Running on Empty
The unfortunate thing is that the verbal art works with a material that the rabble handles every day. That is why literature is beyond help. The farther it moves itself from comprehensibility, the more importunately do the people claim their material. The best thing would be to keep literature secret from the people until there is a law that prohibits them from using language, permitting them only to use sign language in urgent cases....Sign language would be entirely sufficient for the ideas which they have to communicate to one another. Karl Kraus
Kraus identified defective use of language with a defective moral and metaphysical outlook; for him linguistic obtuseness was invariably equated with intellectual or ethical obtuseness. In Nachts, he wrote; "This is something that I can not get over-- that a whole line could be written by half a man. That a work could be built on the quicksand of a character."
Harry Zohn, in Karl Kraus, p. 59
WHILE doing the brooding that I blithely call "research" for this little essay, I fell into idle chitchat with a student friend, a very nice young man. I asked him to make an inventory of an ordinary day in his life and discover some portion of it through which he could not successfully get with nothing more than some sign language. He brooded for a bit. "Well," he said at last, "suppose I have to buy gas?"
He was not joking. He had thought it out. But, from very far away, I thought I could hear someone laughing, so I did not ask him to elaborate, to explain just what it was about buying gas that would call for the use of language.
That Karl Kraus who is named above is the subject of a fine and thoughtful critical biography by Harry Zohn, who was, in 1979, chairman of the Department of' Germanic and Slavic Languages at Brandeis University. He may still be. I hope he is, It was in 1979 that he sent me a copy of his book, for which, now having opened it, I am very grateful. (I hope he will not be offended, but it could be worse. Heinrich Zimmer's The King and the Corpse rested unopened and in plain sight for thirty years, waiting patiently for me to be ready.)
Karl Kraus lived in Vienna in the great age, from 1874 to 1936, from the first performance of Die Fledermaus to the Proclamation of the Rome-Berlin Axis. He was a prodigious writer, poet dramatist, journalist, critic, essayist. He published, and also wrote, Die Fackel, a periodic journal that ran to thirty-seven volumes, all out a writing preparatory to the writing of books. Of Hitler, the writer of millions and millions of words was unable to speak-- "Mir fällt zu Hitler nicht ein." In his last poem he summed it up thus: Und Stille gibt es, da die Erde krachte." And now there is silence, since the earth cracked. Brecht said of him, "When the age died by its own hand, he was that hand." One Frank Field, in The Last Days of Mankind: Karl Kraus and His Vienna, put it so:
"In the twelve years that followed the accession of Hitler to power, things were to happen that surpassed the most pessimistic insights of the satirist: the building of the concentration camp at Buchenwald around Goethe's beech tree, and the processions that took place into the extermination chambers of Auschwitz while elsewhere in the camp the orchestra played selections from Viennese light music--all this only becomes a little more explicable after reading the work of Karl Kraus."
In the worst of times, satire does seem to dry up. It is the business of satire, after all, to reveal the generally unsuspected silliness of things, and when silliness itself is driven out by something far worse, the satirist doesn't find much to say. I can't be sure--is Kraus being satirical when he suggests that almost everybody, that is, the rabble, could conduct whatever business it needs to conduct by sign language? Swift played around with an idea like that in the Academy of Legado, where the philological scholars were trying to replace language entirely with the display of objects. They projected a system in which a man leaving home in the morning would haul along a great bag full of all the things he might have to refer to, and then drag them out and show as need arose. It's funny. But Kraus's proposed law to forbid language and to let a system of signs serve--but only in urgent cases--is not funny. Maybe that's because the Legado plan just couldn't be brought off, while the Kraus plan could.
We have already accomplished the suggested prelude to such a plan. If you don't believe that literature has been kept secret from the people, then you are deep in ignorance about our schools, colleges, and universities. Oh yes, there are some people there who are reading literature, but they are not "the people." Mostly they are either the secret-keepers or those who would like to join the secret-keepers, who are, they gladly admit, classy.
Not too long ago, the secret-keepers were in big trouble. The stuff they were using was coming to be thought irrelevant. Since they could think of no convincing argument for its relevance, they started fattening their curricula with the stuff that the complainers would call relevant. That it was literature, who can say, but that it was polemic anyone can say. Indeed, those who pronounced it relevant did so because it was perfectly clear to them that it was polemical. Suddenly remembering all the relevantizing of curriculum, I think I can almost understand what Kraus meant with the half a man and the whole line. A writer with a social agenda can not be whole; "part" is in the heart of "partisan."
