Our Authority Over The Bible

My Russian grandmother has always encouraged my mom and me to become more devout Orthodox Christians. Growing up in the Soviet Union, my grandmother often had her faith tested, as religion was seen as a competing institution to the communist regime. It was the late 20th century, when the Soviet government fought to gain total autonomy, advocating atheism in schools (producing people like my atheistic father) and harassing churches as well as other religious institutions— even going as far as to ridicule religion with propaganda. Having kept her faith stable throughout her life and into the new millennium, my Grandma’s trust in religion became a source of great dependence and power. This dependence always struck me as so interesting; what was it about her faith that was powerful enough to outlast the Soviet Union? My grandmother used to say something about the structure religion provided in her life: it gave her the foundation upon which she built what she saw as a righteous lifestyle.


A prime example of Soviet anti-religion propaganda. The text reads “There is no god!”

I remember, on multiple occasions, my mom quickly shooting down any attempts of my grandmother to convert me to Orthodox Christianity. I remember my mom was not trying to discount its validity, but instead she saw herself as letting me choose what I wanted to believe in. But my grandma could never understand my mother’s apprehension when approaching religion, an apprehension that I now carry.
My mother’s and my caution toward religion was not a result of pure coincidence; it was conditioning and style of thinking. I was raised to ask questions and be critical of assumptions. My grandma, on the other hand, could not afford to look at all the options offered growing up- she had to latch on to a belief and stick to it, or she might have ended up faithless and hopeless as the rest of the people in Soviet Russia did (or so she claims). My biggest issue with accepting a faith was, and still is, that any particular religious doctrine, Christianity in this case, came with so many different branches and so many different principles within each branch. My grandmother depended on the authoritarian nature of her religion to lead her in a time where the legal authority was not satisfying. This authority, mostly encompassed in the leading religious book, the Bible, never struck me as something that would provide direction in my life. Books like the Bible have been accepted as structurally sound. This is intuitive: if societies are going to develop according to a book, it needs to have some ability to hold a consistent fundamental framework. Yet, to this day, I still see the Bible as so vague that it could hardly produce any more structure in my life than I would have without it. The number of directions I could take my life while still remaining within the constraints of one book makes it seem like it would be easier for me to find my own way through life with no directional assistance provided. In fact, when I recall all the attempts to use the Bible and get a more clear sense of what direction I should be taking my life in, I end up unsure of how to read the Bible, and the concern I had over what I should be doing with myself transformed into a chasm of uncertainty revolving around the interpretation of the book I try to design my life around.
We knew, of course, about the power of the Bible to unite groups of people of across various races, socioeconomic background, and cultures. But our general sense of the universal power of the Bible comes with the assumption that everyone who reads the Bible has the same standards by which they live a righteous life. The debate over the acceptance of homosexuality was, and still is, a long-lasting fight that had the powerful effect of making it clear that the Bible was susceptible to providing support and evidence for opposing sides of even the most polar of issues. The authoritative power belonged not with the text, but to this who read it and chose to live by it.
Our initial false understanding of the Bible as authoritarian was neither a hunch we lived off of, nor a commonly questioned assumption we accepted. This view of the Bible was the result of years of preachers leading sermons trying to reconcile people with each other by not providing them the chance to argue over interpretation of the verses within a church. In the mind of the conservative church preachers, that attempt at unification has been epitomized in the attempt to demoralize homosexuality. These conservatives take the Bible and use its words to convince others that homosexuality is prohibited. By taking pieces of the Bible and ranking them by how much they reflect the view being argued, they prioritize the teaching of verses that are easier to interpret as anti homosexual. One such verse is Leviticus 18:22. The verse, in the King James version of the Bible, goes like, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” While different Bible translations can come up with slightly differing versions, the translation does not effect the interpretation in a way that would be crucially detrimental to the interpretation presented by conservatives. This in itself is a point that conservatives like to emphasize when asserting the power of the verse condemning homosexuality. This verse is taken very literally when used as an argument against homosexuality. “Man shall not lie with man” means to say that a man and a man may not be together. “Lie” is a key word here, as this verse is directly expressing the wrongness of two men being in bed together. This is clarified by “with woman kind”, where it is understood that man is to lie with woman in a certain way (a way that would result in procreation, the justification for any laying at all), but to lie with man in the same way would be an “abomination.” For this conservative biblical view said “abomination” would be something that is exceedingly sinful and wicked.
The idea is further elaborated upon in Leviticus 20:13, where it is written “If a man also lie with mankind, as he leith with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Here we not only see the mentioning of homosexual affairs, but the degree to which such affairs can be punished and which parties are to be punished. Again we see the use of the word “abomination”, which is in turn suggested to be punished by being “put to death.” To heighten the anti-homosexual argument of this verse, there is emphasis put on the last clause, “their blood shall be upon them.” This implies that the people committing the act brought their punishment upon themselves, that they are both at fault. This can be taken even as far as to be asserting that homosexuality is a choice and thus it is a crime where only those who partook in the homosexual behaviors are to be punished: they were both consenting and therefore should take their punishments upon themselves. This conservative approach to the topic of homosexuality in the bible may vary on which aspects of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 they focus on, but these two verses are two verses that naturally, and seemingly unavoidably, undermine homosexual affairs as virtues (or at least neutral). For this more homosexual rejecting interpretation, as for so much of generally accepted interpretations, preachers have conducted careful literary analysis to tease their target points out of the text.
Anti- homosexuality advocates are not the only literary critics of the Bible. On June 26, 2015, same sex marriage was finally legalized by the Supreme Court Case decision of Obergefell v. Hodges (Diamond). This decision, while a victory in many hearts, faced the Christians of the United States with a discomfiting reality: The Bible that had for so long been used as a reason for why homosexuals could not get married (because homosexuality is an abomination) was in a position where it was being undermined by a policy. The sudden nationwide strike back against a holy text shocked the masses. At the battle for the equal recognition of homosexual marriage, right from the beginning, many non-Christians that tried discrediting the Bible were actively voicing their opinions on the validity of the Bible. Often, they would point out clauses that contradict each other, and interpret verses to intensify the contradictions. Murder, for example, is one such famous contradiction. Exodus 20:13 captures one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God, “Thou shalt not kill”. Exodus 32:27 then later states “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor”, which, as most non-Christian people claim, is an obvious contradiction as it commands people to “slay” others. Leviticus 20:13, mentioned earlier, is yet another clause that is pointed to when identifying contradictions in the Bible. It too opposes the commandment of “Thou shalt not kill” when it encourages homosexuals to be “put to death.” In such an analysis of the Bible, contradictions and plot holes in the picture the Bible paints are things that non-Christians try to emphasize, like discounting the bible. Validity is lost if one verse is interpretable in several ways; much more so from multiple verses regarding the same topic, and especially across multiple topics.
Pro-homosexuality Christians grasped this literary challenge, to bring back validity to the Bible, and even before the legalization of gay marriage, began forming claims surrounding the misinterpretation— that is to say, they argued that there was gross misuse—of the Bible. Homosexual Christians renounced the notion that the Bible advocated homophobic values, claiming that it is “…utter nonsense. I read the Old Testament. I read Leviticus and Genesis. I find it quite incredible really that people can extract those texts and use them as excuses for saying that therefore God hates homosexuals. I think it is intellectually very unsound.” (Yip 117) Homosexual Christians who battled with their sexual orientation and turned to the Bible to find answers, soon realized that it was not the Bible that condemned homosexuality, but the individuals and church groups that interpreted it. “In their relationships with the Church, gay Christians are subjected to the Church’s vocabulary of motives that labels their lifestyle as unacceptable. In response, gay Christians have to develop an alternative vocabulary of moral motives that label their sexuality and lifestyle as compatible with Christianity.” (Yip 116)

In such claims, removing the Bible as the source of Homophobia lay the roots of the nature of the Bible being widely interpretable—the understanding that verses can be reinterpreted and that emphasis of underrepresented verses can change the virtues advocated. Book writer and Bible critic Mark Powell for example, pushes back against the idea that the Bible is homophobic by starting at one of the commonly identified reason behind why the Bible would prohibit homosexual relations, procreation. He draws attention to the verses Ruth 1:1-5, regarding the fact that some couples will naturally be unable to bear children, Matt 19:12, pertaining to the fact that it is acceptable to remain alone and celibate, and Genesis 2:18, which claims that people should not spend life alone. Powell’s understanding of the Bible as not condemning homosexual behavior is not simply an extrapolation of the verses, but analysis focusing on the relationships between the verses. His analysis of the Bible, a view that is not uniquely his but shared with many other “students of the bible”, results in a view that, while homosexuality might be seen as “non-normative”, it is an exception to the rule that relationships must be rooted in the goal to procreate, just as celibacy and childless relationships are. (Powell) Homosexual relationships still manage to abide by claim in Genesis 2:18 that “…It is not good that the man should be alone…”, more so than remaining celibate, a practice allowed by the church, does. All this analysis is from yet another “literary critic” whose specialty is the Bible.
Such interpretations of the Bible provide a firm foothold to the difficulty I find in trusting the Bible with the way I am to live my life— that one conservative priest could turn to Levictus and claim homosexuals are to be punished by death; while a homosexual Christian can look at the same Bible and claim it encourages homosexuality over being alone. The common assumption that the Bible is an authoritarian presence in society and works to provide structure to people’s lives haunts all that accept it as a guidebook even when it gives virtually no clear instruction. True, some have asserted this authoritative nature arises from fundamentalism, as Bible critic Dennis E. Owen points out, “Such characterizations are not entirely without some basis in fact. Fundamentalism will almost always appear authoritarian, and so too will forms of Pentecostalism which, like Fundamentalism, place a heavy emphasis on correct thinking and combine a belief in the infallibility of scripture with a commitment to literal readings.” (Owen 73) Yet, although it seems there is an aspect of fundamentalism and emphasis of the “infallibility” of scripture, it is immediately disproved by the fact that there are multiple widely believed interpretations of the same book, allowing the reader to decide what “correct thinking” is.
For understanding the Bible, there is— only an image of authority. In reality it has no power. Religion is based off the stability of the Bible, a stability that is undermined by the very people who read the Bible. Confronted with the realization that the writing of the Bible is incapable of bossing us around, the readers, the priests, preachers, any Bible reader, is permitted to superimpose their own interpretations. As their job becomes to interpret the bible for the masses—they have become literary critics themselves. We pick what it means, often according to what we already do, and then just use our interpretation of the Bible as justification for what we have decided to do. The Bible is only spuriously static.
This is not the case with only Christianity and the Bible, but the case with any religion, philosophy, and principle, based off a written text. It is no novel occurrence that a book as seemingly authoritarian as the Bible is quite the opposite. The church claims its understanding of the Bible to be the one of most plausibility. But we have evidence for the plausibility of our understanding too, ones that are just as supported by the verses. It is the nature of written text. Anyone can pick up a book at any time and say what they want about the text, making a literary critic of themselves, dismissing context and purpose. The interpretability of text confers on us, the critics, the most unsettled of challenges—the burden of molding the text of the Bible, the burden of deciding what God’s word is to be. If we were to really abide by “God’s” word, the only way to do this with minimal influence from the critic would be to hear it from God himself.

Works Cited:

Diamond, Jeremy, and Ariane de Vogue. “Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide” CNN Politics. CNN. June 27, 2015. Online.

Yip, Andrew K. T. “Attacking the Attacker: Gay Christians Talk Back.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 48, no. 1, 1997, pp. 113–127

Powell, Mark Allen. Faithful Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality. Fortress Press, 2003.

Owen, Dennis E. et al. “Authoritarian or Authority-Minded? The Cognitive Commitments of Fundamentalists and the Christian Right.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 73–100

Writing in the style of Ta-Nehisi Coates (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/02/why-do-so-few-blacks-study-the-civil-war/308831/)

Life in the modern world; or, The End is already here


I’ll give you one of Adorno’s major arguments as straight as I know how: to be an individual in the modern world – that is, to be a free, autonomous being, a full-realization of yourself in some idealist sense – is simply impossible. One of the central concerns of Adorno’s project is that people are stuck in the trap of modernity. The rise of industrialization and the unrelenting propensity of capitalism have created a culture that thrusts each of its subjects towards conformity, as if every film, song, and even person had been produced on an assembly line on placed on the shelf of a department store. The monopoly of capitalism has made any piece of culture indistinguishable from any other; the coercion of capitalism upon mass culture places the same authoritarian stamp on everything it touches. Even the houses in which people are thought to maintain their private lives are virtually identical, each urban apartment merely a cubic holding cell like any other. That which we consider private property is replicated in such abundance that it actually belongs to no-one.

