Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beach

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”  

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!” 

Proust on How Art Reawakens Us to the Extraordinary Beauty of Ordinary Things

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In his pragmatic self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton, the same boundlessly charming mind who offered a surprising remedy to status anxiety and shed light on the psychology behind why we travel, argues Proust (and artists like him) can open our eyes to the world’s limitless but often overlooked beauty.  Though De Botton is a bookish academic who possesses seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of literature, art, and philosophy, he’s never pretentious.  Far from the dry intellectualism of a university textbook, his work emits a playful exuberance— and a sense that he doesn’t take anything too seriously.  The common thread that unites his books is a belief that the great thinkers of the past have invaluable lessons to teach.  After sifting through Proust’s diaries, letters, novels, and essays, De Botton distills his prolific literary output into digestible advice for the modern reader.  The result?  An indispensable guide to being happy in love, remembering the benefits and limitations of reading, and expressing yourself precisely while avoiding the lure of platitudes and cliches.  How Proust Can Change Your Life’s every beautifully-patterned sentence sparkles with wit and wry humor, every word, with erudition and insight.  So if you’re curious why one of the finest minds of the 20th century believed you should never worship books too zealously or sleep with someone on the first date, check out this book from the library. 

The book’s seventh chapter “How to Open Your Eyes” begins with a summary of Proust’s essay “Chardin: The Essence of Things” which recounts the story of a disgruntled aesthete.  A cultured young man of worldly sophistication and refined taste, he worships at the temple of beauty.  Because his imagination is full of the glory of cathedrals and museums, he’s offended by the mundanity of his surroundings: in his dreary domestic settings the only thing to behold is “one last knife” lying next to an “underdone, unsavory cutlet” on a “half-removed tablecloth.”  The sole object of beauty—a “ray of sun shine”— only serves to accentuate as “cruelly as an ironic laugh” the everyday banality of his existence.  Why hadn’t he been born into a rich, noble family and been blessed to live among luxurious furnishings and fine art?  He envied the socialites who floated from grand party to grand party, the dapper aristocrats and chicly-dressed debutantes.

Deprived of beauty in his bland surroundings, the man flees to the Louvre.  The stately portraits of Van Dyck, the rich colors and magnificent palaces of Veronese, the spectacular landscapes of Lorrain: these masterpieces, he believes, will finally nourish his starved aesthete’s soul.  But rather than let him hurry to the galleries of Van Dyck and Veronese, Proust redirects him to the French painter Jean-Baptiste Chardin.  A painter of still lives and domestic scenes, Chardin prefers bowls of fruit to grand palaces and English statesmen.  His subjects are rarely engaged in anything noteworthy: rather they’re doing needlework, stirring tea, building a house of cards or carrying loaves of bread. 

wine & loaf of bread

But though Chardin depicts commonplace people in commonplace settings, his paintings reawaken us to the extraordinary splendor hidden beneath the ordinary.  The breathtaking beauty of white flowers delicately arranged next to a basket of richly red strawberries; the subtle elegance of a glass of cabernet and loaf of bread; the splendid luster of copper cookery: through his devoted attention to detail, Chardin restores our ability to see transcendence in the mundane and therefore broadens our conception of beauty.  Once the young man was “dazzled by this rich painting of what he called mediocrity, this zestful painting of a life that he found tasteless, this great art depicting a subject that he considered mean,” Proust asks:

“This makes you happy, doesn’t it?  Yet what more have you seen here than a well-to-do middle-class woman pointing out to her daughter the mistakes she has made in her tapestry work; a woman carrying bread; the interior of a kitchen where a live cat is trampling on some oysters while a dead fish hangs on the wall, and an already half-cleared sideboard on which some knives are scattered on the cloth?”

For Proust, this young man is so discontented not because his existence is actually beauty-starved but because he’s imperceptive.  As Chardin demonstrates, there’s no reason to envy the lavish lifestyles of aristocrats or covet the glamorous circles of the rich— he can find as much poetry in a simple bouquet of flowers as in a volume of Shakespeare, as much rapture in classic blue-and-white china as in Beethoven’s Fifth.  The young man can’t behold all the exquisite beauty around him, not because of some shortage in his surroundings, but because of his own dullness of vision (“If your everyday life seems poor,” Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet, “don’t blame it; blame yourself…you were not enough of a poet to call forth its riches.”)  Thankfully, the discerning eyes of artists like Chardin can resharpen our deadened, desensitized powers of perception.

