The Idylls of Bluegrass
For as long ago now as the snow was first on the ground and the nights grew slowly behind it, I’ve been reading a collection of essays by Wendell Berry. What a happy chance I bought them that day last summer in the bookstore. I wouldn’t have either, I suspect, if serendipity had not made the exact pages so ready to fall, and me, so gently nudged by their soft proposal. By the delicacy of circumstance, I landed on an essay called ‘Standing by Words’ which crept up on me with the readiness of awe. We were soon of a piece, like a sort of finding and fitting together. I should say it was as much the beginning of that essay, while I stood in the stacks and read, as it was the photo of the author that decided me in that moment. A man in the low leaning of sundown, looking like someone who lived in the world as though he were not in it at all. There, on some planks of barnwood, he gave up a smile that seemed to promise me something; that seemed to say I am just a man.
“Maybe this will change things…will keep them the way they are”—I hadn’t a very good idea of what I was rebelling against. But I bought them all the same, those essays, right down the to the last one, thinking the world must be better for it.
It is an accident I could have never expected, the words of a Kentucky farmer reaching hundreds of miles from their birthplace to tug at me in the corner of a Toronto mall. I know it is childish to admit, but I do feel I have saved them somehow, those abandoned copies, maybe even days before they were taken off the shelf forever.
They now have what I believe is the lovely tenure of my care. They will be read—which cannot be said for most books. They will be cherished—which is rarely the fate of anything produced nowadays. And the messy leavings of my ink will transform their pages anew. The margins will sink and scrape as I press my notes into them, and they will wake with the dignity of having been studied in their old age. With that quick Spring of being touched and considered, they will finally learn to rest. And so what started as an act of charity, will end as a favor done entirely to me.
Every great artist is in possession of a great talent, and if he has the mind to apply it to a worthy end, he is in possession of a great truth.
Wendell is in possession of many great truths, whether he means it or not. Certain of his sentences leave behind plenty of these little indestructible nuggets. And what’s harder to imagine, they are almost more true because he has chosen to explore them; because he has placed them with the care of so many expert touches of style and life. In some unexplainable way, it is as though they would cease to exist altogether if they weren’t his.
What I am trying to get at, perhaps, is that I am bothered a great deal over these little grains I pick up here and there across my readings; dropping them precariously into my mind like so many beans piling up over the edge of a pot. All of anything I may ever know of myself is in relation to this pile, the lengths I’ve gone to preserve it, and the meticulous pickings and pluckings of its smallish features.
Until quite recently, I’ve dedicated much of myself to the ways of its upkeep and have sensed the adequacy of life through them. But I fear that I have gathered too much too quickly, for the final joy of reading has at last become its limit, and my pile has reached its natural end. Any additional weight now seems to push out a hundred more of all my favorite things, spilling off into oblivion or sending them to scoop and crack like dead mountains rising at my feet. Settling disastrously around me is the forgotten stuff of stories, of quaint learnings and lost happenings—the wastes of my own remembering.
Just before writing this, I finished a handsome essay on the idylls of Bluegrass and the narrow bottoms where Wendell has made an ample idea of life in the countryside; its unbroken woodlands, the vast pleasures of its landscape, and the deliberateness that it demands on a man and writer; a place that entered my imagination and gave its substance to me in a strange and new wonder, one that I will never fully close myself to.
I have done what I can to secure this in me, with a good deal of effort, and establish it as a pleasant fixture of my mind; to have it as a fact of me and draw on it as an amplitude in my life. But what happens when this story slips from me; when I forget the long-legged house and the silver sycamores, the bits of dead straw and the sucks and slurs of the river? And traveling a bit further on, what happens when I finally forget Wendell himself and all his essays, the day I found them at the store and the pleasing luck with which I bought them? What then shall I say was the meaning of it? On some distant day, I will look back on this long winter of reading as never having happened at all. Where then, in all these fussy movements of today, is my permanence?
I went to the house of philosophy to learn the secrets of life.
It was placed at the end of a long suburban lane, where hidden behind many curves and the coverage of little houses one could feel its dragging suspicion.
This was a strange world, one of lostness and old happenings, unlived in; only those persons staring out their windows, who had been forever. In size, it began with the lane where I stood and ended at the edge of the property where I went. Past this narrow length, together with the small, populated acreages that faced it, there was nothing, just a fast grey which spanned all direction.
I made my way down the winding lane. House dwellers protruded on the glass in a tight squeeze; their faces sectioned by the window sashes. They were compelled by this opening on the world, observing from where they stood no more dishonesty than what their small view told. With the great difficulty of their postures, they scrawled on paper something they saw.
It was a slow going. When I look, I have made an impersonating advance, and am back again at the start of the lane. Soon I remember I’ve been walking here forever.
The sounds of snow leaped around my feet, my eyes and ears were caught by the onslaught, and then I was already there, the yard of philosophy opening up in front of me.
Men in black suits are milling about the open ground. Their hands and feet show blue from years of frost. As they move, they whisper to themselves an archaic language; their pant sleeves are torn, and shirt cuffs a sweat yellow.
The yard is protected by a small iron gate that rises into the world as high as the waist, enforced on either side with a squat brick post, snow-ridden and worn by rot. On the front of the one post, there is a metal plaque:
Whosoever visits this place will come to know the secrets of life.
The other post also bears meaning:
Whosoever finds the secrets of life has not visited this place.
I push into the gate. It opens with the sounds of rousing rust.
Standing in the middle of the yard is the house, remote and indifferent. It is built from separate materials distinct and at odds, yet in a seeming togetherness. Stone patchwork and marble gather near the bottom, while growing up and out in irregular bulks are partial frames of wood or timber, taken over by cement blocks, large cubes of steel and glass, bulging at disordered angles.
Different sections of these different shapes are stacked piecemeal in one incongruent mass. Taken as a whole, it appears an inverted pyramid, tumorous. At the bottom, supporting the historic weight of the entire structure, is a slender door.
The men of the yard continue undisturbed, tracing illiterate circles in the snow. I advance to the door, and read a small sign above:
Only he who knows himself may enter.
In the center of the frame is a bronze knocker that seems a pyramid also. Clutching the object, I rap at the door.
From somewhere issues a voice. From inside the door, from among the bulging architectures, human or God, I am not sure of any of these.
To the plain question, I give a plain answer:
‘My name is S.’
The door remains shut.
