In-Communicable

For you I cannot answer, but I can certainly enumerate a few preferences — of such a thing as Lewis claims to have found, Joy, and the never-ending hunt for what brings Joy is a subject likely to communicate our differences.  For we all pursue it by ways seemingly incommunicable with others’ paths. Perhaps extroverts do not hunt for it in a like fashion — I should require another’s testimony on the subject.  But a matter of ‘taste’, as it seems discussion of enjoyment engenders, is something one can only appreciate when one shares a similar joy in tasting /this/ — it is not enough to say ‘I concede it possible to like such a thing, though I do not.’  This is no reconciliation.

It is holiday and the day-dreaming about holidays; the satisfaction of true labor — a labor which need not reflect for its perfection; bold, rich, and deep laughter; that which is surely shared though indescribable — better hinted towards than expounded upon.

Joy is ever perceived indirectly — and after the fact that joy has put its coat on and sullied out the door.  Although the memory of joy and the anticipation of joy are tasting, they are not the same as the unsummoned, though often invited, Joy which is.  It is not simply an excited state of synapses firing and recognizing pleasure, though it certainly leaves physical traces.  And yet Joy is not a thing to be pursued of its own right.

I was and am still enchanted, for I have no better word and so long as I have joy in some measure I expect no better — if ever perfectly dissected, Joy itself vanishes, for this was a foolish misuse — by the hunt for the Great White Stag in LWW.  I cannot make you feel for it as I do; if you do already my words will not stir this fire to frenzy.  Should these Kings and Queens catch this creature, what on earth shall they do with it?  Surely such a thing is beautiful for the sake of the chase, but not in the catching.  A clear reason for their pursuit evades us, as we ride alongside at the height of play and romp possible in a full-hearted pursuit.  Joy, if caught, will disappear into the dark shadows of memory and yet pursuing is a fairer course.  It is much as though the students are chased back through the wardrobe, though in the kindest manner possible — where previously they were chased into it.

The manner of chase greatly differs, and yet, once on the other side, they are not to pursue Narnia for its own sake — their way back shall be provided when the time is right.  Lewis’ endless search for Joy reveals itself to be a chase whereby he is to find that joy itself is but an icon — and yet icons are fruitful and the King of Joy pursues (against an Aristotelian, self-interested God) where we sense him uninterested in our Joy.  Very much the opposite — he would turn our taste to the true (not merely the logically valid and rationally supported) — to the living truth.  For this communicates to us, though I find it impossible to communicate to another.  And so it must be whispered, for in whispers Joy is acclaimed loudly — in silence His reflection gleams.

Intertwine: C.S. Lewis, Reading, and Atrophy of the Mind

While I ‘m working perhaps a bit too much, and making little headway in pursuit of my particular research interests, some little time is afforded me for reading.  Perhaps I should spend such times in transit lesson-prepping instead, but I hope the exercise keeps me from turning dull.  Last week I finished a book from my favorite Masters’ class (ironically an intensive I had to add for the purpose of graduating but simply so that I should have enough loans dispersed so as to be able to finish the course necessary for completion of my degree): Overcoming Onto-Theology by Merold Westphal. 

There is much food for thought, some repeated a little too often, but on the whole I am remembering something of the language presented in that course on Philosophical Hermeneutics (because ‘interpretation’ just sounds too simple, and after all; Gadamer will demonstrate how interpretation never escapes, nor should it attempt to, its embeddedness in its Zeitpunkt (time/place, but the German adds a bite to my ticked ear).  This poorly executed segue could, largely unbeknownst to its author, almost serve to illustrate the point Lewis wants to make in ‘Edmund Spenser, 1552-99’ as found in my current travel-mate: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1998), Cambridge U., by C.S.L. 

