Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God. ~Gerard Manley Hopkins
When a straight line makes its way across the monitor screen, indicating no response to stimulation, the patient is declared dead.
One day I asked my heart,
Would you like it if…?
no response, just silence, a long line ———————————————————-
Am I “heart dead”?
Have the tempests stilled the dizzying depths of emotion, the heavy heights of passion, the breathy breadth of response?
Can I no longer count on a “gut feeling” to guide me?
I remembered taking a walk
no phone, no umbrella,
yet the storm clouds gathered themselves gloomily in the distance,
and I could not smile.
My daughter offered to teach my mouth to smile and
I responded that the smile must come from the heart, from a feeling.
Finally, the charcoal clouds overhead started bumping up against each other angrily, and I said, “Let’s go back.”
We turned back and my daughter observed a smile had formed on my lips.
My heart had started beating, when we turned back.
Must I turn back from this path? to find a response?
But what is “back” when one is speaking metaphorically about a direction in life?
What do I want to do? Why is it so hard to know after all these years of education and living?
How can I pursue my passion, if I don’t know what that is?
Or, is it that I don’t think my passions, pursue-able? How does one earn a living talking, writing, thinking about ideas, which spring up from literature? Except to teach, and to assist others in the pursuit. Teaching has not opened its doors to me. What then shall I do?
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…
~Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116
Something that seems forgotten in our society is the value of contenting oneself in right action rather than good outcomes, in adhering to a moral code or standard despite material losses, in choosing to love though the object of love proves to be human–prone to err. Often those who are well-loved are examined for what it is that makes them well-loved, worthy, inherently valuable. These examinations are typically based on a society’s material values of worth and beauty. But when spiritual values are adopted, one is able to view others as God’s creations, as inherently valuable and worthy of love, despite alterations. Recognizing inherent worth in all of God’s creation challenges assumptions made about those who are loved and valued. If all are valuable and worthy of love, why then are some rejected? Can we assume, that someone who has been rejected must not have been worthy of love? Must have been difficult to love? A spiritual view refocuses attention on the action of love, on the ability of the lover.
Shakespeare’s line, “Love is not love which alters when alteration finds,” has this impact, refocusing the reader’s attention on the ability of the lover to love, no matter what tempests or alterations in circumstances occur. Love is an action, a choice, an ability more than a feeling. And choosing to love despite disappointments or change is true love in action.
“It is an ever-fixed mark…” Loving at all times and in all circumstances is the absolute, an ever-fixed mark. The character and principles of the lover determine the quality of the love. It is only in the adherence to unchanging principles of love (self-sacrifice) that one is able to truly love others and find contentment in one’s self, in right action. An example of this concept is found in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilities, when Ms. Dashwood refers to Edward Ferrars’s right conduct towards Ms. Lucy Steele, his adherence to the promise he made to Ms. Steele at a young age though he no longer feels love for her, as right action in which he can content himself. “I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so.” Content himself, become happy in his own honourable behaviour? What of happiness in love? Attraction? Inheritance? and career?
Austen also offers an example of someone whose integrity is sacrificed in the character of John Willoughby, who engages in passionate relationship with Ms. Marianne Dashwood, whom he ultimately rejects–his love alters when alteration finds: His circumstances, due to previous harmful choices, alter, requiring him to give up Marianne in order to pursue a marriage of convenience–to marry Ms. Grey with her 50 thousand pounds. What choices did he have? He could choose poverty and love with Marianne or comfort and financial stability with Ms. Grey. But those are only outcomes of choice. What of contentment in adhering to right action no matter what outcome?
