End of Semester
I'm finishing up the end of the semester, looking at grading as an opportunity to say something helpful to each of my students. Ideally, you want what you teach to carry over into their other classes, maybe even into other parts of their lives. That would make the most sense, as when you know something, it can be immediately useful and empowering. A simple thing like being able to discuss the various ways "rational animal" might be understood opens up so many paths through the history of ideas.
But there's an aspect of knowledge which is not exactly consumer-friendly. It's the job of higher learning to at least acquaint students with this. Let's say you know something of especial import. It should reorient your life. It does make demands, but the demands cannot be called unreasonable. People understanding the terrible condition of our criminal justice system—how many lives simply disappear because of it—are working to be both more reasonable and just, despite how overwhelming the topic is. Related: I particularly enjoyed reading Amelie Daigle's essay in Protean, "Trees and Other Abolitionist Allies," as it got me thinking about how to create a more reliable space in my own mind where I don't react, but instead assess situations more carefully before acting or speaking. Trees, it turns out, are not unrelated to this care.
It's tough not to react nowadays. News analysis has been fundamentally altered by sports coverage. Debate panels where everyone shouts at each other, advancing troll arguments to cause a fight and keep an audience occupied. Because this is all we see and hear, the American public has been shaped accordingly. Hence, Parker Molloy's lament about the state of the media feels apt and bleak. She worries about an unyielding commitment to "both sides" journalism, where fascist propaganda is considered just another viewpoint. As long as the model to bring in viewers is pointless debates long on agitation and short on thought, anti-democratic forces can effectively use mass media.
Below, I've written some comments on Charles Simic's poem "Fear." It's a poem about a topic I know all of us want to talk about, but approach with some delicacy. I'd be grateful if you took a look. And if you feel like subscribing or helping me spread the word about this newsletter, I'd greatly appreciate it.
Charles Simic, "Fear"
You have an image in your head. It came from trying to know more, from trying to be more rational. "What could be more rational than Shakespeare?" I imagine I asked myself in 7th grade.
(Longtime readers will recall your humble blogger is from the northeast. Having a certain resonance: the scene in "The Departed" where Leonardo DiCaprio tells Martin Sheen about Nathaniel Hawthorne, receiving a fart noise from Mark Wahlberg, who asks in his particular way what about Shakespeare.)
I read Shakespeare to be thoughtful, and I got a tree stuck in my head:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang
Shakespeare, because he's Shakespeare, I guess, artfully dodges the matter of his age. If a younger man, say, is interested in him, he's going to have to ponder "that time of year" which might be seen in a person. Not only imagine a season, but a specific situation. Leaves, "yellow," "none," or "few," barely hanging to a branch shaking "against the cold."
(As one can see, Shakespeare was rather demanding of his contemporaries, too.)
Anyway, this stanza from Sonnet 73 put a tree in my brain. I started seeing trees in nearly any poem about aging or time. To be fair, it was there in a number of them. Poets do tend to build from the ridiculous images of other poets. What that means for us critics and readers—well, that takes additional reflection.
Here's Charles Simic, talking about fear.
Fear Charles Simic (h/t Maya C. Popa) Fear passes from man to man Unknowing, As one leaf passes its shudder To another. All at once the whole tree is trembling, And there is no sign of the wind.
I always thought the one benefit of getting older would be becoming less panicky. —Oh god where to start.— I mean, I've gotten fatter, balder, less vigorous, and more decrepit mentally. This could mean I've lost the capacity for more intense feelings, but in truth I've become more prone to panic. Sometimes, I wonder if I can age into other creatures. Maybe a groundhog, if I'm lucky. At least then I'm only afraid of my shadow.
Gotta give Simic credit. He lets me have an excuse for why I've made a mess of my life. "Fear passes from man to man / Unknowing." Not my fault I'm scared of everything! Other people pass fears to me, and I don't even know it! It just so happens, you know, that I tell someone an anecdote every once in a while which terrifies them, helping ruin what was a perfectly healthy attitude of theirs.
Fear in the first two lines sounds like a social construct, an inescapable part of being a human who deals with other humans. The thought occurs: maybe if I didn't know anyone I wouldn't feel anything. I wouldn't be able to make myself scared. I'd throw myself down stairs and it would hurt, but fear? Shame? Pain might be weakness leaving the body, as the slogan declares.
But is fear social? Artificial? We humans do transmit fears to each other, sure. "As one leaf passes its shudder / To another." I don't want to concede fear is natural, in the leaves themselves. I want to be Shakespeare, hiding fear in graven images so complex they demand idolatry. It'd be nice to take fear and reshape it into an awesome object.
Simic speaks of leaves which shake so much they make a whole tree tremble. "All at once the whole tree is trembling / And there is no sign of the wind." Fear might be natural in a strange way. Is the unnatural necessitated by nature? Not merely a byproduct, but a consequence of the conditions making nature conceiveable.
One of those conditions has to do with the scope of the word "nature." It encompasses nearly everything—organic, inorganic, life, death, growth, decay, the world, the universe, self and other. The word actively competes with a prefixed variant, "supernatural."
A whole tree trembles with wind nowhere to be felt. It seems completely unnatural, but "fear" and "trembling" speak to more than a world personified or a creative deity. They speak a will to believe which almost seems to underlie growth. A tree tries. This isn't personification, but what it literally does. Our efforts are seen in its spirit, not the other way around.
This leads to a powerful but dark truth. Our fears aren't unfounded; they come from our implicit acceptance of risk. To speak of the wind, though, as Sonnet 73 does, feels empowering. The wind, shaking a tree in the cold, is a comparatively smaller problem not requiring cosmic elaboration. In Sonnet 73, it is given the grace of a joke.