That manoevre did bring in some new bodies to sit in the chairs in English department courses, for a while, and they were occasionally, to be sure, the bodies of those who might well be called "the people," but if you can train the people into the belief that polemic is literature, you have simply found a cunning but socially acceptable way of keeping literature secret from them. Exactly such a system worked to the same end for a long time in the old Soviet Union, where the literature of Boy Loves Collective and Makes Quota easily drove out the stuff that can not be read at all with sign language.
Then along came Cultural Literacy. Wow. The mother-lode. What, these kids have never even heard of Polonius or little whatsername scampering across the ice flows? You say they can't tell the best of times from the worst of times, or figure the value of four-score and seven? Whew. Well, we can fix that. We'll run off these big lists and give tests, And that is to say, of course, that you can "read" a culture without its literature, without the bother of gathering and holding its ideas, considering their genesis and evolution, and weighing them in the balance with each other. When you have memorized enough bits of information, a great light will glow in your mind and you will be culturally literate and able--well, perhaps not to compete with the Japanese, but at least to drop a reference to T. S. Eliot at the cocktail party in celebration of your company's takeover.
(One of the Great Themes of American Educationism is hidden in all the Cultural Literacy nonsense. It seems to be based on the assumption that if one man can invent the light bulb in a thousand days of work, then a thousand men can do the same in a day. Thus, if there is some decision that a wise man ought to be able to make, we can find it without any wise man at all simply by assembling a big enough collection of fools and calling them a committee. Or a congress, come to think of it. Hmm. Could be this is a Great Theme of something even bigger than American Educationism? Scary.)
All of that dodging and finagling wasn't really necessary. The Big Secret of keeping literature secret from the people had actually been well-known and hard at work for a long time. It's easy when you know how. All you have to do to keep them from reading literature is to keep them from reading. First of all, you say that literature is just a way of communicating, and therefore a nice and pleasant thing indeed, but a lesser thing than the Big Thing, COMMUNICATION itself. And let's face it, sure they need to read, but don't worry, they will pick that up, as well as many cheerful facts about this and that, as we teach them Communication! Voilà.
And so a book is communication. It is, really, just like the face of a clock, although sometimes longer. As the clock tells you what time it is, War and Peace will tell you, should you for some reason of your own end up reading it, all about Borodino, and then you'll know. Pretty neat, eh? And you might even, if you're that sort of person, find it kind of fun. Of course, if all you want to read is Stephen King, well, that's OK; you'll find out stuff in that too. And it's even more fun. And that is the real business of communication--finding out stuff And it certainly can happen in reading too, but there is this difference: in communication that's all that happens; in reading it is the barest beginning.
We do not need to require the people by law to restrict themselves to sign language. With just a little help from the schools, they have already been trained into sign language. Sign language has the same attributes as communication. It has, and it must have if it is to "work," no use for metaphor or ambiguity. In the instructions for assembling either a bicycle or a bomber, there is no place for irony. A thought-provoking turn of speech or a description of a room that somehow reminds us of a certain way of living would be an arrogant impertinence in the fat booklet of instructions put out by the tax people.
Communication is, and should be, all up front, when we have given it our attention, when we have looked at and received it, it is over. Its language and its images will not come back in future years to haunt us in the still watches of the night or waken us with unexpected light.
Literature is not communication. As we look upon its face, it points over its shoulder and beyond. How far? We can never know. At what? We have now some inkling and now another. When we have read it, we are only beginning, we have only set a foot on its path, a path that leads...well, we don't know where. Literature changes us, so that we can not throw it away once we have taken it in, as we can, and should, throw away the instructions for the Mister Coffee machine. And it changes us continually. We can, no, we must, for we can not help it, read it again and again, even when we lend it to a friend who never returns it.
Well, it's unfashionable but it must be said: Literature is Art. And we don't really know what it means, although we do know that it is, it's there, it exists.
There is another way to make this distinction, using some of Kraus's words, or Zohn's maybe, where he connects a defective use of language with a defective moral and metaphysical outlook.
Where communication is, and had better be, phenomenal, tied in logical correspondence to what is out there, literature is metaphysical, whispering to what is in here. Where communication is practical and to be judged only by the correctness of its correspondences, literature is moral, hinting at meaning in lives and deeds, and to be judged by its truth, if only we knew the truth.
