Feeling “at home” through life-stories

In The Song of the Lark (1915), the second work in Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, Thea Kronberg departs from her childhood home in Moonstone, Colorado to pursue a vocation of music in Chicago, Illinois. Upon returning to Moostone for the summer, she realizes, painfully, that her home can never be “home” again because she has forever changed, as her old friend Dr. Archie observes: “She was goaded by desires, ambitions, revulsions that were dark to him. One thing he knew: the old highroad of life, worn safe and easy, hugging the sunny slopes, would scarcely hold her again.”

Going back to Chicago does not leave Thea any more at home in the world. She is lonely, fighting “[her] way through the angry waves, and to see how far, and how long [she] can make them carry [her],” as the lyrics say in a song that Thea sings from Edvard Grieg, Tak for Dit Råd. Fred Ottenburg, “an imaginative business man,” promises rescue from her loneliness. He arranges a gig for Thea to sing at the residence of the Nathanmeyers, a Jewish couple who appreciate fine music.

I am especially interested in how Mr. Nathanmeyer’s loving attention to Thea’s life-story enlivens her, so much so that she begins to feel “at home” because of his solicitude: 

He asked Thea where Moonstone was; how many inhabitants it had; what her father’s business was; from what part of Sweden her grandfather came; and whether she spoke Swedish as a child. He was interested to hear that her mother’s mother was still living, and that her grandfather had played the oboe. Thea felt at home standing there beside him; she felt that he was very wise, and that he some way took one’s life up and looked it over kindly, as if it were a story.

Cather gives us a brilliant description for at homeness: the feeling that comes from having our life taken up and looked over kindly, “as it were a story.” At homeness is neighborly and narrative rather than familial and geographical. We are not at home when our lives are decoupled from stories. Without a story, our life consists of disassociated characters and actions, lacking a theme or telos. With a story, our life assumes the shape of a plot, the artistic pattern formed by its parts, including exposition, complication, climax, and dénouement. That pattern may be hidden from us until there is a caring inquiry about our origins and development. That pattern is artistic because God, the Artist of human life, emplots our stories within his Story. How we tell our story, as any priest or therapist knows, is also how we experience our story, whether comic, tragic, or tragicomic. A life-story brings interest, integrity, and irreducibility to each human being. 

Why is it kind to look over a life “as it were a story”? If I ignore the life-story of a single individual, I am more likely to treat him as a problem to be solved, an obstacle to be removed, or a type to be catalogued. That will make me efficient, clinical, rude, and aloof. If, however, I imagine the life-story of a single individual and, even further, invite his storytelling, I am more likely to treat him as the Other — a fellow image-bearer of God, broken and blessed, messy and magnificent. That will make me humble, patient, and compassionate. The Golden Rule (“whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”) presupposes that we share our life-stories because every human being wishes for his story to be heard sympathetically, lest we feel like Thea did, steering our “boat into the din of roaring breakers.”  

Purgatorial prayer

As an Anglican who submits to the rejection of purgatory in Article 22 of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1562), I regard life here on earth as a kind of purgatory as we undergo trials of suffering and ascetic exercises for our purification. What Jason M. Baxter says about purgatorial prayer in A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy applies to how I pray now:

As Inferno is to tears, and Paradiso is to dance, Purgatorio is to prayer. Purgatorio is the canticle of prayer: souls argue about it (Purg. 6.28-48), practice it (Purg. 11), get better at it, beg for it (6.1-27). For those souls in hell, it is an impossibility (see Francesca’s comments in Inf. 5.91-93); for the souls in Purgatorio, their “only prayer . . . was what others pray” (Purg. 6.26).


[T]he architecture of purgatory and the spiritual disciplines to which the souls submit combine to create the conditions for prayerfulness. For Dante, prayer is the focal point of all these disciplinae because it is that precious state of longing in which the soul, convinced of its own lack of resources and frustrated with its cramped condition, opens up, addresses God as if he were close by, and dwells longingly in his presence. In this state of vulnerability and openness, souls establish a connection with God, and as long as they remain connected in this intense way, they undergo the transformative experience of being made into something like him. Prayer is the opposite of the tight grip of the souls in hell; it is the opening of the gates of the heart, an effort to allow God to come, cleanse, and dwell within. But it’s a war to keep the gates of the heart open, to keep open the channel for God’s love to flow into the heart; thus the exercises the souls must endure are designed to put them in a state of vulnerability so that they will continue to feel the need to open their hearts yet again. Being convinced of your own brokenness creates longing. Longing is what opens the heart, and openness is the requite condition for God’s transformative dwelling within: prayer.