Howling begins behind me. The men of the yard break into a contorted laughter. It is such a strong laughter they are gasping for air, knocking about in fits and starts. The howling is now clucking, as their legs jerk out in front, bend, then lock straight again under their shifting step.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to one of them, who is caught in this ridiculing movement. ‘Why do you laugh?’
He stops his ritual execution. Staring down at me, he dons an old face, full of scorn. A face like a flat, familiar memory, dyed by muteness.
‘Do you believe you are the first person to ever come here, expecting to make away with the house’s secrets?’
I look plainly at him.
‘Do you believe the house admits anyone who knocks? What wisdom permits you its entry?’
I turn to the posting above the door. But reading it again, and thinking it still only a sign, ‘none’, I tell him.
He erupts. The simple fashion is too much for him, for his illiterate circles in the snow.
‘The arrogance!’ he yells. ‘We have been seeking entrance to that door for a million years, studying and restudying, thinking and rethinking. To become worthy of the door, we must first become worthy of the sign.’
‘But surely, it is just a sign’, I proffer.
A boisterous laugh plumes out.
The men of the yard strip me of my clothes. I am bent in a kneeling pose, my upper half prostrated on the snowy floor. They form a choir around me, transformed into their young selves, singing a ancient melody:
The house loves us, it knows all,
Unable to walk, then do crawl.
If you cannot think, scrape and pray,
All our enlightenment goes this way.
Quick! Do not let it hear, be quiet as a mouse,
For we are just men, and it a house.
I look quietly at the children, here and there now returned to dancing men, until one by one they tear away once more into their lonely, circular pathing. When the archaic whispers resume, I am forgotten.
I stand and stride up to the house. When I gain the door, none of them notice, that with one gentle press of my hand, it opens inward, as though never having been shut at all.
I walk in freely, with a million years of archaic whispers falling at my back.
The Illness in ‘Mental Illness’
‘What help can it do thee then to have sincere love, what does all disinterestedness help?—thou art not merely deceived—then indeed there might be some help for it—but thou desirest to be deceived!’
I am choosing to comment on an issue I care very much about, that for its emergent extremism I cannot go on agreeing with, divided as I am from what I feel is the acutely singular state of public opinion.
As I cannot speak of all things together, I will restrict myself on a particular point of the issue, hoping it will serve as symbol to the larger trouble of Progressivism. I will put down with great care some threads of thinking I hope may disturb the question just enough to renew how we attempt to access it.
Mental Health—the social movement, the political force, the concern for illness swept up into demonstration and outrage—has occupied a considerable portion of the cultural push of the last twenty years. Together with political correctness, cancel culture and other prominent ostracism programs, Mental Health advocacy has partaken of the methods of their rise, keen to adopt a highly specialized and restrictive language that will not bear scrutiny wheresoever it goes. A language engaged in a propaganda of good will, it has increased itself by a virtuous showmanship for the mentally ill that relies on self-flattering oversimplifications and an overstating of the social issue when it describes its critical aspects. To me, the purpose of such a language is to serve nowhere the needs of the sick, but instead the continued prioritization of Mental Health as political life and program.
The promotion of Mental Heath props itself up on the high tones of protecting the weak, on the blandishments of tolerance and progressivism, demanding wherever it asserts itself an unquestioning confidence in the goodness of its cause and the infallibility of its actions. What results is a sort of absolutism not unlike a New Faith, that is totalitarian in impulse and seeks to reduce the machinery of human communication to a single discipline. Adopting its language and teachings, it is this absolutism that keeps us trapped in a behavioral rhetoric to its errors and falsehoods, obscuring social change as that force ever needing to happen, and popularizing the average human as being more and more insufficient for the evil incidental to his existence.
Psychological safety, safe space, micro aggression, trauma, all of these belonging to the new terminology of Mental Health make it easy to understand how the movement co-opts language in service to an imaginary threat, inventing terms whose element is conflict. None of these can be entered into without an unusual sensing of their implications: ‘safe’ in relation to danger, ‘aggression’ in relation to violence, ‘trauma’ to injury. The terms alone are inert, as all words must seem to be in isolation, but when poured into the language of daily life, and so becoming more and more our favorite descriptions, they surrender us to these associations. As a result, is set up the falsehood of a ubiquitous enemy, one that lives in the everyday speech of ordinary people, that lingers everywhere among us, supposedly oppressing human equity and the advancement of the sick—by the mere act of speaking this dialect, we insinuate ourselves in the proof of its existence. And after all, what does this Enemy serve to tell us besides that we are in fact the enemy; charged, as we are, with the offensiveness of our words; guilty of the ignorance in our views; inflicting at once an injustice upon the public good by our basic right to liberty within it.
For as long as these terms continue to caution public speech against its inherent ‘unsafety’ and cast open discourse in the verbiage of physical harm—to accuse violence in the opinion and the spoken word—they will remain nothing more than mere euphemisms for unfree thought.
The political benefit of imposing such a vocabulary is self-evident: it is in the inability of people to express themselves, to hem the explanations of a complicated world in to a single order—and not coincidently, to disarm us of the criticisms for the authority who enforces it. Mental Health has created a language that applies strictly to itself, and hence explains its own truth; leaving us clueless as how to escape it. If you charge your peers with aggression when they speak; if you accuse unsafety in an idea, or claim trauma where arguably there is none, you are applying to the favor of a political power that would just as quickly turn you out if so convenienced. What is most disastrous about this, however, is the presumption of an original sin that has become so recently the price of its membership. For many equitable and prosperous middle-class Americans, their entry into Mental Health begins with the conscious act of self-disavowal; a sacrificial pledge and masochism for their inherent evil, one they accept on their way down to the Eucharist of Progressivism. It is a despicable reproof of the self, and a long dogma that organizes its wickedness into the shapes of ‘privilege’, shame, and willing deprecation.
Thus have we prepared the prominence of Mental Health, through the means of threat and specialized idiolects that together can only be for creating a single rule of thought. And the enforcing of this official thought has reduced us into the personas of each other’s neighbor, yet secretly we lay in wait as mutual informants, ready for some betrayal to arise so we might sound the alarm, eager to out our brothers and sisters as enemies. With the sword at large above our heads, we have brought public life to a shallow pretense of cooperation and community; stood it up as a force against itself, so it may devour the sources of its own freedom and true progress—we have torn down the only real protections of the democratic citizen: the right to dissent, and the right to offend.
