'sReview
'sReview
Spring 1986
Editor:
J. Walter Sterling
Managing Editor:
Maria Coughlin
Poetry Editor:
Richard Freis
Editorial Board:
Eva Brann
S. Richard Freis,
Alumni representative
Joe Sachs
Cary Stickney
Curtis A. Wilson
Unsolicited articles, stories, and poems
are welcome, but should be accom­
panied by a stamped, self-addressed
envelope in each instance. Reasoned
comments are also welcome.
The St. John's Review (formerly The Col­
lege)
is published by the Office of
Dean. St. John's College, Annapolis,
Maryland 21404. William Dyal, Presi­
dent, Thomas Slakey, Dean. Published
thrice yearly,
in the winter, spring, and
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$24.00 for two years, or $36.00 for three
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in advance. Address
all correspondence to The St. John's
Review, St. John's College, Annapolis,
Maryland 21404.
Volume XXXVII, Number 2 and 3
Spring 1986
©1987 St. John's College; All rights
reserved. Reproduction in whole or in
part without permission is prohibited.
ISSN 0277-4720
Composition: Best Impressions, Inc.
Printing: The John D. Lucas Printing
Company
The cover is the work of Lydia Sparrow.
Contents
PART I
WRITINGS PUBLISHED IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM O'GRADY
1 The Return of Odysseus
Mary Hannah Jones
11 God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Joe Sachs
21 On Beginning to Read Dante
Cary Stickney
29 Chasing the Goat From the Sky
Michael Littleton
37 The Miraculous Moonlight: Flannery O'Connor's
The Artificial Nigger
Robert S. Bart
49 The Shattering of the Natural Order
E. A. Goerner
57 Through Phantasia to Philosophy
Eva Brann
65 A Toast to the Republic
Curtis Wilson
67 The Human Condition
Geoffrey Harris
PART II
71 The Homeric Simile and the Beginning of Philosophy
Kurt Riezler
81 The Origin of Philosophy
Jon Lenkowski
93 A Hero and a Statesman
Douglas Allanbrook
Part I
Writings Published
in Memory of
William O'Grady
THE ST. J 0 HN' s REVIEW
Spring 1986
The Return of Odysseus
Mary Hannah Jones
The first view Homer gives us of lthaka is a feast of the
suitors at the house of Odysseus.
In between bouts of
unrestrained eating and drinking the suitors listen to
songs. Phemius the bard sings for them, not by choice
but under compulsion. The song he sings this night is
the
nostos, the return, of the Achaeans from Troy. (1.326)
The
nostoi are traditionally a part of what is known as the
epic cycle, the poems which told the whole history of the
Trojan war and its aftermath. Critics have noted that this
reference to the
nostoi at the feast of the suitors contains
an evident and double-edged irony. There is one story
of homecoming that cannot be sung yet, the story of
Odysseus, which he will bring home with him. The
Odyssey is in fact just another of these homecomings, the
nostos of Odysseus. But the painful irony for the suitors
is that this story of return has already been set in mo­
tion. Such was Athena's purpose in coming to the feast
of the suitors this night.
Athena's presence has already set in motion the series
of events which will culminate in the return of Odysseus.
But his return is a complicated matter indeed. Fully one­
half of the
Odyssey, books one through twelve, is devoted
to bringing Odysseus from Calypso's island to his native
land. Many things have to be achieved before Odysseus
can set foot on Ithaka.
The return of Odysseus is in part a matter of fate. He
is many times said to be fated to see his friends and home
again. It is partly a matter of divine intervention. Athena
An alumna of St. John's College, M.H. )ones has been teaching at Mar­
shall University. She is now studying and teaching at the University
of Pennsylvania.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
recounts Odysseus' virtues and sufferings to Zeus twice
and twice urges that such a man deserves to be released
from sorrow. But most of all the return of Odysseus is
determined by enormous human effort. Odysseus must
strive in every way possible to achieve his return, and
his family and friends must strive to keep open a place
in their lives for him. Athena sets in motion a plan for
the return of Odysseus which demands the greatest pos­
sible effort on the part of everyone concerned.
The beginning of Athena's plan for the return of Odys­
seus is the sending of both Telemachus and Odysseus
on a journey. Telemachus must travel to Pylos and Spar­
ta; Odysseus must painfully make his way to Scheria and
there win convoy home. Let us examine these two jour­
neys and try to see why they are necessary to achieve
the return of Odysseus.
The first four books of the
Odyssey are the story of
Telemachus: how he makes preparation for the return of
his father. In his conversation with Mentes, who is of
course Athena in disguise, we are shown how much is
needed to prepare him.
When Mentes asks Telemachus if he is indeed the son
of Odysseus, Telemachus makes a reply that is shocking
by Homeric standards. Telemachus says that he has been
told that he is the son of Odysseus, but that he himself
does not know, for no man can know his own parentage.
If this were true it would mean the collapse of the heroic
world, since heroes are only heroes because they trace
their descent from a god. Everything depends upon what
is passed on from father to son; that is why the heroic
genealogies are so important. Knowing a man means
knowing his father and grandfather and other ancestors.
If Telemachus is to be anyone in Homer's world, he must
1
first come to know that he is the son of Odysseus. This
is the preparation that he must make for the return of
his father.
Athena sends Telemachus on a journey that contains
many echoes of Odysseus' adventures. Telemachus sails
by night to distant places; he meets a beautiful enchan­
tress; drugs are secretly placed in his wine; he is the guest
of people who want to detain him too long. But none of
these things is in itself a sufficient reason for this dan­
gerous journey or a preparation for the return of his
father. When Athena is relating her plan to Zeus she says,
"I will send him (Telemachus) to Sparta and to sandy
Pylos, in order for him to inquire after the return of his
dear father, if he may hear something, and in order for
him to attain noble kleos among men." (1.94-5) The Greek
word "kleos" means interchangeably fame or glory and
the story or song which glorifies. Athena is sending
Telemachus on his journey to inquire after a story and
to become part of a story, because only in this way can
he enter the world of his father.
The first stage of Telemachus' journey is to Pylos to the
palace of the wise old king Nestor. They come upon Nes­
tor as he and his sons and the other men of Pylos are mak­
ing sacrifice to Poseidon. But Telemachus is suddenly
afraid to approach this famous counselor. He says to the
disguised Athena, "Mentor, how shall I go? How shall
I greet him? I am in no way experienced in well-wrought
speech." (3.22-23) Telemachus has good reason to be
abashed at his inexperience in speaking. Nestor's primary
excellence in the war at Troy was his skill in speech and
in council.
To be able to speak well is part of being a hero. Phoe­
nix in his famous speech to Achilles in book nine of the
Iliad says that Achilles' father had sent him (Phoenix) to
the young Achilles in order to initiate him into the heroic
world: to teach him to be a speaker of words and a doer
of deeds. (9.443) These two complementary aspects of
heroism are continually referred to in Homer. When
Achilles in Hades asks Odysseus whether Achilles' son
Neoptolemus became a champion in the war, Odysseus
replies that Neoptolemus always spoke well in council
and always distinguished himself in battle. (11.511-515)
When Penelope tells of her great fear for Telemachus on
his journey, she says that he knows nothing either of the
toils of battle or the councils of men. (4.818)
Speaking words and doing deeds are the two poles of
the heroic world, and just as Achilles surpasses all others
as a warrior in battle, so Odysseus surpasses all others
as a contriver of well-wrought speech and counsel. Nes­
tor himself says that there was no one at Troy who could
compete with Odysseus in
metis, skill in council. (3.120)
In the
Iliad Odysseus acknowledges Achilles' supremacy
on the battlefield but boasts that he is the best in council.
2
Odysseus is the hero of speech as Achilles is the hero
of deeds, and perhaps this accounts for the obvious differ­
ence in style between the two epics. Deeds are resplen­
dent and certain, but can leave no room for subtlety,
while words may be as subtle as the skill of the speaker
makes them, but they can never be as certain and unam­
biguous as deeds. And so the Iliad takes its clarity and
bright passion from the splendor inherent in great deeds,
while the characteristic doubleness and complexity of the
Odyssey derive from the ambiguity inherent in all speech.
Athena replies to Telemachus' shame-faced question
by saying that he was not born and reared without the
favor of the gods. (3.28) Telemachus' birth will make him
a speaker of well-wrought words; he must rely on his
Odyssean heritage. Telemachus and Athena join Nestor's
sons at the sacrifice and participate in the feast. In the
course of the ceremony greater deference is shown to
Athena than to Telemachus, because Athena appears to
be a man at least a generation older than Telemachus.
But when the time comes for Nestor to question the
strangers, it is Telemachus, not Mentor, who speaks for
both. Telemachus deftly and courteously explains why
he has come and how he hopes Nestor can help him. Nes­
tor, in his long reply to Telemachus' well-ordered and
concise speech, touches upon Odysseus' special excel­
lence, his primacy in council, and then breaks off to say,
"(such was) your father, if indeed you are his son.
Wonder holds me as I look upon you, for indeed your
words are like his, nor would anyone have thought that
a younger man could speak so like him." (3.122-125)
In his encounter with Nestor Telemachus first finds
what can give him the only true assurance that he is in­
deed the son of Odysseus: he sees in himself the quali­
ties his father is famous for. Nestor says that he and
Odysseus never spoke at variance in the assembly or at
council, but always, having one heart
(hena thumon
echonte)
advised the Achaians for the best. In the long con­
versation that ensues Telemachus forms an alliance in
speech with Nestor just as his father had. He and Nes­
tor by means of their teasing speeches manage to pro­
voke Athena into giving a manifest sign of her divinity.
Nestor begins by shrewdly observing that there might
yet be hope that Odysseus will return. And if Athena
should choose to show favor to Telemachus as she openly
favored Odysseus and stood manifestly by his side, then
the wooers would soon forget marriage. Telemachus,
who had certainly recognized the stranger Mentes as a
god in disguise, replies that the aid of a god is too great
a thing to hope for, and as for Odysseus, his hoped-for
return could never come to pass, not even if a god should
will it. Athena interrupts in exasperation to say that it is
easily within the power of a god to bring a man home,
even from far away, and it is surely better to return late
SPRING 1986
after many toils than to be murdered at homecoming as
was Agamemnon. Telemachus reiterates that it it impos­
sible for Odysseus to return, and cleverly seizes on Athe­
na's mention of Agamemnon as an excuse to change the
subject. He asks Nestor to tell the whole story of
Agamemnon's murder. Athena waits impatiently as Nes­
tor talks on and the sun slowly sets. When Nestor final­
ly brings his story to a close Athena forcefully suggests
that it is time to go home. She directs Nestor to give
Telemachus a chariot and horses for his journey to Spar­
ta and then disappears into the clouds having trans­
formed herself into the likeness of a sea-eagle.
Telemachus and Nestor by their partnership in speeches
have attained from Athena the manifest sign of divine
favor she had once shown to Odysseus.
In his exchange with Nestor Telemachus has explored
the possibilities of speech in their comic aspect. He has
playfully challenged a goddess in speech, in much the
same way as Odysseus will vie with Athena in speech
in book thirteen when she first confronts him without dis­
guise. But in his journey to Sparta Telemachus is given
a taste of the bitterness speeches may contain and the
griefs and dangers that may be hidden in them.
When Telemachus comes to the house of the storied
Helen and Menelaus, he arrives at the wedding of
Menelaus's son (by a slave woman), Megapenthes,
whose name means "monstrous grief." That night He­
len and Menelaus tell stories about the heroic deeds of
Odysseus.
The stories which Helen and Menelaus tell are only told
on account of the influence of the drug which Helen casts
into their wine. Helen acquired this drug in Egypt "where
the grain-giving earth bears the greatest profusion of
drugs, many good in mixture, and many baneful."
(4.228-229) The special character of this drug is that it
takes away all grief and anger and brings forgetfulness
of all evils. But first we should recount the events which
precede Helen's recourse to the drug.
When Telemachus and Nestor's son Peisistratus, who
accompanies him to Sparta, first arrive at the house of
Menelaus they are astonished by the wealth it contains
and remark upon it. Menelaus overhears what they say
and replies that the wealth he amassed from his years
of wandering is not worth the lives of his friends who
died at Troy. But it is for Odysseus especially that he
mourns since it was he who undertook the greatest labors
for Menelaus' sake. Telemachus, who had been so self­
possessed at Nestor's house, loses his composure and is
unable to reply to Menelaus. Peisistratus speaks for him
and they are all reminded of the losses they suffered at
Troy and they all weep. At the suggestion of Peisistra­
tus, whom Homer calls wise, Menelaus proposes that
they give over speaking about Odysseus and the others
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
whom they have lost. In the morning, he says, there will
be mythoi, stories, for Telemachus and him to tell each
other to the full. (4.214-5)
It is then that Helen casts the drug into the wine and
makes a second beginning of mythoi, stories (4.239). She
says, "Feast now as you sit in the halls and take delight
in stories: I will tell appropriate things." The word I have
translated as "appropriate things" is "eoikota" which
comes from a very common verb which means "to be ap­
propriate or seemly" but also "to seem or appear to be."
Lattimore translates this same sentence "What
I tell you
is plausible." Helen goes on to tell her story.
I could not tell you all the number nor could I name
them,
all that make up the exploits of enduring Odysseus,
but here is a task such as that strong man endured and
accomplished
in the Trojan country where you Achaians suffered
miseries.
He flagellated himself with degrading strokes, then threw
on
a worthless sheet about his shoulders. He looked like a
servant.
So he crept into the wide-wayed city of the men he was
fighting,
disguising himself
in the likeness of somebody else, a
beggar,
one who was unlike himself beside the ships of the
Achaians,
but
in his likeness crept into the Trojans' city, and they
all
were taken
in. I alone recognized him even in this form,
and I questioned him, but he in his craftiness eluded me;
but after I had bathed him and anointed him with olive
oil
and put some clothing upon him, after I had sworn a
great oath
not to disclose before the Trojans that this was Odysseus
until he had made his way back to the fast ships and the
shelters,
then at last he told me all the purpose of the Achaians,
and after striking many Trojans down with the thin bronze
edge, he went back to the Argives and brought back much
information.
The rest of the Trojan women cried out shrill, but my heart
was happy, my heart had changed by now and was for
going back
home again, and I grieved for the madness that Aphrodite
bestowed when she led me there away from my own dear
country,
forsaking my own daughter, my bedchamber, and my
husband,
a man who lacked no endowment either of brains or beauty.
(4.240-266, Lattimore's translation)
Let us look at Helen's story closely. She begins by
describing it as a labor of Odysseus, but in fact the subject
of Helen's story is Helen. It is about how she alone
recognizes Odysseus in disguise, but there is more than
3
this. She alone overcomes his guileful avoidance of her,
she takes his disguise from him, she bathes him, and she
wins his complete trust. Odysseus, so wary and
distrustful in other circumstances, tells her panta noon, all
his mind. This is the story of the triumph of Helen over
yet another man. Helen ends her story on a note of self­
justification. (And this is most necessary, since in telling
of her intrigue with Odysseus she has revealed herself
as the betrayer of the man she betrayed her first husband
for.) She says the other Trojan women wept, but she was
glad, for her heart was
already (i'de) turned to go back to
her home. Apparently we are meant to think that the
events Helen recounts happened fairly early in the war.
After Helen finishes Menelaus tells a story which is
meant to be a complement to her story. In fact he begins
with almost the same words she had used.
Here is the way that strong man acted and the way he
endured
action, inside the wooden horse, where we who were
greatest
of the Argives all were sitting and bringing death and
destruction
to the Trojans. Then you came there, Helen; you will
have been moved by
some divine spirit who wished to grant glory to the
Trojans,
and Deiphobos, a godlike man, was with you when you
came.
Three times you walked around the hollow ambush,
feeling
it,
and you called out, naming them by name, to the best of
the Danaans,
and made your voice sound like the voice of the wife of
each of the Argives,
Now I myself and the son of Tydeus and great Odysseus
were sitting there in the middle of them and we heard
you crying
aloud, and Diomedes and I started up, both minded
to go outside, or else to answer your voice from inside,
bu.t Odysseus pulled us back and held us, for all our
eagerness.
Then all the other sons of the Achaians were silent:
there was only one, it was Antiklos, who was ready to
answer,
but Odysseus, brutally squeezing his mouth in the clutch
of his powerful
hands, held him, and so saved the lives of all the
Achaians until such time
as Pallas Athene led you off from us.
(4.266-289, Lattimore's translation)
Although the ostensible subject is Odysseus, in fact the
real subject of this story is also Helen. It is about her
attempt to seduce and betray not one leader of the
Achaians but all of them. She can imitate their wives very
well-Helen can pretend to be anyone's wife-but she
was not able to overcome Odysseus, and he prevents the
other men from yielding to her. Since it is the wooden
4
horse the Achaian leaders are hidden within, we know
exactly when this attempted seduction took place. It was
in the day Troy fell, the very last day of the war, long
after Helen said her heart was already turned back to her
home and husband.
Menelaus' story perfectly matches Helen's. Her story
was about a successful intrigue, his is about a foiled one;
her story contains a justification of herself, his contains
a condenmation. It is not hard to see why Helen casts
the drug which dulls grief and anger into their wine.
Without such a drug she and Menelaus could hardly bear
each other's stories. Telemachus, who has been silent
since his father's name was first mentioned, abruptly
brings an end to these sly and hateful stories.
This night at Sparta has introduced Telemachus in some
measure to the sorrow and bitterness that Helen and the
Trojan war have brought into the world. But even here
in Sparta he is recognized by all as the son of his father.
(4.143) Telemachus has seen something of his father's na­
ture in himself, and he has gained some insight into the
world of heroes and stories. He will never need to say
again that he does not know who his father is.
Telemachus will return to lthaka prepared to meet his
father, as was Athena's plan for him.
Athena's plan for Telemachus has been accomplished.
But what of her plan for Odysseus? Like Telemachus
Odysseus must also be prepared for his return; he can­
not go directly home. First he must journey to the land
of a mysterious people who live at the ends of the in­
habited world. But what is it that these Phaiakians will
do for Odysseus?
There are two gods who speak of what will happen to
Odysseus during his stay with the Phaiakians. Poseidon,
when he first catches sight of Odysseus on his raft ap­
proaching their land says, "So indeed he is close to the
land of the Phaiakians, where it is his fate to escape out
of the great bond of misery which has come upon him."
(5.288-90) The word which I have translated 'bond' is
peirar, which properly means rope or cord. By derivation
from this original sense it comes to mean end or limit or
boundary, as well as the extreme stage or crisis of some­
thing. In the land of the Phaiakians Odysseus is fated to
reach the final limit of his misery and escape from it.
The other god who speaks about the Phaiakians is Zeus,
who says that the Phaiakians will honor Odysseus like
a god and send him home, ''bestowing bronze and gold
in abundance upon him, and clothing, more than Odys­
seus could ever have taken away from Troy, even if he
had escaped unharmed with his fair share of the plun­
der." (5.38-40, Lattimore's translation) Everything he had
gained in his victory at Troy Odysseus has lost in his pain­
ful wanderings. But the Phaiakians will somehow make
good what was lost. What he receives from them will re-
SPRING 1986
store to him what he now lacks.
From what Zeus and Poseidon say, it seems that Odys­
seus must go to the land of the Phaiakians because only
there can he escape finally from the misery that has bound
him and only there can he find some sort of compensa­
tion for what he now painfully lacks. Let us examine care­
fully Odysseus' stay among the Phaiakians to see how
his fate and the plan of the gods for his return unfold.
Zeus says that Odysseus must endure terrible suffer­
ing in his journey from Calypso's island to the land of
the Phaiakians. (5.33) And his journey is indeed painful.
He sails for eighteen sleepless days and then is battered
by a storm sent by Poseidon which destroys his raft and
leaves him no recourse but to swim through the swollen
waves for another two days and two nights. When he
crawls onto the shore there is scarcely a spark of life left
in him. He finds shelter under two thick bushes and
covers himself in the fallen leaves. Homer conveys Odys­
seus' state of utter exhaustion and depletion in a beauti­
ful simile:
As when a man buries a burning log in a black ash heap
in a remote place in the country, where none live near as
neighbors
and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light
from, so Odysseus buried himself
in the leaves, and Athene
shed a sleep on his eyes so as most quickly to quit him,
by veiling his eyes, from the exhaustion of his labors.
(5.488-493, Lattimore's translation)
This simile speaks to more than Odysseus' physical
state. When Odysseus crawls naked onto the shore of
Scheria he has lost everything: his companions, his ships,
his treasure, his youth, his sense of heroic identity. Odys­
seus has failed in everything he has tried to accomplish
since he sailed from Troy. The only partial victory he was
able to attain, his triumph over the Cyclops, resulted in
the curse of Poseidon which brought on him and his com­
panions the worst fate possible. The consequences of the
wrath of Poseidon destroyed his companions and delayed
his return home until matters reached a desperate state
even in Ithaka. For seven years Odysseus has remained
a captive on Calypso's island, weeping over his many
sorrows and feeling each day the ebbing away of what
remains of his life. (5.152)
But it is not just that Odysseus has been deprived of
the good things that make life worth living. Odysseus
has been worn down by his sufferings; he is crushed and
bound by his grief. When Odysseus first makes his sup­
plication to the Phaiakians that they send him home, the
king Alkinoos in his reply remarks that Odysseus looks
like one of the immortals. This is of course very common
in Homer: all the heroes resemble the gods, that is part
of why they are called heroes. But to Odysseus this re­
mark seems a bitter irony. He says, "Alkinoos, let this
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
not be in your thoughts. I am not like the immortals who
hold broad heaven, either in form or stature, but like mor­
tal men. Whomever you know of men, who bear the
greatest burden of misery, to those I liken myself in my
distress." (7.208-212) Later Laodamus will say of Odys­
seus that he looks like a champion, but he has been
broken by his many hardships. (8.137) Odysseus cannot
return to Ithaka in this state. Athena has sent Odysseus
to Scheria for him to find, if he can, a restoration of what
he has lost and a healing of the sorrow that has broken
him. Let us see how the Phaiakians give Odysseus what
he needs to go home.
While Odysseus is deep in his sleep of exhaustion,
Athena goes to set in motion the first part of her plan
for him. She goes to the palace of Alkinoos, the king of
the Phaiakians, and finds there his young daughter,
Nausikaa, asleep in her chamber. She appears to Nausi­
kaa in a sort of dream, and, taking the likeness of another
young girl who is a friend of Nausikaa's, urges her to
gather the soiled linen in the palace and take it to the
washing places beside the river. There of course she will
meet Odysseus, but why is this necessary? Homer says
that Athena goes to the house of Alkinoos, "devising the
return of great-hearted Odysseus." (6.14) Let us try to
see how Odysseus's encounter with Nausikaa is a neces­
sary part of Athena's plan.
Nausikaa goes with her handmaidens to the washing
pools near where Odysseus lies asleep. After the linen
is washed and dry and they are almost ready to return
to the city, "then Athena took other counsel, to awaken
Odysseus in order that he look upon the lovely girl who
would lead him to the city." (6.112) Athena wants Odys­
seus to look upon Nausikaa, but what does he see?
A few lines before they meet Homer gives a descrip­
tion of Nausikaa:
But when she and her maids had taken their pleasure in
eating,
they all threw off their veils for a game of ball, and
among them
it was Nausikaa of the white arms who led in the dancing;
and as Artemis, who showers arrows, moves on the
mountains
either along Taygetos or on high-towering
Erymanthos, delighting in boars and deer in their running,
and along with her the nymphs, daughters of Zeus of the
aegis,
range in the wilds and play, and the heart of Leto is
gladdened,
for the head and the brows of Artemis are above all the others,
and she is easily marked among them, though all are lovely,
so this one shone among her handmaidens, a virgin
unwedded,
(6,99-109, Lattimore's translation)
Odysseus is awakened from his deep sleep by the cries
of the girls as they are playing. They all scatter as he
5
approaches them except Nausikaa to whom Athena gives
the courage to stand fast. Odysseus' supplication of her
also contains a description of Nausikaa:
I am at your knees, 0 queen. But are you mortal or goddess?
If indeed you are one of the gods who hold wide heaven,
then I must find in you the nearest likeness to Artemis
the daughter of great Zeus, for beauty, figure, and stature.
But if you are one among those mortals who live in this
country,
three times blessed are your father and the lady your mother,
and three times blessed your brothers too, and I know their
spirits
are warmed forever with happiness at the thought of you,
seeing
such a slip of beauty taking her place in the chorus of dancers;
but blessed at the heart, even beyond these others, is that one
who, after loading you down with gifts, leads you as his bride
home. I have never with these eyes seen anything like you,
neither man nor woman. Wonder takes me as I look on you.
Yet in Delos once I saw such a thing, by Apollo's altar.
I saw the stalk of a young palm shooting up. I had gone there
once, and with a following of a great many people,
on that journey which was to mean hard suffering for me.
And as, when I looked upon that tree, my heart admired it
long, since
~uch a tree had never yet sprung from the earth, so
now, lady, I admire you and wonder, and am terribly
afraid to clasp you by the knees. The hard sorrow is on me.
(6.149-169, Lattimore's translation)
Homer often compares mortals to gods. In describing
Nausikaa he likens her to Artemis in a beautiful simile.
It is true that Nausikaa is like Artemis; Odysseus says
so also, but quickly passes on to make a still more beau­
tiful comparison. He likens her not to a goddess but to
a mortal being, a delicate young sapling. It is easy to see
that Odysseus' comparison is the more appropriate one.
Homer's gods, since they are immortal and ageless, can
never have the tender innocence which is Nausikaa' s
loveliness. Only a mortal creature can be young.
Nausikaa is the first mortal Odysseus has seen in seven
years. It is important that Odysseus, newly returned from
the company of gods, see in Nausikaa the beauty that
only mortals possess. But this first vision is not all that
happens between Odysseus and Nausikaa. Let us recount
the events more fully.
When Athena comes to Nausikaa in a dream she says
that Nausikaa ought to attend to the soiled linen because
she will need much clean linen for her wedding, which
will not be long delayed. When N ausikaa asks her father
for the cart and mules to take the linen to the distant
washing pools, he understands that she has her wedding
in mind, though she is too shy to say so. (6.66) When
Odysseus first addresses her he also speaks of marriage:
"may the gods give you everything that your heart longs
for; may they grant you a husband and a house and sweet
agreement in all things, for nothing is better than this,
more steadfast than when two people, a man and his
6
wife, keep a harmonious household." (6.180-184, Latti­
more's translation)
When Odysseus first approaches Nausikaa he is naked
and starving and encrusted with the brine of the sea. But
after he has eaten and bathed and clothed himself Athena
effects a transformation in his appearance, the most
elaborate in all the poem, and one surely intended for
Nausikaa's benefit.
Then Athena, daughter of Zeus, made him seem taller
for the eye to behold, and thicker, and on his head she
arranged
the curling locks that hung down like hyacinthine petals.
And as when a master craftsman overlays gold on silver,
and he is one who was taught by Hephaistos and Palla Athene
in art complete, and grace is on every work he finishes,
so Athena gilded with grace his head and his shoulders,
and he went a little aside and sat by himself on the seashore,
radiant in grace and good looks; and the girl admired him.
(6.229-237, Lattimore's translation)
While Odysseus is sitting on the shore, Nausikaa says
to her handmaids that she wishes such a one as he might
be her husband, or that it might please him to remain.
Nausikaa has begun to fall in love with Odysseus, and
it is clearly part of Athena's plan that she should.
When Odysseus returns to Ithaka, he must make anew
beginning, he must start his life again for the second time.
Perhaps through seeing the youthful Nausikaa's incipient
love for him Odysseus is able to find something still
young in himself, something that gives him hope that he
will be able to make a new beginning in Ithaka. Perhaps
it is important for the middle-aged and painfully ex­
perienced Odysseus, (who is twice called in Scheria
pater
xeinos-revered father), to feel that there is still something
in himself that can move and be moved by N ausikaa' s
fresh-heartedness.
Nausikaa helps to bring out in Odysseus, even recre­
ate in him, something that has laid dormant in his na­
ture for a long time. Later, in their final conversation, he
acknowledges the importance of what she has done for
him. When she asks him to remember her when he is
safe in his native land he says, "There always I will pray
to you as to a goddess, all my days, for you, maiden, have
given me life." (81.467-9)
But Odysseus' meeting with Nausikaa is only part of
Athena's plan for his return. At the opening of book eight
Alkinoos leads Odysseus to the assembly of the Phaiaki­
ans, which he has called in honor of the stranger. This
assembly lasts all day and all through the long night. Five
books, more than one-fifth of the entire
Odyssey, are spent
relating the events which happen here. The assembly is
clearly a vital part of Athena's plan, for it is she, in the
likeness of Alkinoos' herald, who goes about the city call-
SPRING 1986
ing each man to assembly. Here the same words are used
as were used of Athena's appearing to Nausikaa in a
dream: in gathering the assembly Athena is said to be
"devising the return of great-hearted Odysseus." (8.9)
And, just as Athena had earlier made Odysseus more
handsome so that Nausikaa would admire him, so here
she also magnifies Odysseus' appearance, and many of
the Phaiakian lords wonder at him. (8.18)
Why has Athena gone to so much trouble to bring about
this assembly? How is Odysseus' presence here part of
her plan for his return? When Homer is describing how
Athena in disguise calls all the Phaiakian men to assem­
bly he goes on to tell us what her purpose is. Homer says
that Athena is contriving all this for Odysseus "in order
that he might be welcomed and win awe and reverence
from all the Phaiakians, and that he might complete the
many aethloi (contests or labors) through which the
Phaiakians made trial of Odysseus." (8.21-23) Let us try
to see what this means and why it is necessary.
At the end of book six, Odysseus, before he makes his
way to the palace of Alkinoos, waits in a grove sacred
to Athena. There he prays to the goddess in a way which
reveals something of his state of mind. His prayer is,
"Listen, child of aegis-bearing Zeus, unwearied one.
Hear me now, since before you did not hear me in my
affliction, when the glorious earth-shaker brought afflic­
tion upon me. Grant that I may come to the Phaiakians
as one to be welcomed and to be pitied." (6.324-327)
Odysseus only hopes to be pitied, but being pitied is not
enough for a hero. He cannot return to Ithaka merely as
an object of pity. That is why it is part of Athena's plan
that he win from the Phaiakians the awe and reverence
that are appropriate to his heroic stature.
The Phaiakians attach great value to contests. Laoda­
mas, the favorite son of Alkinoos, says that there is no
greater glory for a man than what he wins by his own
hands and feet in competition. (8.147-8) And so contests
form an important part of the Phaiakian assembly which
Athena has convened. The young men of the Phaiaki­
ans compete with one another in running, wrestling,
leaping, throwing the discus, and boxing. Odysseus looks
on, but he does not wish to participate. When Laodamas
invites him to join in a contest he says, "Laodamas, why
do you urge this mockery? I have sorrows on my mind
far more than contests." (8.153-4)
Odysseus is, as he says later, bound by his misery and
suffering. (8.182) But he is not allowed to remain a
bystander. A young Phaiakian prince insults him by say­
ing that Odysseus does not join in contests because he
does not know any: he looks like a huckster, not an ath­
lete. (8.164) Stung by the young man's sneer, Odysseus
hurls a heavier discus much farther than any of the
Phaiakian athletes had. Athena is there on the playing
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
field, in the likeness of a Phaiakian man, solely in order
to declare that Odysseus has won the contest. Of course
Athena does not need to do this, since, as she herself
says, it is obvious to everyone that his throw is far be­
yond any of the others. Athena is there only to mark the
importance of the occasion for Odysseus.
Odysseus has been stung into making trial of and re­
vealing his excellence
(arete), as Alkinoos says. (8.237)
And all of the Phaiakians are astounded. (8.235) By show­
ing his excellence, by allowing it to flare out in him, Odys­
seus comes to know that he still possesses that excellence,
even after all the years when he lacked the opportunity
to exercise it. For the first time in the poem Homer says
that Odysseus rejoiced
(gethesen 8.199) and he is able to
speak "with a lighter heart" (8.201) and to trust his ex­
cellence enough to challenge all the young men. Odys­
seus boasts that he can hold his own in all the contests
they have held, and mentions two contests which appear
to be unknown among the unwarlike Phaiakians, shoot­
ing arrows and hurling spears. For the first time among
the Phaiakians Odysseus marks out his place in the heroic
world. He claims that he was second only to Philoktetes
in archery and that he can hurl a spear farther than
another man can shoot an arrow. (8.119; 229)
Odysseus now asks for more than pity-he makes claim
to the awe and reverence that must be his due if he is
to rejoin the world of men as the hero Odysseus. And
the Phaiakians make the appropriate response. They give
him princely gifts, the sort called by Homer
xenia, mean­
ing gifts of guest-friendship. Such gifts establish a per­
manent reciprocal relationship between the kingly house
of Odysseus and the lords of Scheria. They represent the
Phaiakians' full acknowledgement of Odysseus as a lord
and a hero.
But the greater part of what Odysseus must do in
achieving his
nostos is yet to be done. Let us look again
at Athena's purpose for this assembly as it was stated at
the beginning of book eight. There we were told that
Athena had assembled the Phaiakians in order that Odys­
seus "might complete the many
aethloi (contests or labors)
through which the Phaiakians made trial of Odysseus."
What does this mean and how does it happen?
This is a strange and difficult passage in many ways.
The word
aethlos (contest or labor) which occurs here is
used of the games of the Phaiakians. Those contests are
also called
aethloi. But this statement of Athena's purpose
cannot refer to the games of the Phaiakians. Odysseus
can only be said to have won one game, the contest of
throwing the discus; but here he is said to fulfil many­
polloi-aethloi. What could this refer to? What are these
aethloi and how does Odysseus complete them? Let us
look at the Greek text a little more closely.
The Greek text reads:
kai ekteleseien aethlous pollous, taus
7
Phaiekes epeiresant' Oduseos. There are three words here
that admit of a wide range of meanings:
ekteleo, peirao,
and aethlos. Let us look at them one by one.
Odysseus is said to complete
(ekteleo) many labors.
Ekteleo means to complete or accomplish or fulfill, to bring
to completion or fruition. The word
teleo alone means to
accomplish or complete. The prefix
"ek" gives an addi­
tional connotation of finality.
Ekteleo often has the sense
of giving a final end to something, making it finally com­
plete. When the suitors finally force Penelope, after her
long delay, to complete the web she has been weaving
so long,
ekteleo is the word used to express that action.
The second key word in this passage is
peirao. Odys­
seus completes many labors, through which the Phaiak­
ians make trial of
(peirao) him. Peirao is a word which is
used continually in the
Odyssey and it is not always easy
to express its full meaning in English. It means to make
trial of something in the sense of to try to find out about
something. Peirao means to encounter something in such
a way as to learn something about it, to find out its true
nature. When Odysseus first takes his famous bow into
his hands and turns
it around examining it, peirao is the
word that is used.
The last and most important word is
aethlos. Odysseus
completes many contests/labors
(aethlm). This word is par­
ticularly associated with Odysseus. The original sense of
the word seems to be contest. So the games of the Phaiak­
ians are called
aethloi, as is the contest of Odysseus's bow.
Aethlos can also mean task or labor, the most famous be­
ing the labors
(aethloi) of Heracles. But an aethlos is not
just any purposeful activity or labor. It carries with it a
strong connotation of suffering. An
aethlos is a labor that
involves suffering; it is a labor that is also a hardship.
The word
aethlos is associated with Odysseus because
it is the word that is regularly used to refer to his deeds.
When Helen and Menelaus are telling stories about what
Odysseus undertook and accomplished they are telling
about his
aethloi. (4.241) But of course the most famous
aethloi of Odysseus, the labors which define his heroic
identity, are the adventures which he relates to the
Phaiakians at the same assembly which Athena gathered
at the beginning of book eight. These
aethloi are, I believe,
the only ones this passage at the opening of book eight
could refer to.
The translation I propose for this puzzling statement
of Athena's purpose is: "that Odysseus might bring to
a close his many labors/hardships, by which the Phaiak­
ians came to know him." The many
aethloi which Odys­
seus brings to a close are the ones which he tells to the
Phaiakians, and the way in which he brings them to a
close is by telling of them. Athena's chief purpose in
gathering this assembly is the activity which occupies part
of the evening and all of the night: Odysseus' telling of
8
his labors and revelation of his identity. The culminat­
ing labor of the hero of speech is the long telling of his
own story.
But Odysseus has been prepared to tell his definitive
story, the story of his many years of painful and fruitless
wandering, by listening to another story about another
aethlos of Odysseus: the story of the fall of Troy. Let us
look at this scene, which immediately precedes Odysseus'
revelation of his identity and his long telling of his
aethloi.
After the dancing and feasting which form such a large
part of the Phaiakian assembly are over, Odysseus asks
the bard Demodocus to sing the song of the wooden
horse, which is of course the stratagem of Odysseus by
which the city was finally taken. Demodocus tells the
whole story of the fall of Troy through to its ending at
the house of Helen's new husband, the Trojan leader
Deiphobus. There, Demodocus says, Odysseus, having
endured the most terrible battle, finally conquered
through great-hearted Athena:
So the famous singer sang his tale, but Odysseus
melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down,
drenching
his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dear husband, who fell fightiog for her city and people
as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children;
she sees him
dying and gasping for breath, and winding
her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the
shoulders,
force her up and lead away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with
pitiful weeping.
(8.521-530, Lattimore's translation)
This simile used to describe the quality of Odysseus'
tears is the most astonishing in all of Homer. Homer com­
pares the conqueror of Troy to the most miserable and
innocent victim of war. The gulf between this woman and
the warrior Odysseus is as great as it can be. And yet the
resourceful sacker of cities weeps the tears of this deso­
late and defenseless woman.
This grief of Odysseus is broad enough and deep
enough to encompass all the oppositions of our human
nature. His tears encompass male and female, attacker
and defender, victor and victim. There is a moment in
the
Iliad as well in which the tears of the victor and the
defeated mingle. Achilles and Priam, two hardened ene­
mies, are able to exchange comfort and a kind of forgive­
ness by means of such tears.
But perhaps the deepest understanding of these tears
is to be found in the works of Homer's greate'st student
and interpreter, Virgil. In the
Aeneid, in Virgil's imitation
of this passage in the
Odyssey, Virgil gives a beautiful
name to these all-encompassing tears-they are the
lacri-
SPRING 1986
mae rerum, the tears of (and for) things. Virgil's battered
and wandering hero, Aeneas, sees in the halls of Dido
in Carthage a painted portrayal of the fall of Troy, just
as Odysseus in the halls of Alkinoos in Scheria listens
to the song of the fall of Troy. Aeneas weeps as he looks
upon the paintings and he says, ''Here too honor receives
its due reward, here also are the tears of things, and here
mortality touches the mind." (1.461-2)
(Sunt hie etiam sua
praemia laudi, sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia
tangunt.)
The lacrimae rerum are the tears of all humanity, the tears
of mortality, and for this reason there is no distinction
in them between Greek and Trojan, conqueror and con­
quered. The perspective from which victor and victim are
alike in their painful mortality is a divine one, but in
Homer's pantheon it belongs only to the Muse. All the
Olympian gods, even Zeus, take sides in the war at Troy,
supporting one side and hating the other. But the poet
Homer, in his communion with the Muse, is able to tell
the truth of both sides. The poet is not bound by the mis­
ery of the defeated or the elation of the victors. He can
sing of the mortality of both.
Odysseus is able to break the bond of misery that has
held him by merging his suffering with the sorrow of all
mankind, that is, by seeing his sufferings as a story. Alki­
noos had said, just before Odysseus begins his long tell­
ing of his
aethloi, that the gods spun destruction for the
Achaians and the Trojans at Ilium so that there might be
a song for men yet to be. The sorrow and the song are
linked by divine agency, and this may be the only true
grace of the gods bestowed upon men in the world of
Homer. In stories there is the possibility of healing. The
song somehow makes bearable the sorrow and destruc­
tion from which it is made.
Odysseus brings his
aethloi to a close by telling of them
and this also is the way in which the Phaiakians come
to know him. Odysseus had postponed naming himself
until the moment when he began his story. But it is neces­
sary for Odysseus to reveal himself to win the only sort
of conveyance the Phaiakians can offer. For the Phaiakian
ships have no pilots; the ships are guided by the thoughts
and minds of the Phaiakians. (8.559) Phaiakian sailors
cannot convey an anonymous passenger to an unknown
destination. To give Odysseus conveyance home they
must know who he is and so he must tell his story.
The Phaiakians have done for Odysseus what Poseidon
and Zeus said that they would do. They have restored
to him what he lacked, his sense of heroic identity, and
they have allowed him to escape from the bond of mis­
ery which had held him. The Phaiakians convey Odys­
seus home in a deep and mysterious sleep. "They bent
to their rowing, and with their oars tossed up the sea
spray, and upon the eyes of Odysseus there fell a sleep,
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
gentle, the sweetest kind of sleep with no awakening,
most like death." (13.78-81, Lattimore's translation) This
sleep is indeed like death, it is like the death which has
been prophesied for Odysseus, which is to be very gen­
tle and from the sea. This death-like sleep is an appropri­
ate way for Odysseus to return to his rightly and
irrevocably chosen mortality.
But what of the Phaiakians who have given Odysseus
so much, what happens to them? Just after Alkinoos asks
to know Odysseus' name he refers to a prophesy his
father told him, that someday Poseidon, angry with the
Phaiakians for giving safe convoy to all men, would strike
one of their ships returning from convoy and fling a great
mountain around the city. When the Phaiakians give
Odysseus convoy home they quite knowingly take this
risk, for Odysseus has certainly not represented himself
as a favorite of Poseidon.
As the ship that gave Odysseus convoy to Ithaka is
within sight of the city of the Phaiakians, Poseidon does
indeed strike it. He turns the ship into stone and fixes
it immovably in the water: the swift motion in which the
Phaiakians delight has at last been stilled. Alkinoos recog­
nizes what has happened as a fulfillment of the prophesy
and hastens to offer sacrifice to Poseidon that he might
take pity on them and not fling a mountain about their
city. These prayers to Poseidon are the last we see of the
Phaiakians. Theirs is the only unresolved fate in the
Odyssey.
But can we say anything at all about what has hap­
pened to the Phaiakians on account of Odysseus' stay
with them? When we first meet the Phaiakians the words
Telemachus uses of his father in the first book of the
Odys­
sey
(1.243) could equally well be applied to them: they
are
aistos, apustos, unseen and unheard of. They live so
far apart from other men that no one knows who they
are. Homer tells us that their obscurity is deliberate; they
became the furthest of men in order to be the safest of
men. They fled to Scheria to escape the savage Cyclopes
(6.6), but clearly also to escape from everyone else who
might possibly harm them. Nausikaa says that the
Phaiakians now have no cause to fear anyone (6.200-3):
they lead a perfectly safe if unheroic existence.
They were outside of the heroic world and the risks that
heroism entails. But with the arrival of Odysseus the
heroic world has come to them, and they take the risk
of participating in it. Zeus describes their giving convoy
to Odysseus in language appropriate to heroism. He says
that they did so "yielding to their might and strength."
(13.143) The Phaiakians have entered into the heroic
world; they have become part of the song that was so
conspicuously missing at the feast of the suitors in book
one. These great delighters in poetry have become part
of the
noslos of Odysseus.
9
And it is perhaps appropriate that we do not know their
fate. The Phaiakians have taken a risk and entered into
a story, and the whole risk of entering a story is that one
can never know whether the end will finally be endur­
able or not.
10 SPRING 1986
God of Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob
Joe Sachs
One of the most difficult sentences in the Bible is in the
fifth verse of the sixth chapter of
Genesis: ''And the Lord
saw that ... every imagination of the thoughts of man's
heart was only evil continually." In Biblical usage, the
heart is the place and source of all thought and purpose.
The inward life of the human creature is thus said to be
only and unceasingly evil, poisoned by imagination. But
it is just this capacity for inward and imaginative thought
that distinguishes man from the other creatures. Every
genuinely human action proceeds from choice, and choice
is only possible when an array of possibilities is first
represented in the imagination. The less active, flexible,
and free the imagination is, the more constrained and
slavish will be the action. So it is the very power that
makes us what we are that is said to make us evil, and
indeed to make us unworthy to live, since the text of
Gen­
esis continues: "And it repented the Lord that He had
made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.
And the Lord said, 'I will blot out man whom I have
created from the face of the earth.'"
In carrying out this purpose of His heart, God would
be blotting out His own image. Should we say that the
image had been defiled because the medium in which it
was placed had become corrupt? I think it is worse than
that. The power for which we are condemned is the im­
age of God. The Bible does not say in what way we carry
that image, but the phrase "image of God" is linked with
Joe Sachs is a tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis. This is the text
of a lechtre given at St. John's in 1986, in October in Annapolis and
in November in Santa Fe. It appears here by permission of The Great
Ideas Today, a publication of the Great Books division of Encyclopedia
Britannica, Inc.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
our dominion over the animals and with our being
created male and female. Now some animals dominate
others, simply by force, and man is certainly not unusual
among the animals for being made male and female. But
a dominion which is not merely violent, and a sexuality
which is not just a matter of coupling in response to
desire, are possible to human beings because we are capa­
ble of thoughtfulness for others and for one another. That
thoughtfulness, which is imagination freely exercised for
the sake of the good of another as well as of oneself, is
thus the image of God. How is it that it can be not only
evil, but only evil continually?
It is easy to see that anything which depends on free­
dom can be misused. If not, it could not be properly used,
freely. But why must the imagination always be misused?
When the snake tells Eve that God is a liar, and is cheat­
ing her of good things because He wants to keep them
to Himself, is she not free to say no to him? She is, but
if she did so, it would be an answer based only on faith.
She does not know that God's purposes are for her good.
Where knowledge is lacking, imagination can always
multiply possibilities. But why shift one's faith to the
snake, and to the unknown benefits he promises? The
snake is smart enough to give no reasons for distrusting
God, and to give no content to his promises. "Your eyes
shall be opened," he says, "and ye shall be as God,
knowing good and evil."(3.5) All the work of persuasion
is left to Eve's own imagination. If we cannot say why
the persuasion will necessarily succeed, I think at least
we all know that it must. If it didn't, Eve would not be
our ancestor, but belong to some other race.
But the most telling display of the power of imagina­
tion comes after the fruit is eaten. The eyes of Adam and
11
Eve are indeed opened, but to what? "They knew that
they were naked." What is happening here? Whatever
it
is takes place only in the imaginations of Adam and
Eve, and can be discerned only in the imagination of the
reader. Just before this moment, Eve had implicated
Adam in her act, and just after it, Adam will try to shift
all the blame onto her. Adam and Eve had been "one
flesh," but now each has begun to treat the other as
something to be used. The two look at each other, and
neither likes the way it feels to be looked at in that way.
Do you know that feeling-the feeling that comes when
someone
is looking at you with speculation? Adam and
Eve cannot fail to know it, because each is experiencing
it from both sides at the same time. Their response is the
invention of clothes. They produce an imaginary safety,
which
is an outward sign of genuine inner barriers. Each
has isolated himself by imagining how he might increase
his own good at the expense of the other. It is to this new
condition of solitary suspicion and distrust that their eyes
are opened.
Here the power of imagination has already gone out
of control. Each of the two human beings has imagined
the possibility of selling out the other, and as a conse­
quence, each has imagined as well that the other is im­
agining the same thing. Imagined wrongs become
genuine threats, and, with the making of clothes, what
had been only irrner begins to have outward effects. Some
readers of
Genesis say that the snake was right when he
said that Adam and Eve would not die when they ate the
forbidden fruit. Perhaps that
is when they became mor­
tal, these lawyer-like readers say, but God said "in the
day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," and
we've got Him there. But God had also said that it is not
good for man to be alone, and each human being has now
begun considering that it might be better to be alone, to
put his own good first and sacrifice the other to it. That
possibility of separation immediately, and apparently un­
controllably, began becoming real. If Adam and Eve be­
fore that day had lived a life as one flesh, then surely on
that day they did die: they died as one being and were
re-born as two.
Perhaps that
is the way in which the imagination is only
evil. The imagining of bad possibilities is an experience
which cannot be erased; it makes us different and may
make our lives worse. On the other hand, the imagining
of good possibilities (for example, that God intends our
good) seems to require effort to sustain, and to be always
vulnerable to suspicion. The imagination is the source of
both suspicion and faith, and it always makes suspicion
the line of least resistance. The imagination is the image
of God and the source of our freedom, but it is a free­
dom weighted toward isolation.
It seems then that the power which is needed to make
12
life good tends by its own nature to make life bad. For
example, my guess is that Abel was not a very interest­
ing man, and not capable of much-that he was accepted
for the little of which he was capable. It is his brother
Cain, whose imagination leads to hurt feelings and mur­
der, on whom God places a special mark of protection.
Cain
is cursed (is the first human being to be cursed), but
his life is preserved, as presumably Abel's life could have
been protected and preserved but wasn't. Throughout
the Bible, it is the murderers, like Moses and David, and
the thieves, like Jacob, on whom God's care
is lavished.
On the interpretation I am offering, the image of God
is
more fully present in Cain than in Abel, though also at
greater risk of being perverted and destroyed. It
is Cain
who builds the first city, and it is his descendants who
first make musical instruments and tools. But it is also
Lamech, Cain's descendant in the fifth generation, whose
song is preserved (4.23-4): "I have slain a man for wound­
ing me, and a young man for bruising me; if Cain shall
be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and
sevenfold."
Can such a creature as man be saved from becoming
what he thinks he wants to be? Command and punish­
ment have been present since the first generation, but
still the tormented murderer Cain has been succeeded by
the self-satisfied and boastful murderer Lamech. It
is
another Lamech who is the father of Noah, but the first
Lamech typifies the world God judges too far gone in vio­
lence and corruption to be allowed to endure. (6.11-13)
Lamech not only kills, but glories in the slightness of the
pretext for killing; he takes joy in multiplying in his im­
agination those whom he will kill for offenses which have
not yet happened. By destroying others, he has built him­
self up into a mighty man of renown. (6.4) The human
creature, left to itself, degenerates into this Cyclops-like
being who boasts of being a law to himself.
What does God give to the human creature to protect
it from its own deadly inertia? The answer, I think, is
threefold. God gives man a history, a covenant, and a
Law, and the third cannot be understood apart from the
first two. Some might think that the Law of Moses is sim­
ply a list of explicit prohibitions and commands meant
to replace or at least hold back the imagination. On such
an interpretation, the Jew need never make his own
choices or risk his own judgment since everything he
need ever do is spelled out in the hundreds of laws of
the Torah. Now I hope to show that this is a misunder­
standing of the Jewish Law, and in fact almost an inver­
sion of it, but even if
it were not, it would be no solution
to the difficulty posed by the first six chapters of
Genesis.
If the faculty of imagination were beaten down in us,
made powerless in our lives, the creation would be
diminished, void of the image of God, and stunted at the
SPRING 1986
level of the things that creep on the earth. The Flood is
not a curtailment of the creation but a renewal and affir­
mation of it. It is the beginning of history, and the occa­
sion of the first covenant.
God's first deed in the newly-washed world of Noah
is to declare that He will never again destroy this world.
This commitment on God's part is the covenant with
Noah. Although God also gives two laws to Noah and
his descendants, and although the word for covenant
means a contract for which pledges are exchanged be­
tween two partiesf
it is of the utmost importance to see
that God's promise is in no way conditional upon any
performance or promise on man's part. The covenant is
spelled out over nine verses (9. 9-17) as repetitious and
emphatic as anything in the Bible. Mankind will never
be destroyed under any circumstances. In order to see
that this promise is not conditioned by man's observance
of the law requiring capital punishment for murderers,
one need only look at the reason given for the promise
in chapter 8, verse 21. Mankind will forever be spared
because "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his
youth." The reason for the covenant of universal forgive­
ness is identical to the reason given in the sixth chapter
for universal condemnation and destruction. Human evil
is pardoned, because it is in us from youth, that is, from
before the time when we are responsible: it is our native
condition. Whatever the purpose of the laws already
given and to be given, they are not the price of the di­
vine protection of human life. The rainbow is like the
mark of Cain, placed now upon the whole human race.
It says: this criminal has forfeited his right to live, but
that life will be maintained by something stronger than
his deserving.
The sixth chapter of
Genesis is often seen as the strong­
est evidence for the inconstancy of God in the Bible. He
repents of the creation, reverses Himself, and destroys
what He had made. Then in chapter 8, God reverses Him­
self again. Does the second reversal double the evidence
of inconstancy? Or does it cancel it? The underlying rea­
son for the perpetual pardon of mankind is the same as
the underlying reason for its destruction. That is why the
world after the Flood is not a new order of things, but·
an affirmation of the original creation. It is all right that
the imagination of man's heart is evil; he was made that
way. That is not the flaw that shows creation to be faulty,
but part of the design. God's twice reversing Himself,
on account of one unchanging reason, shows that neither
He nor His relation to his creatures has undergone a
change. Mankind after the Flood differs from mankind
in Eden in only one way. He does not have a different
heart; he has a history.
It is possible to look at the God of the Bible as a bum­
bler, trying first one thing and then another in an effort
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
to undo the unforeseen consequences of His past mis­
takes. But what if God's relationship with the human
creature were fully formed from the beginning, but man,
from his side, could only come into possession of that
relationship by acquiring a history? God will send Abra­
ham to a mountain to kill his son. Abraham will return
with Isaac alive and unwounded, but for the rest of his
life Abraham himself will have an unforgettable history.
That episode is called a test or trial of Abraham (22.1),
but for whose sake is he tested? An unconditional and
irrevocable covenant has already been made with Abra­
ham (12.1-3, 13.14-17, 15.18-20, 17.4-14), and its fulfill­
ment depends upon the existence of Isaac. (17.19)
Therefore God knows both that Abraham will pass the
test and that he will not kill Isaac. Abraham is changed
in order to become what God already knows him to be.
The only difference after the test is that Abraham has
come to know about himself some of what God already
knew.
History then is like a lens through which man can see
himself and God. A human covenant is an attempt to de­
termine an unknown and uncertain future by two par­
ties who bind themselves mutually to bring it about. What
then can be the meaning of a covenant between man and
God? The first use of the word, for the covenant with
Noah, is in a context which emphasizes the absence of
the mutuality which is ordinarily the essence of all
covenants. When the great covenant is made with Abra­
ham, it is set out in the form of an exchange. In return
for the promised land and a multitude of nations and
blessings, Abraham must circumcise all the males of his
household. (17.9-14) But the ritual of circumcision is not
a return made to God, but a sign of the acceptance of His
promise. If the circumcision fulfilled Abraham's side of
the contract, it would make no sense for him to be put
through the test of the sacrifice of Isaac, in which he is
asked to destroy the possibility of the fulfillment of God's
side of the bargain. When Abraham lifts the knife on the
mountain in Moriah, he is abandoning any humanly in­
telligible role in bringing about the things promised him
by God. My suggestion is that it is only at that moment
that Abraham appropriates the covenant. That is the mo­
ment when he knows that he did not enter into the rela­
tionship with God simply for the sake of the things God
would give him, since in asking for Isaac's life, God is
saying in effect "Give back everything I have given you
and any possibility of ever getting any more of it.'' God
already knew that Abraham's side of the covenant was
nothing but his believing it (15.6): "Abraham believed
in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness."
After the test on the mountain Abraham knew those same
things about himself: both how strongly he believed and
that his belief was the only thing he had to offer God.
13
The change of his name from Abram to Abraham is an
indication that the man with whom the covenant is made
does not yet exist when the covenant is first announced.
Abraham cannot see who God is or what God is asking
of him until his own life has unfolded sufficiently. In that
way, divine covenant is inseparable from human history.
And that is why the covenant of forgiveness with Noah
can only be made with a human race that knows of the
destruction in the Flood and of the violence and corrup­
tion that preceded it.
Noah and his descendants possess a world which does
not differ from the one given to Adam and Eve, but to
Noah's generation that world is seen refracted through
its history. The world after the Flood can be seen as a
possession that could have been lost, that almost was lost
and was only spared by the free choice of its creator. But
how does that differ from a world that might not have
been made, and only came into being by the free act of
creation? It differs only in being more fully known for
what it is. It is with the knowers, the inheritors of a his­
tory, that God first makes a covenant. Similarly, Isaac is
no different after Abraham's ordeal on the mountain, but
to Abraham he must have become more precious as a son
who could have been lost, but was spared by the free act
of God. But Isaac was already a miraculous son, given
to Abraham and Sarah when they were far beyond the
natural capacity for child-bearing. Again, Abraham's his­
tory only makes Isaac more fully known for the free gift
he is, the Abraham has come to know this truth with ex­
cruciating vividness. It has been pointed out to many of
us by Mr. Littleton that the word love occurs first in the
Bible when Abraham is commanded to kill his son: "Take
now thy son, thine only son, whom thou loves!." (22.2)
Perhaps the creation, or the bringing to sight, of human
love also occurs first in the giving and re-giving of Isaac
with a joy and a pain beyond any in the power of na­
ture. The covenant that promises that the world will en­
dure is made with a generation that knows not to take
the world for granted, and the covenant that promises
the blessing of descendants is made with an Abraham
who knows not to take a child for granted. Those with
whom covenants are made have been given the chance
to know themselves and the things they have as creations
of a creator. That, I think, is always the meaning of
covenant in the Bible: the discovery and acknowledgment
of createdness.