A sign language will serve well as one of those devices, and you really could get your gas tank filled with it if you had to.
Words, Words, Words
My own head is capable of only a few clear thoughts about a human condition that drives those in whom it resides to kill a neighbor or to attack a child for the color of his skin.
There is justifiable hatred as there is justifiable war. For the respect of God and for the sake of human sanity: there is difference, a chasm, between the emotion instilled by intolerable oppression -- the slave for the owner in earlier centuries, the victim of religious, racial or political pogrom in our own--and the hatred taught for the purpose of creating victims or achieving power.
Perhaps it would help if we used different words to distinguish between them--using detestation for the former and saving hatred for the latter. Because they hate, we detest them.
WE KNEW A MAN who was hating Rohm and Haas. He was not at all reluctant to say so, and with bitter conviction. It all had something to do with chemicals.
We also knew him well enough to refrain from asking him how well he knew those chaps. After all, one could conceivably hate Abbott and Costello, or even Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, without ever having met them, but he didn't seem to mean the same kind of thing by his hatred of Rohm and Hass, who probably died long ago in any case. People who hate Abbott and Costello can just turn them off; they feel no need to rail against the miscreants and probably do not lie awake seething in the still watches of the night. But our friend seemed quite unable to turn off those two probably dead tycoons. He was really mad as hell.
His variety of hatred, of course, is well known and actually very popular. It is taught in the schools and preached in many a pulpit. It is the kind we are expected to feel for all the Bad People, the polluters, the war mongers, the too rich, the killers of Bambi, the heedless of dolphins, the depleters of ozone, the driers of wet lands, and for all we know, the wetters of dry lands. The list is very, very long. Indeed, the only people we are not supposed to hate are all those right-minded haters.
The writer who is quoted above would probably say that he has yet another sort of hating in mind. He is A. M. Rosenthal, whose column often appears in the New York Times. In this case, he was brooding, as one should, on some questions that Elie Weisel had asked, and left unanswered, in talking to a colloquium of some sort in Moscow. Rosenthal summarizes and paraphrases Weisel's questions thus:
"What is hatred and how is one to define its parameters? Where does it begin and how does one know it before the knife is raised--what are its symptoms? Are they envy, or ambition or thirst for power, lust for domination or religious blindness? Was King Solomon right to declare in Ecclesiastes that there is a time for love and a time to hate? When?"
Well, those are interesting questions, interesting but tough, as Huck Finn said of Pilgrim's Progress, and Rosenthal knows better than to try to answer them. He does, however, go on to reveal, and probably quite inadvertently, exactly why it is so hard not only to answer but even to think about questions of that sort. It is because nobody knows what they mean. And he also reveals, and this time surely inadvertently, why there will be no end to the evil that he laments along with Elie Wiesel. It is because anyone who feels like it can choose for himself his own meaning of hatred and call it by some other name.
The same is not true of fish. Even among us, driven to the very edge of idiocy by the pseudoscience of social science, laughter alone would sufficiently answer all questions about the parameters of fish and the definition of those parameters. And a shrug would be the most astute response we could possibly make to a man who wanted to call a fish something else.
Maybe that is what Gertrude Stein had in mind with that "rose" business. A fish just plain is a fish, We may fight over who gets the fish, but no one will go the barricades to make us admit that it's a mushroom,
It may be that Wittgenstein was right, if this, as we sometimes suspect, was what he meant: that all of our confusions, all of our disorder, (would he have said also, all of our badness?), is rooted in our failure to examine our language and to take account of its failures.
We can usefully say of "hatred" and of "love" and countless other intangibles as well, exactly what Augustine said of Time: We know exactly what they are, except when someone asks us to explain what they are. This is not a defect in our language any more than the failure to indicate relative humidity is a failure in a clock. Countless such words stand as markers at the boundaries of vast mysteries pointing back over their shoulders and saying no more.
Beyond them lies something that is not susceptible to language. If we are confused about this, supposing that they must point to things analogous to fish, although even more complex, we will talk nonsense, and will imagine that if as many of us as possible will talk as long as possible we will eventually be clear as to what the thing is. This is why the ruminations of the social sciences are so verbose and jargon-laden, and also, of necessity, interminable. There may indeed be no such thing as the last word where fish are concerned, but we can come as close as we need to, and there most certainly is a last word about such things as the ohm and the kilogram, but of hatred and love there is really no word beyond the first word.