the silver cup

At its foundation, How Proust Can Change Your Life suggests, much like Proust’s dispirited aesthete, we world-weary adults take life for granted.  Blinded by the shroud of custom and habit, we no longer see the miracle of the ordinary.  For Proust, art is our only hope of resuscitating the senses.  The artist, through his acute sensitivity and appreciative awareness, restores to the world a sense of awe and wonder, enlarging our definition of beauty to accommodate the mundane material of life we usually neglect.  A madeline and cup of lime-blossom tea, a bowl of peaches, a wedge of brie and slice of bread: when our eyes are no longer obscured by routine, the most unremarkable things reveal themselves worthy of appreciation.  

The tragedy of our times is our conception of aesthetics is too small, too narrow.  Most of us think beauty is restricted to the rarefied world of high culture, something as inaccessible as Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields with Cypresses” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Beauty, we believe, is sunsets and red roses and brides on their wedding day — not slate skies, withered flowers, and street corner whores.  So when we look upon our vulgar day-to-day, we feel dissatisfied, bored.  Art is so essential because it reminds us beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths. 

Alain De Botton On How Gazing Upon Once Great Ruins Can Cure Us of Our Status Anxiety

ozymandias

In the 13th century BCE, Ramses II was the most powerful man in Egypt.  Over the course of his reign, the great pharaoh, also known as Ozymandias, was beloved by his subjects.  From the Delta to Nubia, Ramses built grand monuments to immortalize his greatness.  So obsessed was he with preserving his legacy that he constructed more statues of himself than any other monarch.  But today what remains of this once legendary leader?  a brief mention in our history lesson on ancient Egypt?  perhaps an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Despite his egotistical efforts to defeat eternity, time- as always- triumphed: three thousand years later, nothing remains of Ramses’s worldly accomplishments, as romantic poet Percy Shelly wrote in his 1817 poem “Ozymandias,” but a “shattered visage.”  

It is a cruel irony that we squander so many of our limited hours on earth trying to acquire power and prestige when, in the end, neither much matters.  Much like Ramses hopelessly attempting to erect an everlasting monument to his earthly success, we in the modern age hysterically scramble for status: envy-inducing job titles, degrees from esteemed Ivy Leagues- anything that signifies we are worthy of admiration and respect.  When we’ve captured that majestic-if elusive- butterfly of professional, material success, we feel like who we are may finally be enough.  But if that butterfly manages to slip from our grasp or if- god forbid- we never catch its shimmering wings in our nets, we’ll never respect ourselves.  Because we in the modern meritocracy attach moral significance to social standing, if we fall from the social ladder or never ascend to its highest rungs, we’ll contend our underachievement is a result of a character deficiency.  “Why did we fail to make something of ourselves?” we’ll wonder, “had we been lazy?  or had we simply not been intelligent/talented enough?”  This is why over-achieving straight-A students leap in front of trains when they’re rejected from Harvard: to go to a lesser school- they’ve been told- is to be lesser.  And if you’re lesser, why live at all?  

This may be a drastic example, but similar feelings of inferiority at one time or another beset us all.  According to erudite and edifying explorer of human history Alain De Botton, the same brilliant mind who elucidated how status is a construction of culture and expectation causes malaise and discontentment, status anxiety, or the worry that we’re nobodies in the eyes of others, is “capable of ruining extended stretches” of our existence.  If we’re unsuccessful in our quest to secure the love of the world, if we never receive its tokens of affection, renown and distinction, we foresee one shameful word engraved on our tombstones: “failure.”  Believing achievement equates to worth, we hustle to gain admission to the most exclusive universities, land that million dollar book deal and make six figures.  We fritter away a significant portion of our lives either chasing validation or fretting that what we have accomplished is still not good enough.  