Again, Adorno tells us: to be a free individual in the modern world is simply impossible. For the individual, it seems, has already died. As Adorno states in his “Refuge for the Homeless,” the bombs that fell on European cities, the labour camps and gas chambers – these were mere executors of what the modern world had already deemed humanity’s fate. There is no escape for Adorno, no means of reconciliation. After all, the possessions we must necessarily acquire, despite giving the impression of signaling individuation, only fall into the trappings of mass production despite giving the impression of signaling individuation; the dining set purchased from a home decorating catalog only provides the illusion of individuality. Such attempts at individuation, to Adorno, are futile; for they only seem constitute one’s further implication in the culture industry by one’s unconscious submission to its coercive authority. “It is a part of morality,” Adorno writes, “not to be at home in one’s home.” There is, in the end, no way to live a good life in the modern world, as to attempt to be an individual is then to be amoral; as Adorno states, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”

This may, I admit, be a backhanded attempt to translate a sociological argument into a moral philosophy. I submit, however, that Adorno’s argument is concerned with the central questions of existence – specifically, how an individual to live a good, meaningful life. After all, the occasion for Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which “Refuge for the Homeless” appears, was the utter destruction of World War II – the mass extermination of Jews and the bombings of major European cities; the volume is subtitled “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Adorno’s thesis is that a good life is incompatible with an inhuman society.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this claim, both from a political perspective – that is, what policies we might devise to effectively end global conflict and poverty and starvation and genocide – but also from a cultural one. I’ve been thinking, specifically, about what this claim means for art in modern society. It has been frequently, thought, after all, that art was the ultimate form of individual expression – that music and painting and poetry were an outpouring of individual emotions. And I think poetry might be the most obvious contender for this claim, as poetry – lyric poetry, specifically – has always been concerned with the “I.” Look at any lyric poem by Wordsworth or Sidney or Byron and you will see that the poems speak from the perspective of the individual. There’s a Heidegerrian appeal to such a claim, for it would seem that poetry becomes that which can bring the individual to the fore; Wordsworth’s most famous poem, for example, dramatically announces “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” putting the emphasis immediately on the speaker. But then this puts Adorno in a curious position, for Adorno’s individual is always a social being – and in the modern world, individuality is in a state of crisis.

Our question, then, is clear: what can lyric poetry since the death of the individual – as Adorno saw it, with the Second World War – do to salvage the individual from the wreckage? If Adorno is right, then we’d still have to say that this is, in some paradoxical way, revealing about the state of the individual in modern society. And I think I’ve found just the right poem to consider: Philip Larkin’s 1977 “Aubade.”

Philip Larkin occupies a curious position in the history of poetry. He is, we’d have to say, the post-World-War-Two poet that stayed true to the lyric. Whereas other modern poets began pushing the boundaries of the form – the avant-garde works of the Dada and Surrealist movements, for example, or the distinctive modernism of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas – Larkin belonged to “the Movement,” a group of poets which continued the tradition of the English verse. A quasi-manifesto for the movement can be found in the introduction to Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, a collection of the poetry of The Movement, in which he writes that modern poets “were encouraged to produce diffuse and sentimental verbiage, or hollow technical pirouettes;” in contrast, he describes The Movement’s poets’ “refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language, even when the verse is most highly charged with sensuous or emotional intent.” Larkin, it seems, fully ascribes to the doctrines of The Movement, calling those experimental poets “an irresponsible exploitation of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.” He aligned himself, rather, with the orthodox belief that poetry was a individual statement, insisting that it was a “personal, almost physical release.”

But then Larkin isn’t quite like the older lyrical poets – there’s a conspicuous nihilism in his “Aubade,” one of his last masterpieces. If lyric poetry is traditionally seen as a celebration of the individual, this poem might seem to be its anthesis. It’s a poem, after all, about death – or rather, about life as one approaches death. The poem opens bluntly:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four in the morning to soundless dark, I stare.

Right away we have to notice that this poem is in stark contrast to the traditional aubade. The aubade is, after all, a tried and true literary form – it’s a poem about the sunrise, with all the typical pleasantries – beautiful imagery of the dawn, often metaphorically paired with the presence of the narrator’s lover. Perhaps the most famous point of comparison, as Richard Osborne notes, is the opening of Act III, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear.

Larkin already stands in contrast to this traditional aubade; for in Larkin’s poem, the speaker is completely isolated. There is no lover in this poem, only the “soundless dark.” Indeed, this must be an unusual aubade as it is placed before the sunrise; whereas the traditional aubade might conjure images of the awakening of nature, this poem opens with the narrator staring into the darkness. The individual is alienated against the darkness of the inescapable void.

The poem then goes on to say that until the “curtain-edges grow light,” the speaker can only see “what’s really always there: unresting death.” The speaker is forced to confront the imminence of their ultimate end, thinking only of “how and where and when I shall myself die.” But then the poem specifies that the dread this causes is not any sort of regret – “not in remorse – the good not done, the love to given, time / Torn off unused” nor is it the result of a desire to fashion a good life in the time one has to live – “nor wretchedly because / An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and it may never;” rather, this anxiety is about the prospect of “the total emptiness for ever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.” This is important, as the poem, then, fashions death as the losing of ourselves, the end of being – in this poem, the individual is doomed “not to be here, not to be anywhere.” The poem conceptualizes death – rather than passage into another form of existence, an afterlife – as the simple annihilation of the individual.

Indeed, the inescapability of this annihilation is the poem’s next target; it proceeds to systematically swat away the myths that people have historically used to try to rationalize their way out of the trap of impending death:

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear

This makes religion seem to be not just futile, but an outright lie: it was “created to pretend we never die. It should be noted that this makes the poem distinct from other lyric poems,  even the modern ones, as most of the others – Eliot and Auden, for example – tend to fall back onto pre-Nietzschean conceptions of religion. Larkin, meanwhile, has no faith in such ideas.

Larkin then goes on to target other modes of existentialist thought. Osborne is helpful here as well, pointing out that the poem attacks Epicureanism, which sought to avoid the anxiety of death through rational argument; “Death is nothing to us,” Epicurus claimed, “for so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.” But Larkin insists that the fear or death cannot be escaped by logic, for the prospect of losing the ability to feel is exactly what we fear – “no sight, no sound / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with.” Death, to Larkin, is the negation of the senses, the end of thought, and the inability to connect with others – it is “the anesthetic from which none come round” – and there’s a certain anti-philosophical cynicism in his thinking that says that no logic can convincingly avoid the fear of this prospect.

The poem insists that non-existence must be that end to which we are all headed; it sees death as simply inescapable. To the poem, this constitutes the constant shadow of death in our lives. Death “stays just on the edge of vision, / A small unfocused blur, a standing chill,” assuring us that though “most things will never happen: this one will.” But then the thrust here is going to be that typical human activities are merely a distraction from this ultimate end; indeed, the poem makes them out to be meaningless. Larkin writes that the realization of impending death “rages out / In furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.” The poem is cynical in this regard: human interaction, let alone intoxication, are mere distractions from the inevitability of death. This calls to mind the poem’s opening line – how is one, after all, to hide from death but to work all day and get half-drunk at night? The speaker’s four o’clock awakening that forces him to stare into “unresting death” stands in stark contrast with this habitual routine.

Slowly, the poem puts the world back into view. But even as the world emerges from the darkness, death maintains its overshadowing presence:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

The poem emphasizes its final realization: that even in our ordinary lives, death sits always just at the edge of our existence – “plain as a wardrode,” that which we “know we can’t escape, yet can’t accept.” But it is from this perspective that the poem takes its final turn, pressing the utter meaninglessness of the modern world:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The adjectives jump out as us immediately: the world is “uncaring,” “intricate,” “rented.” It is ambivalent to our existence, too complicated to figure out, and always separated from us; we merely inhabit its space. But then we have to note that this isn’t about the natural world, as many lyric poems are – this is about the modern world, that of locked-up offices and crouching telephones, that in which “work has to be done.” In this way, the poem conveys a real sensitivity to the realities of capitalism and industry. But it’s argument is that it this world from which we are always 1) always inevitably alienated, and 2) merely mindlessly distracting ourselves from the inevitability of death. In a word, the modern world renders all life meaningless. The activities we habitually perform offer us only a distraction from the inevitability of our annihilation. When Larkin writes that “postmen like doctors go from house to house,” the postmen – the facilitators of intra-human correspondence – play the role of doctors, those who help people avoid death for as long as possible.

There are, by my count, three overarching points to take away:

  1. The poem has established itself as an anti-lyric lyric poem. There’s a certain irony in Larkin’s use of the lyric form, as it seems that Larkin has taken up the tradition all the better to annihilate it from within. Part of the work of figuring this out has already been done – we’ve already seen that this aubade actually more like the antithesis of an aubade, a poem about darkness, and that its breaks with the religious tradition of faith and the afterlife that lyric poetry had so often followed. But the more important point is to say that the poem focuses not on the flourishing of the individual but its demise. The “I” in this poem, in contrast to Wordsworth’s wanderings in nature, realizes not how to live a meaningful life – which in the lyric tradition often involves either taking in the wonders of nature or experiencing the ecstasy of romance – but rather that life is meaningless.  And then it’s worse than that: the poem gives death an unrelenting presence, casting itself over that which constantly presides over our meaningless lives, asking us what exactly we are living for if everything we do is merely a distraction from our eventual demise. In this poem, it seems, the person who lives a meaningless life may as well already be dead.
  2. The poem is anti-modernity. This applies, it’s fair to say, both to its sociological view as well as its literary theory. Indeed, we might say that the poem’s own theory of poetry is, in some indirect way, aligned with the manifesto in New Lines; the meaninglessness of the modern world that Larkin describes is not unlike the “hollow pirouettes” that Conquest accuses modern poetry of exercising. But then here is a good place to point out that even though the poem was talking about modern society and Conquest about modern poetry, taking “modern” to mean that-of-the-present, or simply “contemporary,” they are not talking about modernism, but rather postmodernism, which means, in some general sense, the era of fully-developed capitalism, the all-consuming, unrelenting kind. This seems to be a fairly good estimation of the world Larkin describes – the “intricate, rented world” of constant work and crouching telephones, and a world in which only the all-encompassing processes of industry, work, consumption, and capitalism – those which Larkin claims have alienated us from the world – are said to give our lives meaning. The label “postmodern” would, after all, most certainly apply to the year 1977 – when the poem was published – for by that time it could be fairly said that the last remnants of pre-capitalism in the West had mostly collapsed. At the same time, it is really postmodern poetry – generally speaking, the experimental poetry of the post-war era – that Conquest and Larkin criticized. So if Larkin’s poem is anti-modern, that really must mean it’s anti-postmodernism. When Larkin writes that “one side will have to go,” he means two things: first, of course, that we will, of course, die, no matter how we try to distract ourselves; but it’s also worth mentioning that he thinks that the meaninglessness of postmodern poetry, like the meaninglessness of the postmodern world, is guilty of perpetuating this distraction.
  3. But then here’s the main point, and I think it may be better off posed as a question: is it possible to have a lyric poem about postmodernity? And I think with Larkin the answer would have to be no. Because we’ve already seen that even if Larkin was trying to write a lyric poem, he actually wrote a sort of anti-lyric, a poem in the form of the lyric that is actually about the death, rather than the triumph, of the individual. But then we have to layer in what we just figured out – that the world of the poem is that of postmodernity – and that the poem conceives of the postmodern world as that which has robbed life of its meaning. It is postmodernity which kills the individual, that which renders us our lives already meaningless. You can’t have a lyric poem about postmodernity because the individual is already dead.