Rosenthal seems to be sorry that the meeting in Moscow failed even to try to answer Wiesel's questions. We suspect that he would be much sorrier if they had tried, and if he were required to read the complete transcript of their ruminations. It would be the sort of document that many of our readers send us for examination, provided, of course that they are rich enough to pay that much postage. And the end of the matter there would be…what? Do you suppose it would satisfy Rosenthal, and you, so that we could now go forth proclaiming Eureka? Here's what we must do about this long, long record of human crimes and infamies. Fat chance.
The whole record of myth and legend show us that Elie Wiesel is not the first to brood on the mystery of hatred. That record also shows us that Rosenthal is not the first to say, Well, of course, some hatred, my kind, is OK. After all, what I hate is bad, and it should be hated. Can he suppose that those on the other side say anything different, that they intended to be bad and chose to hate what they knew to be good?
Orestes did not devise an alternate vocabulary in which to convince himself that matricide was "justified" by his mother's misdeeds, He knew he had to kill her, but he knew just as well that it was an evil act for which he would, and should, be punished.
What he did not know, and what Rosenthal does not seem to know, is that the mythic record also shows the only way out of the cycle of crime and retribution. Orestes didn't know it because he wasn't able to read his own story, and Rosenthal doesn't know it, or, knowing it, can't accept it, probably because of membership in some ideological faction. And, among us, there is no hope of finding a truly disinterested agent who will stand, like Theseus, between the hostile partners who are everywhere and always the indispensable components of any cycle of retribution. That's why Theseus is a myth, and why he will not appear on the border, saying, O Jews, O Arabs, you have suffered enough and more than enough; forget, each and everyone of you, forget forever all your transgressions against one another and forgive in your hearts all that is passed.
And anyone who would like to try that will quickly discover that the Jews and the Arabs are not opponents in everything.
So what, in these days, shall we say of the myths? What shall we say of the apotheosis of Œdipus at Colonus, of the ultimate release and redemption of Prometheus? Shall we say that these are nursery tales for children, whom no one ever believed anyway, or that they are the foolish imaginings of ignorant primitives who had not the advantage of our understanding of modern psychology?
And shall we, having indeed said all that and more such, go further and say of ourselves: Ah, but we, we know something. If we hold some meetings, organize a few encounter groups, and, of course, get the help of the real professionals as moderators and facilitators, well, the first thing you know, Earth will be fair, and all men glad and wise.
That is, of course, exactly what we do keep saying. And exactly what we keep doing in all mysterious matters--crime, war, poverty, marriage, parent hood . . . another long list. And what we have to show for it is exactly what we deserve. Darkened counsel. Words, words, words. Billions and billions of words.
Psyche in Darkness
Psyche Papers--Number Four
For the first time in my life, I began to look inward for solutions as well as outward.
In this frank and personal book you'll meet a new Gloria Steinem who forges a crucial link between the internal world of self-discovery and the external world of social justice. Gloria explains how to find self-esteem that leads to personal, political, and social change, and why the struggle for self-esteem will become this decade's revolution.
New York Times ad blurb for Gloria Steinem's new book.
GLORIA STEINEM, like all the prominent public people, is well-known. That is what it means to be prominent and public. At the same time, however, she is, except perhaps to very few, utterly unknown. She was pointed out to me once in one of those restaurants where editors take authors and where all the bills are paid by someone who doesn't get to eat any of the food. Oh, I said, so that's Gloria Steinem. But, of course, it wasn't, it was only a projection, a shadow on the wall of the cave. And had I in fact met her, and chatted a bit, I would surely later have been asked, So what is Gloria Steinem really like. I would, of course, have been quite unable to say.
In our time, people like Gloria Steinem are too numerous to count. They are out there, visibly out there, getting things done, saying things, explaining things on talk shows, representing their particular views on panels, providing print-bites on current events and pending legislation for reporters. Busy, busy, busy. They are the opinion-moulders, the consciousness-raisers, the unelected movers and shakers of the elected movers and shakers. And, while those on this side of an issue will always see them as the peskiest of partisans on the other side, we owe them all gratitude. In public, they do indeed, however shrilly and intemperately sometimes, wrestle out for us questions that we should have wrestled out for ourselves, but didn't.
The life that they lead is tempting. What fun it is to be recognized on airplanes and in restaurants. How good it feels to fly first-class and be met by a liveried chauffeur who whisks you away to the studio where everybody is very, very courteous. It makes you feel very good.
