Comfort and the Soul: Vsevolod Nekrasov, "The Soul"
When I was in graduate school, two words were too much.
Vsevolod Nekrasov's "The Soul" does the job. We may not think of poems which consist of four words—maybe six, including the title—as doing work. But by proclaiming "The Soul," then following up with "just kidding," he gets us to say the words and make our expectations visible. I find myself saying "The Soul" in solemn, authoritative tones, thinking of its connections to science, philosophy, theology, metaphysics, and selfhood. And then I say "just kidding" and I have to wonder if two words are too much.
The Soul Vsevolod Nekrasov The Soul /just kidding/
When I was in graduate school, two words were too much. Many of the people I knew believed members of other Christian sects should be regarded with suspicion, if not treated as outright enemies. This meant taking a more traditional approach to difficult texts had curious consequences. "The soul" is a technical issue in classical philosophy and literature. It concerns what the ancient Greeks believed about facing death and what Aristotle thought unified our questions about what constitutes a living being. When you merge talk about "the soul" in complicated books with a sentiment not entirely distinct from "listen to your parents' angry rants or your soul will go to hell," the complications become word salad instead of inquiries. I don't think anyone ever asked aloud one of the more interesting yet obvious questions: What would it mean to live without thinking about an afterlife, not even once?
So "the soul," for me, was a phrase which took some getting used to. Even now I'm not entirely comfortable with it in an academic setting. If you say it too much, it feels like you're preaching, even when you're trying to describe a phenomenon specific to a text. For a number of people, the move from "the soul" in Greek thought to the theology of the Middle Ages to their own faith in this day and age was seamless. They were always right.
Going back to Nekrasov's poem, I can only imagine how wild it is to write poetry—to teach poetry—and have to think seriously about “soul.” This is something, of course, you want to do. "Soul" may be overused, but it resides in lines immediately recognizable if not immortal.
To wit: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. What to do with the opening of the Magnificat?
You don’t want to reduce this to theology. Debates about what "soul" and "spirit" mean are a sideshow. Sure, "soul" in the Greek is psyche. We think of Cupid and Psyche, of desire counterbalanced by a knowing self. "My soul doth magnify the Lord," I know I am filled with greater purpose. "Spirit" is pneuma, breath. "My spirit hath rejoiced in God," I rejoice in the breath of life. These are not easy statements for anyone to say.
You want the drama to shine.
A young woman, unmarried, has just been informed she carries a divine personage. People nowadays think her sinless, which is fine, but it should not distract from how terrifying this whole event is. For her, there have been angels, there were signs. But what comes next?
All one can do is recall one’s faith. What has been taught, what is believed. It’s not an entirely pleasant moment.
It’s awe before the Lord, a literal transfiguration. You have to act like you understand it all, that it makes any sense. You’ll be depicted as one of the holiest of holies for centuries, but can that be seen and appreciated in the moment?
This heroic humility seems particularly apt when thinking of Christianity as apocalyptic. If the world will end in our lifetimes, then bravery in accepting the supernatural is the only virtue. We must be what we can’t fully conceive for the sake of the world to come. To be fair, this works for a number of situations where moral urgency is paramount. We have to be that much bigger than we are to meet the challenge.
"The Soul" is too much. "[J]ust kidding," it seems, is the plane on which we exist. Not everything is meant for the holiest of purposes.
"[J]ust kidding" feels authentic. Almost like there's another version of "the soul" besides "The Soul."
Dickinson provides us with an extreme example of that authenticity. “The Soul selects her own Society,” she says, and I’m not sure if she means to brag or cry. Kings and chariots don’t move the soul. A beloved? "I’ve known her – from an ample nation – / Choose One – / Then – close the Valves of her attention – Like Stone." It’s not even clear that the soul makes space for who it chooses.
The soul might be authenticity to such a degree that the rest of the world is forgotten. We, acting as normal people in our everyday lives, want to feel a real connection with the work we do. We are fortunate to not think too much about whether we have souls properly attuned to that work. A vague sense of satisfaction is enough. But the very concept of the soul raises the stakes. How far does pursuit of a "true self" go?
I’m tempted to conclude that the awkwardness of using "soul" has to do with it being unnecessary. That’s flatly not true. It’s corny and cliche in the way love is corny and cliche. There are higher commitments. We make them and we feel awful when we fail them. The soul is the stakes. I guess that's another reason why it’s a term I want to avoid—not out of shame, but reverence.