March 30, 2013

The Harrowing of Hell

The time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is an interesting part of the traditional Christian calendar. It symbolized the only day of the year in which Christ is thought of as being dead. By tradition, it is also the only day of the year in which the Holy Eucharist is not celebrated (except in cases of emergencies).

In Christian tradition, lots of interesting legends developed around this day. Some passages in the New Testament suggest that Jesus descended to the realms of the dead to bring liberation to captive spirits. Apocryphal gospels from the second and third centuries elaborated this theme. In the late classical and medieval period, legends bloomed about the "Harrowing of Hell" in which the spirit of Jesus trashed the place while freeing the souls of the virtuous. In Dante's Inferno, both the architecture and geography of Hell show the aftershocks of that cataclysmic event nearly 1300 years later.

I love the image of captive spirits who have long ago given up hope being suddenly and unexpectedly rescued by a power far greater than themselves or the forces that hold them down. We could use a good bit more of that.

March 29, 2013

Society everywhere is in conspiracy

Humans are by nature social animals. As Aristotle, whom Dante described as "the master of those who know," put it in his Politics, "to live alone, one must be either a beast or a god." On the other hand, group dynamics can really bring out the beast and drive away the god.

A lot of human evil and just plain pettiness can be attributed to group behavior, conformity, and obedience. Emerson takes a famous whack at those in Self Reliance.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
(I'm guessing this applies to women too.)


March 26, 2013

Stuck with ourselves

The theme at Goat Rope lately is the work of 19th century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the moment, the focus is on his signature essay Self Reliance, which is a kind of spiritual declaration of independence.

Today I want to highlight one passage of the essay that reminded me of a tough time when I was in high school. My situation at the time seemed untenable, but somehow I knew deep down that it was better to be miserable as myself than happy as someone else. Here's how Emerson put it:

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried...God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.

His advice seems to be this: become yourselves. No wonder Nietzsche loved him.

WAY COOL. The Roman Catholic bishop of WV urged Gov. Tomblin to expand Medicaid coverage to low wage working people.

SOCIAL ANIMALS are we. If we want to live long, anyway.

NOTE: busy days and travel ahead so posts may be irregular.


March 25, 2013

We recognize our own rejected thoughts

One of my favorite Dylan songs--and the list is long--is "Trust Yourself" from the underrated album Empire Burlesque. In it, Bob strikes the familiar American chord of self reliance.

That theme might have been most forcefully laid out in a much sunnier manner in  Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay of the same title. That essay and the vehemence with which it pushed its argument may have been in part a reaction to some of the hostile reviews and controversy that came in the wake of his controversial Harvard Divinity School Address (see previous posts).

It's easy to misunderstand what Emerson meant by self-reliance. The essay is not a paean to unregulated capitalism. Rather it is a call to intellectual and spiritual independence, as this selection from the opening power shows:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.
I'm not sure I'd go that far, at least with the thoughts that flit like bats around my head, but he does have a point. I have on more than one occasion read, heard, or seen something in print or in some work of art that had previously occurred to me but that I did nothing to capture. He puts it like this:

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
Ralph can be a bit out there sometimes, but passages like this make up for some of that. At the very least, they challenge the reader to not let some many ideas and inspirations get away.

PRISON REFORM is on the legislative agenda in WV, where a decent bill promoted by the governor sailed thorugh the state senate. I hope it succeeds in the house. These efforts got a boost in, of all places, the New York Times.

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY. Here are some snapshots from the growing divide.

THREE YEARS AND COUNTING. The Affordable Care Act had a birthday this weekend. The Spousal Unit and I actually attended a party in its honor (we didn't have to buy gifts anyhow). Here's a look at how it's working so far.