Let me dispense with a most obvious show of understanding: mental illness is a real and terrible affliction, deserving of our sincerest concern and respect. Indeed, there is not a single person who would claim to be unaffected by it in some way. And wherever that person takes care to study the present ethic, if he is honest with himself, he will be unable to say that it does not already offer a great deal of sympathy and effort in this direction. Yet listening to the warnings of Mental Health, it would appear there is a chronic urgency to fight back a shadowy presence run through all of modern life: not the one of mental illness itself, but that of a deep prejudice towards it—intact in our communities, hiding ominously in our everyday conversations, exposed in the organizing of our politics and institutions, cast deep in the bias of our collective unconscious.
What gives this the scent of propaganda is that the condition of persecution it describes has somehow persisted in spite of the advances from daily life to afford special considerations of speech and action—often at the expense and worry of regular public functioning. Confusingly then, the danger of this persecution has carried through an upscaling of resources for every conceivable provision of mental health care, the upturn in dread of offending someone that chokes our everyday dealings, and the unending campaign of tolerance infused into the substance of our social intercourse.
This denial of the facts, and their disproportionate outrage, is the falsification of a crisis, one that has been carefully inducted into the popular belief by a propagandizing of our mental pictures and a relentless redefining of our most important linguistic ideas, among them, ‘illness’ and ‘stigma’. However, it must stand to see for anyone who is not looking for the fifth foot on the cat, that there is by and large no stigma operating in the progressive world on mental illness, and that by what we consider today as illness—surely more damaging for it being so unobvious to us—we have irreparably diluted the meaning of the word.
For if I’ve said that anyone who looks at his surroundings will find in them a place of honest sympathy, I have failed to mention what he will not find. That is, any larger conversation about how we measure the legitimacy of mental illness in a culture where it is over diagnosed; the failure of the multitude to persevere in the banality of unhappiness; or the effects of infantilizing men and woman in the power over their own minds by pathologizing sadness.
I am speaking strictly of depression here when I say I am not convinced of what it typically represents today as illness.
Never do we wonder at ourselves anymore in the feeling of our depression. ‘Is it within me to preserve my own strength of mind?’, is an insult never ventured, for as we now know it, the discontentment with life and all its petty dissatisfactions are an entirely irrational delinquency of the mind, outside our excuse and incident; a ‘chemical imbalance’ we’ve come to prefer to call it.
Convinced that we are independent of our own sadness, do we unwittingly fasten our own chains. Sloughing off all personal accountability for happiness onto the unfairness of life, onto the brittleness of the mind, onto the time when mother slapped our naked behind, we have come to develop an unreasonable high-mindedness about these menaces as being more significant than they are.
Naturally, the average person suffering from an average melancholy we’ve called ‘illness’ will believe something else is always at the center of his sadness, just as a victim comes to think of his oppressor. Except what victimizes him in this case is any minutiae of discomfort he has ever felt, any pain he has ever had to endure, any bitter crust of life he’s been made to chew. And so, as he grows older, he will forever be facing backwards, looking to find the exact location in his memory where he can deposit some of his grief—on his circumstances, on his bad luck, on the metaphysical cruelty of existence, until the whole world shares in some of his scorn. What he does not yet know is that it is vanity to think he suffers mightily when he does not; to feel pain where arguably there is little; to romance with his grief in the vision of himself as a helpless soul. And more people need the glancing edge of that truth.
When we call a healthful and productive woe an ‘illness’, we pretend that the natural state of existence is not already a deep incurable sadness. Or, in a different version of the same story, what is answerable to our sorrows today, it seems, is never the devastation of a life poorly spent, of efforts we do not recognize and the drudging through a lifetime we wait to retire from—nor the cheerlessness of death against all our hard-ridden strivings. It is not the lack of intention we have applied to our lives, the meaningless pastimes that fill our days, and all those failed attempts to cultivate our passions. Nowhere is it that restless fate to be always paying the yield of our labors over to someone else, and never, after all, with enough energy to return some over to ourselves. None of these would seem to figure in the persisting sadness of depression; for to say it would be an indictment of our choices and cause for a much truer sadness, that one of regret.
As a popular phrase, the ‘stigma’ of Mental Health is in circulation as a false usage. Measured to any meaningful degree, there is no collective disdain for the mentally ill; neither disgrace nor disapproval is present in our recognition of them. A general confusion and discomfort with them, perhaps; provoked by an unpleasantness in the imagining of such a mental state, or the difficulty in coordinating their immediacy into public systems and civic life—though this is exactly what is being done. When we think on the state of things, on the regular comings and goings of our social intercourses, the messaging that crowds our airwaves and the images that fill our screens, how could we ever mean such a thing by ‘stigmatization’? Only by working in the confusions of an unconscious bias—for which we must take it on faith—active somewhere in the implicit meanings of our habits, of our class, of our skin and race, does Mental Health construct this worry. It has reached such a point that we can no longer be assured in our actual treatment of the mentally ill but we first must confirm it in the prevailing ideologies of Tolerance and Privilege.
A stigma may be a grotesquery, but only that kind that goes openly in public. You can only purchase so much room for a theory of ‘systemic stigma’ by presuming on the private sense of individual feelings. Entering into the unconscious of free individuals, to accuse them in their personhood of beliefs they do not hold and treatments they do not commit, is the beginning of a prejudice itself; of a tyranny that does not recognize the public as separate from the private, of action distinguishable from thought, that ever seeks to prevail over both. It seems never enough that we behave with decency towards the mentally ill and work towards their enfranchisement, we must further feel and think and proselytize in strict accordance to the official lines of Mental Health.
To my way of thinking, this is the chief weakness of Mental Health—that it exchanges the undertaking of legitimate illness for the pursuits of false virtue and false punishment; that it is aware of nothing but appearances, of consequence, of allegiance. Its project is the opposition to honest work when it reduces an entire social vision to one expellable label or another; it unworriedly turns us over to our hypocrisy.