 

What the revered Mr Lewis has to say about nearly any matter piques my interest, and I should say this is most true for the ways in which I yet find his writing a surprise not merely to be admired but worthy of being pondered at length.  As regards Spenser, whose Faerie Queene I tackled because it fell within Lewis’ realm some years ago, I find C.S.L.’s reading sheds light on those qualities I had forgotten.  Foremost is Spenser’s ‘polyphonic’ story-telling which surprisingly leaves Prince Arthur, his squire, and Sir Guyon in pursuit of an unknown damsel close-followed by a forester (the intrigue is ryp to be pickt) in favor of following the tale of a strange knight of whose character the reader is wholly unfamiliar. 

In my own reading, I recall both my initial shock and my determination to await the inevitable ‘dovetail’ing where again I should meet the exploits of Arthur and his court.  Lewis remarks that the “old polyphonic story…enjoyed a longer success than the modern novel has enjoyed yet” (Studies p. 134) and some of us might add our approval.  While C.S.L. appeals to the renewal of a theme by a composer, he has addressed a reader too musically challenged to benefit.  Thus I am only able to appreciate the simile theoretically where it might prove illustrative for one less impaired.  But as a reader I share this appreciation for the complex, if not a mind skilled enough to wield it properly. 

 

And so I nearly escape the charge that “this kind of suspense is lost on us because our bad memories frustrate it and when we get back to Arthur we have forgotten all about him, then, since our ancestors made no such objection, it would seem that we differ from them by an inferiority, not by a superiority” (Ibidem).  I rather envy this skill of such readers – perhaps in such I am ‘behind my time’.  But then, I suppose that is rather essential to any imaginative reading; for any reading that not only explains this world but carries us to another point, another space, another world is, to my mind, an attempt to leave this particular Zeitpunkt in favor of considering the world from another (and then, of course, returning with fresh eyes to see our own – no reading is a truly successful escape).  That former minds were able to embed themselves so thoroughly in such a world, be it a land of faerie or whatever you will have, that their memory extends through the pages and cantos and Books that comprise a work like Faerie Queene illustrates a deficiency of my time.

Lewis takes this opportunity to aver that while the technologies of reading have improved, the faculty of memory has diminished.  Where he points to “cheap paper, typewriters, notebooks, and indexes” as prime examples of what impairs our memories, just as “automobiles have made some people almost incapable of walking” (Studies p. 134), Lewis echoes Socrates’ complaints in Plato’s Phaedras about the book as destroyer of memory and anticipates Nicholas Carr’s ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ – reading technologies have continued in progressively offering greater accessibility to resources for reading even as those technologies inhibit the practiced attention needed for higher order reasoning.  In the same sense, the more accessible my destination is by motored vehicle the more effort I need to exert to fight atrophy (surely not a concern for my forebears). 

 

It is in this sense that C.S.L. marks: “One of the great uses of literary history is to keep reminding us that while [humanity] is constantly acquiring new powers [it] is also constantly losing old ones” (Ibidem).  But our tale need not end on such a negative note for Lewis believes that exercise of these faculties, however much more effort is required, can still be practiced to good effect.  Just as the habit of walking will restore and strengthen our legs, the habit of reading works with ‘thickness’ or ‘density’ may expand our view so that we may not merely follow the immediate events of our stories, as we live them, but so we may be impressed of the conviction that other stories worth being told may break in and interrupt, or better intersect that which we thought worth our interest.  The world of such poems is intricate enough that we should always be forced to leave one tale untold to consider the other, and I should think this true of our own world equally.

 

At such time, I shall take the ill-advised course of explaining how I inadvertently slipped into giving an example of what struck me in this writing.  I have, of course, completely failed to consider in any depth the world opened by Westphal’s course.  In truth, it is a story I have tried to begin more than once and I can but promise that this poor teller of tales would at least warn his reader against the notion that King Arthur’s court (or the likes of Heidegger, Derrida, and Nietzsche by way of M. Westphal) have left the pages of this sham world not to be summoned again, for there are ever more tales to be told (of faerie and wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein) if the reader will but follow along.