But there is an even greater charm in that life, to which even well-known mafioso and congressmen are warmly admitted. The life of a Gloria Steinem is clothed in virtue. She is doing good, making the world a better place.
It is no wonder that such a life is preached and promoted in our schools and other government institutions. It is, after all, exactly the sort of life that suggests, even in a dissident, the moral worth of government. Those who will busily and publicly promote causes, even unpopular ones, are either living and visible witnesses to the much prized responsiveness of liberal democracy, or, in the case of the dissidents, testimony to its tolerance. Thus it is that even very little children are continuously urged, if not exactly to seek the life of a Gloria Steinem, at least to be worried about the whales and the poor, and to produce posters in favor of the earth. If all such preachings and similar elements in what we call education were seen together, as from a great distance, we would readily notice that one great theme unites them all. They are all about the world out there, and the moral strength imputed to them is so great as to suggest that there is something downright selfish and immoral in paying too much attention to the world within. And so it is that Gloria Steinem, long, long after having done with school, has suddenly discovered the inner life.
Even now, however, the newly wakened inkling can find in itself nothing more than yet another mechanism by which to "solve problems," and no greater agenda than the establishment of "self-esteem." School does hang on; it will never let us go. A long-buried yearning for the wealth of the inner life reveals itself at last and is immediately assigned the role of adjunct agent in the service of the agenda of the world out there. It is as though Gloria Steinem had said, Now that I like myself even better, I can do even more good. Which is again the theme of school.
Psyche, too, had her time of public prominence. It was to see her that "people made long pilgrimages over land and sea to witness the greatest wonder of the age." And all those pilgrims were, we can be sure, very, very courteous. When it was all over, and her death was at hand, her parents bitterly bemoaning her fate, she spoke thus of her time as a celebrity: "When the people all over the world celebrated me as the New Venus and offered me sacrifices, then was the time for you to grieve and weep as though I were already dead."
We, too, are not inclined to weep when we behold those who have lost themselves, and the sight of themselves, in the sparkling cascade of current events. We will, of course, if they are able partisans of factions other than ours, gnash our teeth, but we will not lament them as lost.
The story of Psyche is a story about self-knowledge. It is also, in some part, a story about the greatest inhibitor of self-knowledge--self-esteem, in which Psyche might well have been rich indeed in those days when people came from afar merely to behold her, to eat, perhaps, in restaurants where she might be pointed out. We see but little of her life as a celebrity, but what we do see is a kind of blithe self-assurance. When feasts were spread for her, she must have eaten them, and on the flowers scattered in her path she must have walked. And it was in beauty and goodness that she walked; her very presence made the world a better place. And had she not ever come to the attention of the Goddess herself, what then? Would she have lived such a life permanently, saying to herself, this is the life! This is the life that I want to live, and that I should live. And had she lived it, what would we say of her now, what would we discover in recounting her life?
In the time of Apuleius there were no talk-shows, and what we see now as the life of celebrity would have passed all understanding in that world. The important resemblance between the early life of Psyche and the modern life of celebrity lies only in this: it is a life in which the world out there is the world, the only world, and the only reality. One need not be a Psyche to live in such a world. Indeed, it is the common lot of persons to be born into that world, to be born, as it were, in captivity, and to dwell exclusively in it for a season. So rich and various is that world, so profoundly convincing, that we can all come, in time, to take it for the world, and far from looking for escape, can come also to suppose that separation from the world is death. In the case of Psyche, it is.
The word "education" means an act of leading forth, bringing out. Psyche alone can see her own sentence of death as education. Our own notion of education would probably seem to Apuleius curiously misguided. It consists almost entirely of walls and bars, as though we feared very much the kind of "death" that we would surely suffer should we come to discover that all our thinking and all our believing have been laid upon us from without. Emerson says it somewhere: if you do not make your own self, someone else will certainly make it for you. What a task it is, how immeasurably great a struggle, to put away all influence, to discover and understand the self not as what the world sees and says that is.
Here is another way to look at the story of Psyche, indeed, a useful way in which to consider any story. A story is a story. It is not life. It is not the world. It is an imaginative construction. It is a portrait not simply of persons but of the idea of person itself.* Read the story as though it were all a portrait of one person, and everything in it an element of that person. This is not all that hard to do. What is one of your dreams but exactly that? It is made entirely of your own stuff. Indeed, you haven't any other stuff than that. Thus you can see that the jealousy of Venus, and the sentence of death as well, are in the person. No injustice is done to Psyche by Venus. It is a dream death, an inner death; it is the "death" of anyone who says, I must change my life, and then changes it.