This meaning of covenant is best exemplified in the his­
tory of jacob. As with so many of the things we have
looked at, this point is revealed by first seeming to be its
opposite. The covenant between God and jacob is first
made at Beth-el, when jacob is on his way east toward
the home of his uncle, in the land from which Abraham
had departed. It is worth listening to every word of it.
14
God speaks to jacob in a dream, saying (28.13-15),
"I am the Lord, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God
of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it
and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth,
and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east,
and to the north, and to the south. And in thee and in thy
seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And be­
hold, I am with thee, and will keep thee withersoever thou
goest, and
will bring thee back into this land; for I will not
leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee
of."
jacob awoke, and "vowed a vow, saying," (vv. 20-22)
"If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that
I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
so that I come back to my father's house
in peace, then shall
the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for
a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that Thou shalt give
me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee."
Here, surely, is a man of imagination. Where Abraham
believed, jacob spells out terms and conditions. Where
Abraham did just what he was told to do, jacob offers
extra inducements, to hold God to his bargain.
It is not the case that Abraham never bargained with
God. There is the obvious instance of the dialogue over
Sodom and Gomorrah (18.17-33), in which Abraham art­
fully drives down to ten the number of righteous people
needed to save his nephew's life. And there is a less ob­
vious moment when Abraham, having laughed at the
thought that his ninety-year-old wife and hundred-year­
old self would produce another child, tries to talk God
into substituting Ishmael for the promised son. (17.18)
Indeed, in his defense of Sodom, Abraham challenges
God to His face, asking "Shall not the judge of all the
earth do justly?" Like Adam, Cain, Moses, and David,
Abraham does not submit to God without a struggle. But
what we see in jacob at Beth-el is something utterly un­
like any such challenge or struggle. Open conflict seems
to bring men closer to God, but jacob holds himself apart.
Though he is afraid at Beth-el, he is cool with God, and
keeps his wits about him in an effort to protect himself
from any fraud on God's part. And jacob has reason to
be cautious. God speaks to him about his seed, while
jacob is running for his life; God makes promises about
all the families of the earth, when jacob doesn't know
if he can ever see his own family again. Abraham had
also been at Beth-el (12.8), but heading west, toward
God's promise. jacob is there heading east, running away
from the mess he has made of his life. The covenant has
been announced to him, and jacob has vowed a vow, but
at this point in his life, the covenant with jacob has not
yet come into being.
The turning point in jacob's life does not occur when
he is at Beth-el, but seven years, one month, and one day
SPRING 1986
later, on the morning after his wedding. What God's ap­
pearing to him did not accomplish, Laban's deception of
him does. jacob had been successful at extortion, with
his brother, fraud, with his father, and petty legalism,
with God. Now, for the first time and all at once, he is
a victim of all three at the hands of his uncle. The most
surprising thing, to one who has followed the story of
jacob to this point, is that he lets himself be taken ad­
vantage of. The moment when he does so is like the mo­
ment when Adam and Eve look at each other and make
clothes, in that the Biblical text gives us not one word
about what fills that moment, or about what causes the
next thing that happens to come out of it. The crucial
event again takes place only in the imagination of the
character, and again can only be discerned by the imagi­
nation of the reader. We have to back up a bit, to try to
see the context of that moment whole.
jacob begins life with a brother who is older than he,
stronger, and preferred by their father. Against these dis­
advantages are set the facts that jacob is cleverer than
Esau, preferred by their mother, and unhampered in the
pursuit of his own advantage by any respect for justice.
We first hear him speak when he gives voice to an inspi­
ration that shows the quality of his imagination. (25.31,33)
Esau has, from birth, the rights of the first-born, but jacob
has at this moment food, and his brother is very hun­
gry. Why not extort the former by withholding the lat­
ter?, thinks the man who will be so artful at drawing up
a covenant. If Esau wants food badly enough right now,
let him first swear away his birthright forever. Esau
agrees, and jacob discovers that even the weaker can be
a successful bully. jacob now has everything his brother
was entitled to by law and custom, and lacks only what
his father has the power to give by free choice out of love.
His mother Rebekah thinks of a way for him to steal even
that, and jacob is quick-witted enough to carry it off. just
as his brother's hunger offered an opportunity for
advantage-taking to an imaginative man, his father's
blindness can now be the making of jacob. He can set
out in the world with everything, except trust.
There is only one moment in the swindling of his father
for which jacob is unprovided by his mother. (27.20)
When Isaac asks how he had found venison so quickly,
jacob immediately has an answer: the Lord your God
helped me. This is a remarkable answer, seizing upon
Isaac's trust in God as another weapon against him, along
with his blindness, and quietly urging him to get on with
the blessing, since so far this Lord is only Isaac's God.
The story of jacob's first theft, of Esau's birthright, ends
with the sentence, "So Esau despised his birthright."
(25.34) This means, one presumes, that Esau thought so
little of the birthright that it was worth no more to him
than a bowl of lentil soup. There is no way to absolve
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
Jacob from injustice in the exchange, since it is not an
Esau free from duress who agrees to it, but one in whom
hunger is used for torment by a brother's cruelty. Still,
the magnitude of the crime is lessened if the loss was not
very important to Esau. But in the case of this second theft
the same argument would have to work the opposite
way. It is Isaac's caring so much about the blessing in
God's covenant that jacob uses to strengthen his hold
over his blind father. The story of jacob's second theft
could fittingly end, "So jacob despised his father."
It is easy to despise Isaac, or to overlook him altogether.
He is present at what is perhaps the most sublime mo­
ment in the Bible, but as a child and at the wrong end
of a knife. In the trial of Abraham, Isaac in no way acts.
In the first episode in which Isaac attempts to act, his ef­
forts are useless. (26.1-12) In a time of famine, Isaac goes
to the king of the Philistines, attempting to protect him­
self by calling his wife his sister. If some Philistine wanted
Rebekah, and knew her to be married, he might kill her
husband. But Abraham has been there before Isaac, and
used the same deception with the same king. Abimelech
had been in danger on account of Sarah (Ch.20), and now
avoids trouble by protecting Isaac, who gets what he
wants in spite of his utter ineffectuality, because of the
memory of his father. At this same time God renews the
covenant with Isaac, but says He is doing so for Abra­
ham's sake. (26.5,24) A brief series of wanderings and
troubles then ends at Beersheba, which Isaac so names
to signify that he has found water and a place to rest only
by good fortune. (26.32-3) And that is the whole story
of Isaac's life, up to the crowning humiliation in his old
age at the hands of his wife and his son jacob. There was
a time when I wondered at the expression, God of Abra­
ham, Isaac, and jacob. Why does the ordinariness and
incompetence of Isaac merit a place equal to those of his
father and son in the naming of God?
It was Mr. Littleton who pointed me in the direction
of an answer. What does Isaac do when he discovers that
he has been fooled and betrayed? He blesses jacob again,
this time deliberately and voluntarily. (28.3-4) If I am cor­
rect that there is a moment in the life of each of the patri­
archs when he makes the covenant his own, it must be
this moment of forgiveness in which Isaac does so. Isaac's
one free and effective act in the account we are given of
him is an acknowledgement that he cannot act at his own
caprice. Esau is his first born and the son he loves, but
he will not be the heir of God's promise. To some ex­
tent, Isaac undoes jacob's crimes by saying yes to their
result. Acting now from knowledge and choice, Isaac
gives jacob what jacob had first stolen from him. But the
pardon is not complete, because Esau does not partici­
pate in it, and he is the one of those wronged by jacob.
Esau in fact feels that nothing will satisfy him but killing
15
Jacob, and goes so far as to hope for Isaac's death, to let
him feel free to do the killing. (27.41) Even in his mur­
derous rage, Esau has more respect for his father's feel­
ings than Jacob ever had.
Jacob passes through Beth-el and travels to his uncle's
home far to the east near what is now Iraq, to escape his
brother. His mother thinks it wi!l only take a few days
for Esau to forget what Jacob has done to him. (27.44-5)
Jacob does not share her optimism, for after a month with
his uncle he proposes that he spend another seven years
working for him as the price of marrying Laban's daugh­
ter Rachel, with whom Jacob is already in love. (29.18)
Why does Jacob make this offer? He is certainly a man
who knows how to get important things cheaply. He got
his brother's birthright for a bowl of soup and his father's
blessing for a lie, and he offered God absolutely nothing
until God should first give him everything he wanted:
a safe and comfortable journey and return home. Now
he freely offers seven years of work for a woman he al­
ready desires. Can it be that he is simply trying to make
certain of outlasting Esau' s anger? That can't be the whole
reason, since he could be spending that same time as
Rachel's husband. I suspect that Jacob is offering those
seven years more to himself than to Laban, that he wants
a long time to forget about looking out for himself, to sub­
merge himself in work, out of which he might emerge
as a better man to begin a life with Rachel. I think this
is not as far-fetched an interpretation as it might at first
seem. When Jacob first comes into the presence of Rachel
and Laban he weeps tears of relief and gratitude
(29.11-13), and this is after a journey offive hundred miles
or more in which, perhaps for the first time in his life,
Jacob must have known deprivation, fear, and uncer­
tainty. Just as Tolstoy's Pierre found no true freedom with
the largest private fortune in Russia and the best educa­
tion available in Europe until he had discovered in pri­
son what a human being is, so too may Jacob's journey
have been the beginning of his growing up. But the best
evidence that Jacob's servitude was a freely chosen
penance is the way he acts when it is over.
We have finally returned to Laban's deception of Jacob,
and Jacob's un-deception the morning after. We have
now to try to enter Jacob's imagination when, having dis­
covered that he married and slept with Leah, he confronts
Laban. (29 .25-6) "What is this that thou has done unto
me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then
hast thou beguiled me?" are the questions that come tum­
bling from Jacob's mouth. Listen to Laban's cool reply,
and try to hear in it what Jacob must be hearing. "It is
not so done in our place, to give the younger before the
first-born." Do you hear it? To a Jacob who was still the
shallow and unfeeling thief of his younger days, this
would be a lame excuse and nothing more. To a Jacob
16
whose thoughts are full of the wrong he has done his
older brother in his own place, Laban's words must be
like a knife that stabs him to the heart. Does Laban know
what Jacob has done at home? Do his words mean, "I
have not injured you but given you exact justice for your
crimes''? It is certainly possible that in all that time word
might have come to Laban from some traveller or servant
or Jacob himself of what Jacob had done. But it does not
matter. Even if Laban does not know fully what he is do­
ing, it is done with exquisite accuracy. A marriage with
Laban's undesirable daughter has been extorted from
Jacob, as Esau's birthright from him; the consumation of
that marriage has been achieved by disguise and fraud,
as the first giving of Isaac's blessing was achieved; and
Jacob has been outwitted in his contract, as he sought to
outwit God at Beth-el with codicils and loopholes. In the
face of this triple humiliation, our resourceful Jacob­
accepts it. He takes it, as we say, like a man. In this mo­
ment of passivity and failure Jacob is for the first time as
much a man as his father was.
I have called this moment the turning point in Jacob's
life. It is not, however, the occasion of a life-long sacrifice,
since the customs of the time permit Jacob a second wife,
and he marries Rachel only a week later. Nor is it the oc­
casion of a complete change of Jacob's character, since
he eventually comforts himself with a lot of petty cheat­
ing of Laban. (30.25-32.3) Thirdly, it is not the moment
when Jacob appropriates the divine convenant; that is an
unmistakable event thirteen years later. The moment
when Jacob stands before Laban and hears his mockery
is the first time we see Jacob swallow his pride. Jacob has
already acknowledged his fault, according to our read­
ing of the story, but he now accepts that the working off
of that fault will not be a matter of his own private ar­
rangements with himself, answerable to no one else.
When Laban says, in effect, "You can have Rachel too,
but I'll take seven more years," we hear only, "And Jacob
did so." (29.28) Like his father and grandfather before
him, Jacob has begun to accept that it is not he who directs
his own life, and to be wiling to live on terms other than
his own.
Jacob sets out for home after spending twenty years
with Laban, seven for Leah, as it turned out, seven more
for Rachel, and six more to earn livestock and servants.
(31.41) Near the River Jordan he camps at Peniel, having
sent half his followers to another encampment, while he
waits to meet Esau, and perhaps to be killed. The second
thing Jacob does at Peniel is to send a succession of mes­
sengers carrying gifts to Esau; the first and third things
he does there are the interesting ones. Taken together,
they replace the covenant at Beth-el, of Jacob's eastward
journey. This time it is Jacob who initiates the encoun­
ter, and again we will listen to all his words, as he prays
SPRING 1986
(32.10-13):
"0 God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac,
0 Lord, who saidst unto me: Return unto thy country, and
to thy kindred, and I will do thee good; I am not worthy of
all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown
unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jor­
dan; and now I am become two camps. Deliver me, I pray
Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau;
for I fear him lest he come and smite me, the mother with
the children. And Thou saidst: I will surely do thee good,
and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be
numbered for multitude."
Jacob's prayer at Peniel is certainly self-regarding, self­
serving, and self-seeking. The important thing about it
is that it is a
prayer. Jacob reminds God of His promise,
but does not claim to have made any exchange for it or
promise to make any return for it. He speaks now as one
who has nothing to offer but his need. When Jacob says
he is unworthy of the mercy and truth he has received,
he is using a way of speaking fairly common in the Bi­
ble, the Oriental courtesy of self-abasement.
It is not a
way of speaking we have ever heard from Jacob, though,
and in this case I think he means exactly what he says.
There is much good in his life, two wives, eleven chil­
dren, and great wealth, and it is all sheer blessing, and
not his own doing. There is also more than enough bad
in his life, enough to cost him his life and perhaps the
massacre of all his family and dependents, and that is his
doing and just what he deserves. There is none of the
spelling out of obligations of the covenant at Beth-el, but
only a giving voice to the conviction that he himself can­
not provide himself the minimum conditions of carrying
on a life.
Having sent his prayer to God, and presents to his
brother, Jacob that night sends away his family and every­
one and everything else with him, and spends the night
alone. (32.23-5) But when Jacob isolates himself, he is not
alone. We are told, abruptly and mysteriously, "there
wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.''
Abraham struggled with God face-to-face over Sodom
and over Ishmael, and something similar occurs with
Adam, Cain, Moses, and David. It is in the strange and
beautiful episode of Jacob's wrestling that the meaning
of all such struggles becomes accessible. I am not talking
about symbolism, but about how and to what end the
wrestling match takes place.
Let us first simply look at what happens in that strug­
gle at Peniel. We know that the wrestling match goes on
all night, that Jacob continues despite a serious injury,
either a sprained thigh muscle or a dislocated hip, that
his adversary is called a man in the narration but is taken
by Jacob himself to be God, and that Jacob is striving not
to throw or pin this adversary or in any way get the bet-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
ter of Him, but only to remain in His embrace. Jacob fights
in order that he not be let go, except with a blessing. If
the wrestling match is taken together with Jacob's pray­
er, it provides further evidence that Jacob's honest opin­
ion is that all the good in his life comes only from God,
and that if he stands on his own merit, he deserves to
be killed by his brother. And this finally is the full mean­
ing of the Biblical covenant: It is the bargain one can make
only out of utter clarity that he has nothing to bargain
with. The fierceness of Jacob's struggle reflects the
knowledge he has gained of the desperation of a life
without God. Anything he could hope for without God,
he has learned that he doesn't want. And this moment
is Jacob's full and final appropriation of the covenant, his
explicit acknowledgement of his createdness, his essen­
tial and inescapable dependence upon a creator. The
meaning of the moment is recognized by the change of
Jacob's name to Israel, he who strives with God. And
Jacob becomes Israel also in the sense that none of his
progeny will be excluded from the covenant: he is the
blessed nation promised to his grandfather and father.
In this way, Jacob's wrestling is the completion of crea­
tion: the separation of light from darkness, land from
water, family from family, and brother from brother
comes to an end after thirty-two chapters of
Genesis.
If Jacob's wrestling is the culmination of the history of
creation,
it must somehow address the troublesome sen­
tence with which we began: "And the Lord saw that
... every imagination of the thoughts of man's heart was
only evil continually.'' That sentence was interpreted to
mean that the instrument of human freedom has an in­
herent inertia toward making its worst suspicions come
true by actions intended to guard against them. The his­
tory of mankind before the Flood was summarized as a
motion from the self-tormenting murderer Cain to the
self-congratulating mass murderer Lamech. The three
Hebrew patriarchs do not have purified hearts; what they
have are ordeals which lead to self-knowledge as created
beings, and trust in a divine promise of prosperity and
a rest from troubles, but not for themselves. It is natural
for all human beings to want something for themselves,
in the present. Esau asks his father if he does not have
a little blessing left over for him (27.36); Lot, escaping
from Sodom, asks God if he can't stay in a city, just a
little one (19.20); and Abraham meets the first explicit ac­
count of the covenant with a request that a little some­
thing be done for Ishmael (17 .18). But none of the
patriarchs is given anything out of the ordinary in his own
lifetime, except an invitation to trust God. The history
of mankind after the Flood, up to the coming into being
of the nation Israel, is a return to sell-torment, but
relieved by a promise of peace for future generations. The
covenant does not transform the conditions of human life,
17
but it presents itself as a step toward such a transfor­
mation.
jacob's life after he becomes Israel is still full of trou­
ble. He has a life, because Esau does forgive him (33.4),
but he himself seems to have learned nothing from his
conflict with his brother. Like his father before him, jacob
openly loves one of his sons most, and brings about
hatred in his house. (37.1-4) As a result he loses that son,
and then the son second dearest to him. When he is re­
united with them in Egypt, he is brought before the
Pharaoh, who asks him, ''How many are the days of the
years of thy life?" jacob replies, "The days of the years
of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years; few
and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and
they have not attained unto the days of the years of the
life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings."
(47.8-9) Why does jacob talk this way? Is he a bitter man
at the end of his life? Does he feel that God's promise
has been a deception? His words in the following chap­
ter make it clear that this is not his attitude toward his
life. When jacob is on his deathbed, he hugs and kisses
his grandchildren and says to joseph, "I had not thought
to see thy face; and lo, God hath let me see thy children
also." (48.11) Jacob does not lack gratitude. Pharaoh
seems to look at him though as an aged man specially
favored by fortune. I think what Jacob is saying to him
is: I am no one special. I am an ordinary man. Others
have lived longer. If I am distinguished in any way it is
in the same way as my father and grandfather, in not hav­
ing had a life at all in the settled sense, but a never-ending
wandering.
Did Jacob receive the things he insisted upon at Beth­
el? He certainly did not starve or freeze to death, he got
back to Beersheba, and he was not attacked. In deeper
ways, though, he got both more and less than he asked
for. Safety is too weak a word to describe what jacob
gained when he looked on Esau's forgiving face and said
it was like seeing the face of God. (33.10) On the other
hand, home is too strong a word for a place jacob had
to leave in his old age, not only for food but for release
from the anxiety about his children with which his last
years were troubled; and I doubt that jacob would have
been much comforted to know that the Egyptians gave
him a royal funeral. (50.2-3) For jacob, home and securi­
ty remained only promises for a distant generation, while
the joys of his life always came unexpectedly, with the
intensity of gifts that one cannot take for granted. And
what became of the imagination of jacob's youth, in
which he set himself against everyone and everything else
in the world? It seems to have been not overcome or
crushed, but fed by the knowledge he gained from ex­
perience and promises he was given by God. The Jacob
who warns Pharaoh against envying him is not a man
18
in whom imagination has died. It is in his imagination
that jacob judges his life as one that has never come to
rest. That is a long way, though, from the time when that
same imagination sought to find its rest by defeating and
outwitting everyone else. jacob's imagination looks at the
past through his history and at the future through the
divine convenant, and finds an in-between, human kind
of rest in the acceptance of troubles as worth enduring.
The Law of Moses incorporates jacob's understanding
of his life. The jew is commanded to recite, every year
when the harvest comes, the words "a wandering Ara­
mean was my father." (Deuteronomy 26.5) A land flow­
ing with milk and honey is never to be taken for granted,
but to be looked on as achieved through a history of strug­
gle. But is the land the completion of the promise made
to Abraham, Isaac, and jacob? Why is the promised land
not a new Eden, and just as likely to be lost? Is memory
strong enough to outweigh the corrupting tendency of
imagination simply by evoking the history and the
covenant? I will argue that the life of the wandering Ara­
mean, the Syrian nomad, is transposed from the outer
to the inner human realm by means of the Law itself.
I once listened to a learned man explain that the jew­
ish Law contained nothing spiritual, that it concerned it­
self exclusively with external possessions and outward
acts. This man went so far as to claim that the Hebrew
word translated "covet" in the tenth commandment
means instead "obtain by magic," but I cannot recall
that he had anything at all to say about the command in
Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself. (19.18,33-4)
His purpose was to show the inferiority of judaism to
Christianity, but I have also heard more than one rabbi
explain that the superiority of judaism consists precisely
in its concentration on the outer things under a man's
control, rather than on the inner and involuntary things.
It seems to me, though, that the regulation of outward
life in the jewish Law is always for the sake of its sig­
nificance for inward life. The keynote of the whole Law
is sounded in the command to the hearer to talk about
the law all the time, whenever one is free from neces­
sary business.
(Deuteronomy 6.6-7) It is not a Law to be
memorized, but one to be interpreted. It does not bring
the life of moral struggle to an end, but stimulates that
life. Most of what the Law has to give is not on its sur­
face, but evident only to the imagination, through the ac­
tivity of interpretation. The ultimate Biblical response to
the corruption of human life by imagination is the giv­
ing of the Law, not to replace the imagination but to feed
it with strong meat.
Now some of you may be thinking, that sounds good,
and there are some good things in the Law of Moses, but
isn't much of the Law unenlightened and even barbaric?
For example, doesn't that Law approve of slavery? The
SPRING 1986
Law does not forbid slavery, and certainly recognizes its
existence, but as far as I can determine, every mention
of slavery in the five books of Moses deals with the free­
ing of slaves. The most extensive ordinances deal with
Jewish slaves, who must be set free after six years of work
(Ex. 21, Deut. 15), liberally furnished with livestock,
grain, and wine (D 15.13-14). Most remarkable is that the
slave owner is commanded not only to free the slave, but
not to do so grudgingly. (D 15.18) Further, any slave, Jew­
ish or otherwise, is exempt from the famous law of retali­
ation, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is true
in one way in the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king
contemporary with Abraham: there the eye or tooth of
a slave is worth less than that of a man, but requires a
payment of money to the slave's owner. (Laws 196-201)
Presumably the slave's owner is free to knock out eyes
and teeth as long as the slave has eyes and teeth to knock
out. But in the Law of Moses, the slave's eye or tooth
is worth his freedom: a slave owner who strikes his slave
must set him free for the eye's sake, or for the tooth's
sake. (E 21.26-7) And every fiftieth year is a jubilee year
in which all slaves must be set free. (Lev. 25.54)
Slavery in the Bible, then, is a limited institution, with
laws made to mitigate its harshness. But we have yet to
consider the most interesting of those limitations, the law
concerning runaway slaves. Again, for the sake of con­
trast, we mention the Code of Hammurabi, under which
anyone harboring a runaway slave was to be killed. (Law
16) In our enlightened times, this was not a capital
offense, but still the United States Constitution required
that anyone held to forced labor in one state had to be
returned from any other state. (Art. 4, Sec. 2) And in the
nineteenth century, Congress passed a law under which
a federal judge was paid twice as much when he found
an accused person to be a runaway slave as when he let
him go. The law preventing slaves from running away
follows simply from the logic of the institution of slavery
itself. If someone can choose with his feet not to be a
slave, and the law does not compel him to return, he is
no slave in the first place. A law permitting a slave toes­
cape his servitude is bad law and bad logic. Listen to the
Biblical law on the subject: "Thou shalt not deliver unto
his master a bondsman that is escaped from his master
unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee,
in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates,
where it liketh him best; thou shalt not wrong him.'' (D
23.16-17) Any slave who doesn't want to be a slave, and
who can run away, is no longer a slave, but is protected
by the law. Is not the very institution of slavery under­
mined by this little restriction? Why then does the Law
not explicitly forbid slavery? What is the attitude toward
slavery implicit in the Law? Think about it, as the sixth
chapter of
Deuteronomy requires.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
The logic of slavery, that leads to the duty of returning
a nmaway slave, is the same as the logic of war, that leads
to conscription. If war is right and the nation is at war,
individuals cannot be permitted to refrain from fighting
by their own choice. If we are at all on the right track in
understanding the Law, then, we should expect to find
military conscription absent or even forbidden, and this
is just what we do find. There is one law in
Deuteronomy
that forbids a man to go into battle during his first year
of marriage, and commands him to stay home and make
his wife happy. (24.6) Mr. O'Grady used to comment that
this law has no provision for cases when there are not
enough soldiers left. It is unconditional in choosing the
happiness of a young bride as a higher end than victory
in battle. Let us listen to the general law governing the
conduct of battle (D 20.5-8):
''The officers shall sp"eak unto the people, saying: 'What man
is there that hath built a new house and hath not dedicated
it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die
in the bat­
tle, and another man dedicate
it. And what man is there that
hath planted a vineyard, and hath not used the fruit there­
of? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the
battle, and another man use the fruit thereof. And what man
is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her?
let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in battle,
and another man take her.' And the officers shall speak fur­
ther unto the people, and they shall say: 'What man is there
that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and rehlrn unto
his house, lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart."'
Not only a new wife, but also a fiancee, a new house,
and a new vineyard have higher claims on a man than
does any battle, but again there is one further restriction
that seems to undermine the whole institution of war.
Under the Jewish Law, no one can be a soldier if he
doesn't want to. The Bible is full of bloody warfare, and
even glorifies it, and in certain special cases forbids hu­
mane treatment of the enemy. (D.20.16-18) These things
can be defended, but are still disturbing to most of us.
But anyone who was thus disturbed in his heart in Bibli­
cal times would, under the Law, be automatically exempt
from fighting. Under such a law, the Vietnam war prob­
ably could not have been fought, but there is no such cal­
culation in the Bible. Does the Bible teach the rightness
of war?
In the third place, let us consider usury, the lending
of money at interest. The Bible in no way restricts this
practice, so long as the borrower is not a Jew or a resi­
dent alien. (D 15.3, 6; 23.21) From a fellow Jew, no form
of interest in goods or money in any amount may ever
be taken. (D 23.20) Usury is permissible in foreign com­
merce, but never to be part of the life of one's own com­
munity. Within the community one may lend, and accept
a pledge as collateral for repayment, but with three res­
trictions: a mill or millstone may never be taken as a
19
pledge, since without it a man may not turn his crop into
bread (D 24.6); if the pledge is a garment, the lender must
return it to the borrower every night, since he may have
no other covering to sleep under (D 24.12-13; E 22.25-6);
and under no circumstances is the lender to go into the
borrower's house to choose the article to be taken in
pledge, but he must wait outside and take what he is
given (D 24.10-11). The necessity to borrow from one's
neighbor must, under the Law, have no cost in money
or goods, in hardships the lender might be unable to fore­
see, or even in embarrassment. But the most remarkable
provision for the borrower is a law requiring that all debts
be cancelled every seven years. (D 15.1-11) Here is what
the Law says to the lender:
"If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren,
within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God
giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy
hand from thy needy brother; but thou shalt surely open thy
hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his
need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a
base thought in
thy heart, saying: 'The seventh year, the year
of release, is at hand;' and thine eye be evil against thy needy
brother, and thou give him nought; ... Thou shalt surely
give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest
unto him."
This law is not only for the protection of the poor; it seems
even more strongly concerned with protecting the rich
man against his own feelings. Perhaps one might say of
all three, slavery, war, and usury, that they are all right,
so long as one does not think that they are all right.
A fourth institution provided for in
Deuteronomy is
monarchy. (17.14-20) For about a thousand years from
the time of the patriarchs, Israel has no king, but the Law
foresees a desire for one when the people reach the
promised land. The Law authorizes a king, so long as he
does not multiply for himself horses, wives, or gold and
silver, if he copies out the Torah for himself and reads
it all his life. He is to be a king without pride over his
subjects, regarding himself primarily as a subject of God.
Does the Law sanction monarchy, or make it impossible?
The last institution I will ask you to consider is private
property. You will not be surprised to hear that in the
Bible it is neither forbidden nor simply approved, but is
a qualified legal right. A tenth of every year's income
must be set aside, in part for celebration, and in part for
the use of priests, strangers, widows, and orphans. (D
14.22-29) But the amount from which the tenth is taken
is not everything that grows in a man's fields. When one
harvests grain, olives, or grapes, one may not glean his
fields. (D 24.19-22) Something must always be left behind
for the needy. And at any time of year, anyone may enter
the vineyard of another and eat his fill, so long as he car­
ries nothing away, and may take away from another
man's cornfield everything he can pluck with his hand.
20
(23.25-6) We must conclude that the produce of a man's
own land belongs to him, as long as he doesn't take all
of it or use all that he takes, and that it belongs also to
everyone else, as long as they do not abuse that right.
At this point, I think it is safe to conclude that the ef­
fect of the Jewish Law is not to settle the questions of the
moral life, but to unsettle them. This does not mean that
the Law is vague about how people should act, or leaves
loopholes for the clever to escape its requirements, or
even, God forbid, fosters a belief that morality is only rela­
tive. On the contrary, the Law is so clear about where
obligations begin and end that it reveals an unmistakable
two-sideness in anything that purports to be the princi­
ple or end of human life. Some discussions of morals and
politics are doctrinaire, deducing actions rigidly from for­
mal principles. The Bible exhibits a treatment of human
things of another kind, a kind which one finds also in
Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's
Ethics. This non-formal
approach requires the exercise of judgment, the draw­
ing of lines, and the balancing of conflicting goods. It is
the opposite of irrational, but it does not restrict itself to
conclusions accessible in the understancling by logic; its
proper instrument is the imagination. When we hear in
a political or moral discussion, as we do every day, that
some conclusion follows because otherwise, "where do
you draw the line?" the speaker is doing no more than
confess the inadequacy of his imagination to the topic be­
fore him. The formalistic approach to human things is
always an evasion of everything that matters to us.
On the contrary, the Law of Moses is full of everything
human, including war, slavery, and every gradation of
political and economic oppression. Its purpose is not to
wipe out these evils-that could only be accomplished by
wiping out us, their authors-but to provide ammunition
for a never-ending struggle against them. Jacob's wan­
derings in the Syrian desert were for him and for his
descendants the primary characteristic of his life. It was
the promise of rest in the divine covenant that made such
a life acceptable. But the covenant is not a literal promise
of earthly peace and prosperity. Moses knew this when
he said both "there will be no poor among you ... if
only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God," and
also "the poor will never cease out of the land." (D
15.4-5,11) The purpose of the Law,
as of the covenant,
is to prevent a coming to rest in the wrong place. This
is not to say that the Law cannot be obeyed, but that there
is no such thing as a completion of such obedience. The
more one succeeds in obeying it, the more this Law opens
the imagination to the more that still needs to be done.
This is not an infinite process that makes all striving fu­
tile, but one that makes striving ever more effective. Such
striving toward an end reflects the strife, in any thought­
ful human being, of the imagination with itself.
SPRING 1986
On Beginning to Read Dante
Cary Stickney
It seems to me that the question at the root of this lec­
ture is about what is same and what is other. I will try
to give some meaning to that empty-sounding pair of
words. In Aristotle's book called On the
Soul there is the
suggestion that learning is like nutrition. This means that
things which look very different from us are able to form
a part of us. Our soul can transform bread into bone and
muscle, and in an analogous way can transform the
things in the world into thought and knowledge. Of
course the bread must already somehow be bone and
muscle, even if only potentially, and the beings in the
world must already somehow be thought. It turns out that
the most knowable aspects of all things are indeed in their
essence nothing but thought, the thought of
nous poietikos,
Active Mind, which continually thinks all things and pre­
cisely by this divine and pure activity makes them what
they are. There must then be some part of the human
soul that resembles this Divine Mind, if the soul is to be
capable of truly knowing anything at all. But this is to
suppose that we are different only in degree from God,
not in kind. Aristotle seems to take very seriously the pos­
sibility that a few human beings can for brief moments
think the thought of Thinking thinking Itself and thus
in fact be one with this Divine Mind or God. And as
astonishing as such an idea may sound, it is not at all
easy to understand what knowing means without sup­
posing some sameness between the truth and our souls.
The consequences of this sameness, however, seem to
Carl Stickney is a tutor of St. John's College in Santa Fe. This is the
text of a lecture given at St. John's College, Santa Fe, shortly after Bill
O'Grady's death in January 1986.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
lead to our being at least potentially no different from
God. If this is so, it does away with the notion of other­
ness, and the related ideas of wonder, surprise, and grati­
tude. As Aristotle himself points out, Philosophy may be
born in wonder, but those things that appeared wonder­
ful, once they are understood, are no longer wondered
at; so, he says, when we have once understood the proof
of the incommensurability of the diagonal (with the side
of the square) we find it so little wonderful that the
wonder would be if it were commensurable. But this is
to say that the only things that might have a permanent
claim on our wonder are the things that are not possible
at all. So knowing becomes a progressive destruction of
wonder. Many things may seem at first mysterious or
surprising-nothing may be allowed truly to be so.
I suspect I am not being entirely fair to Aristotle and
I will be glad to talk about that with you afterwards, but
let me now continue trying to sketch the question I see.
If, in Aristotle's language, as the hand is the tool of tools,
so the soul is the form of forms, then it follows, that there
can be no real gifts to the learner, for as Kierkegaard puts
it there is nothing which is not already his.
It is mere coin­
cidence when and how something is learned, since the
underlying sameness of the knower and the known
means that the learner somehow always knew it. How
else, indeed, could he have recognized it when he saw
it, on the occasion we call learning? Let me suppose that
this is not a mistaken but only an incomplete account of
knowing. What is missing? I have tried to say that gifts,
wonder, surprise, and gratitude do not seem adequately
accounted for by an understanding that makes them into
illusions or superficialities. But what is the alternative?
If I am to receive a gift in the full sense of the word it
21
must be something truly different from me, something
I could not by my own efforts ever have achieved for my­
self. How then will I know what to do with it, or how
will I be able to receive it? How am I different from a dog,
say, who is given a violin? If I then say it must be a
twofold gift and that I must be given the ability to receive
the gift along with the gift itself, I seem only to have
pushed the question back one step. For if I am to be able
in turn to receive
that ability, I must already be capable
of such ability, at least potentially, and then it follows that
I already have the gift itself potentially. In other words,
if it is possible to give the dog the ability to accept the
violin, then the dog is potentially human; but the poten­
tially human needs no gift, in the extreme sense here pro­
posed, to become actually human, and an actual human
is only receiving his own when he receives a violin. The
alternative, then, in order to explain the possibility of this
perhaps over-strict interpretation of gifts, requires a mys­
tery. The mystery is that it should be possible to be re­
made in a radical sense, so as to become capable of receiv­
ing a gift which is genuinely other from oneself. In the
example, the mystery would be that a dog who was in
no sense potentially human, should nevertheless be made
human in order to receive a violin. Could there be grati­
tude in such a case? We might say: Not unless the dog
could somehow have desired such a remaking. But that
seems to require a knowledge or belief in the dog that
such a possibility could exist; and how can a creature be
aware of something that in no way belongs to its poten­
tialities? Apparently another twofold gift is required: a
message about possibilities and the ability to understand
or trust in the message. This seems again to require previ­
ous gifts in order that a desire to hear such a message
precede the grateful acceptance of the message, and we
seem to have fallen into an infinite regress. But perhaps
it was hasty to say there could be no gratitude without
previous desire. We sometimes say we are grateful to be
alive, yet we do not suppose that before we were alive
we could have had any kind of desire at all, not even the
desire to be alive. Still, we say we are grateful. Of course
it may also be that we don't know what we're talking
about when we say such things, but in that case gifts and
gratitude return to superficialities.
Thomas Aquinas provides us with a better example
than the transformation of a dog. He argues that the
blessed are given additional light in order to see the es­
sence of God. That is, God must create another kind of
light, which in turn is described as giving a new form to
the soul and making it resemble God more, so that it may
receive the vision of God Himself.
Perhaps a better example still has to do with friendship
and love. Can we love without being loved? I don't mean
can we desire to possess without being ourselves desired,
22
but can we affirm another being without a simultaneous
awareness of something that affirms our own being?
What does it mean to say "I rejoice in your being as you
are" if the T that rejoices has not been able to let go of
its expectation that all things should be reducible to ver­
sions of the way
it is? But when it does let go of that ex­
pectation it faces the possibility that although the other
is real enough, its own apparent difference from that
other may be the illusion which must be destroyed. I can­
not rejoice that you are you if that means that I must be­
come just like you, for then whatever makes me see you
as different and thus enables me to rejoice, is just what
must be destroyed in me. I must then be able to refrain
from reducing what is other to what is same, or to refrain
both from making you into me and me into you, if a love
that is more than mutual consumption is to exist between
us. But where do I get the confidence that there is room
for our differences to exist together?
Only from love, only from some knowledge of being
loved by someone. Dante's Hell is full of people who did
not succeed in imagining the possibility of such love, and
they are arranged within the descending order of the cone
according to what kind of substitutes for love they chose.
This at any rate is what I hope to show.
The difficulties of reading the
Comedy are many and of
many kinds, but among the greatest are those which mir­
ror the difficulties of Dante the Pilgrim in his journey.
The first is his fear at the prospect that he must encoun­
ter Hell at this very moment. Why not leave it an open
question whether there is such a place and what it is like?
Why not leave such investigations to the Heroes and
Saints, and be content to find out later, indefinitely
later ... after death, in fact, if find out one must? "Be­
sides," he says,
111 am not someone capable of corning
to conclusions about it, or of doing great things afterward.
In short the trip would be wasted on me," and so too
speaks many a reader.
Dante's unwillingness to face his journey is not an un­
familiar response. When God speaks to Moses from the
burning bush, Moses replies, "Who am I, that I should
go unto Paraoh and that I should bring forth the children
of Israel out of Egypt?" and again after God has named
himself to Moses and told him what kind of journey lies
ahead, "But behold, they will not believe me nor hearken
unto my voice, for they will say "The Lord hath not ap­
peared unto thee."' Dante's words are "Neither I nor
anyone else believes I am worthy of this." Confronted
with the possibility of a profound transformation of him­
self, a change whose results will make him a being who
can look God in the face, Dante, like Moses, wavers. Both
begin with a question: Dante asks Virgil to see if his
strength is adequate to such a task, while Moses more
straightforwardly asks "Who am
I. .. ?" Each reveals the
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difficulty of understanding such a change; partly each
wants an assurance that he already has all he needs, al­
ready is the one who can do what must be done. Partly
each is already convinced he is not now and never can
be such a one. They do not receive the sort of answers
they hope for. Moses, the exiled murderer who has aban­
doned his own kin in their slavery as well as his adopted
people in their tyranny, has good reason to wonder who
he is and good reason to suppose that nobody will be­
lieve the Lord has appeared to such a one as he is. It is
as though he foresees he will soon hardly believe it him­
self. God replies "Surely I will be with thee ... " and
Moses seems not to hear the words that follow but asks
in effect, "But, who are you?" Here too he cautiously and
politely lets the hypothetical doubting children of Israel
stand for his own doubts: ''When ... they shall say to me,
What
is his name? what shall I say unto them?" He wants
a way to be sure God is with him, a name to call to make
God come to him. God's answer is reminiscent of Odys­
seus's reply to Polyphemus in its refusal to provide a han­
dle on the one named, for Moses can no more summon
God by calling ''I am that I am'' than Polyphemus could
call down punishment upon Odysseus by crying "No­
man has done this to me!" But God's answer is richer
than that of Odysseus. Rather than making Himself im­
possible to call upon by declaring, like Noman, that He
has no being, God reveals such fullness and activity of
His being that there could be no question of needing to
call Him, for how could He ever be absent? The name
refers to no limits in space or time, so that the first word
of the earlier reply "Surely I will be with thee ... " sud­
denly takes on much more resonance. The name's pos­
sible future meanings, "I will be who I will be" or "I will
be gracious unto whom I will be gracious," remind Moses
of the rest of that reply: "Surely I will be with thee; and
this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee:
when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt,
ye shall serve God upon this mountain." The token that
God
has appeared to Moses is something that hasn't hap­
pened yet. It is something that will only happen if Moses
is willing to let his need for assurances wait and to allow
his transformation to begin in an activity that falls out­
side the world of masters and slaves: trusting. Of course
no one, slave or master, attains freedom in the course of
one conversation, even if the conversation is with God,
and Moses must ultimately be provided with three signs,
all three transformations themselves, and with his brother
Aaron as his spokesman before he will undertake his jour­
ney. Yet a change has begun that will lead him back to
the mountain.
Even when provided with Virgil, his brother-poet, and
with a similar promise about a mountain, Dante hesitates.
After an eloquent, learned, and pious speech about Ae-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
neas and Paul, the Roman Empire and the Church, he
concludes with the remark about his own unworthiness
quoted earlier. Virgil's answer is as unexpected as God's
to Moses and among other things provides the first smile
of this Comedy. "If I have rightly understood your
speech," he says, "you're suffering an attack of
cowardice.'' But Virgil knows he cannot rely on any sim­
ple desire in Dante to throw off all cowardice or to return
to the delightful mountain. Neither Dante's love of him­
self nor his love of God is straightforward and free
enough yet for that. So Virgil appeals to what was once
·Dante's strongest desire: to be loved by Beatrice. That
she has chosen Virgil to help, with his beautiful words,
and that she has gone into Hell for his sake, these are
what act like the sun on the closed-up, drooping flower
of Dante's soul. It is the assurance of being loved that
allows Dante to begin a journey whose goal is to trans­
form him into a true and active lover. So too it seems that
the children of Israel must begin their journey out of
Egypt to freedom with the assurance that they have a
more powerful master who will treat them better than
Pharaoh has. Dante's journey does not diminish the im­
portance of being loved or reveal Beatrice's love as an il­
lusion, but it profoundly changes the meaning of those
things; and Israel's journey does not make it untrue that
they belong to one more powerful than Pharaoh, but the
meaning of their belonging and of his power is trans­
formed. How can a slave look freedom in the face all at
once? But even to begin, he must feel something like love.
If the reader joins Dante on his journey, then perhaps
this is out of a reflection of the dawning hope that love
may free us from fear. For we are all sometimes in doubt
about what those things are that truly have power to hurt
us and we wonder whether we really see most clearly
when we are most afraid. There is a story in the Book
of John which illustrates the way the world can look to
the eyes of fear. A crowd of people is gathered around
a pool called Bethesda. The people are sick, blind, lame,
wasting away. Every so often an angel enters the water
and the people see motion; this is what they are waiting
for, because the first one to enter the water after that mo­
tion will be cured. Jesus meets a man who has been wait­
ing a long time, but because of the very weakness he
hopes to cure he can never be the first one into the water.
Somebody always beats him to it, and nobody is willing
to lose his own chance just to help someone else. Every­
one is so desperate to escape his own sufferings and so
sure that it is all a matter of being first to grab from the
limited supply of luck, that they have turned the possi­
bility of health into one more source of suffering.
That pain and weakness should make us compete ruth­
lessly with each other for the most important things, and
that we may be doomed to useless suffering by mere bad
23
luck are dark and frightening thoughts. I presume they
are among those which constitute the dark wood where
the poem begins. I don't think we know at the start just
what it means that the right way had been lost, but in
the course of the poem we learn two things that may help
us guess.
The first is that the woman Dante had been in love with,
and who had seemed to him the most beautiful in the
world, has died. It takes some considerable imagination
to try to understand the lost feeling that might produce.
It may help to hear Augustine's words about the death
of a friend: "At the grief of this my heart was completely
darkened, and whatever I cast mine eyes upon looked
like death unto me. Mine own country was a very pri­
son to me and my father's house a marvel of unhappi­
ness; and whatsoever I had shared with (my friend)
turned to excruciating torture without him. Mine eyes
sought him out everywhere and he was not given to me;
and I hated all places because they did not hold him, nor
could they now tell me, as when he lived, 'Behold,
though absent now, he will come shortly.' I became a
great riddle to myself .... "
The second thing we learn is that Dante is disgusted
at what has happened to his city and his church. They
seem to have fallen irrecoverably into the hands of the
vile and the ignorant. How do these two losses consti­
tute Dante's own lostness?
I suppose that for the most part we are not each our
own light, but that we illuminate our lives and our paths
by reference to particular experiences that have come to
be paradigms for us. Like small suns, they allow us to
distinguish one thing from another, foreground from
background, straight road from savage forest. Most of us
share the early experience of parental love and care, and
from this may remain a kind of clarity we have in com­
mon about the simplest obligations of kindness and
mercy, even if such illumination be reduced to the dim­
mest of glows. Another common light might issue from
our experiences of the larger home of a political com­
munity, as a stable sustaining order within which certain
kinds of diversity first become possible at all. Our friends,
too, shed light on things for us-especially on the ques­
tion of who we think we are. We wish to please our
friends, to be worthy of their desire to please us, and so
we try to see with their eyes. The way that they see some­
thing becomes for us an illumination of a way that thing
is. That the world can contain such friends is likewise il­
luminating; it may seem to encourage a certain expecta­
tion about the character of the world itself, as, that it will
be altogether understandable, or that the things most im­
portant to us will turn out to be the most important in
every sense. It may be very hard to say how certain ex­
periences
become the paradigms in the light of which we
24
will see the world and ourselves, but it is not hard to see
that no such paradigm is inviolable. We may forget or
cease to pay attention to former experiences; we may
make the unwelcome discovery of deep faults in our par­
ents, our community, or our friends. Most of Dante's
paradigms are in ruins at the start of the poem.
Yet even when we believe that the world is not a place
that can hold what is most beautiful or well-ordered but
that all such things are the soonest destroyed, we are not
deprived of all illumination. Dante, at any rate, can see
still the sun, and in its light a delightful mountain as well
as three threatening beasts. They will not leave him and
he cannot get around them. They seem to belong to him
in some way, as if they are his own particular weaknesses
and fears. The third of these beasts, the she-wolf, is so
frightening that he loses all hope of climbing the moun­
tain and is driven back "to where the sun is silent." He
tells us she has made him like someone who had once
been glad to win but now that he must lose, "afflicts him­
self and weeps in all his thoughts." This is a three-line
portrait of despair.
It is already harsh enough when we say dismissively
of someone else, "He is a real loser." We mean, "forget
about him; he can do nothing right; it is not even worth
wondering whether he wants to; he might as well not
exist." This is probably what jesus means when he says
that there is a way of calling your brother a fool which
puts you in danger of the fire of Hell. But when some­
one says it of himself, when he not only blames himself
for his misfortunes, but sees himself as the greatest mis­
fortune of all, then he is practically in Hell at that mo­
ment. There is something terrifying in the solitary pride
which responds to the pain of loss by silently turning its
teeth on itself, whose every thought is a weeping and a
self-affliction. The eerie silence of the whole first part of
the first canto is heightened in the line about the place
where the sun is silent, for none of the three beasts has
yet made a sound, nor has Dante, and now he is driven
into a darkness in which the sun itself cannot speak.
What does the sun say when it does speak? Perhaps
it says that things are different: there are mountains and
valleys, straight paths and trackless wastes, and all the
different things between. It is only during the cloudiest
nights or in the darkest woods that all is one. As long
as there is light we have the possibility of choosing be­
tween one way and another; we are in utter darkness
when we suppose we have no choice, or that it makes
no difference what we choose.
Still things are not altogether dark even now for Dante,
for at this moment he sees the dim shade of Virgil, "There
was offered to my eyes one who seemed faint from long
silence." Why Virgil should be described this way seems
clear. He has not for some time been among Dante's
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sources of light. Whatever he once had to teach has been
learned already and perhaps almost forgotten. At this mo­
ment though, he is Dante's last chance.
Virgil tells him that the only way leading past those
beasts goes through Hell, and reports Beatrice's words
that only that which has power to harm us deserves to
be feared. Dante has yet to learn how Hell has no power
to hurt him, but for now the name of Beatrice is enough.
Let me return to the question of otherness for a mo­
ment, before we join Dante on his journey. I think a cer­
tain experience of books may help explain what I want
to say. One may learn after a time neither to be offended
by nor merely to gloss over those passages in a seminar
reading which seem most repugnant to one's own un­
derstanding, but rather especially to note them as the
places where the book most clearly has something to
teach. Often enough we may only let it teach the distin­
guishing peculiarities of its own position, without allow­
ing it really to change anyone's mind about anything, but
sometimes the very thorniest places in a text reveal them­
selves as rose gardens and the steepest, rockiest spots
yield undreamt-of views in all directions. One reason this
can happen is that there is an orthodoxy, a party-line we
share at St. John's, according to which it is expected to
happen. This means we do not stop trying because it has
not happened on a particular night or by a particular time.
The expected result occurs often enough to keep us go­
ing. We have confidence that the Author has already
thought of most of our own first objections to any of his
remarks and so we look past those first reactions for what
we assume will be at least adequate replies, and we try
to suppose that they will be better than just adequate.
All of this allows us to change, if not so far as to simply
adopt a completely new viewpoint on the spot, yet far
enough to know that we have become importantly differ­
ent by encountering the real strength of a position which
nevertheless is not now and may never become fully our
own. We do not always insist that either the book is
wrong or we are wrong, although on the other hand most
of us recognize the dangers of that slothful avoidance of
difficulties which reduces all difference to an excuse for
taking no stand at all.
Speaking about her own work (in
Mystery and Manners,
p. 111), Flannery O'Connor said something which may
apply to all stories worth remembering:
I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes
it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably
some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any
other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart
of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture
which was both totally right and totally unexpected;
it would
have to be one that was both
in character and beyond charac­
ter; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity . ...
It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader
could make. It would be a gesture which somehow made con­
tact with mystery.
Perhaps it is not only what makes a story hold up as
a story, this contact with mystery, but what makes a life
hold up as a life. To encounter and affirm what is other,
to allow oneself to be changed, that is the mystery.
But I must try again to speak of the right way to affirm
what is other. If I can say more than "I am glad to see
things have turned out just as I would have planned
them," if I can see that sometimes things turn out far bet­
ter than I could ever possibly have planned them, then
I may be able to believe that things are always
in that one
process of a plan better far than anything a human can
devise. This would put me in a position to affirm even
what is most painful and what seems useless or worse.
I would not affirm it in the expectation that I could al­
ways eventually demand to be shown clearly what had
been good about it and that I had a right to satisfaction
on that score; as if the fact of having powers of judge­
ment and understanding automatically made me noth­
ing but an implacable judge, eternally measuring
everything against his own fixed standard and perhaps
eternally finding it all wanting; but neither would I
despair of the chance that the things which hurt worst
might be part of a re-making of my own self which would
allow me to see and to love in genuinely new ways. It
must be that the painful things of the world are the real
gifts, as the repugnant passages in the books are the most
noteworthy, that is, if there are real gifts at all; and it must
be that we all believe we are blessed with such gifts
whenever we succeed in loving anyone, even briefly, who
is irreducibly different from us.
It is the second book of the
Comedy that deals explicitly
with the painful gifts which are given for our transfor­
mation. In the tenth canto, at the beginning of Purgatory
proper, there is a description of three sculpted reliefs on
the wall of the terrace where Pride is purged. Each depicts
a transformation: the first of Mary at the Annunciation,
the second, of David dancing before the Ark of the
Covenant, and the third, of the emperor Trajan humbling
himself to a poor widow. But transformation is not only
the content of these reliefs, it is even more strikingly
present in their form. They are, says Dante, images which
surpass both Art and Nature. They seem to live, speak,
sing, and dance, even to embody the temporal sequence
of a conversation. There is a suggestion of how to un­
derstand transformation here. The images are not trans­
formed into the very people of whom they are images,
but they have become more nearly perfect images in a
way that was not naturally contained among the poten­
tialities either of marble or of the art of sculpture. What
it is to be a sculpture has not been destroyed, but trans-
25
figured in a way that is "both in character and beyond
character." So too may it be for human beings, made in
the image of God, if they can humble themselves to ac­
cept burdens as gifts.
But to begin to read Dante is to begin with Hell. Where
is the hope of transformation, love, or affirmation of the
other here? First we might wonder why there is a Hell
at all. Why should not all human souls, if there are such
things, be gathered into God at the end of earthly life?
Wouldn't that be the act of truly loving God? Perhaps
it would, but then we must ask whom He is loving, and
whether His love can rightly compel that He be loved in
return. Let us suppose He loves all to whom He gives
Life, and that the gift of Life and Being is a sign of this
love. If it is a gift with no strings attached, then it must
be possible to do what one likes with it. What if one
chooses to lead a life directed to oneself alone, and thus
directed away from God? God must not have made such
a choice impossible, unless he was only pretending to
give a gift in the first place. If he made it possible, though,
he must have made a place, or something like a place
where one could be away from Him, where one could
be as far away as one chose, given the limiting condition
that to be an infinite distance from God, who is the source
of all Being, would be the same as to cease being al­
together. But to withdraw all being from those who
wished only to be by themselves would be to attach
strings to the original gift again, so that the bottom of Hell
must not be infinitely but only indefinitely far from God.
On this showing there is nothing outrageous in Dante's
claim, expressed in the famous inscription above the
Gate, that Primal Love made Hell. Had God's love
re­
quired
a positive response, He would only have been lov­
ing Himself in the end. By making Hell, God affirms the
otherness of the souls he has made, even and precisely
when they themselves are unwilling to affirm anything
but what is the same as themselves.
What about that claim? How do we know that in fact
the damned have done anything worse than embracing
the pleasures and possibilities of Life? Surely the great
Pagan Philosophers and Poets, among whom is Virgil
himself, are not justly placed in Hell?
Surely Odysseus, that lover of wisdom and seeker after
new experiences, is not to be condemned as essentially
selfish? Surely all the famous lovers who have given up
everything else for the sake of their passion, and who de­
fine for us the very meaning of losing oneself in another,
are not to be seen as unwilling to affirm what is other?
We must join Dante on his journey and see. Let us begin
near the bottom of Hell with Odysseus, or as Dante calls
him, Ulysses. Presumably the extreme condition of those
in the lower circles will make their characters easier to
recognize.
26
Dante and Virgil are in the eighth of the nine circles
of Hell, the circle of fraud. They come to the eighth chasm
within that circle, the chasm of the false counsellors, the
location of Ulysses. Dante prefaces the tale with a fairly
explicit comparison of himself to Ulysses, the great
traveller and teller of tales. "I sorrowed then and sorrow
now again when I direct my memory to what I saw; and
curb my genius more than I am wont, lest it run where
Virtue guides it not; so that if kindly star or something
better have grated me the good, I may not grudge my­
self that gift" or, more literally and strikingly, " ... so that
I may not envy my own self."
It is universally conjectured that Dante did not know
the works of Homer, except through the Latin authors'
retellings, so that it would be vain to look for a place in
Homer where Odysseus begins one of his tales "I sor­
rowed then and sorrow now again when I direct my
memory to what I saw;" yet how true to the spirit of
much of the
Odyssey they ring! Indeed they are mostly
sorrowful tales the Homeric Odysseus brings home. He,
too, has been
in Hell. Of course, as we learn in a moment,
Dante has a new version of Odysseus's last voyage to tell,
in which the hero never does go home at all. This non­
returning Ulysses seems to represent to Dante a danger­
ous possibility of uncurbed powers. Like Ulysses, he has
been granted an epic voyage, but he explains
his strange
trip at one point in Purgatory with the words, "To return
here once again where I am do I make this journey."
One might grudge oneself a gift if one saw it had been
wasted. The chance to go far from home and to ex­
perience remarkable things is a good, but if treated as an
end in itself may lead to self-contempt. Here, as in many
other places, Dante reflects the condition of those around
him; he says that he had raised himself so high to see
that he could have fallen into the chasm without a push,
had he not grasped a rock. One may go far and raise one­
self high in pursuit of adventure and experience, but
without something solid to hold onto such heights be­
come chasms.