Riddled: Dream-Allegory Readings from George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

I left the last reading (or stumbling) in Chapter IX, where our displaced homeowner has left the safety of being ‘in’ familiar surroundings in order to repent, so right himself, and accept whatever hospitality his otherworldly guide, Mr Raven, might offer.  Only, Mr. Vane (vain?) has failed in his attempt, finding himself the riddle that cannot be answered, and sets out to the land of the unliving in hopes of finding the way to life.

A mere note, Mr Raven perceives Mr Vane’s problem as being the riddle that will continue until ‘he understands himself’, which sounds rather glib.  While the repentant ever asks for help, he only in truth asks for answers where he refused the opportunity to embrace the rest offered to him.  This juxtaposition of the search for knowledge when submission of the will is required smacks too much of dualism.  Rather, our character as yet has no character and barely any characteristics for his will and knowledge are turned to himself.  The metaphysical argument being had throughout this book, is, I believe, the subtext of his inter-dream discourse with himself – reaching out and learning only as he is able to invert that will.  Seeing an anti-intellectualism in such a work would be well outside MacDonald’s purpose, so I believe there is an encounter or dialogue we too are meant to experience that we might hear something otherwise hinted to us only in our dreams.

We are provided with a momentary remark which tells us that in his dream-journey, often our wanderer would find that a single thing had many significances, or that its nature suddenly altered.  This thoroughly fits the dream aspect of Lilith, as in dreams I can often enough recall recognizing some person or place though no clear markers descried their presence, only to find these essences change wholly in character.  It is this flowing out and in which only makes sense in the dream-state: in waking I can no longer recall how such things made sense although they were truly significant at those moments of recognition.  This is that character I believe MacDonald captures so well – the purity and confluence present in dreams which is wholly inexplicable in any other reconfiguration.

Setting out in a direction, Mr Vane pursues his course guided by a bird-butterfly emanating the colours of the rainbow.  When this curious but splendid creature comes within reach, the act of grasping is enough to render it a blackened and dead book laying heavy in his hand.  The treasure of the universe, seemingly offered, is not a thing to be grasped with his hands for in the attempt nothing truly meaningful is gained to aid his journey.

A moon strange to him is enough to rouse and set Mr Vane again on his lonely sojourn.  As he traverses this place of shadowy death, encountering on the path of which are innumerable deadly phantasms whose dangers are more real than our character realizes.  Recounting these scenes, he notes that only later did he learn the protective role the moon played in guiding him to safer quarters, I wonder that this is n’t a throughly dream-like notion – often in a dream I have seemed aware of some notion I shall soon learn by means of the coming encounters in this dream.  I know not how well I have grasped the metaphysical character portrayed thus far, but this is how I think as I attempt to traverse the same steps, guided but by the words of the former visitor of these strange lands.

Coming through the stretch of land in which the dead perpetually go to the most futile of wars against one another, both sides goaded by the woman with one hand outstretched urging the fight and the other pressed against her side, there is little that stands out to me, save the horror of such purposeful futility.  As each side rails against the other, both yell The Truth! The Truth! (p. 52) until at last the sun rises and brushes all visible traces of these clashes away.  Instead, I would hurry to consider the refreshing encounter with the Giants and the Little Ones.

The Little Ones decide he belongs to the unique category of ‘good giant’ because he chooses to enjoy their fruit and will have none of that which passes for goodness amongst the enslaving (and enslaved) giant-folk.  These remarkable little people remind me something of the fairy people in Phantastes though I cannot say more at the moment – theirs is the best sort of naivete, wholesome and less-self, timeless for they do can answer nothing of time – instead drinking in the enjoyment of true discovery of others.  The differences between the giants, whose tastes and sight have become thoroughly near-sighted, recalls the Dwarfs (who are for the Dwarfs!) in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle.  They have forgotten how to see past their own noses, or to use them to taste that which is wholesome and life-giving.

