Monday, January 26, 2015

Beautiful Tragedies

After any shocking murder or accident gets publicized, two things reliably happen. First, it gets called a “tragedy” by college administrators, horrified Facebookers, and newspaper columnists. Then the ire of the elite is raised, and it gets asserted that no, everyone’s wrong; a tragedy isn’t just any disaster, it’s a disaster with X, Y, and Z characteristics.

The first group might be silly, but the second is silly and also wrong. True, the ancient Greeks didn’t use their word tragôidia to describe events like Eric Garner’s death or the Charlie Hebdo massacre. They also, for that matter, didn’t use the word tree to describe a photosynthesizing stalk—they called that a dendron. And since we don’t stick to Greek usage in the second case, why in the world should we feel obligated in the first? If we all obeyed the pedants, ἔτι ἂν καὶ νῦν ἕλληνιστὶ ἀλόγως ἐλαλήσαμεν.

But besides their bizarre criticism of ordinary English usage, the anti-tragedy crowd has a deeper flaw: more often than not, they themselves don’t know what the “true tragedy” is that they are trying to defend against the vulgar throng. Take, for instance, Tom Koch’s article today in the New York Times, which criticizes the common tendency to call it a tragedy when, say, “drunken high school students … drive off the road.” Here are Koch’s grounds:
But if everything that is avoidable, stupid and simply untoward is tragic, then nothing really is — not if we insist on its description of a specific kind of human sorrow. In devaluing the word, we devalue what it is meant to express. We trivialize what we wish to make truly important.
Now, what does Koch think the word tragedy is “meant to express?” It’s unclear from the article, whose line of thought is hard to follow, but he seems to suggest what he thinks in this paragraph:
For an event to qualify as tragedy, its telling demands some kind of emotional catharsis, a resolution to the losses it details. This month’s Je Suis Charlie march in Paris qualifies. But more important, to be worthy of its name, tragedy must instruct.
So we have two criteria: a tragedy must be a) a story with a relieving resolution, and b) have morally sanitary effects. So the shooting itself was just awful, but since our society rose up in unison against it, proving it had learned something, then there was a tragedy.

But why choose these criteria? Why say programmatically that “tragedy must instruct”? By that standard, couldn’t I just as easily say that France’s permitting the cartoons to be printed was a tragedy? After all, the affair certainly came to a thudding, popularly celebrated conclusion, and it instructed thousands all over the world that the free West is bent on insulting Islam. In any case, Koch might have insisted that everyone in a tragedy speak in iambic trimeter—and he would have had more grounding from the ancients.

At the end, Koch gives up the pretense of his “qualifications” and tips his hand:
The tragedy lies not in the simple fact of [the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’] murder but in the decades of military encroachment and colonial expansion that helped to radicalize a religious sect. It lies, too, in our culture’s failure to integrate new members in an ethos that is inclusive and assures a political space for legitimate complaint.
I think I know the reason why Koch wrote this article. He wants to reserve the word tragedy’s strength as fodder against the phenomena that he thinks society needs to be more revulsed by. Attacks by Muslim extremists? That’s just mayhem, just like a high school senior dying on the road. But the Western colonialism that caused the attack? We should be able to call that tragic. That political preference is all that motivates Koch’s supposedly etymological point. It’s toxoplasmic propaganda in the clothing of philosophy.

But criticizing Koch and the pseudo-pedants isn’t why I sat down to write this post. I’m writing to describe what, if for whatever reason we decided to apply the Ancient Greek meaning of tragedy, the word would describe in our society.

A tragedy, from the Greek tragos, “he-goat”, and aoidia, “ode”, was just what its name suggests: a goat-song. What this originally meant to the Dorian Greeks is unclear, but it’s possible either that the singers wore goatskins as they performed, or that the best singer won a goat as a prize. Regardless, by the time the Athenians were putting on tragedies, the term had come to mean any song or play with a serious, grim theme—as opposed to a comedy, which was funny and lighthearted.

