitude in order to gain a series of verbal impressions, beautiful enough in their way but deriving their true power only from what they conceal.  On the story’s own terms, the only communicable details of the protagonist’s experience are these:  a lonely, nameless dreamer quit working, quit writing, spent more and more time escaping into dreams, took drugs to enhance the dreams, and eventually walked off a cliff and died.

In his prose-poem “Ex Oblivione,” Lovecraft puts the same elements in simpler, more direct form.  In the middle of his troubled life, the poetic speaker seeks “the irradiate refuge of sleep” and finds in dreams “a little of the beauty I had vainly sought in life” (2).  As the dreams grow more vivid, “the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness” (3).  Eventually, he learns of a drug which will enable him to pass the gates of sleep permanently, becoming forever a resident of the dream-world.  The drug must be taken while awake, of course, which means it affects the body; and the speaker, upon having taken it “last night,” now tells the reader,

I drifted on songfully, expectant of the glories of the land from whence I should never return.

But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of the drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space.  So happier than I had ever dared hope to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity and crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour. (4)

As with “Celephais,” the words sound beautiful; the desire to gaze on beauty is aroused.  The arousal, however, is strictly pornographic; this false beauty can never be revealed in the realm of “truth and experience.”  If the reader wishes to be rapt by the beauty of the text, he can do so only by repressing several key truths:  that it is impossible for the speaker to be telling the tale if he has merged with infinity; that the text plainly despairs of all joy in bodily life, as the speaker claims that “oblivion” makes him “happier than I had ever dared hope to be”; that, at its most prosaic level, the entire piece is no more than a suicide note.


Given human mortality, a life of illusion and a suicide amount to the same thing.  Kuranes, who lives in his dreams only to die in reality, and the speaker in “Ex Oblivione,” who commits suicide in order to live in his dreams, in the end achieve nothing which the “notably fat and especially offensive millionaire brewer” of the last sentence of “Celephais” does not also achieve.  Lovecraft’s fictional speakers may dislike the secular illusion, may be dissatisfied or even tormented by the mundane, but they do not improve on it.  Seeking sublime beauty, “The Outsider” finds only his unfitness to participate in that beauty, represses the memory, and escapes into illusion.  The significance of the ambivalent dark fantasy of “The Outsider” is clarified when Kuranes’ body washes up on the shore, or when we realize that the body of the speaker from “Ex Oblivione” was eventually found lying in his bed.  Similarly, the idealization of the “surface” that led Mishima to hone his body and his words into razor-sharp instruments for destroying his bodily and discursive being did not survive his death; not even in the form of literary immortality, for the literary specimens we call “Mishima’s corpus” are only the preparatory strokes, the hesitation marks, before the act which those words declared significant.  Immortality for Mishima’s corpus would refute the violence with which he rejected bodily and discursive being in favor of the razor-sharp, honed surface tested to destruction by his final act.

Despite the intentions of their authors, these texts amply warn us of the nihilating tendency inherent in confronting the bodily experience of consciousness from a reductively idealist or physicalist perspective.  Having rejected any possibility that the significance the bodily experience of consciousness calls for is determined in a way that makes human acts and words participate in a personally significant, globally relevant enacting of history, and confronted with the incoherence of efforts to reduce the bodily experience of human consciousness within the scope of mere bodies or mere words, one risks being faced with a choice between mere illusion and frank suicide—a choice frequently offered, for example, in TV shows like House.  The nihility which grounds all uncreated being, if there be any such thing, can take place in history only as fictional rationales for postponing or hastening death; the works of Lovecraft and Mishima stand together in asserting that it lacks by definition the potential to create life.

Grad School Writing Sample–Conrad’s Lord Jim

Perhaps the strongest point of interest in this piece, which I reworked from a paper I wrote in the Fall 1998 (my senior year at TMC), is that my rejection of Romanticism is beginning to take shape, here:

Writing Sample
Baylor Graduate School
Department of English
April 1, 1999

In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad presents a highly stylized image of a young romantic, trapped in his own dreams of heroism on the high seas, falling to cowardice on his first real temptation—a fate worse than death, according to many of his contemporaries. Given a shot at redemption, Jim makes good and exceeds all expectations in a remote post in the interior where no one has heard of his great failure. However, the intrusion of outlaws from “outside” his territory ends in a great fall; Jim loses the faith of his native followers and faces death at the hands of their leader. It is in voluntarily facing this death, when he could have escaped, that Jim finally lives up to the romantic ideal he has set for himself. Ironically, it is this death which fulfills the expectation which immediately followed his first act of cowardice. However, in view of all that had transpired since that first fall, the voluntary submission to an unnecessary and undeserved death seems tragic or even foolish. It is this apparent folly which Conrad examines through several character viewpoints. An analysis of the four major character views of Jim’s death yields a multifaceted insight into Conrad’s pessimistic evaluation of the hopes and dreams of men.