By attempting to preside over a great need, Mental Health creates more harm than it preaches to resolve, because it fails to speak critically about the hard truths of mental illness. Some of the most poignant being the finality in the condition of those who are truly sick, and the somewhat inevitableness in the faulty design of the human being—truths that for all our self-deceiving will never make us equal to the sick, in society or otherwise; not in the extreme difficulty of their existence; not in the particular suffering of their circumstance; not especially in the capability to effect the course of their lives. Glossing over the disadvantages of the mentally ill as that superficiality in another’s privilege or intolerance, is to impose a style and hollow fashion of blame that is no more truthful than it is helpful. Mental Health seizes upon the unsettling facts of life in order to surrender us to the unfairness we feel we have gained over them, so that in the end it may cow us into righteous servitude.
What the mentally ill need is a fair shake at the problem—not the one of stigmatization, but of the little value modern medicine, as it currently stands, has in healing them. No amount of public goodness will change this, and it is doubtful whether it will facilitate their expediency into society anymore than it already has. What we most loathe to do, and what Mental Illness allows us to escape from, is the solemn and painful expense of bearing the tragedy, in all its pointlessness and cruelty; we cannot withstand it as a truth that we do not right away expel it from our hearts as blame on another or imagine in our guilt that we suffer the similar. Illness—it is time we gave back the word wherever we can. We owe it as a right to ourselves, and a justice to the ill, that we use first the good fortitude of our minds where theirs can only faulter, and to remove from our speech the terminology of Mental Health, which acts as so many shibboleths in disguise, to break us up, to vilify us, to fragment the core of civil life.
Religion makes morally good people say and do wicked things
Whenever the religious require of their beliefs as a ground, they will almost always divide out a sort of private spirituality from the official instance of Religion, which much unlike anything private, is a bodied and unabstracted organization of faith.
Faith-based apologists of this kind tend to use religion in a way very similar to a cabinet of curiosities: at random, as an empty fashion for delight and surprise, and with an emphasis that it is a place to recur whenever the dreary facts of life and death need a cheery lift.
Naturally for them, it is harder to defend an institution than it is a carefree and unassertive spiritualty, which acting as a conceit is more like a gentling comfort than anything which recalls a religion. Straight away, then, there is a benefit to whoever avoids the taint of institutional faith, brought upon by its own oppressive histories and archaic principles that seem unconscionable to the modern mind—one is reminded here of genital mutilation, the proscription of contraception among the poor and diseased, and not least of all, the tortious self-abnegation and rending guilt that are its primary mainstays.
And yet, somewhat incidentally, it is still to these religious organizations that people refer in their pseudo mystical colorings of private faith; and more, it is at least to one that they are answerable altogether for the premise of their religious notions. Particularly those of God and Heaven – two possibilities that are unsurprisingly never foregone in all the various styles of private faith. Possibilities, of course, that account for the fear of belonging to one’s own authority, and the fear of death.
To my thinking, there is something rather important in this tendency to disassociate from the institution of faith by personalizing what are somehow its most agreeable parts. Fastening aspects of them together nut and bolt, one is left with a most pleasant construction, though never quite unlike the original, even if indefinite and arbitrary. And what is obvious to the irreligious observer, is that this preferred spiritual alternative is prepared more so by the ever-advancing scrutiny of secular norms, than by any purposive and deliberate religious reasoning.
However, what spiritualism does not consider, is that there is an indissoluble connection between the ideas of the Church—which it likes to borrow—and the doctrine of the Church—which is conveniently left behind, together with its functions, its officialdom, its rites and sacraments. It is not so easy as the proponents of this movement may hope to abstract out the one from the other: God from the Trinity, Christ from the Great Commission, Heaven from baptism and Redemption from scorched flesh. This is because the order in which these things find their place is according to their mutual influence and heritage—their legitimacy and power are gained in cooperation with each other and are only ever fully explained by their interaction; not, by any inherent quality or unique existence of these causes on their own. God grows out of religion, just as religion itself is an enactment of God. To separate them haphazardly is a sort of insistence by spiritualists that it is possible to have an instant Holy Truth without consideration of what in actuality that is, where it comes from, or what forms of legitimacy attain its basis.
All religions may be equally false or equally true, that is not entirely the point; whichever, their beliefs are meaningful in so far as they are a source and emblem to their entirety, the individual parts which bear the whole. We would say the same of art or history, for instance, that they are reliant, as we recognize them, on the mechanisms of narrative and context. To extract out this or that for its own sake (God, Heaven, the Good Works, Eternity) when it has been conceived and substantiated by further concepts which each instruct the other, is no more illuminating than revealing the plains of the Savannah in a captive lion or extrapolating the Napoleonic Code from the Battle of Waterloo.
Nonetheless, we can count them together for now, public and private religion, as they are more or less the same in my judgment that either will produce inordinate evils of honest and ordinary people.
It is remarkably easy to commit all manner of acts when you believe God is on your side.
The subtlety is not that irreligious men and woman are without excuse for evil, that is to say, there are other substitutes for human wickedness when religion is absent—though the bare fact of this does nothing to redeem religion—rather, that the causes of faith-based violence are their own, themselves structural elements of belief that spring directly from divine permission; forces that could only ever be furnished by the self-abandon and moral superiority readied in someone who thinks himself the embodiment of holy law. A deranged and unwell man may practice a formidable cruelty upon the world—one for which irreligion could not cause nor religion prevent—but only religious certainty can make educated and prosperous ‘freedom fighters’ pray over concubines of seven-year-old Yazidi girls before raping and sodomizing them in the name of grace and God.
That is public religion, and to go further with the demonstration is an exercise of little value—the full extent of cruelty and barbarism it inspires, the insipid prejudice it cultivates, and the continuously fractured sects and offshoots it breads are all easily knowable to anyone who is interested, and so, beneath enumeration here.
The religion of a private kind, the one I have called Spiritualism, is perhaps more relevant, as the spiritual moderates which Secularism has produced over its long campaign do not see themselves as identifying any longer with these institutions of religion; institutions that are the de facto origin of their faith, wherefore they may still carry the same germs of passion and infallibility born of the very essence of belief.
Faith impairs the most basic moral functions. This poisoning of conscience among the faithful is apparent in the attitudes they exhibit towards their fellow man and the world alike.