It was hotly disputed among the ancients what the purpose was of this terrible entertainment. Aristotle’s position was the most famous: we go to plays, he said, to purify ourselves from the fear and sadness displayed on stage. But I think that we’ve made a little too much of Aristotle’s fabled katharsis, which he really just posits as an afterthought. More important to Aristotle were the artistic elements of the tragedy, which he spends several pages discussing:
Since the [tragic] representation is performed by living persons, it follows at once that one essential part of a tragedy is the spectacular effect, and, besides that, song-making and diction. For these are the means of the representation. By “diction” I mean here the metrical arrangement of the words; and “song making” I use in the full, obvious sense of the word.
You might have noticed that very few people on Facebook call for us to restrict the word tragedy to events that are set to rhythm and music. But if Koch were really true to the ancient Greeks, he would have done just that. Tragedy is art, and nothing besides that. When we’re not on stage, we don’t speak in meter, and there’s no chorus to howl in Dionysian passion when something bad happens to us. Life just sucks, and only art can be beautifully tragic.

Many people miss this truth, partly because artistic tragedy is so seductive that it can lead us to seek in out in real life. And in truth, a tragedy is a wonderful, terrible thing, whether or not Aristotle was right about catharsis. Last November, I saw Don Giovanni—a tragedy disguised as a comedy—and was brought literally to the edge of my seat, capable of neither breathing nor clapping by the end. I have almost never been filled with so much simultaneous horror and longing. The events that happen on stage would be disgusting and mundane if they happened in real life—rape, murder, deceit, death by huge statue—but in Mozart’s musical language, the story seems to be spoken from the mouth of the gods. Even the brutish lackey speaks in recitative, and the songs—even the ones about sadistic torture and nihilist misogyny—are pure delight.

I think this delight led Nietzsche into saying this:
The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. ... Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge — which is how Aristotle understood tragedy — but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity — that tragic joy included even joy in destruction. (Twilight of the Idols, “What I Owe to the Ancients”)

Before I criticize Nietzsche, I want to say that this account of tragedy touches something solid. To borrow a metaphor from Julius Evola, Nietzsche wants to use tragedy to ride the tiger of suffering; to climb onto its back and use it as a source of joy, instead of submitting to it and being torn apart by its claws. Is this possible? Certainly; I’ve felt it myself. (While watching the end of Götterdämmerung, for instance. A fact I really wish I didn’t know is that Hitler likely listened to it before shooting himself.)

But in general I stand with the pessimists that Nietzsche criticizes here. Nietzsche was so enamored by the liberating spirit of Greek tragedy, that he seems to have forgotten the consequences of applying poetic principles to ordinary life. And it seems not just distasteful, but immoral to me to attempt to turn real human suffering into a source of happiness. Pain dominates most human and animal lives, and its grimness can’t be transformed or denied without insincerity or willful indifference. I refuse to make that denial. In the face of Auschwitz, Nietzsche’s embrace of life is much more grotesque and evil than even pessimist nihilism.

That’s why tragedy’s best feature is that it’s not real. In my view it takes its beauty from precisely the fact that it floats far above true human experience. Robert Jeffers has a relevant comment here:
Poetry is not a civilizer, rather the reverse, for great poetry appeals to the most primitive instincts. It is not necessarily a moralizer; it does not necessarily improve one’s character; it does not even teach good manners. It is a beautiful work of nature, like an eagle or a high sunrise. You owe it no duty. If you like it, listen to it; if not, let it alone. 
Lately I had occasion to read more attentively the Medea of Euripides, and, considering the reverence that cultivated people feel toward Greek tragedy, I was a little shocked by what I read. Tragedy has been regarded, ever since Aristotle, as a moral agent, a purifier of the mind and emotions. But the story of Medea is about a criminal adventurer and his gun-moll; it is no more moral than the story of “Frankie and Johnny”; only more ferocious. And so with the yet higher summits of Greek tragedy, the Agamemnon series and the Oedipus Rex; they all tell primitive horror-stories, and the conventional pious sentiments of the chorus are more than balanced by the bad temper and wickedness, or folly, of the principal characters. What makes them noble is the poetry; the poetry, and the beautiful shapes of the plays, and the extreme violence born of extreme passion. 
—Robert Jeffers, ‘Poetry and Survival,’ excerpted by Rush Rhees in Without Answers.
There is thus an important distinction between the suffering in tragedy and the suffering in real life. In ordinary life, evil is boring, banal, and icily cutting. I’m talking about children who die in freak accidents, men who mug ninety-year old women in the park, and Islamists who force children to blow themselves up in crowded places. In the theater, though, such horrible events are exquisitely beautiful. Mimì dies of tuberculosis while singing, Gretchen drowns her baby in Faust, Othello murders Desdemona; and our reaction in all these cases is to sigh in pain, overcome by the drama’s beauty. This is the wonderful effect of the brazen bull. Tragedy in art has no moral content: it is simply a spectacle of incredible passion. Catastrophe in life is infused with morality—with real evil—and unless we take a sordid pleasure in other people’s suffering, it’s just sickening. (Love is the only real human pain that’s beautiful in real life as well as on stage. But that’s for another post.)