It is Adorno’s argument that lyric poetry was really never about the individual, but rather the individual in crisis. Indeed, he states in his “Notes to Literature” that:

You experience lyric poetry as something opposed to society, something wholly individual. Your feelings insist that it remain so, that lyric expression, having escaped from the weight of material existence, evoke the image of a life free from the coercion of reigning practices… This demand, however, the demand that the lyric word be virginal, is itself social in nature. It implies a protest against a social situation that every individual experiences as hostile, alien, cold, oppressive.

It’s a brilliant argument: lyric poetry has always been interested in the dream of free self-expression, but it always end up registering some sort of social antagonism; it’s “I” is always pitted against some form of oppression. To spell this out, all we need to do is return to Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and see that by the end of the poem the speaker is no longer running freely with the daffodils but lying on their couch—

For oft, on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude

—at which point we can see that the inward eye has replaced the “I” itself, that which had been running with the daffodils. This inward eye, we can say, is the poem’s version of a free individual; but meanwhile the actual “I” is contained by the monotony of domestic life. It can escape this monotony only by imagining the freedom the poem portrays.

This, then, is the paradox: lyric poetry likes to think that it has imagined a free individual – as Adorno, puts it, a “realized humanity” – while it has actually registered just what it is that the individual wishes to be freed from. The history of lyric poetry then becomes the history of the oppression of the individual. I think it’s fair to say, then, that Larkin’s poem confirms Adorno’s earlier argument that a realized individualism is impossible in the modern world. We’ve already figured out, after all, that Larkin’s “I” is posited against death, but it really turns out to be set against modern society – and in Larkin’s poem, this society has already forced the individual into annihilation.

But then the real trouble with Larkin is that he, like Adorno, offers no way out. Unlike traditional lyric poems, Larkin’s poem offers no vision of a liberated humanity, no portrayal of a free individual. It simply submits to a meaningless life in the modern world, unable to imagine any alternative. But then how could it? The world of the poem is merely one one of alienation and annihilation – of hollow office buildings, busy telephones, mindless work – to the extent that it renders the life of the individual meaningless. These are the same types of qualities that have been ascribed to postmodern hyper-capitalism – and it was that world, to Adorno, that has made true individuality impossible.

Perhaps this is what Adorno meant when he said that you can’t write poetry after Auschwitz. It would seem, after all, that in this world – the uncaring world described by Larkin, the inhuman world described by Adorno – there is simply no individual to extract.; the individual cannot be realized in art because the individual has ceased to exist. All we can say, it seems, is that human liberation is incompatible with the structures of the modern world, that no individual can resist their grasp, that their all-consuming strength makes a good life impossible. Adorno’s trap remains: Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.

The Subaltern wants to Speak: The Stand Point Theory in Novels

Richard Giblett Recent work : 2006-2009 Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf 21. Mycelium Rhizome, 2009 Pencil on paper 120 x 240 cm Collection of the artist Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf

Richard Giblett
Recent work : 2006-2009
Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf
Mycelium Rhizome, 2009
Pencil on paper
120 x 240 cm
Collection of the artist
Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf

The best novels are those that can guide us through complex connections and tackle diverse themes. They allow us to draw the connections between people, ideas, and objects that we might have only speculated about beforehand. Look at Times’ list of all-time “greatest” novels; in the top 20, we find 1984 by Orwell, Catch-22 by Heller, and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. By itself 1984 has 19 characters and 8 main themes; Totalitarianism, Propaganda, Love/sexuality, Independence/Identity, Music, Loyalty, Power vs. Wealth, Technology, and language. Grapes of wrath has 26 characters and tackles 7 themes including; commonality of experience, corporate greed, industrialization, man’s connection to land, organized labor, hope vs hopelessness, death, and suffering. The two novels talk about the societies they find themselves within and are trying to understand through writing. Orwell’s dystopian society contains complex and constantly developing characters and themes that were tackled in 267 pages. In the end, the reader is left feeling that Orwell’s dystopian society “[does] not seem foreign to contemporary readers [us]” – Times review. Grapes of wrath achieves our emersion trough a much longer text but ultimately pulls us into the American agricultural society during the dust bowl and great depression. As a New Yorker book critic put it, “It is a long and thoughtful novel as one thinks about it. It is also a short and vivid scene as one feels it.” These stories are those of societies and cultures… at least how the author perceives them to be.
The length at which an author can write complex connections is limited to their own ability to perceive events of the world around them. No person perceives an event the exact same way that someone else does, in this way no perception is a subjective one. When we observe an event, we are impacted by our own experience of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, our senses and many, many more categorize that intersect and give us the ways in which we understand the world around us. The challenge of the novelist is acknowledging the ways in which their experiences impact their position of the world. Of course, acknowledging all the ways our experiences impact our understanding of the world would be nearly impossible but to negate it would be the false representation full of our own biased perspective. We can see issues of representation displayed in early European novels about African people and their society. Because the novelist was not fully immersing themselves in the society they were writing about, the novels reflected only an outsider’s gaze onto the picture that was drawn from Africa. Orwell displays a dystopian world was intriguing for the reader because in the fictional novel we saw realities of a world that depicted a reality not so far from our own. Published in 1949, 1984 explored the connections and themes in a society of growing surveillance, as tensions between global superpowers rose. Orwell experienced some of the extreme measures that Stalinism and Nazism were taking to ensure the compliance of their citizen, genocide, forced labor, and executions were something not too far-fetched from his reality. Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, in it, the story of a migrant farmworker family is told. Steinbeck created the realities of this society because he traveled with migrant workers and listened to their stories of hope, despair, and drama. It was through the workers sharing of experiences, perceptions of the world, and Steinbeck’s personal experience with corporate farming that made writing the society in Grapes of Wrath possible. Without taking a step back and ingesting the world, the author would not be able to make these complicated connections in this way we allow others and the world to have control over us. In this sense, the one who is forced to listen the most might become the best novelist.
If the novel is a form of listening to the world and drawing connections from what is learned, then the subaltern once given the platform to write (speak) must be the best candidate for the job. The subaltern is, by definition, the marginalized, and by practice the oppressed. They are forced to listen to the stories of others because they do not have representation. They can also be studied by others in an attempt by the majority or oppressive group to try and include their representation. But because the novel cannot be written by an outsider and be exposed to more differentiation in positionalities, the subaltern will never be able to speak in their voice until they are given the means of producing their own narrative. Chinua Achebe is a subaltern who spoke.
Before becoming a writer, Achebe was raised in a colonized Igbo village with Christian parents. He later gained a scholarship to study at the government university in Nigeria. At the university, he discovered his passion for literature and the humanities, but the only type of literature that was available to him was European classics and literature of Africa written by Europeans. The novels he would later describe as having patronizing and explicitly racist remarks of African society. He read work like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary and admitted to siding with the white characters during his youth. But Achebe grew weary of these depictions so he started to work on his most acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart publishing it in 1959. The story was that of competing cultures, it was the humanization of the Igbo indigenous and the Christian missionaries. For Achebe, the humanization of these cultures meant building them to be human, a representation of the good and the bad not living in a vacuum from one another just as he did not live in a Christian family or and Igbo community he lived in both. Things Fall Apart has multiple historical contexts, the one of the novel and the one of Achebe’s life. In Things Fall Apart the novel depicts pre-colonial Igbo society and colonized Igbo society. During the writing of Things Fall Apart, the decolonization movement was in full swing the state was asking itself what direction is wanted to follow. Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, a man who lives their life in fear of becoming like his father, a lazy man who never achieved a title in his clan. This leads him to hate everything that is associated with his father including arts, expressing emotions, and being idle. His repeal of all things like his father made him one of the most successful tribe’s man. But because of his rejection of any emotion, other than anger, his compassion was very limited and he did not think before he acted. Through his rigid action, Okonkwo led himself to commit actions like the beating of his wife during the week of peace, killing his inherited son Ikemefuna, which he took part in only in fear of seeming weak, and the killing of a Christian leader in the community. The acts brought him punishment from the spirits that lead to his exile, and ultimately his suicide. Parallel to Okonkwo’s conflicts run the conflict of colonialism and indigeneity. For Achebe, the was his way of writing a novel that would attempt to depict his society without the blurred line of racist deprivation of humanity or the exoticization of his culture. Before the novel even gets into the conflict of two societies it gives us the story of an Igbo tribe. We learn about the vast Igbo proverbs that people live by and the complex traditions that are held by the tribal council, gods, and spirits of ancestors.
Achebe wrote about his interactions with both cultures as he put it, he “lived in the crossroads of the two”. Because he was born into an Igbo community and raised a Christian, he would spend his afternoons in tribal circles listening to elders tell stories and proverbs and his nights studying the religion of the colonizer which his parents adopted before his birth. Through his constant existence in relation to the two cultures, he was forced to acknowledge their interwoven aspects rather than emphasizing their independence from one another. This is heavily expressed in Things Fall Apart where neither of the cultures is depicted as perfect. The missionaries are not depicted as inherently bad people. The novel has Mr. Brown, who is open to learning about the Igbo culture and incorporating it into his ways of teaching Christianity. Mr. Brown attempts to explore the possibility of their coexistence – A coexistence that Achebe would be raised in. In juxtaposition, his successor Mr. Smith “saw things as black and white. And Black was always evil.” Mr. Smith showed the ills of colonialism, he put the people against each other and imposed his beliefs onto others. For Achebe, the Igbo society is also not intact. Achebe depicts a society in which a man’s worth is valued at their ability to produce. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was not valued in the tribe because he could not hold responsibilities. He borrowed money from many people just to sustain his family and spent most of his time drinking or playing the flute. Okonkwo believed that opposing all that his father represented was his only way to become, not only a man but a man with many titles. For many years, this rejection of all things “feminine” worked for him, he married three wives and acquired many titles in the clan through his hard work in farming and his great wrestling skills. Although Okonkwo was a successful member of the tribe, it was obvious that he was not the most favored person. He would mock the men without a title. This extreme rejection of what he deemed “feminine” was what led him to make horrendous acts that cannot be justified. The book was not meant to argue the pureness of the Igbo people nor the horror of the Europeans. It was intended to show the complex interactions between the two cultures.
Achebe was a subaltern that spoke, he developed a novel that humanized the people of Igbo society and the colonizers. He humanized them to complicate their identity and allow for the critical approach to their positions. The two cultures ceased to be either good or evil, weak or strong, then escaped the childish analysis Melanie Klein called the depressive phase. An attempt by an outsider to try and humanize Igbo society would have to take extreme measure to consider how their own positionalities can create biases in their work. Before Achebe, no other subaltern gained such a large platform like he did. The only novels of African societies were published by Europeans and often, resembled the racism and patronizing ideas found in Mister Johnson and Heart of Darkness. If we want to continue to try and understand the world in its complexities, we must stop trying to speak for the subaltern and rather develop systems that no longer deprive the subaltern the access to speak. In the end, Achebe was only one subaltern, the world will only advance is we can escape this depressive phase of analysis. And to do this, we can begin by listening to some advice from the Igbo people, “If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place.”

The History of Love: A Novel

The History of Love is an ambitious title. It sounds like it should be on the cover a textbook, perhaps a cultural analysis of love over the ages. It suggests the enclosed pages will offer a comprehensive account of love, an all-encompassing, authoritative expose of love’s general nature. Rather, Nicole Krauss answers the questions raised by her novel’s title with a complex story of three people unwittingly connected by one man’s love. To describe love, to live up to her title, Krauss shows the crippling, lifelong romance that Leo Gursky has with Alma Mereminski, the lives affected by it, and how they all connect.

If you haven’t read the book, here are the plot points you need to know: Leo wrote a book called The History of Love for the love of his life, Alma Mereminksi, who left him in Poland when she escaped for America in 1942. Alma Singer, a fourteen year old girl who takes turns narrating the novel with Leo and others, was named after the Alma Mereminski in Leo’s book. After barely surviving the war, Leo follows his Alma to New York, where he finds that after giving birth to Leo’s son, Isaac, she assumed Leo had died and remarried, never telling Isaac about his true father. Leo lives alone in New York for the rest of his life, and is around eighty in the novel’s present.