Libertine freedom is slavery

“The luxury of unfettered agency coupled with the multiplication of options should be a formula for liberation,” writes James K. A. Smith says in his book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. But this libertine “freedom often slides back into its own form of slavery.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dante’s Inferno when the pilgrim encounters the Enemy who entices us with a false heroism, a “courage never to submit or yield,” as the apostate angel champions in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Jason M. Baxter writes about the self-defeating freedom of the libertine in A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy:

[W]e come to canto 35 and, at last, meet the great king of this realm: Satan. He who was once the fairest of all creatures is now reduced to this: having the wings of a bat, bloody saliva drooling from the mouths of his three repulsive heads, and his engaging in an absolutely futile attempt to escape. Scholars have pointed out that the three heads of different colors help us see Satan as a parody of the Trinity. Even here, in the heart of hell, the image of God cannot be erased. The archtraitor, who betrayed God, here chomps on three traitors who conformed themselves to his image. But what has always interested me is this: the more energetically Satan exerts himself, the more of a prisoner he becomes. If, somehow, Satan could but momentarily stop the beating of his wings, then perhaps the ice that imprisons him would melt and he could go free. But here he is left entirely to his own choosing. He is left free to seek what his heart desires, and thus his furious rebellion ensures he will forever remain in captivity. Satan is the slave of his freedom.

The poet designed an anti-climactic climax to The Inferno as a reminder that our Enemy, for all his pretense of limitless power, is impotent, fully under the sovereign control of God.

The temperature of sin

In his excellent introduction, A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Jason M. Baxter borrows a helpful distinction from Dorothy Sayers between the “hot sins” of the appetite (lust, gluttony, avarice & prodigality, wrath & bitterness) and the “cold sins” of the will (heresy, violence, fraud, treachery): the former sins belong to our animality, which make them less offensive to God, while the latter sins belong to our divinity, which make them more offensive because they pervert the Imago Dei in our intellect and volition. Baxter writes:

In earlier circles of hell, even if souls pursued a good with immoderation or were snared by an excessive love, they still could boast at least of having done some good things, and thus felt they had a right to be recalled among the living. But as we descend deeper and deeper, we meet souls who spend their whole lives in self-centered calculation, manipulating the world around them, setting souls against one another in a radically self-centered existence, and thus in hell they are embarrassed even to have their names repeated. This is what I mean by the spiritual coldness of hell: it’s a touchiness — that is, a sad, morose desire to be left alone. As the pilgrim gets closer to the center of the earth, he gets farther away from the stars, away from beauty, away from harmony, away from order, away from love. The landscape gets colder and colder, as a kind of prospect symbol for how the heart freezes the more it chooses its own good and leaves behind participation in loving communion.

Performative self vs. authentic self


The caption in this New Yorker cartoon seizes upon an existential predicament that our social media has exacerbated: the gap between the performative self and the authentic self. Micah Meadowcroft writes eloquently about this predicament in his New Atlantic essay, “The Distance Between Us“:

In a studio somewhere, amid the smell of roses and cigarettes, bright air spills in with the breeze from a high and open window — the light is good for skin — and a beautiful young man sits for his picture. Outside, bees talk amongst themselves as they flit between the yellow blossom chains of a laburnum. Inside, the dull throb of London electronic music drowns their voices. And the model, who is not a model exactly, but an “influencer,” and in charge here as artist and subject both, has to shout for the camera so he can see the photographs.

Clicking through the portraits, a smile and a blush of color come to his face, and he pauses. One is chosen. Out comes the aluminum laptop, sleek and blank. The picture is loaded. There is subtle editing to do, filters to be applied like varnish on a painting. Now it is time to share, time to be seen. Done with his upload, the comely form reaches for the iPhone from which it is never apart. A thumb finds and summons the icon before it has been told.

Instagram launched in 2010, some hundred and twenty years after Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The slender novel is a fable of a new Narcissus, of a beautiful young man whose portrait ages and conforms to the life he has lived while his body does not. Dorian Gray, awakened to the magnificence and fleetingness of his own youth by an aesthete’s words and the glory of his picture, breathes a murmured prayer that his soul might be exchanged for a visage and body never older than that singular summer day they were portrayed. By an unknown magic his prayer is answered, and the accidents of his flesh are somehow severed from his essence so that he may live as he likes, physically untouched and unchanged. But this division of body and soul leads Dorian to ethical dissolution. For by the fixed innocence of his appearance, the link between action and consequence is severed.

We run the risk of ethical dissolution, too, for although we cannot sever our essences from our appearances, we can indeed create a distance between them. For this we do not need Dorian Gray’s incantation. We have the witchcraft of social media to answer our own prayers — prayers that we might seem to be whatever self we wish to represent, the truth of ourselves hidden away. These mediating social sites and screens dissociate us inwardly, detaching the self from a performed image. And they dissociate us outwardly, detaching us from others by eliminating physical proximity — allowing us to forget others’ humanity, to remove ourselves from the shared scene in which we are all ethical actors.