Think how many plane crashes get
 oil-painted and hung in museums.
So the “true tragedies” of today don’t happen with real guns. They happen at the Metropolitan Opera, at the movies, and on Youtube. And the tragedy, in the Greek sense of the word, is one of the most mysterious, beautiful elements of our culture. Tragedy in the popular sense is the dullest and most oppressive.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Poems

1. A palindrome

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

Those who roam in circles through night and die in a fire
“moths” were called by the Church; human beings by us.


Auck! said the flitting wings in the gray sky, crossing the gray lake;
clouds hid the sun in their folds, wind swept the snow on the ice.
Silence is haunting peace when Earth’s soul lives in the country;
Godless she is just the wind, empty and cutting and dead.

3. On a tombstone

Wayfarer, why do you wistfully sigh and say death is natural?
Natural it is, but the dogs naturally chewed on my eyes.


Now that the lights are stripped from the trees, dead night has the kingdom:
hearthlight has faded to ash, snowfall to steely-gray ice. 
But—I tell you a mystery—glad king Pan merely slumbers;
soon his pink cherries will bloom, swaying in sweet and warm air.

Translation of Horace I.9

See how the lofty frost-covered mountain gleams,
buried in deep snow; see how the snow-filled woods
creak with their burden, how the rivers
stand at a halt as they turn to hard ice.

Spear though the cold! heap logs on the blazing hearth!
And, Thaliarchus, if you’ll be kinder still,
Pour out the wine that’s braved the winters,
pour the pure wine from the two-eared bottle.

And leave the rest to gods who do not taste death—
They’ll throw their savage winds on the tossing sea!
If they might only spare the cypress
and the old ash trees that clothe the hilltops.

Don’t even try to know what tomorrow brings;
squeeze joy from each day Fortune gives up to you.
Don’t flee the loveliness of sweet love,
Nor, my good youth, from the wheeling dances.

Just for now sad gray age keeps himself away
from your green vigor. Yours is the stadium!
Yours is the racetrack, and the whispers
uttered at night at a secret meeting.

Yours is the laugh that gives up a hiding girl,
sweetly cascading out of a secret room:
you’ll pull a bracelet off her forearm
or from her barely resisting finger.
Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte nec iam sustineant onus
silvæ laborantes, geluque
flumina constiterint acuto.

dissolve frigus ligna super foco
large reponens atque benignius
deprome quadrimum Sabina
o Thaliarche, merum diota:

permitte divis cetera, qui simul
stravere ventos aequore fervido
deproeliantis, nec cupressi
nec veteres agitantur orni.

quid sit futurum cras fuge quærere et
quem Fors dierum cumque dabit lucro
appone, nec dulcis amores
sperne puer neque tu choreas,

donec virenti canities abest
morosa. nunc et campus et areæ
lenesque sub noctem susurri
composita repetantur hora,

nunc et latentis proditor intimo
gratus puellæ risus ab angulo
pignusque dereptum lacertis
aut digito male pertinaci.

Our Sacred Freedom of Speech

I want to recommend an article by Peter Leithart, “Beyond Blasphemy,” and to thank my friend Miguel for linking to it. The article makes the following argument:
Secular liberalism aims and claims to be beyond the possibility of blasphemy. Blasphemy can only exist where there is a sacred to violate; we are supposed to be beyond blasphemy because we have given up on the sacred. 
But of course, we haven’t. We are awash in sacred entities and ideas—equality, freedom, rights. Modern nations are holy nations, demanding sacrifices to police the boundaries of the sacred. ... 
If liberalism has a concept of the sacred and hence a notion of blasphemy, then it must claim that its sacred is true, right, and good. Out of the other side of its mouth, though, liberalism says that it needs no settled conclusions about what is true, right, and good: It claims to leave private citizens free to make their private choices about their private truths.
The article concludes with a recommendation: “A liberalism that acknowledges its sacred commitments would be, if nothing else, a more honest liberalism.”