The mark of someone who lives naturally by unencumbered principles, when witnessing the atrocities of the world or the suffering of those who inhabit it, is that he bears them by a great expense—the difficulty not so much in learning to justify them as in holding them for a time with a pain he feels is owed of himself. This inborn human need to recognize and incur the injustices of the world—to not let them pass entirely in vain—is what constitutes a basic moral sense. Yet, the faithful will suffer mankind’s misery less nearly, never long to cast it out of hand with divine ordinance, to explain it away through faith, and what is worse, lend it an air of righteous happening as that of God’s will. They will look on the dying, the sick, and the immiserated with a pious concern, their sense of righteous deliverance fully upon them, comforted and expecting to comfort the same, by what they see as the stamp of some Holy Order; they will cast down a beaming smile and say, ‘have faith.’ Even if this is only ever done inwardly—which it is not—whenever such a person calls on their faith in these circumstances, they dull the glancing edge of their due sympathy. To tell ourselves in a gesture of self-soothing that the responsibility and the debt of suffering lies elsewhere, somewhere in a holy and eternal place, that it is, in a sense, not ours, is to ascend at once the utter heights of complete indifference.
If we have alighted on a murmur of indifference in the mouths of the faithful, then we have not yet heard their full canto of apathy: Vicarious Redemption. The idea that forgiveness is with God, instead of the victims of harm themselves.
I cannot imagine anyone with even the most rudimentary sense of right and wrong to adopt such an egregiously unfeeling and obviously cruel detachment towards his fellow human. Someone who in carrying out an injustice, takes his forgiveness in the half-mutterings of a prayer and the self-flattering praise of the Lord. The barbarity of it speaks more for itself than ever anyone could; that we should be let to unburden ourselves of the rightful afflictions of a guilty conscience without amends to those we have brutalized—for they will receive the grace of God on their own terms. It is such a belief to instruct us away from our pre-existing and better sense that knows the subject of cruelty is our fellow man, who we have made pitiful and wretched, and for whose forgiveness we cannot seek beyond the measure of ourselves and this life. What it replaces with a human accountability for actions that cannot always be relieved is the need to put to rights a grievance perceived by a petulant and spiteful deity.
The belief in Vicarious Redemption among the spiritualists is not always spelled out so formally, again taking the concepts they like covertly, in unofficial terms, you can find it in the ghastly entreating, ‘ask God for forgiveness’, or ‘God loves everyone who tries to be a good.’
The intimate extension of all this is that faith causes any employment with the present and very real urgencies of this world to be exchanged in favour of its fatalistic enthusiasm for the afterlife. ‘Take no care for the morrow’, is the slogan of its eschatological drooling.
What degree of terrestrial preoccupation can be expected from someone who believes the ultimate manifestation of the human is not of this life; is not of the body but the soul? Again, it is not as simple as might be argued to care for both the human and spiritual realms together. In the truest sense, it is an either-or; a belief in the one that negates the importance of the other. If heaven is taken to be the literal result of death, then by the fact itself, it renders inconsequential the incident and moment of human life. To want there to be an otherworld, to wish it so, and most definitely when fervently believed to preach it to small and ignorant minds, is to profess the ultimate aim of life in death. Regardless if in this way dying is not outwardly celebrated, or if life is taught as a supreme value, and all of it fits together in a cuddly sentimentality whose only real purpose is to support us at our end; still, for all the seeming innocence of it, it impoverishes the beauty and sadness of a transient life, while encouraging us to hope for something else, to look and dream in the arms of oblivion.
I see very little way around this, only the dishonest and reprehensible claims from spiritualists to deny this is what their beliefs suggest and that in the subtle prejudices that become attitudes, and the attitudes that become behaviours, they are unpossessed of a nihilistic cause.
A First Hunt
When I step into the house it will be his great relief, as a night of certain wondering now falls away at the door. ‘Will he forget?’, ‘Did he oversleep?’, these worries, startling away, will be as though they never were. The day ahead has settled into a certainty, and he can send them off into the lifting shadows to return the next time a hunt is on.
At ninety-three, a hunt is no small thing. I know this because I feel the weight of those years dragging over me, heavy in the responsibility that for a day they are mine. He will do more living this morning than he has in the past three odd months since we last went. To a grandson towards his grandfather, there is a wordless joy in these small acts of friendship—one that comes aware of its most ancient bond. There is also a terrible guilt. Guilt that I should meet this man at a time so opposite in our lives, a moment arrived at through the long elaboration of his life, whose end is now stood with my beginning, separated as across a hairbreadth I wish to dissolve. But always unable, and so with some concealed pain, I must settle for the consolation of smaller sympathies.
I enter the kitchen to a table set with coffee and breakfast cake. It is a table I know very well; one I’ve eaten at from a boy. He is sat at the head, bent and shirtless. His wife, who is my grandmother, is standing and rubbing his shoulders. She performs this with a considerable misery, though never with a scruple in her predicates of marriage that tell her this is a woman’s rightful work.
Whenever I see her over this chore, I am brought to the joyless thought that a woman’s true beauty lies in idle hands. I sense she already knows this, as every now and then, at the comings and goings of that small house, she will snatch them away under a scrubbing cloth or behind her tall apron. They are hands that have learned their ugliness, worn and knotted by the hard wheel of the world. What does it say that I have descended directly from them; from flesh soaked in brine and slowly cracked by the salted crumb and white brittle of the cheese factory? Still, when I catch something embarrassed in her long look, I wish to tell her at once that I am the world’s proudest grandson. Always, I am unable.
As I make a more pronounced entrance, she is the first to react. It is the sensation of old age that is always waiting in one way or another for the arrival of youth.
She grabs and hugs me with deep motherly feeling. Talking to me as she does now, I am struck dumb by a need for language. It is at this time when I wish I knew even the least Italian.
A cheerfulness has erupted in the room. I let out a meaning laughter so they might know the happiness is ours together; hoping I am something of a model for the comforts of great age.
“Ow you’a keepi?" she says, smiling up at me. It is a historical voice, the strong will of old Naples grafted onto a bewildering modern-day English.
My grandfather uprights himself and wraps around the table with an agility that is not his. He could not have been that skinny either.
Slow to what has happened, he breaks out into a yell which is loud by the degree he is partially deaf. He carries on in broken English, ‘Look’hu com’i!’.
I know they are his words, but he is speaking with grandma’s voice.
I kiss his cheeks, clean and neat. Smelling of aftershave, he has prepared for the dignity of this occasion with his own sweetly ceremonies. Once a military man of decided habits, he is now wearing army dress.
I am searching within a likeness that does not make vivid any detail. It is a face like a flat, familiar memory, dyed by muteness.
But after all, it is not so much his face that matters. He could just as easily have been returned to a child, and me, holding him in my arms. It is the life that from out behind him forces me to consider – asking in its way for us to know each other again.
