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Essay

IN A SCENE from book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve talk one evening of the glories of Eden and their unmerited free creation by God, unaware that they are being watched by Satan. This little scene takes place shortly after Satan’s shape-shifting arrival in Eden and serves as a kind of foreshadowing of Eve’s later temptation in book 9. As Eve recalls the moment when she woke into life after her creation, she remembers that a short interval passed before God brought her to meet Adam for the first time. In that interval, Eve, waking to the sound of water, traces the sound to a cave and from the cave to a little lake. As in Ovid’s tale of Narcissus, from which Milton is clearly borrowing, Eve bends over the still water and sees a shape within the “watery gleam.” That reflected shape mirrors her actions, and Eve is immediately delighted by what she takes as “answering looks of sympathy and love.” Eve goes so far as to tell Adam how she would have fixed her eyes on that image alone and “pin’d with vain desire” if a voice had not broken into her reverie. The voice, of course, is God’s, who tells Eve that the shape she sees in the water is herself, a reflection that merely comes and goes with Eve. In place of that self-reflection, God will bring Eve to Adam, in whom she can truly see herself.

This little scene contains a number of ideas that are essential to Milton’s epic tale—and offers us some practical wisdom. First, Milton suggests how quickly and essentially we see the world through our own false conceptions of it. Immediately upon waking in the world, Eve, bending over the lake water, thinks the shape she sees there offers her sympathy and love, though she is only seeing her own love for herself. Here’s our original sin even before Eve and Adam have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge: that we think we know more than we know, or can know. And, while current psychology and common sense tell us that we must love ourselves in order to love others, Milton’s point is more subtle: we only truly know our face in the face of the other. God, remember, tells Eve that the reflection she sees in the water will depart with her and return when she returns to the lake. Good science, certainly, but Milton’s metaphor here is crucial: the self we see in the mirror is not truly our self. Eve’s happiness cannot be found by seeing her reflected image in Adam’s eyes; nor can Adam’s happiness be found in his reflection in Eve’s eyes. But Eve’s love for Adam can be seen by Adam in Eve’s face. And so can Eve know Adam’s love, and see herself in that love, in Adam’s face. To believe that the reflected shape is truly oneself is, in Milton, to damn oneself. Throughout Paradise Lost, the face of evil is the contracted image of the self gazing at itself. It is Satan reducing the world to his own mind.

I want to place this scene from Milton against a contemporary reimagining of the Narcissus myth that appears in a prose poem by Stephen Mitchell, who is more widely known for his excellent translations:

Kneeling there, gazing into the so-taken-for-granted form, he grew more and more poignantly aware that it was mere surface…. When the water rippled at the touch of a leaf or fish, it too rippled; or broke apart when he churned the water with his hand. More and more fascinated, he kept staring through the image of his face into the depths beneath, filled with a multitude of other, moving, shadowy forms.

Mitchell’s Narcissus has realized, as Eve did not but as we all must sooner or later, that the self-image rippling on the water is “mere surface.” As God warned Eve, that image departs with her; it is dictated by the surrounding conditions—wind, a leaf falling, a hand breaking the watery image. In Mitchell’s tale, Narcissus learns to stare through that image of his face into the depths beneath, filled with a “multitude of other, moving, shadowy forms.” The crucial word here is “other.” The multitude of shadowy forms is more fascinating and more absorbing than himself (even if we concede that the self is still doing the looking and is seeing those forms, perhaps, in terms of some relationship to the self).

In the final lines of the poem, Mitchell goes a step further: more important than what Narcissus sees is what he comes to believe: “He knew that if he stayed there long and patiently enough he would be able to see straight through to the bottom…he knew the image would disappear.” Time, patience, and attention to those other forms are all necessary if the watery image of the self is to be seen through. I remember reading Ruskin’s Modern Painters during my first year of graduate studies. Making a case for the literal truth of Turner’s paintings, Ruskin pointed out that because Turner is a literally accurate painter of water, we either see the surface of water or we see through the surface to what lies underneath, but we cannot see the surface and the bottom simultaneously—just as in those gestalt drawings of the two faces in profile, we can see the two faces or the vase those two faces make. My point is simple: we cannot see life if we’re looking at our reflections. To escape what the poet Wallace Stevens called the “man-locked set” of our predispositions and doctrines, and see “straight through to the bottom” requires, in part, that we learn how to be “rooted to the spot,” as Mitchell puts it in his parable of Narcissus.