I agree vehemently with this final point, and want to apply it to a particular case: freedom of speech. The most basic point to make about it—an assumption that Leithart’s article relies on—is that freedom of speech, just like our other freedoms, was never inevitable. It is just as historical a phenomenon as the coercion that it opposes, and would not have come into being if eighteenth-century history had randomly zigged instead of zagging. It is not cosmically privileged, and there is no reason to think that humanity will not lose it at some point in the future.

But no matter how much we like free speech, pointing out that it’s accidental brings something sordid to our attention. Namely, if we see free speech as just another leaf in the wind of history, it becomes possible to think that it’s simply not the best way to run our society. Once we begin to doubt its natural supremacy, it’s up for any kind of criticism. This is already common on North American university campuses, where movements to repress speech deemed harmful set off Ragnarök approximately once a week. And the same thing happens on the state level: China and Egypt, to pick two examples from an ugly throng of repressive governments, have decided that the state’s authority is a more important ideal than the freedom of speech that would allow its criticism.

So in sum, free speech as a public policy can be and is challenged constantly. Now, one possible response to this challenge is to make a reasoned defense of it based on practical arguments—much as John Milton did in 1644, in his Areopagitica:
That Order which ye have ordain’d to regulate Printing ... will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome.
This is the essay that set the ball rolling, and arguments in free speech’s favor are largely the same as they were in the seventeenth century: without giving the enemy a platform you won’t be able to rebut him; public policy is better when any proposal can be voiced; the government gets to know when it’s in trouble on the street; et cetera.

But there are two problems with this practical approach. First, all these arguments might be wrong. One might, in the first place, believe that the interests of civility or of respecting ethnicity or religion trump unbridled mockery or “hate speech.” That’s why you can’t put up a swastika in Germany, and why Christians can’t write the word Allah in Malaysia. Much less dramatically, if you spend more than two minutes on a page like Overheard at UChicago, you’ll come across someone arguing that yes, free speech is good in a vacuum, but not when it gets abused to further marginalize an ethnic, sexual or religious minority.

There’s also a strong case to make that governments actually benefit enormously from suppressing speech: in Russia, for instance, the carefully constrained media has successfully painted so flattering a portrait of Putin, and so demonizing a caricature of the West, that the average citizen is far more likely to support the regime than not. All the more so in North Korea. Even on this continent, Congress was once so persuaded by the arguments for curtailing speech for the sake of national security that it passed a Sedition Act in 1797, and then again, during the First World War, in 1918. I’m not arguing here that free speech is ruinous to governments, any more than I’m arguing that it’s not. I am saying, though, that as soon as you make free speech a practical question of policy, you expose yourself to a host of extremely persuasive arguments that would thwart it. You must be prepared to debate Xi Jinping on the subject, and to accept the consequences if you lose.

The second problem: in the classical American tradition, free speech is deemed a right, not just a wise policy. (At least, it has been since the Supreme Court began to hear free-expression cases around the turn of the century.) And now that the natural theology of the eighteenth century has worn off, it’s extremely hard to conceive of a practical argument for the existence of such a right. Can you prove that a man should have the power to speak his mind, for no other reason than that it’s his birthright as a human being? I think we cannot, no more than we can prove his God-given right to vote for his representative. Rights aren’t material facts, and you can’t demonstrate them.

We can, though, enforce them: and so we make our liberal freedoms sacred. This worship transcends the practical approach that’s so riddled with dangers. With some exceptions that I’ve mentioned above, Americans have done this in the case of free speech: Everything can be up for debate, but not the freedom to have a debate in the first place. (Of course, you can propose curtailing speech, say, for religious reasons: you just can’t do so with the expectation of any success, since the Constitution, both written and social, forbids it. So you might as well not propose it at all.) Thus, without any logical justification at all, our public institutions tend to insist on free inquiry as a bedrock of their structure. This is, I think a good thing. It allows us to uphold our first-amendment freedoms without subjecting them to the muddy humiliation of having to defend them. We can simply point to the faded parchment in the National Archives or the pocket Bill of Rights in our jeans, and give out the proper sentimental sigh.