Shortly before he is forced onward, the good giant (notice the names given per stage as I attempt to trace our Mr Vane’s shifting identity) is discovered by the functional mother, Lona, of the origin of these giants.  Those children who grow in self forget their smallness and begin to eat of the horrid fruit fit for their appetites.  In short, the giants are those Little Ones for whom being little is n’t enough.  The prospect is ever the horror of Lona and the watchful older ones – those who have not become too big and know well the dangers.  At last forced on by his struggle with the giants, and with his first experience of home, the good giant is led to the edge of the valley and warned of the giant-girl who wishes harm on the Little Ones.

So, given the stumbling aspect inherent to the dream-state, our character shall surely meet with this harmful persona.  Still he wonders for what purpose he might have been led to meet the Little People and how he may yet help them.  Help any at this moment, including himself, is an unlikely prospect.  I might venture on, but my writing is already over-long for not having reached half through the book!

As ever, feel free to add your observations to this dream-discourse.

Renewed Stumblings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

Ever so strange how one reading helps another.  Just this Monday, though I have as yet noted no lunar influence, my wife and I were conversing with a friend about the early chapters of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in which Mr Lewis’ professorial character suggests an unexpected trilemma concerning the young Lucy’s unlikely claims that she has not only been to another world, but that she has spent hours and hours – a claim she cannot demonstrate.  And so, ever so similar to his musings in Mere Christianity (pp. 54-56), where Jesus must be a lunatic of immense degree, the Devil of Hell OR the less immediately obvious but ultimate conclusion: He told the truth concerning Himself and is the rightful object of worship.

As I was acquainted first with Narnia and only was dis-covered of Lewis as apologist later (and finally, perhaps more importantly Medievalist for my own sake) – it was only evident to me that the same mechanism was used by the goodly professor Digory to defend the probability, after dismissing the other choices, that Lucy was telling the truth.  I make no further point on the matter, but in Lilith find Mr Raven in conversation with our main and tellingly nameless character’s father the following (after being told that a door exists in his house which enables Mr. Raven to venture to a world where most physical and mental laws differ from ours, excepting only the moral):

“You try my power of belief!” I said.

“You take me for a madman, probably?”

“You do not look like one.”

“A liar then?”

“You give me no ground to think you such.”

“Only you do not believe me?”

“I will go out of that door with you if you like: I believe you enough to risk the attempt.”

“The blunder all my children make!” he murmured.  “The only door out is the door in!”

~Lilith (1895): pp. 38-39

As to the above, I merely wish to note such for my own reading and hope it enlivens your readings as well.

The notion of doors, however, is one I mean to pay attention to in both works.  Both MacDonald and Lewis are far too intentional about having the experiences of the Otherworld fit with the current state of the one who has entered (Lucy is curious and trusting though pensive and no harm comes to her, whereas Edmund is throughly disturbed by his disempowered state – and surprise, he is offered the promise of a kingdom which shall serve he and he alone).  Our house-owner in Lilith knows not his own house, nor how the doors may lead either ‘out’ or ‘in’ (and we have yet to learn what either of these mean in the parlance of Mr Raven).  But thus far, the character seems to me to be in some struggle with the fear of death, as well as the lack of any meaningful identity.  More may follow as the idea develops, but please feed back anything this helps you see in your own readings.

After discovering the parchment which detailed his unknown father’s (our houseowner was orphaned quite early) encounter and flight from Mr Raven, an action similarly taken by our houseowner, now is found a connection infinitely curious.  As in a dream, our character took that action which he could not resist – to flee – and is drawn immediately back to the same course.  He must seek what Mr Raven knew of his father, for his father disappeared near the time this parchment was dated and surely had great adventures.  Becoming disgusted with his actions, our protagonist must again seek entry ‘out’ by finding a way ‘in’.

Weeping I threw myself on a couch, and suddenly fell asleep.  (p. 41)

Awaking as though he has been called, he rushes to arrange the mirrors in hopes of apologizing and renewing his sojourn.  Successful in again stepping into this world (note the determination in this entering – to find what lessons he shall be taught), he attempts to retrace those steps previously taken by Mr Raven through the pine-forest (trees are immensely important in PhantastesPrince Caspian, and anything written by Tolkien).  Haply he finds his quarry, though not the way into the forest, and is met with the unhappy news that where previously he was invited to rest, his time is not.