Given, perhaps, the fact that I am a writer and have spent half my life teaching literature, especially poetry, what I have to say next will come as no surprise. For me, literature and our reading of literature are places where we can take root. In an article for the New Republic, Mario Vargas Llosa argues that our era of specialized knowledge, brought on by the development of science and technology, increasingly requires an arcane and specialized language. We know the benefits certainly of such specialization—the rapid advances in medicine, in the transfer of information around the world, in the extension of our life spans. But we are not always aware of the costs—in Llosa’s words, the “elimination of common intellectual and cultural traits that permit men and women to coexist, to communicate, to feel a sense of solidarity.” Literature, for Llosa, is “one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances.” To put Llosa’s language into the language I have been using, we might say that literature helps us see past our reflections; it helps us to see the world outside ourselves that is too often masked by ourselves.

But merely reading literature will not accomplish these enormously important and life-preserving goals. Certainly the hyper-educated Nazi put the lie to that idea. I’m interested here not simply in reading, but in what I see as constituting the act of reading and, by extension, the act of writing. Northrop Frye, from whom I take the title of this piece, said that “all reading begins in the revolt against Narcissus.” For Frye, the revolt is against reading which confirms what we already know or want to be true. (The Bible is the focus of three of Frye’s last books—The Great Code, Words with Power, and The Double Vision; for Frye the Bible, and the trickster God we find there, force us to separate our “human mirror of God from God’s reality.”) The experience of reading that Frye speaks of takes us out of our usual position of mastery over words and things and resituates us in an attitude of listening. All good literature poses unanswerable yet necessary questions about the world we live in. It asks us to consider the fickleness of life, the mystery of love, the monsters that lie within us, the pervasiveness of injustice, the inescapability of death. But as Frye and Llosa understand, “Literature says nothing to those human beings who are satisfied with their lot, who are content with life as they now live it.”

I don’t mean to imply that reading literature well requires years of graduate training. I’d be the first to admit that my own discipline—literary studies—has done incredible harm to the act of reading over the last twenty years. The belief that good literature has the power to help us past our shallow prejudices and political opinions by reminding us of the complexity and mystery of human existence seems to have disappeared from most college and university English departments. Now one set of politics replaces another. Certainly modern critical theory has taught us valuable and necessary lessons with regards to the illusions of self-possession and self-knowledge. We’ve learned, certainly, to look at texts as cultural constructs and to see the all-too-human interests that lie concealed behind the words. And we no longer come to literature with the naïve assumption that the great work is a direct road to some higher truth. But literary theory has almost become a parody of itself in its great relativist leveling: the critic is as important as the author; the reader is as important as the author; there really is no author at all since the reader and critic are as much a part of a work’s meaning as the author’s intentions and, besides, there really is no such thing as originality since words belong to no one in particular and are merely being endlessly rearranged by writers. And what we call literature is no more than the bourgeois discourse of whoever happens to be in power; and all those ideals that make life worth living—love, compassion, justice—are really illusory and sentimental. And so on and so on.

The result, I’m saddened to say, is the professional study of texts and the subsequent loss of why anyone would care about literature at all. In one of the best analyses I have read of this phenomenon, David Bosworth, in an essay published in the Georgia Review entitled “Echo and Narcissus: The Fearful Logic of Postmodern Thought,” points out that our present fate is that of Echo and Narcissus: “the one unable to express herself, the other unable to see beyond himself.”