With such a bold title, it is no surprise that Krauss disappointed some readers. The London Review says that the novel’s “important questions are soiled by the book’s inability to be primarily truthful about human conduct and motive, about life…. The centre of the book – its rendition of life, its ability to make one believe in it – is empty” (29). Wood blames the novel’s failure on Krauss’s forced attempts to please readers. But there’s another obstacle to achieving the primarily truthful understanding of love the title seems to promise, an obstacle Wood leaves out: The novel is polyglot – It is narrated by several distinct voices. Some readers see the competing voices as supporting each other. Jessica Lang writes in the Journal of Modern Literature that “The History of Love is the history of the self — “I” —  a single story. It is not so much about a Leo, or a soldier, or an Alma or a Bird; rather, the narration delivers a sense of meshed identity, a result of the various interactions accumulated over the course of a lifetime” (52-53). Although the novel’s different but connected characters may reinforce a broader, humanizing notion of togetherness, they have such different understandings of love that no coherently meshed characterization of love is delivered. If Leo’s perspective stood alone, we could take his conception of love as archetypal. However, the unique views presented by each narrator leave readers puzzled with a complex and internally conflicted picture of love. The History of Love shows that love means different things to everyone. To see this, we only need to look at Leo and his strongest foil, Alma Singer.

Leo Gursky

We see Leo’s voice in two contexts: We first catch glimpses of his voice in The History of Love, the book he wrote as a young adult for Alma Mereminski. As a young romantic, Leo is expressive, emotional, and invested in the world. He writes about Alma, “Her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” (11). Leo’s passionate, aphoristic writing demonstrates how deeply he feels love’s beauty and power. His book details an imaginative history of love, describing angels’ love lives, the “Birth of Feeling”, the “Age of Glass” (106, 72). Leo’s writing is spirited, wrapped up in the joy of feeling. He falls deeply in love with Alma after his first interaction with her, begs her to marry him at age eleven, and promises never to love another girl. Leo’s young love is strong and joyful, the type found in Hollywood and readers’ dreams. However, Alma consumes his identity, which at first seems touching but quickly becomes dangerous. He later describes Alma’s love as the “only thing I knew,” and writes of his time hiding during the war, “I wanted to live very badly. And there was only one reason: her” (8, 226). Leo falls in love so strongly that it becomes his life’s purpose. But young Leo is satisfied, happy with love as his driving force.

Leo is a heartbroken old man when he narrates the novel, and the difference in his voice shows how losing Alma affected him. First, in contrast to the other narrators, Leo narrates dialogue in italics. Since italics are conventionally used for a character’s thoughts, when used for dialogue they emphasize Leo’s isolation and erect a boundary between the inside of Leo’s mind and the outside world. Communication with other people does not seem quite real – Leo travels in a haze, never really connecting with those around him. He spends his whole life yearning for the love he had as a teenager and recovering from its absence – he makes little effort to move on or pursue other interests. Second, Leo writes in short, frank sentences and often interjects with “And yet” or “But.” For example, he says of his occupation, “It’s not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet” before dropping the subject (5). Leo’s short sentences show his tiredness, and his brief self-contradictions express the irony he sees in the world and his frustration that every positive in his life has come with reservations. He appears tired of fighting back – he now takes injustice and incongruence for granted, hardly worth expanding upon. After losing Alma, and later Isaac, nothing energizes him. Third, Leo loves to joke about his own mortality. The first lines of the novel are Leo’s: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT” (3). Hopeless about love, Leo has no reason to live. After losing Alma, Leo transfers his love to Isaac, Leo’s son who does not know he exists. Leo fantasizes about talking to his son for decades, but Isaac dies right as Leo begins to summon the courage. Leo writes, “Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I’d been living for him. When I woke up in the morning it was because he existed” (80). Just as for Alma, Leo lived because he loved Isaac. Leo’s narration shows readers that love is so wonderful that it is the highest purpose of life – without loved ones, life appears meaningless.

In the context of Leo’s extreme loss, valuing love so highly is unfortunate. But Leo finds no way around it. Leo writes in the third person, “If the man who once upon a time had been a boy who promised he’d never fall in love with another girl as long as he lived kept his promise, it wasn’t because he was stubborn or even loyal. He couldn’t help it” (13). Leo’s theory of love holds us slave to love whether we like it or not, fantastically happy when in love and helplessly lost, purposeless when out. This distinct understanding of love is powerful in Krauss’s novel, but Leo is opposed by the other narrators.

Alma Singer

Alma’s voice is very different from Leo’s, as is her conception of love. She writes in numbered sections that try but fail to organize her scattered narration. She never gets too invested in one train of thought, never too attached to one mindset. Her sentences are long, and often contain playful figurative language. For example, Alma writes of her mother, “Sometimes she would get stuck on a certain sentence for hours and go around like a dog with a bone until she’d shriek out, ‘I’VE GOT IT!’ and scurry off to her desk to dig a hole and bury it” (48). Alma’s youthful energy saturates her narration. Krauss constantly reminds us of Alma’s age – and her naivety. For example, after telling a powerful story about a blind photographer, Alma writes, “I know there is a moral to this story, but I don’t know what it is” (39). This innocence may be absolved with age, but note that young Leo at this age was spouting wisdom about the depths of his love. Alma is a much more typical teenager, and the conception of love that her scatter-brained, youthful simplicity reveals is quite different from Leo’s.

Alma’s mother is similar to Leo – her life has been overtaken by love. After Alma’s father died, her mother “turned life away” to keep holding on to him (45). Witnessing her mother’s loss colored Alma’s perception of love. She writes, “When I was little my mother used to get a certain look in her eyes and say, ‘One day you’re going to fall in love.’ I wanted to say, but never said: Not in a million years” (54). Alma views love as undesirable, something to be avoided, something that will ruin her life. Further, Alma is annoyed by her mother’s love for her. Alma says, “She’d call after me, ‘What can I do for you I love you so much,’ and I always wanted to say, but never said: Love me less” (43). While Leo views love as central to his identity, Alma does not want it to be a dominant part of her life. She views the depths of love as a dangerous place. With the pain that love has caused her mother and Leo in mind, readers may empathize with this idea. And Alma offers a way out, a way to free herself from love: Even when she does fall in love – She slowly develops feelings for her friend Misha – it never becomes inextricably tied to her purpose in life. Alma is also concerned with her hobbies, her brother’s sanity, her dream of becoming a wilderness explorer, helping her mother move on from her father, and the puzzle of determining the author of The History of Love. She is never slave to love like Leo. And unlike young Leo’s sudden, passionate romance, Alma’s is awkward and uncomfortable. She doesn’t know how to describe her feelings, and the resistance culminates when Misha kisses her for the first time. Alma tells him to stop. “And then I said: ‘I like someone else.’ As soon as I said it I regretted it” (142). Even as she feels the pull of love and wishes she could say the right thing, her confliction shows she is skeptical of love. Being in love is not bliss for Alma as it was for Leo, and she does not need it to find purpose in life. Alma opposes Leo’s perspective with well-founded skepticism about love’s virtue and by showing that there is more to life than love.

The novel contains many other speakers and unique interpretations of love. The third primary narrator shows a love between Zvi and Rosa that is desperate and built on deceit, Uncle Julian is driven to cheat on his wife by her distaste with painting, Alma’s brother’s love for his dead father causes him to think he is the Messiah, Herman Cooper bullies girls in an effort to earn their love – each of these complicates the novel’s definition of love and blocks the novel from revealing a unified theory. Since love in reality is more diverse than one man’s conception, the multi-faceted nature of love that The History of Love’s polyglossia reveals is valuable and demonstrates the power that a single novel can have to simultaneously represent many contradictory world views. Critics searching for a one-track theory should turn elsewhere – I’d recommend another genre entirely.


This essay was written in the style of Jake Romm and received preliminary feedback from Paul Griffith.


Works Cited

Krauss, Nicole. 2005. The History of Love. W.W. Norton & Company. Print.

Lang, Jessica. 2009. The History of Love, the Contemporary Reader, and the Transmission of    Holocaust Memory. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 33, No. 1. Indiana University      Press. Web.

Wood, James. 2005. “Tides of Treacle.” The London Review, Vol 27. No. 12. Web.

The World as Poems Know It

With the shift toward industrialization came the growth of consumerism, of materialism and the ever-utilitarian eye that goes with it. Along with the boom of these ideas in the nineteenth century grew a fear in the minds of some; artists and philosophers, poised to understand the changing dynamics of society, looked out and saw a movement away from the “actual world.” Martin Heidegger developed a school of thought which in its simplest terms insisted that men had removed themselves too far from true existence—backed by musings on art, language, and the essence of Being itself. To be in this position was really to have lost the world. Such a position is dire at best, and those who agree with Heidegger’s philosophy are eager to find an escape.

Genuine poetry is one thing which, above all else, does not lose us the world. Ordinary usages of language are careless and given to degenerating the connections between words and things through a focus on their more distant meanings. If not handled properly, poetry can have this effect as well. But true poetry uses the language of reality in refreshing ways, giving renewed meaning to the world itself by taking a step away from it. Poetry allows us to make our own connections rather than forcing them upon us and, in so doing, brings us that much closer to the actual world.

There is some question about the particulars of this “actual world,” which must be clarified; a stable definition is necessary for analysis to continue. The very nature of this project implies its complex result, and we must stop to address it before moving forward. Once we have settled on a definition there can be discussion of what in poetry touches a reality so defined.

Scholars cannot decide whether the “actual world” is most definitively the physical or creative. There is a world of external facts, and some believe in this world of external facts as the “actual world” in its eternally valuable completion (Spencer 174). Perception is then thrown out the door. But this is impossible to allow in a full definition, in an explanation of the “actual world” that accounts for its intricacies. At heart the “actual world” is not only the world of facts and the concrete, not only the way existence is imagined. It is hopeless to attempt a separation of the two. The “actual world” is made up of external objects and facts, and those who people it must learn it in their own imaginative terms as it unfolds, before it has crystallized beyond their understandings. All is lost if life becomes only what it might do down the line. The matter of importance is that the things in this world are understood for the sake of their own being.

According to Heidegger’s philosophy, poetry brings us nearer to this “actual world.” He argues its language functions “to declare, to make clear, light, bright, shining” (Versényi 132), whereas prosaic language would attempt to persuade, would seek to explain. Prose wants to tell something; poetry just wants to be heard. The poetic is considered by some the most important form of art (Rosiek 157), and as art it pushes the dreary, the expected, the day-to-day utilitarian slug out of our minds and off to some seldom-seen corner of consciousness. It “gives no knowledge for or impetus of controlling the things of the world” (Versényi 93)—it holds a non-exploitative relationship to actuality—and so it is valued.

There is a poem by William Carlos Williams which, among other possible examples, serves well to highlight this trait. It is called “The Children” and reads as follows:

Once in a while

we’d find a patch

of yellow violets

not many

but big big blue

ones in

the cemetery woods

we’d pick

bunches of them

there was a family

named Foltette

a big family

with lots of

children’s graves

so we’d take

bunches of violets

and place one

on each headstone

The poem is short and simple to read. The six stanzas connect easily, and that difficulty of comprehension so feared in poetry is nowhere to be found in the earthy cadence and common language of the piece. And more, there is nothing it chooses to tell. In the place of some point it could be making, the poem gives its reader things—moments, and objects, and images from the world—purely for their own sake. The reader is permitted to take it from there. Though counterintuitive to an extent, it seems this “amalgamation of outer and inner reality which is poetry at its best” is—well, “more ‘actual’ than the world it reflects” (Spencer 192).

The key is in the imagination. The poem does not insist on making connections or feeding one’s utilitarian point of view. It gathers flowers and children and graves together on the page, but its words do not extend beyond that point. The worlds that are created—that come alive in our minds through the “transactional and creative process” of reading (Kazemek 22)—are fresh, though they are made up of the most commonplace things. And this act of imagining is paramount. The give-and-take transaction between the reader and the words before him works precisely when “comprehension and creation go on together” (Kazemek 24). One is fed the information slowly—first the violets, then the cemetery woods—until there is a whole family beneath the ground. Children’s headstones are a poignant thing, but they are brought to view gradually, and hidden in the plainness of their mention, so the reader is forced to acknowledge the sad fact of those graves’ existence alone. With the act of imagining, the reader develops a closer tie to the world in these words, a world which, being made up of the same stuff as our own, can transpose this firmer connection onto the “actual” (Spencer 177). So we are brought back, readers swallowed by an instrumentalist society, tied again to the “actual world” we forgot.