Leithart thinks that our refusal to submit free speech to constant logical tests is a thing to be ashamed of. In his mind, the truth of our ideals goes unexamined in this process of making them holy. He writes:
But what happens to liberal order if it should openly acknowledge that it depends on truths that must be protected? What basis does it have to determine those truths and defend them? Where would it find a consensus? 
Here, I part with him. Not because I think liberal ideas like free speech aren’t true, but because the question of truth or untruth simply doesn’t apply here. There’s no need, then, for our society to nihilistically embrace free speech despite knowing that we rely on a falsification. We can simply worship the ideal—and declare it inviolate—without believing it to be based on a truth claim. This makes us defenders of free speech much better placed than apologists for religious ideals, who suffer under the iron yoke of empirical review. A right is a purely normative concept, and no factual discovery under heaven can possibly besot its rusted-copper robe.

Our national altar.
To go back to the general case, liberalism does indeed hold certain values sacred, and blasphemy against them to be a nasty thing. But this is not a bad thing. In the face of all practical concerns, despite everything that persuades me that coercion is better than freedom, I love my freedoms, I worship them, and I see no defect in them. The cult of liberalism is a historical and contingent phenomenon—that I grant. But it’s also a wonderful phenomenon, and I wouldn’t have my society any other way.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Poetry from the Brazen Bull


First, a poem. Sappho of Lesbos, a lyric poet of the seventh century BC, is sitting at a wedding-feast, watching the bride being fawned over by the groom. I’ll let her take it from here:

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν 
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναίσ’
οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλά κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

κὰδ’ δέ μ᾽ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔτᾳ.
phainetai moi kênos isos theoisin
emmen’ ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plâsion âdu phônei-
sâs upakouei

kai gelaisâs îmeroen to m’ ê mân
kardiân en stêthesin eptoaisen.
ôs gar es s’ idô brokhe’ ôs me phônais’
oud’ en et’ eikei,

alla kam men glôssa eâge lepton
d’ autika khrôi pur upadedromêken
oppatessi d’ oud’ en orêmm’ epirrom-
beisi d’ akouai,

kad de m’ idrôs kakkheëtai tromos de
paisan agrei khlôrotera de poiâs
emmi tethnâkên d’ oligô ’pideuês
phainom’ em’ autâi.

That man looks to me to be among the gods, who sits facing you, listening to your sweet voice and your entrancing laugh. But it makes my heart tremble in my chest, for when I look at you, all sound fails me, my tongue freezes, and a nimble fire rushes beneath my skin. My eyes are darkened, and I hear only a whir; sweat streams down me, and I’m seized with shaking. I become more pallid than the grass, and I find myself close to death. [My translation.]

This is one of the earliest complete love-poems that humanity has, and is strange for its utter lack of a philosophical resolution. Many ancient poems of this kind, including Catullus’ translation of this very poem, close with something like “yes, love sucks, but here’s why you should stop worrying.” Here, we only get a naked statement of Sappho’s inner longing, with no thin and dry philosophy intended to make sense out of any of it. And we get it in four elegant, rhythmic stanzas.

This is painted onto a wall in the Vatican, a witness to the
 Church’s traditional openness to every form of human love.


I almost committed an act of plagiarism this week, which would have been fine in my eyes but not in some of yours. I was on a run the other day thinking about this post in my head. I decided to start with a short analogy that I’d thought of, comparing poetry to the bellowing of the Brazen Bull of Phalaris. Unfortunately (for me, not the world) the analogy was written 160 years ago by Søren Kierkegaard. I must have read this passage somewhere a few years ago, and it must have nestled itself so deep into my unconscious that I began to mistake it for my own original thought. Only a last-minute googling saved me from saying it without attribution.

That would have never troubled an ancient or medieval author. But in order not to be pitchforked by the priests of the modern cult of originality, I’ll have to make this post a commentary rather than a parable. So be it.

Here is the passage in full:
What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant’s ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing for us soon again”—which is as much as to say, “May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful. (Either/Or, Part I: “Either”.)
Phalaris, that is, built an enormous, hollow statue of a bull, and fitted out its mouth with a device that converted the screams of his enemies, whom he burned to death inside, into a delightful hum. And Kierkegaard’s poet is the man inside the bull.

