There be dragons!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I'm Nobody, Who Are You?

I just came off of a class session with sophomores talking about Emily Dickinson's great poem "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?"

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Dickinson isn't just on some misery trip, here, bemoaning her lack of recognition; "Oh boo hoo hoo, Emily, nobody loves you - why don't you go eat some worms" (before they eat you, as Poe would suggest in "
Conqueror Worm").
No, there is something much more stunning in this poem. The two parts of the poem set up two possible ways of progressing through life between the freaks and the normals.

The normals in the second stanza are those who go through their lives seeking fame, success, recognition, health, beauty, influence and happiness in things; they enjoy sitting around talking about football teams, they like going to mixers and getting blitzed, they appreciate the praise and honor of their colleagues (even those they've trodden upon to reach their current tax bracket), they vacation in Barbados, they go to their cabin on the weekends, they exercise at the gym and enjoy good bowel movements by eating Activia and Bran cereal every morning. That's the normal course of existence. But, Dickinson suggests, it is an empty, cold, lifeless course, like a bog, dead to the reality of our existence and sucking down everything in sight. The normals, she suggests, are like frogs (to borrow the image from
Plato's dialogue).

But the other course of existence isn't much better. Dickinson is not just saying that she's comfortable with her Goth attitude. The fact that she calls herself a Nobody means more than a lack of recognition and popularity. Rather, "Nobody" is like "nothingness" - a vast, abyssal darkness at the heart of our existence as humans - a gulf so profound and terrifying that it is difficult to express it to anyone else lest they think of you as a freak. Once seeing that our life as humans has at its core this hollowness all other events, awards, amusements become trivial; "
there was a ship" says the Ancient Mariner. The darkness of life is in the morning, at noon, and at evening and how are we to crawl out of it? How put one foot before the next and make it out of Shelob's lair? Despair seems immanent and the chaotic destructiveness of Grendel, the Joker, or suicides such as Richard Corey seems an inevitability. Even in trying to find some other person who has gone through this experience is an impossibility b/c our pain is our own; each of us in his prison/Thinking of the key, as T.S. Elliot says. The terror is palpable that if anyone were to see the darkness we have witnessed they would throw us in a well, banish us, exile us from the good time everyone else is having. The situation is that everyone else "ate the food, drank the wine... had a good time, except you, you were talking about the end of the world."
So what are we to do? The bog is a lie as much as the cake is a lie. But the exile on the blasted plain is cold, alone, and desperate.

Surely there is a great heroism in the person who knows this reality and yet endures and yet is cheerful and yet continues to try and live their life w/o putting a gun in their mouth. And surely the experience ought to teach us mercy rather than judgmentalism toward the pain and suffering others undergo.

So I am amused at my young students who, in their vast experience of life, have determined that worldly success, fame, popularity are where it's at - and anyone raining on that parade, like Dickinson or Poe or Jesus or me, ought to be discounted ... or thrown off a cliff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


This is a double post which I just put up on dooHickey as well.

I just saw this flick based on a student recommendation and loan (thanks, Thom). It's wicked good & cool. I would put it in the ranks of Blade Runner, Pi, The Sweet Hereafter, and Gattaca and other fly-under-the-radar earth shattering movies.

The basic premise is a simple gangster revenge movie, Statham playing an Irish tough just out of jail seeking revenge on Ray Liotta's gang boss. There's some sexuality, lots of graphic violence, and some video ramping and a wierd animated section (the point of which I really don't grasp) but these are all surmountable.

Guy Ritchie uses the genre, however, to create a very complex psychological tale, full of twists, turns and unique imagery, ultimately comprising an incredibly profound tale of redemption. I won't give away plot too much but the final premise of the movie is that the ultimate battle is not between the gangsters (and by extraction, not between humans) but between the gangster and his own self (and consequently between each man and his own consciousness). Thus the movie raises the remarkable proposition, however flawed perhaps it may be, that our whole spiritual structure is an attempt to grapple with the bitch of consciousness. What does it mean to be conscious; aware of our selves and aware that we are aware? Doesn't such awareness pose a problem, most immediate of which is that in order to contemplate anything we make it an other than ourselves - thus our perception of ourself is other than us and we risk schizophrenia of sorts or hypocrisy at best wherein our perception of ourselves is vastly superior to the reality of what we are? This gap or lacuna between observer and observed seems to be what we mean by the word "sin" - a nothing; a gap into which darkness pours like water.

My only disagreement with the film's philosophy is that the attempt to give word to the struggle of man with his consciousness is an attempt to reinvent the wheel; to give a language to some phenomenon that humans endure when there is already a language for just that... namely the language of religion. Religious language (whichever religion we are talking of) exists for precisely this reason, namely, to give language and thus sense to the confusing and difficult reality of our self-awareness. To try to give a new language of psychology or what have you is a bit like ignoring 2000+ years of scholarly attempt to do exactly this; like a man trying to invent the wheel while automobiles whizz past him.

In the end, perhaps, the movie assumes that the language provided by religion may not be any longer effective and perhaps this is so. As humans we have a tendency to take as real the model we create in order to understand the real; idolatry - the worship of the image and forgotting the imaged. Thus it is possible that modern religions, Christianity immediately, may not be able to discuss the issue any longer b/c their language is too concretized. But it may also be that in order to understand this phenomenon first we each have to master the language (or langauges) available for discussing the problem and to this Guy Ritchie has added a very important piece of the lexicon.