Something there is in us all that does not like the way we are living, and wonders, especially in the evening, just why it is that we do live this way. It might as well be called a goddess. It is as though it were the aim of the world out there, of politics and money and social expectation, of all that is local and temporary, to put the goddess to sleep. When she sleeps, all seems well, and we are actually pleased to be getting and spending, and displaying our right-mindedness and virtue by joining the right idea clubs and getting out the vote.
It seems not only right but visibly respectable that we have pitched camp and settled down beside the road that probably doesn't go anywhere anyway. When the goddess stirs in her sleep, we have a bad moment, a little doubt, and we look down the road with puzzlement and vexation, but a good political scandal, or even an increase in the price of car insurance, will bring us back to what we call our "senses." But should that lady awake, and tell us what she really thinks, we are called to nothing less than a death, a real and permanent end to this life. We prefer not to go.
It is one of the important differences between life and stories that what happens in life is what happens, while what happens in a story, or more precisely in a true story, is what should happen.
In life, ten thousand Psyches today will easily put Venus back to sleep. In our story, all is arranged so that that is not possible, because the story is true, not factual, not historical, but true. In a true story, the Psyche who walks in darkness sees a great light, whether she wants to or not.
She will, of course, walk in darkness yet again, when her mysterious, glorious husband visits her by night and forbids her the sight of him. From that darkness, too, she must be released, but the agents of her release will be powers very different from the goddess. In his lovely retelling of this story, C. S. Lewis comes to a hard patch here.
The Lewis version, for those of you who have not yet read it, is called Till We Have Faces, and it is a wonderful, wise book. It has the great virtue of being--well, non-sectarian seems not good enough a word, perhaps "nonpartisan" would be better. This is an especially valuable virtue in the case of so rigorous a Christian apologist. It is as though Lewis had, toward the end of his life, found that "religion is even more important than one of "the religions," which might more usefully be called "persuasions," since it is entirely through the process of persuasion that they can establish and support themselves as "religions." Had they evidence to show, this world would be different. But in the case of Psyche's release from the dark intoxication of the flesh, it is probably out of simple, Christian reluctance that he finds himself utterly unable to do what must be done. He can't kill the sisters, which would be quite bad enough, but, even worse, he can not let Psyche kill them.
Our culture wrestles in vain with what it is our custom to call the "problem" of capital punishment. That we wrestle in vain, does us credit, but that we call this a "problem," takes some of that credit away. Our wrestling comes from the collision of two suspicions that we can not, and should not, ignore. On the one hand, we suspect that any human life holds measureless possibilities; on the other, that there are some deeds, and some doers, that we simply must not tolerate if we are to be a sane and decent society. There is a mystery here, and not a problem. If we call it a problem we imagine that there is some path of logic that leads to what we will call a solution. A person who solves this problem does so only by putting away utterly one or the other of the two suspicions. That can be done, and is done, of course, but only out of the remarkable hardness of heart that disguises itself as nothing more than being "realistic." It is our inability to abandon either one that demonstrates the worth and power of such suspicions. Suspicions of mystery like these--or like that of the disapproving goddess--can surely be stamped out, but in the society that has stamped them out, we would not want to live.
The same suspicion of mystery vexes all our considerations of killing. How clearly we can see, sometimes and for a while, that now we must kill. And how bemusedly we wonder about it later. The Christian persuasion of Lewis purports to be clear in this matter--No killing. But then it also says "except..." And thereupon arises a great cloud of vain argumentation. Let us ask it in another way, asking not Should there be killing? but, Should Jack kill the giant? This is, in fact, exactly analogous to the question, Should Psyche kill her sisters?
I do not mean to suggest that there is a something wrong in Lewis's version. Far from it. If anything, it makes Till We Have Faces an even more powerful myth than the version given to us by Apuleius. But that is not to say that he has set right something that was wrong in our version. They are different stories. Ours is the story of Psyche, his of Orual, the eldest sister. And he has not changed the most important understanding: This is a story; the sisters are Psyche. There are some elements of the self--and this must be true of any self--that just have to go. It is just here that self-esteem always blocks the path of self-knowledge.