Inquiring of his unknown father, he is told that he had been invited to rest next to his father.  Both the father and twice-great grandfather are “up and away long ago” while the great-grandfather will soon begin to stir.  Of course, though our character saw him, he did not recognize him for “he is so much nearer waking than you.  No one who will not sleep [our houseowner] can ever wake. (p. 43)”  So, it seems there is some necessary embrace of death in sleep in order to wake to the full reality!

But the grandfather has not embraced rest, but is still in the Evil Wood, fighting the dead.  This is that place where “those who will not sleep, wake up at night, to kill their dead and bury them.”

I shall end this post with the following words of Mr Raven:

“I cannot [tell our houseowner where the nearest lesson is],” answered the raven; “you and I use the same words with different meanings.  We are often unable to tell people what they need  to known, because they want to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said.  Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you.  But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there.  Everybody who is not home, has to go home.  You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it.  Nobody can leave home.  And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.” (pp. 43-44)

I cannot treat more here, but to say that clearly there is a large gap (of worlds really) between our house-owner who has no home and the raven, aware only that he is not yet ready to come and rest that he may wake!  If purposes, and therefore starting-points (or each has his Standpunkt) are so varied, the needed advice cannot yet be provided.  The house-owner must first be led nearer to his home – a home he is yet unable to recognize.  He must find the way in, and his only movements are out.  It is a sad riddle, but how like being led to faith.  As Mr Raven avers, “They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself.  The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it.”

 

Thoughts are welcome.

A Study in Discontinuity

While recalling little of my last match with Foucault, I barely remember tapping on the mat from that stunted encounter with the Archaeology of Knowledge, still the outline of that which has bested me calls for action.  At last I am equipped to make a beginning where before I had sadly wandered into the wrong arena.  (On a side note, anyone looking to hire someone to narrate significant moments in their life should probably look me up; after all, I don’t believe I minced that metaphor too poorly).  So, for those requiring translation, again I am summoning my meager intellectual prowess in hopes of successfully coming to the other side of Archaeology with some sense of what I ‘ve just ingested.

On the misunderstanding end of things, I am rather inclined to put forward that I ‘m happy to come up a little short here.  Not finishing won’t do for me this time, but we should not judge the quality of our reading by the page count nor by how much of the Stanford Encyclopedia’s synopsis we can critique.  Somewhere in the middle, in the tensions of becoming, a work like this may hint at some significance worth an improved understanding.  Foucault’s words may have painted a picture my poor mind cannot yet grasp, but the way to understanding, I still believe, is through misunderstanding worthy subjects.  Foucault is at least worth disagreeing with, but to agree or disagree first requires a preliminary (mis)understanding.

So now to that which has I find both inspiring and confounding.  At the opening Foucault descries how the values behind the interpretive frameworks of traditional history and the traditional history of ideas (i.e. histories of science, philosophy, thought, and of literature) are encountering the ‘phenomena of rupture’ – that of discontinuity (Archaeology, 1972: p. 4 [trans. by A.M. Sheridan Smith]).  Whereas historians have established the “great continuities of thought…the solid, homogeneous manifestations of a single mind or of a collective mentality” as their science has been “striving to exist and to reach completion at the very outset”, those tracing the history of ideas have been turning toward the ‘displacements and transformations of concepts’ (ibidem, p. 4).  In other words, many in the latter school were considering less the continual progression of titanic, homogeneous thoughts and significances which engulf all else than considering a ‘displacement’, something that goes against the grain, by way of various sub-disciplines of spheres in which that blip in the data showed its influence (or influenza, if you will allow the Lewisan pun).