In opening the last phase of the account, that which deals with the circumstances leading up to Jim’s death, Conrad presents the reader with a new character. One of the hearers of Marlow’s tale which makes up the bulk of the story, this person (unnamed) is revealed as a former adventurer who, according to Marlow, “showed an interest in him that survived the telling of his story, though . . . [he] would not admit he had mastered his fate” (252). It is in response to this continued interest that Marlow sends a letter revealing all he has been able to find out concerning Jim’s unfortunate end. Marlow sets the tone for the entire ending in his letter, when he says, “The point, however, is that of all mankind Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself, and the question is whether at the last he had not confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). In this way, Conrad flags to the reader what the theme underlying Marlow’s narrative will be and, through the character of the unnamed hearer, foreshadows what the outcome will be.

The four primary character views on Jim’s death are those of Jim, “the girl,” Marlow and Stein. Jim believes his fall (abandoning 800 people on a sinking ship of which he was Chief Mate) has left him dead to the world of civilization, where he must forever be branded a coward. Even his achievements in the interior, which include reviving a failed trading post, destroying one enemy of his tribal friends and forcing another into submission, and maintaining peaceful and profitable order, cannot erase from his mind the blot of his failure to face death honorably. He swears never to leave the girl (his wife, by common-law at least) because he knows he can never go back to the world at large.

As a result of this view of his relation to the world, when Jim finds himself face-to-face with death once more he is unwilling to run, though the girl implores him to do so (309). Having failed to do his duty before through his cowardice, Jim now compensates by deliberately going to his death in order to complete the redemption of his self-image. From his viewpoint, his death is the heroic expiation of his sins against his romantic ideal, the act of heroism by which he validates all that he once believed to be true of himself.

The girl, however, is unable to see it that way. She sees Jim only as false to his promise to her; for, in serving his romantic ideal, he has abandoned her and failed to uphold his promise to her. She casts this up to him as they part, trying desperately to induce him to fight or flee, rather than deliberately go to face death. She calls to him as he leaves in an especially revealing passage:

‘Will you fight?’ she cried. ‘There is nothing to fight for,’ he said; ‘nothing is lost.’ Saying this he made a step towards her. ‘Will you fly?’ she cried again. ‘There is no escape,’ he said, stopping short, and she stood still also, silent, devouring him with her eyes. ‘And you shall go?’ she said, slowly. He bent his head. ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, peering at him as it were, ‘you are mad or false. Do you remember the night I prayed you to leave me, and you said you could not? That it was impossible! Impossible! Do you remember you said you would never leave me? Why? I asked you for no promise. You promised unasked—remember.’ ‘Enough, poor girl,’ he said. ‘I should not be worth having’ (309).

Here Jim’s view and the girl’s come into direct confrontation. For her, his death is unnecessary and faithless, a sign that his word has always been flawed—as she has always feared. He, meanwhile, cannot escape the sense that he is already dead because of his previous cowardice. His view of himself takes precedence over her claims on his love and honor; she, sensing this, cannot forgive him—for he is impenitent.

Ironically, when the girl’s perspective is taken into account Jim’s redemption by facing death loses its redemptive quality; instead, it becomes a second failure. In the first failure, Jim fails to live up to his romantic ideal and, in so doing, also fails to discharge his duties honorably. In his death Jim also fails to discharge his duties honorably, this time in pursuit of the romantic ideals he had previously failed. The irony is that Jim never does learn how to behave rightly and honorably; he simply swings from one extreme of narcissism to the other, without ever getting the point. As Marlow says to the stranger, “Jim had no dealings with anyone but himself” (253). Never learning love or honor, Jim is doomed to a fate for which the girl cannot forgive him—she who has devoted her life to him can only bitterly condemn him for his faithlessness.

The third view, and probably the most impartial, comes from Marlow. In his view, Jim’s redemption is limited by Jim alone; while Jim achieves the ideal he sought, this is made tragic by its cost in terms of real human relationships. Because Marlow is Conrad’s major viewpoint character, he is fairly explicit about his views:

He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic. Not in the wildest days of his boyish visions could he have seen the alluring shape of such extraordinary success! For it may well be that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an eastern bride, had come veiled to his side (312).

“That opportunity,” of course, is that chance to face death with stoic resolve which Jim had nurtured since his earliest days at sea—and which he had failed to take advantage of earlier. It is this glorious deathwish that, to Marlow, defines Jim; in an earlier passage, Marlow comments that “he had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain” (61). In the end, then, Marlow sees Jim likewise unconcerned with what he loses, in seeking to obtain that elusive glory which so concerns him:

We can see him, an obscure conqueror of fame, tearing himself out of the arms of a jealous love at the sign, at the call of his exalted egoism. He goes away from a living woman to celebrate his pitiles wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct. Is he satisfied—quite now, I wonder? We ought to know. He is one of us (312).

