“Settle down in your room at a moment when you have nothing else to do. Say ‘I am now with myself,’ and just sit with yourself. After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored. This teaches us one very useful thing. It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored! Why is this so? It is so because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life.
“If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction… We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed from the outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”
~ Metropolitan Anthony Bloom from Beginning to Pray
[Update: The day after this I tried to make amends for this post that was not really worthy of the subject, with a second attempt including more paragraphs from Metropolitan Anthony and a video of him lecturing on prayer: Find the Door of Your Heart.]
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman is a thorough treatment of the history of Expressive Individualism and what modernity has come to. The author is a good thinker and writer, but he wearied me by incorporating into his thesis every possible thought and phenomenon that might contribute to the conclusion that “We are all expressive individualists now.” It’s a long book. After a hundred pages I jumped to the last fifty pages, and read the end first, to find out if it was worth the slog. I decided it was: I read every word, and underlined thought-provoking passages on every page.
So I’m glad I read it, and I’m much more glad that Anthony Esolen read it, because his writing is not just good, but sublime, and he calls the book a “mountaintop work.” He wrote a great review, which I heartily recommend. Because you probably want to know if you really are an Expressive Individualist, right?
Wholeness was the plan, when God created the cosmos. Then, humans distanced themselves from their maker, the one with whom they had walked in the garden. Harmony between the man and the woman was broken, and they both lost connection with their true selves, which had been grounded in the Giver of Life.
C.S. Lewis imagines how an unfallen world might have looked, in his novel Perelandra, which I recently re-read. A scientist with a utopian vision comes from Earth to a strange planet — of course, we have plenty of this stuff to export! — to be the tempter of the Eve figure, the Green Lady. She struggles to maintain her natural and primal, essential oneness with her god, and the drama that ensues is full of suspense.
I suppose it is because of my non-fiction fallen-world perspective that I despaired of the Green Lady being able to withstand the arguments of the oily Weston, even while descriptions of the grace-full divine dance with humans lifted my hopes. I don’t think it’s in my power to say more about this book or the whole trilogy, and what I have just written probably makes little sense, but the story came to mind when I read the poem below. Because the Green Lady won’t remain firm unless the strength comes from knowing who she is.
In this in-between world, the time of waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom, we get moments and glimpses of unity and wholeness, an intuition of how it might feel to be in full communion with one’s own being and one’s Maker, and from there, with other people. But our parts are mostly disjointed and disconnected.
For example, with someone who no longer is, who exists only in yellowed letters. Or long walks beside a stream, whose depths hold hidden porcelain cups — and the talks about philosophy with a timid student or the postman. A passerby with proud eyes whom you’ll never know. Friendship with this world, ever more perfect (if not for the salty smell of blood). The old man sipping coffee in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone. Faces flashing by in local trains— the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps for a splendid ball, or a beheading. And friendship with yourself —since after all you don’t know who you are.
Father Alexander Schmemann writes about this in The Eucharist:
“… nowhere is the darkness of ignorance into which we were immersed with our fall from God more obvious than in man’s staggering ignorance of himself, and this in spite of the insatiable interest with which, having lost God, man studies himself and endeavors in his ‘sciences humaines’ to penetrate the mystery of man’s being. We live in an era of unrestrained narcissism, universal ‘turning into one’s self.’ But, as strange and even terrible as this may seem, the more elemental is this interest, the more obvious it is that it is nourished by some dark desire to dehumanize man.
“The thanksgiving offered by the Church [in the Eucharist] each time answers and destroys precisely this not only contemporary but age-old lie about the world and man. Each time it is a manifestation of man to himself, a manifestation of his essence, his place and calling in the light of the divine countenance, and therefore an act that renews and recreates man. In thanksgiving we recognize and confess above all the divine source and the divine calling of our life. The prayer of thanksgiving affirms that God brought us from nonexistence into being, which means that he created us as partakers of Being, i.e., not just something that comes from him, but something permeated by his presence, light, wisdom, [and] love….”
From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus I can hear the library humming in the night; a choir of authors murmuring inside their books along the unlit, alphabetical shelves, Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son, each one stitched into his own private coat, together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.
I picture a figure in the act of reading, shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book, a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie as the suicide of lovers saturates a page, or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem. He moves from paragraph to paragraph as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.
I hear the voice of my mother reading to me from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs, and inside her voice lie other distant sounds, the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night, a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.
I watch myself building bookshelves in college, walls within walls, as rain soaks New England, or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.
I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves, straining in circles of light to find more light until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs that we follow across a page of fresh snow; when evening is shadowing the forest and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs, we have to listen hard to hear the voices of the boys and his sister receding into the words.
This poem was the perfect one for me to find right now, because I myself have been acting out all the verbs: following, straining, hearing and touring… and listening hard, to the humming of a choir. This choir of authors aren’t all consciously “singing” in harmony, or even intending to write about the same things, but their voices, the sounds, the crumbs I am following “across a page of fresh snow” all seem to be parts of a whole. The rooms I am touring are all in one house; it must be the place where the human soul lives.
My “circles of light” sometimes seem like a 60’s light show, beautiful and confusing, when I am waiting rather for illumination and clarity. So many authors have shined their little lights out into the world, but how many reveal the reality of things?
Over the last several months I have been reading a lot, with no resulting book reviews and few even small illuminations of the sort I might write about here. The Eucharist was very focused and wonderful and I do want to say some things about it eventually, but instead of stopping for that I kept working my way through Irrational Man, which is such a tour de force that it’s hard to know what to say about — everything. It mostly makes me want to read more books that William Barrett reminds me of.
Like Flight From Woman by Karl Stern, which I read some years ago and thought brilliant; but at the time I knew I needed to read it a second time to digest it. Barrett explains the duality of selves in Sartre’s philosophy, how he considers not the “fruitful, excessive, fruitful blooming nature” to be the true self, but only that of the radically free and active man who has projects. Now I want to go back and read Stern on this topic.
But I am determined to finish a couple more books first. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is like another long chapter, maybe the closing chapter, of Western Philosophy, so it will be good if I can move right on to finishing it after Barrett.
On my recent road trip I listened to Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson, a title so embarrassing on several fronts that I considered leaving this accomplishment unrecorded. But even this book, which was about as deep as I could go on all that freeway driving, provided a few revealing glimpses of how ideas from the other books I mentioned play out in real life, especially the central one: What is the self?
About halfway through The Cross of Loneliness I began to have a difficult time knowing what these two men were talking about, but I will finish that book, too, before long. My really easy, small book to read under the covers right now is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I found in the little free library up at the lake.
And then, the sweetest, which will be easy to finish, as it’s like swimming slowly through a small and refreshing pond to the other side: The Scent of Water, which our book club is reading together. It is coming to an end way too fast.
Oh, yes, there are a dozen more sitting nearby, that I plan to continue with eventually, but they are not at the moment as current as these, these rooms full of delicious crumbs that I trust are leading me always to brighter places.
In regard to my own life and reading, I don’t relate to the progression of Collins’s poem, in its hearkening back to the experiences of childhood and youth, and the mood of evening and shadow descending. I am just very thankful for all the good writers I have at my disposal, and for the lovely song that they are trying to learn and to sing.