This translates to looking not so much at the Past but at “several pasts, several forms of connexion, several hierarchies of importance, several networks of determination, several teleologies, for one and the same science, as its present undergoes change: thus historical descriptions are necessarily ordered by the present state of knowledge. (ibidem, p. 5)”  I must now make mention of where I believe Foucault’s finger pointed.  History itself is a construction, one which is at this moment the living product of present communities and receives its values from those social constructs.  History is therefore both product and producer; in other words it is not so much History as a history.  Consequently, the current historical projects are affected even as they define the effects of prior and current events.  Foucault remarks that even as the ‘histories of’ are finding further discontinuities, history itself is rejecting them in favor of stable structures (Archaeology, 1972: p. 6)

Where prior histories sought to have a document speak and reinforce the built up historical structures, a member of the ‘new school’ works on it “from within and to develop it:…divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguishes between what is relevant and what is not…defines unities, describes relations (ibidem, p. 6).”  This is aptly descriptive of what I feel modern doctorates are meant to put themselves through.  Justifying your research methodology becomes a significant part of your research in many fields.

I should note in what little experience I can relate.  I ‘ve been considering my own future thesis now with the added difficulty of not only hearing what the author said and finding the internal coherence I can string together into something snappy, but also with the necessary considerations for where the voice comes from, how it relates to and grates against other local voices and wherein should I find significance: for the author’s community, for that time period, or for something closer to mine own.

This chopping, sorting, and rearranging is exhausting, but I believe the product is worth it.  See, one may misunderstand the formation of History versus histories.  Speaking of histories opens up the possibility of viewing the infinitude of events.  True, some events and thoughts stand out (they tend to stand out by contrast which is partly understood in the prior historical project) but we do the text or the event injustice to understand them in our context primarily.  We may not be able to encounter events so closely, but the truth seems to me to be that the better I understand something the better I understand the distance between myself and it.  Even as I see myself in the light of a tiny trickle of a long flowing stream, continually branching out and converging, in that moment I see distance as well.  Of course not all can be subjected to the microscopic perspective, but while the macroscopic should not be uncritically discarded it should be understood how its seeing is terribly near-sighted.  In this sense such movements in research are disconcerting and refreshing at once.  Regardless, this seems to be the distinction between the possibility of a ‘total history’ and the emergence of a general history (ibid, p. 9).

In reference to this conflict between structure and historical development, Foucault remarks: “it is a long time now since historians uncovered, described, and analysed structures, without ever having occasion to wonder whether they were not allowing the living, fragile, pulsating ‘history’ to slip through their fingers (Archaeology, 1972: p. 11).”  The introduction of the death of history is that which makes it most true to life.

Without discontinuity, Foucault avers, we would find the throne for the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ immovable.  Time would then, at some point, predictably flow back into continuity.  The wave which rises and crashes must lead to another elsewhere.  Perhaps that was poorly chosen, for I do not mean to suggest preemptively a blow struck against causation, but certainly there is one being struck against predictability.  If Ration rules, then one has only to find the cause prior and one may predict what will follow.  It reminds me somewhat of Chesterton’s talk of determinists, but I surely digress.  In such a system, human consciousness seeks power by way of understanding the inevitable flow of history.  As I tend to appreciate those who poke holes in arguments for causation (or really, understanding causation simply by any means), I ‘m left considering how knowledge and power are interrelated.  More particularly, I wonder how history itself is not only the product of the powerful, but also the means of effecting its intentions.

How might history be the language of power?

And, to introduce a criticism I may regret: how can discontinuity be spoken of except continuously?  I understand that Foucault is more describing the shifts in historical pursuits than arguing directly for a particular, and further I understand (or perhaps thoroughly misunderstand) that speaking of discontinuity requires one to consider the effects of discontinuity on various threads.  In so doing, perhaps what is observed is the flaws in continuity.

Mis-hap or Stumblings: Readings in George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’

As far as debts go, my reading owes ever so much to the e’er so well known C.S. Lewis (if over-quoted in favor of items he never would ‘ve backed – such is the lot of the popular, doomed to being misunderstood) but few debts are so dear as that which led through Lewis to the goodly Irishman MacDonald.  I think I never truly breathed faerie nor so happily mis-happed before feeling its metaphysical pull.