So how can we cure ourselves of this destructive notion that the world is divided between winners and losers?  How can we alleviate the psychological anguish that accompanies the belief that we’re only as lovable as our accomplishments?  In his immeasurably interesting Status Anxiety, De Botton offers an unexpected remedy: gaze upon the decaying beauty of ancient ruins.  Thousands of years ago, Ramses II’s commanding statue beheld the ancient world’s most magnificent civilization- today, both his statue and kingdom have disintegrated to dust, as insignificant as a speck of Saharan sand.  At the height of Rome’s power, the Forum bustled as the cultural and political epicenter of the world’s mightiest empire- several millennia later, only the skeletons of a few buildings remain, their pillars looking out at the decay with the solemnity of defeated kings.  Instead of host lavish banquets for dignified statesman, today the Forum is just another “must-see” for pushy, poorly dressed tourists in cargo shorts and jeans.  As Genesis 3:19 so poetically says, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”  

That we all return to dust seems to validate the bleak nihilistic belief in life’s inherent meaninglessness.  Yet the fact that all things must end is not cause for despair.  The crumbling fragments of ancient Rome and the declining figure of Ramses II make us conscious of our ultimate insignificance, yes, but- if anything- this awareness puts our petty status anxieties into proper perspective.  No matter how brave our military exploits or how vast our lands, the disquieting truth is no one will remember them a thousand years hence.  Countless important figures have been lost through the ages: once influential world leaders dim into the oblivion of irrelevance and obscurity, all-powerful empires topple over, nations’ borders are drawn and redrawn.  Because our mortal accomplishments inevitably perish in the almighty face of eternity, De Botton suggests it’s pointless to worry too much about our status in society:

classical ruins

“Ruins reprove us for our folly in sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power.  Beholding old stones, we may feel our anxieties over our achievements- and the lack of them- slacken.  What does it matter, really, if we have not succeeded in the eyes of others, if there are no monuments and processions in our honor or if no one smiled at us at a recent gathering?  Everything is, in any event, fated to disappear, leaving only the New Zealanders to sketch the ruins of our boulevards and offices.  Judged against eternity, how little of what agitates us makes any difference.

Ruins bid us to surrender our strivings and our fantasies of perfection and fulfillment.  They remind us that we cannot defy time and that we are merely playthings of forces of destruction which can at best be kept at bay but never vanquished.  We enjoy local victories, perhaps claim a few years in which we are able to impose a degree of order upon the chaos, but ultimately will slop back into a primeval soup.  If this prospect has the power to console us, it is perhaps because the greater part of our anxieties stems from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our projects and concerns.  We are tortured by our ideals and by a punishingly high-minded sense of the gravity of what we are doing.

Christian moralists have long understood that to the end of reassuring the anxious, they will do well to emphasize that contrary to the first principle of optimism, everything will in fact turn out for the worst: the ceiling will collapse, the statue will topple, we will die, everyone we love will vanish and all our achievements and even our names will be trod underfoot.  We may derive some comfort from this, however, if a part of us is able instinctively to recognize how closely our miseries are bound up with the grandiosity of our ambitions.  To consider our petty status worries from the perspective of a thousand years hence is to be granted a rare, tranquillising glimpse of our own insignificance.”

In the poem “Ozymandias,” Ramses II declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.  Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  But, as Shelley observes in the next line, a few millennia later, “nothing beside remains.”  Ramses II’s ruins remind us of the futility of acquiring worldly fame as, in the end, nothing is eternal: somebodies will become nobodies just as surely as buildings will be reduced to rubble.

God, Hubris & Fate: Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain”

The Convergence of the Twain

By Thomas Hardy

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I

In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III

Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent

The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV

Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V

Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX

Alien they seemed to be;

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,

X

Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

titanic maiden voyage

In his cool, philosophical poem “Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy meditates on the futility of acquiring material wealth. The poem opens in “a solitude of the sea” where the Titanic-Britain’s crowning glory and so-called “unsinkable” ship-came to rest over 100 years ago.

The remote, dark depths of the Atlantic serve as the setting for the rest of poem where the once magnificent testament to human will now sits at the bottom of the sea. A deeply inhuman environment, the ocean in Hardy’s poem represents mystery and darkness, a place where all things will be forgotten and eventually meet their end. This idea is reinforced in the second line when Hardy describes the sea as a place “deep from human vanity” (Hardy 2). The fact that the ocean is “deep”-or removed- from human vanity suggests pride and appearance have little meaning after death. In the next line, Hardy claims the “Pride of Life” planned the magnificent ship (Hardy 3). The aggressive capitalization of the word “Pride” proves the human belief in our own infallibility; however, our “plans” reveal themselves ludicrous when the Titanic, the “unsinkable” ship, flounders and sinks 3 days after it sets off from London’s harbor. By personifying man’s plans to construct an indestructible ship, Hardy mocks the ridiculousness of such an endeavor as man’s ambitions mean little in the face of destiny.