What does Dante see from his promontory? Passing by
in the endless circular motion characteristic of every level
of Hell are the souls of the false counsellors, each swathed
in flame. All he sees are the flames themselves, but he
tells us that each one steals a sinner away and none shows
the theft. Virgil adds that each spirit swathes itself with
that by which it is on fire. Now the previous Canto
described a visit to the chasm of thieves plain and simple,
who physically steal things away when the owners are
not watchlng. This chasm, one step worse, contains those
who steal with their words that which words are best
suited to steal, namely, as Plato might say, the soul's con­
victions about what is noble and base, right and wrong,
or as Dante perhaps suggests, the soul itself. The false
SPRING 1986
counsellors are not immune to the deceit they practice;
they have all ended by deceiving themselves and so they
appear as an embodiment of hidden theft. The false illu­
mination provided by their words in their lifetimes de­
rived from a fire that has consumed their own souls. The
most convincing and successful liars are the ones who
learn to divide their souls so that they may believe their
own lies and still profit from others' belief. But such divid­
ing breaks down and burns away the soul of the deceiver
as surely as it defrauds his hearers. All of this becomes
clearer by the example of Ulysses. But what
is he doing
here? Surely it is not just his reputation for lying tales?
After all, every poet, including Dante, must lie one way
or another. Virgil points out the two-tongued flame which
holds Ulysses and Diomedes and explains that they suffer
together for stealing away the young Achilles from his
wife with their representations of the glory of the com­
ing Trojan war, for stealing the statue of Athena from
Troy, and for the taking of Troy by the trick of the horse.
Dante is enormously eager to speak with them and be­
seeches Virgil to wait, as though it is clear to him that
Virgil has not said enough, or as though he suspects he
has more to learn from Ulysses. Virgil tells him this is
a praise-worthy request but stipulates that he, Virgil, will
do the talking, and proceeds to ask Ulysses to tell ''where
he, having lost himself, went to die." Here begins Ulys­
ses's own showing of why he is in this part of Hell.
When I departed from Circe, who beyond a year detained
me there near Gaeta, before Aeneas thus had named it,
Neither fondness for my son, nor reverence for my aged
father, nor the love I owed which should have gladdened
Penelope,
Could conquer in me the ardour that I had to gain ex­
perience of the world and of human vice and worth;
I put forth on the deep open sea with but one ship and with
that small company which had not deserted me.
Both the shores I saw as far as Spain, far as Morocco; and
saw Sardinia and the other isles which that sea bathes round.
I and my companions were old and slow when we came
to that narrow pass where Hercules assigned his landmarks,
To hinder man from venturing farther; on the right hand
I left Seville; on the other had already left Ceuta.
"0 brothers," I said "who through a hundred thousand
dangers have reached the West, deny not to this so brief vigil
of your senses that remains, the experience, behind the sun,
of the world without people.
Consider your origin: ye were not formed to live like brutes,
but to follow virtue and knowledge."
With this little speech I made my companions so eager for
the voyage, that I could hardly then have held them back,
and turning our stern towards morning we made our oars
wings for the mad flight, always gaining on the left.
Night already saw the other pole, with all its stars; and ours
so low, that it rose not from the ocean floor.
Five times the light beneath the moon had been quenched,
and rekindled as oft, since we had entered on the arduous
passage,
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
When there appeared to us a mountain, dim with distance;
and it seemed to me the highest I had ever seen.
We joyed and soon our joy was turned to grief: for a tem­
pest rose from the new land and struck the forepart of our
ship.
Three times it made her whirl round with all the waters;
at the fourth to lift the stern aloft and plunge the prow be­
low, as pleased Another, until the sea was closed above us.
The flame falls silent and Virgil dismisses it. Have we
heard enough? We have heard Ulysses counselling his
shipmates and we must decide if his counsel was false.
No one will deny that his story is as impressive as any
page of Greek Tragedy, but perhaps there is something
false precisely about tragedy. First to disturb us is the soli­
tude of Ulysses, all the stranger because he shares his
flame with Diomedes. Yet he begins his story with the
confession that no bonds of love to his family had finally
made any difference to him, and he allows us to suppose
that much the greater number of his companions had
deserted him. Or had he in fact deserted them, as he did
his own family? His goal, after all, is ultimately "the
world without people.'' Whether Dante had read Homer
or not, he understands the aloneness of the tragic hero,
who requires only some minimum of companionship in
order that his honor still have meaning. Ulysses bound
to Diomedes but somehow looking at no one, thinking
of nothing save his own story, is a faithful echo of a scene
two thousand years earlier in Homer.
As Achilles in Book XVI of the Iliad gives Patroklos per­
mission to borrow his armor help the Greeks, thus set­
ting the final unfolding of his own tragedy in motion, he
warns him not to go too far in killing Trojans, partly be­
cause he would thus deny Achilles himself due honor;
then he says these terrifying words: "Ah, Father Zeus,
Athena, and Apollo! If only not one of all the Trojans
might be left, nor even one of the Argives escape death,
but we two alone, so that alone we might tear down the
crowning battlements of Troy!" This is the "world
without people'' indeed. He needs only the mirror of one
friend in which to see his own glory reflected, but it is
his glory to stand utterly apart, needing no one and noth­
ing else. Surely it will be these words that come back to
haunt Achilles when Patroklos dies, for they nearly ad­
mit that Patroklos himself is only an instrument for the
furtherance of Achilles' own glory. It is not hard to see
that Achilles has voiced a wish that everything which is
not himself should perish, and that Patroklos survives
in the fantasy only insofar as he belongs to Achilles.
Does not Dante's Ulysses display the same tendency
to sheer self-absorption? His fraudulence runs deep, for
he himself believes that he is focussed on what is other,
what lies beyond the limits of the known, and indeed he
seems to be rewarded with a glimpse of Mount Purga­
tory, a sight never before seen by man. But he reveals
27
in his own words that after all it was a "flight," that is,
away from something, and that he was lying to propose
to his crew that one follows virtue and knowledge by
going to the world without people. In this Ulysses who
flies from what is other, namely the obligation to love,
and transforms his crew into his mirror so that-he may
witness himself in the land where there are no others,
Dante has united Ulysses the teller of tales with Ulysses
the plunderer of cities. The world and all possible ex­
periences are to be plundered and consumed in order to
make a tale whose justification is only that it is all about
me, Ulysses. This is why he represents such a great temp­
tation to Dante. He has succumbed to what could be
called ''Art for Art's sake'' and transformed everything
into mere grist for his poetic mill. Nothing will be allowed
to be so different that he may not encounter it and give
it its place in the story of his life. Like the thieves in the
neighboring chasm he is neither one nor two, for on the
one hand he believes only in himself, single and solitary,
and is constantly proving his freedom from all else by
abandoning, sampling and going beyond, plundering
and assigning place to everything there is, and on the
other hand he requires an audience of some kind to be
with him, in whose eyes he can see that he alone is. We
now see Virgil's wisdom in asking to hear the
last adven­
ture. Any other tale would only have left us with the tri­
umphant Ulysses, having survived incredible dangers,
still outward bound. The only moment of real bitterness
for Ulysses, even in his last tale, is when he must say
the words "And the prow went down as pleased
Another." Finally he must submit to make sense of his
experience by grudging reference to another, he who
thought to go behind the sun itself, as if his own light
were sufficient unto all things.
Is Ulysses typical of all who are in Hell? I do not want
to take the time to give a detailed answer now, but
perhaps a brief beginning will serve. Hell is shaped like
a cone sloping to its point at the bottom. All the damned
are within the cone and adjacent to one another in
descending order of the gravity of their sins. As students
of Apollonius know, any cone contains infinitely many
possible cones with parallel bases and of varying sizes,
each an image of the rest. So too the adjacent lower sin
often proves to show something about its predecessor;
for example, after Dante has requested the story of
Paolo's and Francesca 's first kiss and swooned away at
its conclusion, as if it had been too much for him, he
awakens in the circle of the gluttons, who have all indeed
had too much and whose attitude toward the world is
more clearly recognizable as that of consumers and
28
leavers of waste than is the attitude of the great lovers,
which nevertheless verges on it. So, too, the whole cone
verges to that one point at its bottom, and as students
of Pascal know, when one takes ever smaller cones and
approaches that base circle which is indefinitely close to
the point of the vertex, one may perhaps speak of the
circle becoming a paint. All levels of Hell share the self­
reference of circular motion, but as one approaches the
bottom, the circles are smaller and smaller; there is ever
less motion or apparent difference from one moment to
the next, and at the very bottom there is no motion at
all; souls are frozen in ice; the last one of these described
is in itself a kind of circle "like a bow bent face to feet."
This is the level of the traitors, and it is plain that they
represent Ulysses' tendency to abandon and stand apart
taken to the
nth degree. They are in one sense the very
freest of all the souls, for what could be freer than to vio­
late all expectations and turn away from everything in
an act of treachery? One declares oneself bound by no
common standard, defined by no one else's image of who
one is, and finally not even by one's own previous no­
tions. One becomes "Noman." The perfectly treacher­
ous act is thus, in its very spontaneity and freedom,
self-consuming, and it is fitting that the three souls be­
ing endlessly broken in the mouths of Satan are all sui­
cides. It reveals that there can in fact be nothing perfectly
evil, for the perfectly evil would destroy itself. So too,
Satan himself, this point at the center of the universe,
is shown at last to be strangely unimpressive, and even
laughable, as Virgil unceremoniously uses him for a lad­
der. Dante's last view of Hell is of Satan upside down,
his legs splayed like someone who has been hurled head­
first into a snowbank and whom no one has thought fit
to extricate just yet.
The most important things remain to be said. They are
in the form of contrapositives to the scenes from Hell.
I will say a few of them: If the perfectly evil destroys it­
self then the perfectly good maintains itself eternally and
effortlessly in being. If Satan is the ultimate example of
self-centeredness and isolation from all otherness, then
the God who makes himself human and suffers death
must be the ultimate example of the affirmation of what
is other. The sphere is the shape of Paradise for Dante,
and the sphere seems a fitting opposite to the point.
I began by speaking of bread; let me end with one more
contrapositive: if to affirm what is other requires the mys­
tery that we should be remade, might there not be a bread
which, instead of being reduced to a part of us when we
eat it, can instead make us a part of it?
SPRING 1986
Chasing the Goat from the Sky
Michael Littleton
An Approach to Dante's Comedy
To approach Dante's Divine Comedy humanly would be
to draw near enough to its central fire to feel warmed and
brightened by it-to sense with affection something of the
heartbeat of its comedy and the scandal of its particular­
ity. This is something one can do by oneself, perhaps;
but it would be better, if possible, to do it with friends
who can help by looks, gestures, questions, flashes of wit
and courtesy-by gentle acts of almost angelic insight or
grace. It takes a prodigal intelligence, a surplus of imagi­
nation, and more than a touch of pride to grasp the pos­
sibilities for comedy in exile, separation, and other such
dull privations, to discover something good precisely in
the dark woods of a mid-life crisis or in any of the "grey
Novembers of the soul."
There is something natural about getting lost-some­
thing as natural as drift or as falling leaves, as easy to
do in a crowd as outside one. Man, the thinking animal,
is that creature who can lose his way; who can come to
see that he has lost it; and who, with the assistance of
another, can begin to find his way back to the right path.
It is not entirely clear how the trouble begins. Life can
be beautiful, each moment in its time, yet no two mo­
ments are alike. When do we first begin to feel the sad­
ness of our autumn? When do we begin our grieving?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Michael Littleton is a tutor at St. John's College, Annapolis. This is the
text of a lecture given at St. John's College in Annapolis in 1981.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
Even as we reach out to grasp the eternal, we are drawn
by stages into the winter of the soul. Instead of an altar
of earth we fashion for ourselves a golden calf-trusting
in, yet fearing the loss of, animal vitality. While barely
taking the risk of separateness, we are plunged with
Adam into the secret things-without knowing the bot­
tom, without knowing the architect's design. Place and
time seem to conspire against us; and we fall tragically,
understandably, in love and in hate with God's world,
as victims more of our own desire than of the blindness
of fate.
What scope is there for comedy, given the weight of
these matters, the gravity of these concerns? There is
good precedent for the attempt to celebrate human lost­
ness in ways which either complement or transcend the
tragic ones. The
Odyssey, for example, wins and warms
us as much by its truth as by its strangeness. Sometimes,
after great hardship in life, what has been lost is found,
passing every test that mind and heart can devise to tell
against the identity of the new with the old. Isaiah's dis­
covery of the identity of Jerusalem even in the darkness
of Babylonian captivity holds true, even where Israel had
suffered double for her misuse of David's project and
dream. In St. Luke's Gospel there are three parables
clustered together celebrating things that are lost and later
found: a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son-the so­
called prodigal son.
If lostness can be celebrated, even in a small way, it
can be comic. Dante himself has some delightfully sim­
ple things to say about this. In a letter to Can Grande
de Ia Scala his friend and patron, Dante explains his
choice of title:
29
... Here beginneth the comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Floren­
tine by birth and not by character, to understand which be-­
it known that comedy is derived from "comas" a village and
"ada" which is song, whence comedy is, as it were, rustic
song. So comedy is a certain kind of poetic narration differ­
ent from all others. It differs then from tragedy in its content
in that tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly whereas its
end or exit is foul and terrible and it derives its name from
"tragus" which is a goat and "oda" as though to say goat­
song, that is, rank like a goat, as it appears from Seneca and
his tragedies: whereas comedy introduces some harsh com­
plications but brings its matter to a prosperous end.
He goes on to say that tragedy and comedy differ in
their mode of speech. Tragedy is exalted and sublime,
whereas comedy is lax and humble:
If we have respect to the content of this work we can see that
the title of it is justified since its beginning is horrible and
rank for it is Hell and in the end
it is prosperous, desirable
and gracious for it is Paradise. Whereas if we have respect
to the method of speech the method is lax and humble for
it is the vernacular speech in which very women commu­
nicate.
These comments, helpful as they might ultimately be
in understanding Dante's comedy, appear to raise many
more questions than they answer.
It may be comforting
to be promised a happy ending, a goat-free village, so
to speak, which will not overly tax our intellects or subli­
mate our spirits. But the ordinary reader, whether comi­
cally inclined or not, is likely to encounter severe
difficulties in understanding and sympathizing with
Dante's supposed comic intent. There has never been a
comedy like this one for making demands on its read­
ers. Definitions will not help much, but it may be worth­
while to make note of goats, villages, and women
speaking in the vernacular.
You all know the literal story upon which the
Comedy
is built. The poet Dante, together with Virgil, his beloved
guide and author, makes the descent into Hell, down to
the very frozen depths where all vitality and life congeal.
They manage to go up by going down, emerging on the
other side at the foot of Mt. Purgatorio. There to greet
them is Cato, the just. Together Dante and Virgil ascend
the mountain and pass through the purgatorial fire. At
the top of the mountain Dante is reunited with the
heavenly lady who was his childhood love, a woman he
loved and deeply admired, and whose death had shaken
him deeply. Meeting her there, Dante feels again the
power of the ancient flame. Then the lady, Beatrice, be­
comes his guide to Paradise and to the vision of God and
of His city. She is aided, near the end of the journey, by
St. Bernard.
It is impossible to either dismiss or be completely con­
tent with the literal level of Dante's poem.
It has its liter-
30
a! power as a vision claiming to represent things as they
are in the afterlife as it was understood in the year 1300:
Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It has meaning on many
levels beyond the literal, however, just as does the Bible,
which was Dante's model.
One striking fact about Dante's Comedy, which shows
his courage as a man, and is one of the essential differ­
ences between his approach to his work and that of Vir­
gil and Homer, is that he puts himself in his own poem.
It takes some courage to do that, especially given the way
he actually appears in his poem. He does not seem to
have much concern for his reputation.
Why does Dante so openly write about himself? It may
be appropriate to consider his comedy as essentially in­
volved with individuation; and to view individuation as
the coming to birth of the genuinely comic impulse in the
soul. Dante might be said to celebrate a mid-life crisis and
its resolution. That resolution can best be described as
a completed journey to the heart of the poem. Dante's
hero is neither a founder of a city nor an apostle, but a
poet who knows what he wants to do and what he wants
to be. He must submit himself to the strangeness of the
poem's discipline and its pilgrimage, not just as an ob­
server, not just as a poet, but as a human being in search
of a real and lasting place in the affections of his fellow
citizens, in that Florence which does not deserve to die.
His poem is his prayer to and for this city.
One of the very first glimpses we have of Dante, the
pilgrim, in the poem, after our initial introduction in the
dark woods, is in his meeting with Virgil. Dante is pro­
testing. He knows that he is summoned to make a jour­
ney, but he is not very eager to go. He says, "But I? Why
go? Who permits it? I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul.
Neither myself nor others deem me worthy of it." The
ancient world, in the person of Virgil, replies with a touch
of disdain, "If I have rightly understood thy words, thy
soul is smit with coward fear." Dante has no rejoinder.
How can the goat-song, the goat of tragedy, be chased
from our skies if no one is willing to take the risk of Hell?
Canto II of the
Inferno addresses this problem. Dante is
trying to face the difficulty:
The day was departing, and the brown air taking the animals
that are on earth from their toils, and
I, one alone, was prepar­
ing myself to bear the
war both of the journey and the pity
which memory that errs not shall relate.
Dante is all alone, plummeting downwards. In his
words, he has come to himself, but it does not seem to
have done much good. As we see him here, he is hell­
bent, retreating from his purpose to climb the holy hill
of god. When he meets the shade of Virgil in the wilder­
ness, the biblical place of temptation and of dialogue
SPRING 1986
either with God or with the devil, Dante is all alone with
his love. One asks, why should it be Virgil who appears
to Dante? The answer seems to be that Dante had no
other vital possibility. His love for Virgil is real and power­
ful. When the shade of Virgil appears to him in the desert,
Dante's love and admiration for him enables him to move
in a way that unites his natural tendency to gravitate
downwards with his will to climb the hill of God. Virgil
makes it possible for him to put these two things together.
But it is more than his love for Virgil that gets Dante mov­
ing. At the end of this conversation, Virgil manages to
tell Dante that he has been in touch with a heavenly lady
who happens to speak Italian, if that is the way to un­
derstand the Italian word
"favella. " He says that her eyes
were brighter than the stars. You know how important
the stars are for Virgil.
Her eyes shone brighter than the stars.
Her voice was soft and gentle and she
spoke in her dialect ...
It is an interesting prospect to imagine Beatrice speaking
to Virgil in Italian, with tears in her eyes, and the ancient
Latin poet hearing the modern dialect and clearly recog­
nizing its Latin roots and what had happened to them
with the passing of time.
In the first part of the
Inferno it is pity (pieta) that
predominates, even before we have reached Hell's gate.
We see Dante, preparing himself to face the journey, and
the pity of it; Virgil, telling Dante how moved he was to
hear of his plight from the heavenly lady; and Beatrice
herself, explaining to Virgil that there is a noble lady
above who, moved to pity Dante at his impasse, in turn
has moved Santa Lucia, who has appealed to Beatrice and
set her lovely eyes weeping. It is not only Dante whom
Virgil pities: there is pity written on his face for the
anguish of Hell's people, perhaps including himself. Any­
one who has read the
Aeneid knows that for Virgil, as well
as for his hero, Aeneas, there are tears in the nature of
things. Dante, who undoubtedly wept as did Augustine
for Dido in her forsakenness, swoons with pity when he
discovers the tragic thread which connects the sorrow of
Paolo and Francesca with Dido and gives to their lives
something of the same essential meaning.
Soon, however, Dante must learn to feel and express
not just pity, but anger, as the evils born of incontinence
begin to show themselves in all their ugliness and
meanness. Pity without noble anger is like music without
gymnastics. There is something flabby and spineless
about a confrontation with the dark side of one's human
nature if anger is altogether lacking: not the sullen anger
which sulks and feeds on itself; not the violent anger of
factions or party strife; but the noble anger that sides with
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
reason and wholeness and cuts through the murk of
things and brings them to a proper decision.
Anger is essential, according to Virgil, for entering the
city of Dis, the walled city of Hell, where injustice en­
trenches itself, seizes control of reason, and organizes it­
self with violence and wrath. We wait with the two poets
outside the gates of the city. Many of its grave citizens
are Florentine. We are encountering insolence on an an­
gelic scale; and neither Virgil's anger nor Dante's fear
seems entirely adequate to the difficulty at hand. The hu­
man ability to integrate evil into one's conscious mind
and remain intact is severely limited. Only angelic
"thumos" -the anger from above-is adequate to force the
unlocking of Hell's gate.
The city of Dis, with its iron walls, high towers, and
grave citizens is
in some way Dante's own city. In another
way it is not. It seems organized and walled against him.
It is violent, proud, and preoccupied with its own fame,
like the city of Babel. In it Dante first learns of the dark
exile he is to experience in less than fifty months. In it
he also hears gentle words of encouragement:
My son, thy fortune reserves such honour for thee
that both parties will have a hunger of thee, but
far from the goat shall be the grass.
Dante is coming to his own, but he is not permitted
to stay. The violence of Florence, even in men of great
dignity and nobility, is all too reminiscent of that mon­
ster of Crete, the Minotaur, unnatural offspring of royal
woman and beast. Is this monster the same monster we
meet in Book VIII of the
Republic, which tries to come out
in Timocracy, Oligarchy, and Democracy, and eventual­
ly manifests itself in the tyrant's greed for power and trag­
ic withdrawal into spiritual isolation? This monster is
frozen and despairing, unable even to weep.
Once, says Virgil, the world was chaste. Now there are
tears in the nature of things. They all flow downwards
from the brokenness of the Old Man of Crete, into the
river Phlegethon. Virgil remarks in passing that nowhere
in Hell will Dante see a more notable sight than this river,
the third of the streams of Hell, which has the power to
quench the flames of whatever lies above it.
We are nearing the midpoint of the
Inferno now. We
are reaching the point of Virgil's greatest influence on
Dante, and the point where Dante must begin self­
consciously to differentiate himself from Virgil and allow
his own comedy to begin to breathe and live.
For the first time, now, Dante begins to speak of the
Commedia. The importance of this is underscored by a new
obstacle to the poets' descent. They are impeded at this
halfway point by a waterfall. There they can hear the
water flowing down to lower Hell. There seems to be no
31
way to continue the descent unless Dante is willing to
make use of the vehicle of his own imagination. He takes
off his rope girdle and at Virgil's request throws it into
the pit. "Watch out," Virgil tells him. "It is going to be
your own thoughts that come back to you like a boomer­
ang." In no time at all a monster appears with a human
face and the tail of a reptile or scorpion. Dante must en­
trust himself to this weightless creature of his own im­
agining.
Dante's comic imagination in the lower parts of Hell
is severely limited by its subject matter, the abysmal
depths of evil. At one point, however, in Canto XXI, it
is irresistably funny. One relaxes in spite of oneself. Doro­
thy Sayers' vital translation clearly catches the spirit of
it. It is exceedingly dark in this realm. Dante is intently
gazing at black boiling pitch that reminds him of Vene­
tian shipbuilders at work, when suddenly Virgil cries out,
"Guarda, guarda!" "Look out, look out!" Dante turns
around, "longing to see the thing he has to shun," and
behold, "a grim black fiend comes over the rock ridge
at a run." "Wow! What a grisly look he had on him!"
The tempo of all this is presto, like the beginning of the
finale of Act 1 of
Don Giovanni. Our poet, our would-be
hero, has to crouch down behind a rock while Virgil deals
with the demons there through their leader Malacoda.
When the danger seems less, Virgil summons Dante from
behind the rock in unforgettable fashion:
Thou, cowering there discreet
hid mousey-mouse among the
splintery, cracked crags of the
bridge, come down. All's safe for it.
There is nothing Virgilian about the names of the de­
mons in this ditch. They are all good (or bad) Italian; they
remind one of Santa's reindeer. Listen to them: Alechi­
no, Calcabrina, Cagmazzo, Barbariccia, Libicocco,
Draghignazzo, tusked Circiatto, Graffiacane, Farfarello,
and Rubicante il Pazzo. Although this is not exactly high
comedy it is surely comic relief. If we surrender ourselves
at this point to Dante's art we do not really feel terror.
Instead we begin to feel, for the first time, a counter mo­
tion to that of the descent.
This counter-motion in the soul is confirmed a few can­
tos later in the explicit comparison of Virgil to the sun.
In Hell the real sun has been left behind. Like Socrates
in the
Phaedo, Dante has taken flight from the directness
of its beams, to
logos-in this case the logos of tragic poetry.
Dante the pilgrim is now consciously making use of that
poetry to help him through Hell and bring him closer to
his heart's desire. Virgil is compared to the sun in
Aquarius as it is melting the hoar frost, which the peasant
has mistakenly taken for snow, at a time when snow
32
would be a calamity for his flock. Soon afterwards we find
Virgil exhorting Dante not to lose heart. At this point in
their descent the poets have to climb. We have been go­
ing down in order to get up, but now we must go up a
little in order to go down. Virgil appeals to fame as a
stimulus, which is just and right. It is part of the integri­
ty of the pagan world; and it helps Dante as well as his
readers.
However, Dante and his readers have already begun
to differentiate themselves from Virgil's perspective. The
movement upwards which the appeal to fame suggests
carries with it a strong temptation for the judea-Christian
conscience. We are made to realize this in the canto that
dramatizes Dante's meeting with the shade of Ulysses.
He recounts for Dante a speech in which he calls upon
men to leave aside all brutishness and to be concerned
with fame, intelligence and virtue. This speech, together
with his sea voyage beyond the pillars of Hercules,
represents the strongest motion of ascent in lower Hell.
Dante must oppose that motion within himself; he must,
as he says, curb his own genius. The appeal to fame is
by no means without its dark side, and Ulysses, the old
voyager, represents Dante's greatest temptation: to do
it all with art.
Let us move now into the world we know and try to
see it with new eyes. The
Purgatario in its essential mean­
ing is the world we know. Literally it is of course a world
we are not yet in a position to know; but it moves us with
all the force of a world that we have perhaps left behind.
If one relaxes, reading the
Purgatorio, one gets the sense
of sailing into Honolulu early in the morning, on one of
those perfect days when it is not too hot and the
air is
pure. One smells the perfume in the air. According to
Dante, Florence belongs to our "widowed northern
clime." He must have wanted Purgatory to be south,
really south, under jerusalem, out there somewhere
where those fresh, sweet smells and temperatures are,
and those stars which have not been seen since Adam
and Eve; and yet there they are, shining in the face of
Cato.
Here is the first problem: what is Cato doing there? Is
he there because he represents justice? That is part of the
reason. But perhaps more importantly, Cato is there be­
cause he is the man who knows that freedom, true free­
dom, is not a gift from Caesar. At present we see Cato
with his face shining before the four cardinal virtues,
which, like the stars, have long been hidden. He seems
to claim the rocks at the foot of Mt. Purgatory for him­
self. He represents for us the longing for true freedom
and the beginning of the discipline that points to it.
Our first sense of this discipline in Purgatory has to do
with the use of time. Virgil and Dante are moved to stop,
to look and to listen. The appeal to the eyes is very strong,
SPRING 1986
initially, in the Purgatorio. The face of Cato, the sunlight
and the stars, make it easy to stand and gaze. But Cato
makes some immediate sharp separations when Virgil
tries to move him with an appeal to his wife Marcia's
beautiful eyes. Cato says, "No, you can't appeal to that
here. While I was alive that moved me; but you can't ap­
peal to that. But if you want to appeal to a heavenly lady,
now that's another matter. You can do that."
Virgil is a little uncomfortable with this. He is not used
to it. Then Cato rebukes him and Dante for getting too
absorbed in the love poetry of Casella. Virgil does not
know at first how to respond to this unfamiliar sense of
urgency. He speeds up too much, at first, before finding
a more appropriate motion. Then he plucks a tough, flex­
ible reed for Dante, which comes out of the ground freely,
unlike the golden bough that Aeneas struggled to
remove.
Now there is a scene that recalls both Ulysses' sea
voyage and the scene before the walls of the city of Dis,
where the angel came across the swamp and frogs
jumped out of the way. Across the waters, at the foot of
the mountain, comes an angel, piloting a boat without
oars. Within the boat are more than a hundred spirits,
singing together,
"In Exitu Israel de Egitto. "They are sing­
ing the
Tonus Peregrinus, one of the oldest chants still sung
in both the church and the synagogue. The Psalm text
refers to Israel's exodus from Egypt, from the land of
strange speech. The feeling evoked here is that of the ur­
gency of the exodus. There was no time for secondary
matters; everything had to be done in haste.
This feeling of exodus is one of the most important
aspects of the
Purgatorio. We hear that song; and we ap­
ply it to ourselves both as individuals and as nations. We
are engaged in coming out to freedom just as the Israe­
lites were when they came from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where
the whole people together heard the voice of God. Dante
and Virgil are now in unexplored territory. They begin
to move with the people of the exodus, although at a
different rate and with somewhat special circumstances.
What is happening to come-dy and tragedy here? Let
us make note of the astronomical situation. The goat is
at the zenith-on the meridian-as Dante and Virgil hear
the song of Exodus. It is morning in Purgatorio, and the
goat is Capricorn, where the sun was on the darkest and
longest day. Now that day is dawning, the goat, which
was visible a few hours earlier, is put to flight. It begins
to set. The tragic part of the poem is now behind us.
Comedy has been conceived, but it has not yet come out
into the open. There is a discipline which precedes its
birth: a discipline related to this new feeling for time and
its importance.
Pride, envy, and wrath are the truly grave sins here on
the journey, because they cast a shadow of fatality over
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
human endeavor. They make even a proper discussion
of the freedom of the will difficult, to say nothing of the
implementation of the arts of freedom in the lives of men
and women and their nations. It should be clear that there
can be no significant earthly lightness, no gentle come­
dy in the soul of man, without some progress through
the realm of love's disorders.
Let us go at once with Dante and Virgil to the needle's
eye, the first landmark inside the gates of Purgatory
proper. You remember that one: it is easier for a camel
to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to
enter the kingdom of heaven. What does this mean for
Dante and Virgil? The rich young ruler of the Gospels
obeyed all the commandments but nevertheless remained
troubled. Perhaps there was in him a touch of the ancient
city's concern with fame, which does not admit the idea
of risking one's reputation by not being well off, He could
be said to be miserly about his reputation. This must be
resisted. One cannot simultaneously view oneself as rich,
as somebody important, and also be truly open to the dis­
cipline that looks to God's future gift of freedom for one­
self and for the whole people of the Exodus.
Here, in contrast to the rich young ruler, we see the
courage of Dante's risking himself in the poem, and the
prodigality of his comic imagination. He at least is will­
ing to risk his reputation. This may be because he does
not take freedom for granted, in the sense of simply be­
lieving he has it, without a view to where it came from,
as a process, as a coming out. If there is no disciplined
attempt to come out into freedom, especially to come out
from under pride, envy, sloth and wrath, then there is
no real freedom. The
Comedy does not even begin to talk
about the freedom of the will until after those things have
been at least provisionally addressed. And it is not until
these things have been addressed that comedy is really
born for the souls that are there in Purgatory.
Then we hear the name of King Midas. There is a won­
derful line that says that it is right that we always, forever,
laugh at the example of King Midas. It really is funny.
Once pride, envy, wrath and sloth are out of the way,
here in the circle of the avaricious, the real laughter be­
gins. There is some really powerful political avarice be­
ing purged in this circle. But that problem need not detain
us forever, need not keep us from laughing, because it
has in principle been dealt with. Midas shows us that.
Now comes the meeting with Statius, and the birth of
comedy. There are a number of events here to consider
quickly: there is an earthquake, there is fear, there are
heavenly hosts singing. The Roman poet Statius, a Chris­
tian poet, appears on the scene. He does not know that
Virgil, who was his inspiration, and whom he has always
loved, is present. Five hundred years in Purgatory have
not diminished his love for Virgil. Like a coal miner with
33
a lamp on his back to show others the way, Virgil was
the light for Statius. Dante in the meantime is trying to
keep quiet; he does not know what to do. He is caught
between Virgil and Statius. He knows that there is noth­
ing Statius would like better than to know that Virgil is
standing near him. He cannot hide his feelings, and he
laughs, not knowing whether it is right or wrong to do
so. And it is right.
Statius, who has just now freely stepped into the pos­
sibility of Paradise, is responsible for that earthquake.
What he does next touches the very heart of comedy.
Statius, who has just become free to leave his punish­
ment and go to Paradise, stops, and says, "I love that
Virgil so much, I would stay, just one more day." He is
willing to put off the vision of God for one more day,
in order to spend it with Virgil. Who is speaking here?
The sinner? No, this is the purged Statius.
This is the birth of comedy, for Dante. This is the abil­
ity to do what Cato could not do, at the bottom of Purga­
tory: the ability to bind oneself in the downward
direction, to love what is below. Statius is free to do that.
What was he purging, then, in this circle? Virgil was con­
cerned. For many years the reputation of Statius' love
for him had reached him down there with Homer and
the virtuous pagans. On the basis of what he had heard,
he had conceived for Statius a greater love than he had
for any other living soul. Virgil could not bring himself
to think that Statius could be purging avarice. Somehow
it seemed all wrong; and, indeed, it was all wrong. He
was purging not avarice but prodigality-prodigality
which, when made right in the discipline of Purgatory,
becomes the very generosity that is the soul of comedy.
Statius later goes on to discourse on creation and on
what is involved with beginnings. His view is that bind­
ing downwards, which we have seen in the gesture of
his love for Virgil, is already implicit in the creation of
man. Creation is a binding downward from highest
heaven to the created soul.
Statius stays with Dante and Virgil now as they move
up the mountain. Together they go through some very
important transformations. A few cantos back, Dante had
to be delivered from the allure of the Sirens' voices; he
had to be urged onward, away from them. Now they
reach the top of the mountain, and the purgatorial fire.
Dante passes through the fire with Virgil on the one side
and Statius on the other-and Beatrice ahead. He intends
for us to hear the Siren's song here. Through the fire we
find that everything is transformed. Nothing is really lost.
The Sirens are there in a new, good form. They are call­
ing Dante forth, not to his worst imaginings, such as he
had to face in Geryon' s flight, but to his best imaginings.
When Dante emerges from the fire he sees a magnifi­
cent view. It is evening in Purgatory. He hears words
34
from the Bible that are deeply moving. What Dante hears
is the invitation, in Latin, from the parable of the sheep
and the goats: "Venite benedictis patris mei." "Come ye
blessed of my Father and inherit the Kingdom." In this
parable the sheep and the goats are separated on the ba­
sis of their deeds. The marvelous thing in the parable is
that the unrighteous say, "When did we not feed you,
when did we not clothe you, when did we not take you
in?" The answer: ulnasmuch as you did it not to the least
of these my brethren you did it not to me." The right­
eous, the sheep, are equally surprised by the verdict, and
ask, "When did we do it?" "When you did it to the least
of these you did it to me." We hear the voice of the new
Sirens here, the voice of the Shepherd King, the voice
of Scripture.
The atmosphere here is intoxicating. Dante does not
miss the point of it. He responds to this occasion by
celebrating himself as a goat. He settles in for the night.
His image is a pastoral one, of wanton
gOats on the
heights, which are now made tame. The shepherds, the
pastors, are of course Virgil and Statius. The Christian
and the pagan poet are both pastors to him. Keeping in
mind the play on the goat song in Dante's letter to Can
Grande, we can see the possibility that Dante is now cast­
ing himself in the role of the goat, who must be chased
if comedy is to replace tragedy. He seems to be willing
to accept this role.
A few cantos later Dante meets his beloved lady Bea­
trice, the inspiration of his life. She in effect shames him
for not having lived out the full implications of what she
had been to him in his young life in Florence. He has to
go through the shame. He has to admit that he gave up
too soon on the mystery of her person, chasing things
of lesser worth, after her death. She shames him for be­
ing, in effect, a goat. Something in him must depart, must
be cast off as an exile.
The meaning of the invitation, "Come ye blessed," and
the separation that is part of it, is very complex here.
Dante, the pilgrim, hears the words of the parable as a
promise. Standing symbolically for all men of good will,
he accepts the invitation and presses forward to the goal.
On the other hand he hears the rejection: good will is
not enough. It must become deed. In his wanton joy upon
the heights of God's holy mountain Dante knows him­
self as both sheep and goat. He has to admit to having
gone astray. He must take back the slander of the wom­
an who was God's gift to him, and own up to having
been a goat in relation to her. Her charge against him is
this: that believing her to be a merely temporal delight,
he turned away from her, to politics, philosophy, and
other women. He exiled her, so to speak; and now he
must suffer his own symbolic exile.
Now Dante is ready to enter Paradise. Paradise is ini-
SPRING 1986
tially the power of Beatrice as fact, as holy and present
fact. She dominates everything. It is in her eyes and in
her smile. Dante is now free to take his fullest joy in the
sight of her. The human face is allowed to shine in its
proper glory as a revelation of God.
We start with this reality; here is the real Beatrice, who
set Dante's spirit trembling within him. And in this real­
ity, there is free movement; we move
in and with the free­
dom of motion that is inspired by God. Instinct has been
restored to its pristine purity, and is now a trustworthy
guide. From the outset in Paradise Dante's impulses are
right, even when his ideas are all wrong. Intelligence is
at play everywhere; wit is dancing warmly, courteously,
and lovingly in this festival of light, meaning, and deepest
communion.
Tragedy is very far behind. There are only hints of it
in the degradation and failure and imperfection implied
by the shadow of the earth's cone. And even these are
lovingly, vividly transcended in Cunizza's speech, in the
heaven of Venus, in which she forgives herself for hav­
ing been conquered by love. "I joyfully grant myself in­
dulgence," she says. There is is joy here that extends to
all of God's works; there is a humanizing and freeing of
the conscience.
When he enters this heaven, Dante is still in quest of
his city. There has been a dark prophecy of his exile since
his time in the city of Dis; and it is still on his mind. While
he is in Paradise we still do not know what is going to
come of this prophecy. But here Dante is looking for his
own true Florence-a Florence that he could celebrate ful­
ly, and love fully. He is looking for his home.
Here, in the same circle with Cunizza, Dante meets the
harlot Rahab, whom we know from the story of joshua
and jericho. jericho is one of the oldest walled cities in
the world; and Rahab lives in its wall. In contrast to the
wall in the city of Dis, with the Furies on top of it, here
we have a mediating link. This woman lives somehow
in jericho, but not altogether, because she lives in the
wall. She has sheltered the Israelite spies, preserving their
lives while the authorities in jericho are seeking to kill
them. It is an unforgettable deed. She thereby saves her­
self and her family and becomes, in the memory of the
Biblical people, a true member of the city for all time. Ac­
cording to tradition, she becomes the great-grandmother
of King David; and in the New Testament she is part of
the genealogy of jesus. This is a tremendous image: of
a harlot, an outcast, one abused. Here is a picture of ex­
ile but also of faithfulness and courage. This is a mediat­
ing link for Dante. He says that here Rahab "finds
peace." The walls of the old city are coming down.
The new city appears a little later, in Canto XV. This
canto is analogous to the moment in the
Aeneid when
Aeneas visits Anchises, his father, in the underworld.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
Dante meets his ancestor Cacciaguida here, and discovers
"the limits of
{his} Paradise, and {his} grace." Here the
eyes of Beatrice blaze with their most brilliant smile. Here,
in the Mars of the martyrs, Dante discovers his own
proper self-respect and his deepest response to the city
of Florence
as the promised land of his own destiny and
choice. It is here that Dante discovers how noble are his
own proximate beginnings, and how beautiful Florence
was before it abandoned the gentle purity of its manner
of life and embraced luxury and faction, bartering away
its birthright and its peace.
But we somehow cannot believe that the city of God
is here for Dante: a city that unites the older Florence or
Cacciaguida with his own Florence. What is missing from
this older city? What more could Dante ask, or contrib­
ute? The answer comes as an easily overlooked aside. His
ancestor addresses him with the formal "you," the old
: Roman "voi." Dante is immersed in the conversation,
when Beatrice gives him a little smile of warning. Almost
as if
in response to Dante's desire, the voice of Cacciagui­
da has begun to sound more sweetly and gently,
"Con
voce piu dolce e soave. '' But it is not as Dante observes,
"in this our modern dialect:
Ma non con questa moderna
[avella. ''
Cacciaguida is not speaking the language of the
village, the language that women speak, the language of
comedy. The woman Beatrice smiles at this; and Dante
begins to know his own contribution to his city.
Ten cantos later, in a garden-like setting, Dante sees
the solution to his problem of ancient and modern. He
has gone through his examination in theology by Sts.
Peter, james and john, who have been present to him
in light and in speech. Dante has just recovered from a
temporary blindness when a fourth light appears to him.
Beatrice informs him that it is Adam. Dante burns with
desire to speak. Adam dramatizes his presence like an
animal moving beneath a covering. Then he proceeds to
answer Dante's questions before Dante asks them. He
addresses Dante as "my son"
!figlio mio). One of Dante's
unspoken questions concerns the idiom or language that
Adam had used. What was the holy language? Was it
Hebrew?
Adam answers:
The tongue I spoke was all quenched long before the work
that never might be completed was undertaken by Nimrod
and his foil<. For never yet did product of reason maintain
itself forever because of human preference which does change
in sequence with the heavens ... The use of mortals is as
the leaf upon the branch which goeth and another followeth.
It is all right, says father Adam, you may write the poem
in Italian! The language of comedy-and of women-is
all right. This begins to return Dante to the ground of his
own humanity and temporality.
35
There remains one last word to say about the goat. In
Hell goats were mentioned in two places: first in Canto
XV where Brunetto Latini prophesies both Dante's exile
from Florence and his escape from the conflicting factions,
and also the honor in store for him:
Thy fortune reserves such honor for thee, that both parties
will have a hunger of thee. But far from the goat shall be the
grass.
In this utterence the goat is a metaphor for the faction­
torn city of Florence. The second reference is at the end
of Canto XIX where Virgil softly deposits Dante on a ridge
high above the simoniacal popes, in a place where even
goats would have difficulty.
In Purgatory, at the bottom of the mountain, in Canto
II, the goat is in the sky. It is the constellation Capricorn,
and it is being driven from the sky by the dawning
equinoxial sun. At the top of the mountain Dante be­
comes the sole goat. He must submit to a symbolic death
36
of repentance in order to receive the gift of life, as medi­
ated through the eyes of Beatrice, his intelligent, devout,
and lovely lady, radiant in her immortal garb.
In Paradise there is only one reference to the goat. It
comes in Canto XXVII, immediately following Dante's
meeting with Adam. Now it is St. Peter who speaks:
And thou my son, who for thy mortal weight (or burden) shalt
return again below. Open thy mouth and do not hide what
I hide not. As our atmosphere raineth down in flakes the
frozen vapours when the horn of the heavenly Goat is
touched by the sun, so did I see the ether adorn itself and
rain upward the flakes of the triumphant flashes which had
made their stay with us.
This semblance of snow flurries in heaven, occasioned
by the misuse of authority on the earth, and the conse­
quent corruption of faith and innocence
in all but the
smallest and newest of children, helps our poet Dante
to take up his mortal burden and begin to call things, in
Italian, by their true names.
SPRING 1986
The Miraculous Moonlight:
Flannery O'Connor's
The
Artificial Nigger
Robert S. Bart
Mr. Head awoke too early to get up yet on the morn­
ing he was to take his grandson Nelson to Atlanta. The
room was flooded with moonlight that silvered the boards
of the floor and brought out the pattern in the ticking on
his pillow, so that its material seemed brocade. Every­
thing in the room was dignilied by the light, even the
slop jar on the floor. There was only one dark spot right
under the window, where Nelson was asleep on his
pallet. But in spite of that, in the moonlight Mr. Head's
eyes gained a look of 'ancient wisdom.' He was confi­
dent in the 'calm understanding' (pp. 102-103)* he had
gained in his 60 years, the 'choice blessing' of age. He
contemplated the day before him with ripe satisfaction.
The moon was full, but at first only half of it showed in
Mr. Head's shaving mirror. It appeared to be awaiting
gravely his permission to enter the room the whole way.
It was almost as if
Mr. Head were not only in command
of himself and the day's expedition, but of nature as well.
When the whole round moon rolls into sight, Mr. Head
goes back to sleep, sure his 'will and strong character'
will see that he awakes before his grandson does.
As we become aware of Mr. Head's stature as a hu­
man being, his role in the journey he is to take with his
grandson is compared to that of Vergil with Dante, and
Robert Bart is a tutor and former dean of St. John's College, Santa Fe.
This is the text of a lecture originally given on Homecoming weekend
in Annapolis in September 1986, and then given in Sante Fe in April
1987. Mr. Bart writes, "This lecture was composed the summer of 1986,
while the whole world was brooding and suffering over the injustice
in South Africa and the murderous hatred
it engenders."
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
of the archangel Raphael with Tobias. As many of you
are aware, Vergil is summoned by Beatrice, coming down
from heaven and urged by many higher beings. Vergil
is to help Dante in his despair as he faces the terrible ob­
stacles that confront him when he tries to escape from
the dark wood and reach the blessed light. Vergil is the
teacher who knows the way, and who knows that that
way must lead through all the circles of hell before he
and Dante may ascend to the light toward which Dante
has tried to proceed directly. As Dante says, Vergil is his
'author,' the man without whom he would not be who
he is, and without whose book the
Divine Comedy would
never have been written.
Tobias is less well known to us. He is the son of the
blind Tobit, whose story is told in the Bible. (In Protes­
tant texts the Book of Tobit is found apart in the
Apocrypha.) After many years of war, Tobit thinks it is
now possible to reclaim a large deposit he has left in a
distant country. But, being blind, he must entrust the mis­
sion to his young son Tobias. The archangel Raphael,
who has pity on the old man and his son, appears op­
portunely in the guise of a man who knows the way and
undertakes to be Tobias' guide. He pretends to be a kins­
man. Tobias and he set out together, as in the several
Renaissance paintings of the subject, the Archangel walk­
ing along, holding Tobias' hand, the youngster's dog trot­
ting beside them. The Archangel has a complex mission
in mind and thanks to his direction not only is the deposit
recovered, but a wonderful fish is caught whose gall cures
Tobit's blindness on their return. As if this were not
enough to make it the happiest of expeditions, Raphael
has in mind also the prayers of Sarah, a girl who is the
victim of the demon Asrael. Already Asrael has killed
37
seven bridegrooms of hers one after another as they
sought to consummate their marriage on their wedding
night. Tobias too wins her for his bride, but following the
ritual set forth by Raphael drives the demon away forever.
There is a modern prayer addressed to the archangel for
travellers when journeying into a far country. But perhaps
because no one is ever entirely at home in this world, it
is a prayer for everyone to meet with those who will bring
them happiness in a province of joy, and in such a way
as not to remain in ignorance of the interests of their true
country. Such are the guides to whom Mr. Head is com­
pared during his early morning reverie.
Yet even before he falls asleep again we are made aware
that some of his intentions in the 'moral mission' (103)
he plans are not quite as exalted as those of Vergil and
Raphael. Indeed, he wants his grandson to see the city
for what it is, to see that it is not such a 'great place' (104)
as he supposes, and so to rest content with him home
in the country. It is to be an educational experience, one
with a moral tone. As he later says to a stranger on the
train:
'The thing to do with a boy,' he said sagely, 'is to show him
all it is to show. Don't hold nothing back.' (109)
Mr. Head may even be right that there is no good reason
to go to the city except to learn to shun it. But as we come
to know Nelson's resistance to this idea, we find sympa­
thy for his rebellion. Nelson is ten and around the fact
of his coming from Atlanta he is putting up a crucial fight
for his independence. His grandfather is determined to
compel the lad to conform to his own convictions. Mr.
Head is not unlike Vergil, in that he knows in advance
what he wants his companion to learn from what he is
shown. In his complacency, he supposes, as we have al­
ready seen, that he has nothing to learn himself. Now
Nelson takes pride above all in the fact that he was born
in Atlanta and that on this projected trip he is only return­
ing to his true home. Mr. Head intends that he shall find
out once and for all that this home is nothing to be proud
of. It is Mr. Head's expectation that then Nelson will be
ready to submit to his grandfather's wisdom, having
found out at last that he is not as smart as he thinks he
is. (104)
The struggle between them is of a wider scope than
over the question of whether Nelson is really going to
Atlanta for the first time. There is a hint of the harsh duel
which engages them when the first disturbing word in­
trudes on Mr. Head's reverie in the moonlight: he knows
it will irk Nelson if his grandfather is up ahead of him,
and Mr. Head has every intention of doing so. It is clear
at once that each is engaged in provoking the other. Was
there ever a beginning to this stuggle? Are they com­
mitted to this rivalry forever? It is an important sign of
38
how the day will unfold when in fact Nelson is up well
before his grandfather. Mr. Head only awakes to the smell
of breakfast cooking, in spite of the trust in his own de­
termination to rouse him in time. It is a first defeat.
Mr. Head's early satisfaction with himself and the
world he dominates is matched in kind by the silent gloat­
ing of his grandson. Nelson is already up and dressed.
He is sitting waiting for his grandfather to wake up and
find him already drinking his cold coffee in the half dark.
He doesn't say anything, with his hat pulled low over
his eyes. He needn't: he can save his remarks for a time
when they will be more telling. He knows he has won
the first round of the day.
Their life together consists of such attack and counter-
attack, well-aimed thrust, parry, and brilliant evasion:
"It's no hurry," Mr. Head says, "You'll get there soon
enough and it's no guarantee you'll like
it when you do
neither." (105)
A moment later he continues:
"You may not like it a bit ...
It'll be full of niggers."
The boy made a face as if he could handle a nigger.
"All right," Mr. Head said. "You ain't ever seen a nigger."
"You wasn't up very early," Nelson said.
Nelson is clearly 'a child who (is) never satisfied until he
(has) given an impudent answer.' (104) But if Mr. Head
has his way with the boy, at the end of the trip Nelson
will count himself fortunate that he has only been to At­
lanta once. Meanwhile Nelson continues to insist that this
is his second trip, in spite of the fact that when he left
Atlanta he was an infant in the arms of his mother. The
euphoria of the opening of the story hardly prepared us
for the resentments underlying the stinging exchange be­
tween them. It is so funny its deeper sense may pass un­
observed. (This was Flannery O'Connor's favorite story,
one which she used especially when invited to read
aloud.) The old man is confident in his ready wit and his
sure authority grounded on experience, though he
betrays underlying tension in the persistence with which
he needles Nelson. One cannot help relishing their ex­
changes: each has the same quick, dry wit, the same skill
in repartee, in finding the other's weak point every time.
Perhaps in the contrast between the early morning
dreams of Mr. Head and the sparring going on between
him and his grandson, it becomes evident that he may
be heading for more trouble than he had imagined. Since
the rivals are almost equally matched, we doubt whether
the child will after all be crushed. Perhaps, instead, he
will learn in time to hate his grandfather with a settled
hatred because Mr. Head wants to have it his way always.
Nelson has an 'ancient' look, not of wisdom but 'as if
he knew everything already and would be pleased to for­
get it.' (105) Has he any capacity for wonder? Did he have
SPRING 1986
it perhaps before he set himself on guard against every
nasty surprise his grandfather prepares for him? He has
learned to expect the worst, to be put down by Mr. Head
at every turn, to have his dignity insulted; but was he
perhaps born without generosity, without openness any­
way? Can it be decided whether it is Nelson who is the
cause of the old man's drive to gain control over the rebel
lad? Does the real provocation lie in Nelson, while Mr.
Head is only making a necessary response? Or are they
simply two of a kind?
Surely they are well-matched opponents, astonishing­
ly much the same in their opposition despite the differ­
ence in their ages. They look almost exactly alike in
feature, so much so that they might even be brothers, we
are told. Mr. Head has a youthful expression and the boy,
as we have seenf an ancient look. Each from his side
closes the huge gap in years between them. Nelson
scowls with a fierce expressionless face, as though ex­
perience had destroyed any youthful openness in him,
if he ever had any, while Mr. Head looks alert and grins.
(107) When they sit on the train, Nelson, schooled by his
grandfather, puts his hat on his knee, exactly like Mr.
Head. They keep converging, and yet the possibility of
fierce alienation is there, all the more for their sameness.
Their wit is identical, but it is used to sharpen their differ­
ences. More deep in their character is their fierce pride
expressed in their common fear of being made a fool of:
life has taught it to Mr. Head in his long experience and
it sears his memory, as when in a large store in Atlanta
'he had got lost ... and had found his way out only after
many people had insulted him.' (114) If he avoids such
humiliation when he can, he is equal to it when he can't
escape it. When the dining car waiter tries to keep him
out of the kitchen declaring haughtily that 'passengers
are not allowed in the kitchen' Mr. Head stops, turns to
him and shouts: 'and there's a good reason for that. .. be­
cause the cockroaches would run the passengers out.'
(112) Both grandfather and grandson are on guard, wary
and armed: both anticipate defeat at the railroad station:
what if the train simply fails to stop for them? Each is
prepared to ignore the event should it occur, to triumph
instead by a feigned indifference. Nelson is surely of the
same flesh and blood as Mr. Head, but that seems most­
ly to contribute to his bitter suspicion and animosity
toward his grandfather. They are engaged in the same
contest for superiority, but they cannot both win. Sure
of his own victory, Mr. Head fails to see what it will do
to Nelson. Under his grandfather's pressure, Nelson is
sharpening every weapon he has, yet his swift, fierce
retaliation may in the end wound him more than his
grandfather. Yet not only do they have much in common
but they care more than anything else in the world about
the other, even if that care is without tenderness, yield-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
ing or affection.
How far their situation is then from the fantasies of Mr.
Head in the early morning! Nelson is no innocent Tobias
to be led by the hand through a series of welcome and
wondrous adventures. Mr. Head, as his name suggests,
will direct the expedition, but they have not gone far in
the lessons he wishes to impart before Nelson begins to
suspect that he is not going to enjoy the day at all. Mr.
Head is too compromised before he begins and too little
aware of himself and his grandson to be able to withstand
much more than their first experiences. Before they even
set out, Nelson with his sharp-eyed vision asks:
"If you ain't been there in fifteen years, how you know you'll
be able to find your way about? ... How you know it hasn't
changed some?"
"Have you ever," Mr. Head asked, "seen me lost?" Nelson
certainly had not but he was a child who was never satisfied
until he had given an impudent answer and he replied, "It's
nowhere around here to get lost at."
"The day is going to come," Mr. Head prophesied, "when
you'll find you ain't as smart as you think you are." (104)
As Mr. Head's illusions are stripped away the results
could turn out to be comic, but the tension between him
and Nelson forebodes catastrophe.
It is not necessary to follow the unfolding of their ad­
ventures and their struggle in full detail. As might be ex­
pected, Nelson is entranced by the city and is absorbed
by its store windows. Radiant with pride he proclaims,
to Mr. Head's horror: This is where I come from! Mr.
Head sees he must take 'drastic action.' He makes Nel­
son stick his head in an opening into the sewer system
and explains:
... how it contained all the drainage and was full of rats and
how a man could slide into it and be sucked along down end­
less pitchblack tunnels .... Nelson was for some seconds
shaken. He connected the sewer passages with the entrance
to hell .. .. He dfew away from the curb.
Then he said, "Yes, but you can stay away from the holes,"
and his face took on that stubborn look that was so exasper­
ating to his grandfather. "This is where I come from!" he
said. (115-116)
Soon Nelson discovers that his grandfather has been go­
ing in a circle and promptly observes: "I don't believe
you know where you are at." (116) Thereupon Mr. Head
gets really lost. They discover that their lunch has been
left on the train in their haste to get off. Nelson seizes
this advantage to say: "You were the one holding the
sack .... I would have kepaholt of it." (117)
Their misfortunes begin to weigh on them.
It is hot.
They want to sit down but can't find a safe place to do
so in the colored section of the city. They go on walking.
Nelson keeps muttering, "First you lost the sack and then
you lost the way," while Mr. Head growls, "Anybody
39
wants to be from this nigger heaven can be from it." (118)
A nigger heaven is by inference a white man's hell. In
saying this Mr. Head only intends to mock Nelson's en­
thusiasm for his native city, but he is also betraying his
own anxiety and the effects of his own mistakes. Doubts
are assailing him more and more about his morning am­
bitions. But what he does not yet envision is the way that
soon Atlanta will become a living hell for him, leading
him to suppose that it would be a relief to slip into one
of the sewer holes and disappear forever. Already Mr.
Head is somewhat shaken. Perhaps he might have ac­
knowledged his predicament, were it not for the boy's
acid spite.
And yet, all during the day there have been moments
when Nelson drew near to his grandfather. Although he
has been made to feel an idiot by the way his grandfather
treats him on the train, he is proud of Mr. Head's triumph
with the big black waiter. He realizes then that
... the old man would be his only support in the strange
place they were approaching. He would be entirely alone in
the world
if he were ever lost from his grandfather. A terri­
ble excitement shook him and he wanted to take hold of Mr.