These dissociations are not limited to Instagram, of course. The self-presentation, and corollary self-obfuscation, of social media persists across platforms. It is as fundamental to text-based online societies as to those made of images. Add the capacity for anonymity that shapes the Twitter experience of so many and we see the matter even more clearly. The whole game is one of playing a character, embodying a chosen ethos, habituating oneself to certain modes of interaction: troll, shitpost, be funny, be right, do not get Mad Online.

The characters we perform on screens, the scripts we write for ourselves as willful acts of self-creation in the void of the Internet, do not possess the contexts that enable us to act ethically in meatspace. Here, in flesh, I am a singular collection of roles and limits: son, brother, neighbor, co-worker, American, some six-foot-one, about ten pounds heavier than I would like to be, the possessor of eyes that need assistance to function, a sinner saved by grace. All these, along with countless other little realities, chosen and unchosen, make my character and unite an I and its image. Of all those things that I bring to Twitter or another social medium, more are a choice than in almost any other setting. And so that which is projected, my identity and appearance to the world online, can be made distant from the real I, the soul and self that are shaped by what I do in that abstracted space.


We escape solipsism by knowing the mind of another. We know the mind of another by comprehending its activity and so apprehending its presence. Relating to another’s outward manifestations — hearing his words, watching his facial tics, experiencing his physical presence — we attend to signs of what we are aware of in ourselves, of deliberation, choice, will, and action, and so we recognize a person.

At its worst, social media disrupts this relationship, so that we see not people, but discrete statements, abstracted ideologies, and caricatures. A tweet, comment, post, picture, fave, like, or share is served up as an act of the mind so distinct from anything else that there is no natural, no tacit, comprehensive awareness of the mind behind them. Instead, we — ourselves scattered into so many little bits and bytes — interact not so much with a scene partner as a singular datum. We may say someone is wrong online, but it is not the person we are focused on but her wrongness. There is to you no mind on the other side of the username, or, at least, no mind worth thinking about.

In some sense the heart of social media’s distortive power is that of mass media technology in general: a separation of life’s unity of time and space. We as human beings are that strange phenomenon aware of phenomena, apprehending movement in both halves of spacetime, and that union seems somehow essential to the humane: Chronos, time cold and alone with his sickle and hourglass, is a dread old god. But kairos, the opportune time, the time for actions in space, is propitious and alive in the world.

It is kairos that mass media makes almost impossible to discern, distorting the relationship between speaker and audience, actor and act. We see this in politics, when the rhetoric of those who should govern by deliberation or decision is aimed not at their peers in their chambers but at anxious television spectators far away. In war we sever power and responsibility with drones and missiles and other means of destruction at a distance, so as to minimize the human element in the fight, although it is solely the human that can be ethical. And in the everyday we see it most online, in the whiz of information that seems to just be sitting out there, distributed to such a degree as to be nowhere but now.

Crede, ut intelligas, “believe so that you may understand.” St. Augustine’s account of knowledge as a gift of grace and an act of faith may be our only means of retaining the human, and therefore the ethical, in life online. We must believe and choose to affirm that the other is an other, a mind like ours, a person with a story, a scene partner on this world stage. The charitable graciousness needed for discourse will come no other way, for the systems we have built machinate to scatter and distance us, to prevent the normal means of apprehending a personality and comprehending a person.

We cannot observe, even by credo, the capacities we do not exercise ourselves. Dorian Gray reconciles his life and his image, the severed essence and appearance, by stabbing his portrait and so killing himself. In death his ever-youthful beauty is stripped to reveal a body fit to his soul, “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.” Perhaps we can be less drastic, for there are good things the platforms that frame our lives do seem to facilitate, fruitful information and genuine conversation we otherwise might not have. Perhaps the self-portraits we paint online may be preserved if we cut out all that is false in them. If by radical honesty we minimize the dissociation of self and image, if we act truly and well, conscious of all our given circumstances, especially those unchosen, then perhaps we can still use social media as associative forums, still behave in them as ethical characters. But if we cannot, then we should consider our souls, and log off.

Should a poem be obscure?

T. S. Eliot, who earned a reputation for his obscurity, gives a surprising answer to the question of this blog post.

To J. Bramwell, 11 July 1945: “The first question about a poem is not whether it is intelligible but whether it is readable.” Asked about obscurity in modern poetry, TSE replied that it was sometimes “a matter of pretense,” but at other times it was caused by “the difficulty of expressing something genuinely felt. There is a little of this obscurity in The Waste Land. Things had to be said that way or not at all. A poet becomes less obscure as he masters his craft.” (p. 577)

I laughed at the understatement in Eliot’s remark — “There is a little of this obscurity in The Waste Land” — because its excessive obscurity fatigues the reader. In my estimation, Eliot’s conversion to Christ helps to make his poems “less obscure,” as in the case of “Journey of the Magi.” By Eliot’s standard, George Herbert, a seventeenth-century metaphysical poet that he admired greatly, mastered the craft of poetry because his poems are, relative to the American expatriate, transparent like stained glass windows.