Since her tragic demise in 1912, the Titanic has become a devastating symbol of man‘s hubris, or over-reaching. In the third and fourth stanzas, we witness the futility of man’s worldly power: “Over the mirrors meant/To glass the opulent/The sea-worm crawls-grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” (Hardy 7-9). Here, mirrors-which were “meant” to house “opulent” jewels-now serve as playgrounds for sea-worms. Though they were originally intended to protect something beautiful, mirrors themselves are extremely delicate, which points to human life’s fragility. Both stanzas follow the same structure: in the first and second lines, Hardy outlines an object’s original purpose; in the third, he reveals the uselessness of that purpose now that the Titanic is rotting six feet under. That jewels-emblems of glamor and social status-now “lie lightless” suggests that lavish wealth is meaningless in the face of mortality (Hardy 12).

Syntactically, the poem’s immediate undermining of each object’s original purpose proves two things: 1) man is very intent on being in control and 2) the desire to be in control is not only impossible-it’s pointless. Though these stunning jewels were “designed” to “ravish the sensuous mind,” life interferes with those plans when the Titanic meets her “twin halve” and crashes into an iceberg (Hardy 10-11).

titanic unsinkable ship

“If you want to make God laugh,” the old saying goes, “make a plan.” Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” is a cruel reminder of our inability to ever be fully in control. In fact, the only thing that seems to possess absolute governance in the poem is God, whom Hardy describes as the “Spinner of Years” (Hardy 31). Man might imagine himself as the subject of his syntactical destiny; however, it is God who appears over and over again as the actual one in power. In the sixth stanza, we see this image of God reinforced grammatically:

“Well: while was fashioning/This creature of cleaving wing,/The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything/Prepared a sinister mate/ For her — so gaily great” (Hardy 16-20).

Interestingly, the first line of the stanza is missing a proper subject. The sentence sounds so odd, in fact, one might think it’s a typo. However, Hardy intentionally drops the subject (man) to imply man is not a subject at all, but rather an object at the mercy of God’s will. Humankind may outwardly appear like a God (for instance, in these lines he fashions “creatures” much like God in the biblical origin story), but he nevertheless remains an object of the “Immanent Will.” God’s status as the only named subject in these lines hints at the overall moral of Hardy’s poem: compared to God, who is mighty and omnipotent, man’s ability to influence fate, it seems, is painfully limited.

Sylvia Plath’s “Magnolia Shoals”

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle.

Magnolia Shoals

Up here among the gull cries

we stroll through a maze of pale

red-mottled relics, shells, claws

as if it were summer still.

That season has turned its back.

Through the green sea gardens stall,

bow, and recover their look

of the imperishable

gardens in an antique book

or tapestries on a wall,

leaves behind us warp and lapse.

The late month withers, as well.

Below us a white gull keeps

the weed-slicked shelf for his own,

hustles other gulls off. Crabs

rove over his field of stone;

mussels cluster blue as grapes :

his beak brings the harvest in.

The watercolorist grips

his brush in the stringent air.

The horizon’s bare of ships,

the beach and the rocks are bare.

He paints a blizzard of gulls,

wings drumming in the winter.

Just read Sylvia Plath’s lovely poem “Magnolia Shoals,” a charming little poem about the deception of summer.

The poem begins with an anonymous “we” leisurely strolling along the coastline:

Up here among the gull cries/ we stroll through a maze of pale/ red-mottled relics, shells, claws” (Plath 1-3).

Meaning an object surviving from an earlier time, the word “relic” suggests the “shells” and “claws” are so remote to the speaker that they belong to another era entirely. The fact that Plath applies this word to rather ordinary objects found on a beach indicates the world has undergone a major historical shift without much outwardly changing at all. “Magnolia Shoals” traces this subtle shift from summer to winter as the speaker observes her surroundings, feeling betrayed as she realizes summer has deserted her and left her with a bitter winter. Throughout the poem, the landscape will give the appearance of summer-the season of leisure and unhurried reflection- only to conceal its true character as winter:

Through the sea green gardens stall/ bow, and recover their look/ of the imperishable/ gardens in an antique book,” the speaker complains, “they [the gardens] leave behind us warp and lapse” (Plath 6-12).