Head's coat and hold on like a child. (112)
Again, he is about to leap out of his seat at the suburban
stop of the train, when Mr. Head orders him to keep his
seat: bitter experience on his first trip had taught Mr.
Head not to make Nelson's mistake. The author says that
Nelson for the first time in his life understood that his
grandfather was indispensable to him. And finally, as
they realize they are utterly lost in a Negro section of the
city, Nelson takes 'hold of the old man's hand, a sign
of dependence that he seldom showed.' (117) It must be
noted that this is after Mr. Head has shamed him over
his disturbing encounter with the large colored woman:
"You act like you don't have any sense" the old man had
'growled.' (118)
There is a seesawing back and forth in their relations,
as when Mr. Head asserts his authority by the threat ''If
you want to direct this trip, I'll go on by myself and leave
you right here." (117) Mr. Head is pleased to see the boy
turn white; earlier when Mr. Head warned him not to
lose his ticket, lest he have to stay in the city, Nelson had
said: '"Maybe I will," ... as if this were a reasonable sug­
gestion.' (108) But Nelson keeps on asserting his indepen­
dent judgment and intelligence: it cannot escape him that
his grandfather's direction is not to be trusted. Hot, tired
and hungry, Nelson declares he will rest. He sits down
and goes to sleep.
Watching the boy Mr. Head realizes that when he
wakes up he will be cockier than ever; the weary old man
yields to an evil inspiration to teach Nelson a lesson that
he will never forget. Sometimes that is necessary, he rea-
40
sons, with a boy like Nelson, who will not be put down.
Mr. Head hides around a corner in an alley and rouses
the boy by banging on a garbage can. Nelson wakes up
with a start. Not finding his grandfather, he dashes down
the street in terror, 'like a wild maddened pony.' (122)
When Mr. Head finally catches up with him he has
knocked down an older woman who is screaming for the
police. Mr. Head approaches them with the greatest ti­
midity and caution, but as he comes nearer Nelson
catches sight of him and springs up from where he was
sprawled to clasp him around the hips. But Mr. Head im­
agines that a policeman is approaching from behind. He
tries to detach Nelson's fingers from his flesh and says:
"This is not my boy ... I never seen him before." (123)
He feels Nelson's fingers fall out of his flesh. The crowd
that has gathered gives way in horror at his denying 'his
own image and likeness,' (123) obvious from the remark­
ably close resemblance of the two. Angry as they are, they
are unwilling to lay hands on him as if he had revealed
himself a monster by denying his own flesh. They break
the wall they had made to surround him and he walks
off. Nelson trails after him, his 'two small eyes piercing
into his back like pitchfork prongs.' (124)
As time passes this way Mr. Head's efforts at recon­
ciliation between them fail. Both are thirsty but Nelson
is not tempted to relent by the offer of a Coca Cola. "With
a dignity he has never shown before' he 'turned and
stood with his back to his grandfather.' Mr. Head begins
'to feel the depth of his denial.' (124) A second effort to
get Nelson to drink from the spigot he has found, only
leads the child to stare straight through him for nearly
sixty seconds. Now Atlanta indeed has become a hell for
Mr. Head. He fears they may not make their train, some­
thing he was worried about even while Nelson slept,
when 'the possibility of missing it was too awful for him
to think of.' (122) They are really lost. Mr. Head in his
remorse fears that the city will unleash all its horrors on
them both. Aware of his own deep disgrace he neverthe­
less suffers for his grandson, thinking that through his
fault he was leading Nelson 'to his doom.' (124) But Nel­
son's implacable fury travels behind him always at the
same fierce distance; Nelson savors his revenge as though
this situation were all that he had been living for up un­
til now. Lost, shamed and goaded by the hatred and judg­
ment of his grandson, Mr. Head becomes desperate in
the now deserted part of the city. Suddenly he is aroused
by a man with two bulldogs that bark; he waves both
arms like someone shipwrecked on a desert island. He
cries out his agony:
I'm lost. .. I'm lost and can't find my way and me and this
boy have got to catch this train and I can't find the station.
Oh Gawd I'm lost! Oh hep me Gawd I'm lost! (126)
But the man who comes to his rescue bears no resern-
SPRING 1986
blance to an angel of mercy. He is fat, baldheaded and
wears golf knickers, a ridiculous outfit. In the most mat­
ter of fact, but pleasant way he tells Mr. Head they are
only three blocks from the suburban stop and can just
make the train in time. As if 'returning from the dead'
(126) Mr. Head says in wonder: We're going to get home!
But Nelson, a little closer now, could not care less. 'His
eyes were triumphantly cold. There was no light in them,
no feeling, no interest ... Home was nothing to him.' (127)
Mr. Head's vision in the morning has come to this: he
has disgraced himself before everyone, but most of all
he has disgraced himself irretrievably in Nelson's eyes.
Nelson's 'mind had frozen around his grandfather's
treachery as if he were trying to preserve it intact to
present at the final judgment.' (125) Mr. Head knew it
would continue just that way for the rest of his life.
Or could it be otherwise, even though that might be
his just desert? Of course in the ordinary give and take
of family life, a way is usually found to get around such
seeming deadlocks: children are taught to set aside their
indignation and to forgive and forget. No small part of
this aspect of their education has been in the hands of
their mothers and women in general; but Nelson has not
known any women. In any case, such 'forgiveness' is a
kind of magnanimity, indulgence or tolerance, a willing­
ness to overlook what has happened, especially if it not
recur. It is a great, an almost indispensable condition of
peace in the world. But it is often also a sign of a sort
of superiority which disdains to make much of what it
treats as tri!Ies. To a proud nature like Nelson's, one that
craves justice, such a compromise has no appeal. Mr.
Head, too, would find such condescension intolerable in
the end. It would heap coals of fire on his head. The dis­
grace remains untouched by tolerance, which is essen­
tially galling to pride. Besides, under Nelson's implacable
condemnation Mr. Head discovers that his betrayal be­
comes a heavier and heavier burden, apart from what
Nelson or anyone feels. It has made clear in a flash that
he is too much of a coward to risk his skin even for his
grandson and that there is no limit he will not surpass
in order to escape danger. He has shown in that moment
the worst that he is capable of, and it is dreadful. He is
fully exposed to the light of the sun, which Flannery
O'Connor says 'shed a dull dry light,' so that 'everything
looked like exactly what it was.' (120) In that light Mr.
Head knows that what he has done is monstrous. That
same sun in rising made the sky a dull red, reducing the
moon to something gray and transparent, 'hardly
stronger than a thumbprint and completely without
light.' (106) In this hard daylight the moon is 'useless'
and Mr. Head is left naked and base before our eyes and
his own. There can be no doubt that his vanity and Nel­
son's proud revenge have come to be seen for exactly
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
what they are. All that moonlit dignity of noble and di­
vine figures was mere moonshine and shallow illusion.
Mr. Head has acted worse than a fool or an idiot, the
thing he feared most: he has shown himself to be a sin­
ner, one of the worst, and he knows
it.
His treachery resembles that of the apostle Peter. In all
of the four gospels the story of Peter's denial is told, and
in almost the same way. Jesus knows that he is about to
be taken to be crucified. I quote from Luke.
22:31 And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath
desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:
32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and
when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.
33 And he said unto him, Lord I am ready to go with thee,
both into prison, and to death.
34 And he said, I tell thee Peter, the cock shall not crow this
day before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.
An a little later Jesus is taken:
54 Then they took him and led him and brought him into
the high priest's house. And Peter followed afar off.
55 And when they had kindled a fire in the midst of hall,
and were set down together, Peter sat down among them.
56 But a certain maid beheld him as he sat by the fire, and
earnestly looked upon him and said, This man was also with
hlm.
57 And he denied him, saying, Woman I know him not.
58 And after a little while another saw him, and said, Thou
art also of them. And Peter said, Man, I am not.
59 And about the space of one hour after another confidently
affirmed saying, Of a truth, this fellow also was with him:
for he is a Galilean.
60 And Peter said, Man I know not what thou sayest. And
immediately, while he yet spake, the cock crew.
61 And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter
remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him,
Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
62 And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.
It is almost impossible to imagine to oneself the remorse
that Peter felt as he wept so bitterly. No doubt Flannery
O'Connor is remembering it when she describes Mr.
Head's despair. She is, I sense, also reflecting her read­
ing of Dante's Hell when she says:
He felt he knew now what time would be like without sea­
sons and what heat would be like without light and what man
would be like without salvation. (127)
Yet unlike Judas, who also betrayed Jesus, Peter did not
go and hang himself. Perhaps he remembered the words
of David, the Psalmist:
2 Bless the Lord, 0 my soul, and forget not his benefits:
3 Who forgiveth all thine iniquities: who healeth thy
diseases;
4 Who redeemeth thy life from destruction: who crowneth
thee with loving kindness and tender mercies;
5 Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy
youth is renewed like the eagle's. (Psalm 103)
41
And a little later in the same Psalm:
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and
plenteous in mercy.
9 He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger
forever.
10 He hath not dealt with us after our sins: nor rewarded
us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his
mercy toward those that fear him.
This is a Psalm of David, who, because he had taken
Bathsheba, treacherously caused her husband to die.
Perhaps when he had drunk the cup of his grief to the
dregs Peter took comfort because Jesus had also said to
him: When thou art converted strengthen thy brethren.
Peter lived to fulfill Jesus' prophecy, when the Lord said:
Thou are Peter (which is to say, a rock) and upon this rock
I
will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail
against it. (Matt. 16:15-18)
Few accounts in the gospels have given more comfort
than this story of Peter, who denied his Lord and master
and was yet chosen to be the foundation and head of His
church. The comfort comes, not from the glory at the end,
but from the hope that it is possible somehow to get be­
yond evil done, which seems by its very nature an un­
alterable fact, utterly irrevocable. It will always be
remembered by the doer at least, even if the world is too
big or too busy to keep it in mind. It is Jesus' claim to
be able to forgive sin, to make it as nought, that express­
es his greatest power and the greatest good he confers
on men and women. Such forgiveness is not mere
generosity, fine as that might be, nor a lofty readiness
to overlook another's baseness. It is an unsparing frank­
ness in facing evil, just as when Jesus turned to look upon
Peter when he had denied him thrice; and it is also a blot­
ting of it out altogether. Only so, it seems to me, might
the Psalmist offer in the end of what I read the renewal
of one's youth, of one's innocence, like the eagle's.
But what about Nelson? Suppose, as the crowd of
women do when they shrink back in horror from Mr.
Head, that Nelson's cold hatred and persecution of his
grandfather is justified: is it any the less deadly for him?
Does it not freeze him and cut him off from all openness
and warmth toward the world? Was that always going
to be his way? Is it conceivable that he may forgive, as
men are commanded to forgive? On one level it does not
seem so. Why should he? How can he, in the face of what
his grandfather has done to him?
* * *
Now, with your patience, I must review some of the
most important aspects of the story which you must have
been puzzled long since at my omitting. This part of the
lecture I think of under the heading The Color Black. Its
motto might be: the moon only shines at night.
42
In the story blackness has a puzzling ambiguity. In ac­
cordance with immemorial tradition, black is the color of
what is threatening and evil. For instance, the sewer
which Nelson, and later his grandfather, come to associ­
ate with hell, is described as 'a pitch black tunnel,' (115)
filled with foul drainage and rats. Yet when Nelson im­
agines himself looking down and down into the eyes of
the large colored woman who calls him sugarpie, he feels
as if he were 'reeling down through a pitch black tunnel.'
(119) The ecstasy and terror are expressed with the same
image and color.
Let me pursue blackness as evil, first. As Nelson and
Mr. Head get into a section of Atlanta where only black
people live, they are afraid. The menace they feel cul­
minates
in the sentence: 'Black eyes in black faces were
watching them from every direction.' (117) Nelson is
afraid of the colored men; he doesn't want to be laughed
at by colored children. Again, as the sun is going down
on them Mr. Head is afraid that if dark overtook them
in the city, 'they would be beaten and robbed.' (124) And
finally when he loses all hope after Nelson rejects a drink
at the spigot and stares right through him, Mr. Head en­
visages his future 'in a black strange place.' (125) As the
story unfolds it seems fitting that the rebel Nelson's pallet
was the only dark place in the room that the moonlight
has not transformed by its magic. True, the slop jar, out
of the shadow and 'made snow-white in the moonlight,
appeared to stand guard over him like a small personal
angel.' (103) But can that snowy angel save him from his
own dark resentment, and his triumph in it?
The two major encounters-we have with black people
give us a different and much more complex sense of
blackness. Both of the colored people are different from
Mr. Head and his grandson: they seem sure of them­
selves and almost at ease, where we see the other two
as tense, on edge, suspicious, cautious, fierce and afraid.
Even Mr. Head's calm dignity and serene expression have
their fragility. He first loses them for the reader when the
tremendous coffee-colored man comes down the aisle of
the train. Until then Mr. Head seems sure of himself, even
in the provoking exchanges with Nelson: he imagines that
he knows how the excursion to Atlanta will work out.
But when the majestic man with the yellow satin tie and
ruby pin comes along, making deliberate and slow­
moving progress with his black cane and his train of two
young women, 'a light fierce and cautious both' comes
into Mr. Head's eyes. (109) 'He caught Nelson by the
arm' and as the procession goes by, his grip tightens in­
sistently. The huge man gazes over the heads of all the
passengers, nor does Mr. Head look him in the face.
There is something opulent and exotic about the proces­
sion as it passes, rich and generous, filled out by the
young women with their throaty voices and the man's
SPRING 1986
sapphire ring; but they put Mr. Head on edge, and when
he and Nelson see them again, separated by a saffron cur­
tain from the rest of the passengers, Mr. Head explains
with triumphant disgust: 'They rope them off.' (110) He
talks as if they were pigs. Then, too, our eye is directed
to the man's heavy, sad face.
The truth is, I think, that Mr. Head is afraid. The source
of his ferocity toward the blacks is his fear, his fear of
what
is other than himself. The sign of his attitude toward
what is black is expressed clearly when he says, "There
hasn't been a nigger in this county since we run that one
out twelve years ago." (105) Nelson has grown up in a
pure environment: he has never seen a "nigger." It is
impossible for Mr. Head to imagine himself living with
what is black. He is a fanatic, a purist. He is a man who
recognizes himself as 'upright and brave,' (115) whom
all his friends admire. He has been too good to need for­
giveness, to deserve mercy. His approach to what he sees
as evil is to drive it out brutally, whether in himself, in
Nelson or in their surroundings. He does not understand
what it means that the moon can only shine in the black
night. When he cannot escape the blackness in himself,
he can only despair. Yet, when he learns that he can no
longer rope it off or run it out, maybe there will be some
hope that like Peter the apostle he can exchange his con­
fidence in himself, which rests on a vain delusion, for a
knowledge that Dante's Vergil possessed: the knowledge
that it is only by passing through the valley of the shadow
of death that he can reach his true country and a province
of joy. Up until now he has, like Nelson, thought you
could simply keep away from the holes that lead down
into the lower depths. But man is not born to live
Iilywhite. He is born to sin and to the need for atonement
and redemption. This knowledge comes to Mr. Head only
after he admits his own blackness; it is mediated by the
shattered image of a wretched Negro.
But Mr. Head is far from that understanding when he
catechizes Nelson about the tremendous coffee-colored
man. Nelson, who has never seen a Negro, answers his
questions with the innocence of pure reason.
::what w,~s that?" (Mr. Head inquires) ...
A man . ...
"What kind of a man?" ...
"A fat man." .. .
"You don't know what kind?" .. .
"An old man." . ..
"That was a nigger." (110)
Deliberately humiliated by his grandfather, tricked by the
endless ambiguity of blackness, Nelson feels a fierce, raw
fresh hate for the cause of this insult to his intelligence.
He supposes he knows now why his grandfather dislikes
them. He feels that the Negro had deliberately walked
down the aisle to make a fool of him. His first real en-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
counter with the alien, the unknown, the truly other has
made a fool of him, thanks to his grandfather. But it is
not only his grandfather's doing that there is an aliena­
tion in the world. As Hegel knew, and Marx after him,
man makes his own alienation and must suffer first if it
is to be overcome.
Nelson's second real involvement with a Negro is the
black woman he asks directions of when they are lost.
Not knowing what he is about Mr. Head prompts their
encounter, because he is too proud and too scared to ask
a black person for help. No words of mine should intrude
on this great scene:
Up ahead he saw a large colored woman leaning in a door­
way that opened onto the sidewalk. Her hair stood straight
out from her head for about four inches all around and she
was resting on bare brown feet that turned pink at the sides.
She had on a pink dress that showed her exact shape. As they
came abreast of her, she lazily lifted one hand to her head
and her fingers disappeared into her hair.
Nelson stopped. He felt his breath drawn up by the
worn~
an's dark eyes. "How do you get back to town?" he said in
a voice that did not sound like his own.
After a minute she said, "You in town now," in a rich low
tone that made Nelson feel as if a cool spray had been turned
on him.
"How do you get back to the train?" he said in the same
reed-like voice.
"You can catch you a car," she said.
He understood she was making fun of him but he was too
paralyzed even to scowl. He stood drinking in every detail
of her. His eyes traveled up from her great knees to her fore­
head and then made a triangular path from the glistening
sweat on her neck down and across he tremendous bosom
and over her bare arm back to where her fingers lay hidden
in her hair. He suddenly wanted her to reach down and pick
hlm up and draw him against her and then he wanted to
feel her breath on his eyes while she held him tighter and
tighter. He had never had such a feeling before. He felt as
if he were reeling down through a pitchblack tunneL
''You can go a block down yonder and catch you a car take
you to the railroad station, Sugarpie/' she said.
Nelson would have collapsed at her feet if Mr. Head had
not pulled him roughly away. "You act like you don't have
any sense!"' the old man growled. (118-119)
Referring in a letter to this moment in the story Flannery
O'Connor commented:
I meant for her in an almost physical way to suggest the mys­
tery of existence to him - he not only has never seen a nig­
ger but he didn't know any women and I felt that such a black
mountain of maternity would give him the required shock
to start those black forms moving up from his unconscious.
(78)
The woman is utterly alien to him, black, maternal,
female, for it is impossible for me not to sense the first
stirrings in the boy of the erotic, whose distinction from
the maternal remains one of the great puzzles of a man's
life. Nelson longs to be embraced by her, tighter and
tighter. He senses the 'pitchblack tunnel' (119) as a road
43
to the fulfillment of his heart's desire, a desire he never
knew before but discovers in her. With the wisdom of
his inexperience, at the same moment that he wants to
be drawn up somehow into her, he wants to collapse at
her feet in acknowledgement of the goddess. He has met
his other in its full otherness and he is prepared to over­
come its alienness in any way that he can.
Mr. Head intervenes roughly and shames him over and
over: "And standing there grinning like a chim-pan-zee
while a nigger woman gives you directions. Great
Gawd." (120) But the black goddess has done her work:
as Nelson dozes on the pavement he is conscious of
"vague noises and black forms moving up from some
dark part of him into the light. His face worked in his
sleep .... '' (121) As he fell asleep his shoulders twitched
as though some involuntary power were working within
him. Later this notion becomes more explicit, when he
is following his grandfather to torment him, like an im­
placable fury from hell, his eyes like pitchfork prongs:
... his mind had frozen around his grandfather's treachery
as if he were trying to preserve it intact to present at the final
judgment. He walked without looking to one side or the
other, but every now and then his mouth would twitch and
this was when he felt, from some remote place inside him­
self, a black mysterious form reach up as if it would melt his
frozen vision in one hot grasp. (125)
In some ways Nelson seems an emissary from hell, an
Ate to take vengeance on those who betray their family.
But more truly, what he found in his longing for the great
black woman was to plunge into the fullness of life, black
and white. No wonder it makes him drunk with its all­
embracing power so he goes reeling down the pitchblack
tunnel that is as yet only a prison for Mr. Head, made
of his blind and narrow despair.
But even for him, as the deadening sun fades, out of
the gathering dusk his attention is caught by something
like a cry.
It draws him out of his utter indifference to
everything he might ever care for.
44
He didn't care if he never made the train and if it had not
been for what suddenly caught his attention, like a cry out
of the gathering dusk, he might have forgotten there was a
station to go to.
He had not walked five hundred yards down the road when
he saw, within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro
sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved
around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson's size and
he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the
putty that held him to the wall had cracked. One of his eyes
was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon.
Mr. Head stood looking at him silently until Nelson stopped
at a little distance. Then as the two of them stood there, Mr.
Head breathed, "An artificial nigger!"
It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant
to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He
was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched
up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was
cocked at gave him a wild look of misery instead.
"An artificial nigger!" Nelson repeated
in Mr. Head's ex­
act tone.
The two of them stood there with their necks forward at
almost the same angle and their shoulders curved in almost
exactly the same way and their hands trembling identically
in their pockets. Mr. Head looked like an ancient child and
Nelson like a miniature old man. They stood gazing at the
artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mys­
tery, some monument to another's victory that brought them
together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dis­
solving their differences like an action of mercy. Mr. Head
had never known before what mercy felt like because he had
been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now. He
looked at Nelson and understood that he must say something
to the child to show that he was still wise and
in the look
the boy returned he saw a hungry need for that assurance.
Nelson's eyes seemed to implore him to explain once and for
all the mystery of existence.
Mr. Head opened his lips to make a lofty statement and
heard himself say, "They ain't got enough real ones here.
They got to have an artificial one.''
After a second, the boy nodded with a strange shivering
about his mouth, and said, "Let's go horne before we get our­
selves lost again." (127-128)
Puzzled as we are by this account, we see at once the
effect of this artificial nigger: the deadly gap between
grandfather and grandson is closed: they speak identi­
cal words in an identical tone. Once more they look and
act exactly alike, each as much a human as the other, each
in a desperate need of help, of mercy.
What can we make of this plaster figure himself, this
obscene monument to the despotic power of masters?
When the master tires of the exercise of brute force over
the bondsman, he wants a more flattering image of his
power. His lordship, grounded though it is in violence,
is to be sugared over by the happy smiles of his grateful
slaves. Hence are born those revolting statues of jolly,
eager, liveried little black men, that infest the American
landscape, grinning and eating their watermelon. This
one is woefully defaced, but he was meant to look hap­
py. In saying this Flannery O'Connor has, as so often,
a double meaning: the master wants his bondsman to
look as though he loved his bondage; but more fun­
damentally, she means that every man and woman and
child is created by God to enjoy blessedness.
This one instead in his disfigured state has a wild look
of misery. How has that misery served to bring Nelson
back to his proper place beside his grandfather and liber­
ated his grandfather from the intolerable burden of his
knowledge of his own blackness?
Behind that broken figure leaning forward, with the
wild look of misery, am I wrong to see the figure
proclaimed by Isaiah, the suffering servant of the Lord,
SPRING 1986
in and from whom there is a promise of healing and peace
for all men? All through the centuries of their oppression
the Jewish people have placed their trust in these words;
they have trusted that their suffering had a meaning be­
yond itself and a hidden purpose. It not only marks them
as God's chosen and beloved, but by its means the ini­
quity of all men is to be atoned for. In that belief, some
devout Jews died in the horrors of Hitler's concentration
camps.
Let us listen for a moment to Isaiah: "Behold my ser­
vant: ... he shall be exalted and extolled and be very
high." (52:13) Yet right away the prophet goes on to say:
53:2 ... he hath no form nor comeliness and when we shaH
see him there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He is despised and rejected of men and acquainted with
grief: and we hid as
it were our faces from him; he was
despised and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised
for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon
him and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every
one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the ini­
quity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened
not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and
as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not
his mouth_
And again later Isaiah says:
61:1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord
hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he
hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim
liberty unto the captives, and the opening of prison to them
that are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day
of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto
them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the gar­
ment of praise for the spirit of heaviness: that they might
be called the trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord,
that he might be glorified.
These passages declare to me, as to a long tradition of
readers, that the glory denied to the servant of the Lord
at one time, will be seen one day by all, as it is always
beheld by God Himself; that what is repellent in the drab
light of day will be exalted and extolled in the end. That
by a servant's stripes we shall be reconciled and healed.
Thinking, I believe, of these words of Isaiah, one whom
many believe to have been that servant himself said:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness:
for they shall be filled. (Matt. 5:4-6)
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
And a little later:
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the chil­
dren of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (9-10)
As the demeaning light of day yields to the gathering
dusk this cry of hope is heard. Indeed, one day the Lord
may take vengeance against those whose injustice has
caused the suffering of the meek, but even more impor­
tant is the fact that it is by their suffering that the world
at large is set free from its bondage to itself.
The artificial nigger is a monument 'to another's vic­
tory.' (128) First, in an obvious way, he is a monument
to the merely worldly victory of the strong over the weak,
of the master over the slave. But that is of little sig­
nificance compared to the victory whereby men and
women who have been defeated and enslaved exercise
a saving power reserved to them and their suffering
alone. The first is a hollow victory, the other the only eter­
nal one and the source of all ultimate rejoicing in the
world.
Mr. Head and Nelson do not see this just like that. But
they feel its power at work in them as they draw together,
side by side, each once more the very image of the other,
the old and the young united. They see that victim and
they wonder at it. Things begin to be restored to their
best, to the vision of the early morning which has proved
so false during the day and which yet begins to restore
itself in the twilight. As is proper, when all things are
at their best, the child can look to his elder for under­
standing. But all Mr. Head can say is: They ain't got
enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.
(128) He senses the superfluousness of adding even one
artificial nigger to the terrible burden on the souls of white
men and women caused by the presence of millions of
real black men and women oppressed by them. Such a
statue is, as Flannery O'Connor wrote in a letter 'a ter­
rible symbol of what the South has done to itself.' (140)
Or, as she wrote in another letter, 'There is nothing that
screams out the tragedy of the South' (101) as such statu­
ary does. It is, as we have seen, the ultimate corrupting
effort of the tyrant to flatter himself at the expense of a
whole people's misery. Yet if indeed it turns out that it
is also a monument to the victory of those who suffer and
of their power to redeem and to prompt 'an action of
mercy.' (128) as Flannery O'Connor calls it, they are the
opposite of superfluous. Though they remind all feeling
men of the iniquity of their suffering, they also bring to
the fore the power that brings good out of evil, that
reduces evil to the ultimate nothingness that it is.
Such a power is forgiveness: Nelson's response to his
grandfather is to say, in direct opposition to his usually
45
unforgiving nature: Let's go home before we get our­
selves lost again. (128) He speaks as if they had shared
equally in the responsibility of their getting lost, and
perhaps even in the expedition itself, something Nelson
had denied in his rage at his grandfather's betrayal. (120)
By a power that seems to come from beyond himself, he
becomes reconciled with his grandfather and freely takes
on himself as well whatever blame attaches to Mr. Head.
Now he is free to turn home, home which a moment be­
fore 'was nothing to him.' (127)
The mysterious power that Flannery O'Connor ascribes
to the monument and that brings Nelson and Mr. Head
together, and both of them together with the broken
plaster figure of the Negro and with all of the slaves and
the abused blacks that he represents, its effectiveness in
Nelson, it seems, rests on those black mysterious forms
that cause 'a strange shivering about his mouth' (128)
when he speaks consolingly to his grandfather. Earlier
they were working to 'melt his frozen vision in one hot
grasp,' (125) to release him from his subjection to his
moral outrage at his grandfather's denial of him. There
can be no doubt that what first came to him in the 'black
mountain of maternity,' the first woman that he knew
and felt as a woman, that worked on him as he slept un­
der the pitiless light of day and later when he became
his most malignant, these black forms are what prepared
him to receive the action of mercy that sprang from the
artificial nigger. In this story the ambiguity of blackness
is resolved: black is the color of human redemption
through suffering, the means of reconciliation and peace.
Black as darkness, the enemy of light, and as a source
of fear to Mr. Head and Nelson is no more, and no less,
than the ultimately powerless illusion, which melts be­
fore the triumphant power of suffering that redeems, in
this case the suffering of black men and women.
Nonetheless we cannot forget the ruin which has been
made of that figure of plaster who was meant to look hap­
py: we must pursue justice with every power we pos­
sess. Yet as the sun goes down the real victory is certified
by the power of that broken and crucified nigger.
This perception is quickly confirmed in the story. The
sun, that by its matter-of-fact light reveals everything at
its worst, has gone down by the time Nelson and his
grandfather get back to their junction. As before, they
fear the train will not stop; but it does and as they get
off, 'the moon, restored to its full splendor, sprang from
a cloud and flooded the clearing with light. As they
stepped off, the sage grass was shivering gently in shades
of silver, and the clinkers under their feet glittered with
a fresh black light.' (128) The moon, gracious ruler of the
night, silvers the scene and makes the fresh black glisten
in all its glory. By its light everything is seen at its best,
as what it truly is, redeemed not only from its mere fac-
46
tuality, but from the surrounding darkness of night.
The story might easily have been content to mock Mr.
Head's early vision of his role as a guide on a moral mis­
sion. Indeed, it shows his inadequacy to it, but it also re­
stores his vision at the end, corrected. What moved him
at first was hardly love for his nephew nor for good in
itself, yet equally as much it must be said that if he and
Nelson have passed through a kind of hell on earth, they
end up closer by far than they would have had Mr. Head
succeeded in breaking Nelson's rebellious spirit by the
force of his will. Instead, broken himself, he is ap­
proached by the small, silent and searching judge who
miraculously moves him to accept forgiveness.
The train which bore them from the junction at the
day's beginning emerged from a tunnel, like a demon
from the pitchblack tunnels of hell, terrified by the cold
light of day. At the day's end it disappears 'like a fright­
ened serpent.' (129) In both of these images it has some­
thing of the serpent of Eden, the instrument whereby
Nelson and his grandfather are brought to a season in
hell. From that perspective their home in the country is
their true country, to which Raphael might have led them,
and so it seems to Nelson at the very end. But at the same
time, his sense of its blessing has only been achieved be­
cause he has had an experience in Atlanta, an experience
of the black shapes that move within him and that sug­
gest a possibility for understanding and love, an ex­
perience of a different sort from his grandfather's. It is
he that has been moved by the wonderful, godlike charac­
ter of the huge black woman, and who, we feel, will never
be the same as long as her power stirs within him. How
such a change will manifest itself is left for the future,
but his nature as a rebel might, in my imagining, carry
him far.
As for Mr. Head, has his lilywhite conception that
separates evil and good in an unqualified way suffered
any modification in the presence of the artificial nigger?
It is perhaps idle to speculate: the opportunity is before
him. In the next to the final paragraph Flannery O'Con­
nor speaks the whole sense of the power of the moon's
light, of the redemption through agony and of the trans­
formation of evil into good. Mr. Head begins with the
belief that his moral rectitude will be enough to get him
through the day, as through life in general. When that
fails him in the worst way, what he seeks, and finds, is
a less simplistic view, one in which despite evil done and
failure, betrayal and judgment, there is hope for forgive­
ness and renewal, like the young eagle's.
In one way it seems to me that the train, as the serpent
of Eden, has led Mr. Head and his grandson to betray
themselves to the worst that is in them: vain pride and
base fear on the one side, and on the other rebellion and
deadly hatred. But at the same time their sojourn in this
SPRING 1986
hell has brought Mr. Head to know that he is not one
of the great guides of men, but a mere creature like others,
one with high aspirations, but who in fact gets utterly
lost, endangering the grandson he really loves; that he
is a being who has no recourse but to call on God in his
abject despair and humiliation. But thus he opens him­
self to the mercy that 'covered his pride like a flame and
consumed it.' (129) Nelson, watching his grandfather,
feels in his fatigue the resonance of his inveterate suspi­
cion of him, but even his dark and naturally scowling face
lights up at the end in the miraculous light of the moon,
letting its grace work on him for one more moment. It
reveals what he really is within so that he can say: I'm
glad I went once, but I'll never go back again. (129) He
sacrifices in these simple words his pride in being differ­
ent, in being born in Atlanta, his superiority over his
grandfather and his resentment of him.
In a letter Flannery 0 'Connor said that her disposition
was a combination of Nelson's and Hulga's (101); Hulga
is at the center of another of her stories. She adds that
perhaps she flattered herself. Hulga's shallow but brightly
optimistic mother christened her 'Joy,' but at the first op­
portunity she changed it herself legally to Hulga, the ugli­
est name she could think of. Of Hulga Flannery
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
O'Connor wrote (in 'Good Country People'):
Her constant outrage [at the world in general and her mother
in particular] had obliterated every expression from her
face .... [She has] the look of someone who had achieved
blindness by an act of will and meant to keep it. (171)
Is it not fitting that Flannery O'Connor, who could know
in herself the capacity to blind herself deliberately to all
the wonder of the world, should write of a light that in
bestowing itself unstintingly makes the world a wonder
to discover, a joy to behold in its fresh black light? Such
a light restores their true dignity not only to Nelson and
Mr. Head, but to all the insulted, degraded and abused,
while setting them free not only of their chains, but of
their hate, their fear and their wounded pride. I wonder
if Nelson ever said Tm glad' about anything? True, he
only mutters it.
*All page references to the stories are to A Good Ma~ is Hard
to Find and Other Stories, Harcourt, Brace, JovanoviCh Har­
vest/HBS edition, 1977. Those to the letters are to
The Habit of
Being, Vintage Books, 1980.
47
The Shattering of
the Natural Order
E. A. Goerner
It is not very new to say that we are in the midst of
a world-civilizational crisis or period of revolutionary
changes centered in the so-called first and second worlds
which constitute the area of predominantly European cul­
ture. The very title of this series, "The Broken Mirror;
Changing Values in the Modern Age,'' may be thought
to hint, as darkly and as fragmentarily as only a broken
mirror may, at something of the sort. Moreover, it has
become a commonplace, since Alexis de Tocqueville pub­
lished his
Democracy in America, to point out that it is a
crisis in which America necessarily plays a pivotal role.
Our communal life, weighed down with fewer of the
resistant traditions of the old world and characterized by
the special dynamisms peculiar to the new world, stands
at the leading edge of the development of the world­
civilizational developments that have their origins in Eu­
ropean culture.
What I wish to reflect upon here is a central feature of
that crisis that is coming to a head in our part of the twen­
tieth century that I would like to call "shattering of the
natural order." What I have in mind by that phrase is
the shattering of nature as a given, fixed, sacred, nor­
mative context and structure for human life.
Taken in its broadest sense, the shattering of the natural
order as a norm of life had already begun in classical an­
tiquity but was interrupted by the barbarian invasions
only to begin again in the latter part of the middle ages
Edward A. Goerner is a professor of Government at Notre Dame Univer­
sity. He was Bill O'Grady's teacher. Remembering Bill O'Grady Profes­
sor Goerner writes, "I have the clear impression that the likes of him
are much rarer in our present environment than they were two decades
ago, making his memory blaze up like some life-saving bonfire on a
frozen shore."
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
and the early modern period in a somewhat modified
form. The fundamental intellectual or spiritual orienta­
tions that have shattered the order of nature as the norm
of life are not peculiar to our time. But what is special
to our time is the translation of those orientations, which
were once the property of a relatively restricted
philosophical and scientific elite, into revolutionary tech­
nological changes that are now transforming the lives and
thoughts of the mass of ordinary men and women.
Because so much of our twentieth-century replacement
of the world of nature by a technological artifact seems
so unprecedented, it is easy to misunderstand it for lack
of a proper context. I should like to begin with an attempt
to provide, in very rough brush strokes, a broad context
for my main thesis about the end of the natural order.
In the great cosmological empires of the ancient world
(Egypt of the pharaohs, the successive empires of
Mesopotamia, China, Japan) the amazing order of the
natural cosmos was seen and worshipped as divine in
such a way that the proper conduct of life consisted in
conforming one's individual life and especially the life
of society as a whole to the patterns established by that
cosmic order. Society as a whole could be understood as
a micro-cosmic replication of the great and divine cosmic,
that is to say natural, order. The main function of the
ruler, whether conceived of as a god in Egypt, as the Son
of Heaven in Japan, as holder of the mandate of Heaven
in China, or steward of the gods in Mesopotamia, was
simply to ensure that the earthly affairs of their societies
reproduced the ever repeated order of the cosmic
rhythms. These systems of thought and life were
astonishingly stable over long periods of time but all suc­
cumbed to a set of inner problems and devastating shocks
from the outside. The Chinese and Japanese empires only
49
began to break down the strains produced by western
intrusions beginning in the nineteenth century. But the
cosmological empires of Mesopotamia and north Africa
that were in contact with Europe, especially through
Greece, were under severe strain well before the birth
of Christ. In Egypt, where the order of nature was in­
credibly regular and favorable to an agricultural civiliza­
tion, and even the problem of death seemed to have been
successfully dealt with by the techniques of mummifica­
tion and the practices associated with the construction
of necropolises, the second intermediate period, during
which the tombs were widely plundered and destroyed,
left a deep anxiety in its wake. In Mesopotamia the in­
sertion of human society into the cosmic order was al­
ways problematic, as the evidence from the New Year's
festival shows, and the religion of the cosmic gods did
nothing to deal with the problem of death, as the Gil­
gamesh epic shows. The attempts at raclical religious re­
form by the Pharaoh Akhenaton and the departure from
the Egyptian fleshpots by the Israelites under Moses and
their subsequent rejection of Mesopotamian religious
forms are all signs of a crisis in fundamental beliefs about
the nature and relations of man, the world, and the
divine.
Among the ancient Greeks, never fully incorporated
into a wholly cosmological structure of thought or socie­
ty and open to the perplexities flowing from a growing
knowledge of the diversity of beliefs about the intra­
cosmic gods, the experience of the progressive weaken­
ing of the pagan mode of religious percepticm and prac­
tice led to a whole set of attempts within the educated
classes to find a new ground of order for life not in visi­
ble nature but in the intelligible order of the soul, a
process that generally took the name of philosophy. The
philosophic revolution among the educated was, with a
time lag, accompanied by a religious revolution among
the masses who converted to a transcendent God and
away from paganism, the religions of the natural forces,
necessarily polytheistic and varied according as, in differ­
ent places and contexts, nature manifested herself
differently.
On the political level, the conquests of Alexander the
Great brought an end to the great cosmological pagan em­
pires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, i.e. an end to astonish­
ingly powerful and long-lived attempts to erect world
orders envisaged as microcosmic replications of the natur­
al order of the cosmos. The Hellenistic conquests ended
a period of almost three thousand years during which the
principle of political order was the given order of the cos­
mos. They did so both by importing Greek philosophy
and the Greek sense of history and by shattering the
claims of the Great King and of the Pharaoh to be the
secure representative of the unchanging cosmic order.
50
In the flux produced by the overthrow of the cosmo­
logical empires, there was a long period of struggle in
which the ultimate form or frame of reference for the suc­
cessor empire, that of Rome, was at issue. A reactionary
current attempted to re-constitute the empire as a cos­
mological one, which one can symbolize by the title
sol
invictus, invincible sun, assumed by some emperors. A
philosophical current, which one can symbolize in the
Emperor Marcus Aurelius, envisaged an empire governed
by a kind of philosopher-king.
Finally, there was the current of transcendent religion
which, speaking very generally, took two main forms.
There were the world-denying forms of gnosticism such
as the Manicheism of which St. Augustine was an adept
before his conversion to Christianity. Here the visible,
bodily, natural world was taken as essentially evil, an
enormous snare and delusion. By contrast with, the in­
habitant of the classical cosmological empire for whom
the experience of the order of the cosmos was an ex­
perience of the sacred, of the divine powers that made
and governed the world, the manichee viewed the very
same natural phenomena as a trap set by the demonic
forces designed to keep human beings unaware of the
clivine spark hidden in their evil flesh, a divine spark
which ought to be liberated to escape the world and be
re-united with its radically other-worldly divine source.
Politically, that meant that one could have no loyalty to
the kingdoms and empires of the world, all of which were
evil and especially so insofar as they were organized and
functioned in terms of the symbols of the natural cosmic
order.
The other major form that the current of transcendent
religion took was that of orthodox Christianity which did
indeed affirm the transcendence of God, thereby
responding to the spiritual distress produced by the
progressive discovery in the ancient world that the cos­
mos was not itself divine, but also affirmed the goodness
of the world
in important ways. The material world is
good in its origins accorcling to the
logos doctrine of St.
John's gospel. Moreover, although the created world is
seen as marred by sin,
it is redeemable rather than some­
thing to be despised and escaped. This fundamental
goodness of the created, material world is expressed in
the doctrine of the incarnation, affirming that the divine
Word itself became flesh in Jesus, and in the doctrine of
the resurrection of the body, affirming that bodiliness it­
self is so good that it is capable of a transformation and
elevation suitable to being in a more direct relation to the
world-transcendent God.
This orthodox Christian account of the status and value
of the natural material world of which human beings are
an integral part was the one that eventually came to be
the accepted truth of the matter in the Roman Empire in
SPRING 1986
its dying days. Politically, it meant that the things of this
world, including political rule, had a sacredness insofar
as they reflected the creative mind and will of God from
whom the world came, including the world of human na­
ture and political order. At the same time, the emperor
and the order he maintained could no longer be thought
of as sacred in the full sense of being themselves simply
divine.
It is idle to speculate on the direction that developments
might have taken if left to themselves. They were inter­
rupted by the barbarian invasions which, by driving the
empire back to the level of hunting-gathering and primi­
tive agriculture, postponed the full working out of the
civilizational issues at the heart of the collapse in classi­
cal times of the religions of the forces of nature. In any
case, as the middle ages ended, the philosophic and scien­
tific revolutions of emerging modernity launched a still
more radical attack on the conception of nature as the
norm of human action. It is characteristic of modernity
that human artifice is clearly seen as a superior alterna­
tive to the chaos of nature.
In social terms, the famous
u state of nature" is
described as a chaotic conclition of war, according to
Hobbes, or as so unstable as not even to be constantly
a state of anything, war included, according to Locke and
Rousseau. On the level of the physical world, continen­
tal rationalists abandon all hope of discovering an order
given in and manifested by the material world, all of
whose phenomena are of doubtful interpretation; rather,
an intelligible order of the world is to be constructed
based on the single indubitable experience of the self. The
English empiricists also replace the given, natural chaos
by a world of artifice, but theirs is constructed on the ba­
sis of experimentally falsifiable hypotheses.
Well, at this stage of the argument someone must be
saying: if the civilizational crisis we are facing operates
on this scale, there doesn't seem to be any reason to think
it is coming to its denouement in the next few years in
America or even in the next century or so, nor does it
seem likely that Americans can form a very clear idea of
just where they fit in such a development that extends
over millennia. And so, finally, it is even less clear that
America can have any reasonably foreseeable and desired
impact, one way or another, on processes of such glacial
movement.
However, what is peculiar to our time and place is this:
the deep spiritual-intellectual re-orientations away from
nature and towards its replacement by a comprehensive
human artifice were once only the intellectual projects of
a small, scientific-philosophic elite. But now the techno­
logical manifestations of the modern project have begun
to revolutionize everyday life in ways that were, until
quite recently, scarcely imaginable. Moreover, the pace
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
of the technological revolution whereby nature is replaced
by artifice seems to be accelerating. The everyday per­
ceptions of the world by the great mass of our popula­
tion are changing rapidly in deep but dramatic ways, in
economics, agriculture, medicine, genetics, communica­
tions, politics, art. Many of those changes are in conflict
with the last social structures, including the family, that
were inherited from the natural world in terms of which
much of our traditional moral teaching was articulated.
Finally, those new perceptions of the world are in con­
flict with many of the perceptions through which many
men and women had come to experience God.
In fact, all of those areas are closely interrelated parts
of a comprehensive civilizational project at the leading
edge of which America now stands, scientifically, tech­
nologically, economically. That project is quite simply the
conquest of nature by human technology so that nature
and natural processes are replaced by an artificial human
construct and artificial processes.
At the deepest level, now for the first time widely shap­
ing mass public consciousness, the natural order of things
has come to be understood as nothing more than one par­
ticular and non-privileged arrangement at a particular mo­
ment in cosmic evolution. That order changes of its own
accord and, more to the point, at the particular stage at
which we now live, changes in every order of things tend,
more and more, to flow from human technological inter­
ventions which occur at an ever faster rate with ever
broader consequences. In other words, the transforma­
tory developments that have moved with a glacial slow­
ness over millennia are no longer proceeding at that pace
and we shall have to face the massive consequences of
changes begun long ago by others but just now coming
to a climax.
Let me descend from the level of abstractions to an ex­
ample from the more concrete structures of a particular
line of practice, agriculture, whose seemingly changeless
patterns over millennia established a rural or peasant cul­
ture much of the content of which, suitably baptized, con­
stituted a kind of bed-rock of human experience which
much Christian moral teaching took for granted. The
speed with which the foundations of that rural or peasant
culture have been destroyed in the western world is
amazing. When I was a boy, my family and I used to
spend the summers living in an unused barn that had
been fixed up to live in. Every one of the agricultural
processes which I saw and participated in on the adja­
cent farms and which were customarily seen as manifesta­
tions of God's bounty has been replaced by artificial and
industrialized processes. No longer does the bull mount
the cows. They are artificially inseminated or perhaps par­
ticipate in the genetic process solely by carrying to term
embryos of super-cows fertilized
in vitro. No chickens run
51
in the farmyard nor does any rooster crow to herald the
dawn and Peter's shame. They live out their short lives
in metal cages without ever putting a foot on the ground
or knowing when cock-crow comes since their coops are
lit by electric lights to lengthen their eating day so they
fatten up more quickly on their standardized and artifi­
cial diet with their beaks cut off in such a way that they
cannot work off their pent-up aggressions by pecking one
another to death.
That is all old hat. Everyone knows that the far greater
technological revolution in agriculture is just starting.
Hitherto inexistent species and varieties of plants and
animals will be created from one day to the next in genetic
engineering laboratories. The slow evolutionary success
of species and the much faster, but still very slow, process
of plant and animal breeding will be replaced by annual
model changes and, perhaps, by protein, fat, and fiber
grown directly in huge industrial versions of today' s test
tubes-without all of those low demand, low-profit side
products like heads and feet, lungs and bones.
Now I don't want to oversimplify things. The patterns
and rhythms of agriculture were not wholly natural by
any means. In that sense, only the wilderness or the
Garden of Eden was natural. That was recognized in cer­
tain ancient Mesopotamian myths. Man was said to have
been made to do the hard work of caring for growing
plants and animals in order to relieve the gods of this tire­
some work which they previously had had to do for
themselves before human agriculture and herding were
introduced. Nevertheless, the character of the agricultural
and herding economies was such that men only cooper­
ated with and helped along processes that were already
established by nature.
The industrial revolution took us much further from na­
ture much faster. But the great upheavals in the patterns
of life produced by the industrial revolution will, I think,
seem small by comparison with those that we are now
entering upon. The typical machines of the industrial
revolution were surely artificial enough, but they were
still close enough to nature and natural experiences that
one could see and feel how they worked, comparing them
to their obvious natural analogues. As a little boy I was
a great taker-apart of things. I remember taking apart a
little gasoline engine used for model airplanes. I could
see how it worked. And I could feel the compressive force
and the suction of the cylinder as it moved up and down.
And the same with the toy steam engine I took apart. I
could see and feel the power of the gases that drove those
engines when I made little bottle bombs by putting bak­
ing soda and vinegar in a corked bottle and watching the
cork blow off. And the first thing I took apart was, much
to my mother's irritation, a kitchen scale that I broke in
the process. But I could see how the gears worked and
52
I could feel the springiness of the steel spring and com­
pare it with the springiness of saplings I had bent and
let snap back. My son understands how microchips are
made and what they do. But he could never have found
that out by looking at or feeling them or taking them apart
and comparing them to natural things he knows.
I do not mention any of this with a view to celebrating
as an alternative the good-old peasant life of some by­
gone age but simply with a view to pointing out that the
same technological processes that we have used to trans­
form the lives of plants and animals in astounding ways
are now being introduced into the socio-biological proc­
esses of mankind. The modern technological project set
out to relieve man's estate, as Bacon put it, by way of
the scientifico-technical conquest of nature. What that
may turn out to mean has just begun to make itself fully
felt in the fact that the conquering army has, as was in­
evitable, turned around and begun to conquer that very
part of nature, ourselves, whence it set out. The chemi­
cal regulation of fertility, the relatively easy mechanical
interruption of pregnancy, i.e. artificial birth control and
abortion, are only hints of what is on the way. Every con­
ceivable relationship having to do with human reproduc­
tion is in the process of radical transformation. During
the summer of 1984 I followed a court case in France in
which a young widow [a Mme. Parpalaix] obtained a
court order, after considerable public and judicial debate,
granting her possession of the frozen sperm of her dead
husband by whom she wished to bear an orphan. That,
of course, is just a human version of a process common
for some time in animal husbandry. It is only the begin­
ning of a development in which the natural act of copu­
lation is being replaced for purposes of reproduction by
one or more processes now the subject of intensive work:
not only
in vitro fertilization but, eventually, in vitro gesta­
tion as a whole, ultimately of human beings whose genet­
ic make-up is itself structurally artificial. Moreover, the
modification of the genetic make-up of already living
animals and, therefore, of humans too seems to be ines­
capably on the way.
What leverage can traditional moral thinking, rooted
in the rightness of natural processes, have on such tech­
nological processes? What can the family, the nuclear
remnant of once-powerful bio-social structures, mean in
a context in which women conceive orphans by dead hus­
bands or, soon, when children are born or, rather, con­
structed or reconstructed by biological materials whose
origins cannot be localized as belonging to any particu­
lar historical persons? Will they be the children of
whatever person or corporation holds the patent on the
genetic process or of the licensee who used the technique
to produce them? and what does "children of" mean in
that context? Will not the production of new species in-
SPRING 1986
termediate between men and animals become possible
and, thus, sooner or later happen?
Such technological changes are obviously not isolated
but are rather part of the vast technological revolution
in which we are engaged so that we are both surround­
ed by and are ourselves becoming ever more artificial
products of man's conquest of nature, of every form and
every process that is simply given. Moreover, the desire
to acquire that power is so vast that we categorize the
parts of the world in accordance with the degree to which
they have acquired such powers, the degree to which
they are developed, developing or under-developed. The
desire for that power is so great that we harness ourselves
like slaves or draft animals to its realization. We submit
ourselves to all sorts of risks and hardships so as to keep
the revolutionary process of ever-expanding technologi­
cal power going.
For quite some time in the modern world major tech­
nological changes have produced major forms of social
disorganization. Those changes have occurred in quite
short periods of time as civilizational changes go. In most
of the technologically advanced countries a majority of
the population was driven from rural, agricultural life to
urban, industrial existence
in a matter of a generation or
two, sometimes by means of governmental force and ter­
ror as under Stalin, sometimes by the forces of the
capitalist market backed by the police. Those changes
seem to have been only the foretaste of a kind of epidemic
nomadism in which industry shifts from place to place
in response to technological changes in industrial process­
es as well as other causes producing an almost universal
deracination.
In the shift from rural to urban life there was room for
a large number of relatively unskilled laborers. The direc­
tion of present technological change, on the other hand,
seems to provide ever less room for productive life for
large numbers of people whose native or developed ca­
pacities do not fit them for participation in an economy
where unskilled or semi-skilled labor is in decreasing
demand.
An immediate consequence of such changes is perma­
nent structural unemployment for large numbers of peo­
ple who are unlikely, often for the rest of their lives, to
have any prospect of stable, respected, and decently paid
work, their capacities being as little in demand as steam
driven automobiles. In the longer run, it seems inevita­
ble that proposals will be made and funded for the de­
velopment of genetic techniques to produce future
generations with higher levels of intelligence but with
psychological properties of the sort that make for docile
subjects of intense technical schooling and productive ef­
fort, in short, a race of super-slaves. One can imagine a
high level of tension between such concerns for the col-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
lective demands of a high-tech economy and the demands
of individuals for genetic techniques allowing them to
satisfy their individual procreative fantasies, a demand
that already manifests itself in the work on techniques
to pre-determine the sex of one's offspring, not to speak
of demands to alter one's individual genetic makeup to
satisfy this or that personal fantasy.
In another direction, I think we must expect work on
the chemical codes of life, searching for ways to arrest
and perhaps even reverse the natural aging process.
Aside from the psychological problems that success in
that area would bring-think of what it would mean to
be Tiresias, even with a young body-the demographic
and social consequences of such techniques would be
staggering. Hone of the causes of the world's demograph­
ic explosion was the control of communicable diseases,
imagine what would occur if the process of aging toward
death were arrested! Would we have to control popula­
tion by stopping the production of children? Export the
surplus to outer space as modern Europe exported its sur­
plus to America? When the genetic engineers came out
with their new models of intelligent beings, would the
old models have the obligation to put themselves on the
human junk heap and die? That may seem like an alarm­
ist projection, but that is what, analogously, we are al­
ready doing in economic terms with unskilled laborers
or wrong-skilled laborers whose training or retraining is
not "cost-effective" and would, therefore slow down our
race to conquer nature.
And if the old models don't want just to go off some­
where and die, will the new models arm themselves for
a war to produce by force the now artificial evolutionary
succession of species or sub-species of intelligent beings?
That is what, analogously, we have already done in North
America and others are still doing in Latin America where
culturally, rather than genetically, obsolete hunter­
gatherers have been and are being largely exterminated
to make way for the new models.
I hope you will forgive my engaging in such depress­
ing science-fiction. Even if not exactly those problems,
then others not too different are likely to be thrust upon
us in our lifetimes. Problems and questions of this sort
are likely to come upon us in an increasing flood in the
next century. America is surely to be at the center of the
struggles such problems set off.
As things presently stand, I do not see any reason to
be especially hopeful that either America or the first and
second worlds as a whole will be any more successful in
dealing with them than we have been with the questions
of that sort that we have already had to face: modern
scientific medicine, which tended to produce population
explosions until countered by artificial contraception,
which has, in turn, been followed by striking demograph-
53
ic declines in the first and second worlds where it is wide­
ly practiced, and medically easy abortion, which has
contributed greatly to those same demographic declines
in many countries and, at least, makes us uneasy at the
possibility that we are accomplices in legalized murder.
The great majority of Americans have long abandoned
what was once a widespread moral rejection of contracep­
tion and they are shifting away on the matter of abortion
because, I think, they have posed the question in the in­
dividualistic language of rights as the universe of dis­
course within which the matter is to be discussed.
In all such cases what is involved is the use of an artifi­
cial mechanical or chemical technique to interrupt the
natural chain of events whereby another human life is
produced, continues on its trajectory, or is ended. The
interruption is produced because one or more persons
wish some of those events to take place without the
others. The way in which "natural" and "unnatural"
was taken as a standard in moral thinking, and still is in
much official Catholic moral teaching on such matters,
was to think of each discrete natural chain (e.g., copula­
tion, fertilization, maturation of the foetus, and birth) as
normative. But at the center of the modern technological
conception of reality is the denial that any particular
causal chain is normative and that for two reasons: first,
any causal chain can, in principle, be altered by human
intervention and, second, since our scientific conception
of nature excludes any idea of a perfect end state for the
whole, our power to alter causal chains can only be direct­
ed by individual desire or value judgment. That is to state
the matter objectively.
To state the matter subjectively: what drives our present
civilizational project in its peculiar features is the lust for
a liberating power that frees man from every given, natrrr­
al causal chain. It is liberating in that it enables man to
stop or redirect every natural sequence and thus to
replace what had hitherto seemed to be natural, i.e.
necessary and inevitable and, thus, supra-human, pat­
terns of events by an infinity of other patterns that bet­
ter suit our pleasure. My reason for focussing so much
on the bio-genetic side of our technological revolution was
to make clear that mankind itself, as a fixed biological spe­
cies, becomes a target for this drive for liberating power.
In this context, man, as individual and as social being and
as a being reflexively shaped in part by an environment
he himself increasingly produces, has as a defining na­
ture only the paradoxical power to change nature, includ­
ing his own nature. In this sense, his definition is his
power to change his definition.
Analytically, one may distinguish two main forms in
which that lust for liberating power over nature manifests
itself. At the center of the process, power over and free­
dom from the limits of the natural order is most fully ex-
54
perienced by the scientifico-technical creators of the new
cosmic artifice. The full experience of creative self­
assertion is evidently limited to a relatively small num­
ber of researchers and technological entrepreneurs who
participate directly in the production of wholly new
processes and species. At the other pole, where mass par­
ticipation in the process is possible even for those with
no scientific or technical comprehension of the process­
es they command, there are the consumers of the mass­
produced products of the technological revolution who
use "wonder drugs," electronic, mechanical, and biolog­
ical "miracles" by the dozen, talk to one another via sig­
nals bounced off man-made moons, have children by
dead husbands, feel the beat of artificial hearts, excrete
with the aid of artificial kidneys, after having consumed
milk-shakes made without milk and frozen cheese piz­
zas made without cheese.