This is an good explanation of what makes an large amount of poetry what it is. We have a formula for a certain kind of poem: 1) unbearable pain, and 2) a conversion of that pain’s expression from an inarticulate yell into a sweet, lyrical song.

I submit that when you don’t have the first element, you need an enormous amount of sheer cheer to be able to reach the emotional depth required for Muse-inspired writing. These are only a few good poets who can write outside of the bull, as it were, and cheerfully sing about the glee and pleasure of life. But when you have the emotional anguish but not the musical craft, you just get noise, passed off perhaps as experimental or “raw.”

Unrequited love, like in Sappho’s poem, is only one example of a painful spur to poetry. So is existential gloom:
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed. 
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan… 
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. (Thomas Hardy, Hap)
Consider, meanwhile, Non mi dir from Don Giovanni, in which Donna Anna begs for mercy from a seemingly silent heaven, setting us up for the triumph of sensual evil over good. Or Corydon’s lament in Virgil’s second Eclogue. Or the end of Tristan und Isolde, which puts the audience on an increasingly painful musical torture-rack that caused even The Economist to gasp in delight. Or Goethe’s Faust, cursing the earth for failing to fill his unearthly desires:
I am too old to play life’s stupid games;
too young for freedom from my longing thirst.
What will the world allow to me?
Hold back! hold back! you must hold back!
That is the never-ceasing song
that tinkles in the whole world’s ears,
a song that hums our whole life long;
the hoarse refrain of every sunlit hour.
I wake up every morning filled with dread,
ready to pour out bitter tears,
for I must see another day, whose course
won’t slake a single wish of mine—not one—
a day that chokes the subtlest throb of joy
with all its cautionary scruples;
frittering the lyric heat that stirs my breast
with countless little cares of life.
Why do we do this? Why would a suffering poet clamber into the brazen bull, and why would we listen? Not, as Aristotle thought, to soothe the pain of life. I think that even the suggestion of consolation, in any sense except the fulfillment of the original desire, would have been insulting to Hardy, Sappho, and the others. Meanwhile, it’s near impossible to walk out of a tragedy feeling less torment than going in. Even Dido, who said the most beautiful poetry of all, wasn’t able to save herself from despair with her hexameter verses (performed here by my friends!) Evidently, there’s little psychological utility to be had from writing poetry. And yet the ancients—and the medievals and us—wrote poetry all the same.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, the Muse of poetry is a god. Human life is often terrible, and one of its great miseries is a feeling of exclusion from sacred satisfaction. We mortals are here in the mud, and can see—but not enter—the star-eyed vault of heaven. Our earthly pain compounds this frustration. But when pain becomes spoken through poetry, it becomes cosmic pain, and unites us briefly with what can seem like sacred heaven. As Nietzsche said about rhythm, “it produces an unconquerable desire to yield, to join in; not only the step of the foot, but also the soul itself follows the measure, probably the soul of the Gods also, as people thought!”

To have the gods join with us in rhythmic poetry doesn’t make anything better in a material sense. It can, though, make suffering sacred, and transform a prosaic wail into something noble and even picturesque. (Why would anyone want that? That’s a question I can’t answer.) Somewhat relevant: epilepsy used to be called the “sacred disease,” and considered to be a fount of godly poetry, until Hippocrates reduced it to the mechanical disorder that we know it as today. In order to understand why people had thought that it was godly communion in the first place, it helps to realize this: an epileptic trance was an extreme departure from the tiresome conventions of the world. It was the painful embrace of a terrible mystery. It was involuntary, too, which meant that it was truly instigated by a god beyond this world.

Second, and more comprehensible to a godless modernity, humanity can speak to itself through its verses. If you read a poem, you get to know that at least your suffering was also suffered by Homer and the Archpoet. If you own a stack of books, that is, you have thousands of years’ worth of friends to stand at your sickbed, all of whom know intimately what is happening to you. And if you go farther and memorize a poem, you can live part of your life to the rhythm of another man or woman’s inner experience. This is comfort, not consolation, but what comfort it is! A fellowship of humanity, a colorful parade of naked apes on a painful trek to the grave, is a noble thing to be part of. And the poetry of our ancestors is a tune that we can all march to. The tree of man was never quiet: then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

[Links updated July 4th, 2015]