To Geoffrey Curtis, 17 June 1930: “I am pleased that you liked [Ash Wednesday]. As for obscurity, I like to think that there is a good and a bad kind: the bad, which merely puzzles or leads astray; the good, that which is the obscurity of any flower: something simple and to be simply enjoyed, but merely incomprehensible as anything living is incomprehensible. Why should people treat verse as if it were a conundrum with an answer? when you find the answer to a conundrum it is no longer interesting. ‘Understanding’ poetry seems to me largely to consist of coming to see that it is not necessary to ‘understand.’ (p. 730)

I am grateful for this distinction between good and bad obscurity, although I do not think Eliot’s poetry always wrests itself from the bad kind. Nevertheless, I welcome a poet who gives me permission to not understand. A poem is not a puzzle that demands to be solved so much as a mystery that summons us to enter and savor.

Source: The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim MCue.

Whose meaning? Which interpretation?

Should we privilege the author’s interpretation of his own work — or the reader’s? T. S. Eliot’s answer may surprise.

To Claude Colleer Abbott, Eliot writes on 13 October 1927:

You see, the only legitimate meaning of a poem is the meaning which it has for any reader, not a meaning which it has primarily for the author. The author means all sorts of things which concern nobody else but himself, in that he may be making use of his private experiences. But these private experiences are merely crude material, and as such of no interest whatever to the public. (pp. 574-75)

To Philip Mairet, Eliot writes on 31 October 1956:

The fact that a poem can mean different things to different persons […] must, however paradoxically, be reconciled with the assertion that it has an absolute and unalterable meaning. At the same time, the author, it must be remembered, regarding his own work after it is completed, is hardly more than one reader amongst others, and while the poem is being written, he must be too busy to be fully conscious of what the poem means. (p. 575)

In his preface to Leone Vivante’s book, English Poetry (1950), Eliot writes that the distinction between “poetic thought” and “the thought of the poet” ought

to deter thoughtful readers from inquiring of a poet (if living) what he meant by any particular poem. Those who ask the question assume that a poem is a poetical dressing up, or disguise, of something which can be put equivalently in simple straightforward terms; and, if the poet cannot put it in other terms — the terms in which a student to be examined on a poem thinks that he can satisfy his examiners — conclude, either that it is of the nature of poetry to be ‘meaningless,’ or else that the meaning is to be found by probing into the unconscious mind, or the concealed biography of the author. Signor Vivante disposes of the error of supposing that a poem can be explained by the author, and the error of supposing that a poem has no meaning; and he also contradicts the assumption that all poetry can be explained by investigation of the unconscious. (p. 577)

Source: The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim MCue


Best of Dallas 2019

Thanks to a former student, whose mother is a freelance editor for local publications, I received an opportunity to play the role of a critic, writing for the annual “Best of Dallas 2019” issue for Dallas Observer. Here are my contributions:

Arts & Entertainment

Food & Drink

Shopping & Services

On the poet’s use of language

In The Cambridge Introduction to T. S. Eliot, John Xiros Cooper makes an insightful comparison between social and poetic uses of language:

Language in its social uses acts to simplify and arrange. It gives us a repertoire of devices, vocabularies, and rules in order to regulate the endless flux or stream of experience. Most social uses of language capture and control, order and pattern experience and the knowledge that we gain from it. Only the creative artist, the poet, working within the limits imposed by language, manages at the same time to breach those limits. Language for the poet is both an instrument for the preservation of order and an instrument for its radical dishevelment. This may sound contradictory, but it is the poet’s task to make the paradox work. We are not to think of these opposing intentions in the same that we might think of the contest of two ideas, which either lead to a higher concept or are resolved in some other way. What I am describing is by its very nature irresolvable. The positive language of themes and satire, social and historical descriptions, are opposed not by other descriptions and explanations but by negation. Unlike the stability of the social text, wherein difference and disruption of meaning is moderated, the poetic text generates difference, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes slyly. In short, it multiples variance, ambiguity, and surprise. Disturbance and disruption of the smooth operation of social language goes to the heart of its calling as poetry. One can argue, no doubt, that all texts generate difference as part of the internal character of language as such, but social texts work to stabilize or diminish the play of difference. Poems do not, or at least not to the same extent. Among other things, they draw attention to the anxiety of a radically ruptured text and The Waste Land is highly anxious text [emphasis mine].