Obviously, many people fall somewhere in between.
However, much of the struggle about modern forms of
social organization, I mean about capitalism and social­
ism, can be understood in terms of the difference in em­
phasis given to one or the other of those sides of the lust
for self-divinization through technological power.
All the societies derived from more or less orthodox
Marxism focus on the fact that the technological processes
whereby man becomes creator of the world out of natur­
al chaos are collective processes and they tend to favor
systematically human collective self-deification in the
process of creating a world in the productive process.
Capitalist socio-economic organization is also, of course,
designed to structure collective production processes.
Nevertheless, the teleological emphasis is not so much
on the collective production of the new world as an end
in itself but rather on the creation of an infinity of pri­
vate worlds constituted by the choices of particular com­
binations of products and services to realize one's
personal paradise, which choices shape the mix of the
production process. Evidently, that simple picture needs
to be made somewhat more complex given the fact that
the makers and sellers of products can enhance their abil­
ity to construct each his own private paradise in the meas­
ure that he can manipulate the choices of others toward
those products from which he profits.
At this level of analysis, the individualism of the
capitalistic versions of the technological revolution is es­
pecially visible, as Marxists do not tire to point out. But,
at a deeper level, those social organizations that empha­
size the collective production rather than the private con­
sumption side of the process are quite as individualistic
although this is not often noted.
Given that the drive for technological power is the drive
to free man from the order of natural patterns and allow
him freely to substitute patterns of his own choosing, the
SPRING 1986
choice of the particular forms that the production process
will take is a free choice or, rather, a free positing of one
set of forms for the world rather than other: free and,
thus, arbitrary. Those who, in socialist economies, con­
trol the productive process are those whose dreams of
world-creating power are actualized. Something like that
is true of the masters of capitalist firms but there is this
difference: the capitalists are constrained by the need to
flatter and serve the private worlds represented by the
choices on the free consumer market. Those constraints
are much less stringent on the state capitalists, i.e. the
rulers of socialist societies. Moreover, private capitalists
can sometimes be checked by the semi-independent
power of the state to influence the rate of investment, the
rate and distribution of consumption, and even the pro­
duction or character of specific products.
Well then, I seem to have described a dead end. On
the one hand, our modern experience of power to modi­
fy nature in seemingly limitless ways, including our own
biological nature simply excludes the possibility of claim­
ing sacred, divinely sanctioned rightness to the patterns
and sequences of nature given before we knew our pow­
er. There is no going back to Egypt, no going back to the
remnants of a cosmological form of civilization from
which the children of the Hebrews fled under Moses. In
Moses' time going back could be a serious temptation.
Today it can only be a frivolous and romantic self­
delusion, perfectly possible for isolated individuals and
groups who choose, as ancient men and women could
not choose, to live wholly within the rhythms of the
given. Such a course is simply impossible for modern so­
cieties as a whole.
On the other hand, the far more dangerous temptation
is to worship ourselves, more specifically our will to
power, as the immanent and radically self-liberated cre­
ators of the world. Both Hobbes, the remote forefather
of liberal capitalist society, and Marx, the father of socialist
state capitalism, clearly understood their projects as forms
of collective self-deification. Every aspect of human exis­
tence is to be reduced to or harnessed to the unlimited
extension of human power. In each case the driving force
is the illusion of a kind of Dionysiac frenzy of self­
transcendence whereby one hopes to acquire the tech­
nological power to satisfy the deepest desire of one's in­
dividual or collective heart of hearts.
The illusion is that there is yet another level of perfect
consumer satiation or of the glorious victory of socialist
labor just around the corner and requiring just one more
great struggle, either to liberate finally the divinely
productive capacities of infinitely inventive avarice by
"getting the government off our backs" or to liberate the
collective rationality of the productive process by stamp­
ing out the last remnants of bourgeois individualism. In
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
either case, the illusion of a sacred, yes, divine achieve­
ment before which all other considerations pale is what
justifies driving masses of people, whether with guns and
police terrorism or with unemployment and bankruptcy
proceedings and hunger to Siberia or the Sun Belt as, at
earlier stages, we drove and were driven from the farms
and cotton fields to the factories of Moscow and Detroit.
That illusion justifies dumping on the human junk-piles
of history those human beings whose forms of life are
obsolete: kulaks, or unskilled labor, or primitive hunter­
gatherers, as time and situation may have
it.
The irony of our awesome technological power over na­
ture is that we too are objects in nature. We are in the
process of coming to a power to change nature to suit
ourselves. But, that same power is a power to change our­
selves to suit ourselves. But, what are we ourselves and
what will suit ourselves, if we can change ourselves?
The question before us in the face of this situation in
which we find ourselves is whether there is a middle way
between the extremes of a romantic back-to-naturism and
a mad rush to the shapeless hubris of unlimited techno­
logical self-assertion; we have already had to look at that
problem in the external sphere of ecology where we have
been frightened by the prospects of our power to create
synthetic chemical substances that can poison all of us
or by the prospects of nuclear accidents and nuclear war,
but the problem is turning inward as our bio-genetic
power grows. The question is whether there is a middle
way both on the level of theoretical reflection on the ex­
perience of life as it is revealed in the light of our power
to transform every natural sequence and on the level of
the density of the individual and social practice of life.
Such a middle way, if we find one, would have had
to abandon for good the old and comforting but false be­
lief in an essentially fixed, changeless creation whose di­
vinely established patterns have only to be endlessly
repeated in order to attain contact with the divine source
of "the eternal return," to use Eliade's term.
Such a middle way, if we find one, would also have
had to abandon the powerfully intoxicating, demonic il­
lusion of the decisive technological "breakthrough," to
use a term current in the West, or of the revolutionary
technological "parausia" to use a traditional theological
term to refer to Marx's dynamic and technological ver­
sion of religion as human self-projection. To put it that
way is not really fair. The first question is whether such
hopes are really illusory hopes? and why? I will not pre­
tend to answer such questions. But I will venture some
guesses on the directions that reflection might profitably
take by way of a start.
I think we need to return to the origins of classical
Greek philosophy and the ways in which it attempted
to deal with the beginning breakdown of pagan, that is
55
intra-cosmic natural, religion. I don't mean to propose
some simplistic return to ancient Greek philosophy as a
sort of new dogma. But, I think we may still be able to
learn something from the clialectic, Socratic and ironic
via negativa that searched for a new ground of order in
a cosmos whence the Olympian gods had fled. The Athe­
nian fundamentalists and other know-nothings who
charged Socrates with atheism were surely wrong but
they weren't altogether off the track. Ancient philosophy
was engaged in a search for a principle of order that tran­
scended visible nature and its sequences, which had been
the object of pagan religious awe and worship. Ap­
proached in this context, I suspect that Socratic irony still
has something to teach us.
Ancient philosophy, which included the sorts of stuclies
that we now call science, may also have this other in­
teresting feature about the way in which it dealt with the
technological consequences of scientific knowledge.
It
may well have consciously taken a path away from the
technological exploitation of the considerable range of
scientific cliscovery it had achieved. For example, the an­
cients knew perfectly well about steam power and actu­
ally built experimental devices to transform the thermal
power of steam into mechanical power but seem to have
scorned and/or feared the consequences for non­
philosophic society of turning such devices to what Bacon
called "the relief of man's estate."
Secondly, it seems to me that we need to reflect on and
work out the ethical and technological implications of
such limit perceptions as are represented by Godel's
theorem. To what extent is it necessarily the case that ev­
ery increase in clarification, precision, technical control
in one respect is purchased at the price of obscurity,
imprecision, loss of control in another just because the
character of our scientific noetic processes is, ironically,
not that of holistic but rather of inevitably partial
knowledge? Such reflection naturally leads to a more
56
general consideration of limitedness; on the ethical level
that would translate into a reconsideration of the truth
of Greek philosophic irony and of the literature of trage­
dy, essentially matters of limitedness. This is, it seems
to me, especially important for those of us who are Chris­
tians and who may too easily tend to overlook the truths
of philosophic irony and of the literature of tragedy be­
cause of faith in an ultimate divine comedy consisting in
an order that transcends the worlds of both nature and
artifice and that includes divine forgiveness and love.
Positively, it seems to me, we need to ask what a defen­
sible conception of holistic thought might look like given
that it can not be identified with any simply static con­
ception of the great chain of being. Given that the
universe does not seem to be such a static chain of be­
ing, a conception which gave ontological plausibility to
certain kinds of natural law ethics for example, the ques­
tion is whether there is another and better mode of holis­
tic thinking capable of ethically and aesthetically guiding
and fanning our technological powers now aimlessly and
formlessly growing like some sort of societal cancer.
Theologically, that will require a deep re-articulation of
the meaning of the passages in
Genesis in which Adam
and Eve are given precedence and dominion over other
creatures, grants that, strangely, are both easily interpret­
ed in terms of our present sense of power and that have
often enough been used as justifications of a kind of limit­
less right to exploitation for the satisfaction of any hu­
man desire, however trivial, so that man becomes the
bully of the world. Theologically, the question for us now,
with all of our exploding technological power, is what
can it mean to use that power as would a being made
in the image of God? I think that, after Auschwitz, Gulag,
and Hiroshima, we may have an inkling of our ability to
act in ways that suggest something other than the image
of God.
SPRING 1986
Through Phantasia to Philosophy
Review with Reminiscences
Eva Brann
I
The Unending Story by Michael Ende is both literally and
in several other ways the most wonderful book I've read
in ages. I think it will be easily received into the canon­
hitherto almost exclusively English-of great "children's
literature" along with the likes of
Wind in the Willows and
the
Alices. (Die Unendliche Geschichte, Thienemanns Ver­
lag, Stuttgart 1979. In English:
The Neverending Story,
Doubleday 1983, illustrated; G.K. Hall1984, large print;
Penguin 1984, paperback.)
But first a puzzlement, expressed in the raised eyebrow
quotes above. What exactly makes "children's literature"
children's literature?
Criteria close at hand are: who it is
for or by or about
(and assorted other prepositionally expressible relations).
Perhaps, first of all, children's books are those
written for
children. However, one famous such book (I forget
which) is dedicated to "children of all ages," which rather
ruins the category. What is more, at least one pair of very
famous ostensible children's books, the
Alice books, is
notoriously detested in childhood by the same people
who later love them as children's books, myself included.
For one thing, I despised the simp of an author who
seemed seriously to believe that sweet (albeit perky) in­
nocence was an essential attribute of little girls when I,
an expert, knew that they constitute a considerable part
Eva Brann is a tutor at St. John's college, Annapolis. The central im­
portance of stories to human life was a constant theme of Bill O'Gra­
dy's thinking. Both the form and the content of this article would have
made him glad.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
of society's criminal element. And for another, I was
repelled by what I could sense, though not pinpoint, as
a hidden agenda. For the
Alice books, being among other
things
romans a clef, require a key, and an unpossessed
key is just alienating, in distinction from unplumbable
depths, which feel mysteriously homey. Furthermore,
whomever they might be written for, children's books
are, willy-nilly, largely
read by co-opted adults who would
surely go crazy reading them to children if they didn't
develop their own sneaking attachment to them, as they
certainly do. Just try shouting "Dr. Seuss" in the right
adult company and back will come a chorus: "I do not
like green eggs and ham! I do not like them, Sam-l-am."
(Incidentally, I've often wondered in how many children
"Dr. Seuss,"
by one of those homonymic misassociations
that enrich infantile imaginative life, fosters friendly feel­
ings toward the Greek "father of gods and men.")
Nor are children's tales exclusively
written by adults.
Besides the endless oral fabrications with which children
regale their peers (or at least used to), they also occasion­
ally indite quite fancy and elaborate stories. By and large
these productions are a lost corpus, of course, but there
are Austen and Bronte juvenalia, C.S. Lewis in
Surprised
by Joy
records in some detail the modes and motifs of his
childhood works, and I can even cite one extant, purport­
edly genuine, child-written classic: Daisy Ashford's nine­
year-old summary judgment of the Victorian world,
The
Young Visitors
("To tell you the truth my Lord," says her
socially shaky hero, Mr. Salteena, "I am not anyone of
import and I am not a gentleman as they say he ended
getting very red and hot.")
No more is
being about children a sufficient test, since,
although, as far as I know, children's books always have
57
some children as heroes or assistant heroes, so do some
eminently adult books, for instance the pitiful and spooky
brother and sister pair which is in unholy cahoots with
a corrupt ghost in James' Turn of the Screw, and the
juvenile perpetrators of all manner of un-innocent mis­
chief in a good many Saki stories.
Nor are there topics and tones which are peculiarly
suitable or unsuitable for children. Take supposed chil­
dren's modes like fantasy, fairy tales and magic, and there
will be plenty of authors who can do that for grown-ups
(somewhat heavy on the Irish, to be sure). W.B. Yeats,
W.H. Hudson, H. Rider Haggard, James Stephens,
George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Walter de Ia Mare,
Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien come helter-skelter to
mind. Take, on the other hand, a topic to which it might
be thought to be hard to recruit children: political
philosophy, and I can name a children's book which I
recognize in retrospect as a childhood propaedeutic to the
study of Plato's
Republic; it is Hugh Lofting's Voyages of
Doctor Dolittle
in which the island Indians of Popsipetel
force the Doctor to become their king, acclaiming Doctor
John Dolittle as King Jong Thinkalot. "As for the poor
Doctor, I never saw him so upset by anything. It was,
in fact, the only time I have known him to get thorough­
ly fussed," says Stubbins, the Doctor's ten-year-old as­
sistant and companion (compare
Republic 347 and 520).
In the morning the unwilling, but duty-bound
philosopher king dispenses justice and in the afternoon
he teaches school. "I have often thought," Stubbins ob­
serves, "that Popsipetel under the reign of Jong Thinkalot
was perhaps the best-ruled state in the history of the
world." If asked nicely I might produce an article on the
parallelism between the Popsipetelian and the Platonic
paradigms, plus a comparison of Socrates and the Doctor.
The one tone which was thought, at least until recent­
ly, to be entirely taboo in children's books, because chil­
dren both
shouldn't and couldn't be made to respond to
it, was that of erotic passion. Now, Freud aside, the lat­
ter is surely false: In high-strung times especially, chil­
dren are quite capable of sudden accesses of full-blown
desire. Such an episode is described in Thomas Mann's
Depression story, "Disorder and Early Sorrow," to the
uncanny accuracy of which I can bear personal witness.
As for the sense that children shouldn't be subjected
to explicitly erotic descriptions, some adults think that
they shouldn't be either. On the other hand there are
plenty of children's books that have a strong undertow
of implicit passion, and quintessential passion too, the
kind that possesses and tyrannizes and even destroys­
such, for example, as surfaces in the self-surrender of the
lovable little clairvoyant boy, Charles Wallace, to the
seduction of "It" in Madeleine L'Engle' s
A Wrinkle in
Time.
58
Nor does security and gentleness, in the manner of Mis­
ter Rogers' relaxation exercises, universally obtain in chil­
dren's books. The Hauff fairy tales, which generations
of German children grew up on, were smug and cruel
at once with a kind of philistine sadism, and the chil­
dren's poem which was the gaudium of the nursery, Wil­
helm Busch's "Max and Moritz," ended with the two bad
boys being ground through the flour mill, their particles
promptly forming two loaves shaped in the images of
those holy terrors. This literature may have something
to answer for, but that's very much an undecided ques­
tion in child psychology. Still, I do know that a modi­
cum of suffering is the spice of a tale and that when I was
little I always specified to my father that my goodnight
story should be "very sad," by which, I understand in
retrospect, I meant that it should be as excruciating as
possible right up to ''and they lived happily ever after.''
(German tales end, incidentally, with "and if they
haven't died before then on this day they're living" -not
exactly sweetness and light either.) These unholy joys
were encouraged in later childhood, in latency as they
used to say, by the wildly popular adventure novels of
Karl May, fat, satisfying green and gold tomes of Inclian
adventure, homoerotic sadism and missionary zeal. (The
latter by-passed me, but completely, in my German­
Jewish childhood-the white scout's noble Inclian inti­
mate Winnetou-mine too, for a year or so-converts on
his death bed, and I never knew it until a recent re­
reading: Karl May is now available in this country in
translation.) And then came comic books, the American
outlet for these tastes-two years of alternating greed and
surfeit which started in my third week or so in this coun­
try behind a vent on the roof of the YMHA of Boro Park,
Brooklyn. Consequently the first English word whose
meaning I ever consciously sought and savored was
''sinister.''
Comic books are, of course, read by adults as much as
by children, with naive absorption as by soldiers strand­
ed in barracks and with nostalgic sophistication as by stu­
dent connoisseurs in dorms. There are even upper class
imported comics, the
Tintin series. In fact the earliest
comics I know of, proto-comics really, the running carica­
tures of the aforementioned Wilhelm Busch (Victorian,
in English periodization), are really meant for adults. The
point this is ambling towards
is that being in pictures isn't
confined to children's books either-though I've never
seen adult picture books as telling and discovery-rife as,
say, Mitsumasa Anno's
Anno's Journey.
Finally, trying to find some ideal characteristic of chil­
dren's literature, Clifton Fadiman ("The Child as Read­
er,"
Great Books Today, 1983) comes up with this: It
supplies children with a sense of freedom enjoyed in
security. True enough, but so does adult escape litera-
SPRING 1986
lure. And, come to think of it, what novel-reading isn't
escape-from the mundane to an enhanced world?
The long and the short of it seems to be that no set of
criteria infallibly picks out "children's literature." One
is thrown back on a purely extrinsic determination-who
it's
meant for-and that's easily subverted. Let but a well­
disposed grown-up read a good children's book and­
presto!-it's adult literature, wrong addressee notwith­
standing.
But that leads to a much deeper and trickier question:
Do children
read their books differently from the way an
adult reads them? It doesn't take much logical acumen
to see that the answer is going to be bedeviled by a Cre­
tan Liar type paradox: Those who argue for the other­
ness of childhood can't claim to have much inside
knowledge. That ought to be a stumbling block both to
"child's world" romantics and to epistemological geneti­
cists. For suppose that children's cognitive abilities do de­
velop in stages that can neither be anticipated nor
reversed, then each new stage effects a radical transfor­
mation in consciousness, which the fully developed adult
(as exemplified in the experimenting scientist himself) can
perhaps conceptually reconstruct but never empatheti­
cally recover. (As it happens, it does turn out that cer­
tain Piagetan experiments, when replicated under
somewhat more empathetic conditions, come up show­
ing children to have more cognitive capability at an earlier
time than the geneticist staging predicts. In fact, I keep
wondering if a case couldn't be made for Piaget having
shown that children are just natural Aristotelians: They
apprehend motion as prior to time, they consider move­
ments to be governed by their goals, they conceive place
rather than coordinate space, and, in short, their cogni­
tive ontology recapitulates the historical phylogeny of
physics-a shift in perspective rather than in capability.)
One fall-out from the strict developmental view of chil­
dren is the notion of "reading readiness." And yet un­
ready reading provides the windfall joys of a child's life.
I recall getting into one of my father's medical reference
books
(streng verboten!), section: tropical diseases, and
thrilling to the illicit attractions, depicted in glorious tech­
nicolor, of some burgeoning cases of elephantiasis. And
that was quite a while before I was ready to decipher the
text. (I was slow to learn to read, probably because I spent
the first grade, God knows why, at Volksschule No. 4,
homeroom teacher Fraeulein Pfefferkorn, a young func­
tionary of the BDM, the Nazi girls' league, and our primer
was all about an avuncular Fuehrer and a certain little
brown Heinz who got to give him a pretty posy at a
parade.)
On some Sunday mornings, ready or not, my father
would break open a huge volume of the encyclopedia
(Der
Grosse Brockhaus)
and read to me. My preferred course
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
was to set out from the coolly scientific heading
"Vulkan," tracking references to doom-preparing
"Vesuv," landing finally in panicky "Pompeii," where
a black cloud of sulphur fumes and pumice hail is prepar­
ing
the great romance of archaeology. Incidentally, when
a decade or so later I discovered Bulwer-Lytton's classical­
kitsch classic
The Last Days of Pompeii, it was sheer reminis­
cent magic, including a persistent illusion that that
slender-columned Campanian villa idyll came to an end
on a Sunday morning in a villa in Berlin-Dahlem. (Actu­
ally I have no idea what day of the week dawned, a si­
lent blue scorcher-the birds had ceased to sing-on
August 4, 79 A.D. The Berlin villa, having been legally
stolen by an 55 family, was destroyed in an Allied air
raid probably as late as 1944.) Seven years more, and I
was a declared classical archaeologist (though Greek
rather than Roman, my taste having grown very pure in
the meanwhile). Which goes to show how long-lived and
far-working are such out-of-turn childhood experiences.
And it isn't only grownup wonders that children take to;
perfectly mundane texts will also serve. I recall that just
after I learned to read I acquired an avidity for the ''Direc­
tions for Use" on boxes, bottles and cans. That taste too
has stuck: I have a little collection of direction delights,
among them the instruction booklet from an abacus
(1947), touted as "the pet calculator of japan," "Which
Brings Comfort and Convenience on Your Life."
The relation of childhood to adult reading has of course
got a history. Louis XIII of France was born in 1601. As
a little boy the Dauphin was told goodnight stories, for
instance of Melusine, the tutelary fair of the house of Lu­
signan, who turned into a half-serpent on Saturdays. just
the same tale was told among adults at evening gather­
ings (Philippe Aries,
Centuries of Childhood). In the course
of the seventeenth century, adults turned increasingly to
more sophisticated entertainments:
11Children's stories"
are originally abandoned adult tales. Generalizing wild­
ly, I have an inkling that modern views on the distinc­
tiveness of childhood have less to do with "the discovery
of the child" than with the construction of new ideas of
maturity-and of adult diversion, for instance that it fails
to divert unless it reveals the true existential horror at the
heart of things.
One test for continuity of consciousness is to read to
yourself a book that was read to you when you were very
little. I have tried it. There is a German nursery book,
still in print and going strong in Germany, called
Little
Peter's Moon Trip.
It concerns a cowardly cockchafer (of
the melodious species
Melolontha melolontha, I've lately
learned) whose hereditarily missing sixth leg must be
recovered from the brute of a man-in-the-moon who
keeps it hanging from a nail driven into a birch branch
(broken from the birch in our garden, which I loved equal-
59
ly for its waving white and green grace and because it
offered illicit bark-pulling, the most satisfying dismem­
berment there is). It has been over half a century, but the
very cover wafted me back into that bourgeois nursery
midsummer night's dream (actually May, cockchafer
time), with its character-crowded cosmos, its heavenly
highway for secret excursions. But it also came back to
me that at four I had been half-repelled by the book, and
now I know explicitly what I then knew implicitly, namely
why: only unexceptionably good children were candi­
dates for the moon mission, there was lots of piety in the
sky, and all the goodies were blond-which left me out
on all counts; besides the pictures were too
broadstroked-you couldn't walk into them and discover
details, and there was no wit at all.
On the other hand, Doctor Dolittle, who came into my
life at about six, had from the first and still has my whole­
hearted allegiance, because I sensed then what I recog­
nize now: that the books are an introduction to human
excellence. It was to my moral advantage, I think, that
for several years I
was Tommy Stubbins and the Doctor
was my own father got up in cutaway and top hat: the
kindly physician who can't remember to collect his bills
but can call on all the animals for help in their own lan­
guage, the unfussed explorer who simply sails out of
Puddleby-on-the-Marsh on a borrowed boat, who in a
shipwreck secures first Stubbins but right after his be­
loved notebooks, the muddling master of the jury-rig
who, in the words of the parrot Polynesia, the senior
animal in his menagerie, always
u gets there," the com­
fortable homey round gentleman whose rare righteous
wrath shakes the earth, the world's most learned
naturalist who never stands on his dignity and never loses
it-a just and a wise, and in the opinion of his intimates
(and in mine), a great man.
Antipathies and allegiances that survive so long un­
changed surely do betoken a continuity of consciousness.
In fact, judging from personal experience, the only stage
to which childhood is really alien is adolescence. Quasi­
adulthood is a time of such hot subjectivity, such exces­
sively large and excessively particular passions that it
devalues just those objective delights adults and children
have in common.
Children's writers (except for a few who don't write
but construct their books to satisfy a market, or what is
worse, a theory) naturally work on the same-world
hypothesis; indeed the highest praise they can hope for
is that which Hugh Walpole gives the author of
Doctor
Dolittle:
"Mr. Lofting believes in his story quite as much
as he expects us to." If they do preach or pull their
punches or wax sentimental it is because they have for
a moment lost that inward mirror-vision by which a
grown-up sees the child within observing the grown-up
60
without. Meanwhile, just by condescending, they ac­
knowledge at least the commensurability of the worlds
of children and adults.
The matter is worth dwelling on because it looks like
a peculiarly accessible case of a set of problems, or rather
of related impossibilities, that preoccupy contemporary
philosophers: the impossibility of radical translation,
translation utterly from scratch, of our language into
another, the impossibility of entering empathetically into
an alien or ancient culture, the impossibility of recover­
ing the terms of a theoretical frame of reference after it
has undergone a shift-and ultimately, the opacity of in­
dividual human beings to each other.
The relation of child to adult might seem to epitomize
all four "incommensurabilities." But there is the mitigat­
ing circumstance that while none of us can, in principle,
have been members of a tribe that said "gavagai" while
looking where we see a rabbit, or have seen the planets
revolve about us as a Ptolemaic geocentrist, or have lived
as "archaic" Greeks (situations considered by authors like
Quine, Kuhn and Feyerabend), some of us, at least
have
been children. I for one would, to be sure, wish to claim
something more: When I was little I said "Hase" where
I now say "rabbit" and I feel somehow confident that
then and now I mean the same by both vocables: some
such creature as the immortal Hazel of
Watership Down.
Somewhat later I spent four years studying intensely
enough to see dance in my dreams just those pots and
pans on which said "archaic" Greeks depicted them­
selves in looming black shadows and which archeologists
call ''Geometric'': and though they never lost their mys­
tery for me (and I certainly couldn't do with the bizarre
conceptual analyses so thoughtfully provided by propo­
nents of the radical difference of the archaic mind) the
satisfying way in which the glossy brown-black line or­
nament lay on the pot and the simple telling grandeur
of the funeral scenes got to me. I knew that those pot­
painters knew what they were doing and that, but for
the least substantial of obstacles, the twenty-eight
hundred or so years between us, I would know it too.
Minimally, at the time those Attic silhouettes felt closer
than the non-objects of contemporary painting. And fi­
nally, living, like the rest of us, in a manifestly ptolemaic
world, ignorant of all astronomy, and happening to study
Ptolemy's
Almagest some time before Copernicus' Revo­
lutions,
I couldn't help but see the world ptolemaically,
or so I thought. Or, looking at it from the flip side, why
dwell on the inaccessibility of former centuries and other
cultures when one's own time can be completely uncanny
and one's intimates can be as the aliens from outer space?
But even suppose that my sense of secular solidarity
is mere self-delusion, there is still that one case of cross­
ing into another world which is not hopeless. I was never
SPRING 1986
a Greek (I guess), but I, my personally identical I, was
once, extensively and devotedly, a child, and it seems
to me that in figuring out how one's childhood frame of
mind is recovered one might also learn how other places
and other times become accessible. Do we have a faculty
for this project?
Of course we do: memory for the recovery of our
former self and imagination for entering into other
worlds. These faculties (parenthetically: faculty psychol­
ogy is back, see Jerry Fodor, Modularity of Mind) display
a certain persistence and a certain evanescence, having
to do, I suppose, with the character of their objects, which
are not presentations but re-presentations, that is, not
solid things that are there, but the see-through shades
of their absent selves.
Now what I want to say about the road to recovery
naturally concerns only full-blown childhood and doesn't
reach into pre-linguistic babyhood. (Memory
of and in in­
fancy is a particularly fascinating but difficult chapter in
cognitive developmental psychology.) Furthermore, since
I'm thinking not about the daily coping of childhood but
about its imaginative life, especially with respect to books,
I'm not talking of adult memories of childhood existence,
but rather of that remembrance of things past which is
essentially
memory of memories. What I mean is that as soon
as a new book has been taken in it becomes part of the
imaginative memory, there to begin its episodic afterlife,
perhaps in the case of a goodnight story even in that very
night's dream. (Incidentally, this kind of remembrance
is pretty recalcitrant to investigation-glory be!-and for
all the enormous amount of work done on memory re­
cently, I haven't found much on it.)
In remembering one does, to be sure, sometimes come
on oneself reading. (A vivid memory: reading my first
self-read book,
Robinson Crusoe-recommended to the par­
ents of Europe, as I later delighteclly discovered, as the
one and only book fit to be a child's first by Rousseau
himself in
Emile. While securing my island in imagina­
tion, I simultaneously worked away at poking a hole in
the plaster wall of the nursery, intended in time to be an
escape route from the enforced after-mid-day-dinner rest
hour. Hole discovered on brother's information. Scene
and plaster job. Tremendous revenge on little beast.) But
mostly the images we remember were already memory­
images in childhood-and therein lies the recovery: we
return through the imagination to the imagination, a her­
metically sealed, secure depository.
Not really, someone might argue. Over time and
growth the kaleidoscope of the mind has shifted out of
all recognition and its image bits have entered new and
transforming contexts. Well, I want to propose a figure
which illustrates at least how it
feels to live in both worlds.
In 1832, Necker, a student of perception, drew atten-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
lion to a phenomenon which is now all over the litera­
ture. "Necker's Cube" is simply a perspective outline
drawing of a solid. When observed, it flips, willy-nilly
so that the front corner is suddenly, without transition,
in back. It is impossible to see both positions at once,
nearly impossible to fixate one position for long, very
hard for those used to perspective drawing to see it as
a flat picture. The so-called "perceptual paradox" as­
sociated with the figure is just this: that we cannot help
seeing reversing cubes when the single stimulus itself is
in fact a plane design.
The "interpretative paradox" is analogous. There is a
common "flat" stimulus, the text itself, taken as mere
material for make-believe. Children are, of course, fully
aware that they can, with an effort, deflate the book, that
there is a safety exit into plane prose. (I remember being
at a play about an enchanted forest with Tony, a friend
of mine, then four, who at the eeriest part whispered to
me apotropaically: "You know, it isn't real.") But the
spontaneous position is to read the text perspectivally,
as a world with depth. And in that reading different cor­
ners come to the fore, unbidden and irrepressible, cor­
responding to the preoccupations of then and of now.
Imagination-memory, I would say, is the capability for
perspectival reversals, and so the faith is: unless the road
is blocked by trauma, childhood is accessible, as are all
other human terrains.*
II
That faith is reinforced by The Neverending Story, the
Baedeker into imagination-land, the imperial realm of
Phantasia (no, repeat, no, relation to the Disney ex­
travaganza), which is certainly a children's book by all
available criteria, and a hugely popular one. There has,
it appears, even been a movie.
To begin with, Ende's
Neverending Story, subtitled
"from A to Z," is beautifully made. (Incidentally, it
abounds in puns like that on Ende's name, repeated from
his other wonderful book,
Morna, and in paradoxes like
the one expressed in the subtitle, providing young and
old with the joys of catching on.) Each page is headed
by a nice garland; each chapter begins with a full page
illumination of its proper letter (by Roswitha Quadflieg).
Best of all, the book is printed in two colors. For this is
*The day after I finished this jeu d'esprit I carne on a multiply
serendipitous reference-Clifford Geertz in "Found in Trans­
lation: On the Social History of the Moral Imagination," citing
Lionel Trilling, who in his last essay (on the ever-piquant theme
of reading Jane Austen with American students) calls this ''one
of the significant mysteries of man's life in culture: how it is
that other people's creations can be so utterly their own and
so deeply part of us."
61
a tale of a passage into Phantasia, first reluctant and rever­
sible and then deep to the point of no return. The print
is red for the waking and working world
(Mundus mun­
danus
in my private cosmography) for Stop! Danger!
Wake up!, I suppose, and it turns spring-green for Phan­
tasia. Green-skinned too, is the slim, severe, noble lad
Atreju of the Indian tribe of the Purple Buffalo, Bastian's
Phantasian friend and finally his savior. Bastian Balthas­
sar Bux, the "hero of passage," is a fat, serious and lonely
little boy, gourmet of apple strudel and spinner of tales,
flabby in body and sturdy in soul.
For content, this is a
big substantial book containing
myriads of characters and sub-worlds. For Phantasia is
both infinite and highly anisotropic; in each of its places
dwells a different kind of being. What is more, Phanta­
sia abounds in stories to be: 11But that's a story for another
time" is the neverending refrain, just as the book really
starts when it seems to be ending. Here's its skeleton:
On a mundane morning, Bastian, running from his tor­
mentors, finds himself on the inside of a glass door say­
ing" Antiquariat" in mirror-writing. He feels compelled
to steal a book bound in shimmering copper colored silk,
entitled, of course,
The Neverending Story, and bearing the
sign of two snakes biting each other's tails (recognizable
by aficionados of the hermetic as the double
ouroboros,
the symbol of cyclical endlessness). With it he hides in
the storage attic of his school where he makes camp and
begins to read. The print turns green. He is looking into
Phantasia, a threatened land. Its child empress is sick and
her sickness is reflected in Phantasia' s progressive piece­
meal annihilation. There is only one cure: a human be­
ing must enter Phantasia and give the Infanta her new
name. As the school-tower clock strikes the afternoon
hours it comes to Bastian that
he knows the name, that
he is chosen to save Phantasia-and not only Phantasia
but also the real world, because in proportion as the form­
er is swallowed by non-being, the latter is possessed by
lies; their salvation is conjoined.
At two o'clock he slips out to pee and eats his lunch
apple; at eleven he glimpses a monkish ancient in Phan­
tasia who is writing the copper colored book Bastian is
reading. Just before midnight he realizes that both realms
will be caught in a treadmill of eternal return unless he
acts. At the stroke of twelve he is in Phantasia, in the
Night Wood of Perelin, and the print turns green until
the end when Bastian tells his father the whole story­
except for once, when he prominently strews his initials
BBB in red sand over the Painted Desert Goa b. It is the
first clue of his coming corruption. Now, having grown
beautiful in body, celebrated as the savior, he conducts
a triumphal progress through the realm. He is wearing
the amulet Auryn, the golden, the Glow. It bears the
ouroboros on the obverse and on the reverse the legend
62
"Do as you will." Bastian misunderstands it as license
to ''Do as you wish,'' wherewith his desires become in­
definite and destructive-the classical outline of a tyrant.
As he goes, he falls deeper and deeper into self­
forgetfulness.
On the way, there are many wonderful characters and
episodes. There is for example Atreju's conveyance and
companion, Fuchur, the Dragon of Gladness
(Gluecks­
drache)
who floats and swoops through the air in joyous
bows (just like my dragon kite), and has a voice like a
bell. (Hermann Hesse has a little essay-1949-on the
golden sonority of the vocable
Glueck.) The episode
closest to my heart comes late in the book at the nadir
of Bastian's amnesia: his days with Yore the miner, who
has charge of the "pit of pictures" and the "lode of
dreams," where are deposited transparencies, tablets thin
as a breath: our memories and dreams, for "a dream can­
not come to nothing once it is dreamt." Bastian must
search these image-archives for a familiar dream as a clue
to guide him out of his oblivion. After several days of
forlorn sorting, he finds a dream tablet of a man in a lab
coat holding up the impression of a denture, which fills
him with enormous longing. This is the beginning of his
ascent and return to his father (who is in fact a dentist).
The Neverending Story is full of delights which an alert
child may sense and an adult connoisseur may decipher.
It is a real work of literature, meaning that it maintains
far-flung connections with its kind, being full of allusions,
borrowings, references: like Carroll's Alice, Bastian goes
through the looking glass, like MacDonald's Phantasies,
he finds the road to fairy-land, like Rabelais' Thelernites,
he does as he will. And right in the middle of the book
traces turn up of one previous Phantasia-traveler who
made the song Bastian's knights sing all the time. Trans­
lated from German, it goes:
When that I was and a tiny little boy
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain ...
They recall his name as "Shexpir or the like." Evidently
one adult who made it.
III
There is an age-old philosophical perplexity, the dream­
wake confusion, propounded for instance by the Chinese
sage Chuang-tzu on apparently awakening from a dream:
"Who am I then? A butterfly dreaming that it is Chuang­
tzu or Chuang-tzu dreaming that I am a butterfly?" (3rd
century, B.C.), again by Descartes in the
Meditations (17th
century A.D.) and lately in
The Bear That Wasn't (reviewed
in Gareth Matthews' charming book
Philosophy and the
Young Child).
Young children are, of course, very much
alive to just such linguistic and philosophical puzzles.
Parental anecdotes about their midget metaphysicians
SPRING 1986
abound, always delightful, an occasional sense of oracu­
lar self-mystification notwithstanding. So out of the blue
the aforementioned Tony said of God (who was not ex­
actly the talk of his family): "He is so big, sooo big he's
an idea
11-Anselm-in-embryo! Indeed there is more to it
than pleasure in puzzles. Not for nothing do we enter
upon rational life enthralled to negativity,
the metaphysi­
cal problem. I mean the "terrible twos", a condition
whose essence a lovable little boy Peter whom I used to
sit for (or rather, on) would express in the remarkable
phrase he prefixed to his continual stream of objections:
"Want not to want ... " Negativity first, and later existen­
tial panic: I recall awakening every night for some weeks
to watch the darkly heaving ramification of the well-loved
walnut outside the nursery window and to know that my
mother could die.
Yet later, at seven or eight, my father succeeded in in­
ducing in me the first
conscious moment of philosophical
wonder I can recall. He was taking a
privatissimum on the
first
Critique with his friend Arthur Liebert, then the Presi­
dent of the
Kantgesellschaft. On a Sunday morning walk
through the spring woods he showed me that my hands
were bewitched, that, though like as two peas in a pod,
I couldn't bring them into congruence. A quarter century
later, when I discovered his source in para. 13 of the
Prolegomena, Kant's illustration of his claim that space is
not a property of the things themselves but the form of
their outer intuition, all the original amazement came
back to me, and henceforth the pure material of the out­
er form of sensibility was permanently dyed spring-green.
All these approaches to philosophy-and, really,
they're not peculiar to children-occur in
The Neverend­
ing Story:
playful puzzles, deep fear, serious questions.
But literally the most wonderful mode is the predominant
one: Here is a
philosophical story book, a book of specula­
tive myths, a working vacation for the imagination.
The grandest philosophic myths, those Socrates tells
in the Platonic dialogues, are
end-myths; they consummate
the dialectical argument with the high of a cosmic vision.
Now, in contemporary philosophy, grandeur being out
of favor, mini-myths, flairless, little
thought-constructs, are
placed throughout the logical argument: Martians,
counter-earthlings, brains-in-a-vat and possible worlds in­
habited by that one-and-only unicorn whose affliction is
non-existence. Finally, there are the real myths, the ones
that are not made but re-told, and these are good as
preludes to philosophy: In the Metaphysics (A) Aristotle
says: "Wonder is the beginning of philosophy," "myths
are composed of wonders," and so "the myth lover
(philomythos) is somehow a philosopher (philosophos)."
But he also says that wonder is really a sense of one's
ignorance and that one takes to philosophy as "an es­
cape from ignorance." And so he announces a slow-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
starting but irresistible development: the way of science
is the way away from wonder. Two millennia later, a
founding text in natural philosophy will bear the still
wondering legend "Wonder and is no Wonder" about
its central diagram (the endless chain around the prism,
Slevin 1605); four centuries later it will be near-universal
dogma that science and philosophy mean
demythification.
The myth-lover is meant to come to maturity; much of
our education is devised to sober us up.
Yet there is also a sense, endlessly analyzed and be­
moaned (and not only by those soft spirits who want to
reimmerse themselves in magical murk), that something
has been lost, that the world we hoped to gain by taking
our two-and-a-half-thousand year temperance pledge has
somehow lost its shape and color. What is it that myths
did for the world?
They made it visible, I imagine, by-ugly but apt term­
potentiating the appearances, that is to say, by making
them significant. The Necker cube shows that even the
objects of mere perception depend on interpretative
preconceptions to take shape. Myths might be thought
of as analogous interpretative schemata for the human
shaping of phenomena. They bring out in appearances
just that depth and color from which measuring science
and rational philosophy soberly abstract; hence they give
them
visibility-a word used here certainly in an extend­
ed, perhaps in a private sense: I call appearing objects
"visible" when I do not look
past them as being mere un­
suggestive particulars, or
through them as being mere
representative instances, but
at them as recalling through
their very looks
both themselves and something beyond.
(This mode of significant appearing is usually called
"symbolic," but it shouldn't be, since by long-standing
usage a symbol mainly "stands for" something
else.)
Genuine myths, the sort that are not composed and
read but received and reenacted, are mostly extinct, and
the notion of reviving them through deliberate acts of cre­
ation is a practical contradiction in terms. Yet all is not
lost. A grand enough fairy tale can stand in for those by­
gone world-frames. (So, come to think of it, can a great
grown-up novel.) Such stories make something of the
mundane world; they back it with a vibrant ground and
bring it out with vivid contrasts.
Ende's books, both
Mama and The Neverending Story,
do even more: They reflect on what they are doing while
they are doing it-a feature they share with the finest
speculative works. They tell wonderful tales and wonder
about tale-telling. They represent the annihilation of the
imaginative realm as
the great emergency of contem­
porary life, and even as they tell the story of its peril they
accomplish its restoration. Ende' s mythophilia is a begin­
ning of philosophy which is not just to be left behind.
Nil
admirari advises the Roman poet, follower of a latter-
63
day philosophy; he means both "Wonder at nothing"
and "Think nothing wonderful." Omnia admirari,
"Wonder at everything and find everything wonderful"
must be the Phantasia-traveller' s postulate. Its require­
ments determine both the kind and the mode of the think­
ing which begins in Phantasia. For first, certain questions
can take on flesh and flourish there unashamedly which
are skeletons in the logical closet. And second, the Phan­
tastic mode of imagining is an unabashed reversal of the
(pretended) order of rational investigation: Here the ques­
tions are candidly reached through the answers, since the
imagination, for all its tolerance of the antic and the mons­
trous, is constitutionally partial to certain kinds of doing
and being and inimical to others.
I'll come to an end with a small sampling of the
neverending stream of questions which wells up in
Phantasia.
Phantasia, the realm of the imagination, subsists in­
dependently of human attention-and yet its existence
depends on a periodic human invocation, a timely Adam­
ic re-naming. Bastian says: "I would like to know, just
what is going on in a book when it is closed?" And his
discoveries speak to and, of course, contradict current so­
lutions to long-debated problems such as: What is the na­
ture of fictional, or possible, worlds? What is the standing
of non-existent objects? How do they comport with
''reality''?
Phantasia' s topography is infinite and yet centered. It
has, as Bastian learns, a perilous port of entry (Perelin,
the Night Wood) and a magical place of exit. He enters
each of its places as a separate world and yet he pro­
gresses through the land of phantasy as through one em­
pire. The lay-out of fictional worlds (their boundaries and
compatibility) is treated-with severely averted eyes-in
64
the logic of fiction ("deviant" logic, so-called!). Its doc­
trines, particularly concerning the question "Are all fic­
tional worlds connected?" deny Bastian's experience of
the cohesion of all stories.
Phantasia is the realm into which nothingness first
erupts; that is what Bastion is called on to deal with, and
he learns that escape from the treadmill of mere recur­
rence, the revivification of a sad daily existence, and truth
telling itself depend on saving this realm of the imagi­
nation-a powerful though deviant answer to the ques­
tion, endlessly revolved in contemporary philosophy,
"What is the crisis of modernity?"
Phantasia can engulf and corrupt, too. As his sojourn
loses its aim, as he forgets his daily shape and his hu­
man mission and tyrannizes the realm he has saved, it
becomes a thicket of sophisticated un-meaning; here apes
play aleatic compositional games, which when continued
for all eternity will produce all stories and all stories of
stories including the Neverending Story. Even Bastian in
his pride is appalled at the insult this extreme of esthetic
formalism offers his copper-colored book; he becomes a
partisan in the great question of esthetics: "Does art have
meaning over and above its form?''
And finally, as the Neverending Story ends, Bastian,
emerged from Phantasia, tells his father the story of his
reading of the story of his journey into the realm where
the story of his journey is being written. He would like
to know, Bastian says, "How could this book occur with­
in itself?" He has found the fairy-form of a cluster of ques­
tions that are the fascination of present-day intellectual
life: recursion and self-reference.
Enough said. The point's been made: One way, a won­
derful way, to philosophy passes through Phantasia.
SPRING 1986
A Toast to the Republic
Curtis Wilson
The custom of giving this toast at the President's din­
ner is a rather old one, having been initiated in the early
years of the New Program by Scott Buchanan, and con­
tinued without interruption down to this time. My task
is to try to say what it means.
St. John's is a rather unusual place, and one of its
peculiarities is its peculiar mixture of traditionalism and
questioning-questioning that can become radical. When
I first came, I was shocked by many of the questions, es­
pecially those of the
Ti esti? variety. In the second semi­
nar I attended here, the opening question was, What is
a hero? During the course of the seminar, the leader who
first posed the question, repeated it, in measured tones,
in truly Aeschylean style, no less than three times. It was
not a question I knew what to do with; it was not one
I had hoped to hear. I really had no use for heroes. In
the several uncomfortable silences, the only thing I could
think of was that line in Bertoli Brecht's play,
Galileo: it
is a sad time, Galilee says, when a country needs heroes.
The Brecht line has long ago lost its charm for me. The
staggering question that Winfree Smith asked remains.
And in general, the most important questions for me have
become-not those which admit of systematic reply,
though I am very fond of working out anything algebraic
and easy-but those which arrest the mind in the
presence of the awesome, the beautiful, or the utterly
mysterious. And so I am grateful to colleagues who ask
Curtis Wilson is a tutor and former Dean of St. John's College, Annapo­
lis. Mr. Wilson gave this traditional toast at the President's dinner in
Annapolis for the seniors of 1977.
It was a special favorite of Bill
O'Grady. Mr. Wilson has kindly consented to its being published here
just as it was given.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
unanswerable questions, and insist on our stretching our
thought toward the height and depth of them. Underly­
ing the toast I must give tonight is such a question.
What do we mean by
the republic? It has to be the
republic, not this one or that one. Robert Bart first ex­
plained that to me. The Latin term
res publica means that
which is public, the public thing. Early on, it was used
to refer to the contents of the public treasury, the com­
mon wealth in the most literal sense. Later on, its mean­
ing was extended so as to include the whole body of
institutions and traditions and know ledges by which the
lives of the citizens were shaped, and on which they de­
pended in order to have a realm of freedom and action.
The corresponding Greek term was
politeia. Ocero used
res publica to translate the term politeia, the title of a dia­
logue by Plato.
Politeia meant originally citizen life, the
life of the free citizen. The life of the citizen within the
polis was always sharply contrasted with everything
private-with everything having to do with family or kin­
ship or household, everything having to do with the
necessities of survival, with food-getting and child­
bearing.
Politeia was a realm of speech and freedom and
action. It was a higher realm. Only in this realm was great
speech or great action possible.
Such are the origins of the term
republic. In the last
quarter of the 20th century, all of this can seem rather
far away from us. The
polis, the political community based
on face-to-face relationsf is no longer. Citizen virtue is
harder to summon up. We are members not of a
polis but
of
society. Society, the sociologists tell us, is a web of re­
lations. The relations are so intricate and far-reaching as
to be well-nigh untraceable. We find it hard to see where
our responsibility begins and ends. The distinction be-
65
tween the public and the private becomes badly blurred.
And to say the worst that can be said, in society no one
really acts, and instead of speech and action and freedom
there is behavior, which is studied by the behavioral
sciences. Society is ruled by an invisible hand, that is to
say, by nobody. And as Rousseau well knew, we mem­
bers of society, offended terribly by society's invasion of
our privacy and its attack on our dignity, nevertheless
bear within ourselves a guilty conscience.
I exaggerate, perhaps, in painting the dark picture.
There are sparks of light in the darkness, and they are
to be cherished and protected. But I think it not so bad
a thing that the dark prospect should be before us, and
turn us back into ourselves. We have to assess what we
are about. There is a justifiable contemptus mundi, or turn­
ing from the world, and a justifiable
amor mundi, or turn­
ing to the world, and we must learn to balance and use
them aright. There is an inner court of the soul, in which
ends and means have to be judged and sorted out and
arranged in hierarchy. We cannot do everything. We
must find the center from which we go out, and to which
we return. These inner tasks are imposed on us with es­
pecial urgency, because we live when we do, and not in
a simpler time. Carrying them out, we may come to see
that we are not islands unto ourselves. In being what we
are and becoming what we become, we are dependent
on a heritage of tradition and knowledge; we are depen­
dent upon friends who can ask unanswerable questions,
and now and then show faith in our possibilities. And
by a calculus that may be simpler or subtler, we may de­
termine to pay back something for what we owe.
66
For Who (says Donne) is sure he hath a Soule, unlesse
It see, and judge, and follow worthinesse,
And
by Deedes praise it? hee who doth not this,
May lodge an In-mate soule, but 'tis not his.
This toast includes Plato's Republic or Politeia, a work
which as much as any other addresses itself to the ques­
tion of the relation of knowledge and citizen virtue.
Citizen virtue was always problematic, because it would
not explain its altruism to itself. Plato's
Republic gives
citizen virtue a new grounding, not in knowledge but in
the quest for knowledge. And I think this knowledge that
is sought, if the heights and depths of it are recognized
to be as high as they are and as deep as they are, will
lead to a new kind of civic virtue, not doctrinaire, but
more gentle and more humane.
This toast includes the Republic of Letters, by which
is meant the community of writers living and dead, who
have sought the truth, responding to one another, labor­
ing to complete what others have begun, maintaining
their faith in the possibility of human knowing through
the use of language. The toast, in effect, pledges allegi­
ance to the maintenance and fostering of that republic.
The toast includes the Republic of the United States of
America. The American dream, people were saying a few
years back, was becoming a nightmare. We should pledge
our alertness to try to keep that from ever happening.
Much is wrong. But there are freedoms of thought and
action which we enjoy, not merely because of favorable
economics, but because of political traditions, and they
are not enjoyed widely in the world. To the maintenance
of those freedoms, we should also pledge our lives and
our honor.
Finally, this toast includes the Republic that is St. John's
College. This college is an attempt to provide circum­
stances under which the great and unanswerable ques­
tions can be asked, in which we can be stretched to the
height and depth of them, in which we can discover
rediscover the center from which we go out, and to which
we return.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Republic.
SPRING 1986
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
The Human Condition
For Bill O'Grady, teacher and friend.
When rage relented
After iron dropped flesh screaming,
And armor dripped darkly,
Achilles wept for mortality.
After Hector, god-like of Troy,
Lay bare at his mighty feet,
Torn and burned
By rough rock bloodstained
Round ramparts relentless,
Achilles wept for mortality.
After stately Priam, weeping,
Went to recover,
In arms of longing,
Flesh he called his own,
Achilles wept for mortality.
After fatherly tears convinced,
And supplicant hands touched
For compassion,
And stirred his beating heart,
Achilles wept for mortality.
After stream fell, indistinct,
From eyes together touched
By memories strong
Of father old
And son died young,
Achilles wept for mortality.
And after,
These enemies, both human,
Gazed in wonder,
He at beauty,
And he at words sonorous and brave,
As only eyes still wet
Can clearly see,
When rage finally relents.
-Geoffrey Harris
Geoffrey Harris is an alumnus of St. John's College, Annapolis.
67
Part II
The Homeric Simile and the
Beginning of Philosophy
Kurt Riezler
Translated by David R. Lachterman
Translator's Preface
Kurt Riezler (1882-1955) is quite probably already known
to many readers of The St. John's Review in virtue of his book
Man: Mutable and Immutable. The Fundamental Structure of Social
Life (Chicago, 1950) and Leo Strauss' eloge printed in What
Is Political Philosophy?. Riezler's somewhat astounding civic
and administrative careers during the Wilhelmine and then
the Weimar regimes in Germany have been lucidly record­
ed in Wayne C. Thompson, In the Eye of the Storm. Kurt Rie­
zler and the Crises of Modern Germany (univ. of Iowa, 1980).
His scholarly career began with a monograph on ancient
Greek political economy and produced in the years before
his exile in the United States two philosophical treatises,
Gestalt und Gesetz: Entwurf einer Metaphysik der Freiheit
(Munich, 1924 [~Form and Law: Sketch of a Metaphysics
of Freedom] and Traktat vom Schonen: Zur Ontologie der Kunst
(Frankfurt a.M., 1935) [~Treatise on the Beautiful: Towards
an Ontology of Art], as well as a notable edition and trans­
lation of Parmenides' poem (Frankfurt a.M., 1934). In the
United States,in addition to Man: Mutable and Immutable, he
wrote Physics and Reality: Lectures of Aristotle on Modern Physics
(New Haven, 1940) and a lengthy essay "Political Decisions
in Modern Society," published in Ethics 44 (1954). It is
perhaps worth noting that Riezler regarded Heidegger as his
most important 'teacher', although he appears to have read
him through Goethean lenses.
The essay translated below, under the title "Das
Homerische Gleichnis und der Anfang der Philosphie, ap­
peared in the periodical Die Antike 12 (1936), pp. 253-271. Cur­
iously, Riezler prints the German versions of R. SchrOder
and Voss von Rupetogether with the pertinent Greek texts
of Homer. I have followed his practice by translating these
from German into English, even when there are marked
departures from the wording or syntax of the original Greek.
The notes are my own.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
The poet sees and announces the soul as world, the
world as soul. The unity of the two is his secret. Goethe,
in his Maxims, calls art the go-between, the agent of an
"unknown law in the object, corresponding to the
unknown law
in the subject."
The concepts with which the aesthetic, psychological,
philosophical tradition in which we live grapple with this
secret stem from a way of thinking for which the basic
fact is the antecedent division of subject and object, soul
and world. Face to face with the original unity which is
poetry's secret this initial rending of the question can only
flee into the asylum of the 'irrational.' The irrational,
however, designates the unknown only relatively to a ra­
tio; this ratio falls silent in the presence of this unknown.
The beginnings of Greek philosophy antedate the sepa­
ration of subject and object. Even for Plato the question
of the soul is ultimately at one and the same time the
question of the world. For Heraclitus, as well as Par­
menides, the greatest of Plato's predecessors, the qJUatc;,
the
Kotvo~ Myo~, of both is something prior to the sepa­
ration of subject and object, the true being of the soul as
well as the world, and thus is cosmology and psychol­
ogy at the same time. Here, too, the unity of the two
questions explains why our concepts are unsuitable as
well as why the inner meaning of these teachings remains
inaccessible.
If both secrets-this inner meaning and that correspon­
dence of an "unknown law" -are closed to us for the
David R. Lachterman (Annapolis, 1965) teaches in the Departments of
Philosophy and Greek At Pennsylvania State University.
71
same reason, can we perhaps dare to get close to the one
secret with the help of the other? Perhaps the question
of the marvel of sensuous animation, when developed
in terms of the perplexities posed by one concrete
problem might be able to unveil the inner meaning of
those teachings and find its way to that meaning in its
own right.
The seeing and telling of the poet is a knowing of the
senses and the soul. What is known is not the object as
object. What is seen, told, known is Goethe's "unknown
law": soul as world, world as soul.
Among the means for achieving this knowledge we find
simile and contrast. Homer, the "wisest of the Greeks,"
uses both with equal mastery. Theophrastus (de sensu, I)
divides the views of the Ancients in regard to knowledge
into yvromc; <il>
o~oi<jl and <il> i';vuv<i<jl-knowing through
the similar and knowing through the opposite. Accord­
ing to him, Parmenides, Empedocles, Plato held the first
view; the followers of Anaxagoras and Heraclitus, these­
cond. Can we perhaps find in the poetic achievements
of simile and contrast in Homer the meaning of this
'knowledge?' The issue itself will decide whether this
question does or does not make sense.
I
This question must first be directed to those similes in
which this achievement is most penetrating and surpris­
ing. These fall into the group in which the poet constructs
the simile into a parallel narration, which then unfolds
the whole image in a parenthesis in accordance with its
own law, between a 'just as' and a 'so'-clause in a
parenthesis and does this even though the narration it­
self is presented as a sensible, visible event and there­
fore does not seem to need the simile. Similes of this kind
are peculiar to Homer. They are also the similes in face
of which the concepts with which they are usually dis­
cussed reveal their inadequacy.