Many rationalize or justify the sacrifice of their principles in a circumstances such is this, altering the principles which guide them to suit a choice that allows them material gain, sacrificing the spiritual to gain the material. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood provides an excellent example of rationalizations that lead from “the ever-fixed mark” to quite another destination. The son of Mr. John Dashwood who inherits the family fortune, Norland included, promises his father on his deathbed that he will assist his stepmother and her three daughters because circumstances prevented him from providing for them himself. Upon hearing of the promise, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood begins the deliberate erosion of the meaning of “assist,” by questioning the sanity of the man, taking the expectation down from offering 3000 pounds to one half that amount saying “He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right sense, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child” (p. 8). From there she appealed to John’s sense of greatness (his ego), putting that beside the little others would do for someone of greater value, for real sisters. As Fanny says, “What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is — only half blood — But you have such a generous spirit.” Knowing his desire to please and meet expectations, Fanny redirects his focus away from the promise or what others expect onto what he can afford, responding to his “One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more,” with “There is no knowing what they may expect…but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is what you can afford to do.” He responds by saying he could give them 100 pounds each, and Fanny again erodes this good will, lessening his sense of their need with “To be sure it is: and indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all…” John then suggests an annuity which Fanny reacts to as well, due to how it restricts one, “takes away one’s independence.” John suggests a present of 50 pounds, now and then, and Fanny responds “Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things…” She then takes it even one step further, from indebtedness, to entitlement saying: “I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it [500 per year]; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.” (p. 12) Fanny leads John completely away from the promise he made to his father, the understanding that he had, and even from an accountability to himself to do the right thing. He is persuaded that the women are not in any need, and Fanny’s own purposes are served in the fulfillment of the promise which they agree means to be of assistance in getting the women out of Norland into their own home. John suffers no twinge of conscience and is perfectly content to help in the search for a home and move, until Mrs. Dashwood is offered Barton cottage, which is too far away for him to fulfill his promise. He must, then, find a way to live with the knowledge that he did not fulfill his promise, his obligation to his father, stepmother and stepsisters. Rationalizations minimize the immediate negative consequences of sacrifices to integrity, allowing one to maintain a level of comfort by gaining the acceptance and approval of society, of others, and even oneself, if one is able to deceive oneself into believing there was no other choice but to deviate from one’s standards in order to maintain a certain level of happiness and comfort in one’s life.
Does it really matter what is sacrificed in order to achieve something good in our lives?
The surface question which many 19th century British authors like Austen explored was the question of whether it is better to marry for love or for money. But I think the deeper question that is explored is whether or not to sacrifice spiritual principles, moral behaviour, in order to achieve material gain in any decision that one is required to make. Marianne questions this near the end of the book, exploring the question of what would have happened if she and Willoughby had married for love? Would love have sustained their marriage when Willoughby’s chief object was his own selfish happiness? “I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this. – I should have no confidence, no esteem.” True, a decision not to marry a man who sacrifices integrity for personal happiness is a good choice–trust is a big part of a loving relationship and if someone is intent on personal happiness rather than their lovers, there can be no trust, no love. Willoughby’s sacrifices of integrity end up costing him a life of love, and contentment in himself, in his own right action. Elinor (Ms. Dashwood) affirms Marianne’s thoughts saying, “Had you married, you must have been always poor. His expensiveness is acknowledged even by himself, and his whole conduct declared that self-denial is a word hardly understood by him” (p. 338).
The expense or cost of sacrificing one’s integrity in order to gain material happiness is that one becomes powerless to be content. The locus of control becomes external, put into the hands of society or others who may or may not part with their integrity in order to achieve their happiness. One becomes reliant on others for contentment, for happiness. As Elinor says to Marianne in the thick of her disappointment over the loss of Edward to Miss Steele, ” And, after all Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant — it is not fit–it is not possible that it should be so” (p. 253). Elinor recognizes that one’s happiness can not be dependent on anyone else. Contentment must be found in exercising one’s own ability to love, and right action in accordance with a moral code. Sacrificing one’s own integrity for material gain puts contentment into the hands of others. Is it any wonder there are so many unhappy people? Unable to control how others behave, or what departures others make from their integrity, we become victims of our own sacrifice–the sacrifice of integrity, of the spiritual–as well as victims of the sacrifice of integrity made by others.
Refreshingly, there are those whose habit is self-denial–is love. They are able to recognize and respond to the suffering that those who have acted in integrity experience, such as in the case of Colonel Brandon, who, upon hearing of Edward’s family’s unkindness, (denying him his inheritance as punishment for engaging himself to Lucy) bestows on Edward a living, offering the Deleford parsonage to him. Elinor tells Edward, “Colonel Brandon means it as a testimony of his concern for what has lately passed — for the cruel situation in which the unjustifiable conduct of your family has placed you–a concern which I am sure Marianne, myself, and all your friends must share; and likewise a proof of his high esteem for your general character” (p.279).
An ever-fixed mark means the honourable, the right action, the principled behaviour must be adhered to, must guide our choices and behaviours despite the material sacrifices involved. The mark or standard can’t be moved to suit our own selfish purposes. If we deviate we will miss the mark. In choosing right action, we can love those who disappoint us, love despite a lack of return, even love our enemy, love though the choice causes material losses, and yet still be content through the knowledge that we have acted in accordance with our principles. We can take “the road less travelled” despite the disappointing behaviour of others or the material sacrifices we make to preserve our integrity.