Lilith and Phantastes are ever welcome traveling companions (although a companion, etymologically, is one who shares bread with the fellow traveler) as are MacDonald’s rather bumbling protagonists. But these uncanny mis-haps, these unreflective seeings, lend to the strength of the dream-quality of both books.  No other works to date present themselves so immediately to my senses, nor demand such reflective responses.

Some samplings for those considering or already reading Lilith:

Often the main character in a MacDonald work will have some education, often some relation to Oxford.  In Lilith, these studies are mere backdrop to an otherwise unremarkable life.  The character quickly forgets his own name when first he stumbles through the mirror and is none the worse for it.

Books!  Often a vast library sets the home base for whatever may occur.  In three paragraphs the ‘fine library of his ancestors’ is introduced and its age hints at future wonders for the reader (as well as the only significant occupation for its proximal owner).  We come to find that this particular collection has served and continues to serve for the haunt of one Mr. Raven.

One day our narrator is able to follow this shadow through previously unknown passages to find the mirror, which we soon find is a ‘door out’ where previously he had only experienced ‘doors in’ (p. 12).  Upon mis-stepping so as to gain a better view, our character finds himself in the open air – “behind me: all was vague and uncertain, as when one cannot distinguish between fog and field, between cloud and mountainside. (p. 11)”

Mr. Raven provides further enlightenment (which is more confounding for our bewildered narrator) in telling, “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in! (p. 12)”  A door is supposed to keep the unwanted out and allow the desired in, but here we are considering doors whose ‘whereness’ is considerably less clear.  The machinations may be inconsistent, or rather, we may not understand them.  Understanding our surroundings is turned on its head when we are told, “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home. (p. 13)”

Something in me loves that line.  Misunderstanding is a frightening thing when one is not at home.  The possibility of ‘doors in’ and ‘doors out’ is unwelcome until we are able to ‘well come’ – to embrace that which is of a nature frightening.  It is not that ‘whereness’ is flimsy, it is that we are and our understandings are.  I write this in an unfamiliar place I (and my wife) are trying to make home.  It ‘s quite funny how the mind struggles to settle where it will endure anything when it ‘s home.  Perhaps this is the sense in which “the more doors you go out of, the farther you get in!”

Home is the only place you can go out and in.  Hm…

One more ‘aroma of an idea’ before moving on…  Mr. Raven presents the unanswerable: “Who are you, pray?”  At this moment, the narrator finds that no answer he can give will suffice.  Should he give his name he is only explaining a relation whose source cannot be demonstrated.  Worse, he does not know himself at all so that he can provide no ‘what’ or ‘who’ to his questioner.

The questioner’s lesson (yet to be learned in full) is that “no one can say he is himself until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is. (p. 14)”  Reflection should easily dismiss any solid notion of either assertion.  The cogito ergo sum gives us no notion of what ‘to be’ or ‘I’ truly mean.  Ironically, this is not skepticism, but merely an acknowledging that the words we use (and the understandings we hold) fail to hold that which we expect from them.  Their solidity is purely derivative.  The solidity that is does not falter because our words fail, but the comfort of our words may well be lost.

It now dawns on our protagonist that perhaps he is dead.  In a sense this seems the likely deduction, but I would think it represents moreso the terror of death or separation.  He falls through into the garret chamber in which the mirror was housed and retreats from the unfamiliar upper rooms of the house in a full horror.  But it is most surely the fear of death, or the realization of how dead he already is, that grips him and now robs him of the familiarity previously he assumed with himself.

It is this state which the main character wakes from in the morning, on which note I shall put myself to bed.

Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him.  And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.  For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.  Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])

 

Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague.  The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’.  In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart.  It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town.  One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.

But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words.  In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation.  The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner.  The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.

 

To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving.  It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach.  But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing.  In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced.  Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor.  It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.

This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction.  We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete.  Is the isolation then abstract or concrete?  It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail.  The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced.  In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.

 

It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable.  This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed.  In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.