Here, the hypnotic quality of the repeated “g” sound (“green sea gardens”) hints at a greater deception underlying the poem: though the verdant gardens appear radiant and full of life, the fact that they have to “recover” their “look” implies their appearance is not reality-it’s superficial. Like models carefully posed and air-brushed in a fashion spread, the gardens project a distorted image of reality: while they look “imperishable” as if they’ll endure forever, their impermanence is merely constructed like an “antique book.” The words “warp” and “lapse” further this theme of delusion, revealing the speaker and her partner have been duped. The external world may appear static and unchanging, but such security is false: just as summer must fade to winter, all things in life must decay and end. Pretty red magnolias wither and droop until their petals shrivel and rejoin the soil; squirrels frolic around for a time but eventually pass on. The very setting of the poem-a beach somewhere-hints at the inevitability of such change; waves hurl themselves against the shore; coastlines erode, recede.

Magnolia Shoals” follows a young woman who grapples with this transience and explores the bitter betrayal she feels when she realizes the world has deceived her. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker personifies summer as a duplicitous traitor who “turned its back” on her, which reveals the extent of her feelings of abandonment (Plath 5). Though seasons are impersonal forces of nature with no motives or agendas, the speaker attributes the coming of winter to the treachery of summer, as if June, July and August could somehow be responsible. Such assignment of blame to a season points to a larger human dilemma: though we want to think of nature as a benevolent force sympathetic to its impact on human action, the world of this poem does not possess the capacity for thought (or deceit) as the speaker imagines-rather, the universe appears indifferent and unconcerned with the affairs of man.

 

Langston Hughes’s “In Explanation of Our Times”

langston hughes

In Explanation of Our Times

By Langston Hughes

The folks with no titles in front of their names

all over the world

are raring up and talking back

to the folks called Mister.

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?

No, son, not everybody.

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister.

In China before what happened

They had no intention of calling coolies Mister.

Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong

the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister.

They call them, Hey George!

Here, Sallie!

Listen, Coolie!

Hurry up, Boy!

And things like that.

George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired sometimes.

So all over the world today

folks with not even Mister in front of their names

are raring up and talking back

to those called Mister.

From Harlem past Hong Kong talking back.

Shut up, says Gerald L.K. Smith.

Shut up, says the Governor of South Carolina.

Shut up, says the Governor of Singapore.

Shut up, says Strydom.

Hell no shut up! say the people

with no titles in front of their names.

Hell no! It’s time to talk back now!

History says it’s time,

And the radio, too, foggy with propaganda

that says a mouthful

and don’t mean half it says–

but is true anyhow:

LIBERTY!

FREEDOM!

DEMOCRACY!

True anyhow no matter how many

Liars use those words.

The people with no titles in front of their names

hear these words and shout them back

at the Misters, Lords, Generals, Viceroys,

Governors of South Carolina, Gerald L. K. Strydoms.

Shut up, people!

Shut up! Shut up!

Shut up, George!

Shut up, Sallie!

Shut up, Coolie!

Shut up, Indian!

Shut up, Boy!

George Sallie Coolie Indian Boy

black brown yellow bent down working

earning riches for the whole world

with no title in front of name

just man woman tired says:

No shut up!

Hell no shut up!

So naturally, there’s trouble

in these our times

because of people with no titles

in front of their names.

Socrates once said “the misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”  Langston Hughes would agree that words have the power to denigrate and belittle, stigmatize and insult.  In his poem “In Explanation of Our Times,” Hughes reflects on language as an instrument of political power.  The poem opens with coming social revolution:

The folks with no titles in front of their names/all over the world/are raring up and talking back/to the folks called Mister” (Hughes 4).  

Right away, we see the world divided into 2 classes: the oppressor and oppressed, the folks with “no titles” and the folks called “Mister.”  

Though language is a discourse each of us participates in everyday, as a poet Hughes respects its power to shape and define our reality.  From the very beginning of the poem, society weaponizes language to define poor people of color as inferior.  The fact that the lower classes possess no “title” in front of their names immediately identifies them as less than; if a formal address like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” denotes esteem and status, the lack of such a title suggests the majority of people regard African Americans as second-class citizens.  Furthermore, the absence of an honorific or professional title implies people of color aren’t treated with the slightest civility or respect.  Generally, you address someone as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when they’re older or more experienced than you; the fact that African Americans aren’t addressed with such formality proves they are not only oppressed- they are disdained.  The clear split between the downtrodden and oppressed African American on the one hand and the tyrannical white oppressor “Mister” on the other hints at the severity of social division and foreshadows coming civic unrest.  Though disenfranchised and consigned to the most squalid urban ghettos, here African Americans aren’t passively tolerating their marginalization-they’re fighting against it.  But rather than fight physically through riots or protest, people of color are “talking back.”  So though language can be mobilized to subjugate and tyrannize communities, it can also be marshaled to remedy injustice and topple those in power.