There is more to it, to be sure, than leaving empty spaces to be filled by the reader’s mind. The imagination is given reign in a sense that extends beyond—or, rather, beneath—the level of content itself. In true poetry—in a way definitively unlike any other form of language—words are alive. They are reordered, refreshed, and reestablished to take on that most undervalued of all designations, the new. It is undeniable that those called “first-rate” poets have a style which “does more than fulfill our expectations, it surpasses them… and uses the ‘actual world’ in a fashion which makes it seem something new” (Spencer 176). For “The Children,” it is color, in part, that does it. We are told they find “a patch / of yellow violets” (2-3), and not two lines along the just congealed image is shattered. For the yellow violets become “big big blue / ones” (5-6). It is a small thing, almost accidental, no more than a moment of signal static if you aren’t looking for it, yet somehow it frees the imagery. “The literal inaccuracy of [these images] is what makes their poetic accuracy” (Spencer 177); the reader is freed from the constricting frame of long-decided meaning, and suddenly the work, the art, is all openness and accessible connections. The flowers are both yellow and blue at once, and there is no attempting to picture them like that. We could think of them as something to be used in a garden or fitted in a bouquet for the tea setting under other circumstances. But these are violets that do not exist, that cannot exist, and so stop any practicality from coming between us and the actual thing.

Of course, this all hinges on “genuine poetry.” There, is, to be sure, quite a lot called poetry which is nothing of the sort. This can range from the banal whose same words are used in the same ways we’ve always heard them before to, alternatively, those overly presumptuous pieces whose language “instead of sinking, [try] too ambitiously to rise” (Spencer 176). There are, too, those poems which negate everything we’ve been attributing to their art, those poems which seem to hide the world rather than find it for us in their material. These ones are garrulous and act like prose; they blow the upper hand they could hold by telling us what they have to say.

An uncannily effective example is “Pals,” a piece by the otherwise unoffending poet, David Yezzi. It has somehow committed every error. The language is mostly common and arranged in all the expected ways. Yezzi does not here present unexpected word pairings or surprising turns of language as Williams does. He creates images out of obvious, literal connections—no phrasing more original than the rather unsurprising, “your mirror’s best reflection” (5). The second line is uncomfortably colloquial, and the eighth includes over-exaggerated vocabulary. There is no inherent offense in any of those words he puts to work; the trouble is in the way they are used, in that none of it opens something new. This results only in a falsified work, proof of the piece’s very insincerity which keeps us at a distance from the reality described. Unlike Williams’ clear and surprising poem, this one is trite and heavy and predictable all along. Poetry of this sort is “dressed in robes hired from the costumer’s” (Spencer 176), as one scholar puts it, and the unexciting game of dress-up has no chance of bringing anyone closer to the world. The poem is decidedly talking at us. It is about pals and all the good they are worth, and the reader is not permitted for a second to consider another view. The author’s supercilious assumption is that he ought to be informing us of just how things are. So we are trapped by the poem.

The issue is, of course, that this is exactly what we are trying to escape in poetry. There is quite enough ‘being talked at’ in a society as full of “radio and movies continuously blaring out a series of emotional platitudes” (Spencer 190) as our own. We do not need the distance of Yezzi’s opinions on friendship or the temptation towards utility in his words. Poems like Williams’ are what we need, real poems, clear, hard poems that leave opinion out of it. We need the words, “a family / named Foltette / a big family / with lots of / children’s graves” (10-14) and the placement of violets. This is all. The “actual world” itself is present; it does not need the writer’s qualification to mean something.

Williams has a refrain of sorts, initially used in his poem, Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” This is the basis of all genuine poetry. It is one of those rare concepts with a quality of eternal intangibility in it, that you often only recognize in its absence. We can be sure there are ideas behind good poetry, and these ideas can be as concrete as any other. But the ideas—if the poem is written well and honestly—are not left to fend for themselves, affronting the reading and disrupting any connection to the world as they do. Instead, the ideas are securely nested in real things. Common language depicting common scenes in uncommon ways supports this thought in “The Children.” It presents us the things of which it is built without a blinding screen of ideas—Williams’ or our own—clouding the readerly line of sight. And so, illuminated is that “actual world” that’s been hidden in shadow. With this sort of work before us, so much can happen.

Even re-finding the world could happen, without any particular wonder.






Works Cited

Rosiek, Jan. Maintaining the Sublime: Heidegger and Adorno. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang AG, European Academic, 2000. Print.

Versenyi, Laszlo. Heidegger, Being and Truth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965. Print.

Spencer, Theodore. “Antaeus or Poetic Language and the Actual World.” ELH, vol. 10, no. 3, 1943, pp. 173–192.

Kazemek, Francis E. “William Carlos Williams, Literacy, and the Imagination.” The English Journal, vol. 76, no. 7, 1987, pp. 22–28.

Yezzi, David. “Pals.” Birds of the Air. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2013. N. pp. 43.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Children.” Six American Poets: An Anthology. Ed. Joel Conarroe. New York: Random House, 1991. 185-86. Print.

Works Consulted

Steiner, George. Martin Heidegger. New York: Viking, 1979. Print.


Peer reviewed by Alison Robey

Written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with basis mainly on “Babylon Revisited” and The Great Gatsby

How To Become An “I”

Poetry has always been something I never had a passion for, but I always believed that I had a good understanding of many types of poetry and how they operate. I knew about haikus and how they are Japanese and utilize the syllables of the words to create their structure. I was aware that sonnets generally dealt with a lover and an absent beloved along with being fourteen lines. I knew most songs derive from poetry. And I saw how poems expressed themselves through imagery and emotion. This culmination of information gave me the belief that I clearly understood lyric poetry- the time we most often associate with “poetry” when referenced by itself.

Well, this is how much I actually knew about lyric poetry: nothing.

I really should not be surprised by this because I do not read poetry nor write it in my free time, and I have no desire to. I definitely respect it and appreciate how it has given joy and passion to people. I have this friend who writes at least five poems a day. Some are short, but many are surprisingly long. He told me he just writes them because it is a way for him to be open almost like a journal, but poetry is viewed as more artistic. He told me he enjoys how free it is; how it does not have a set structure, and yet it can still be classified as something that people can be in awe of. Most importantly, he emphasized how cool it was to be personal and put focus on himself.

These opinions he has had come across my head as thought at some point and are the reasons why I respected poetry. These beliefs that poetry had no really strict rules and that it focuses on one thing, typically the “author,” gave me reason to believe that poetry was the way to go if one must write literature, and that poetry is the literature for personal. That is, it provides the writer with the ability to put themselves in the forefront and not worry about providing details about other things nor have to make several interconnections between people and things in the way that novels must. These things were concrete to me… until I read On Lyric Poetry and Society by Theodor Adorno. Adorno challenges each of these characteristics I assigned to poetry. Adorno does agree that lyric poetry is concerned with the dream of free self-expression: having the ability to communicate in deeply personal, individualized, non-conformist ways. But, Adorno holds that the history of lyric poetry is the history of individuality in crisis, and that, that history has become the history of a frustrated desire for realized humanity. He calls to question how one can rejoin the world they are fleeing.

This question derives from the question of how a poem establishes its lyric “I”- the poetic “me?” How can one distinguish a general “I” to a specified “I?” When the poet uses “I” in their poetry, how do we determine to what that “I” refers? Is it that you simply identify the “I” by itself? But, how can you focus on that one subject without the calling to attention the secondary-things around the first. Adorno’s argument is that you cannot. There is a special relationship that needs to exist between the lyric I and the other things involved. Even though poetry is categorized differently than a novel, it still relies upon the connection between other things. In order for the poetic me to be, there needs to be something for it to oppose, something that the me is fleeing. Thus, lyric poetry which is seemingly individualized, is very much collective and more social than believed to be.

The “I” then is not as self-oriented as originally perceived. This ties into Adorno’s central argument: all language is social and deindividualized. What made me realize I knew even less about poetry than I thought, was that nobody is really creative. This theory popped into my head several times in my life, but it was always very general in the sense that there is no proof that what someone says or does is actually original and was never thought of or done before. Adorno states that since the “I” is often underelaborated (it’s not specified nor contextualized much), it leaves poetry very open, accessible, and makes it social. This, in turn, makes poetry a language with more rules. For example, when you write a haiku, you are writing in a manner that thousands have attempted before. In this way, too, your language is social and shared. Even when writing peculiar or in a way that does not attempt to make sense in the usual fashion, poets are not achieving their individuality, because they are handing themselves over to language.

Poetry has something to do with our capacity to ignore norms themselves; It is a vehicle of nonconformity. In “Re-Reading ‘Impossibility’ and ‘Barbarism’: Adorno and Post-Holocaust Poetics,” Anthony Rowland asserts that although Adorno calls post-Holocaust poetry “barbaric,” Adorno is not arguing that “poems are unrestrained, uncultured or rough in subject matter,” but instead that Adorno is trying to describe a different type of poetry that writes in a way that does not attempt to make sense in a usual fashion. Rowland, then, calls to question how can Adorno argue that poetry is barbaric, but it is “impossible to write poetry.” The answer is that while poetry is very free and autonomous, poetry has many rules. As poetry strives to find fresh language, convention evolves with it, and rules are then created for such “freeness.” Poetry and convention are then essentially in an evolutionary arms race. As stated, poetry is in a constant search for fresh language. That is, poets have no tolerance for cliché. Poets will often try to find a novel way to do something or phrase something, especially if it is something that could have potentially been stated before. There is just so much history, that poems almost cannot avoid convention, but humans (because they can get very good at things) continue to find new ways to be innovative and go outside the bounds of convention. This causes convention to then evolve in response to the “freshness” of poetry, and thus a cycle is created. As poetry develops new ways to become “creative,” convention also evolves to create rules to limit poetry. This is one of the things I was the most shocked by based on my held belief that poetry was so free and boundless.

To further confuse me, I came to understand that in order for “I” to be “I” it has to set itself apart from another-term. If we look at the poem, I, too, sing America by Langston Hughes we can see how a poem- that’s central focus is the “I’- relies on another to distinguish itself.

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes

This can be blatantly observed by looking at how the first verse, “I am the darker brother,” essentially means nothing because it provides the reader with nothing to compare that “I” to, nor does it provide context to further identify the speaker. It is only through the second verse, “They send me to eat in the kitchen,” that the “I” becomes an “I.” Before setting itself apart from the “they” (which granted still is not very specific), the author despite his attempt to place himself into his poem gave us nothing and in fact left more questions than answers. Even though his use of “they,” “nobody,” and even the quotation marks themselves do not seem as prevalent or valuable as the “I” and one “me” in the poem, without them, the lyric “I” and the poetic “me” could not exist. Additionally, calling to mind the title itself, “I, too, sing America,” the simple word too adds that extra layer. By the addition of that word, the “I” immediately gets set apart because the “too” implies that there is another person or group that has sung America. Whether or not he wants to join with them to be apart of a chorus or be independent and sing his own refrain is a different story. But, nonetheless, the inclusion of the “too” adds a lot more to the formation of the poetic “me” Langston Hughes is attempting to create.

This poem, indeed, follows the conventions of the poetry we typically think of, but I ask you to think of a poem- any type of poem- where the main subject is actually alone; isolated from everything else with no connections or rejections to set it apart. In fact, try to think of anything like a novel or a fruit or even a person. How can you distinguish one from another without calling attention to the other subject and giving information about what it is or is not. Novels (which are all about connections and are the literature of relationships) do a great job of this. Novels tend to define what they are not and will often bring in other forms of literature to set themselves apart. Poems and the “I” are no different. They are dependent upon the existence of something else in order to gain more specificity and identity. In Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s “The Lyric Subject” within Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, she states that “IMPLICITLY OR explicitly, the speaker in a lyric poem is an “I…” The “I” in discourse is a universal, an indexical function,” meaning that this “I” is very general and encompasses all, however she also holds that “the poetic “I” is also heard as an individuated voice.” She further states, “The generic “I” and the individuated “I” cannot to be understood as oppositional: The “I” in poetry is both the generic “I” of language and an individuated “I.”” This subject which is the discourse shows how poetry foregrounds convention. Thus, “formal devices and conventions,” regulate the material “body.” According to her, “conventions that stylize the rules of a language represent the body, and in the lyric there is an excess of “body.”” Additionally, Blasing supports that the Lyric “I” cannot be alone. She writes, “the lyric “I” must also always be a “you…” the “I” is utterly dependent on an audience.” This further expands on the point that the poetic “me” must have something in addition to itself. Therefore, the “I” that is centralized within poetry of all categories, needs the presence of another subject in order for it to become a non-general “I” that attaches itself to the author, and not everyone.