Od. XIX, 204-209:
" ... the listening woman melted into flowing tears. As the
snow gathered on the ridge of elevated mountains, snow
which Winter made to fall, begins to stream as the Spring
dissolves it and fills the bed of the running currents,
So the woman melted into tears; her cheeks ran for the hus­
band, who sat next to her. . ''
(From the German of R.A. Schroder)
-rfl<; 0' lip' &KouoUoT}<; Pts 06.Kpua, niKeto Ot X.Pffi<;.
cb<; Of: X.tQw KUTUTl'jKET' 'ev 'aKport6/...mmv "opef:mv,
"11v t' EUpo<;
Ka-rt-rTJ~Ev, Em)v Ztqmpo<; KataxeUlJ
TT]KOJ.LtVT}<; 0' dpa Tfj<; 1t01"UJ.LOi rt/...i!80UOl (JtoVTE<;
W<; til<; 1"1'!Ks-ro KaAO. rtapilla 06.Kpu x.EoUon<;,
KAmoUon<;
EOv "avOpa, rtapi!J.LEVOV.
Here, in the first place, singling out one or more points
of comparison, the whiteness of the snow and of the
72
head, the streaming of the water and of the tears, is of
no help at all. Perception? What becomes perceptible?
Surely not Penelope's external form through mountains,
snow, wind, currents. Mood? Certainly not in the sense
that our mood when snow starts to melt is meant to let
us feel Penelope's mood. The term "mood" is danger­
ous. Everything for which the history of the arts requires
it is far away from Homer.
The simile embraces the entire destiny of Penelope and
grasps in retrospect and prospect her inner destiny in the
unity of an external image. We see her grown stiff and
frozen over long, desolate years, see beneath the first,
joyous news the hardness, the cold, the darkness begin
to soften outside and inside, to grow warm; we see, by
anticipation, even without the poet's speaking about it,
in a single, mute self-movement of the image, the entire
melting of the snow and see the life begin to glitter once
again when Penelope for the first time begins to know
that the stranger who brings the first news of her hus­
band is himself this husband. The narrative itself, even
if it had wanted to say all of this, could scarcely have
linked together the elements which vibrate together and
have related them to one another in the way the simile
in the unity of its image succeeded in doing.
The terms 'intuition' and 'mood' court and contend for
the marvel of' animation.' The unity of simile and narra­
tive actually accomplishes that marvel. The 'animation'
seems a double one. Penelope's tears animate the inani­
mate snow but, the unanimated gives back two fold to
the animated the animation if receives. In the presence
of the first animation we usually stammer about trans­
ference and anthropomorphism but this way of talking
is out of the question here. The second animation is the
greater marvel: how can the dead event animate the liv­
ing, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well, whose
picture of Nature is unanimated?
Take a second example: Iliad XVII, 53-59.
Menelaus kills Euphorbus who, according to XVII, 811
is fighting in his first battle. They exchange words before
they begin to fight. Menelaus reminds Euphorbus of his
brother's arrogance and death. Euphorbus draws from
the other's warning only the exhortation to avenge his
brother and to put his parents' pain to rest by placing
in their hands Menelaus' head and weapons. They fight
Menelaus' spear strikes through the still delicate neck of
Euphorbus and blood steeps the charming locks and the
clasps of silver and gold which hold them together.
Everything is sensibly there; nothing non-sensible
needs an intuition which only the simile might be able
to give it.
II. XVII, 53-59:
"As a man tends the swelling sapling of an olive tree/
In a lonely spot, where the water gushes up,/
SPRING 1986
Lofty it grows and stately, and the cooling drafts/
Of all the wafting winds set it gently in motion
And gleaming it burgeons in white flower.//
But, a wind suddenly coming with a powerful whirl/
Rips it from its pit and lays it down on the earth."
(Translated after Voss von Rupe)
olov DE -rptq:>et Epvot; Uvilp Ept811AE<; EA.o.illt;
xOOpcp f:v o'ton6A.cp 08' UA.tt; Uvo.PtPpuoxev U3wp,
KaA.Ov t11A.e86.ov· -rO OS
TE nvmat Oovtoumv,
nav-roiwv
&vt~ffiV Kai te PpUst "av8ei: A.euK6.Y
tl.ew o' t(aniv~<; UVE~O<; Mv l.ail.am non~
P68pou t' eSta-rpe\lfe Kat f:Se-r<ivua3' eni yaiu'
Once again the simile and what it achieves are entirely
transparent: the olive-tree, sheltered, cooled by winds,
sparkling with white blossoms, now uprooted and laid
low, embraces in the unity of a single image the parents'
concern, rearing and suffering, the youth's beauty, gen­
tleness and sudden end, animating the narrative and ani­
mated by it. Euphorbus' death, like Penelope's tears, is
the manifestation of human-being
[Daseins] itself, as a to­
tality of powers which joined to one another prevail over
and through man and nature, soul and world in the same
fashion.
We would search in vain in these two similes for the
basis of the reciprocal play of animation in the usual
points of comparison and their aggregate. The whiteness
and the running water in the simile of Penelope-what
is qualitatively and objectively common leaves us in the
lurch.
The third or middle terms of comparison are of a spe­
cial sort. Not all cases of qualitative and objective com­
monness can be such
thirds. The power of animation
dwells only in those which, as in the simile of Penelope,
are circumstances and movements both of things as well
as of the soul-coldness, hardness, rigidity, warming,
softening, dissolving-and as features of the first are also
ways of being of the other. These
tertia therefore are not
only commonnesses, (KotV<i) of any sort whatsoever, be­
longing to the simile and the narrative, but similarities
(o~ota) of the subject and the object. Their peculiar
character has no name in the conceptual language cur­
rent among us. I want to avoid naming them.
However, these
Oj..t.ota, each considered in its own right,
are not the animating factor in these similes. Neither sing­
ly nor in their sum are they the true
teritium. The key to
the animation lies in their concatenation. On their own
they are abstract and dead. The simile, like the narrative,
interlaces them, lets them be what they are together with
and through one another. Constantly trying to name
them in isolation makes them lifeless. The
tertium is an
interweaving of these
o~ma, which are joined to one
another in simile and narrative in the same fashion, UvO.
-r6vatrr0v A6yov. The
tertium is in a certain sense a pri­
mum
It is clearly the function of the simile to detach us
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
from the object as object. The poet forces our eye from
Penelope's face to the snow-covered mountain, from
youth sinking downward to the uprooted olive-tree. In
this the
objective component of both the simile and the
narrative and, indeed, the one through the other becomes
transparent and now is no longer only object, but
'manifestation,' an image of something. The image is
something seen from the first. It is not an image of the
object as such, not Penelope nor the snow, but Goethe's
"unknown law."
Physis, the style of the entity, the
Greeks named it. The analogous intertwining of those
Oj..t.ota in simile and narrative is a particular aspect, a look,
the
eidos of the whole of this physis, which for Homer is
not only human-being as a particular entity, but the be­
ing of all that is alive. And everything is alive, lively.
However, the Homeric similes are multiform. What
they achieve in the narrative is in these two cases some­
thing particular, comprising the existence of Penelope as
well as that of Euphorbus. In other cases the similes per­
form differently. However, what the simile achieves for
the narrative must be grasped on the basis of what it
achieves for poetry. The story narrated, even without the
simile, is manifestation, is show and announcement in
the transparence of appearance. The simile serves this
achievement of the narrative in many different ways. The
poet demands greater and lesser services.
Let us take first a much-discussed example of another
kind, which surely can be felt even in a merely fleeting
contact, like the litter of a butterfly's wing.
Od. V, 50. Hermes is flying over the sea, like a sea-gull.
Od. V, 50-53
" ... descending from the a ether he fell upon the surface of
the high seas, stoutly he swept into it over the abyss, like
the cormorant,/
Who fishes in the dread bow of the foaming, salty wave
And often streaks its wings with salt-foam."
(R.A. Schroder)
... f:~ al8Spot; EJ.meae 1tOVTQl
aeUa-r' EneH' Bni KG)la A.lipQl Opvt8t f:otKOOt;,
Ot; te Ka-rU OetvoUt; K6A.nout; &.A.Ot; chpuyStow
ix8U Uypci:laawv nuKwU nteptl 8eUe-rat &.Aill:l.
The god doesn't catch any fish. The poet seems to be
following the special image of the simile, over and above
the so called
tertium. No doubt he does this for the sake
of the sensuous concretion of the sea-gull which we now
see as a living gull in front of us. But, this senuous con­
cretion achieves much more. Thanks
to it what is quick
is now also easy, effortless, playful mastery and control.
Hermes would catch fish if he wanted to. Hermes' flight
over the sea is the prelude to Odysseus' clumsy, unavail­
ing raft. The image of men whose lives are difficult is
present together with the image of the gods, the pcla
~&v,c<;. Each little word attends to the co-presence of the
73
difficult in the image of the easy. There are the 8Etvoi
K6A.not of the waves; previously there was the staff with
which Hermes deludes men's eyes or wakens the sleep­
ers "whom he wills." The simile, like the contrast, is de­
pendent on the transparence of the narrative.
What does the much censured blood-pudding in Od.
XX, 25 achieve? Odysseus, reining in his fury at the
maids, turns back and forth in his lair, with no means
of overcoming the suitors.
Od. XX, 25-28:
"As one roasting meat keeps turning the pig's stomach full
of fat and trickling blood/
Over the fire from one side to the other/
And the thoughts of the roast lingers
in his mind . .. "
(R.A. SchrOder)
cO<;
&' On; yacr't"Ep' &vilp noA.E.o<; nupOc; ateo11Evmo
q..tnA.Ei'rJv
Kvfcrnc; n: Kai at11a:wc;, Evfla Kai Evfla
m6AA.u J.uiA.a S' ffiKa A.tA.aiE'rat, Cm-rn 8ftvm,
&<; Cip' Oy' E.v8a Kai Ev8a V ... icrcrE'r:o J.LEPilllPiS<Dv
What the simile achieves is simple: only the blood­
pudding can achieve it. It alone links together into a unity
Odysseus' turning to and fro with the completion of the
"well-done" plan, finished on every side, as well as with
the impatient desire of the hungry man. The service done
to the poetry by the simile lies not in the points of com­
parison, but in their interlinking.
For the critic the blood pudding is encrusted with im­
pressions which make its preparation unsuitable as a
simile for needs of the soul. Nonetheless, this encrusta­
tion is post-Homeric.
The simile achieves still more, however not through the
points of comparison and their interlinking, but through
a deviation of the simile from the narrative, a technique
quite frequent elsewhere in Homer. The blood-pudding
becomes fully cooked; the plan does not. Athena lends
the helpless Odysseus her assistance and summons him
to sleep.
Here, as in many other passages, the difference be­
tween narrative and simile is an artful technique. It shows
how the events should or could have unfolded, but did
not. The lion with whom the suppressed hero is com­
pared is killed; the hero finds an opening, and gets
through. In such difference the co-presence of what
didn't occur serves the living concretion, the 'shining­
through' of existence just as it is. The actual in its own
right, in its whatness
[Sosein] is alive, 'concrete' and full
of presence, in the midst of a swarm of possibilities
among which it stands, threatened and needy, in hope,
yearning, fear or blindness. In the world of the living the
possible is actual and at work. In this insight, too, Homer
is wiser than many of his critics. As the simile presses
out beyond the strictly comparable Homer is allied with
Shakespeare; in restricting himself to the
tertium Goethe
74
is separated from both.
A survey of this artful technique leads past many 'halt­
ing' and so easily censured Homeric similes, through nu­
ancings of every kind, to the very disappearance of the
comparable in the opposed.
In Iliad I, 86 the opposition has absorbed the similar and
replaced the "so as" with an account of time.
As long as the golden day increase, the battle goes on
hither and yon without any resolution.
1/. Xl, 86-90:
"But, at the hour when woodsmen prepare a meal/
Deep in the glade of the mountain, once their arms have
grown tired/
with felling mighty trees; they become/
sated with their labor and long now for refreshing food:/
Just then,;he Danaeans daringly broke through the enemy's
ranks . ..
inw<;
&t &pu1"6f-to<; nEp Uvllp cl.:mAicrcral"O &dnvov
oUpEo<; E.v 131'!crcrumv, E.nEll"' f:.KopEcrcral"o x,dpa<;
l"liJ.lVWV &Ev&pEa f-lUKpli, U&o<;
1"1~ f-llV 1KE1"0 euf!OV
ai>l"oll l"E yAUKEpoto 7tEpi <ppEva<; \f!EpO<; atpd,
Tiif-lo<; cr<pij <lpEl"ij Aavaoi
Pil~avl"o <pUAayya<;-
The reckoning of time here conceals the comparison of
Danaeans' exertion in battle with the heavy labor of the
wood-cutter. The image, meanwhile, points at the same
time to their discrepancy: for the first time in the image
the Danaeans' courage and perseverance in battle be­
comes impressively visible; but, so, too, does the other,
gentler side of life, everything about it which the words
K6poc;, /i8oc;, yMKEpoc;,
i~Epoc; can attach to the resting
wood-cutters-in the midst of the battle and without any
other relation than that of time. (cf. Dante,
Inferno II, i).
The so-called 'contrastive effect' merely poses a ques­
tion; it does not supply the answer. What is the contrast
meant to be? Alternation? Intensification? These terms do
not reach the issue at which they are aimed.
In each and everyone of his mobile images Homer sees
to it, through the smallest, unnameable details, that all
the oppositions between which man's life
is tensely
strung always remain present to one another, that the
bright stands close to the dark, the easy next to the
difficult, fear next to courage, nothingness next to mag­
nificence each inescapably linked to the other. He has a
thousand ways of doing this. He avoids any
chorismos of
the 'Evuv-riu-any isolation of the opposites from one
another. Where the episode, as in the battles in the Iliad,
is in opposition with itself, he interrupts the report of the
battle and tells in a pair of verses about the marriage of
a warrior who was just killed and about the days of his
glory. In Iliad XIII, 1 he lets Zeus, looking downfromMt.
Ida, train his shining eyes away from the battle around
Troy and onto the friendly peoples of Thrace, peoples
who drink milk, the most just among men. Or in Iliad
SPRING
1986
XXII, 145, with Hector breathlessly, passionately pursued
by Achilles, and while the supposedly uninvolved poet
is himself in the grip of the highest emotion, he lets the
heroes race past the two sources of the river Scamander
and pauses to depict them the one stream which rises
from the warm spring, the other, cold as ice; there are '
the stone troughs, there in times of peace the women and
the fair daughters of the Trojans used to wash their shim­
mering garments.
To be sure it is correct that the antithesis 'intensifies,'
that, as Gottfried Hermann in his commentary on this
passage in Aristotle's
Poetics remarks, '' repente objecta pa­
cis imago, certamen redditur terribilius," that in Rembrandt
too
"et lumen ab umbra et umbra ab lumine tan tam accipiat
vim, quantam singular per se numquam habitura essen!. "
1
But, is "intensification" really the ultimate expression
for the poetic achievement of contrast? Homer does not
intend only the most frightful battle, nor does Rembrandt
intend only the darker darkness. What
is there is some­
thing ultimate which is seen, which has no name­
Goethe's "unknown law."
Physis as the forming of the
'Being'" of every being which 'is' there, the source of
the essentiality of every essence-this ultimate object of
sight is fitted together indissolubly out of war and peace,
out of the dark and the bright. Neither the battle nor the
darkness is something which can be separated
(xwptm6v). It is thanks to the light that the night is.
Homer does not look for antithesis because it intensifies.
He sees a whole, as that in accord with which the one
as well as the other is meant to shine through; because
this whole is and is seen, the contrast or antithesis in­
tensifies. There is a way, in both poetry and painting, of
contrasting opposites which does
not intensify. In these
cases, the dark and the bright, even when in contrast with
one another, remain insubstantial and empty, For both
are placed externally next to one another, out of a learned
knowledge of contrastive effects, not of the vision of their
unity, as the 'manifestation' of that nameless whole.
Let me return once more to Homer's similes. In
Iliad
XI, 547-557, 557-565, two successive similes are developed
into complete images of the lion greedy for battle and the
stubborn ass. Ajax is both. Homer has us leap from one
image of battle to the lion, from the lion to the ass, from
the ass to the next image of battle in complete detach­
ment from the objectivity of the object. The changing of
the battle-scenes themselves takes place as an exchange
of similes. The oppressive phantasy of many interpreters
would have liked to stick with either the ass or the lion.
Ajax attacks, the hero attacks his inferiors, one against
many: a lion storming about greedy for battle; before the
crowd of dogs and shepherds who protect the herds with
spears and torches he has to turn away, growling. Now,
he, like an ass, under the blows of impotent youths who
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
want to drive him forward, slowly grazes in a meadow
and then goes back again satisfied, when and as he
pleases. In attacking and returning it is one and the same
hero, who imposes on the many inferiors the law of their
action. The exchange of similes varies one and the same
identity, the way a change of positions would do. In both
images doing and suffering, courage and fear, power and
powerlessness, rage and forbearance, the one and the
many, the noble and the mean are linked together. The
mode of interweaving changes something identical. The
change is sudden, violent only as far as the
objective is
concerned; that in accord with which this
objective is trans­
parent as 'appearance' changes without any violence the
aspect alone, which it offers as something identical-just
as is done in every narrative of changing events, which
shines through as poetic vision in keeping with that
nameless element which in the changeable interweaving
of its moments remains identical as a whole. A "weak­
er" poet might indeed be on his guard against letting his
Ajax turn from a lion into an ass without any transition:
only the most extreme power of "transparence" can
know how to manage the objective character of the ob­
ject
[mit dem Gegenstandlichen des Gegenstandes umspringen.]
Iliad
XVI, 751-776 embraces three similes in the unity
of a single battle-scene. Tone, coloring, feeling are pas­
sionately intensified. Hector and Patroclus, the soldiers
of the Trojans and the Danaeans fight inconclusively for
the corpse of Cebrion. Patroclus, pouncing upon the
corpse of Cebrion, is compared to a lion which, breaking
into the stables, is hit in the breast-"his own power
undoes him." Patroclus, however, is unwounded; the
simile thus distances itself from the narrative, this time
because Patroclus' imminent death is meant to be fore­
shadowed. Homer is rich in such advance indications
through nuancing.
just after that Hector leaps from his chariot: now both
are like lions who fight on the top of the mountain for
the carcass of a deer <iJ.upro JtEtvciovtE, ~Eya <ppovEoV'tE
(both hungering and both thinking high thoughts.) Now
the crowds of the Trojans and the Danaeans storm against
one another.
11. XVI, 765-770.
"And as the Winds, the East and the South,
Vie with one another/to shake a thick wood
In the forest valley ,/Beech and ash, the
Wild cornel with its long bark,/
So that they knock their pointed boughs against each
other/and the noise of breaking branches
Rings out powerfully:/
Just so the Trojans and Danaeans rushed against
One another ... ''
(Voss-Rupe)
<he;
&' 'Eup6c; 1'E N6Toc; 1'' tpt&aivetov UAA.i}Aoav
oUpeoc; Ev flrlaaw; j}a8tnv
mJ,EJ.tt~EJ.tEV UA.11v
75
qnw6v 't"E J.1EAil1V 't"E 't"UV\J(j)A.Ot6V 't"E Kp<iVElUV,
at 't"E npO<; aAA.liA.a<; Ej3aA.ov t"avuftKEa<;
Ot:ou~
tlx:U 8EanEcriu, 1t6:rayo~ 0€ 't"E Uyvuj..t Ev<irovo·
We; 't"p&E<; Kai 'Ax. awl E1t' UA.AliAotcn 8op6V't"E~ Ol)ouv-
The simile does not depict the reciprocity of the battle
"with little success," but depicts the warriors' unchained
rage, passion, confusion in an image of the greatest agi­
tation. An interpretation sticking to the objective relates
the pointed carcasses to the pointed spears. But, the true
tertia here are not of this sort. This image is followed im­
mediately by the image of a dead man who, amidst the
darting spears, the flying arrows, the hurled stones, lies
there in a whirl of dust "mighty in his mightiness, the
arts of the horses forgotten."
KEho
~eya~ ~eyuA.rocr'ti A.eA.ucr~evo~ innocruv6.rov[776].
The corpse, too, is there from the start: the image of
its rest follows upon the image of the totally unleashed
battle. In this way Horner links life to death.
The images of battle in the Iliad hold good of the whole
of human-being. They inflect the whole set of forces 'be­
tween' which life is alive. This 'between' is a term drawn
from Plato's doctrine of the soul.
II.
If I turn now to the philosophical issues concealed here,
this is not done for the sake of the poet. His understand­
ing can do without the elucidation of those issues. We
can understand the poet even when our aesthetic con­
cepts shatter against his animated world.
The service which simile and contrast perform for 'ani­
mation' contains a philosophical problem of great merit.
Here we can follow the hints given by this service only
into the inner life of the first questions and answers of
Greek philosophy. For the development of this
philosophical problem I must refer to my
Traktat vom
Schoonen (Frankfurt, 1935).
The
tertia of Homeric comparisons are of a special sort.
They are not random commonalities of objects in simile
and narrative. They seem to be sof because our question
about them stops with their objective commonness, e.g.,
the white color, the running water. If we go on to ask
about what is in these commonalities from which their
animating power stems, their special character becomes
visible. These tertia are what is common to soul and to
things, to the inner and the outer.
The
o~mu of simile and narrative are o~mu of subject
and object. Even the antithetical pairs of contrastive ef­
fects are
o~otu of this kind. The alliance of these o~mu
with 'animation' concerns the issue itself and is not an
historical matter, whether of Horner or of Greek
philosophy. It accompanies the marvel of art everywhere,
in every age and in every mode of art. The painter talks
about values or valences of colors: opaque-clear, bright-
76
dark, warm-cold. The animation of colors rests on the
play of these 'values.' These values are common to the
soul and to things. They are, let me say in passing, not
sensible qualities of the eye alone; something in them is
common to several senses. In the case of sounds, too,
there is the bright and the dark, the warm and the cold.
However, the problem of these 'intermodal' sense­
qualities does not belong here.
For an age in which qualities, properties and attributes
have lived for centuries in a lasting marriage to things
and regions of things the problem of these Kmv6. and their
mode of being has been lost. This age explains the com­
mon in terms of 'transference.' The term "metaphor" is
late; it stems from the time when that lasting marriage
was concluded and the tie between thing-region and
property was fixed. Transference, however, explains
nothing. The
o~mov which it is meant to explain precedes
it as something in the things
bn the basis of which the
transference is possible and meaningful. Besides, the Ho­
meric similes are no metaphors. The two lions are not
~eya (jlpoveov'tE in virtue of metaphor. Nor is ~eyu8u~ocr
or "high-minded" a metaphor. Greatness and height are
not originally properties of trees and mountains, tied to
bodily space. There 'is' greatness and height in the soul
just as there is in trees and mountains prior to the sepa­
ration of subject and object.
Under the 'jurisdiction' of mythical thinking the image
is the very thing itself. The unity of image and thing
counts as the decisive mark of this mythical thinking;
however, the unity rests on nothing other than the fact
that for this thinking a KOIVOV of image and thing is the
original being,
npciHro~ ov prior to the objective duality
of both: the leonine, therefore, manifest as a first and as
the same in this lion and that lion, in its image and in
many other instances. The jurisdiction of mythical think­
ing, however, is at the same time freedom from that
enslavement to the object in which we live. Something
of this spell and the freedom it confers extends to the
similes of Horner, indeed, over and above these, to the
end of all poetry and, perhaps,-of all philosophy.
I do not presume to settle anything about the mode of
being of these Kmv6.. I shall not even give them a name
drawn from the later history of philosophy. Their nature
is Ci'ton6v n. They are, in any case, neither objects nor
concepts. I want to accept them as the poet announces
them, without giving them a name: as ways of being, sit­
uations, powers, essential features of an existence which
is at once the being of the soul and of things.
The poet lets these KOtv6. 'appear': he reveals them as
what shines through in sound, tone, word, rhythm, ob­
ject. These Kmv6. of subject and object are therefore
manifestly KOIV6. of the so-called 'form' and, at the same
time, of the so-called 'content,' 'values' of the vowels,
SPRING 1986
consonants, of the syllables, words and sentences, of tone
and rhythm, as well as qualities of what these tonalities
designate. This 'common,' too, is O:ron:6v n and, as a
problem of the issue itself, accompanies the marvel of all
art. 'Form' and 'content' or what we try to separate un­
der these terms reciprocally animate one another just as
simile and narrative do. The root of this reciprocal ani­
mation is the same in both cases.
Philosophy, that poor hobbler on the crutch of the con­
cept, has to try to name what the poet allows to 'appear.'
We have names for such Kotv<i from the beginnings of
philosophy: the warm and the cold, the dense and the
rare, the bright and the dark, the heavy and the light and
so on. The
i\~mov and l;vania based on yv6.iat~ ,q; 6~o(1J
ii 'U l;vavtil] are of this kind. They are Kotv<i of the soul
and and things-not the 'material' elements, the desig­
nation under which they entered into our philosophical
tradition from the reports of the Aristotelians. As Kotv<i
they provide the basis for knowledge. Goethe
(Farben­
lehre, historischer Teil,
I) says about Empedocles' 'pores':
"We can also observe that this ancient did not take this
idea so crudely and corporeally as many moderns have;
instead, he merely found there a more convenient sym­
bol. For the manner in which the outer and the inner are
each present for the other, in which the one is on har­
mony with the other, bears witness straightaway to a
higher viewpoint, which appears still more spiritual when
expressed in that general thesis: Like is known by like."'
Empedocles, fragment 109 (Diels): "With earth we ob­
serve the earth, with ether, the divine ether, with fire,
however, the destroying fire, love with love, hate with
wretched hate." In this passage the so-called four ele­
ments appear on the same level as love and hate as es­
sences, not as 'stuffs.' Nor is the earth the earthly,
water-is not our water not even for Empedocles, sim­
ply an heir and descendant of this poetic teaching.
III
Let me return to the poet in my search for a way of
pointing out the original meaning of this teaching.
The
o~ota of the Homeric similes, like the l;vav,(u of
his contrastive effects, as Kmv6. of the soul and things,
are not xwptcrt<i, not set apart from one another. The poet
does not set them apart from one another; he relates them
to one another, intertwines them and lets their interlac­
ings change. just this interlacing is the source of anima­
tion. The Kmv<i are live only in it. Not the hard taken by
itself alone, without relation to the soft but the hard as
something which has become hard, something which
subsequently will become soft. But not only this-the poet
is on his guard against isolating not only the contraries,
but also pairs of contraries. His 'hard' in its presence
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
together with the soft is at the same time and, indeed,
essentially and always, among the bright and the dark,
the warm and the cold and other pairs of this sort. It is
'among' many. It is alive in this 'betweenness.' The poet
does not separate. He does not name. For naming is a
dividing. He lets [the Kotv<i] 'become manifest'­
manifestation intertwines, intertwining animates. What
becomes manifest is life itself, the being of all that is alive,
as a totality of changing forces intertwined with one
another: the poet's way of giving form to the object holds
good for its transparence much as it does for the move­
ment of sounds and tones in the arrangement of words
and rhythm. Homer's wisdom is his 'knowing' about the
whole of existence: his art is to let this 'knowing' become
manifest.
Hence, these Kotv<i of subject and object are surely not
an original many. They would be dead not only if they
were separated, but even if they were arrayed alongside
one another. They would be words, not essences. Their
'concretion' is their 'having grown together into one
another.' There is actually only one Kmv6v, whose sides,
moments, joints are these
Kotv<i, one KotvO<; A.6yo<; of life
itself. Homer sees this Kotv6v in the change of forms and
events, in the shifting interlacing of its moments, as one
and the same.
The
tertia of the Homeric similes are not single joints,
moments of this one, but analogies of a particular inter­
lacing, Analogy detached from the objectivity of the ob­
ject, serves to make this interlacing transparent. The
particularity of the interlacing of the Kmv<i is a special
aspect of the one Kotv6v, of what ultimately shines
through. The poet's vision and voice aim at this latter.
As the events change the progress of the narrative alters
the interlacing of the moments and, with it, the particular­
ity of the aspects. The change itself reveals the single con­
catenation as a special aspect of their eternal arrangement.
After the snow-image of Penelope dissolving into tears
the poet continues:
Od. XIX, 209-212:
And the bold Odysseus/pited his sorrowing
Wife deep in his heart. And still/he kept
His gaze fixed and straight, as if his eyes
Were of horn and his brow of iron./
Artfully he hid his tears."
(R.A. Schroder)
ctutUp 'O&Uaawcr
8UJ.Lip j..tEv yoOroaav Eitv EAeaipe yuvalKa,
(Hp8aAiloi &' ffic;
Ei. Ktpa Eatacrav ne ai&npoc;
O.tptj..ta<; Ev j3Ae<ptipmmv &OAcp &' 6 ye O<iKpua KEU8ev.
The simile of melting snow shines through these verses
as well, with the force of its transparence, verses which
now repeat in a transformed arrangement the conflict of
hard and soft and much else which is nameless in the
77
gestures and behavior of Odysseus. The same existence
changes the manner of its visibility.
The Homeric similes are impassioned movement. But,
deeper than any change is a rest which inwardly prevails
through the restless events. This rest is not, by any
means, a subjective repose of the epic, detached poet.
Homer is always and everywhere passionately affected.
What is at rest is what is seen, not the poet's seeing eye.
Movement itself, its passion, is what is at rest: What
ultimately shines through, inescapable and eternally fit­
ted together, existence itself, the changeable, as some­
thing eternally alike. The classical, as a systematic, not
an historical concept, must be based on this unchange­
able arrangement of what is ultimately seen. I dared to
undertake this task in my essay on the beautiful.
We are now, for the first time, getting closer to that in­
n~r meaning in which the first visions of Greek
Philosophy harmonize with one another. These visions
have their roots in Homer's vision of the world. Homer
is closer to its inner meaning than Theophrastus. Accord­
ing to Theophrastus's report concerning
yviiicn~ -.:0, the
iS~tota seem to be an original many, elements of the in­
ner and the outer, from the mixture and separation of
which the particular features of things and their chang­
ing structures arise and pass away. The controversial
question of knowledge is then whether we know the bit­
ter through the bitter outside of us or through the sweet.
The original teaching, however, knows nothing of such
an alternative. Homer's knowledge embraces both. It
comes about both
-.:0 6~toicp as well as -.:0 evavncp. Par­
menides and Heraclitus, too, oppose the separation of
contraries. For both their separation is a
\jleiioo~. Heracli­
tus, Fragment 57: "Hesiod is the teacher of most men.
He is supposed to know the most he-who does not even
know day and night-they are one." Parmenides, Frag.
8, line 53: "Mortals establish two instead of one and in
this they go astray: darkness and light, divided from one
another, each on its own not the same as the other, both
the one and the other for itself." From this division, the
npiii-,;ov
\jleiioo~, arises, o6~a the specious knowledge of
mortals. If the contraries are inseparable and night and
day are one and the same, then the alternative of
yv<ilcn~
-.:0 iwoi1J 6~toicp or evav-.:icp is a controversy within 06~a.
In Parmenides and Heraclitus alike, naming, too, is in
disrepute, along with the separation of these
i\~tota from
one another. Naming occurs as separating (Farm., Frag.
9; Heraclitus, Frag. 67). Philosophy, although directed to
making conceptual distinctions, begins by discrediting
naming.
'Ovo~t<il;ew as naming of things separately is op­
posed to true voe\v. This voe\v is
not 'conceptual' think­
ing. This voeiv is a seeing, the seeing together of the
inseparable.
The 'commons' of the soul and things, on which this
78
knowledge rests, are no more in this philosophy than in
Homer an original many, which must be divided and then
placed in a sequence. There is an original one, which, be­
ing prior to its manyness, articulates itself in the latter
as into its own moments. These moments are not any­
thing 'objective,' spread out in space and time, they are
present to one another: as "continually present even while
absent" (Farm., Frag. 2). Thus the very same
voii~ which
has to do with truth
sees (A.euooet) these moments. There
is, therefore, only one 'common.' This 'common' is the
'one' of Anaximander, concealing and securing in itself
all oppositions-it is the much-debated ov of Parmenides,
which never is something of the past, never something
of the future, but O.d viiv,
6~toii niiv, is the eternal present
and everything at once; it is the
Kotv6~ Myo~ of Heracli­
tus, the essence and styling [Artung] of what is, which
is there and insofar as
it 'is'-qnJat<;, which loves to con­
ceal itself (Frag. 123). Attending to
<pUat~ we say and do
the true (Frag. 112).
What these thinkers strive gropingly and vainly to
say-Heraclitus in riddling words, trans)Ilitted to us only
in fragments which have grown dumb and been miscon­
strued, Parmenides in the verses which command us to
see what
it is unsayable, an unsayable mirrored in a
phenomenology of nature, over whose specious essence
the goddess of the truth in the hidden holds sway­
Homer sees and announces this, by letting it 'appear'
without saying it. The vision of the poet outlasts the con­
cepts of the philosopher.
Thus, Homer might help us to understand Heraclitus:
Heraclitus, Fragment 67 (Diels):
[scil. EO'ti llECO] 0 9E:0c; flllEPrt f:lHpp6vn, X,f:illOJV 9Epoc;,
n6AE:Iloc; dpi!vn, K6poc; AtJl6cr, &.AAotoG't"cu SE 0Krocrngp
nUp, Cm6't"av OUJlJltYfi 9u001J.aow, 6voJl6.i;.E:'t"ctt
St
Kn9' 'n8ovl)v 'gKciO't"OU,
["The God is day night, cold heat, war peace, satiety want;
comes different just like fire whenever it is mixed with
per~
fumes it is names after the flavor of each."]
Karl Reinhardt's interpretation emphasizes the oppo­
sitions: Being Change Name. It
is the God, Day Night,
Winter Summer, War Peace, Satiety Hunger he
changes
himself only as the fire does, when it is mixed with the
perfumes. The
Name however, is a nugatory choice of
each man.
3 Homer's images, shapes, events-the entire
world of his objects and their changes is the color and
lambency of the flame, the changing look of the same,
which as one is inescapably fitted and joined to itself, the
being of the soul as well as of things-the unknown,
which it is the poet's might and secret to let shine
through.
The power of philosophy is the living question. Without
the latter the testimonies of past thinking remain as dumb
SPRING 1986
as the things themselves-with it, the one might illumine
itself in the other. Thus the secret of animation in simile
and contrast in Horner might help us in explaining the
inner meaning of the first philosophical question and the
first answer.
The very formulation, however, which that secret finds
in this explanation, conceals a hidden danger, even
though it may be more appropriate to the problem than
the concepts of our aesthetics. This danger is the separa­
tion of appearance and "idea."
The multicolored world of sensible shapes is for the
poet appearance, shining through as appearance, and in
this shining through is essence itself and its truth. This
essence is only in appearing. The appearance
is itself what
appears.
The course of philosophical endeavor splits apart this
unity. It devalues appearance into semblance. Its pathos
is directed against the mortals, whose "long-experienced
habit" (Farm., Frag. 1, line 34), abandoned as they are
to changeable things, stumbles in the darkness.
Philosophy as it gropes for the true essence uses as its
means abstract thought. "Reason" stands opposed to the
senses. However, every separation of Opat6v and vorrr6v,
of a
mundus sensibilis and mundus intelligibilis, every choris­
mos
of sensible thing and idea, stands powerlessly before
the marvel of the beautiful. For precisely this is the mar­
vel and its incomparable power that here thinking hap­
pens as perception, the intelligible itself turns into the
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
sensible, unnamed, but visibly there "in person" -the
vorp:6v itself, this is precisely that ultimate, which in the
question of being as "what is sought and gives rise to
perplexity from long since and now and in the future"
(Aristotle,
Metaph. Zeta 1) has always been wooed by the
greatest names in philosophy.
Indeed, this V011t6v 'is' only as 6pat6v. It is in no way
xrop1<n6v. Any essence which does not appear lacks
essence for any art.
Plato, too, who placed the 'beautiful itself' and the pure
vision of it above every visible appearance, knew about
this
(Phaedrus 250e): "It was the lot of beauty alone that
the most visible is at the same time the most worthy of
love.''
Hence, the inner marvel of art, warning against any
chorismos, accompanies the history of philosophy.
Translator's Notes
1. These references are to G. Hermann's annotated edition of
the
Poetics (Leipzig, 1802) and read in translation: "when the
image of peace is set suddenly in contrast, the contest ren­
dered more terrible" ... "light takes from darkness and dark­
ness from light more force than either could ever have had on
its own."
2. See Goethe,
dtv-Gesamtausgabe, Band 41 (Munich, 1963), p.12.
3. See Karl Reinhardt, Parmenides und die Geschichte der
griechischen Philosophie (Bonn, 1916).
79
The Origin of Philosophy
Jon Lenkowski
I
According to a long and venerated tradition, what came
to be called "philosophy"
originated in the ancient Greek
world-more specifically in Ionia in Asia Minor (now
southwest Turkey). Its birth is dated at somewhere around
the very late seventh or early sixth century b.c., and is
tied to the name of a certain Thales of Miletus-tied to
Thales mainly on the strength of two statements attribut­
ed to him: viz., that the
arche of everything is water, and
that all things are full of gods, or full of soul-dark say­
ings, very dark sayings! The appearance of philosophy
there, as well as elsewhere, was
entirely unprecedented.
It has long been of great interest to scholars, why and
how philosophy might have appeared just when and
where it did. This has led to all sorts of conjectures, some
more likely than others. Let me pursue for a short while
the best of these. Let me tell you a likely story.
First the Mediterranean itself. Its geography encouraged
coastal development, navigation and trade. The broken
geography of the Greek peninsula and the neighboring
islands in particular promoted this. This had political con­
sequences as well: for the fact that the Greek world was
broken up into a number of small entities deterred any
tendency toward centralized autocratic rule and fusion
into a large imperial entity, as had happened to the great
river civilizations of Babylonia, Sumaria and Egypt. The
Jon Lenkowski is a tutor at St. John's College, Annapolis. The Origin
of Philosophy was originally delivered as a formal lecture at St. John's
College, Annapolis in 1985.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
tendency of these small Greek tribes and villages was
rather to retain their independence, so that when they did
form into cities ruled by kings, the authority of the king
was limited by a council of peers. In the meetings of these
councils all things got discussed and decided. It was here
that the tremendous role of the
logos, of the spoken word,
of argument (where one had to listen as well as be listened
to) got developed. It was here also that self-legislation ap­
peared for the first time. With all political matters being
decided by these councils-an atmosphere in which the
notion of law by fiat would be anathema-deliberation
about what laws would be best would have to play a
prominent role. But such a discussion could only occur
if it had already been seen that laws themselves are not
eternal and immutable. This realization was also the re­
sult of travel and trade. (It should be noted that the two
great lawgivers, Lycurgus and Solon, had travelled ex­
tensively-something which was thought to
qualify them
to be legislators.) Exposure to the different peoples around
the Mediterranean seems to have produced a spirit of
give-and-take, not only with respect to goods, but perhaps
more importantly with respect to customs and opinions.
This exposure produced an entirely unprecedented open­
ness: reflection on the varieties of ways oflife and tradi­
tions led necessarily to reflection on one's own beliefs and
inherited customs.
Everything could now be reflected upon
and discussed-which meant that it was no longer im­
mutable. Hence Hegel wisely remarks (Einl., Vorles. Gesch.
Phil.) that political freedom and freedom of thought are
inseparable, and that therefore philosophy only appears
in history where free institutions are formed.
81
In the same way that the physical layout of the Mediter­
ranean encouraged travel, it also encouraged colonization.
Miletus in Ionia in Asia Minor was one of the first of such
Greek colonies. This land was Greek-speaking and was
peopled by Greeks who had colonized it after fleeing from
marauding Dorians on the Greek mainland before 1000
b.c. By the seventh century, Miletus was itself already a
metropolis, itself sending out colonies. Thales of Miletus
seems to have taken advantage of all the opportunity this
setting offered. Like most of what is supposed to be
known about him his dates are conjectural. His birth is
probably somewhere between 636 and 624 b.c. (this de­
pends on whether one believes Diogenes or Appollodo­
rus), and he lived until approximately 546 b.c. His ancestry
was most probably Ionian and therefore Attic (according
to Diogenes I, 23), through he may also have had some
Phoenician blood (according to Herodotus I, 170). He was
in the olive trade-a fact which obliged him to travel fair­
ly widely in the eastern Mediterranean. He seems to have
taken full advantage of this. While visiting Mesopotamia,
he apparently learned what the Babylonians knew of as­
tronomy. Most of this was mathematically imprecise, and
based on observational records, most of which are ques­
tionable. But he was, as a consequence, able to predict
an eclipse on 27. or 28. May, 585 b.c.-an important enough
event since it changed the course of a war. He may even
have written a treatise on nautical astronomy-though this
is doubtful.
He also travelled to Egypt and learned what they knew
of geometry. Here he seems to have really come into his
own element. There are either five or six theorems at­
tributed to him-again, according to whom one believes.
What one must notice in these theorems is a mathemati­
cal precision and theoretical
generality not present in any
of the so-called "approximate area" formulas of the Egyp­
tian geometry. Especially in his theorem that the sides of
any similar triangles are proportional, we see a fully de­
veloped interest in
generality. Something like the univer­
sal
seems to have been discovered.
It may, then, have been his success with mathematical
generality that led him to seek for generalities elsewhere
as well. Hence his pronouncements that the
arche of all
things is water and that all things are ensouled. As for
the particular contents of these pronouncements-again
conjectures. Listen to Aristotle:
"Probably the idea was sug­
gested to him because the nutriment of everything con­
tains moisture ... also because the seeds of everything
have a moist nature."
(Meta 983b) And: "Some say soul
is diffused throughout the universe, and
perhaps that is
what Thales meant in saying all things are full of gods:'
(De An. 411a)
This concludes my likely story. Notice how comprehen­
sible it's all become! Why, then, do I still have the nag-
82
ging sense that something is missing-not something in
the
details of this account, but something essential? What
I've lost, or missed completely, in my attempt to recon­
struct the historical event, is
everthing philosophical. If I real­
ly pay attention to this, I see that this failure, which
historians of philosophy customarily settle for, is the in­
evitable result of having taken the question of the origin
of philosophy to be a historical question in the first place.
I see, furthermore, that not only this, but
any attempt to
turn philosophy into a historical event, finally leads me
nowhere-nowhere at all.
It looks as though we'll have to make a completely new
beginning-perhaps a quite different kind of beginning­
in order to find our way to the beginning of philosophy.
In making this new departure, it may not be necessary
to abandon completely our interest in Thales.
Of all that is written about Thales, most of it is repeti­
tive, unimaginative and tedious-a point which I have,
in these opening few minutes of the lecture, tried to make
you
painfully aware of. But by far the greatest fault of
writers on Thales, is their failure to take him seriously.
This is true not only of the chroniclers, but also-sad to
say-of philosophers themselves. One rare and beautiful
exception is Friedrich Nietzsche. He speaks briefly of
Thales in his little book,
Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the
Greeks.
Let's listen:
"Greek philosophy seems to begin with an absurd notion,
with the pronouncement that water is the origin and mother's
lap of a11 things. Is it really necessary to stop and be serious
about this? Yes, and for three reasons. First, because the
pronouncement asserts something about the origin of things.
Second, because it does so without pictures or fables. And
finally, third, because in this pronouncement is contained­
even though only in larval form-the thought: All is One. The
first-mentioned reason leaves Thales still in the company of
the religious and superstitious. The second takes him out of
this company and shows him to us as a natural scientist. But
it is in virtue of the third reason that Thales is to be regarded
as the first Greek philosopher:'
The thought: All is One. That is, Thales is the first
philosopher because it is he who first discovered
The
Whole.
What does this discovery of the whole point to
about the mind or understanding of its discoverer? And
why does this make him the first philosopher? It
is this
question which the remainder of this lecture will address.
II
In the second chapter of the Metaphysics Aristotle says:
"For it is by
wondering that men both now and in the be­
ginning began to philosophize:' (982b12-13) Philosophy be­
gins in
wonder-but in what precisely does wonder begin? We
refer philosophy to wonder, but in so doing we must not
forget that wonder itself may be
cause for wonder.
SPRING 1986
Aristotle goes on to say in the same passage: "So .. .
they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance ... :·
(982bl9-20) And: "One who is in perplexity and wonder
thinks himself to be ignorant:' (982b17-18) To philosophize
is to seek to escape from ignorance. And to know that one
is in a state of ignorance is to be in a state of perplexity
and wonder. The two states are the same. Thus,
knowledge of ignorance mediates the relation of
philosophy to perplexity and wonder-which means that
to philosophize and to be in wonder and perplexity are
the same. In the Theaetetus Socrates tells this as well to
Theodorus: he says that the philosopher is" ... ignorant
and perplexed in all things:' (175b4-6) But something else
surfaces here in connection with wonder itself. Aristotle
speaks of "one who is in
perplexity and wonder". To be in
perplexity and to wonder are the same.
1 To wonder is to
be in perplexity. Theaetetus bears witness to this. He says,
in response to Socrates' statement of the puzzles of size
and number: ''And by the gods, Socrates, I am perplexed
as soon as I begin to wonder what on earth these things
are, and sometimes when I begin to look into them I really
become dizzied:'
(Theaet.155e6-8) Socrates responds: "This
affection, to wonder, really shows that you are a
philosopher; for there is no other beginning of philosophy
than this .... " (Theaet. 155dl-4)
We can marvel at this, and can so be led to ask whether
wonder and the marvelous are the same.
We can marvel at something-a thing of beauty or
astonishment-because it is extraordinary or unique. We
can become captivated by it. Such a thing could be called
"wonderful", but is this that wonder in which philosophy
begins? "Captivation'' is a fit word here because the be­
holding of the marvelous is kind of bondage. It is a
standing-still, a cessation of motion, a rr6.6T]!!ct or affec­
tion induced from without. Albertus Magnus, however
in his
Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, makes the
following observation:
"Now the man who is puzzled and wonders apparently does
not know. Hence wonder is the movement of the man who
does not know on his way to finding out, to get to the bottom
of that at which he wonders and to determine its cause:'
(In
I Meta., Tr. 2, Ch. 6)
Although the beholding of the marvelous may give rise
to wonder, they do not seem to be the same. Wonder­
that wonder which is identical with puzzlement-is a
movement, a movement in the one who is puzzled. Is it
then a
rr6.6T]~tct induced from "within''? Is it a rr6.6T]~tct at
all? Or is it perhaps an tvtpyEtct, a being-at-work? Or is
that the peculiar character of philosophy-that it is a
rr6.6T]!!ct which is at once an tvtpyEtct? In
Pericles,
Shakespeare has Simonides say: " ... Wonder, that is king
of thoughts:' (II, iii, 28) Is wonder, then, a way of think­
ing? If so, it would be an extraordinary way of thinking.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
But in this way would it be a movement. This is more than
to marvel or to be astonished. To wonder is to think
6.rr6pro~, to think "without passage'': to "move without
moving''-an extraordinary way of thinking!
Wonder is indeed the most baffling of things, for it calls
forth itself; and this it does in two says; 1. It is
rrctp6.A.oyov-unexpectable; it is absolutely spontaneous,
absolutely unmotivated. And 2. It causes us to wonder
about itself.
What can evoke wonder? According to Aristotle, " ... at ·
first they wondered about the strange-out of place
(&.or6rrwv)-things closest at hand, and then continuing in
this way step by step, they came to be in perplexity about
the greatest things, such as the affections of the moon,
and those of the sun and stars, and about the coming-to­
be of the All."
(Meta. 982b13-17) One can wonder about
everything, about the whole. This is not surprising. We
know already from Hesiod
(Theog. 780) that Thaumas is
the offspring of Tethys and Gea. Wonder is the offspring
of the waters and the earth. Wonder is the offspring of
the whole. It is from the whole that wonder arises. It is
the whole which evokes wonder. This means that the con­
dition for wonder is the being of the whole, the having
of a whole. It is only within the whole, within the frame­
work of the having of a whole, that wonder can arise. And
this means that wonder is possible only for man.
Wonder is human but, to follow Hesiod, it has a divine
origin. The connexion which Theaetetus makes between
wonder and perplexity leads Socrates not only to the fur­
ther connexion of wonder to the origin of Philosophy, but
also to the divine origin of wonder. To refer to its divine
origin is, we know from numerous passages in Plato, to
suggest that no account can be given for it
4, and that is
to point to its own perplexing character. Wonder is sent
to man from the gods. It is a "divine gift"(0E!ct
~to!pct).
But to be in wonder is to be perplexed, is-in Theaetetus'
words-''to become dizzied". A truly strange-ironic-and
marvelous gift!
To wonder is to be in perplexity. But what exactly is it
to be in perplexity? Is it the same as to "seek to escape
from ignorance"? Aristotle begins the
Metaphysics in the
following way:
'f\11 ~e~ by nature ?esire to know. A sign of this is the delight
we fmd m our sensmgs; for even apart from their usefulness,
sensings are delighted in for themselves alone, and above all
others that sensing which comes through the eyes ... for ... we
prefer, so to speak, seeing to everything else. The reason is
that, more than any other kind of sensing, seeing makes us
know and makes manifest many differences:' (980a22-27)
Seeing earns its preeminence and its delightfulness
from the fact that, more than any other kind of sensing,
it "makes manifest many differences". It is through sight
that "manyness" is made
most manifest. But that means
83
that the delight ( 6.y<inl] ot~) is taken in the manyness it­
self. The desire to know makes its first appearance as the
love of manyness. It is the endless variety of sights that
first attracts one's attention and interest. It is not simply
the beauty of these sights, but their seemingly endless
chang:ingness, that evokes one's interest. One delights in
the anticipation of what is to come. This
6.y<inl]ot~ is at
once "delight" and "love". The desire for knowledge first
appears as the "love of novel sights".
We are reminded here immediately of the distinction
which Glaucon makes
(Republic V, 475d, 476b) between
qnA.oO&a!!l!l ("love of novel sights") and qnA.T]KOia ("love
of hearing from mere pastime") on the one hand, and
qnA.ooo<pia on the other hand. He is very hesitant to in­
clude the
<ptA.oOE<i!!OVE~ and <ptA.ljKoot among the
philosophers. Why? Because they run around trying to
miss nothing. They make no distinction as to their worth
among the things that may be learned. No learning is wor­
thier than any other. This is learning which occurs there­
fore in the complete absence of what is good-which raises
the question of whether it is learning at all. No distinc­
tion is acknowledged between the less important and the
more important things. Yet the recognition of this differ­
ence between the higher and the lower is the mark of the
wise man, and-though it sounds a paradox-it is doubt­
ful whether there can be learning which is not guided by
wisdom. They are not philosophers because they do not
learn with an eye toward wisdom; they fail to see the
difference between that learning which is wise and that
which is not. But most importantly: they are not
philosophers because their "desire for knowledge" does
not arise from a condition of self-conscious ignorance.
If the love of novel sights is the beginning of the desire
for knowledge, then the beginning of the desire for
knowledge is not itself the beginning of philosophy.
Philosophy begins in wonder, but the love of novel sights
is mere curiosity.
Curiosity begets thinking which is not unopov (per­
plexed), and as such is unetpov (indefinite) i.e., it has no
natural end; it has no goal. But to wonder is to
think apo­
retically:
it is not unEtpov because wisdom is the goal of
philosophy, however ultimately aporetic that wisdom may
be. Curiosity and wonder are not the same.
In Being and Time, Heidegger remarks that " ... curiosity
is concerned with the constant possibility of
distraction.
Curiosity has nothing to do with eauT]<il;EtV-with the be­
holding of entities in wonder. To wonder to the point of
not understanding is something in which it has absolutely
no interest."
(Sein und Zeit, §36, p.172) I know I'm being
very hard on curiosity, but I must tell you that I'm doing
so to make a point, to emphasize the difference-and I
think it is a very great difference-between curiosity and
wonder. But I would probably not be inclined to go as far
84
as Hegel who characterizes curiosity (because of its
"rambling''-
Faselei) as a disease. (Phil. des Geistes, §408,
Zusatz)
To wonder is to be in perplexity. And if that is not to
be identified simply with the "desire to know" (since the
latter first appears as mere curiosity), we have to ask again:
What is it to be in perplexity?
In
Theaetetus, Socrates spends some time in a digres­
sion with Theodorus (172-177), in which he is careful to
distinguish the way of philosophy from the way of con­
tentious arguing. Within this conversation he gives us a
description of the philosopher, a description which is
playfully modelled on Thales, and especially on the re­
puted fact of Thales' having fallen into an open pit or well.
We want to see if this description helps us to understand
what it means to be in perplexity.
The relevant text is 173c7-174e5. There are nine distin­
guishable characterizations of the philosopher. I will men­
tion just the first of these:
He doesn't know the way to the agora, or the whereabouts of the
court or the senate. (173c7-d2)
Does this tell us something about the philosopher's per­
plexity? It
does if we translate it into a more general for­
mulation of the claim. This would be the claim that
The genuine philosopher doesn't know what is clear and obvious to
everyone-the things which are most familiar to, and taken for granted
by, everyone else.
This clearly distinguishes the philosopher from everyone
else:
In what common understanding finds most familiar,
most relies on, takes
most for granted, the philosopher
sees the greatest of difficulties. It is the philosopher alone
who sees that what
we (i.e. common understanding) be­
gin with, and initially regard as most clear and intelligi­
ble, is
in itself most confused and unintelligible. To move
from what
we regard as clear to what is in itself clear, we
must first have acquired the insight that what we initially
regard as clear is really "anopov. To acquire this insight
is to begin to philosophize. To be a philosopher is to be
in perplexity about all that ordinary understanding takes
for granted as clear and intelligible.
We can make this point even more forcefully: In the
midst of this discussion with Theodorus, Socrates relates
the story of Thales' having fallen into a well, or pit, and
points out how laughable this is for ordinary understand­
ing. But shortly thereafter (174c4-5), he characterizes the
philosopher generally as always" ... falling into pits and
into every sort of perplexity .... " Earlier in the dialogue
(165b7), in response to Theaetetus' claim that any answer
would be impossible, Socrates purposely uses this expres­
sion, "being caught in a pit" ("tv <ppea-n
ouvq:6!!EVo~").
SPRING 1986
"Being caught in a pit" is to be understood here as being
caught in a question from which there is no escape. So­
crates understands Thales' falling into the pit completely
non-literally: to fall into a pit means to fall into perplexity.
Thales fell into a pit. The ground gave way beneath his
feet. He lost his
ground. He lost that on which he was used
to standing, that which he could ordinarily
trust. What
slipped away from Thales was the totality of the things
which are accepted and taken absolutely for granted by
everyday under-standing, the things upon which we or­
dinarily stand, the things which usually
stand under us-all
that is familiar, our familiar
grounds.
To fall into perplexity then means that all this slips away.
If this happens constantly, as Socrates suggests at 174c4-5,
that means that to be a philosopher is to be constantly
without ground to stand on. All that was familiar becomes
and remains strange. No longer can anything be taken for
granted or trusted. Thales was apparently the first to
suffer this, which is why he is the first philosopher.
But what precisely is involved in this fall into perplex­
ity, in which ones loses one's ground? What is this
"ground" that one loses, and what is involved in its loss?
To
"fall into perplexity" ("si~ psa1a Ef!rci1mov") re­
quires, of course, something to
fall from. It presupposes
the de facto givenness what is to slip away. And this
means it presupposes within the philosopher himself a
prior non-philosophic condition. That means: a prior con­
dition of naive acceptance and trust. So not only is wonder
possible only for man; it is possible only insofar as man
already has a world.
But this too needs clarification; for the world does not
after all disappear or become radically transfigured with
the fall into perplexity. The world does not suddenly
change and become unrecognizable. Things go on exactly
as before. Our passive expectancies concerning the gen­
eral flow of things remain fully operative and undisap­
pointed. I will borrow an expression from Edmund
Husser!, and say that, although I have acquired the non­
natural-i.e., philosophical-posture, the
typicality of the
world and of our experience of the world remains entire­
ly unaffected by this. Husser! comes to mind especially
in this context because there is no one in modern times­
and I mean no one-who has devoted as much attention
to the problem of the beginning of philosophy. Let me
quote one short passage from the
Cartesian Meditations:
"Meanwhile the world experienced in this reflectively grasped
life goes on being for me (in a certain manner) 'experienced'
as before, and with just the content
it has at any particular
time. It goes on appearing as it has appeared before; the only
difference is that I, as reflecting philosophically, no longer keep
in effect (no longer accept) the natural believing involved in
experiencing the world-though that believing too is still there
and grasped by my noticing regard." (Pp. 19-20)
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
So everything remains recognizable and familiar. What
becomes transformed, however, is this familiarity itself.