Bosworth’s essay contains some truly piercing psychological insights:
—that the primary drive of the postmodern personality, which appears so liberated, is actually one of censorship, as can be seen in our present art’s favorite strategies and postures: parody, opacity, word play, the hip ironic tone that proclaims the weariness of having seen it all and done it all before, and the sense that all emotions and ideals must be undercut;

—that our claim that “language can only refer to itself and that there is no objective reality” leads us unwittingly into Satan’s dilemma in Paradise Lost. That is, we are insisting that the mind is “its own place”;

—that, most poignantly of all, this withdrawal into the mind’s own place does not give us the mastery over life we wish for. In fact, as Bosworth says quite eloquently, when we “constrict what we know instead of mapping what exists, we defuse our immediate anxiety at the expense of an eventual effectiveness.” Parody, of course, is also a means of hiding. When we convince others that we are in the know, we hide safely in our knowingness. We are safe, that is, from the anxiety of our feelings and from choosing the apt words for those feelings.

Such safety is precisely what keeps us locked inside the cave of our minds. We need to admit straightaway that the insufficiency of our knowledge—the whipping post of theory—has always been our condition. In fact, the Greeks understood such insufficiency as the tragedy of the human condition. Such an admittance is a place to begin. It should never be a negation of the search for truth, if what we mean by truth has something to do with experience as opposed to propositions and logical positions and counter-positions. The French poet and critic, Ives Bonnefoy, asks this question: “what are the subtleties of language, after all, even turned upside down in a thousand different ways, next to the perception one can have, directly, mysteriously, of the movement of leaves against the sky, or the noise fruit makes when it falls into the grass?” To exit the cave of our minds, to see past the watery reflection of ourselves, requires an interest in, as Flannery O’Connor once put it, what we don’t understand rather than what we do.

The imaginative act that gives rise to great art and to the act of reading which is a revolt against Narcissus requires us to leave our personalities behind and to inhabit another’s experience. The critic Norman Finkelstein, writing about George Steiner’s book Real Presences, notes that the “experiencing of the work of created form is a meeting between two freedoms—the freedom of the work, which in its ‘absolute gratuitousness’ has spontaneously come into being out of nothing; and the freedom of the recipients, who must willingly open themselves to the work’s salutations.” The act of reading is an act of love, a going out of one’s nature, a sympathetic identification with the mystery of the other, whether the other is a neighbor, a stranger, or God. We love, as Plato saw, what we do not possess. The act of reading I’m trying to speak of is a revolt against Narcissus because it demands what Simone Weil called attention, as opposed to will. Attention, which Weil saw, incidentally, as the highest goal of education, comprises both the attitude of waiting, as in prayer, and the deprivation, as Weil puts it, of all that I call “I.” When we attend to a text we give it all of our attention, giving up in the process the needs of what Czeslaw Milosz called our “tiny, tiny myness.”

I want to call on Luther for a moment. The way Luther said we should read Scripture applies to what I’m saying about how we should read works of literature. Luther’s revolutionary idea—that he did not wish to understand Scripture by his spirit or others’ but solely by its spirit—suggests that Scripture, and literature in general, are not objects of understanding from which we extract meanings. In Luther the reader is not so much the interpreter—that understanding of Luther falsifies him entirely—as the interpreted. Allen Grossman applies the same hermeneutics in his Summa Lyrica when he writes that “the interpretation of a text ends up in the self-interpretation of a subject, who henceforth understands himself better.” Luther’s great reform is this: one must encounter the Bible in the spirit in which it was written, an encounter that is not concerned with deciphering a text’s meanings but with the experience of the interpretation itself. Scripture must be experienced. As opposed to the idea of a text as a purely analytical object on which interpretation is done, Luther posits a text that inscribes itself in the reader. The experience that Luther speaks of, then, takes the reader out of the usual position of mastery.