Here is what I have learned about poetry: poetry is both one of the most free types of literature, but still bounded by conventions that continue to develop in order to keep up with the “newness” that poets bring with time. And, poetry is not very individualized; It is very social and decentralized. The “I (or the subject upon which is being focused)” that is referenced and at the heart of the poem has to have something to oppose; something to use to distinguish itself. Looking back, I think had made these realizations before, but set them aside because I never had much backing. I realize this is can be very harmful to state in a work I just gave credit to others for the things I learned. But, then again, I did not know much about the subject before and there is no proof that I know anymore now. I am simply on human living in a period encompassed by technology, and the next generation will likely be so engulfed by advancements that these statements about poetry may very well become inconsequential. I mean, how significant are “cavedrawings” and hieroglyphics to the youth now. Think about it, its only a matter of time before poetry becomes outdated.

An earlier draft of this essay was read by Anna Kim

I have written this essay in the style of Chuck Klosterman.
Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor W. “On Lyric Poetry and Society.” Notes To Literature 1 (1991): 37-54. Columbia University Press. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Blasing, Mutlu Konuk. “THE LYRIC SUBJECT.” Lyric Poetry: The Pain and the Pleasure of Words, Princeton University Press, 2007, pp. 27–44, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7t8n8.5.

ROWLAND, ANTONY. “Re-Reading ‘Impossibility’ and ‘Barbarism’: Adorno and Post- Holocaust Poetics.” Critical Survey, vol. 9, no. 1, 1997, pp. 57–69. www.jstor.org/stable/ 41556053.

Parsing the Parables: Why Context Matters

Actually opening up and reading a bible can be a pretty surprising experience for people nowadays. Go ahead and google any phrase involving ‘controversial’ and ‘Christianity.’ You’ll end up with a whole slew of clickbait-esque slogans, from whatchristianswanttoknow.com’s ‘Top 5 Controversial Bible Verses With Commentary’ to Buzzfeed’s ‘7 Shocking Bible Verses You Probably Won’t Hear in Church.’ Probably not all that shockingly, the articles aren’t generally very academic.

Now, the lack of sophistication should in no way negate those articles’ relative importance. The fact that people are so startled by the violence, sexism, and slavery found in these verses speaks to the current conception of Christianity. Christians and atheists alike are somewhat justified in only expecting specific topics from the Bible. They’ve rarely seen any others.

I have heard plenty of sermons, attended plenty of theology classes, read plenty of biblical commentary. And I’ve come across an odd misconception related to this ancient text. It’s not just that there are currently misunderstandings of what exactly the Bible does or does not say. It’s that there always have been. On the most basic level, societies have assigned a specific authority to this book — the Book — with the assumption that it means the same thing that it has always meant, that there’s some unchanging base-level authority which has remained constant.

That base authority is, of course, supposed to be God. But such simplified thinking allows several degrees of cultural ignorance: the events that actually happened, the people that wrote the events down, the people that translated the writings, the people that interpreted the translations, and — most importantly — the cultures in which all of this happened.

Lauri Thurén, a writer who knows a whole lot more about the Bible than I do, points out that over time, “the assessments of literary history on early Christian writing have fundamentally changed” (106). In other words, the way we look at biblical texts is not a constant. And this is particularly problematic because the way we interpret the Bible changes the way some people will live their lives. God is supposed to be the base constant of the work, so we ignore how the words themselves have changed over time.

Now, avoidance of such oversimplification means being able to peer outside of our own narrow views and opinions; ignoring how others have thought is to ignore how others will think, and to assume that our current ‘correct’ understanding of a concept is and has always been right. You and I will see the same letters when we read a chapter, but even if you are from the exact same culture and time that I am, I doubt we’ll read quite the same thing. The variable is whether we let our values cloud our reading without considering what has shaped them. Ignoring our personal bias makes it impossible to understand what a text means beyond our own specific reading.

Some make this distinction by foregoing their personal opinions entirely. In “Parables Unplugged” — unplugged, supposedly, from any bias of the reader — Jesus’s stories are explored within a clean framework: the ‘claim’ made by the story, the ‘data’ enforcing the credibility of the claim, and the ‘warrant’ connecting the the story to the facts. Employing this robotic framework takes every bit of individuality out of the reading. It’s an attempt to carry the story back its origin. On this practical basis, the author walks through every parable in Luke.

The end of Luke 5 contains one of those parables where Jesus uses inanimate objects to explain why on earth his disciples are not doing what every other good religious person is doing. In this particular case, a group of Pharisees (the straight-laced high-class Jews) comes questioning why Jesus’s close Jewish followers are not observing the basic tradition of frequent fasting, which was essentially common courtesy for religious people at that point. Jesus has three answers for them: people don’t fast with a bridegroom, people don’t fix old clothes with new clothes, and people don’t fill old wineskins with new wine. And that’s all; I can’t imagine the Pharisees were completely satisfied with such an explanation.

But Thurén breaks it down for them. According to her structured reading of the latter two parables, Jesus presents the ‘warrant’ that “old and new should not be mixed,” based on the ‘data’ that “Jesus’ message means something new,” thus pushing the ‘claim’ that “old rules do not apply to Jesus’ message.” Her academic reading makes historical sense, and moreover is largely agreed upon as the right one. I’ve heard that sermon before, explaining why Christians don’t exactly follow Old Testament rules or why maybe some of those 7 Shocking Bible Verses aren’t so damning after all; because they’re old, and we’re concerned with the new, and Jesus said we don’t want those mixed together. Or our wineskins might break.

But I don’t think the Pharisees were as convinced as Thurén was that “the issue can no longer be simply the disciples’ fasting” (262). They asked Jesus why his followers weren’t obeying the rules of his religion, and he gave them sewing advice. The academic jump Thurén so easily makes between Jesus’s metaphors and old rules not being applicable to his message was not all that easy at the time. Even if the Pharisees were willing to sacrifice their original question for this theological explanation, whether they would agree on Jesus’s meaning is doubtful.

Not even all current academic readings come to the same conclusions. While Thurén has her step-by-step process, Ruben Zimmermann writes on the slew of ways scholars have taken the stories apart before: some create groupings like “a) family, village, city, and beyond; b) masters and servants, c) home and farm,” or “parables of the temple, parables of the land, parables of the economy, and parables of the people” (187) to provide further clarification as to what a parable might mean. Other scholars “distinguish between formal and textual aspects,” from the genre to the number of words to the introductory sentences (185), all to provide a structured basis for coming to a particular conclusive meaning.

Debates on what Jesus meant in Luke 5 range from the small-scale reading of this parable to a large-scale perspective on how much of the entire Bible remains relevant. And that second argument is further broken down into whether we should only follow the rules that Jesus restated, or continue to follow all rules except for those Jesus changed. Even within the conceptual reading of the parable, disagreements range all over the place. Some have popular sway now, in a time when most Christians very easily set aside the more conservative sets of biblical codes; and some have been much more popular in the past, notably the far more strict (and profitable) reading favored in the Catholic church’s heyday in Europe.

Those readings are all hugely based on context. The society in which I read the parable today is not the society in which my great-great-great-grandparents read it, and theirs isn’t the one in which their ancestors read it either. Who read it, and when they read it, changed what they read.

And the possibilities are endless. Put the text in front of someone unfamiliar with the Bible without the name Jesus, and chances are they would wonder at the advice they just got on when to fast, something they probably never do, how to fix their clothing, something they probably never do, and how to decide what to put in their wineskins, something they probably never do. Taken without a little theology the passage is remarkably irrelevant. I absolutely wouldn’t care about it if I hadn’t been told it means something more.

And that highlights the danger of all these uninformed interpretations. I was told that this string of sentences about old and new possessions helps to determine how much of the Bible I should listen to. That’s a pretty weighty decision, considering the sort of claims it makes throughout, from the very irrelevant and ignored — “Thou shalt not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together” (Deuteronomy 22:11) — to the incredibly relevant and written on protest signs — “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). The decisions Christians make about whether to follow those rules are important today. If they’re going to make them based on Luke 5 and other passages like it, understanding this variability becomes absolutely paramount.

The problem we’re hitting here is the difference between what the Bible is meant to be and what the Bible is.

It is meant to be the timeless text central to its religion, meant to be the word of God always present to guide those on earth.

What it is is a book. And it carries with it all the flaws big old books intrinsically bear, and even more because of the nature of this specific text. Nowhere will you find a book more discussed, more studied, more translated, more interpreted. The Bible has been through an awful lot: the stories themselves hold a huge amount of history, and many were passed around orally for quite some time before being written down. Then they were narrowed down into which specific books would be included in the final draft, then translated from Ancient Hebrew and Greek into hundreds of modern languages. Every step of the way, more interpretations emerged, more specifications arose for how it should and must be read to truly follow the word of God.

The vague background assumption that the way we read the Bible now is how it always has been and always will be read becomes dangerous with the potency of the text. If Person A reads the passage and decides that it means nothing in the Old Testament is relevant, Person B reads the passage and decides that it means both testaments are important in different situations, and Person C reads the passage and doesn’t think it relates to the Old Testament at all, there will be disagreement. If all of them fervently believe that their reading is the true word of God and refuse to consider the other views, the fight gets ugly. Moreover, they might all still be wrong.

The original importance of the text has to be taken into account for interpretation here; where and when and by whom it was written changed what ended up on those pages and should, at the very least, help decipher the original intentions. But words and context are changeable. Expecting one and only one reading to be foundationally and undeniably correct provides grounds for arrogant fundamentalism, which can help people use the Bible to justify next to any opinion. There are a lot of words in that book, words that have traveled very far, and if people look hard enough for their interpretation, they will be able to find it; how out of context and how twisted it is depends on them.

To step back and understand what is really being said means moving away from these bafflingly quick readings. I wouldn’t scroll through one of Derrida’s texts, grab the sentence “Writing is no more valuable… as a remedy than as a drug” just because it agrees with me, and then forcefully argue that anyone who doesn’t think that’s what Derrida believes is wrong. It’s out of context, out of place; that’s an oversimplification of an issue as multi-layered as that of the Bible, but the principle of the thing still stands. Where words came from and what we use to interpret them are key to what conclusions we come to. Explaining the contexts behind those interpretations can help move us away from our bias to understand why other people think how they do. Debate can then shift from unexplained perception to justified reason about what the Bible might actually be explaining.


Works Cited

Thurén, Lauri. “The Parables as Persuasion.” Parables Unplugged: Reading the Lukan Parables in Their Rhetorical Context, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2014, pp. 249–344, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9m0vdv.10.

Zimmermann, Ruben. “Reading and Analyzing Parables.” Puzzling the Parables of Jesus: Methods and Interpretations, Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2015, pp. 183–210, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt155j2q7.9.

Imitating Chuck Klosterman, particularly in “Death by Harry Potter” (http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a3556/klosterman1107/).
An earlier draft of this essay was read by Emma Lezberg and Joelle Troiano.

In Creātiōne: A Literary Argument Against Creationism

bibleIf you are one of the three in ten Americans who believes that the Bible must be taken literally (Gallup), I should warn you that this essay will call your conviction into question—but not for the typical reasons. Countless researchers have disproven “strict creationism”—the notion that God created the earth and all its creatures in their present forms in six days—through such techniques as radioactive dating and evolutionary analysis, but often creationists simply reply that those techniques must be flawed; after all, the creation of the universe is laid out clearly and explicitly in the Bible. I will argue on those terms: not that creationism is scientifically invalid, but that it is biblically invalid.