Delicate fragments from our past pleat up between us and wonder what I intend to do with them when I die.
My grandfather has on his beige hunting vest with camo hat and crisp blue jeans, and yet he must know we can never go back to those wind-bent fields.
A torrent of his most enlarged Italian breaks upon me, and I can understand it all – as I always have, in the clues of a flourish or tiny gesture; in the dropping in of an English word, or the native sense of his story-teller’s tone. He says a lot to me, but with the same something of a sorrowing feeling that we are all soon the scattered grain of a ruined remembrance.
A gun is presently taken from out the closet. It is his hunting Baretta.
The light over the table begins to dim and the corners of the room let in a darkness. My grandparents are standing in the frame of the kitchen. Like the vapors of a silver dew caught by sunrise, they are gone.
The barrel is cold as I position it against the wall. A young voice rouses me:
‘Who’s is that?’
It’s my grandson, amazed at the gun almost as tall as he. We are heading out for our first hunt.
On the whole, I am too afraid of it, writing. Afraid that what I will find is not enough, after I have worked to make something that finally achieves.
Two years ago, I submitted the first real piece of writing I ever set myself to, one which I thought of as something I was writing as writing – a first attempt of sorts at a beginning.
The feedback was to be expected, and when reading through it again, even slightly more generous than maybe I deserved. Cam, the literary coach who reviewed it was probably in for the shock of his career – combining a very touchy subject, cancer, with an amateurish ability, I’m sure made for quite an awkward reading. Intent, clear and loud, though trying, and by those means maybe overreaching.
He was under no obligation, at least I trust, to say I had potential, that ‘after reading this, I am convinced that you have talent’ – though of course not without its many faults, and certainly far from being publishable.
It was a kind consolation, for as much as I had no delusions about my young skills, one still goes into such things looking at the night, or the back of his favorite book, where the bio of his favorite author is, thinking, ‘what if? What if I am great?’ Nonetheless, it was enough.
I could depart from my long time on land with that sign. It was just precisely the little send-off I needed to push into the water. And writing really is a sea—an ominous force, where the will is just that little thing barely afloat. It does not decide its course or share any real control over its path; it is at all times too invested in keeping the surface.
In Cam’s report, he was nice enough to include many different resources to look into for my sake, to help improve the lyric essay I submitted, and probably too for my general craft. One of which was a short video entitled The Gap. It was simple, almost quaint, like the whole of the best art scene today. It was about the long distance between artistic taste and talent.
With all the little touches of modern videography—soft voice, unthreatening sequences of paper letters and nature landscapes—it was almost laughable when I first saw it. I suppose I didn’t want to understand the conflict at the heart of the video. I never believed it would be mine. Afterall, it was my first ever submitted work, and already I was being lavished with the laurel of ‘talented.’
I need that video now, quite a bit more than I could have ever thought. I guess I’ve softened from when I used to think that the video, and whoever counted on it, were pathetic: wanting the glory, but also wanting sympathy for their struggle.
For a while I did fine without it and what I felt was its oversentimentality, making gradual strides in my writing on my own. Improvement, I know it now, is a trivial process from the bottom of a beginning, almost anywhere there is gain. The use of a new word, a stolen phrase to borrow some elevation, a counterfeit style that is not your own. There is no responsibility yet for having these things sorted out. But then, one day, after a year or so on this path, the truth barrels down from out of an unsuspecting stasis, that the movement has stopped.
Impossible! I’ve read every day for the last 370 days, scribbling notes, glossing over pages, circling words, underlining, both straight and squiggly—don’t you know I’ve read Henry James?! How can none of it show for? And then it came back, like a bolt from the past hurtling right up into the present, The Gap.
The little message contained in that video for crossing the gap between taste and talent, is hard work. It is so simple; in the way a platitude is. But for all aspiring writers, abandoned to their lack of native talent, what else is there? To traverse the gap, a bridge must be built on the piles and stacks of failed attempts.
I’ve spent many earnest eves locked in my study to that end. For this is the only real gift I can offer myself: my labour. When I’m as sure as dead, I am writing. When I’m tired from life, I am writing. When I hate myself, I am writing. In the deep of my thoughts, I draw out my plans, prints for new developments, vain schemes to my ascension, dwelling on each nut and bolt, but never absent to the matter itself, building them.
If I must have one, then this is that small gift. I am glad to trust, within a low certainty, the first part of the formula: that I am properly planted in my artistic taste. I trust I know what I want my writing to be, what it ought to look and sound like. Talent is what’s left, far off and long out of vision. Only execution can carry me onto its eventual shores, and for this I rely on my little gift—I just hope there are enough days in a lifetime.
There is a sign in my apartment above the small desk where I write, it says: ‘Remember Death.’
I usually don’t go in for such displays—be quiet in life to be loud in your writing and all that. It just happened to be the site where I could pick up the reminder if ever my eyes fell to musing.
The water closed. Soon, the firmness of the door would open: from its breadth she’ll emerge in a pall of steam.
Distraction is to court death, or so I feel in my own way. I am glad of its punishment, like a quick prick for the lazy effort; wherever interruption goes, there is death’s restorative, waiting.
‘What are you having?’ she asks for all her nakedness, calling me from the tinkling of cubes and frosted glass. Somewhere, liquid beads are dripping on the floor.
Pythagoras kept an iron chair in his study, to sit on those spikes whenever a visitor would come in to talk. It was a guard against lapse, a conquering of these acts called trivialities, that lead us on to the devastation of our waste and make the earth bear no sweetness.
‘What are you working on? Is it big and serious?’ she chuckles from out Circe’s lips.
I have no spikes on my chair—I have a pillow, that keeps me off the hardness. I know the thickly flowering of my one-day labors are surrendered to these tiniest luxuries.
She ties me up with an arm. Her body still warm from the shower, the drink perspires on my neck. With a bounce, she’s wedged between my legs.
About sitting, Hemingway assures us it is the easiest part of writing: all one needs to do is bleed. But I’ve sat in many chairs, for many long whiles, and can say with confidence that this is a stinking boast. How he shoots his mouth off, someone so tended by talent, with the world singing in his ear. What scorn for us too afraid of the open-jawed gun, who force a thousand spikes for the smallest bleeding.