 Interestingly, the simple, singular noun “Mister” refers more broadly to racism in general.  By personifying racism as a capitalized proper “Mister,” Hughes reveals the might of those in power.  Racism is not a single law or the isolated opinion of a few bigots-racism is an institutional practice sanctioned and supported by the government to disempower.  Thus, the personification of “Mister” proves the battle against racism will not be easily won.

In the next stanza, we suddenly shift to a direct 2nd person address when the speaker addresses the audience as “you”:

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?” (Hughes 5).  

By employing the 2nd person “you,” Hughes creates a sense of immediacy while he involves us directly in the action of the poem.  Who “you” is, however, depends on who’s reading his verse.  The anonymity of the 2nd person implies the majority of Americans believe “everybody is called Mister,” which suggests most of us haven’t experienced the racism relayed by the speaker.

Though, as an audience, we may be unaware of the hardships African Americans face, Hughes never takes a scolding, condescending tone toward our ignorance; instead, he positions us as mentees/students and the speaker as our guide/teacher:

No, son,” he answers in response to our question, “not everybody” (Hughes 6).  

Here, the affectionate, endearing “son” portrays the speaker-not as a ruthless crusader bent on punishing us for our ignorance-but as a sympathetic friend who simply wants to inform.  In the next few lines, Hughes explains that underprivileged people of color around the world are despised:

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister./ In China before what happened/ They had no intention of calling collies Mister./ Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong/ the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister” (Hughes 7-11).  

Much like the ambiguous “you” that shifts depending on who’s reading the poem, “they” is left with no clear antecedent- who “they” is remains open to argument.  By leaving the 1st person plural “they” without a referent, Hughes reinforces the idea that the perpetrators of racism are difficult to spot; the oppressor isn’t just 1 person or even 1 group of people- the oppressor is an entire establishment that exists around the world and is thus difficult to reform.  

In the following lines we see how, once again, those in power manipulate language to disempower African Americans and maintain the status quo:

They call them, Hey George!/ Here, Sallie!/ Listen, Coolie!/ Hurry up, Boy!” (Hughes 12-16).  

If names represent the heart of our identities, the fact that African Americans are only addressed by their first names and not by professional titles reveals their subordinate status in American culture.  Not only are African Americans refused the formality of Mr. and Mrs., but they are denied even the most basic courtesy and respect.  Bossy, aggressive words like “hey!”, “here!”, and “listen!” create a string of commands, positioning African Americans as obedient dogs and white Americans as their masters.  

Hughes admits that “George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired” from such mistreatment, which proves language can deeply wound and insult (Hughes 18).  Grammatically, “George Sallie Collie Boy” act as a singular subject separated by neither ands nor commas.  This lack of proper punctuation coupled with the presence of “gets”-a singular verb-has the effect of fusing George, Sallie, Collie and Boy together as if they were one person.  Why does Hughes do this?  An English teacher may look at this line and shriek in horror at the subject-verb disagreement but a good reader will realize such grammatical blunders were very much intentional.  By omitting the proper ands and commas and using a singular verb, Hughes depicts African Americans not as individuals but as a class of people, suggesting language has the capacity to dehumanize through stereotype.  

The racist classification of African Americans as “non-Misters” is what Socrates would call a “misuse of language” that arouses evil in the soul.  To use language to deprive other people of rights can only lead, Hughes shows, to chaos.  Angry and outraged as a result of their mistreatment, African Americans are left with no choice but to revolt.  And despite the unrelenting efforts to silence them (“shut up!” is repeated a staggering eleven times over the course of the poem), they refuse to be ignored (“No shut up!” the downtrodden cry, “Hell no shut up!”).  The last stanza confirms that a clash between classes is inevitable:

“So, naturally, there’s trouble/ in these our times/ because of people with no titles” (Hughes 59-62).  

Though refusing to call a black man “mister” may seem petty or insignificant, such subtle acts of racism have devastating effects over the long-term.  As the coordinating conjunction “so” demonstrates, the tension of Hughes’s time (and ours) is a direct result of the unfair oppression of a class of people.  Just as the Chinese had “no intention” of ever calling Coolies mister before the Coolies rose up against Chinese power, America-Hughes argues-won’t grant African Americans equal rights until tensions explode in revolution and upheaval.