This may sound like an outrageous claim, but read the Judeo-Christian creation narrative closely and one will find not just that it should not be read literally but that it cannot be read literally, that the story is in fact incoherent and unintelligible: the famous first sentence is a hopeless grammatical nightmare; sequencing the creative events is impossible; and there are in fact two distinct creation narratives, one after the other, that prove irreconcilable despite scholars’ greatest efforts. Indeed, the number of days of creation isn’t even certain. If you believe that God created the world, the last thing you should do is pick up a Bible—and to see one reason why, we need look no further than the very first word.

bereishitIt is popularly known that according to Genesis, God created the world “in the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית, b’reishit), but this is not in fact what the first word of the Bible means. “The,” first of all, is nowhere to be found in the text: בְּ (b’) means “in,” but the definite article (הַ) is lacking—b’reishit instead of b’hareishit—and though biblical poetry occasionally omits definite articles, expecting the reader to fill them in, biblical prose never does. This prompts a translation of “In a beginning,” which in turn raises all manner of questions: Are there multiple beginnings to this world? Are there multiple worlds? If so, did our God create those too? But this translation is not quite correct either, for if it were, the text would have read bareishit, changing the vowel underneath the בּ from בְּ to בָּ. With this particular vowel, b’reishit means “in the beginning of,” requiring a noun after it—there are four other places in the Torah where it does so and none where it does not (Genesis, 1.1; Reb Jeff)—but the next word in the sentence, problematically, is not a noun but a verb: בָּרָא (bara), meaning “created.” A literal translation, then, of the first two Hebrew words in Genesis would read, “In a beginning of God created”—in other words, an “ungrammatical mess” (Reb Jeff). Most modern “literal” translations approximate the Hebrew as “In the beginning of God’s creation” or “In the beginning of God creating”; this still proves inadequate since בָּרָא is neither a noun nor a gerund (Goodheart and Osborne), but if a translator seizes this approach, interestingly enough, Genesis 1-3 could be one large sentence, as punctuation was only added by the early Christians. One such translation: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being formless and void, darkness upon the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovering upon the face of the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light” (Giere, 18).

in-the-beginningIn the face of such opacity as the first few words of Genesis, what are readers to conclude? We may call that vowel a mistake, but those who believe that God dictated those words and that “Nothing is here by chance” will no doubt resist that interpretation (van Kooten, 5); or, alternately, we can reach for a super-grammatical meaning, such as, “The world was created, but it never stopped being created. The world has a beginning, but it is a beginning that has never ceased” (Reb Jeff). This, of course, is not the literal interpretation three out of ten Americans demand, but those readers fail to realize that “the ambiguity is inherent in the text itself”: no literal exegesis is possible (Giere, 20).

The enigma presented by the rest of the creation story is not that it is ambiguous but that it is quite unambiguous—and yet the two chapters are clearly contradictory. In Genesis 1, creation takes place over six days, and plants are created first, then animals, then man and woman: “male and female He created them” (Genesis, 1.27). Turn the scroll to Genesis 2, however, and suddenly the creation narrative changes. It begins, “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Genesis, 2.4). Suddenly all of creation has taken place in one day, not six. Not only that, but the sequence has changed: man is created before plants and animals, and it specifically states that before man “no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because…there was no man to work the soil” (Genesis, 2.5). Only after all else is woman created, as an afterthought, and she is formed in a different way from man: while for man God “breathed into his nostrils the soul of life,” God shaped woman from one of man’s ribs (Genesis, 2.7, 2.21-22). These contradictions have profound implications for environmental ethics and gender dynamics, for if the natural world were created for man (if he were created first, if nothing could grow without him, if he named the animals), then at least some level of exploitation must be expected; and if woman were created not only after man but out of man, another step removed from divine breath, gender inequality might be justified in religious terms.

torah-with-yadMany scholars have attempted to reconcile these two competing narratives. Rashi insists that “The listener may think that this is another story, but it is only a detailed account of the former,” which doesn’t at all explain the contradictory orders and number of days (Genesis, 2.8). As for the discrepancy in sequencing, he teaches that “everything was created on the first” day but was “brought forth” on different days: for example, plants were created on the third day as the first version requires, but “they stood at the entrance of the ground until the sixth day,” after man was created (Genesis, 1.24, 2.5). Though this explanation takes the liberty to add midrashically to the text, it is at least plausible, but it nonetheless fails to account for the second version’s claim that creation was only one day long. As for how male and female were created, Rashi suggests, “He originally created [man] with two faces, and afterwards, He divided him” (Genesis, 1.27); other scholars expound: “In the first story of creation (Gen 1:27) an androgyne is made by Elohim. In the second account of creation, YHWH Elohim separates man and woman by creating Eve (Gen 2:18). Now the androgyne is split up into two distinctive creatures, a male and a female” (Luttikhuizen, 4). Dividing a hermaphrodite in half, however, is quite different from creating man and then extracting a single rib to form woman; thus, this interpretation neglects the clarity and specificity of the second account. In the creation story, “inconsistencies and contradictions…come down to us as a single work” (Brichto, viii)—so when someone identifies as a creationist, it begs the question: which version?

galaxyWe have established the incoherency of the beginning of the creation story, and we have established that the main narrative contains serious enough discrepancies to undermine its integrity. None of these phenomena are introduced merely in translation; these contradictions, ambiguities, and grammatical peculiarities are rooted in the original text. The typical argument of “strict creationists” is a simple syllogism: “the Bible cannot be wrong”; “the Bible says the world was created in six days”; thus, “the world was created in six days” (Fitch, 3). The typical counterargument is to contest the former premise with science, but, as this argument has failed to convince 30% of Americans, this essay has taken a different approach by refuting the latter premise: that it is altogether uncertain how the biblical world was created, for the Bible first makes clear that it will not tell us when the beginning was—or perhaps implies that the beginning lasts forever—and then offers two contradictory answers for how long creation took. This is not a scientific argument, but a theological and literary one. If the biblical creation narrative is neither unified nor intelligible, how can it be read literally?

Reading the Bible as literature—concentrating on its language—tells us that Genesis 1-2 does not contain a literal account of creation, but this need not lessen its religious value, nor does it signify that the story has nothing to teach us. No one can explain what the first sentence of Genesis means, or even identify where it ends, but this allows for spiritual interpretations that transcend the literal; no one can reconcile the two creation narratives, but this duality encourages readers to grapple with the issues they raise concerning power dynamics, gender hierarchies, and human relations with the natural world. The “problems” in the Bible need not be problems at all: by unsettling any static interpretation, they prolong debates indefinitely and maintain engagement with important ethical dilemmas, encouraging us to question who we are as human beings and how we got here—but they do suggest that creationism is the one wrong way to read the Bible, for it halts the debates at the heart of religion. Where do we want our story to begin? What do we wish it to entail, in what order, with what end? The choice, says the Bible, is up to us.


Written in the style of Cicero (particularly his style of speeches like “Pro Caelio”)


Work Cited

Brichto, Herbert Chanan. “The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings.” (1998): i-481. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Fitch, Walter M. “The Three Failures of Creationism: Logic, Rhetoric, and Science.” (2012): 1-194. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

“Genesis – Parshah Bereishit (show Rashi).” Chabad.org. Chabad Lubavitch Media Center, n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.

Giere, S. D. “A New Glimpse of Day One: Intertextuality, History of Interpretation, and Genesis 1.1-5.” (2009): 1-377. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Goldwasser, Jeff. “Bereshit: In the Beginning of What?” Reb Jeff. N.p., 18 Oct. 2011. Web. Dec. 2016.

Goodhart, Sandor, and Monica Osborne. “Introduction: Reading Darkness: The Key, The Letter, and The Beginning.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 54.1 (2008): 1-19. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

“In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally.” Gallup.com. Gallup Inc., 08 July 2011. Web. Dec. 2016.

Luttikhuizen, Gerard P. “Creation of Man and Woman: Interpretations of the Biblical Narratives in Jewish and Christian Traditions.” (2000): 1-228. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

van Kooten, George H. “Creation of Heaven and Earth: Re-interpretations of Genesis 1 in the Context of Judaism, Ancient Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Physics.” (2004): 1-299. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Poetry and Me? I Don’t Think Its Going to Work Out

I don’t like poetry. I never read poetry for “fun” because of the simple reason that it’s not fun for me. Having been a student for basically my entire life, I’ve dissected more poetry than I have other things like frogs or brains. So, you might say I know a thing or two about it. I know two roads diverged in a yellow wood and some guy decided he had to be special and take the one no one went down (and then brag to everyone that he did). I know that Pablo Neruda had a weird obsession with broken objects, artichokes, and some poor woman in her garden. I know that English professors admire that Shakespeare (or maybe some other guy) put himself through the torture of writing in iambic pentameter-still not sure what it is, though. Above all else I know that I am “supposed” to feel some sort of connection to poetry. It’s like a song, teachers would say. It touches the emotions, I’ve been told.

I’d like to believe that my teachers genuinely meant what they said, but I also know that they were partly trying to justify their next question; what did I think it meant? I was supposed to be able to read a poem and repeat it back, except now in plain English, and that was it. Lesson over. But then there’s this philosopher named Theodor Adorno who said something else; “Permit me to repeat that we are concerned not with the poet as a private person, not with his psychology or his so-called social perspective, but with the poem as a philosophical sundial telling the time of history.”[1] He says that what the poet meant doesn’t help me learn anything; what’s more important is how I interpret it. I will go through this in more detail later, but his claim is that everyone can find a different meaning in the same piece of language. It depends on the life we live. I speak in the same language to as CEOs, stay at home moms, war refugees, and poets themselves. But we’re all very different. So then if I can read any poem in a way that is supposed to make it relatable to me, then I should be able to emotionally connect to it and have it mean something “special”.[2] This argument makes sense. I’ve put serious thought into this exact aspect of language and he has a point.

It just doesn’t happen for me.

As much as I don’t like poetry as a whole, there is one poem that stuck with me (at least as much as a poem can). It also highlights many of Adorno’s points. It’s about a priest who we’d call a mystic because he thinks that he met God. And no, it had nothing to do with a potato chip. Anyway, now that this priest, St. John, has met God, all he wants to do is to die; he wants to escape his earthly life and be with God again. The title of the poem “I am Dying because I do not Die” is kind of clever then, and a little sappy, but that’s not the point.

The point is that this specific poem highlights Adorno’s argument in On Lyric Poetry and Society in a few different ways. Adorno says that every lyric poem establishes someone as the speaker. And this is somehow a necessary step in making it about everyone. He says, “The “I” whose voice is heard in the lyric is an “I” that defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective, to objectivity.”[3] Well, from the very beginning St. John directs all the focus onto himself. The first words are “I live without living within myself.”[4] It doesn’t so much matter what he’s saying; it matters that he’s mentioned himself twice in the first verse. There are other examples of this: “I no longer live within myself,” “I am sorry for myself,” and “I will lament my life/so long as it is prolonged/because of my sins.”[5] Personally, I’d have to be on something strong to think this poem was about me. The poet is saying that he feels like he is missing a part of himself because he met God; there aren’t many of us who can relate to that. There are experts who say we can’t understand them at all: “In dealing with a language of the “unsayable,” critical analysis rejects this language as lacking in rigor, as a commentary too encumbered with images and impressions, it will encounter nothing more in the field of observation than psychological curiosities or small marginal groups.”[6] Does language have the power to describe something that we cannot see, touch, hear, etc.? Try describing love and see if you get any further than a bunch of other abstractions. Or maybe some physiological symptoms that could be caused by a hundred other things. We know that they aren’t love, but we don’t have a way to say it is. The same goes for describing a meeting with a divine entity.

After meeting God, I don’t think we could blame him for not feeling like he quite belongs. I know that sometimes my mind wanders out of the room in a boring meeting, but he literally feels like a part of him is gone; “Absent from you/what kind of life can I lead/but to suffer to death, /the cruelest death I’ve ever known?”[7] Now, if the “I” in this poem is criticizing anything, it would appear to be the world around him; he feels like he’s being held back. Given that having a face-to-face with God is more life-changing than getting your driver’s license-which might already make you want to skip town-the feeling of “dissent of the individual in relation to the group; an irreducibility of desire within the society that represses or masks it without eliminating it; a discontent within civilization,”[8] a commonly held feeling among mystics, is not unreasonable. He wants to get the fuck out.