It is this familiarity itself which now becomes strange. We
need not rest here with paradox: This "familiarity" has
two aspects, which coincide but are not the same. We are
from the outset "at home" in the world. That means: not
only is there always a certain regularity about the world,
at least as to its general style, but the world is also from
the outset there for us as simply-immediately (not
through some "symbolic" system, e.g.), unthematically,
naively-understood. Every encounterable objectivity has
not only a
typical style, but also a determinate meaning or
sense. The world itself, as the universal, most comprehen­
sive context of all things, of all the particulars within it,
is thereby the universal context of sense in which each
particular, delimited, or partial sense is located. Each par­
tial or delimited sense
is such only by virtue of its being
found, located, within this comprehensive context of all
sense. The world is the universal context of all sense. It
is a "meaning-context"; it is the universal meaning-context.
We have from the outset, accordingly, a certain
understand­
ing
of the world as such, as a whole; from the outset the
world
as a whole has for us a certain sense. This is the most
pregnant sense of "familiarity". Though this "understand­
ing'' remains for the most part non-thematic, we are never
without it; we always move with this horizon of under­
standing. This horizon of understanding
is our world. To
"have" a world, to "be at home" in the world, to have a
comprehensive, all-encompassing context of meaning and
sense, of understandability-all of this is to say the same
thing:
The world is the comprehensive context of mean­
ing and sense.
To "fall into perplexity" is to lose one's footing, to lose
one's
ground. Falling into perplexity involves the slipping­
away of the totality of what is accepted and taken abso­
lutely for granted by everyday understanding. This is cap­
tured nicely by the German word,
Un-heimlichkeit, because
of its double sense of "homelessness" and "strangeness':
"uncanniness". One is longer "at home"; all that is familiar
(in the designated sense) becomes strange. To "fall into
perplexity" means that the world comes as a whole to lose
its
in-se-et-per-se understandability. That means: it ceases
to hold sway as ultimately valid and independent. It is
no longer simply "understood". In fact, it is only now that
the question of understanding, of the world's understand­
ability, becomes at all an issue. The world now presents
itself as
no longer in-dependent, but as in need of ground­
ing, in need of explanation. All the "parts" of the world­
all things and events, including ourselves-though they
remain, and remain as recognizably the same as before,
though they retain, that is, their typicality-nevertheless
become strange. They become no longer simply under­
stood or understandable. When we say that the ground
85
slips away, then, we mean that what slips away is the sense
of the world: i.e., the world itself, as the comprehensive
context of meaning. What slips away is our under­
standing.
To fall into perplexity is to come to no longer
understand
anything. We lose our grounds, the things which ultimate­
ly
ground our understanding. It is these "grounds" where­
by our understanding is guided, whereby it understands,
when it understands. Whatever we understand, we un­
derstand via these grounds.
These grounds are always at work, though we ordinar­
ily remain unaware of them thematically. But should a
question arise concerning any of the things we ordinar­
ily experience, the thing in question is referred by our un­
derstanding automatically, passively, to these grounds.
I.e., understanding moves automatically to these grounds
to "locate" the things in question, to return it to its un­
derstandability. In this way, "things"-all things, includ­
ing our selves-dependent on these grounds, are traceable
to them; these grounds underlie and are at work in all
things. They
account for all things.
To say that they
account for all things, for everything,
is also to say that they are responsible for the various
ways in which things are interrelated. By this I don't
mean interaction in the narrowly mechanical sense, but
rather the internal references A has to B and to other
things, the references inherent in the being of A, in its
innerness, in its whatness.
It is to these "whatnesses"
that things and their interrelations are to be referred, in
which they are grounded, and on which they are com­
pletely dependent. So it is that things are more than a
mere "many", more than just isolated individuals, but
are f!Opta-i.e., are
parts of a whole (6A.ov). The whole (to
6A.ov) is, accordingly, more than a composite "All"
(mlveetov niiv). It is an order of interrelations, an ordered
whole, a KO<lf!O<;. The whatnesses of things bind things
together so that all things form together a comprehen­
sive context of interrelations-i.e., a "world", a K6<;J..to<;,
an ordered whole. It is only insofar as things are so bound
together that we can at all speak of a
"world", an integral
whole.
"The world", then, as an ordered whole, is this
interrelatedness of whatnesses. It is this that I had in
mind when I referred to the world as the comprehensive
context of meaning and sense.
The "grounds" to which I have been referring, then,
turn out to be the "whatnesses" of things, which account
for all things and their interrelations-which is to say: for
the world. To say that they account for everything is to say
that they are the &.pxai-the principles-of everything.
The whatnesses are the np<iltm&.pxai, the first and ulti­
mate principles. They are the principles of everything­
which means not only of things, but also of the counter­
part of things, understanding. The principles are at work
86
not only in things, but also in our understanding. They
at once make things intelligible, and cause understand­
ing to be. From the viewpoint of the
&.pxai, the world and
understanding are counterparts of each other, express­
ing the double being-at-work of the
&.pxai. The fact that
Plato and Aristotle called these
&.pxai interchangeably
"el011" and "vol]t6." reflects not only the priority of the
&.pxit, but also its peculiar doubleness. Its being at once
a VOl]tOV and an e!&o<; is exactly reflected in the correspon­
dence between understanding and the world. "Under­
standing" is the
noetic expression of the &.pxai; "the
world" is the
eidetic expression of the &.pxai.
It is, then, these 'apxai, the "whatnesses" of things,
through which things are at all intelligible and through
which understanding is at all possible, which are our
familiar grounds. In the fall into perplexity it is these
whatnesses that we lose. And when we say that it is our
understanding that slips away, that we come to no longer
understand anything, we mean that we come to no longer
understand the whatnesses of things, through which
alone we at all understand.
The whatnesses of things are, of course, not the only
kind of" grounds". One tends to think, e.g., of what are
called "efficient causes"-in terms, that is of "condi­
tions" (necessary or sufficient) and "results". These are
also grounds of certain kinds. For us moderns, it has be­
come more and more customary to focus our attention
on these whenever something has become a "problem"
for us. But
by what-we should want to ask-are we guided
when we attempt to determine these efficient causes and
conditions? How do we
know to what we should turn in
order to make what has become problematic once again
understandable? The turn to these is a turn to something
determinate, and it must therefore be guided by something.
But what could give such guidance, if not the whatness
of that which has become problematic? Without a
knowledge-however non-thematic-of this, how could
we know that the thing in question can affect and be af­
fected by other things of just these determinate sorts?
Thus an understanding of the whatnesses of things is
necessarily presupposed by the specification of all rela­
tions of cause and effect, condition and result. But if we
do in that case continue to have this understanding of
the whatness of that which has become problematic, then
no true perplexity results, since we are guided easily and
swiftly enough to those conditions which render the thing
once again non-problematic. As long as those bearings
which provide such guidance remain, we do not fall into
perplexity because, though something has become
problematic, we are pointed immediately to the way out
of the problem. Perplexity is what it is precisely because
it involves the coming to be
without any such bearings.
Since, therefore, any specification of the relation of cause-
SPRING 1986
effect, condition-result, is only intelligible-is in fact only
possible-provided the whatness of the thing in question
remains unaffected-i.e. continues to be "understood"
(however non-thematically) and continues to guide any
assignation of an efficient cause-it is not
these grounds­
efficient causes-which are involved in the fall into per­
plexity; it is rather the whatnesses of things-i.e. the
"bearings" themselves. The assignation of efficient
causality must presuppose, for its bearings, an under­
standing of the whatness of what has become a problem.
But in the fall into perplexity-into "un-understanding"
-it is precisely this that we no longer have.
There is yet another problem having to do with this abil­
ity of ours to
refer what has become problematic to some­
thing else. It concerns this
referability in general. An
examination of this will make us see more clearly the
utterly radical nature of the fall into perplexity.
When we do lose our "understanding" of something
(i.e., of its whatness), we
suppose that we continue to un­
derstand other things-in fact, things at large. And in­
deed, the loss of "understanding" of the particular things
compels us to
tum to other things (i.e., to other what­
nesses) which we
suppose we understand-to refer it to
these in order to "locate" what has ceased to be
simply
"understood", in order to retrieve our understanding of
what has become a problem, to become once again "at
home" with
it, to render it once again familiar. What has
become un-understood thus reveals, in its un­
understandability, that it is not something isolated, but
has
essential, intrinsic connexions with other things. This
is, of course, something we always "knew", though
it
is perhaps only now for the first time that we take notice
of it at all. And neither is that to which we now turn
something isolated; this too presents itself rather as es­
sentially interconnected with other things, including the
problematic whatness we have just referred to it. In thus
turning to these other things, we find ourselves referred
ever beyond them. We come to see that the difficulty with
which we began is far more extensive than we had at first
seen. We discover the irony of our search: that each ad­
vance presents to us yet further obstacles. We come to
see that the self-disclosure of the
philosophic problem is a
revealing that it is always hiding much more than it lets
us see.
A certain whatness becomes a problem. If, in its refer­
ral to yet another whatness to "locate" it and therefore
retrieve our original "understanding" of it, the move­
ment of thinking stopped there, no perplexity would
result, since the original whatness would
immediately
cease to be a problem, for we would have now immedi­
ately
"located" it (much like quickly finding something
we had mislaid)-and this by virtue of the fact that it does
always contain (even when it has become problematic)
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
these "paintings" to other such whatnesses.
This fact, that it does contain such "paintings" to other
whatnesses, might appear to land us back in the very
same difficulty which we discovered in our examination
of efficient causality-viz., that insofar as the now
problematic thing does continue to give us "bearings",
we must still
understand it, with the result that no per­
plexity occurs. Here, however, the matter is somewhat
different: We lose our understanding of something-e.g.,
what it means to be a "human being". Though we con­
tinue to "know" that a human being is an animal, and
therefore that the whatness of human being is connect­
ed with the whatness of animal, we are now aware that
we do not know
how they are connected, that we do not
understand the precise nature of that connexion (indeed,
this connexion, having now become problematic, for the
first time becomes
thematic for us), though we had always
thought we did understand this.
This brings directly to mind two notable cases in the
dialogues of this incipient self-awareness: At
Meno SOb,
Meno confesses that he had always thought he knew
what human excellence is, but now can't answer this
question. At
Sophist 244a, the Stranger says that we had
all along thought we knew what being ("oov) is, but are
now perplexed
(rptopljKcr~ev) about it. This event in the
Sophist is especially pertinent here. We, as well as the
Stranger and Theaetetus, are brought to this insight that
we are indeed perplexed about being-and are brought
therewith to the initial thematization of being in the first
place-by the inner logic of the movement of thinking
from the initial questionability of "the sophist" through
the questionability of inquiry (ZT]"Eau;), of art (TEJGVT]),
of the image-making art, of falsehood
(IJ!Eiloo~), and
thence of non-being
(~1)6v). Though they become per­
plexed about the whatness of being, their
tum to just this
bespeaks their recognition of the
centrality of the what­
ness of being, its central connexion with
everything they
have been talking about from the beginning. This is clear
not only from an examination of the whole series of
themes that led them to the thematization of being, but
also from the immediate context of 244a, as well as from
what follows this passage: The immediate context has to
do with the claim of certain of the physical philosophers
that the only things that
are are the "hot" and the "cold";
and the Stranger's and Theaetetus' insight is that they
do not explain what the "m:e" means. Their own thematic
discussion of this question (244b sq.) leads them through
an uncovering of the five "greatest classes"
(~tytam
ytvl]), to the subsequent discussion which turns out to
be a mirror image of the whole "preliminary" discussion,
moving in reverse order from being to non-being (256d
sq.) to falsehood (259d sq.) to the image-making art (264c
sq.) to "EJGVT] in general (264d sq.). Apart from other
87
things, this signifies that the connexions among these
things (i.e., among these whatnesses), though having be­
come problematic, have been preserved. The movement
of referral of one theme (therefore: one whatness) to the
next exhibits, at each step, the incipient recognition of
the non-independent-i.e., problematic-character of
what they take as their theme. The fact that the discus­
sion subsequent to their thematic treatment of being and
the greatest classes-iS a minor-image of the "preliminary"
discussion which leads to the thematization of being, sig­
nifies among other things that, with the articulation of
the problem of being (with the disclosure of its ultimate­
ly aporetic "structurerr), there is nowhere else to move
to, but back to where they had begun, and along the very
same path they had then taken.
Thus these connexions among the whatnesses, as well
as our recognition of them, remain, though they are now
no longer simply "understood". The whatnesses and
their interconnectednesses remain what they were-and
yet, on the side of understanding, they have now revealed
themselves to be indeed strange: the whatnesses show
themselves to be non-independent, and their intercon­
nectednesses too are opened up-which is to say: they
too reveal themselves to be problematic. In fact, even
what it means to
be a "connectedness", a "connexion",
is no longer understood, is problematic.
So: even though the now problematic whatness can be
immediately and automatically referred to one or more
other whatnesses, it does not thereby immediately cease
to be a problem. This movement of referral to yet ever
other whatnesses is of necessity
continuous, and it is just
this which constitutes the fall into perplexity. The inherent
logic of this movement of referral forces one constantly
onward, until one reaches the point where, though refer­
ral still remains imperative, there is nothing left to which
that referral can be made. The incipient aporia of a cer­
tain whatness necessitates its referral to ever other what­
nesses,
co-implicating from the outset all whatnesses in its own
un-understandability.
The movement of referral (as exhibit­
ed paradigmatically in the
Sophist) reveals the thorough­
going interconnectedness of all whatnesses. The fact that,
in the attempt to retrieve the understandability of the
original whatness, this referral moves through ever other
whatnesses until one reaches a
dead end which is at once
a demand to proceed,
shows that it is this thorough-going
interconnectedness of
all whatnesses that is involved in
the fall into perplexity: there is
nothing left to which to
turn. The fall into perplexity is radical and total: it is the
loss of
all bearings, all grounds.
1bis can be formulated in yet another way: In the lan­
guage of
Republic 510b-511c, something becomes a
problem-i.e. it reveals itself to be non-independent and
therefore to be merely a 'onoee<n<;, to have been so all
88
along, whereas we had always up to now (however non­
thematically) understood it to be
in-se-et-per-se under­
standable and therefore as itself an upxl\, as its own upxl\,
as independent, as in and of itself intelligible. The self­
revelation of its non-independence, of its merely
"hypothetical" character, is at once its self-referral to
something else (another whatness), something which at
first appears in and of itself intelligible and therefore truly
independent and ultimately grounding. But because the
whatness with which we began has become problemat­
ic, even though it refers itself to-and therefore directs
our attention to-another whatness for its grounding, its
connexion with this second whatness also at once becomes
un-understood. This renders the second whatness
problematic (since it is now unclear
how it is connected
with the first), and leads thinking beyond
it to locate that
which would ground the connexion between the first and
the second whatness. In other words, the second what­
ness, which had, when we were first referred to it, ap­
peared to be in and of itself intelligible, as its
own upxl\
now
too reveals itself to be merely "hypothetical" and
to require a ground, an upxl\. This necessarily leads us
beyond itself to locate that which would ground
it as well
as the first whatness. But that to which we are now
referred (some third whatness) presents the same
difficulty, revealing its at first apparently
archaic charac­
ter to be in truth merely
hypothetical, and therefore re­
vealing the need to go beyond it to
its ground. And so on.
This matter is somewhat complex and involves more
than merely a successive transformation of
Upxa.i into
'uno6Em~v:;. The con:rlexions remain what they were-it's
just that
theynow disclose themselves as unclear, as no
longer understood. The upxui
remain as upxui relative to
what they ground, but they now show themselves to be
questionable, problematic, opaque. I.e., they now show
themselves to be problematic both
in themselves and as
grounds,
as to how they ground. Though they remain as
grounds relative to what they ground, they now show
themselves to be
non-ultimate, for they now show them­
selves to
not be in and of themselves intelligible. They
point, that is, beyond themselves to the demand for that
which would make them intelligible. This is not merely
the transformation of 'upxui into 'onoetcret<;-indeed, it
is our mere
supposition ('on6eems) of these 'upxui which
is now in suspension; perhaps it would be more accurate
to say that the 'upxui-the whatnesses-reveal them­
selves to be 'unoK&(fl&VU: they "lie under" or "behind"
what they ground, but not in an
ultimate way, not with
ultimate and absolute intelligibility-and this is so not
only with regard to the relationship of whatnesses to
"things", but also with regard to the interconnexions
among the whatnesses themselves.
It is in their ultimacy
as grounds (i.e. their ultimate clarity and intelligibility as
SPRING 1986
grounds) that they fall away, revealing, point to, the de­
mand
for ultimacy; revealing, that is, the ultimate unclarity
(and hence ultimate groundlessness) beneath them.
It is
this which was meant by saying that the fall into perplex­
ity is the loss of one's grounds.
Let us see how far we have come: We have seen that
in the fall into perplexity all things, all connexions, re­
main, but as "un-understood". We no longer
understand
them-"what" they are. All whatnesses "slip away"
from us, and this is what is meant by saying that we lose
all our grounds. We have seen that, in the incipient
aporia
of a single whatness, all whatnesses are, from the out­
set, implicated-and that this is necessary, since other­
wise the incipient problem would, in its referral to other
whatnesses, immediately cease to be a problem. The fall
into perplexity is radical and total: we no longer under­
stand anything. In view of the thorough-going intercon­
nectedness of all whatnesses it can be said that in the fall
into perplexity we lose our understanding of the world
as a whole. Though the world continues to be "there",
and retains it typicality it is lost on the side of understand­
ing. Earlier, I characterized "the world" as a thorough­
going interconnectedness of all whatnesses, and there­
fore as a comprehensive, all-encompassing context of
meaning and understanding-a characterization com­
pletely consistent with the ancient understanding of the
world as a
K6o:~o<; an ordered whole; a characterization,
in fact, by which along this concept of the world as a
KO<l!lOS becomes at all intelligible, since "order" bespeaks
thorough-going interconnectedness-which is, in turn,
intelligible only by reference to the whatnesses of things.
In the fall into perplexity, then, we lose-on the side
of understanding-the world as a whole, the whole con­
text or framework of meaning which ordinarily guides
our understanding, from which our understanding or­
dinarily takes its bearings; we lose that horizon of un­
derstanding within which we ordinarily always move. We
lose, in fact, the very context-character of this context.
There is, on the side of understanding, a thorough-going
dis-integration of the interconnectedness of all whatness­
es: things cease to have an
understanding-reference to
other things, There is a breakdown in the integratedness
of the whole; there is, on the side of understanding,
a breakdown of the whole itself. The whole ceases, for
understanding, to be a whole. This context, normally
thoroughly "closed", self-contained, thoroughly inte­
grated, now "opens up", dis-integrates. As a conse­
quence of this, things cease, on the side of understanding,
to be "parts" (!l6pw.) of a "whole", but "break up" into
a mere maniness. Things go on just as before, but now
they are accompanied by our consciousness of not know­
ing how or why they do so. This is the essence of the
fall into perplexity.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
The wholeness of the whole necessarily bespeaks limits,
determinations,
in terms both of ultimate encompassedness
or enclosedness, and systematically ordered parts within.
In the fall into perplexity these are lost. The internal in­
terconnectednesses of parts are lost in the sense that they
become unclear; the ultimate encompassedness is lost in
the sense that that self-referral of a problematic whatness
to ever other whatnesses to resolve itself, finally ter­
minates in yet a further demand to proceed, opening up
thereby the "outer boundaries" of the whole, and rev­
ealing thereby its ultimate non-independence. The whole
('t:o oA.ov) reverts to a mere "All" ('onfiv), in which the
interconnectednesses of "'mfiv'u and the ultimate under­
standability of both "J.nfinu and 'o nfiv are absent. In
the fall into perplexity, the whole become indeterminate,
un-limited, limit-less, and this "openness" is indeed rev­
ealed as something ultimate-and this in two senses: 1.
externally, for
the whole is not itself part of a larger whole
to which it could then be referred, and thereby located
and retrieved; and 2. internally, because of the break­
down and collapse of the "bounds" separating the 'upxui
from each other-and therefore the breakdown and open­
ing up of the 'upxui themselves. In this way does the
"breakdown" of the whole amount to the disclosure of
its ultimate non-independence and ultimate openness.
The
aporetic truth of the whole thus disclosed turns out
to be the least expectable of things: the whole is­
aporetically-the "unetpov.
And here one must ask in passing: Is this what Anax­
imander discovered? viz., the
ultimacy of this openness,
boundlessness(" unetpov); that it is in its
ultimacy that the
"limit-less" is the "ground" of everything-that ulti­
mately boundlessness ('o "unetpov) underlies everything.
In this way, then, the incipient aporia of a single what­
ness produces an opening up of the whole. This what­
ness now presents itself to us as something strange, and
moreover as something we cannot simply refer to some­
thing else (some other whatness) to obviate its strange­
ness. The interconnectednesses of all whatnesses having
themselves now become problematic, we can no longer
depend upon that self-referral of one whatness to others,
which would ordinarily in such circumstances serve to
resolve the incipient difficulty, thereby preserving and
sustaining the holistic character of the whole. This self­
referral, though
it remains (the interconnectednesses re­
main, though
as problematic), now shows itself to lead
nowhere, to go no distance at all toward resolving the
problem of that whatness about which we first became
perplexed. Our recognition that all whatnesses have been
co-implicated from the outset in the aporia of a single one,
now forces us to remain with, to remain before, this par­
ticular whatness, to keep it before us-though we no
longer understand it-and thus sustain the tension of
89
knowing and not knowing in which it involves us. It
presents itself to us indeed as a tenswn, and m two
senses: First of aJJ, it presents itself both as what 1t 1s,
and yet as something unclear; for it is precisely what-it-is
that has now become unclear. That is one tension. The
second tension relates more obviously to us, to under­
standing: although we remain in contact with this what­
ness, this contact has become distantiated or
stretched-opened up without breaking entirely-so that
we now "have" this whatness-have it
before us-and yet
do not know
what it is that we now have.
In thus suddenly becoming for the first time problemat­
ic this whatness at once becomes for the first time
the­
m~tic for us. In becoming problematic, it for the first time
awakens our thematic interest
5 in itself. It is in its first
becoming something problematic, strange, that our at­
tention is first caJJed to this whatness. We behold th1s
whatness now in an attitude of 8eropEtV ilnopTJTlKOV -a
posture of beholding aporeticaJJy. Inseparably embodies
in this beholding are the
arche's having become thematzc,
as weJJ as its having become problematic. This is to say that
this beholding embodies the afore-mentioned tension be­
tween knowing and not knowing. And that is to say that
the posture of 8eropdv
ilnopTJT!K6v-~f beholdmg
aporetically-is the
self-formatwn of a questwn ..
A question, so formed, and embodymgm th1s way the
tension between knowing and not knowmg, 1s not sun­
ply some sort of "thought-object"_, over and against us;
it is far rather a state of tension
wzthm us. As a tenswn,
the question calls upon us, awakens us,
set~ thinking in
motion. A question

1
so formed, constitutes Itself as a de­
mand. It is this demand that the question makes upon us,
which prompted me at the outset to characterize wonder
as a
11thinking Un:6po)(;''-without passage; as a ''move­
ment without transition". The question sets thinking in
motion, but this motion is "without passage": Here
thinking is unable to proceed, and yet unable to rest. The
question is a dynamic tension within us-in other words,
a demand upon us.
The being of a question is not primarily its verbaliza­
tion or linguistic formulation. These merely
express zt. The
being of a question resides in that noetic disposition. or
posture of 8eropetV 'unopTJnK6v,
~mbodymg the te~s10n
between knowing and not knowmg. Th1s posture 1tself
is identical with the question, for it is one with the
self­
formation of the question.
Here I am helped by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Let me
quote you a passage from the second part of
Truth and
Method.
He says:
"Any speech which intends to open up or lay bare someth~g,
requires forcing open this very thing through ~he que~t10n.
To question means to bring into the open .. What IS questioned
must be put in suspension or brought mto unsettledness.
90
Every (genuine) question only acquires its sense by passing
through such unsettledness,
in which it becom~s an open que~~
tion. Every genuine question demands th1s openness.
(Wahrheit und Methode,
p. 345)
It is, as I've argued, a certain whatness that comes to
be
in question-which is to say that this noetic posture I
am describing is a relationship which understandmg has
to this whatness. I have already described our aporetic
relationship to this whatness as a thematic "having"
which is at once a not knowing
what it is that we have.
This indicates that the question that so forms itself is not
just any question. Insofar as it is the whatness of some­
thing which has become a problem for us-the whatness
itself, which we cannot refer to anything else to resolve
the
problem~the question which so forms itself mu~t ex­
press just this relationship; insofar as our
noel!~ attitude
of eeropEtV U1l0PTJTIKOV arises in the already mdlcated
manner, just precisely from a whatr:-ess
be~o~e
problematic, it must be just this whatness 1tself wh1ch IS
reflected in the self-formation of the question.
The whatnesses of things
are the whatnesses of things
precisely because they are the ilpxui in whose terms all
things are understood; a1l things are referable to, are sub­
sumable under, these whatnesses for their
understanding-i.e., not only all particulars and all rela­
tions among particulars, but indeed the whole matrix of
interconnectednesses which we call our ''world''. Hence
an encounter with a strange or unfamiliar object immedi­
ately forms in us the question, ''What is it?'', whose reso­
lution involves the referral of the object to the appropriate
whatnesses. But where do we stand when these what­
nesses themselves have become strange?
A whatness becomes strange, problematic. Thinking is
set in motion, yet this thinking is
iln6pro~-without pas­
sage. We are unable to rest, and yet unable to proceed.
We have this whatness now before us-though we are
now aware that we do not any longer know
what it is that
we have before
us-what this whatness is. The prethe­
matic familiarity which we had always had with this
whatness now gives way to a posture of 8eropetv
ilnopTJnK6v. Having this whatness before me in this way,
and unable to move anywhere, I must ask it-as I would
have to ask of any strange
object-what it is. The ques­
tion which thus forms itself in our noetic posture of
eeropdv U1!0pTJTIKOV is not just any question. The fall into
perplexity is the self-formation of the "What is" question.
III
My argument has centered around a certain claim about
the beginning of philosophy, and has attempted to show
genetically and epagogically that the beginning of
philosophy-or, what is the same thing, the fall into
SPRING 1986
perplexity-is the self-formation of the "What is" ques­
tion. My claim for the unique priority of just
this ques­
tion receives textual corroboration from two sources: 1.
That this question in particular is ultimate-i.e. that it is
not resolvable into some other question-is supported by
Phaedo 96 where Socrates, in criticizing the other ways
of asking after the real (viz., the otiHi and the<\>), argues
that these other ways are, and
must be, reducible to the
-riecnt. 2. That this question in particular is most central
is supported by Aristotle who, in
Topics I, 9, 103b23,
places the -riecrn at the top of the list of the categories,
and who in
Metaphysics Z, 1028a15, says that, though -ro
ilv is spoken of in many ways, the
primary sense is -ro
-rlecrn. In other words, the primacy and centrality of the
-riecrn in the category-articulation of -ro ov indicates the
primacy and centrality of this question
as a question with
respect to all the other possible questions which the
categories express. This is to say: any and all questions
which can be asked to anything are ultimately and neces­
sarily referable to the primary and central question, the
"What is" question.
I have already had occasion to refer to a certain pas­
sage from Hans-Georg Gadamer'
s Truth and Method,
where he indicates that the being of something first comes
to light in the questioning about it-that it is the
question
which first reveals the being of the thing questioned. I think
I'm saying the very same thing when I say that, in be­
coming problematic for us, a whatness becomes for the
first time
thematic as well, and that these two moments
are inseparable. To say that the being of what is ques­
tioned is first revealed in the question about it, must
necessarily mean that the ''being'' of what is questioned
is itself an aporia-that its revelation is the revelation of an
aporia; for otherwise the question would not be, or would
cease to be, a question. But if the being in question is re­
vealed to be aporetic, that means that
what it is is in ques­
tion. And if it is the "what-it-is" that is revealed in the
question to
be an aporia, then the question which performs
this revelation can only be the "What is" question.
* * *
The argument of this lecture has revolved around a sin­
gle point. That point is the point of connexion between
wonder and the "what is" question. We have not moved
beyond that point. We have only opened it up to show
that the "What is" question is formed in a noetic atti­
tude of "beholding aporetically" (8ewpeiv unopT]nK6v).
In modern times it is above all Heidegger who reminds
us of this. He speaks of wonder, the upxlj of philosophy,
as that "clisposition"
(Stimmung) in which we are brought
before the being of beings.
(Was ist das-die Philosophic?,
Pp. 25-27) What does this mean: to be brought before the
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
being of beings? It is, of course, to be brought beyond
the beings themselves to that which both transcends them
and yet
is their being-that which, while not being one
of them, makes them
be what they are. But "what they
are" is not something univocal-not a mere homogene­
ity (for if it were, then heterogeneity would be completely
unaccountable)-and if we understand this phrase, "the
being of beings", accordingly, we can say that wonder­
the fall into perplexity-brings us before the being of each
being, the "what is" of each being, its
£too~.
1biS transcendence which wonder brings about does
not result in the collapse of all the beings into a mere
homogeneous unity in which all difference disappears.
In being brought before the being of beings, wonder
brings us before what is irreducibly an eidetic manifold,
a
range of whatnesses. Nor, in turn, is our transcendence
of these whatnesses (we are, after all, now
before them­
i.e.,
beyond them) simply the move to some thing beyond
them; this move is far rather from these whatnesses taken
as independent, to these same whatnesses taken as no
longer
merely independent; it is the move to their ultimate
non-independence. 6 Wonder is the O.pxlj of philosophy
because it is that radical and all-encompassing transcen­
dence which is at once both a
thematization and a revela­
tion
of the essentially aporetic innerness of the being that
is thematized. It is in just this way that, in transcending
the whatnesses of things, wonder both reveals them and
opens them up as ultimate problems. In transcending the
whatnesses of things, wonder
becomes the "What is"
question.
* * *
This insight marks, at least in its explicit formulation,
if not the traditionally-held historical beginning of
philosophy, then certainly the Socratic beginning of
philosophy-for we know the "What is" question to be
the Socratic question. The cliscovery of the ultimacy and
centrality of just this question seems to have been the
original achievement of Socrates, at least as he is pre­
sented in Plato's clialogues. A study of the significance
of this achievement may not bear upon the historical
question-except perhaps to show that philosophy is
es­
sentially Socratic,
and that the Socratic beginning of
philosophy is therefore the same as the essential begin­
ning of philosophy. I have, of course, indicated this al­
ready, but only in broad outline. To work it out in detail
is the task for which this lecture has been only a prologue.
* * *
Let me conclude by way of an epilogue: I began this
lecture with a likely story. My point, of course, was to
try to persuade you how barren and ultimately uninterest-
91
ing such an account must be, since it cannot help but des­
troy just what it sets out to understand. But I now notice
that, in my attempt to place before you the
essential ori­
gin of philosophy, I too have had to give you a sort of
reconstruction. And I therefore cannot end, without at
least posing to myself the question, whether
this too has
not been a likely story.
Thank you.
Notes
1. I will indicate here in passing that Aristotle links the two par­
ticiples under the single article:OO Cutop&v
Kai 9aUJ.L<i~rov ot-rm
O:yvoeiv.
2. This is seen clearly if we contrast it with someone like Meno.
Meno's torpor, his immobility though it may astonish him is
anything but
wonder.
3. In the Theaetetus(155d1) Socrates in fact refers to -rU 9x;uJ.La(.Etv
(i.e., an activity) as a nli9o<;.
4. As Socrates says at
Republic II, 382d2-3: " ... ou'x 1:6 ~i] eoevat,
5nn-r'a},;q9E<; Exet nepi t& naA.m&v .... " (" ... for we don't
know where the truth about ancient things lies .... ").
5. This notion of "thematic interest" is taken from Husser!. Cf.
Erfahrung und Urteil, §20 et passim.
6. Cf.
Republic VI, SlOb sq.; Phaedo 72e sq.
92
SPRING 1986
A Hero and a Statesman
Douglas Allanbrook
Some years ago, together with a friend of mine, I
climbed a high mountain in southern Italy. It was wild
and savage country, though in the valley under the
mountain there were several bleak and stony villages and
on the other side of the mountain was the sea and the
ancient town of Elea, city of Parmenides and Zeno. It's
country fit only for goats and there was evidence of those
interesting and destructive beasts everywhere. We fol­
lowed goat-tracks all morning as we zig-zagged up the
mountain. We got to the top around noon: it was a spare
and flinty summit. The sun was clear, hot, and disin­
terested. On one side of the view was the glittering
Mediterranean, cut by the curve of the coast from the cape
of Palinurus to the citadel of Elea. On the other side were
the heart-breaking ranges of the desolate province of
Lucania. Everything was harsh and clear.
We soon noticed at a distance of perhaps a quarter of
a mile a solitary figure seated on a large boulder. As we
got nearer to him we could see that he was a goat-herd
and there were lots of his charges cropping away at
whatever poor sustenance they could uncover at this bar­
ren height. He was old and rudely dressed. He moved
not a muscle as we approached; though he was looking
at us his eyes were careful not to show a flicker of ex­
pression. We were embarrassed and, wanting some con­
tact with this solitary figure, we took out cigarettes,
offered him one and took each of us one ourselves. He
lit his and we lit ours and then we asked about his goats
Douglas Allanbrook is tutor emeritus, St. John's College, Annapolis.
A Hero and a Statesman was originally delivered as a formal lecture at
St. John's College, Annapolis, in 1966.
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
and about paths down the mountain. Still without a
flicker of expression he looked at us and said "Voi siete
quelli delle tasse" ("You're the people from the tax
office"). The story ends here, since he said nothing more
and was not interested in what we had to say and he went
his way with his goats and we went our way back down
the mountain.
If we are going to talk about politics, and cities, and
the origins of a particular modern nation-state, great cau­
tion is necessary. The true story I just told is a political
story. It has to do with property, taxes, and suspicion.
There was a head tax on each of those goats, a tax im­
posed by the central bureaucracy of a modern nation­
state. The goat-herd was a citizen of a nation-state,
whatever that means. None of us in truth likes to pay
taxes, though here we have an elaborate contractual
dance within which we can legally quarrel about the
amount and nature of our yearly incomes. Some years
ago our leading literary critic wrote a bitter and lengthy
attack on taxes, citizens, and contracts. Certainly any at­
tempt to talk with that man on that mountain about con­
tracts between citizens, about constitutions, about man
as a political animal, about rights and duties, about his
patriotism, about the exigencies of national armaments,
would have been futile and unjust. All of us have in truth
deep suspicions within us as to our relation with this
many-headed entity, the state. Politics, in one very basic
if low understanding, is a dirty business, and the aura
of greatness and the talk of virtue and the marble monu­
ments are only too often meant to gild the mouldy reali­
ty. If we pride ourselves on having a different relation
to the state than the man on the mountain in the story,
we must be perpetually careful about what we subscribe
to as members of a body politic. We are in truth mem-
93
hers of a greater republic. If that is not so in some man­
ner, however tenuous and slight, the words of the King
of Brobdingnag to his gullible visitor, Gulliver, are peren­
nially true: "I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Na­
tives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious
Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Sur­
face of the Earth." There's a true story from the Spanish
Civil War of an anarchist peasant, illiterate and desper­
ately poor, who stood on a hill watching the destruction
and bombardment of the great port city of Malaga. He
reveled in the destruction as being the destruction of
pride and wealth. He looked forward to a cleaner world
of freedom and brotherhood.
These opening remarks are meant to serve as a back­
drop both to the general discussion of politics inherent
in what will be set forth and to the specific events, the
making of the modern nation-state of Italy, which will
be the main matter of the essay. I should like to frame
the subject more precisely now by giving you in a rough
translation passages from two works of imagination
which have specifically to do with Italy and generally to
do with certain pregnant events in the coming-to-be of
any modern state. The first passage is the opening of
Stendhal' s novel
The Charterhouse of Parma.
On the 15th of May, 1796, General Bonaparte made his
entry into Milan at the head of that young army which had
just passed the bridge of Lodi and had just made the world
aware of the fact that after the course of so many centuries
Caesar and Alexander had a successor. The incredible feats
of bravery and genius which Italy witnessed in these few
months aroused a people that had been asleep: eight days
before the arrival of the French, the people of Milan saw in
them only a collection of barbarians and brigands, always in
the habit of fleeing before the troops of his imperial High­
ness, the Emperor of Austria: at the least, that was what had
been drilled into their heads three times a week
by a little
newspaper no larger than your hand, printed on dirty paper.
In the middle Ages the Republicans of Lombardy had given
proof of a courage equal to that of the French, and because
of this had seen their city entirely destroyed by the emperors
of Germany. Since they had become faithful subjects
[fidCles
sujets} of the Emperor their main preoccupation was to letter
sonnets on pink taffeta handkerchiefs on the occasion of the
marriage of a girl who belonged to some noble or rich fam­
ily. Two or three years after this great event in the life of the
girl she would take an official companion, a young cavalier:
often the name of the young man she had chosen would oc­
cupy an honorable place on the marriage contract. Often in­
deed he would be chosen by the family of the husband. There
was an enormous difference between such paltry and ef­
feminate doings and the deep emotions which the unexpected
arrival of the French army aroused. Soon enough new and
deeply felt ways came to the surface. The whole population
realized on the 15th of May, 1796, that everything that they
had respected up till then was manifestly ridiculous and even
hateful. The departure of the last Austrian regiment marked
the demise of old-fashioned ideas: it was now the fashion to
live in the open; it was realized that to be happy after so many
94
centuries of pale sensations one had to love one's fatherland
with a real love and to be on the lookout for heroic actions.
One had been plunged into a black pit by the continual and
jealous despotism of Charles the Fifth and Philip the Second:
their statues were overturned and all of a sudden they all
found themselves bathed in light. For the past fifty years,
while the Encyclopedia of Voltaire had been flashing through
France, the priests had been preaching to the good people
of Milan that to learn to read or to learn anything of the ways
of the world was hardly worth the trouble and that to pay
ones tithes to the priest and to confess faithfu11y all of ones
little sins was practically a guarantee of a post in paradise.
To accomplish their task of enervating a people that former­
ly had been both so terrifying and so intelligent, Austria had
sold them on the terms of a good bargain the privilege of not
having to furnish recruits to its army.
The second passage is from the novel The Leopard (Il
Gattopardo),
written by a Sicilian, Giuseppe Tomasi,
Prince of Lampedusa and Duke of Palma. The novel was
published shortly after his death in 1957. The protago­
nist of the novel is the Prince of Salina, a figure drawn
largely from the author's own grandfather. Most of the
novel takes place in the years 1860 and 1861 in Sicily.
These were the years in which Italy became a nation.
Sicily played a peculiarly important part in this event.
In the Spring of 1860, Garibaldi landed with his famous
"thousand" at Marsala on the western coast of Sicily and
in a few weeks had conquered the capital, Palermo. This
was accomplished by a rare combination of sheer courage
and good luck, and abetted by the venality of the troops
opposing him. He then went on to conquer the rest of
the southern kingdom of Naples. The details of this event
will occupy us in great detail presently. The scene from
the novel takes place shortly after the first and most fa­
mous general plebescite that Italy has ever witnessed. The
population of Sicily was asked to vote "yes" or "no" to
the following proposition: ''The Sicilian people desire to
form an integral part of Italy one and indivisible under
Victor Emmanuel as their constitutional King." Sicily was
of course already conquered and her legal rulers in Naples
were besieged by Victor Emmanuel. The results in the
Prince's village of Donnafugata had been as follows:
registered to vote 515; actually voted 512; voted "yes"
512; voted "no" 0 (zero). The Prince, a highly intelligent
and large man who has done valuable work in astronom­
ical calculations, is out hunting with his faithful follow­
er, Don Ciccio. Don Ciccio is, among other things, the
organist of the local church and as poor as poor can be,
which is very poor in Sicily, where much of the popula­
tion is often on the verge of starvation. The only other
person you really need to know about is the mayor of
the town. He is a "new" man, as they said at the time,
a wealthy peasant who has profited enormously from the
commotions of the past six months, whose fortune now
equals or even surpasses that of the Prince. He is des-
SPRING 1986
tined to be a future member of the new Italian parliament.
The Prince suddenly asks Don Ciccio the following
question:
'And you, Don Ciccio, how did you vote on the famous
day?' The poor man jumped; taken by surprise,
in a moment
in which his guard was down, he hesitated, not knowing
what to reply.
The Prince took what was only surprise for fear, and was
irritated. 'Well really, what are you afraid of? There's
noth~
ing here except us, the wind and the dogs'.
The list of witnesses was not a happy one, to tell the truth:
the wind is a gossip, the Prince was certainly half Sicilian.
The dogs were the only ones to be completely trusted and
that only inasmuch as they were not equipped with a lang­
uage. Don Ciccio pulled himself together, however, and his
peasant shrewdness suggested to him the proper reply-that
is, no repfy. 'Excuse me, your Excellency, your question is
fruitless. You know as well as I do that at Donnafugata
every~
one voted "yes."
The author of the novel then traces the thought of the
Prince as he trunks back over the past few weeks. Many
humble people had come to him for guidance as to how
to vote. He had told them all to vote 'yes'. Italy had been
born on that day and that was that. Some evil fate must
have been present, however. He could not dismiss thls
from hls mind. At any rate the new country was born
and one had to hope that it could live in the form it was
cast in; any other solution would have been worse. He
felt that the overly neat set of figures, 512 'yes', 0 for 'no',
that the banal rhetoric of the election day speeches, had
killed something or someone. Suddenly Don Ciccio gets
to his feet:
He spoke in dialect and gesticulated, a poor puppet who
was ridiculously right.
'1, your Excellency, voted "no." "No", a hundred times
"no." I know what you told me: necessity, unity, opportu­
nity. You're probably right: I don't know anything about
politics. I leave those things to others. But Don Ciccio Tumeo
is a ''galantuomo'', poor and miserable, with patches on the
seat of his pants.' (and he whacked one of those neatly sewn
patches to make his point more effective) 'and benefits
I don't forget; and those pigs in the City Hall swallow my
opinion, chew it up, and then defecate it in the form they
want. I said "black" and they make me say "white." For once
in my life that I could say what I thought that bloodsucker
of a mayor annulled me, acted as if I didn't exist, as if I never
had anything to do with anyone, I who am Don Francesco
Tumeo La Manna son of Leonardo, organist of the Mother
Church of Donnafugata' (he bit his finger to restrain himself).
At this point calm settled on the Prince who had finally
solved his enigma: now he knew whom and what had been
killed at Donnafugata and in a hundred other places in the
course of that election day : a new-born babe had been killed:
good faith and trust: the very creature that should have been
taken care of, whose good health would have justified so
many other stupid vandalisms already committed. The nega­
tive vote of Don Ciccio, fifty votes like it at Donnafugata, one
hundred thousand no's in the whole kingdom, would not
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
have changed anything
in the final result, they would have
if anything made it more significant: and one would have
avoided this black bile of the soul. Six months ago one heard
a harsh despotic voice which said 'Do as I tell you or you will
be beaten.' Now one had already the impression that this
threat had been replaced by the soft words of a money-lender:
'But you signed yourself. Don't you see your signature? It's
perfectly clear. You must do as we say, look at the contract:
your will is equal to mine.'
As you recall, the first scene from Stendhal took place
in the North, Milan, in 1796. The second passage was
laid in the southernmost part of the South, in southern
Sicily, in the very moment of the emergence of Italy as
a state. Now certain geographical and historical facts must
be presented at some length. Afterward the lives of the
two men chiefly responsible for this unification will be
discussed at some length. Without facts, events and
characters, political discussion is without substance.
First geography. At the very least then Italy is a penin­
sula, hemmed in at the top by the encircling ring of the
Alps and on the other sides by water, cut in two down
the middle by the Appenines. But geography does not
make a nation any more than a common language does.
It has often been pointed out that the patriotism of the
~ f<ingMm Df Sardint"tt
l!lilim C.rJd from Sar•Un&'tt
1:4 France, /860
OJ]] .Austrt'"an '"
g f/nifiei. in 1860
95
Italians during most or nearly all of their history resem­
bled that of the ancient Greeks. It was love of a single
town or commune, not love of a country. To be sure, she
had been quite homogeneous in religion from the time
of Pope Gregory and there was a certain common cul­
ture and language as is clear from reading Dante and
Machiavelli. Like the Greeks, the Italians were never
united, except by foreign conquest, until the events which
we are to trace took place. There is also obviously an
enormous difference between Delphi and Rome, though
the difference is more political than religious as far as the
unity of the peninsula was concerned. Metternich' s cyni­
cal definition of Italy as a "geographical expression" is
not without an element of truth, as is usually the case
with political statements which offend.
Except for the Po valley in the North, the country is
poor and rocky and lacking in natural resources. Yet as
all who have read Thucydides know such poverty can
lead to resourcefulness and daring as well as to political
backwardness and apathy. I can't see that any particular
thing is to be explained by the geographical setting­
though it is a setting within which events and politics are
colored. The barrier of the Alps and the provinces of the
Alps have often been disputed as to whether they are
German or Slav. The state of Piedmont had its roots
firmly in French speaking Savoy. Malta in the far south
and Nice on the Western Riviera were always disputed
territories. In one sense there has been an official lan­
guage since the time of Dante. The spoken language has
always varied enormously-to the extent that the dozen
or so dialects are largely unintelligible outside their native
districts. These dialects have their own literatures, just
as the various regions preserve still, over a hundred years
after unification, their own customs and ways of think­
ing. Up until the unification these various regions were
politically divided with different traditions and systems
of law, coinage, weights, and measures. One of the great
annoyances of older Italy was the proliferation of customs
barriers, set up not only between states but between ci­
ties and ancient communes. There were twenty-two cus­
toms barriers along the course of the Po river with all of
the red tape and fuss that that implies. Such a state of
affairs was disastrous for both agriculture and commerce.
In the Northwest corner of Italy lies the region of Pied­
mont. Since 1815 this state included the important port
of Genoa and the island of Sardinia. The King of this state
was generally called the King of Sardinia and his family
was the oldest ruling family in Europe, the House of
Savoy. The Province of Savoy was part of the state of
Piedmont until 1860, when it was bargained away to
Napoleon III as part of the price for his acknowledging
and fighting for the new state of Italy. Turin, the capital
of Piedmont, became the first capital of the new Italy. To
96
the east of Turin lies, in the middle of the great plain of
Lombardy, the city of Milan. Lombardy was an Austrian
province until1859, when it was conquered by Piedmont.
Still further to the east is Venice and its province. For
countless centuries it had been an independent state, the
"Serenissirna Republica." After the Napoleonic period it
became an Austrian province for seventy years, until in
1866 it became part of the new kingdom of Italy. On the
South of the Po valley were the independent duchies of
Modena and Parma. These were indirectly under the rule
of Austria, Parma having been given as a kind of conso­
lation prize to Napoleon's Austrian wife. To the east of
these cities were the provinces of Emilia and Romagna,
property of the Pope. This northern phalanx of cities and
provinces was and is incomparably the richest part of the
country. Milan, the greatest city of the North, became the
commercial and artistic center of the new kingdom. South
of the Appenines on the west lies Tuscany. It was a Grand
Duchy with its capital at Florence. The Grand Duke was
Austrian. South of Tuscany is Rome, the seat of the Pope.
Rome was a smallish Baroque town surrounded by an­
tiquities. It was the capital of the ghostly empire of the
Church and the temporal States of the Church, a terri­
tory which stretched in a lazy arch up through Umbria
and the Marches around into the Po valley, a crazy quilt
of cities and provinces pieced together by the nephew
of a Pope, Cesare Borgia, as may be recalled from read­
ing Machiavelli. The Southern half of the peninsula, from
sea to sea, plus the island of Sicily, constituted the an­
cient and long-suffering Kingdom of Naples, sometimes
known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In the rest
of Italy it had always been known simply as the
regno,
the kingdom. It was one of the last stands of the famous
Bourbon family in European history and it fell to pieces
in a few short months in 1860 and was incorporated into
the new Kingdom of Italy. It was the largest and oldest
political unit of the peninsula, having existed as a king­
dom for a half a millennium. The differences between
the Kingdom of Naples and the North were profound.
Naples and Palermo were on a different layer of civiliza­
tion from Turin, Milan, and Florence. This was a deeper
difference than that to be found between Boston and New
Orleans in, say, 1850. Most of the inhabitants of this king­
dom lived in squalor and misery, buffeted by earthquakes
and droughts, and constantly subject to malaria. The
next-to-the-last bourbon king, Ferdinand, who died two
years before the demise of his realm, kept up the trap­
pings of a feudal system, feared ideas, and kept his sub­
jects sealed off as best he could from agricultural and
industrial trends current in the rest of Europe. Roads were
non-existent in many huge regions of the "kingdom."
There were recurring peasant revolts in this kingdom,
especially in Sicily. These were not "modern" revolts
SPRING 1986
but sporadic upsurges of black violence, in which a vil­
lage would go berserk and slaughter the priests, the law­
yers, and the land-owners. The capital, Naples, was the
largest city in Italy and the fourth city in Europe at this
time, ranking in population after London, Paris, and St.
Petersburg. It was a fatalistic city and its kings were not
ambitious. Ferdinand had a certain mordant wit and used
to characterize his ancient domains as "being bounded
on four sides by water-on three sides by salt water and
on the fourth by holy water." The Sicilians detested the
Neapolitans and this fact became most important in the
events leading up to the unification. Ferdinand was called
King Bomb, "Re Bomba," by his subjects, because of the
cruelty of his bombardments of the insurgent city of Mes­
sina in 1848. Enthusiasm of any kind was always suspect.
One eager young lieutenant, who had fought with dis­
tinction in Sicily, begged to return to the conflict. King
Ferdinand looked at him with incredulity and asked if
once wasn't enough for him. The city of Naples had form­
erly been a proud center of learning. It was the home of
philosophers, of Vico, Campanella, and Giordano Bruno.
The Southern mind at its best is contemplative and ab:
stract. The future lawyers of the new state were apt to
be Southerners. There was a brief and high-minded revo­
lution in 1799, sparked by the nobles and upperclass patri­
ots. It was put down, assisted by Lord Nelson and the
British fleet, with the utmost cruelty. The counter­
revolution of the Bourbons was led by that bloody prince
of the church, Cardinal Ruffo, who publicly hanged the
outstanding men of the realm in a square which is today
know as the "Square of the Matyrs." The common peo­
ple, the rabble, took little interest in these upper class do­
ings and were more content with their old kings and
superstitious and conniving priests. In defence of the
Bourbons it must be noted that they always kept food
prices low, were not ambitious, preserved the lazy cor­
rupt ways of the kingdom, and developed a kind of kin­
ship in both speech and practice that the common people
could understand. Certainly the Kingdom of Italy after
1860 governed the region worse than the Bourbons and
in a more despicable manner. A huge army of occupa­
tion was necessary, all of the provinces were given over
to bandits, food was taxed, conscription was introduced,
and all local industry was effectively destroyed by the
North. They were given no autonomy and their ancient
customs of law were brushed aside. As part of a "liberal"
policy the lands of the church were broken up and sold
to the most venal of speculators. The common peasant
found himself ground down and reduced to more abject
misery than before. The principal alleviation to this
desperate state of affairs was supplied by the escape valve
of emigration to America and by the money which re­
turned from the New World in a steady stream. This fru-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
gal, and passionate people had to turn aside from their
native land to find any decency or daily bread. In the
thirty or forty years before 1860 the Bourbons had forced
into exile or had imprisoned in the foulest of medieval
fortresses the intelligent and independent minded among
the Neapolitans. The presence either in exile or in pris­
on of the most enlightened segment of the subjects of the
kingdom had a powerful influence on the liberal opin­
ions of the rest of Europe.
The States of the Pope were in as parlous a condition
as the Kingdom of Naples. There had been a brief flirta­
tion with a constitution when Pius IX came to power and
all of Italy had been swept with admiration and wonder
at the idea of a liberal pope. "Who ever heard of a liberal
pope'', commented Metternich. His predecessor,
Gregory XVI, had been one of the worst and most reac­
tionary rulers imaginable. Pius's liberal leanings were
soon swept away. In the midst of the strange revolution­
ary fervor of 1848 a brief and glorious Republic was set
up for three months in Rome, led by the visionary Repub­
lican Mazzini, and defended with desperate courage by
the only hero of modern times, Garibaldi. This republic
was soon put down by foreign troops, the army of the
republican-emperor of the French, Napoleon III, and the
full force of clerical repression was loosed on these un­
happy states. Every vestige of representative government
was swept away, any institutions protecting person and
property against absolute power were abolished. The free
press was abolished and spies, both clerical and lay, were
unleashed. Prisons and galleys were filled with those who
had worked for the Republic. The Vicar of God on earth
retained his power only by the presence of foreign troops
and mercenaries. Rome, the very name, Rome, had al­
ways been present in the mythology and aspirations of
a certain few people in the peninsula. After the brief and
glorious defence of its Republic in 1848, it became a sym­
bol of a united state of Italy. For better or worse in 1870
it was made the capital of the new Kingdom when it was
captured, in a brief and inglorious campaign, by the sol­
diers of Victor Emmanuel. Pius IX, with great ill-grace,
retired within the walls of the Vatican, a self-styled
prisoner, and the first Vatican council wrestled with the
problems of his "infallibility."
Tuscany to the north was ruled by a pliable and kindly
old gentleman, the Grand Duke Leopold, who was not
disliked by his people and was restored to power after
the troubles in 1848. He wanted to make his rule popu­
lar and expressed disapproval of the Papal tyranny. In
some ways the State of Tuscany was a model to Europe.
Its legal and penal systems were exemplary, its universi­
ties were good and it was a tolerant place. Without the
power of Austria, however, the Duke would not have
been there. In the great northern provinces of Lombardy
97
and Venice the Austrians after 1848 had learned the bet­
ter part of wisdom and ruled with an admirably efficient
and even honest bureaucracy, backed by a highly trained
army and often excellent generals. They abolished many
of the trade barriers, took the first census of population,
and collected taxes justly. No other region of Italy was
on any comparable level.
At the time of the conquest of the city of Naples by
Garibaldi there was wild popular enthusiasm. One of
Garibaldi's slogans and cries was always "Hurrah for
Italy and Victor Emmanuel!" A Neapolitan was observed
by an Englishman present in the city at the time to cry
out these words "Hurrah for Italy!" and then to turn to
his neighbor and ask "But what is this Italy they're talk­
ing about? Is she the daughter of the King?" Even if one
knew what Italy was and that it existed, a noted and in­
telligent Italian minister after the unification commented
in a famous phrase that Italy was made and now one has
to make Italians. In our own country, 1860 marks the be­
ginning of the deepest and bloodiest travail and the ques­
tions of what the country was, if it was one, and who
could be a citizen, was settled, if indeed settled, by oceans
of blood. At least in Italy there was not much blood shed,
but the question remained open. What one thing is re­
ferred to when the phrases 'it went to war', 'it is a good
place', 'it has a destiny' are employed, the "it" referring
to a nation? The question has to be answered sometime,
and the avoidance of the question and the lack of good
sense in the answer to the question has been the cause
of untold suffering and horror. In 1922 the nation of Italy
was taken over by a ruthless and pretentious journalist.
With the help of his bands of thugs he ruled and mis­
managed the country until the disasters of international
war put an end to him and his immoral and farcical rule
twenty-three years later. Nowadays there are hosts of
new "nations", and the problem of understanding and
defining state and citizen and good rule is discouraging
and imperative.
We shall perhaps come to some better understanding
if we look backwards now in greater detail to the origins
of the Italian state. After all, it came into being not un­
der the aegis of any historical necessity but through the
actions and decisions and thought of certain extraordi­
nary men. Two men's actions were largely responsible
for the creation of this state of Italy, Count Camillo
Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi. One of them, Cavour,
is generally considered the most consummate statesman
of the century, and the other, Garibaldi, is one of the only
genuine heroes I know of. The unification of the whole
peninsula would have been impossible without both of
them, yet there was no meeting of minds between them.
They profoundly disliked and distrusted each other. This
misunderstanding is not only personal, though it is that,
98
but is deeply involved in the nature of political action and
thought. It is not going to describe much to say one was
on the left and the other on the right. They both sup­
ported the king in their own ways and neither man was
an extremist, though both were capable of extreme and
even rash actions.
There were two main parties at the time of the unifica­
tion: we must understand them to understand these two
men, even though Garibaldi's power rested on deeper
things than party planks and Cavour exhibited a mastery
of power that no party could explain. One party was
known as "the party of action", it was a popular,
democratic party, republican in its origins, with lines left
open to a more radical left. The other party, known as
"liberal" (though today in this country it would perhaps
be known as "conservative") believed in a constitution
with very limited suffrage. It deeply and at times fatally
mistrusted popular movements. It was a party interested
in commerce, banks, landlords, and free institutions.
