Literature as a Mode of Knowledge

old-booksDuring the last three weeks of July I had the marvelous opportunity to participate in a program at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. This program is for K-12 teachers and its purpose to get teachers reading the Classics, writing about them, hearing lectures, and discussing them with each other in seminar. This summer the focus was Tragedy and Comedy. The works we read were The Orestia, The Theban Plays, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Blood Weddings, four of Aristophanes’s comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Beloved, and Crime and Punishment. The main assumption that the Institute makes is that different disciplines have different modes of knowledge. That is, the way philosophy or history or theology or literature apprehend truth are all different from each other. Like individual sports, they each have their own set of rules, though they are all after the same goal (for sports, that is winning; for fields of knowledge, that is truth). At the Institute, the focus is on Literature as a mode of knowledge with an interest in mapping the poetic landscape. The Greek word poesis, which means the process of making, refers to all artistic rendering. And poesy is that art which refers to creative making with words. That is, the creation of stories. Getting a handle on how stories function within their own internal grammar was one of the more delightful parts of my experience at the Institute.

In this blog post, I plan to share a series of pieces I wrote while at the Institute. While I have edited and curated what follows, the work below represents pretty authentically my experiences in the moment as I journeyed through the Institute. I did write a couple of formal essays for the class, but I will not include those below. I will likely post them at a later time.

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Collective Memory and the Fall

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, when the first men make contact with the elves, they explain that “behind us lies a great darkness, and we have turned our back on it.” Yes, the men, unlike the elves, struggle with being swayed by evil en masse. While the elves have individuals who are seduced by evil and thus become dark elves, or who commit great errors that lead to a tragic doom (like Feanor and his sons whose great flaw results in elves killing elves and the banishment of the Noldor (one of the three large races of elves) to Middle Earth where they ultimately fail in their doomed war against the Enemy), they do not so so as a race. It is part of the human condition, it seems, that something has gone terribly wrong.

The Christian and Jewish myth (the Greek word muthos means something like “story;” this story can be either true or false or somewhere in the middle. When I talk about myth, I simply mean “story;” I am not assessing the historicity of the story) presents the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall in the Garden of Eden as the source of the trouble, the specific problem being that Adam and Eve were seduced by Satan into a desire to be like God. The problem, in Christian theology then, is one of idolatry and denial of the right order of creation. Though I long ago gave up the belief that Genesis 1 is describing history qua history (it is a poem after all), I still base my basic idea about the human condition on this template. Something has gone terribly wrong, and I wonder what really happened back in the depth of time.

That something went wrong is obvious. And while there may be times of relative virtue and peace among humans, we are innately diseased. And while some families may suffer from very specific generational curses (alcoholism, suicide, incest, neglect/abuse, etc), there also seems to be a general curse on humanity that is inherited as our birthright. The Christian myth brings this out poignantly when it affirms that death, and therefore our fear of death (which is the basis for much of our sin), emerges with this primordial Fall.

The earliest Greek myths, like Kronos eating his children or the Furies exacting vengeance, speak to this fact that something deep in our past went wrong. The portrayal of Reason and Civilization over the Irrational and Barbaric–the archetypal masculine over the archetypal feminine–in Greek tragedy, especially the Oresteia, echoes poetically the impulse that Tolkien has when his humans acknowledge a darkness that they do not want to be reminded of. Of course, tragedy in its full flower moves through three stages of Fall, partial Healing, and Redemption.

A particularly interesting pericope to help us think about this would be Frodo. He inherits the cursed ring, is wounded by the Nazgul, is partially healed by Elrond, but still undergoes the agons of Mt. Doom. And, even after the Eucatastrophe in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo finds that his woulds still bother him and ultimately he has to seek a return to the State of Grace in the land of the gods.

If Tragedy is capable of capturing by analogy the Great Fall we have in our collective memory an in our hearts, then it does a great service to us by bringing what has been concealed into revelation The murder of Abel by Cain, the rape of Lot by his two daughters, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the story of Job, and all the rest–all of these stories work by analogy to provoke feat and pity and thus, in the Aristotelian sense, they help us purge the poison of the fall via the psychological mechanism of Catharsis. These works are thus and aid to sanctification in that way. Humanity’s pursuit of virtue in the fallen world (comedy as an image of Heaven) is thus aided by such tragic literature.

One of the main points, of course, is that this original, terrible Fall cannot be recovered factually, but its sense is preserved in myth, and thus literature works because it is its own mode of knowledge helping us understand truth we could get no other way.

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Reflections on Iphigenia

Iphigenia’s choice to go to her death bravely rather than in a rage or in tears indicates her tragic acceptance of Fate. My instinct would have been to insist that if I was going to be murdered for the sake of blood lust, then they would be forces to see their shame. Using my death as a prophetic critique, I would force the mob to look at me. But she is a good Greek and chose the Greek idea of a good death.

One feature of tragedy, of course, is that there is never enough time. Agamemnon in the end wants to save his daughter, but the actions he can take to plausibly free her are increasingly proscribed; he is being led down a path which, at the end, contains only one choice. But I actually don’t see Agamemnon left with a single choice at the end. He could choose to die defending his daughter, knowing that he will also be killed. The scene in which Iphigenia and Orestes kneel before their father and beg for Iphigenia’s life is deeply moving; how can a father say no?