Of course, Lewis would properly have Psyche forgive that element in herself whose role is played by her sisters. (And he may have the better case here; perhaps some nastier personae of the self may flee away or even be transformed once they are forgiven.) It is the sisters, most certainly, who are the agents of her escape from the second darkness, but it would be not only as some recompense for service that forgiveness is due. In the not entirely common Christianity of Lewis, forgiveness is due not because someone has earned it but because it is right. The sisters are surely whiners and deceivers, but that doesn't mitigate their forgivability. However, if one had to choose between the lessons of Lewis and of Apuleius, the former might be the better choice, but harder. The rehabilitation of vices is not an easy job.
In the Greek way, however, the soul in our story chooses to put an end to what is in her and in us all, and to what has undone her and destroyed her happiness--Envy. In life, envy also destroys happiness, but those in whom this has happened attribute their misery not at all to their envy but to the "injustice" which deprives them of that which they envy. The sisters are even more Envy; they are Envy's sisters, too. Theirs are the voices not of skepticism but of its own wicked sister, cynicism, whose counsel is to put away all suspicions of mystery. Her voice is always whispering to us that nothing good and beautiful can be trusted, that goodness and beauty are simply quirks of perception and opinion, emotions, nothing more. Nobody truly knows that, but many say it, and even feel better for having said it. It shows them modern, tough-minded and realistic, like the cocky child who knows that life's a bitch and then you die.
So it is that the sisters say, This can not be true. He must be a monster. Why else the darkness? But they are not truly modern skeptics, however, for they do fear, and later indeed come to believe, that what Psyche tells them may be true. It is the thought of her possible joy in bearing a divine child, and of the splendor in which she lives that brings them to concoct their scheme.** And, not as they mean it, but in some sense of which they do not dream, the sum, the final worth of their ill-intended counsel is for the good. That's the sort of thing that happens in true stories, and may, for all we know, and in spite of what we think of our conditions, happen in life, too.
This is one of the regular devices of myth and fairy-tale. What looks like the best often turns out to be the worst, and what falls upon our heads as the unbearable worst proves to be the path, and the only path, to the very best. Dante can go to the light only by passing through Hell, and Odysseus who looks for the short cut--Dante's Odysseus, that is, not Homer's--is swallowed up in the dark sea. Even Candide concurs with Pangloss at the end of things that all was for the best. The experience of life and the testimony of many who live do not always provide support for this notion. Of it, what can we say? It is either a vast, a universal, artistic conspiracy for the telling of comforting lies to unhappy children, or it is not.
And Psyche has the best, it seems. Her life in the palace is the realization of all the common human wishes. There is soft music there, and the murmuring of many fountains. She is waited upon by invisible hands, and all that she is given is of the best. She can load her sisters with gold and precious stones, for she already has more than any girl could want.
At night she is visited by her loving husband. She lives in the ecstasy of new young love, the headiest wine of all. But--for this is the subtle power of that drink--she does not "see" what she loves any more than she sees the servants who bring her everything.
The life is idle, an idyll. The soft music--Tennyson's words, in fact--is the lullaby of the lotus-eaters. She must wake up, but--and the god-husband and the wicked sisters work together as though conspirators--she must do the awakening herself. She must light the lamp and take the knife in her own hands.
The love to which she has flown in the arms of Zephyr, the warm western wind, is really a kind of madness.†† She is beside herself, not within herself. And to be beside oneself in love is different only in particular but not in principle from being beside oneself in preoccupation with the world out there and its neverending succession of burning issues about which something must be done right now.
This allows Pan to give Psyche some ironic advice. "Stop crying, try to be cheerful, and open your heart to Cupid, the greatest of us gods," he tells her, and we, thinking in our own meaning of love, have to suppose that his advice is ill-informed and vain. After all, we say, has she not already done exactly that?
No, she hasn't. She has not done the work of love, but has given herself, opened her heart, just as it is, utterly untended, to the play of love. What Pan recommends is hard labor, and labor in the true service of the beloved only if it is first in the true service of love itself, the care of the garden that is to be given.
Here is a strange emptiness in our various educations, both the formal that we find in the schools and the informal that we in everything from journals of learned opinion to situation comedies on television. We are assiduous in preaching to the children, and to each other the great importance of what we very carefully call "caring." (To call it "loving" would apparently frighten us.) To be sure, we are selective as to what is worthy of our caring; we should care about the baby seals, but not about the rats that infest our cities, which accords ill with many of our slogans about the worth of all life and also with our concern for the disappearance of species. But no matter. The appeal we make is mostly emotional; and tinted with logical also selectively, as in the case of the supposed, but also questioned, logic of global warming.