Such an experience might be seen in the book of Genesis. In chapter 32, Jacob wrestles with an angel. As you may remember, Jacob’s name in Hebrew can mean deceiver, serpent. Jacob, of course, has demonstrated his aptitude for deception earlier in this story—he has manipulated his older brother Esau and taken his birthright, and he has pretended to be Esau in order to steal his blessing from their blind father, Isaac. Throughout this story, Jacob, who carries the blessing of Abraham, his grandfather, has become—in his manipulations, in his craftiness and control—the greatest impediment to that blessing’s fulfilment. In fact, there can be no peace for Jacob or his family until he confronts his past and achieves some kind of reconciliation with Esau. At the border of Canaan, then, Jacob, who has come back to his homeland to meet with his brother, must first wrestle with a stranger. The wrestling match takes place at the Jabbok Ford, which Jacob will rename Peniel, or “face of God.” A mysterious stranger comes to Jacob in the night and wrestles with him until daybreak. What can we make of that wrestling? Surely Jacob is wrestling with a number of things: his marriage, his brother, his darkest impulses, God himself, who is so impossible to make sense of (remember this whole tale begins when Jacob, who is supposed to inherit the promise to Abraham, is born seconds after his brother Esau, thus setting off the need, at least in Jacob’s mind, for all his manipulations). As Jacob wrestles, he asks for the name of his antagonist, but gets no answer. What he does get is a touch on the thigh that lames him for life. But Jacob will not let go; he clings all night to his opponent, asking for a blessing. Though the stranger is at one point referred to as a man, he is clearly no man, and, as the story reaches its climax, it’s hinted that Jacob has been wrestling with God himself. Finally, while Jacob never learns who he has been wrestling with, he is transformed by divine power into Israel (the word Israel in Hebrew means one who strives with God), and the starting point of God’s people. Like Jacob, then, all readers of this story are forced to wrestle in order to make some sense of the mystery of existence, out of the never-able-to-be-seen-or-understood face of God. Like Jacob, we cannot master our situation, which is always one of partial darkness. We cannot control the people around us, including our own families. In fact, the best we can do is precisely what Jacob does: give up control, wrestle with our darkness, and fight—at the cost of our maiming—for a moment of insight, an experience of the unknowable divinity.

I want to look now at a slightly more extended example of what I’ve been calling the revolt against Narcissus. As a paradigm of my ideal reader engaged in an act of reading, I want to offer Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet, of course, must wrestle with his father’s ghost, his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle, the likely murderer of his father, and, most of all, with the “rotten” state of Denmark itself, where what appears to be is never what is, and where a man’s words have been unhinged from his actions. I’d like you to put aside for a moment all those interpretations of Hamlet you have in your head. I’d like to begin with a very simple assertion: that at the end of act 1, after Hamlet has first seen his father’s ghost, what Hamlet almost condescendingly and dismissively says to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—is precisely what Hamlet will be forced to learn. The irony here is that Hamlet knows the intellectual truth of his statement but has never experienced that commonplace truth “flooding his whole soul, like a revelation,” as Simone Weil put it. He thinks—mistakenly—that he can get at the truth through a mastering of his situation. He will during the course of the play: “put on an antic disposition,” acting mad in order to unmask the madness around him; outthink and outmock everyone who tries to “play him like a flute”; and stage a play in order to find hard, “scientific” evidence of the guilt he is looking for in Claudius. (Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation, in all its wonderful brash intelligence and manic wordplay—rather than the usual brooding, melancholic Hamlet—gets this aspect just right.) Yet all these actions get Hamlet nowhere. In fact, these very thought-out actions lead Hamlet to mistake Polonius for Claudius, and subsequently to stab Polonius. They help to drive Ophelia to suicide and, finally, Laertes to revenge.

It is not until Hamlet returns—“naked,” as he says, or born again—from his sea voyage that he begins to experience the truth of his statement to Horatio. Hamlet has been saved—serendipitously by a pirate raid on the ship that was carrying him to England—and when he approaches the graveyard at the beginning of act 5 we see a new man, one who has learned, as Hamlet explains, that only when “our deep plots do pall” do we have the chance to see how “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will.” Hamlet has finally come to see that he cannot control everything and everyone around him—his “deep plots” are as doomed as Claudius’s determined life. As the pun on “will” implies, all those actions which we will, all those decisions that are shaped by our own needs and desires can, for better or worse, only rough out our lives. The real work of fine carpentry can only occur when we “let be.” In a way Hamlet, like Ophelia, has drowned. He has given up his faith in reason. All through the play we have seen him troubled by his doubts, by a need for certainty where there could be none. Now, at the near cost of his own life, Hamlet has entered a realm of experience that only death makes known. There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

Hamlet’s comments in the graveyard scene are his last on the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Death forces Hamlet to see reality as it is: that our station in life, our particular economic class, our intelligence and training—all are illusory. Death, the great equalizer, should make us ask not what a person did but rather what kind of person was this? What was the quality of life that was lived? Hamlet has looked into the face of death and into his darkest fears—he cannot know what he wants to know; he cannot control the lives of all around him; he cannot force life to be as he would like it to be. He can only face his own radical contingency and the mess his own “deep plots” have strewn about him; he can only accept his own part in the death of a woman whom he loved; he can only be ready to act responsibly and with his whole being in the faithfulness of knowing that we cannot shape our ends. As Augustine might have put it, Hamlet learns that faith is always seeking understanding.