Principles should guide us absolutely, but what absolute guides our principles? Can we think that all morality is relative? a mark which alters depending on location, circumstance, time…etc.? Can the post-modern solution of self-reflection really improve us if it isn’t held up against an absolute standard of Goodness? Yes, the right thing to do can change given the location, time, etc. Achieving heroic action–the right action in the right time, and the right place–(see Thomas Carlyle) is a delicate balance, and it is based on higher standards than rules and regulations about what is conventionally considered right and good. Social standards about right and wrong are certainly constructed, set out by a commonly held set of values, but are not necessarily based on what benefits all, nor on self-giving principles demonstrated by Christ. In fact, laws are notoriously written to benefit the rich in society. Society’s ideas of right and wrong are not absolute; they are relative to the community who uphold these standards. Thus, giving rationalizations and justifications for our deviations from our principles to become acceptable to our society, appealing to the social conventions, also makes us victims because we become dependent on social conventions and on government for justice and legislation that takes into account our happiness–not very satisfying. (Kohlberg would call the ability to rise above social conventions a post conventional stage of moral development–a higher level of morality).
Ultimately, we must live in accordance with our internal principles which have ideally been shaped and transformed through spiritual principles of Truth and Love–Eternal standards to which we often find ourselves appealing to when we are wronged (see C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity). For Christians, that Truth and Love is found in the Living Word of God, that is Christ. Living a life devoted to building one’s own character through sacrificing material gain (as modelled by Christ with his ultimate Sacrifice ) is not selfishness. It is learning to love, to live in accordance with eternal and absolute values, allowing us to do the non-sensical, to love despite the lack we find in another’s ability to love in return, and to choose to preserve our integrity rather than sacrifice it to some material gain. We can live content in our own behaviour. When we sacrifice the spiritual to gain the material we become victims, but when we sacrifice the material for the spiritual we gain freedom, and can live content in having done the right thing.
Gotta let go;
This thing’s tossing me around
Like a merry-go-round.
Gotta let go;
Feels like I’m gonna explode
Like a Jack-in-the-Box.
Gotta let go;
This has me churning
Like milk in a lactose-intolerant stomach.
Gonna hurl, whirl and twirl,
Gonna pop, explode and burst
Wanna rip it out along with flesh.
Coiling round ribs
Twisting, wrapping and wreathing inside.
To release, liberate, and loosen
Gotta grasp Eternal,
Goodness, Truth and Love.
Hold on to Everlasting source
Or let that take hold,
The ephemeral, the disappearing
Sadly, the leaf clings,
like an infant rooting for its nourishment.
Violent gusts slowly sever
beloved from limb
in the fall of life.
Copyright Shuana Niessen, 2012
Midnight in Paris explores a basic premise: One must give up one’s nostalgia for the past in order to become successful and productive in the present. Main character, Gil Pender, an American screenwriter-turned-author, is nostalgic about the ‘Golden Age’ of Paris in the 20s. Gil’s nostalgia/romantic ideals cause some basic problems in his life: unproductivity, loss of identity, and depression/anxiety. To rid Gil of his nostalgia for the past, director and writer, Woody Allen, offers Gil the opportunity to travel to Paris and while in Paris, to travel backwards in time. Gil enters his perceived ‘Golden Age’ of Paris in the 20s, and meets his literary/artistic heroes (such as Alice B. Toklas, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and of course filmmaker Luis Buñuel). Importantly, while he is in the 20s, Gil meets another character, Adriana, who is so much like himself in her nostalgia for the past that she acts as a mirror, helping Gil to recognize that literary and artistic greats are not considered great in their own era and that those within an era tend to look nostalgically at other former eras: Adriana looks back to the 1890s, to the artistic greats of that era, (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas). Seeing himself in the mirror of Adriana, the struggling author Gil is able to develop a clearer understanding of himself, the futility of longing for the past, and is able to leave his yearning for the 20s behind, embrace the present and move forward by breaking off his relationship with Inez, his mismatched, unfaithful fiancée (and her overbearing parents), moving to Paris, and beginning a relationship with a Parisian woman who shares his interests and is willing to literally and figuratively walk in the rain with him. Further, having gained the approval for his novel from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, he is able to move forward with his career as an author.