I am reminded of a quote from Robert Nozick (the philosopher who wrote the libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia) about the importance of respecting the unique worth of each individual. It bears repeating in full here:

Using one person for the benefit of others uses him and benefits others, nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good [read: the entrenchment of the Polis over the Oikos], but to use a person in this way does not sufficiently respect, nor does it take account of the fact, that he is a separate person, that this is the only life he had. He gets no overwhelming social benefit from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force it on him, least of all a state or government which claims his allegiance, as other individuals do not, and therefore must be scrupulously neutral between its citizens. 

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Reflections on Oedipus at Colonus

What seems particularly striking about Oedipus at Colonus is that we have, or seem to have, all of the elements of Christian salvation and reconciliation with God.

  • Oedipus is more sinned against than sinning (to borrow Lear’s phrase). His downfall was fated and his disgrace has been overbearing. He does not deserve what has happened to him.
  • Oedipus is promised that if he endures his suffering well, salvation will come to him. The Greek tragic sense contained the truth of pathei mathos, that we suffer into wisdom. Indeed, Oedipus’s suffering is necessary for his salvation.
  • Oedipus undergoes an almost resurrection. Of course, he does not return to this world in a new body, but his spirit is translated to Heaven in some way.
  • The glory of the god (in this case Apollo) is demonstrated through the life of Oedipus. In ways similar to Job in the Bible, Oedipus was specially selected by the gods to undergo extreme suffering in order for the divine to be worshiped and affirmed.
  • Divine providence is the guiding force in all of the Theban plays, but especially Oedipus at Colonus as Oedipus seeks only to gain the reward he was promised by following the god’s instructions.
  • And of course, the lesson that Oedipus learns at the end is that love is what matters most. The love he has for his daughters is tenderly and poignantly depicted.

It is striking to me that all of these elements are present in a play that predates Christianity by centuries. This speaks to the universality of these themes. The story of the Gospel really is the true myth, as Tolkien would have it, that is present (if obscured) in all cultures since all cultures reflect what is in the mind of God in some way. Furthermore, Paul’s idea that without love we are just loud gongs an clanging cymbals seems applicable to both the Gospel story and to Oedipus. Or, to borrow again from King Lear, without love we are but sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Reflections on Blood Wedding

There is something stirring about the passion present in both the play and the film. But I simply don’t understand the kind of passion that would ruin a wedding, run off with a lover, and defy the only institution that gave structure in the marginal, rural society: the family. Maybe I don’t understand it because I’ve never experienced Eros to that degree. Betrayal, love, wounded pride–none of this is foreign to me. I even understand (or at least can see my way to understanding) the kind of failed courtly love that T.H. White depicts between Lancelot and Guinevere in The once and Future King, a kind of on again, off again, passionate struggle to subdue attraction to reason. But I don’t understand the elemental, passionate, burning Eros that drives the characters. Maybe that is because I don’t live in a wasteland.

Victor Hugo says in Les Miserables that in nature man can become savage, but noble–a kind of natural excess. But that cities corrupt and that makes ferocious men–ferocity born out of a disordered love. I guess what we have in Blood Wedding is that kind of excessive passion (which is why it is harder to condemn) as opposed to the decaying lusts of the city. Living in the city, I am more corrupt than I want to think about. I am deeply acquainted with all of the cultural vices. The passion of the countryside terrifies me in its rawness and overwhelms me with its excess. In my snootiness, I condemn it, though its honest excess is better than my dishonest one. It is a bonfire while mine is a fungus.

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Reflections on Beloved

I’ve been thinking about why Beloved has been so difficult for me. I think, perhaps, it is because I’ve not been able to achieve the critical distance necessary for interpretation. That is, the images are too startling and striking–they are too absorbing–for me to get away from them. Unlike the Greek plays in which the horrors occur off stage, Beloved has clearly described instances of infanticide–in all of its horror–right on the page. But these same instances in a Greek play would be ineffable. Further, as a father of two toddlers, I struggle to achieve critical distance because the physics of the act (how the act itself was done) seem to real to me. I don’t know whether I think this is a flaw in the work or if I think it is a good thing, but for the first time during the Institute, I largely cannot really do the hermeneutical work that I wand to do. The images are hyperreal.

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Reflections on the Comic Feminine and Baran

——Dr. Claudia Allums delivered a lecture one day of the Institute in which she argued that the Virgin (one of the comic feminine tropes) is that part of us that is pure and unsullied by others; it is our truest self. In this reflection, I disagree with her.——

While I agree that the Virgin is a feminine trope in the comic terrain, I disagree with the application of that trope to our “core” selves. Among other things, such a “core” self is a Gnostic idea, assuming that is is possible to have an identity apart from our relationships. But that is not true. We only know who we are in relation to others, God, and the world. Furthermore, the Virgin as a trope actually obscures the individual because it presents aloofness and lack of experience. Using “Virgin” as a category names lack of experience in the world as part of identity, which by definition means that a person is less unique. Blank slates are all the same, no matter what they become later. I completely understand virginal purity, innocence, holiness etc. But I think think that translates well to individual identity, which is why religions movements and religious orders have often prized virginity so highly; it leads to a single-minded devotion and conformity, not to individual expression. Baran does not seem to me like an individual. She is abstracted, lacks agency, and confirms to her father’s expectations. She never speaks and simply remains an ideal that inspires the main character to change, much like abstracted beauty present in art and other media can do.