With the claw of a Sphinx, she presses the poison to my lips—I cannot answer her ancient riddle. Floating ice, like crystal rocks, bathe in the blood-red abyss.
And to make matters worse, he is only one among many. How Mrs. Dalloway mocks us with her author’s pockets full of stones.
I thank her with my eyes, coaxing her off my lap, but the rejection is just a needle already stuck in my loins.
Then there is life, the foremost thief of all. To embrace it is to have it as a friend, always like an unambiguous, white-mouthed laughing. But I know its tricks well, its soothing and its delay. It calls into its woolly thaw, there to pass away an hour in the grips of quiet mellowing.
In the frame of the bedroom, I see her curved form toying with the dresser. She finds my demise in one loose shirt, sliding over her shoulders. The rest of her, unadorned.
Living is measured with the weight of idle pages; those days alive which repay their sunshine in the blank of unwritten words. And soon, maybe even too soon, their end is not the bouquet on the sealed casket, but the balling bud locked inside.
I doubt she understands me when I say this, but she bears it sweetly in a curious winkle. Somewhere knowing it to be the exaggerated flint of my dissapointment, she locates it in my helplessness.
She insinuates herself along the couch, with the fluorescence falling on her lonely scene—I can do nothing but relent. Plucky beliefs pop like kernels, and workful passions leave their trawling for another day; tonight, she wraps us in borrowed time, my favorite of her winding-sheets.
Here, on this downy lap, she steals me over fleshy ideals, bringing tyranny to bear livelihood in her cheeks.
Sicut Erat in Principio
Leave it to a human to be taken in by his own favorable regard when discussing the importance of words—I suspect it makes us all rather loaded down to the boots with the weight of unearned distinctions.
We do tolerably well by the pleasure of this innocent egotism, coinciding ourselves where we can to independent ideas as their primary achievement. And it is by this impersonating trait that our prominence in the world has its rise: when a rose garden, beauty in horticulture; when a God, the bodily form; in the starry constellation, mythology; so with words, do we see nontrivially our ability to be affected by them.
It is not a little unadventurous to assert words as being independent of their human authors—even if only in part—since they originate from us after all, and only encounter any literal meaning by our use of them. Still, I will not pretend to put on the knowledge of a linguist to make the case that words seem to imply meaning beyond themselves, capable as they are of communicating past their bald sign.
When we read, ‘I like being somebody’s punishment; it makes me feel needed,’ (~ I Never Promised you a Rose Garden) the words may shock and disgust us; else we might gather much sympathy in them, even relate in some troubled childhood memory, or travelling up the channels of our life find them hiding out somewhere in the present. And yet? Is this what they are best for, is that their main force? Do these words not show something other than how they would seem to strike us, or shape our lives the more – is there nothing to them except what we can translate in ourselves; a secret telling perhaps, framed by some extant and uncertain cloud?
Quite distinct from the feelings they evoke, the power of words lies in that foggy presence beneath the notice of the world, on the other side of what we can touch and feel, where is formed the infallible account of the way things are, of happenings real but unseen, that when turned into language renders up this airy semblance as such expression to approach the very truth itself.
The power of words is for the cutting into the surface of things, to dig deep and split wide the bitter crust of life, to heave thereupon that confessedly impregnable mass what has been treasured up all along. We should think ourselves rather miserable creatures if we believed words were here just for our tiny sake—though they affect us so, throwing some light on our regrettable movements over this clod of earth, and no sooner, sounding those buglike twitches into the thin air of the past.
Writing is altogether to try at the voicing of some inimitable truth. It is an approximation that culls the mismade word, patching where it can, and bit by bit, those unfinished blanks on the living canvas. This gladsome realization, when it is had, chases after representation in all its respects, for to come to something not unlike the Absolute it must grow or shrink in that proportion demanded by perfection’s technique.
It is this thrilling after truth, to wrap one’s ephemeral hands around the neck of a shadow, though he seizes it in the passages of a fiction, or in the distances of his own retelling, that is the possibility which informs the writer’s instinct, his struggle and his eventual talent.
As writers, we are never content with good enough. Complacent does not figure in our consideration, nor are we likely to be counseled caution by a yearning for the mediocre phrase or the satisfied verse: we mean total excellence and know only that monomaniac cultivation. Only those concerns of inadequacy determine us, of aspect which does not yet have the signature touch, and in our invincible stare, does not yet become the exact mimicry of what we intend. Is this otherworldly ambition—this White Whale of a chase—the same humble, almost feeble, power of wanting to affect another?
The human being is already such a ticklish organism as it is, his emotions trivial – working his feelings up into a knot is not so difficult an accomplishment. And besides, what we feel does not say so great a thing about the world or ourselves; still bearing our species’ primordial wounds, we bleed and gush at innocuities, and take our lives over a bland fact.
Such is the vanity of our sentiment, that it would read an anthology or an ancient history, an essay or elegy, and find only itself lurking there like the petty metaphor it is. There is too much assumption of spirit and emphatic arrogance in setting out to influence people: for when it is for their good, it is too noble to trust, and when it is disguised for their ill, do they agree all too happily.
Emotion is the enemy of freedom, that enslaves us against our better reason and turns us loose on the limits of our passion, opening up upon that fragile ground our unconceding prejudice. To revenge upon the truth with our feeling of it is no smaller a telling than that vulgar germ found in the burning of books and censoring of thought – it is this importance placed on guarding and compelling sentiment that counterfeits as righteous cause the stamping out of another’s right to know and speak.
No, I dare say the strength of language is not in our feeling towards it, but rather, in our ability to remove the wildness from our feeling, to direct our thinking and being away from their proto beginnings. And it is only with those words perfectly captured, versified into their flawless vicinity, which bear nowhere chinks in their armor, that their meaning becomes undeniable to us. For anyone with a careful step, and a slight tending towards the light, there is no feeling strong enough to cloister out the glancing truth from those black swags of emotion.
Even in the tragic epos, those written to punish sweetly the sensibilities and work us up into quite a sobbing article, once we’ve drank every last word and finished with the chaliced affair, is there not somewhere in us a fulsome release, a final expulsion of our doom—a tension that at last grows slack with wisdom’s relief? Do we not then by the vernacular of beauty temper the feral in our most violent and frightened feeling?
Is there a power greater than this?
Do all Dogs go to Heaven?
1) How can you stand to love that which you are also meant to fear?