We urge on the young the thought of life as service, and the young generally attest to wanting such a life. Miss America is always glad to have been crowned, for now she intends to get out there and make the world a better place in her own little way, and the class valedictorian announces that she will now study law not to make a bundle but in order to help the poor and downtrodden. Even Olympic athletes--and highly paid professionals of sport as well--talk much of the "sacrifices" they have made in preparing themselves to do the only thing they want to do anyway, as though they had somehow endowed us all, whether we deserve them or not, with good things at great expense to themselves.
Our preaching has been successful, but it is not exactly virtue that we preach. When the school children do their "voluntary" service, as some schools do require, and distributed the right number of free meals to shut-ins, we pronounce them virtuous and are content. That some of them, perhaps many of them, may have hated it and done it only because it was required is not to the point. The work has been done, hasn't it? The "caring" has been done; the gift of the self has been made.
And we refuse entirely to consider the nature of the self that has been given. When the school child shrugs and does his duty, and when a Mother Teresa feeds a bowl of soup to a dying old lady, are we willing to judge that exactly the same thing has happened in both cases?
Yes. We take no thought at all for the obvious fact that many of the children, like many of the rest of us, are in no condition to be fit and worthy gifts to others. This is doubtless because the deadly combination of our intoxication with self-esteem and our fearful suspicion of self-knowledge. And thus it is that we have to accept the seeming of virtue rather than virtue itself.
Pan, although in his typically gentle way with girls, nevertheless commands her to work at becoming a better person. It is, after all, exactly that enterprise that she sought to escape through suicide. His prescription is typically Classical: Be cheerful, and get on with your work.
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Neither can his mind be thought
to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
* Nicholas Berdyaev devotes an entire book, Slavery and Freedom, to a rumination about the meaning of the concept person. It is not consistently enlightening, but it is well worth reading, and sometimes rather weird. Nevertheless, he seems to me quite right in saying that his cat, as a living center of consciousness, is real and that the Holy Roman Empire is not. I guess I stole that idea in another book, where I held that the difference between person and anything else was the same as the difference between the sun and the moon, the one burning from within, and the other shining only by reflected light. I have lost the book and can not check it now, but I do remember one of his thoughts that would be interesting to consider in reading Psyche and Eros, to wit, that by person we must mean something that is capable of sorrow and of joy, and other such. Because a man can be expected to die for his country while his country can never be expected to die for him, we know which one is a person. back
This understanding I have also stolen, in this case from Northrop Frye. In The Great Code, he considers various modes of discourse, and differentiates some of them this way: In one manner of speaking, the intention is to convey what you would have seen had you been there; in another, the intention is to reveal what you should have seen had you been there. This idea makes for interesting wrangles in literature classes, where students always come equipped with the notion that "true" and "factual" are synonyms, and are thereafter strangely bemused to discover that they would have to call something like the story of Psyche and Eros a "lie." Remarkably enough, or maybe not, the makers of literature are sometimes themselves led into this dilemma. Anthony Trollope once testified in court, but the force of his testimony was destroyed by the opposing attorney, who drove him to admit that he made money by concocting his stories, and therefore as a professional liar. back
Here is a supplemental reading
on considerations both of capital punishment and of what so often looks
like "just death" in literature and in dream. It comes from Gorgias
511-12, where Socrates is musing on Callicles' assertion that the saving
of life is the highest both of motives and of callings, by which he
means to demonstrate the worth of rhetoric, by which a man in peril
of death in a trial may bring those jurors who believe one thing into
believing something else. He points to an art even greater in life-saving
than that of the lawyer, the art of the pilot, the helmsman, the very
one who appears as "the helmsman of life" in Phi Beta Kappa's motto.
** It is probably more than literary sophistication out of which Lewis sends only one sister to visit Psyche. Even in Apuleius one sister would have been enough, but the story must have existed for him as we see it, and it does give us to think about the recurrent theme of the three sisters, the youngest of whom is the chosen one. Lewis goes even further-and does better-by showing us an Orual who truly means her counsel to Psyche, and then showing us the meaning of her meaning when we discover that she can not see the palace and all its splendor. back
reading, this one from a letter of Rilke
to a friend. (Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910, W. W.
Norton & Company, Inc., New York.)