Woody Allen, notorious for writing himself into his films, re-presents (an idealized version of) himself through the character of the struggling author, Gil Pender, mirroring Allen’s sentimental desire to tell a story through text in the pages of a book, (through literary/artistic achievement), rather than his typical medium, script and moving images on a Hollywood screen. Hemingway’s and Stein’s nods of approval on Gil’s novel, give both the main character and Allen the courage to do the work that they are meant to do within the time period in which they exist–Allen portraying his story through film, leaving the novel writing to his main character, Gil. Allen must content himself with the imagined approval of literary/artistic greats, Hemingway and Stein, because the real time theatre audience is unappreciative and unable to recognize genius. In granting himself this imagined approval, Allen links himself to the greats of the past, (all the while setting out how unimpressive they were in their own era), and by this association, elevates his own work in the present to the status of greatness.
Fear of death is the source of Allen’s fascination with the literary/artistic greats of the 1920s who have ‘lived on’ through their art. Allen wishes to immortalize himself in memory through literary achievement. He is disappointed at living in the present in which the Hollywood formula is unmemorable and empty of entertainment value. He consoles himself, (and ridicules himself) with the thought that his work might be remembered as an item of nostalgia (like Cole Porter and Gil’s purchase of the LP at the flea market) to be purchased by future generations.
This exploration of conflict between past and present includes the debunking of, what the know-it-all pedantic intellectual Paul calls, the “Golden Age fallacy”–idealizing the past as full of meaning, culture, and greatness, while believing the present to be empty of these ideals and thereby contributing to a current-day paralyzing fear of death. Through this film, Allen explores the idea that this ‘fallacy’ is a reason that greatness cannot be established and recognized in the present and also that it contributes to an inability to move forward in the present. If Allen can undo the fallacy of the Golden Age, then perhaps greats can be known in the present and Allen could be seen as the screen writing genius that he is, thereby solving the personal and professional problems associated with a lack of affirmation of one’s greatness while one is still alive.
However, and paradoxically, Allen must connect himself with the greats of the past in order to achieve his goal of present-day greatness (This is what authors/artists do–they link themselves with greats of the past in order to establish their own author-ity in the present), and to extinguish his fear of death through the hope of living eternally through his art. Also, while Allen attempts to debunk the Golden Age romanticism of the past, he does nothing to dispel the romantic idealism for location–that of Paris. Gil’s quixotic final decision to stay in Paris, to walk in the rain, and to take up the romantic life of a struggling author reflects Allen’s own inability to let go of his romantic ideals. He may resent the nostalgia of the past which seemingly keeps him from being seen for his genius in the present, but he cannot entirely let go of romantic idealism since linking to past greats is the source of present and future greatness. Letting go of nostalgic and romantic ideals may not be the solution at all. And living on through art doesn’t offer a great deal of hope for immortality if one’s work is purchased for next to nothing at a flea market. This reminds me of the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley entitled Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As this poem demonstrates, the work of our hands, our artistic/literary endeavors are only too perishable and they do end up mocking our arrogance.
Overcoming fear of death is central to Christian hope: Victory over fear of death and steadfastness in our work comes through victory over death. Christian faith looks back to a Golden Age of perfect peace before the entrance of sin and death in the Garden of Eden. Death and fear became part of the human experience when the first humans disobeyed their Creator, Author, Artist: God. The antidote to fear of death comes not from perishable works of art which live on for a time beyond the time of the artist. The antidote to fear of death, to death itself, comes from the work of art done by our Creator through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is God’s imperishable and immortal work of art in us that makes our labour meaningful, that causes us to “labour not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15) “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” Allen didn’t allow Gil to travel back in time far enough to locate the source of nostalgia for the past, for the antidote to fear of death, to a fear of living a life empty of meaning and value.
I dreamt of a lover
He guided me into his bed chamber
–a softly lit private place, darkened hues of red, blue, brown, and amber, like an uncurtained scene in a Rembrandt piece–
talking all the while
pointing to this and that
he storied the room,
the meaning behind the objects.
that fashioned his identity,
artifacts reflecting values, memories, masculine ideals, spiritual longings…
Watching as I viewed, he smiled his delight in my attentive response.
I suddenly felt sleepy, as though drunk with ageless wine,
and lay down on the bed–
his words floating,
closing me in,
enfolded by a blanket of self-expression–
My lids so heavy, I surrendered to their gravity.
The air, too, was warm and sweetly scented.
Safety here, a longing for rest and peace, for such a place as this.
Alerted by his pause, an invitation to weave myself into his story,
I offered my heartfelt response, “You’re beautiful.”
Relief and gratitude softened his face, fears evaporated through acceptance.
For I had recognized, respected, valued, and understood
the sacredness of this space–his inner sanctum
and my sanctuary.
Psalm 61: 4
Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings!
God is great, but I am not
God is good, but I hold back
God is love, but I am closed
but I have ceased.
When our faith falters, it is our self which has diminished. God is a constant.