In my little paradigm of Hamlet as ideal reader, you can see, I hope, that if it is our obligation to use all the training at our disposal to make sense of the words before us, then it is also our obligation to let those words question us. Real reading begins at that moment. Only after Hamlet lets go of his need to control the world around him is he granted a measure of understanding. We undergo as readers the same purgatorial experience as Hamlet. In Denmark, nothing is ever one thing; neither is it in literature. Has a character in literature ever been less pinned down than Hamlet? Don’t we think we understand him only to have him evade our every definition? And isn’t it precisely that evasion that forces the experience of his plight upon us? We attend to Hamlet’s every word because those words bring us, again and again, to a place where we experience what the words do not say: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all…. Let be.” We can footnote this sentence, parse its grammar, apply its general idea to the play as a whole, as well we should. But we cannot contain the baffling mystery of those repetitions of “now” and “to come,” the effect of all those verb forms that seem to bring present and future to a point of convergence, as in the Gospels’ always here, always coming kingdom of God. We cannot begin to experience those words until we wrestle with the play’s most difficult moment: what happens to Hamlet between act 4 and act 5? Does he give up and only turn more passive and suicidal? Or does he experience a revelation of the divinity behind our lives and finally accept the mystery of existence on its own terms, as I have suggested? Or is this simply a failed play for whatever reason we want to give? There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions. But we answer them each time we give ourselves over to the play, each time we let the play interpret us, if only for the duration of our reading.

Reading then presupposes, as Allen Grossman says, “a meditative sorting of the true situation of the self from false versions.” To sort out these versions, we need to read against that which we already know. Impatience is our enemy. Impatient readers read themselves and their experience (whether it is relevant or not) into what they read in a way that confirms what they already believe. When Abraham raises a knife above his son Isaac, the impatient reader either dismisses the story out of hand or dutifully concludes that we should do God’s will, or assigns the story to some historical framework whereby the action simply belongs to old sacrificial rites, or concludes, perhaps, that Abraham’s God is not our God. But to come to some understanding of God, we must let the story question us. We must suffer Abraham’s decision with him. When we read, we should become a question to ourselves. John Keats called for negative capability—the poet, he felt, should exist in a kind of in-between state, without trying to foreclose the contradictions he finds himself in or, as Keats puts it, “without any irritable reaching out after fact and reason.” His odes, both individually and as a sequence, constantly place Keats in between conflicting truths: between a Grecian urn’s glimpse of unchanging beauty and the finite, ever-changing, difficult and fulfilling love of human beings; or between the song of a nightingale that offers an “easeful” death and the difficult act of living in a world of “weariness” and “fret.” Keats’ poems constantly examine his own desire to live in a world of fantasy and imagination. And the strength and majesty of those poems are directly connected to the rigor and faithfulness of those self-examinations. In her 1996 Nobel Prize speech, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska said that three little words formed the beginning of everything she wrote. Those three words were: I don’t know.

For me, literature grows by questioning. Wallace Stevens’ famous definition of poetry as an “act of the mind finding what will suffice” suggests the restless nature of great poems. I have always felt that the most important legacy of the modernist poets was precisely that searching, ever-restless mind which posits a truth one moment and then, in the next moment, says, as Eliot does in the Four Quartets, “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory.” And then he starts over, looking for another way of putting it. The goal is never simply to play with alternatives, but rather a means of sorting, as Grossman put it, the “true situation of the self from false versions.” Or, to put it another way, our obligation as writers and readers is always the revolt against Narcissus, a constant distinguishing “between what is real and what is only desired.”


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