Cavour once said that the liberal method was good be­
cause "free institutions tend to make people richer."
Cavour said to the parliament of Piedmont in March 1850
"You will see, gentlemen, how reforms carried out in
time, instead of weakening authority, reinforce
it; instead
of precipitating revolution, they prevent it."
The popular party in Italy had its prophet and its the­
orizer in Giuseppe Mazzini. He spent his life as a revolu­
tionary agitator and as an inspiration to revolutionary
youth. He was exiled from Piedmont in 1831, lived in
France and Switzerland until he was exiled from those
countries. He spent the greater part of his days in Eng­
land, which he dearly loved. He was interested not in
the mere political unification of Italy but in its resurrec­
tion. This resurrection was to be accomplished through
the exertions of ordinary people. It was not to be brought
about by any appeal to self-interest. The problem was
moral more than political. One should put no trust in
Kings and alliances. Redemption should come by sacri­
fice. America was no answer to him. He wrote that it is
"the embodiment, if compared to our ideal, of the
philosophy of mere rights: the collective thought is for­
gotten: the educational mission of the state overlooked.
It is the negative, individualistic, materialistic school."
His great cry was
"Dio e populo" -"God and the People."
As was quite natural for such a religious visionary, he
detested the Pope, and for three glorious months in 1848
he ruled the Roman Republic. His method was contin­
ual insurrection. Though he was under sentence of death
for most of his life, he made many trips surreptitiously
back to Italy. Many courageous people followed him and
lost their lives in one abortive uprising after another. His
ideas went further than Italy; he envisioned a world of
popular nations, rising in moral fervor as the fulfillment
SPRING 1986
of God's Providence. Though he was a mild and lonely
man he became one of the most feared and hated men
of Europe. In the earlier years after 1814-15, when the old
and repressive orders were re-established in the Penin­
sula after the Napoleonic years, his program was the only
thinkable one for ardent souls. While it may have been
Utopian to think that the people would rise on their own
initiative, putting aside selfishness, in those years noth­
ing else was thinkable, since the Peninsula was governed
by strongly entrenched governments who would suffer
no talk whatsoever of constitutional reform. ks the years
of the unification came round, many of his most faithful
followers left him and became more practical. He found
that the people rose only for selfish and non-national rea­
sons and he was bitterly disillusioned. "I had thought
to evoke the soul of Italy, but all I find before me is its
corpse." The country was "rotten with materialism and
egoism." He must have known at the end that his own
intransigence was somewhat to blame. He had been capa­
ble of saying "I feel ready to stand before God as pure
and confident as any believer in the world.'' He also con­
fessed that he loved men at a distance but that contact
with them made him hate them. It goes without saying
that he and Cavour detested each other. He accused
Cavour of "substituting Machiavelli for Dante" and
Cavour, before 1860, had found his talk of national unity
"silly twaddle." Cavour was perfectly content to have
Mazzini plotting and leading ineffectual uprisings, as it
only proved to the rest of Europe and to his conserva­
tive friends that he, Cavour, was the bulwark of order
against such disturbing and revolutionary upsets. After
his death the King, when Italy was safely one, would per­
sonally unveil a statue to this Republican prophet, a man
who had been under sentence of death throughout the
unification. Every third street in Italy is named after him
and quite properly so. Mazzini had a function which is
more properly religious than political, the visionary and
mystic function of filling people's heads with hopes that
are incapable of realization. These hopes are dangerous,
because they unleash power. They define "nationality"
and put a flame under it. The popular party, however
much it may have abandoned Mazzini, never abandoned
the idea of one nation, democratic and popular. If the
nation was not to be under Mazzini' s god it would be
under Victor Emmanuel, of all people. Garibaldi, who
was originally a disciple of Mazzini, broke with him. The
two men never trusted each other from the moment
Garibaldi pledged his allegiance to Victor Emmanuel.
Garibaldi himself was loved by the people as few men
have ever been loved, but he was perfectly prepared to
impose freedom on them if they didn't want it. Garibaldi
was often thought of as a lion: not only was he coura­
geous and honest, he could be ferocious and dictatorial.
1HE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
He was little troubled by ideas and he had lots of red hair
on both the top and the front of his head. Mazzini in En­
gland once asked an English friend of his "Have you ever
seen a lion at the Zoological Gardens? Did you ever look
closely at the face of a lion?" "Yes, it's without detail."
"Is it not a foolish face? Isn't it the face of Garibaldi?"
The radical popular party is to be understood as fall­
ing somewhere between Mazzini and Garibaldi. Mazzini
preached the gospel of insurgent nationalism based not
on self interest but on duty and God. Garibaldi preached,
if indeed it were preaching, Italy and Victor Emmanuel.
He aroused enormous popular sympathy by the sheer
force of his courage and honesty. As a general of irreg­
ular troops he was singularly gifted. He also, much to
the annoyance of many, showed on occasion great good
sense.
The Liberal party of Cavour was not interested in
National Unity or any religion that was connected with
it. They abhorred popular movements and believed in
cautious Constitutic:'ns and economic progress. Their in­
novations were concerned with new and better adminis­
tration, mechanical progress, trade, and utilitarianism.
Their model was England and its Parliament. They were
of course anti-clerical; Cavour once defined Christianity
as orthodox utilitarianism. Behind both parties lie revolu­
tionary theory and practice.
We, a revolutionary country, have perhaps grown used
to the Declaration of Independence, but it was and may
be viewed as a shocking and radical document. The
events that followed its publication were also shocking.
The Revolution in America and later in France not only
showed that rulers could be overturned; they proceeded
to demonstrate that it was proper and justifiable to do
so. What had been for centuries regarded by most sober
and prudent men as the ultimate civil and moral crime,
rebellion, was now a thinkable foundation for society and
morality. Hand in hand with these revolutions went the
doctrine of "the sovereignty of the people" and of the
popular will. Any discussion and any political action that
has to do with modern "nations" must of necessity deal
with these powers and the ideas inherent in them. The
varying uses of the word "democracy" are as manifold
and protean as the fish of the sea, and the word "the peo­
ple" is as varied and multifold in its political usages as
"democracy". At the time ofthe two Revolutions the doc­
trines of equality and brotherhood had the negative func­
tion of denying any group of human beings the right by
either blood inheritance, privilege, tradition or ancient
conquest to lord it over the rights of other human beings.
The immediate application of these "inalienable rights"
was to deny the rights of kings and priests and heredi­
tary aristocracy. The positive affirmation of these rights
is held by many political thinkers to be impossible: they
99
are indeed almost impossible of definition. Talk about
them easily degenerates into slogans. The serious discus­
sion of them occupies most of our political thought. Maz­
zini, as you recall, felt that any talk of "rights" of "the
people" had to be transformed into talk about "duties"
of people, and he submitted that America was an exam­
ple of the philosophy of mere rights and that it overlooked
the educational mission of the state. Poor Don Ciccio, in
the Sicilian story I told you earlier, was deeply wounded
as a loyal man that his opinion, registered on a plebiscite
meant to express the general will of the people, was dis­
counted and falsified. As a defender of the old orders of
Kingship and fealty he felt an obligation to repay benefits
received with a "no" on his ballot that was to be
registered by the new orders. If the new orders had not
the courage or common sense to register protest, good
faith was tarnished and non-existent and there was noth­
ing left for any man of honor to respect or support. The
new orders of the Liberal party of Cavour never inspired
trust. This liberal party accepted the facts of the two revo­
lutions and tempered them so as to make them reason­
able. They detested the Pope and the Priests and wished
no part of them in the running of the government. A Con­
stitution was for them a way of keeping the king and pro­
tecting themselves from him simultaneously. It also
served to protect them, who were generally midclle class
people, from what they already regarded as the masses
and from the license to which such people were subject.
They were at the beginning confident that money and
progress and opportunities for educated people could
substitute for good faith and trust. It should perhaps be
stated more fairly that they had faith and trust in what
seemed possible and profitable. The definition of politics
as the art of the possible has always titillated the prag­
matic and the unwary. Let us now turn to the life and
doings of the head of the Liberal Party, that master of
the possible, Cavour. Without him there would have been
no nation. He died a few months after the creation of the
nation and without him the nation faltered.
Count Camillo di Cavour was born in 1810, the youn­
ger son of a Piedmontese nobleman. He entered into
politics as a minister in 1850 at the age of 40. He became
prime minister in 1852 and was almost continuously in
power until his death in 1861 at the age of 51. He was
a shrewd and witty conversationalist with blond hair and
blue eyes, portly in later life. Except in matters of dress,
in which he was proverbially careless, he liked order. As
was the case with Garibaldi, his command of Italian was
imperfect. This was perfectly understandable, as the
Italian language was, in general, unacceptable in the
French-speaking society of Piedmont. All of his travels
in the early years were to France and England. He was
much better versed in French literature and English
100
history than in things Italian. As a younger son in a
strictly regimented and backward society his education
was not the same as that of his elder brother, who re­
ceived training in Latin and Greek and acquired a taste
for metaphysics. Young Camillo was sent to the Military
Academy, where he became a prize student in mathemat­
ics, a subject which he always prized as forming habits
of precise thought. He graduated first in his class from
the Military Academy and was commissioned a lieutenant
in the Corps of Engineers. Liberal ideas from abroad soon
fascinated him and he was rash enough to write several
essays. His family was shocked. His father had a post as
the Royal chief of police and suggested a kind of semi­
exile for him. He was assigned to garrison duty in the
Alps. There he studied English, read the works of Adam
Smith and Jeremy Bentham, and followed with keen in­
terest the workings of the English government. All of his
life he felt more at home in things English and more at
ease with Englishmen than with Italians.
At 25 he resigned his army commission and for the next
15 years managed the family estates (at Liri). There he
became famous as a bold innovator, introducing new ac­
counting methods, crop-rotation, machinery for making
beet-sugar, livestock-breeding, etc. During these years he
also traveled extensively in England and France, observ­
ing factories and talking to politicians. In his rule over
Piedmont he showed the same spirit as he had in run­
ning his farm: he took over an old-fashioned and ill­
functioning unit and modernized it with the best availa­
ble means. He was not at all interested in model farms,
only in farms that worked and showed a profit. His fa­
mily in all his earlier years found him a perverse and
strange creature, often charming but interested in bizarre
subjects such as political economy. His two maiden aunts
could not imagine what he did when he went to Paris,
since all he was interested in was politics and revolution
and he never went to the theater. It is perfectly true that
in later years he only went to the theater to sleep.
On one of his trips to England he inspected gasworks,
factories, hospitals, and prisons. He is said not to have
objected to the use of the treadmill in itself in the prisons
he visited, but he did think that unfruitful labor was
demoralizing. Useful labor with a small gain would re­
form the convict. On his Parisian trips he gambled ex­
tensively. Indeed, gambling was a lifelong passion of his,
which he controlled with difficulty, though he was often
a clever and fortunate speculator. When he was prime
minister he could be audacious to the point of folly, yet
on the whole he was prudent and sensible.
In 1845, though still a private man, he was one of the
most unpopular men in the whole of the stuffy and
provincial little city of Turin. Charles Albert, the King,
a bigoted and querulous monarch, would often inquire
SPRING 1986
of Cavour's father as to the health of his son Camillo and
of his extraordinary visits to hospitals and prisons. When
talking to other persons the king would describe Cavour
as the most dangerous person in the kingdom. He was
so hated by the conservatives that he was privately asked
to retire from his job as treasurer of an Orphan Asylum:
his connection with it set all of higher society against the
charity. He was equally detested by the radicals. One day
when he asked leave to speak at an Agricultural associa­
tion which the radicals controlled, most of the members
rose and left the building. His older brother always dis­
agreed with his politics. When Camillo was in power he
always voted against him, though they lived together in
harmony until the end in the family palace in Turin.
In 1847 Cavour founded a newspaper in Turin to which
he gave the name of
II Risorgimente (the resurgence). It
was this newspaper's name which became the official title
of the whole Italian movement towards unification. He
claimed that the experience he gained running a news­
paper was as valuable to him in his later work as the
knowledge of mathematics.
Time was running short for the despotic and priest­
ridden government of the king, Charles Albert. In many
parts of Italy the yoke of foreign despotism was being
preached against. The independent kingdom of Piedmont
was more backward in its internal structure than that
arch-devil of tyrannies, imperial Austria. Mystical fellows
imagined a united Italy with the Pope at its head; it
seemed a kind of miracle when an amiable and popular
Cardinal, Feretti, was elected Pope as Pius IX and began
to act like a Liberal. Cavour now for the first time showed
his qualities of prudent daring and right timing. A pub­
lic meeting of leading journalists and citizens was called
to discuss petitions that the people of Genoa had urged.
The Genoese, a lively and commercial people, were fed
up with the slowness of things in the capital city of Tu­
rin and urged, among other things, the expulsion of the
Jesuits, who were regarded as the worst enemies of a
liberal Pope. Cavour announced to the consternation of
all extremists at this meeting that what the Genoese
demanded was not too large but too small. While the king
remained an absolute prince he could not grant or would
not consent to one thing or the other. The government
itself was not one thing or the other. It had lost the
authority of an autocracy and had not gained the power
of any expression of the popular will. What was wanted
was not any particular reform but a constitution which
would retain both the monarch and the people. Cavour
felt from the first to the last of his life that this form of
government was the only one possible in a country such
as Piedmont, a government which combined freedom
with order. One of his principal political axioms was al­
ways "no state of siege."
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
The Moderates thought Cavour had gone out of his
mind, and the Radicals were furious, because they felt
a Constitution would pull the teeth out of any revolution.
They had no intention of being stuck with some imported
English abomination such as a House of Lords. Cavour
was given the nickname of "Milord" Risorgimento.
The first two months of 1848 showed the accurate tim­
ing of Cavour. Constitutions became the order of the
day. All over Europe revolution broke out. Every puny
princeling in Italy seized upon that valuable device, which
serves such good purpose in times of trouble and inter­
regnum, a constitution. Charles Albert of Savoy, King of
Sardinia and Piedmont, finally broke down after desper­
ate family councils, threats of abdication in favor of his
son Victor Emmanuel, and long hours of fasts and reli­
gious vigils. He had in former years secretly engaged him­
self always to govern the country as he found it governed,
which promise had been deviously gotten from him by
Prince Metternich of Austria. A high ecclesiastic now con­
vinced him that it would be a greater sin to abandon his
people in their need than to break a promise he could
no longer maintain. Though in general his penmanship
was of the highest quality, the signatrue "Carlo Alberto"
written at the bottom of the Constitution of 1848 betrays
a trembling hand. The Piedmontese Constitution of 1848
remained in force as the Statute of the new state of Italy
for one hundred years until the year of our Lord, 1948.
In the hands of Cavour this Constitution was a pliable
document. It remained so in the hands of lesser men.
Right of public assembly and right to freedom of expres­
sion in the press were granted but in practice were not
inviolate even under Cavour. Ministers were technically
responsible to the king and not to the parliament, though
often in practice this meant a parliamentary government
based on the cabinet. It was flexible in either direction:
everything depended on the character of the King and
his ministers. "The king nominates and dismisses his
ministers" was in another article. He was not obliged to
follow their advice; there were only vague generalities
concerning ministerial responsibilities. Nothing definite
was stated as to legislative initiative. The king alone had
the executive power. Generals and admirals were ap­
pointed directly by him as Ministers of the Army and the
Navy. By their oath of allegiance they were responsible
only to him.
The Constitution was received among scenes of high
excitement and enthusiasm. Groups sang strophes of a
new hymn called "Brothers of Italy". Cavour, doubtless
remembering the reception his constitutional proposals
had received earlier, whispered to his neighbor, "We are
so many dogs."
Shortly after this, while Austria itself was in the throes
of revolution, the city of Milan liberated itself in five
101
heroic days of barricades, the only truly popular insur­
rection in the whole history of the "Risorgimento." There
was great agitation in Turin as to whether to go and help
Milan. The English informed Carlo Alberto that the least
act of aggression would place his throne in danger, but
Cavour sensed the right course at that moment. The real
danger to the dynasty was not to act. Non-action would
most probably lead to Republican overthrow of the
throne. In addition, a student of England's internal af­
fairs, such as Cavour, could not conceive that England
would allow a war in defense of an unpopular tyranny,
to hinder the development of a more liberal state. Cavour
wrote the most impassioned article of his life, the gist of
which was that audacity was prudence and temerity wis­
dom and that the zero hour of the dynasty was at hand.
Charles Albert invaded Lombardy with his army, entered
Milan, and won a small victory. He passed a messy and
disturbing year between Milan and Turin, as the Repub­
licans of Lombardy and the Piedmontese could come to
no political agreement and the king was muddle-headed.
The Army was incompetent. The Austrians struck back
a year later and utterly defeated the Piedmontese. Charles
Albert was a broken man. He went into exile leaving the
kingdom to his son, Victor Emmanuel, who had the
courage to refuse the lenient terms Austria offered to him
if he would repudiate the Constitution.
Piedmont was in a dreadful state for two years. The
good sense of Cavour finally prevailed; he became a
member of the government in 1850. When he was furi­
ously assailed in Parliament as being a lover of the Eng­
lish, he with great calm pointed out that it was the only
country that had survived the storms of revolution. He
told the assembly and preached constantly the doctrine
that reforms carried out in time reinforced authority and,
instead of precipitating revolution, prevented it. By 1852
he was in complete control. The King disliked him but
was constantly outmaneuvred and had the sense to see
that no-one else could do the job. Banks were established
to provide credit, tariffs were reduced. Exports and im­
ports trebled. The railroad network included half the mile­
age of Italy by 1859 and was a great help in the military
mobilization of that period. A tunnel was bored through
the Alps, bringing Paris to within a day's journey. The
foundations of an armament industry were established,
a canal was built which irrigated large sections of the
country. International banks invested heavily. Cavour
cared for the country as he had so successfully cared for
his own estates.
In 1852 Cavour accomplished what he felt to be his
political masterpiece. It amounted to the destruction of
a party system. Secretly, behind the backs of his col­
leagues and of the Prime Minister whom he wished to
supplant, he made an alliance with an unscrupulous poli-
102
tician of the left-center, Ratazzi. This man was later, after
Cavour's death, a most lamentably inept Prime Minister.
The idea was to wed the right-center and the left-center
so as to effectively eliminate the extremes. This would
make for moderation and the golden mean in everything.
It worked only too well with Cavour. It meant later that
power was based on alliances within an amorphous
government majority. All shades of opinion could be
comprehended. Instead of resigning, ministers could try
to change their policy and build another compromise.
Anyone who didn't play the game was out of the pic­
ture. Any effective opposition was castrated. These are
the politics of an opportunist who is both enormously
sensitive to the shifts of opinion and who attempts to en­
compass all of them. Parties, in such a system, tend to
become clusters of clients around their patrons. Such
things as platforms and principles are constantly adjust­
ed and have little meaning. It leaves government peri­
lously free from opposition and criticism; there seldom
will be any alternative government with a different policy
and composition. In Italy no strongly articulated parties
were to appear until the times of Socialism and Fascism
in the twentieth century.
This system was praised by men as eminent as Croce.
In Cavour's hands it worked like a house-a-fire until1860:
Piedmont flourished and became the center of Italian and
European interest. Cavour was temporarily out of power
after his first "marriage" with the left; but a ministerial
crisis soon brought him back as Prime Minister, where
he remained almost without interruption until his death.
The retiring Prime Minister had written to a friend of
his concerning Cavour: "the other one, whom you know,
is diabolically active, and fit in body and soul, in addi­
tion, he enjoys it so much." Soon afterward charges of
corruption were brought against the ministry in the mat­
ter of elections. Ratazzi, Cavour's ally on the left, admit­
ted that constituencies were led to believe that it would
be to their advantage to return the ministerial candidate.
In the course of the debate, Cavour got up and not only
acknowledged the "interference" but said that without
it constitutional government would collapse in Piedmont.
I quote him in this context "If you must resort to extraor­
dinary means, then adopt them as energetically as pos­
sible, so that the grandeur you aim at may make up for
the hateful methods you employ, and so that your
government will not appear ridiculous as well as odious.''
Corruption in politics is in this way legitimized, and pub­
lic and private life have separate codes of morals.
The art of the possible is a definition that perhaps ap­
plies more precisely to diplomacy than to politics. In the
field of diplomacy Cavour is generally regarded as a
master. Let us examine the givens of his diplomatic
problems and the aims and ends of his policy. The State
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of Piedmont had been artificially put on its feet by the
victorious powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars.
It was designed as a buffer state that would separate the
spheres of Austria and France. As such, neither Austria
or France would suffer it to cease to exist. It was to the
benefit of those two great powers to see to it that it fell
not too extensively under the influence of either power.
This gave a possibility of audacity of maneuver to the state
of Piedmont that Cavour was well aware of. The other
important fact was England. England was jealous of
France and vice versa. They aimed at preserving a balance
of powers on the continent. If Cavour were to gain the
aid of France and Napoleon III in conquering and defeat­
ing the Austrians in the North so as to expand Piedmont
into a kingdom of Northern Italy there was the genuine
risk of not being able to get rid of France once one had
finished using them. The counterweight of England might
be used at such a juncture. This possibility was always
another cornerstone in Cavour's structure. These were
the everpresent possibilities of the power balance, the
givens of the situation to be manipulated. Nothing would
have happened all by itself, though many things hap­
pened by chance. Cavour was a great improviser and
gambler and used to say that no one was a politician who
made firm plans for next week. Nevertheless he had a
shrewd insight always into the odds of the game and into
the givens of the gamble.
In 1853, feeling reasonably secure at home, and hav­
ing overhauled the internal structure of Piedmont and re­
organized the army, he voluntarily entered Piedmont as
a belligerent on the side of France and England in the
Crimean War, a war fought for the most devious reasons
against the Russian Empire. Public opinion in Piedmont
was incensed at this war. The Russians expressed what
is certainly the truth when they stated that they found
the entrance of Piedmont into the war to be
11 extraor­
dinarily gratuitous." King Victor Emmanuel, a rough and
ready corporal in character, brought up among military
men and interested mainly in horses, and .ladies, was
delighted with the idea and had said that if he couldn't
go he'd be glad to send his brother. The Army Corps that
was sent to Russia, while not covering itself with glory,
won a tidy battle; the other nations admired the order
of its encampments and the composure and constancy
with which it endured the rigors of an epidemic of cholera
that killed over 1200 of its soldiers. At the news of the
victory the people of Piedmont became enthusiastic, and
the King was disappointed when the war ended. Cavour
entered this war in order to put his little state on the map
and to gain the privilege of sitting in at the peace confer­
ence that concluded the war. The war had cost a great
deal and the national debt soared. Cavour spent a care­
ful two months at the peace conference. He unofficially
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
called the attention of French and English dignitaries to
the corruptions and injustices of both the Papal and the
Austrian rule. The conference ended officially. The next
day, however, at an unexpected extra meeting, Europe
suddenly found itself talking about Italy and the neces­
sity of something being done about Vienna and Rome.
No one said anything in writing, but Cavour had
managed to launch a kind of cold war in which nothing
was strictly delimited. It was a risky business. Austria was
a great power and had been mortally offended. France
and England, almost without realizing it, made semi­
official statements of sympathy to Piedmont. This newly
emerging concept, a possible kingdom of Italy, was made
a European concern.
The next move was to get an army into Italy that would
have the power of destroying Austria in its provinces of
Lombardy and Venice, and, having destroyed those
armies, would then hand over to Piedmont the area con­
quered. This Cavour proceeded to do by enlisting single­
handedly and in a most secretive manner the help of
Napoleon III, emperor of the French. Napoleon III was
a vainglorious dictator-emperor, a nephew of the great
Napoleon, a former conspirator and socialist, a dreamer
who had the ways and manners of a second-rate waiter
in a fancy restaurant. Filled with ideas of the rights of
nationalities, he was an anti-papist married to a pious and
powerful woman, a former socialist who depended on
the Church party in his own country. He is perhaps the
only dictator who was dedicated to giving more freedom
to his own people and actually did so. He led his coun­
try to disaster at the end, namely foreign invasion and
defeat. As opposed to Napoleon I and Hitler, this dicta­
tor had no fire in his guts.
Cavour met with this devious and mercurial man se­
cretly at a small town called Plombieres, and there made
a pact the full details of which are not known. What does
seem to have been bargained for was the cession to Pied­
mont of Lombardy and Bologna and the granting to
Napoleon of the ancestral province of the King of Pied­
mont, Savoy and the city and region of Nice, the birth­
place of Garibaldi. This pact was the acme of secret
diplomacy entered into privately by two men without
consultation with their respective countries. It was left
to Cavour to deliberately provoke an incident which
would give a legitimate cause of war between Austria
and Piedmont, at which point Napoleon III, against the
wishes of the majority of his subjects, would enter Italy
at the head of his army. It is difficult to know what
honesty would imply in such a man as Napoleon III.
In
Cavour's case it is certainly true that he did not mention
that he had more in mind than the Austrian provinces.
He was fomenting unrest in Parma, Modena, Bologna,
and the large province of Tuscany. It is not at all clear
103
what kind of eventual political settlement Cavour had in
mind for all of these possible provinces. He was playing
at possibilities; a federation of provinces may have been
all he had in mind, though certainly such a federation
was to be headed by him and not the Pope. The official
"lives of the Saints and founding fathers", which are al­
ways draped on men after a nation has been founded,
obscure these facts of actual policy. Neither Napoleon III
or Cavour had the slightest idea that Victor Emmanuel
would shortly be King of all Italy. Neither of them want­
ed such a result. Napoleon III was obliged to the Pope,
and no one at the moment took Garibaldi seriously.
Napoleon III, after his secret pact, began to prepare
opinion in France and Europe for his coming interven­
tion. At the same time he began in every way to try to
squirm out of it. He had been in his youth enough of a
revolutionary to know of the passions his intervention
would arouse among Italian Liberals and Radicals. He,
the defender of the Pope, was to aid the most violently
anti-clerical nation in Europe. In addition there was the
furious fact of Cavour. He used as much ingenuity to get
out of the trap as Cavour did in trying to keep him in.
The stupidity of the Austrians saved Cavour's game at
this moment: they rose to his bait and needlessly sent
an ultimatum to Turin at the very moment when England
and the other powers were about to accept a scheme for
the demobilization of the three great powers. Cavour,
who had been in a state of almost hysterical tension for
days, rubbed his hands in glee and war was quickly
declared.
The Austrian Army vacillated, giving time for the
French to arrive; and the forces of France and Piedmont
defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Solferino. Parma,
Modena, Bologna, and Tuscany threw over their rulers,
proclaimed their independence, and instituted govern­
ments, the heads of which were all Cavour's men. Now
Napoleon III did something that is often called an act of
perfidy. It was not. The Italians, after Solferino, expected
to surge onto Venice and drive Austria from the north­
ern plain. Napoleon, after the battle, had had enough.
He had never really accepted his own actions. He saw
that he had exacerbated sensibilities both in France, in
Europe, and within himself. He visited the battlefield the
morning after. The sight of thousands of corpses caused
him to vomit. He quickly arranged a peace treaty with
the Emperor of Austria, returning everything to its origi­
nal rulers except for Lombardy and Parma, which re­
verted to Piedmont. Napoleon gained nothing. Cavour
was humiliated and furious. The Radicals regarded the
treaty as the destruction of his infamous methods of
diplomacy and immoral alliances. He lost his temper to
the extent of calling his king an unmentionable name to
the King's face, and he flounced out of office leaving
104
Napoleon holding the bag. The stigma of treachery
descended upon the Emperor of the French; Cavour
saved for himself the reputation of an outraged patriot.
Garibaldi said the fairest thing after Solferino: "Do not
forget the gratitude we owe to Napoleon III, and to the
French Army, so many of whose valiant sons have been
killed or maimed for the cause of Italy."
Everything worked out well for Cavour however, as the
revolted provinces of Tuscany, Bologna, and Modena
remained in the hands of his men. No one bothered to
enforce the return of their older rulers. Cavour was soon
in correspondence with Napoleon on this matter. He did,
however, insist that Napoleon be given Savoy and Nice.
He was back in power soon enough when a cataclysmic
event occurred which overturned all calculations. Garibal­
di with a thousand men conquered Sicily, and moved on
to overturn the entire kingdom of Naples, all of this with
the intention of moving all the way to Rome and pro­
claiming there a united kingdom of Italy with Victor
Emmanuel as King. He had already proclaimed himself
dictator and fully intended to make a present of the South
to the King of Piedmont.
This startling man, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was born in
Nice on the 4th of July, 1807. He was 53 at the time of
his finest achievement, the overthrow of the Kingdom
of Naples. He died in 1882 at the age of 75. When he
visited England in 1864 popular enthusiasm reached such
heights that the government was preoccupied. President
Lincoln offered him the command of a northern army in
1864. Garibaldi considered himself an American citizen
for a great part of his life.
It would be hardly correct to talk about the upbringing
of Garibaldi; it hits the mark more to simply say that he
grew up, the son of a simple sailor in the small port city
of Nice. His father earned the family's living with his
boat. He was the captain of a small craft that coasted along
the Riviera from Nice to Genoa and occasionally as far
as Barcelona in the other direction. His mother at the
beginning thought she would like her son to be a priest,
as it was one sure way of avoiding his entrance into mili­
tary service. A priest who was a family friend was en­
trusted with preparing the boy for seminary. He had
absolutely no success and Garibaldi detested the Church
with genuine fervor all of his life. A retired military
gentleman had much more success with the boy and was
most happy with his pupil. No one could ever teach him
grammar or syntax, as was gloriously evident in all of
his later public utterances; but Garibaldi committed to
memory and impressed on his soul enormous amounts
of Roman history, whole sections of the "Divine Com­
edy," and entire pages of certain novels of Voltaire. He
had a splendid boyhood around the port, was a famous
swimmer. At the age of thirteen ran away from home
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with two friends on a fishing boat borrowed for the oc­
casion. At the age of fifteen he began signing on as a
sailor, voyaging over all the Mediterranean and the Black
Sea and to the Orient. Navigation was difficult in those
days; he became and remained all of his life an expert
mate and captain. He also had his first taste of sea fights,
as pirates were a constant menace in those days. At the
age of 26 he had been on the sea for eleven years and
was the quintessence of what the Italians call
simpatico:
handsome, healthy, open, strong, enthusiastic, and com­
pletely honest. He was first mate on a ship bound for the
Black Sea and the Orient at this time. Twelve extraordi­
nary men were on that ship, crazy men, visionary men.
They were followers of the revolutionary socialist Saint­
Simon and were led by an actor with a large voice and
extravagant gestures who had been on the boards at the
Comedie
Fran~aise. The French police had grown unhappy
with this group and they were emigrating to freer lands.
Garibaldi was entranced with the actor; for the first time
in his life he had to do with a man who was an "intellec­
tual," a man with a whole bag full of theories and visions
and new religions. The religion was an exultant potpourri
of Temples of Theology and Industry, of the Woman as
a Messiah, etc. One distinction the actor made remained
perpetually in Garibaldi's soul for the rest of his life.
This was the distinction between a soldier and a hero.
A soldier, according to the actor whose name was Bar­
rault, was ''he who defends his own country or attacks
a foreign country; in the first action he is pious, in the
second unjust." The Hero, on the other hand, is "he who
making himself a citizen of the world takes as his home­
land Humanity and offers his sword and his blood to
whatsoever people there be that are fighting against
tyrarmy." These words from the mouth of the tawdry
and rhetorical visionary became in the actions of Gari­
baldi's life a force that destroyed a corrupt and ancient
tyranny, the Kingdom of Naples, and that led Garibaldi
to deeds of valor in both the New and the Old Worlds.
He was, in the terms of the above distinction, a hero and
not a soldier. His patriotism was directed to all peoples.
Many were puzzled when, at the end of his life, a great
and revered Italian hero afflicted with crippling arthri­
tis, he went to France in 1870 and fought against the Ger­
mans one of the few successful campaigns of that dismal
war. Subtle minds, diplomats, and statesmen never could
believe he meant what he said. Victor Hugo, in the sad
days of the defeat of France, rose and called the atten­
tion of the French Assembly to the fact that Garabaldi was
the only military leader who had not suffered defeat. He
said that "no one rose to defend this land of France,
which has so many times taken in its hands the cause
of civilization: not one king, not one nation, but one
man .... " One of the most prevalent sins of the cultivated
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
and worldly mind consists in mistrust of fervor and sim­
plicity. Statesmen realize they must deal with such
phenomena, which are always popular, but it is a rare
statesman who can bring himself to believe that a simple
and good man means what he says when he says it out
loud and in public repeatedly all of his life. The bitterest
pill of all for the adept statesmen is when the simple and
heroic man exhibits plain horse-sense in the midst of a
difficult and complex political situation. We must also be
on guard that our good taste and sense of literary style
and syntax do not stand in the way and prevent us from
sensing the truth. Garibaldi, in his memoirs, writes of
the vessel on which he made this voyage as "not being
the vehicle charged with exchanging the products of one
country with those of another, but as being the winged
messenger that carried the Word of the Lord and the
Sword of the Archangel."
Soon afterward he met with a believer-member of Maz­
zini's revolutionary association, "Giovane ltalia," and
heard for the first time the words
Patria and Italia com­
bined and was told that it was Mazzini the armed prophet
who employed such words. Young Garibaldi was soon
enough at Marseilles searching out the disciple of the
faith. We know little of this first encounter between
Garibaldi and Mazzini; they both remained silent in later
years concerning it, perhaps because of the deep mistrust
and pettiness which fogs all of their later connection. At
any rate, Garibaldi was baptized into the new faith and
took the solemn oath "invoking on my head the wrath
of God, the hatred of men, and the reputation for infamy
if I ever betray in all or in part my oath." The master told
the new disciple that "if we throw out a spark of live fire,
Italy will be a volcano." Garibaldi declared himself ready
to be the spark; he was soon given money and a mission.
This mission was to circulate along the whole Ligurian
coast (the Italian Riviera) sigrring people up for the move­
ment in preparation for an uprising that would be sparked
by Mazzini' s invasion of the North from Switzerland. He
soon had thousands of signatures, since his honesty and
directness were irresistible. The headquarters at Mar­
seilles now directed him to enlist in the Piedmontese navy
in order to infiltrate the conspiracy among the enlisted
men. He enlisted in 1833. The naval records described
him as having "reddish hair and eyebrows, broad fore­
head, aquiline nose, round face and chin, healthy natur­
al color.'' The Piedmontese navy had the peculiar habit
of requiring their recruits to adopt a pseudonym. Garibal­
di chose the name "Cleombroto." The recruiting officer
must have been embarrassed to inscribe on his records
the name of the ancient Spartan hero, the brother of
Leonidas and the father of Pausanias. Garibaldi very suc­
cessfully organized a revolutionary cell on board his first
ship and was transferred to another vessel. He had dis-
105
tributed lots of money and enthusiasm. He managed to
obtain a medical shore-leave at Genoa on the days that
· were fixed for the insurrection, but on shore the insur­
rection never took place. Mazzini never left Switzerland,
the plot was discovered. Garibaldi fled back to Marseilles
with a sentence of death proclaimed against him by the
government of Piedmont. This was in 1834. Back in Mar­
seilles there was a great fracas of accusations and bic­
kerings, which always accompany conspiracies, and
Garibaldi had his first frustrations and disillusionments
with Mazzini. Later in life he used to characterize the
"disciple" as an expert in "Revolutions by Correspon­
dence." He began shipping out again as a first mate. In
1835 he left Europe for South America. He remained there
for thirteen years and learned the techniques of guerilla
warfare that were to shake the Old World later. He found
himself already noted among the Italian exiles in Rio
when he landed. He was much feted by the revolution­
aries and Mazzinians of Brazil. He soon wearied of talk
and became a kind of pirate chief, with the official title
of head of the Navy of the insurgent Republic of Rio
Grand of the South, which had proclaimed its indepen­
dence from the empire of Brasil. The government of this
republic was mostly on horseback, an association of wild­
ly independent cowboys and ranch owners. The details
of this period are complicated. Garibaldi fought on land
and sea, on horseback, in all kinds of weather: he deve­
loped techniques of living off the land and of lightning
attacks; he was captured and tortured; he married a worn­
an of the people, who was a constant companion in these
wars and who bore children in the midst of campaigns.
During the last eight years in South America he was the
principal sustainer of the republic of Uruguay, defend­
ing Montevideo against the dictator of Argentina, Rosas.
In the last years he formed an Italian Legion; for the first
time the uniform became a red shirt. In all of these wild
years, on horseback and in the middle of insurrections,
there are two important things to be noted: he would
never fight unless he had an official document either from
the roving Republic of the Southern Rio Grande or from
the Republic at Montevideo, and he never made any
money from his fighting. At the time of his glory in
Montevideo as defender of the Republic, his wife, the
loyal Anita, had to beg candles from the neighbors. When
he left South America in 1848 he must have been the
only General who ever left that troubled continent
without funds or a carefully cherished bank account in
Switzerland.
The glorious news of the 1848 revolution in the mother­
land rendered Garibaldi and the Italian Legion frantic
with impatience to return to Italy before it was too late.
A public subscription among the Italians at Montevideo
finally raised the money for a boat. Garibaldi and sixty-
106
three of the Italian legion set sail and finally disembarked
at Nice in June of 1848. There was wild enthusiasm for
him as his feats of valor in South America had made him
famous to an extent that he had hardly realized himself.
He almost immediately offered his sword to Charles
Albert, the head of the government which had con­
demned him to death thirteen years earlier. Charles
Albert hemmed and hawed and finally sent him up to
Turin to the Ministry of War. There he found great dis­
trust, and it was suggested that he go and help the Vene­
tians, who were in revolt against Austria, and become
a kind of pirate chief. He was disgusted and went to
Milan, where the popular revolution received him with
enthusiasm and made him General. He and Mazzini met,
but the tables were turned from fifteen years earlier; Maz­
zini enrolled in Garibaldi's troops as a standard bearer.
The Piedrnontese army collapsed under the assault of the
Austrian's. Only Garibaldi fought on. He called for volun­
teers and carried on a guerilla warfare with success and
courage as long as humanly feasible.
In the opening months of 1849 Rome revolted. The
Pope fled to the protection of the King of Naples. Gari­
baldi and Mazzini both arrived, and Mazzini for three
splendid months was the effectual ruler, the chief of the
"triumvirs" of the newly proclaimed Roman Republic­
three months in which he acquitted himself with char­
ity, tolerance, and even political skill. The days of this
Republic were numbered. Napoleon III had no intention
of tolerating its existence. The first French Army which
attacked Rome was roundly defeated and repulsed by
Garibaldi. New troops arrived and all the might and
modern armament of France was brought to the siege of
Rome. Garibaldi and his men defended the city from the
heights above the Vatican with furious courage and spirit.
Garibaldi was finally forced to retreat. He himself never
considered that the Roman Republic had ceased to exist:
he always regarded himself as its general. He now be­
gan a retreat with what remained of his troops across the
length and breadth of half the peninsula, eluding the
combined forces of the Kingdom of Naples, the Duke of
Tuscany, and the Emperor of Austria. This retreat has
become the epic of the Italian nation and is a modern
"anabasis." The whole month of July he twisted and
turned and confused the generals of the enemy. Food and
ammunition became scarcer and scarcer. Many of the
troops melted away. He had said to the volunteers that
left Rome with him the following words, words which
he had pronounced in the midst of St. Peter's square, un­
der the Egyptian obelisk that is the central ornament of
that great and noble space:
Fortune, who betrays us today, will smile on us tomorrow.
I am going out from Rome. Let those who wish to continue
the war against the stranger, come with me. I offer neither
SPRING 1986
pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced
marches, battles, and death. Let him who loves his country
in his heart and not with his lips only, follow me.
By the 31st of July he had arrived at the tiny and in­
dependent Republic of San Marino. There he finally dis­
missed his troops. With a few followers he fled to the
coast of the Adriatic and tried to gain Venice, which was
still holding out against the Austrians. In all of this retreat
he was accompanied by his loyal wife, Anita. She was
pregnant and near to death in these days; he finally left
her corpse in a peasant's cabin in the marshes near
Ravenna, and fled to escape the Austrian police. He made
his way across the Appenines. With the help of a clan­
destine organization he proceeded from the coast of
Tuscany to a port near Genoa, Porto Venere. The gov­
ernment of Piedmont quite typically was afraid to al­
low him on their soil; his travels continued until finally
he arrived in New York in July, 1850. An enormous wel­
come had been prepared for him, which he declined. He
lived as a private citizen on Staten Island, hunting and
fishing with his friends there and earning his living in
a candle factory. He tired of this and took up his old
profession of sea captain, voyaging as far as China and
Australia. In 1854, he returned to Europe, inherited a bit
of money from his brother and that, together with his sav­
ings as a captain, allowed him to buy an island. This is­
land was to be his home from now on. It is a small and
rocky place off the coast of Sardinia. With the help of
faithful friends and companions he built himself a kind
of South American dwelling of four rooms, all on one
floor. He raised goats and cows and scratched a bit of
produce out of the bare soil. He was always happy on
his domain of Caprera, receiving many of the notables
of the world there in patriarchal simplicity.
The great events of 1860 were now approaching.
Garibaldi was annoyed that Italy and Piedmont were rely­
ing so heavily on foreigners and on diplomacy. Cavour
was well aware of his presence; he intended to use him,
up to a certain point. If Garibaldi were on the side of the
king, the whole popular movement could be swung away
from Mazzini; such unreliable firebrands, and the hor­
rors of republicanism could be avoided. This went well
at first, as Garibaldi got on excellently with Victor Em­
manuel. Despite striking differences, their characters had
certain strong things in common. They both liked cigars
better than perfume, bowling better than whist, and bat­
tles better than politics and diplomacy. One of the mys­
teries of the whole unification is exactly what the king
said to Garibaldi. Even Cavour never knew all that passed
between them. While the French and the regular Pied­
montese armies fought the Austrians, Garibaldi, at the
head of special troops, was held in the sidelines. The
General Staff were embarrassed by him; they were cut
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
to the quick in their professional pride when he won
astounding victories with his troops. The policy of Cavour
was to give him a certain rein but never too much, to ob­
struct his free maneuver. In the eyes of the people and
in the eyes of those fervently interested in a new nation
he was the only figure of honesty and courage. He also
was the only Italian General who gained victories. By
April of 1860 the new Parliament of the expanded state,
which now included Tuscany and all the northern plain
except Venice, met. Garibaldi erupted on the floor of the
parliament, furious at the cession of Savoy and his own
birth place, Nice, to France, which action he regarded as
a crime. Cavour said Tuscany was certainly worth Nice,
but nothing could stop Garibaldi's outburst, which
caused embarrassment even to his friends. He resigned
from parliament and wrote that his soul was in mourn­
ing, that he was full of disgust. Ten days later he left for
Sicily and the greatest adventure of his life.
The departure of this expedition, which was the cul­
minating event in the making of the nation, was attend­
ed by the most complete confusion. It seems practically
sure that Cavour wanted no part of it; he had formed a
new kingdom of upper Italy, it had a monarchical­
constitutional government that was functioning; he was
desperately afraid of disturbing Europe any further, let
alone unleashing internal troubles of a radical nature. Let
the Bourbons rule the South and he and the King the
North: the height of folly would be to stir up Rome and
the Pope, whom France was sworn to defend. The King
probably liked the idea of the expedition but was afraid
of Cavour. It is probably correct to say that the expedi­
tion was arranged privately, though there were all sorts
of semi-private groups involved. It was off and on until
the night of the departure, when it finally left in two old
rented steamers. The moneys for the enterprise only ar­
rived by the last train down from Milan, late in the even­
ing. The rifles promised never turned up; all the early
fighting was done with rusty and decrepit flint-locks.
Sicily did not rise immediately upon Garibaldi's landing,
though the terrain was somewhat prepared by months
of agitation and by the presence of revolutionary groups
scattered throughout the island. The expedition was by
no means composed of workers or peasants: the major­
ity of the volunteers were doctors and professional men
and students of the northern plain. Once the expedition
sailed, Garibaldi's agitation of the earlier weeks vanished
and his peculiar mastery over the hearts and actions of
his men was in evidence. The odds against success were
enormous. The Neapolitan government had at its disposal
a large professional army with 25,000 men in arms in
Sicily and a navy that was sizable and far stronger than
Piedmont's. They were sailing to an island that was as
strange as Africa to them. If they failed they could ex-
107
pect only derision, death, and exile. Their own northern
government would certainly disown them in defeat.
They landed at the little port of Marsala on the Western
coast on May 11, under the eyes of the Neapolitan fleet.
They barely got ashore when one of their boats was
scuttled and the other destroyed by the enemy. They
were alone on this strange island. Two days later Gari­
baldi declared himself dictator in the name of Victor
Emmanuel and Italy. For Garibaldi the name ''dictator''
was a noble and antique title, borrowed from the Romans,
signifying the assumptions of extraordinary powers for
a certain prescribed length of time, in the name of and
for the good of the people. On the 15th he won a deci­
sive battle at Calatafirni, a battle fought against great odds
and won with raw courage and bayonets. The Dictator
well knew that this battle was the one which would make
or break him, as the astute and long-suffering southern­
ers would not flock to him until some measure of suc­
cess had been gained. Twelve days later he entered and
captured the capital city, Palermo. All of his guerrilla
tricks and craftiness were employed. For nights before­
hand the mountains around were covered with watch
fires; his informants gave him information as to the easi­
est entrance-way. He had also in the meantime decoyed
a part of the enemy troops into the interior. When he
broke his way into the city the Neapolitan General, holed
up in the Palace with over 18,000 men, bravely declared
that he would bombard the city, exhibiting that peculiar
faith in civilian bombardments which is so striking a fea­
ture of modern warfare. The effect on the civilian popu­
lation, as is always the case, was hatred and loathing of
the perpetrators of such barbarities. The Sicilians detested
the Neapolitans to begin with: the bombardment was the
most effective means of increasing that hatred. The
Neapolitans panicked and Garibaldi, with his simplicity
and grandeur, was worshiped almost as a God by the
city. General Lanza, the Neapolitan General, felt he had
to sue for an armistice, but in perfect Bourbon style he
said that it was impossible for an officer of His Majesty
to treat directly with a brigand. He asked a British Ad­
miral who was in port to get in touch with the bandit
chief. The Englishman said he could take no part in such
dealings but was glad to offer his ship as a meeting place
for two parties who were to be regarded as equals. His
Excellency, Giuseppe Garibaldi, played it most coolly. He
was capable of great dexterity at times. He was down to
the last few rounds of ammunition and well knew that
the troops he had decoyed into the interior were on their
way. He signed a truce and immediately procured for
himself by requisition all of the ammunition depots of the
capital. Naples panicked completely. On the 6th of June
20,000 troops of the King of Naples surrendered and filed
on board the Neapolitan ships and left.
108
While the capitals of Europe resounded with his name
and he was absolute dictator in a major capital Garibaldi
settled down in one very humble room of the Palace with
his cot-bed, saddle, and a good supply of cigars. If even
his closest friends had doubts as to his ability to govern,
it can easily be imagined how frenzied and apprehensive
Cavour was, a peninsula away in Turin. Surrounded by
Mazzinians, radicals, moderates, frightened conserva­
tives, uprising peasants, generals, and student vision­
aries, Garibaldi governed well. Everything was done in
the name of Italy and the King; he consistently appoint­
ed ministers of sound, moderate stature. Though one of
the most ardent anti-clericals of his time, he understood
the religious superstitions of the Southerners and par­
ticipated in high mass at the Cathedral, sitting in the
throne of the Apostolic Delegate with his red shirt and
bare sword, a secular Archangel, while the Cardinal per­
formed the holy office. This was an act of plain good
sense. Only if performed by a man of lesser stature could
it be called Machiavellian.
The next six months made the nation. They are six
months of political conflict between the statesman,
Cavour, and the hero, Garibaldi. The difference between
these two men is not to be thought as a difference be­
tween right and left, though that pair of tags applies. It
is a difference between keen intellect and simple courage,
between knowing what popularity means and being
popular. If there are mythological parts to the soul of a
state, these two men represent two of the parts, two good
parts, but two parts between which there can be seldom
any meeting. Cavour represents coolness and faith in
Parliamentary ways, combined with Machiavellian
methods and pragmatic awareness of the importance of
material things; Garibaldi represents enthusiasm, nation­
alism, honesty, self-sacrifice without hope of reward, and
courage.
Cavour lost the first rounds in this conflict. Garibaldi's
expedition to Sicily, which Cavour had regarded as both
idiotic and dangerous, had succeeded. Cavour now had
to swallow this immense fact and adjust his policy,
namely to take Sicily away from the dictator and get it
into his own hands. He sent a vainglorious and despic­
able man to Sicily to attempt to take over the government
and represent his interests. This man only aroused dis­
sension in the island. He was banished from the island
by the dictator's orders on the same boat with two com­
mon spies. Cavour then tried to annex the island immedi­
ately to the state of Piedmont by the method of a quick
plebiscite, hoping therein to stop Garibaldi's avowed in­
tention of marching on to Rome and Naples. He failed
in this, Garibaldi insisting on a regional assembly that
would respect the local interests of the island. Cavour
next tried to prevent Garibaldi's crossing the straits to
SPRING 1986
the mainland, but again suffered defeat. The straits were
crossed with great wariness and skill by Garibaldi, prob­
ably with the confidence of the king, who was another
of Cavour's problems. The Dictator, with supreme con­
fidence and skill, won a major battle on the mainland in
Calabria and marched straight north by forced marches
to the capital city Naples, with the remnants of the Bour­
bon power disintegrating before him and the population
aroused to enormous heights of enthusiasm. Cavour in­
dulged in the shabbiest of double dealings with poor lit­
tle King Francis at Naples, treating officially with him
through ambassadors, who were negotiating for an agree­
ment while at the same time trying to foment a popular
rebellion of his own through agents and trimmers within
the kingdom. It was to no avail. Garibaldi entered the
greatest city of the Peninsula in triumph on the 7th of
September, Francis, the last of the Bourbon kings, hav­
ing fled a day or so before to the fortress of Gaeta. Once
again the Hero, surrounded by adulation and absolute
ruler in one of the greatest cities of Europe, did not lose
his head, but showed himself eminently fair-minded. As
a loyal subject of his king, he immediately made a present
of the entire Neapolitan fleet to the Admirals of Piedmont.
This again was an enormous fact to be faced by Cavour­
an entire and ancient realm was being offered to the King
as the result of a popular revolution and uprising led by
a heroic Dictator. He again tried to provoke an immedi­
ate plebiscite so as to annex this uncomfortable kingdom
to his own government and give it the semblance of
respectability before Garibaldi should proceed on to Rome
upsetting the whole apple cart of international diplomacy
and offending the clerical government of Napoleon, who
were, as you recall, the sworn defenders of the Papacy,
and without whom Cavour and his northern Italian king­
dom would never have come into existence. Garibaldi's
march to Rome was thwarted by the unexpected resis­
tance of the Bourbon's army north of Naples. He fought
his greatest battle and won it, though it was at a price
in men and materials that stopped his further advance.
This battle, which was fought on a major scale and was
by no means a guerrilla skirmish, showed Garibaldi to
be the most skillful general on the scene by any criterion
of generalship. It was now that Cavour stopped losing
and assumed command. Breaking all rules of interna­
tional behavior and adopting his opponents' tactics, he
proceeded to invade a neutral state, attempting to give
it the appearance of a popular uprising. He sent the King
and the army of Piedmont on a ruthless march of inva­
sion through the states of the Pope, with the avowed pur­
pose of their answering a cry from the downtrodden
subjects of his Holiness's government. The real purpose
was obvious to everyone-he would by this stroke as­
sume command of the revolution, forestall Garibaldi's ad-
THE ST. JOHN'S REVIEW
vance to Rome, and arrive on the scene in the now
defunct kingdom of Naples with the King and Army of
Piedmont. He won this move: it was his greatest moment.
It is a most paradoxical moment and was an enormous
gamble. He had somehow to persuade people to back a
revolution in order to prevent a revolution. He had to
push for a policy of universal suffrage and popular
sovereignty by plebiscite, an idea which he and his party
abhorred for the most profound and reasonable political
reasons. It must be realized that to support a plebiscite
after the overthrowing of a legitimate government implies
the right of rebellion against any constituted government.
He had to swallow the idea that a popular concept of na­
tionality as proposed by Mazzini was, in the newly
emerging reality, a practical idea. With consummate tact
he suggested to Napoleon Ill that Cavour was the only
safeguard against Garibaldi and revolution and suggest­
ed to Garibaldi that Napoleon III was an ever-present
danger to the unified state. This amounted to threaten­
ing Napoleon with Garibaldi, and Garibaldi with
Napoleon, and hence neutralizing both, leaving himself,
Cavour, as the kingpin in the game. In the midst of this
he was sending arms secretly to Hungary, as a revolu­
tion there would have been handy in preventing any Aus­
trian intervention and just might mean getting hold of
Venice. Not the least of his difficulties was Victor Em­
manuel, who had been given his head and was in com­
mand of the armies. The King had to be made to realize
that he was a constitutional monarch, that is to say be
made to think he was the boss while leaving Cavour as
the true master.
The last scenes of the drama unfolded in Naples.
Garibaldi, with a few followers, went forth to meet the
King as he was advancing at the head of his armies. He
took off his hat and saluted the King as the first King of
Italy. He and the King rode together awhile on horseback
in silence. Garibaldi was melancholy; the King was em­
barrassed. A few days later the Hero rode in the same
carriage with his King into Naples, as the King's ministers
had felt it essential for appearance's sake. The King re­
fused even to review the ceremony that marked the dis­
solution of the Dictator's troops, troops which had just
gained for the King a kingdom. Garibaldi suggested that
he be retained for a year as ruler in the South, as he had
full command of the people's love and trust. This was
refused. He was offered a title, a yacht, an income. He
refused all of these, saying that he had not fought to make
a career for himself but to make Italy. He departed from
Naples a few days later, an embittered man, complain­
ing that he had been thrown aside like an old orange peel.
He took with him only a few essentials for his island farm,
among them a bag of seed-corn.
This conflict remained an essential flaw in the new
109
state. The majority of the citizens in the south of the new
Kingdom remained uninterested in and detached from
the distant government at Turin. In the North, where the
majority of Garibaldi's volunteers came from, deep mis­
trust was sown.
On the 14th of january, 1861, the new Kingdom was
proclaimed officially. Garibaldi wrote to his friends that
to make the country great one had to get rid of politics,
which was a" dirty and bestial" thing. He described the
Parliament as a nasty assemblage of words and sold in­
terests. He appeared in Parliament on the 18th of April
in his red shirt, South American poncho, and flowing
beard. Looking straight at Cavour she said: "I ask of the
representative of the Nation if, as a man, I will ever be
able to shake the hand of him who has made me a
stranger in Italy." This ghastly scene, together with the
terrible worries from the south, hastened Cavour's death,
which occurred less than a month later.
Mazzini, as you recall, had faith in
"Dio e populo."
Garibaldi had faith in the King, no matter what hap­
pened, and had faith in a free people, whom he was pre­
pared to liberate whether they were ready or wanted it.
Cavour, despite all his skill and cunning, had faith in a
Parliament, a faith that may have been as misleading
sometimes as the faiths of Mazzini and Garibaldi. It is
only fair that we read Cavour's own statement of faith,
110
as it is perhaps the only statement that is acceptable to
prudent men. I quote from a letter he wrote in French
to a friend of his in December of 1860:
For my part I have no confidence in dictatorships, espe­
cially if they be civilian dictatorships. I believe that one can
accomplish many things with a Parliament that would be im­
possible under absolute power. An experience of thirteen
years has convinced me that an honest and energetic minister,
who has nothing to fear from the revelations of the represen­
tatives, and who is not of a nature to be intimidated by the
violence of faction and party, has everything to gain from
parliamentary conflict. I never feel so weak as when the Parlia­
ment is not in session. This is understandable, as I could not
with impunity betray my origins, or deny the principles of
my whole life. I am the son of Liberty, it is to her that I owe
all that I am. If a veil is to be put on her statue, it will not
be done by my hand. If one persuaded the Italians that a dic­
tator was a necessity for them, they would choose Garibaldi
and not me. And they would be right.
The Parliamentary road is longer, but it is surer. The elec­
tions in Naples and Sicily don't frighten me. I am told that
they will be bad: so be it. The Mazzinians are less to be feared
in Parliament than in their clubs-the calm even air of Turin
will quiet them. The majority of the nation is monarchial, the
army is pure and cleansed of all Garibaldian stain, the capi­
tal is ultra-conservative. If with all of these elements we can­
not move ahead, we should prove to be the greatest of
imbeciles.
SPRING 1986
Created Date1/10/2011 3:12:09 PM