2) How does it feel to be forever infantilized by a celestial parent, who bothers with how you act, and on what days; who cares what you eat, and in which way; who distrusts everything about your free expression; who on the whole does not let you get on with the business of growing up?
3) To be born sick and commanded to be well again – why would you accept such a depraved vision of yourself?
4) Do you ever desire your full freedom – to be unobserved in your mind, to know yourself without intrusion?
5) How can you face the suffering of mankind only to stand on top of the rubble and declaim it ‘God’s plan’ – how can you bear the inhumanity of that utter indifference?
From someone who these days often finds himself defending religion more often than he does not; missing it more often than he does not; and looking for the elusive light which animates that something more than just the aimless, wandering atoms of the human soul.
Beginning from the back pews of the nave and up along its belly, a sequence ebbing turn by turn: families arose at the passing of a small procession there to escort the ornaments of the altar. The six boys of this tridentine rite, dressed according to the cinched cassock, were as cloaks of marching red and beige, and only ever flashes of black, that kicked up as rubber shoes under the drapery of their steps.
This small brigade walked slowly up the throat of the altar, never breaking the fidelity of their pace, nor daring to style their features less blank than those under the direct supervision of God. Two at the advance carried guttering candles out in front, beset by another pair with empty hands, and the whole of them lead by a tawny-haired youth pressing the communion cup firmly on his boyish chest. In their middle, taller than the rest from a year or two’s advantage, a white-faced bearer held the processional cross in sway.
Precariously atop that long wooden staff, a metal crucifix with the fleshy effigy of Christ protruding in the usual drama. However, something in the bounce of that Galilean Jew stood out as odd. Far from the normal lilt overhead a walking body, the son of God was in quite a vigorous stir, teetering now in front, now behind, bobbing a little too freely for what could be said the solemnity of the occasion. And this irreverent swaggering of Christ dragged along the poor acolyte in toe, sending him forward in dizzying step, then rocking him back slowly—it was easy for anyone to tell, the poor kid was going to pass out.
Such a reckless handle on the Messiah is not long unattended in a church, and soon the priest, not in sight of the scene directly, but catching the scent of nervous onlookers, turned to inspect the disruption.
Almost as though brought on by his notice, there was a final stumble as the boy speedily dropped into the milky white of the marble floor. He tried dutifully to save the cross in his stoop, shooting a scooping arm out from his side, but hit nothing except air. The long rod jumped upright on the ground, as though possessed with balance, and with its small hopping stride broke away from the flank of altar boys rushing to grab it. It tilted and twirled in front of the congregation, until there on the floor, with a stunning crash, did the head of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Right Hand to the Father, lop clean off! The blow sent this holy extremity lobbing into the air, twinkling with a metallic shimmer in the still light of noon, and reaching high into the room in a spectacular display of gymnastic ability.
Suddenly, with the reflexes of a practiced outfielder, did that Father the lesser spring into action to save the beheaded dignity of that Father the greater. Picking up the skirts of his cassock in one hand, the priest hurried to track the projectile in the open palm of the other, trained on this figurative and literal head of Christianity with all the athleticism his cloth-laden waddle could afford.
The Mass watched frozen in time, stunned with disbelief, trapped in the theatre of the moment. Never had they seen such an honest working of God’s will, nor could they have ever asked for a more dramatic proof – ready as they were to stand firm believers. But first, they needed the biblical catch, everything depended now on the coordination of one clerical geriatric.
Father John’s long-expired days on the baseball diamond came back to him in the expert shuffle of his backstep. Overtaken by those movements so intimately linked to his childhood, and now unlocking the memories stored in them, as the crucified head fell more surely into his hand, entirely by instinct did he call out, “mine!”.
As soon as he felt his intended object between his pudgy fingers, he closed them quickly with a seldom used dexterity. He was pacing backwards still from the momentum of the catch, smiling inwardly, imagining as he once did, the blurry pews of his vision as those of Fenway Park, and the shafts of light cutting across his face, the camera flashes of paparazzi.
He was only a step or two away from regaining his balance: if baseball stardom was not to be, by Jove he would be the hero of this lowly parish! Yet as what can only be described as divine intervention, something snagged his heel, jilting his last motion for proper footing. As he swung pendulously backwards, putting a free hand behind him to break his fall, the scales fell from his eyes, and all his dreams vanished before him... “But I am still the priest of this Church!”, recovering his nerve mid flight, “and I will not let this head come to disgrace!”. With his last reserve of strength, Father John flung that holy decapitation back across the atrium, towards the only person left standing from the calamity.
The small, tawny-haired boy had been left in a disoriented daze. The remainder of the alter servers were laying a damp cloth over the wounded effigy and administering the Last Rites as instructed in such circumstances. Not knowing what to do, well with this being his first day on the job, the little priestly aspirant closed his eyes and clenched the communion cup firmly in brace for impact: rebounding off the flat of his chest, the crowned head of Christ flew straight into that chalice of chips, sending a hundred shards of Eucharist across the floor.
The congregation, still arrested in place, wore their silence as acknowledgment of the divinity they’d just witnessed. Some mothers fainted, while fathers closer to the central nave took off their glasses to witness with unadulterated eyes. There was a universal hush, with all the prior excitement settling into calm at once—but only for a few solemn seconds. After which, seeing the Christly confectionery there on the floor, free for the taking, did the parish fly into a panic.
The churchgoers erupted in a violent tumult to get their hands on the Eucharist: they lashed at each other, hurdled over pews, climbed on top of shoulders, all in one uniform amassing around the stulted boy. Plunging to the ground they scrambled desperately to acquire one of the holy chips, to cement themselves forever as belonging to this bizarre miracle.
When the Bureau for Investigating Miracles and Other Holy Activity came days later, to rope off the scene and take lab samples, they set to work on assessing the alleged legitimacy of the holy event. There was Father John, lying cold and unmoved from where he made the catch. He’d passed quietly in the wild commotion on to the gates of St. Peter; having achieved inner peace, there was apotheosis squarely upon his face. The young altar boy, after an intense interrogation from the Bureau, realized he was unfit for this line of work, and went home with his parents to reconsider his career. The chalice was now officially deemed a holy relic and went back to Rome as an artifact to be stuffed somewhere in the secret archives. And lasty, of the parishioners who’d managed to eat the host, no one really knows; except later that night, when they were finally alone in their washrooms, did every one of them report to have taken the holiest shit of their lives.