It is Marlow’s statement that Jim “is one of us” that sets the tone for the final evaluation of Jim’s behavior, and broadens the conceit of Jim’s “exalted egoism” to include, ultimately, all the hopes and dreams of humanity.

The final major character view of Jim’s death is that of Stein—which is not offered directly. Rather, Stein’s view is offered through the symbol of his butterflies, and through his position as a catalyst for Jim’s chance at redemption. Stein’s prophetic descriptions of Jim’s personality and needs are invoked at the very end of Marlow’s letter, which is the end of the novel: “Stein has aged greatly of late. He feels it himself, and says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this; preparing to leave . . . ‘ while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies” (313).

The image of the butterflies is a universal image of the mortality of human ideals, introduced earlier in the account when Marlow first goes to Stein for help in understanding Jim. Stein rhapsodizes about butterflies, prompting Marlow to exclaim, “And what of man?” To which Stein replies,

Man is amazing, but not a masterpiece . . . Perhaps the artist was a little mad . . . Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass? (153-4).

In describing the experiences of his own romantic youth, Stein equates the finding of the butterfly he had seen in a dream—the prize of his collection—with the love of his wife and child, the support of his friends and the discomfiture of his enemies (156). Of them all, only the butterfly remains, a fact Stein notes in summary fashion:

‘Friend, wife, child,’ he said, slowly, gazing at the small flame—’phoo!’ The match was blown out. He sighed and turned again to the glass case. The frail and beautiful wings quivered faintly, as if his breath had for an instant called back to life that gorgeous object of his dreams (156).

To make the analogy clearer, Marlow describes Jim to Stein as a “specimen,” though “nothing so perfect” as a butterfly. Stein’s revealing reply is, simply, “Well—I am a man, too” (156-7). When Jim’s case is explained to him, Stein diagnoses it simply: “He is romantic” (157). Asked for a remedy, Stein says, “There is only one remedy! One thing alone can us from being ourselves cure!” (157). The implication is clear: death alone will deliver Jim from himself. As Marlow says, and as the reader senses, “The case which he had made to look so simple before became if possible still simpler—and altogether hopeless” (157).

The issue Marlow and Stein are consulting about, however, is not how to cure romanticism—which Conrad makes clear is hopeless. Rather, it is how to live out life with it; and this, Stein makes clear, is a matter of man’s ideals outracing his mortality. Man wants to be more than he can be, and so fights to remove himself from the “destructive element” that is the world about him—to be delivered into an ideal realm which transcends daily life.

In the end, then, Stein’s opinion of Jim is that he fails to submit to the destructive element—that, like a drowning man, he tries to “climb out into the air” rather than “make the deep, deep sea to keep you up” (158). The dream, like all human dreams, must be followed—while remembering that, like the butterfly specimen, it too will die. Only the appreciation for the ultimate emptiness of dreams makes the dreams worth pursuing—while man is trying to transcend them, to idealize them beyond the limits of mortality, he is drowning.

When these views are taken together, Conrad’s theme is clarified: Jim has not truly “confessed to a faith mightier than the laws of order and progress” (253). Rather, he has failed to realize the mortal limitations of all human dreams, and therefore failed to even manage the minimum standard of his self-image. Jim’s egoism prevents his attaining those objects of love, friendship and victory which are the content of the romantic dream. Instead, his idealization of the dream is self-destructive. Only Stein, the romantic who has given himself over to the dream and survived its destruction, has a handle on the depths of the romantic problem—and he sees it as the underlying tension in all men’s lives, the reason why older men like Marlow long to relive their youth in younger men like Jim, yet know that they can’t go back; and the reason why, the dream gone and Jim gone, Stein begins to age badly.

In the end, Conrad’s view is deeply pessimistic. Despite his accurate perception of Jim’s fatal egoism, the stubborn clinging to the romantic ideal of himself which destroys all he loves, Conrad continues to imply that this is perhaps the best humanity has to offer. The element in which those who survive must immerse themselves is the “destructive element” which drowns dreamers; at the same time, the dream must be retained in order for there to be a reason to swim through the sea and breathe the air of dreams. In the end, Stein’s butterflies are better than humanity; but those butterflies are dead, pinned in cases. They are static beauties, once alive but transient; and while the beauty remains, the life passes. To Conrad, the greatest hope allowed a man is to live out his life in the expression of a beatiful dream, then die without having given up the dream. While he condemns Jim for confusing the dream and the reality, he generalizes Jim’s egoism into a description of all human hopes—and so precludes any possibility of a hope outside man’s ego.

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1965