As elegant as his poetry may be, St. John is really frustrated. Mystics were treated like crap because no one could understand the crazies that had “seen God”.[9] Life had, in fact, become scary for St. John, who felt worse than a fish out of water (Even the fish taken out of water/does not lack relief/for in the death that he suffers/death finally comes to his rescue.”[10]) At the same time, though, he’s too scared to die because he might not actually find God again. He’s oscillating back and forth between living being worse than dying and dying being more nerve-wracking than living (And if I take joy, my lord/in the hope of contemplating you/when I realize that I can lose you/my pain doubles”[11]).

This leaves us with a couple main points that make a whole lot of sense (not really): a) that he feels worse than a dying fish, b) that he doesn’t think he belongs on earth anymore, c) that he has horrible anxiety about actually dying, the one thing he’s asking for. And Adorno says I should be able to relate to all of this without a problem. No wonder I hate poetry.

Granted, this is not the whole story. Language has some tricks built into it that might back Adorno up. When you read the sentence “I don’t like poetry”, you imagine that it is about me, the writer of this essay. But what if it wasn’t? St. John never says “I, St. John of the Cross, born in Spain in 1542…”[12] or anything like that. If we don’t know who the “I” is, what’s to say it can’t be the reader? If the reader places himself in the poem, it can mean almost anything; everyone can interpret it differently.

This means that the poem doesn’t need to be about God. Of course, it can’t be about anything in the world, but I would imagine most people have had to make a tough decision before. If the poem becomes more about a rough teenage breakup vs staying in a dysfunctional high school relationship than about a miserable life vs dying in the hopes of meeting God, more people can read it and think “Oh yeah, that makes sense” because everyone, like the fish, is trying to find relief in these situations. Adorno says a more universal underlying theme like that is what makes a lyric poem “art” and that’s why we appreciate it.[13]

Even still, you might relate to a decision like this more easily, but it might not feel terribly consequential in the long run. But what if the poem were about questioning faith? This has the potential to be life changing. I mean, how many movies have we seen about a guy “finding God” after he stopped believing for some reason (example: the movie literally titled Questioning Faith or people in exorcism movies not believing in demons until their child levitates)? Well, this might have actually been why St. John wrote this poem in the first place. He never wanted anyone to practice religion the same way he did; “John is no Pelagian. He believes that God draws us to God’s own self by the utterance of God’s word in eternity, creation, and history.”[14]The last thing St. John wanted to do was overshadow God. But he clearly has some questions for the big man upstairs, and so do a lot of other people. Adorno says this is what makes the poem “collectivist” despite the fact that the poet wrote “I” 42 times.

Now this poem has been “deindividualized” because everyone is a part of it. Adorno says you can go through the same process with every other lyric poem. In fact, he says there’s no way for language to be used to go against the grain of society;[15] the acid-dropping hippie (who follows no rules) uses the same dictionary as the president of the United States (who should follow every rule). In the end, we can only read or listen to poetry through language, something that is bound by society. I live in this society, I speak the language, so Adorno says I should be able to relate to poetry through these universal concepts. Nothing should be outside of my reach if I can use language as a tool to access it.

In the case of St. John’s poetry, Adorno is right. St. John wanted to be a spiritual guide more than anything, and he wrote most of his poetry to give away for free so that people could learn from it.[16] It seems like St. John wanted to bring people together with his poetry. Even if he didn’t, Adorno makes it so that he did, and he applies this concept to every other lyric. He makes a good argument for it too. It’s not like I don’t believe him.

Parts of me wishes I could experience what he was talking about. Poetry is a phenomenon in Adorno’s eyes and I see it too for this reason: I could walk into a high school and ask the first kid I see high on crystal meth to interpret a poem for me and he would probably say something just as profound as his “expert” English teacher. There aren’t a lot of things you could do that with. I think I should be able to relate to poetry, too. There are references I’ve missed, jokes I don’t get, and tests I’ve failed because I don’t relate well to poetry. It’s a big part of our world. It’s a difficult situation to be in to not know what you don’t know, especially when so many people tell you that you should know it.


Works cited:

Adorno, Theodor W., and Rolf Tiedemann. Notes to Literature. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. Print.

Rivers, Elias L. Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, with English Prose Translations. New York: Dell Pub., 1966. Print.

De Certeau, Michel, and Marsanne Brammer. “Mysticism.” Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 2, 1992

Moore, John P. “St. John of the Cross.” St.Anthony Messenger 12 2014: 14-8. ProQuest. Web. 14 Dec. 2016 .

Cunningham, Lawrence S. “St. John of the Cross, Mystic of the Light.” America Jan 30 2006: 22-5. ProQuest. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

The Sororal Duality of the Dionysian and Apollonian in Antigone

Antigone and Ismene

Antigone and Ismene

Prompt: 11. …Nietzsche’s argument about tragedy…

“Ismene, who?” seems to be the general consensus upon a first-time reading of the Greek tragedy Antigone. For those unfamiliar with the play, some context: Antigone is the third of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles. The previous two, Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus Coloneus, concentrate on the mythical king Oedipus who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Oedipus dies under mysterious circumstances, and his sons (slash brothers – incest makes familial relations complicated) Polyneices and Eteocles fight to the death for his throne. King Creon declares Polyneices a traitor to Thebes for initiating civil war and bans the citizens from burying his corpse on pain of stoning to death. By the time Antigone begins, Antigone and Ismene are the last of this cursed family line. Antigone asks Ismene to help her bury their brother Polyneices, but Ismene refuses. Creon catches Antigone in the act and sentences her to be sealed into a cave for the remainder of her life. A domino effect of death proceeds (Antigone chooses death over buried life and hangs herself, her fiancé and Creon’s son Haemon falls on his sword, Creon’s wife Eurydice stabs herself), and by the end of Antigone, only a broken and regretful Creon is left standing. Ismene too is presumably alive within the palace, but we don’t really care about her at that point.

We don’t really care about Ismene at any point. While everyone around her is hell-bent on killing themselves spectacularly, Ismene is silent and stationary inside the royal palace. Initial impressions of the play would hardly deem her the most riveting of characters and would certainly not deem her an equal to the daring headliner who is her sister. Bonnie Honig describes, “For centuries, Ismene has been cast as the inert, drab backdrop against which her more colorful sister stands out.” Some work has been done to recover Ismene, but by and large the focus of readership and scholarship has always been on Antigone. This is an unfortunate oversight because we should care about Ismene. In fact, the opening words of the play, “ō koinon autadelphon Ismēnēs,” tell us that Ismene is just as important as Antigone (Badger 73, italics mine). Koinon means common, and Antigone’s greeting can be translated to something like, “Ismene, my own sister, sharing the self-same blood.” Furthermore, Antigone and Ismene use the grammatically dual number to refer to themselves as a “pair” of sisters (Ludwig 206). Thus, Ismene should not be thought of as less than Antigone but as equal and opposing.

I posit a new way of reading Antigone, one that maintains the parity between the two sisters. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche defines “two competing but also complementary impulses in Greek culture,” the Apollonian and the Dionysian (34). The first refers to Apollo, the god of light and dream, and the second to Dionysus, the god of intoxication and rapture. What exactly is the relationship between the two? Nietzsche states, “So the difficult relation between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in tragedy should really be symbolized through a fraternal bond between both deities” (84). And just as the two deities share a fraternal bond, so do Antigone and Ismene share a sororal bond. By applying Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian theory to Antigone, we can more clearly see that Ismene is not a backdrop to Antigone but a force in herself. Reading Ismene as an Apollonian embodiment and Antigone as a Dionysian embodiment highlights the doubleness of their fate and provides new insights into the dynamics of their relationship.

Ismene functions as the avatar of Apollo in Antigone. Apollo is linked with “visible form, comprehensible knowledge, and moderation,” and no character in the play better deserves the descriptor of “moderate” than Ismene. (Ansell-Pearson and Large 34). Concerned with the practicalities of everyday survival, she is prudent, rational, and adaptable. When Antigone urges her to defy Creon’s edict and bury their brother, Ismene demurs, “I know/that wild and futile action makes no sense” (Sophocles 68-70). Conventional readings peg Ismene as passive, even cowardly, compared to her heroic sister, yet it is precisely her mundanity that makes her so relatable. Slavoj Žižek argues, “the figure with which we can identify is her sister Ismene—kind, considerate, sensitive, prepared to give way and compromise, pathetic, ‘human’ in contrast to Antigone, who goes to the limits” (qtd. in Honig). We readers may prefer to imagine ourselves in the role of passionate martyr rather than that of compliant survivor, but we must admit that majority of us would be Ismenes and not Antigones in a given scenario. Antigone may catch our eye, but Ismene is our known quantity.

Ismene also exhibits the Apollonian artistic features. Apollo is the god of the plastic or representational arts, architecture in particular, and Ismene is bound to the royal palace. The stage directions in Antigone serve as an attestation. A sampling: Antigone and Ismene emerge from the royal palace, Ismene returns to the palace, Ismene is brought from the palace under guard, and Antigone and Ismene are taken inside. After being taken inside the palace with Antigone, we understand that Ismene remains in the palace for the rest of the play. This insistent grounding of Ismene in the palace can partially be explained by the fact that the setting of the play is in front of the palace, but other characters are allowed to enter and leave by side entrances or to complete unseen actions outside the palace (e.g. Antigone burying her brother) whereas Ismene is decidedly not. In addition to architecture, Ismene is associated with language. Antigone spurns her with a, “I cannot love a friend whose love is words,” and Ismene protests, “At least I was not silent. You were warned” (Sophocles 543-544, 556). Although Nietzsche does not directly assign language to the dominion of Apollo or Dionysus, in other works he reflects on “the extent to which human life is immersed in illusions and dream images […] and sees only the form of things” and offers the chief cause of the “conceited nature of human knowing” as language (Ansell-Pearson and Large 39). The associations of form, dream images, and illusory knowing with language seem to place language and thus Ismene as well firmly in the Apollonian field.

It follows that Antigone is her Dionysian counterpart, although she is not as perfect a fit. The editor’s’ footnote in The Birth of Tragedy suggests that Antigone’s sense of religious ritual puts her in line with Apollo, which seems odd considering that Dionysus is linked with “formless flux, mystical intuition, and excess” (Ansell-Pearson and Large 34). There are multiple candidates in the play for the descriptor of “excess,” but Antigone is the most saliently intransigent. The Chorus remarks of her Icarian overreaching, “You went to the furthest verge/of daring, but there you found/the high foundation of justice, and fell” (Sophocles 852-854). Moreover, mysticism seems to correlate well with religion, and Antigone repeatedly refers to the gods, proclaiming that she is obeying their “unwritten and unfailing laws” instead of the man-made laws of the city (Sophocles 454). However, Nietzsche portrays the Olympians as “born of dream” and as such, more Apollonian as Dionysian. Consequently, Antigone’s role as a pseudo-representative of the Olympian gods would be considered Apollonian as well. Another inconsistency: Antigone’s uncompromising will appears to preclude the other Dionysian quality of flux. Unlike Creon who experiences anagnorisis or Ismene who later decides to stand with Antigone, Antigone makes a decision and sticks with it. The only real change that occurs in Antigone is her physical/spiritual transition from not-dead to dead.

If Ismene is easily analogized to Apollo, then Antigone represents a complicated and at times inverted Dionysus. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian sanctifies pain, consecrates the future in the past, and ultimately symbolizes the primacy of a life-drive (Ansell-Pearson and Large 37). Acceptance of suffering is indeed treated as a noble achievement in the play; the Chorus states that Antigone will “have gone like a god” to her fate, and Antigone’s numerous monologues about her forthcoming death straddle the line between mournful and anticipatory – evidence which supports the Dionysian Antigone allegory. On the other hand, the Lacanian reading of Antigone diagnoses her with a death drive, which sounds like the exact opposite of the Dionysian life-drive. As Terry Eagleton states, Antigone “has been declaring from the outset ‘I am dead and desire death.’” Her central motivation is the obsessive need to bury the corpse of Polyneices; it isn’t much of a stretch to extend this fixation from the act of burying the corpse to the corpse itself and death more broadly. She says outright, “My life died long ago/and that has made me fit to help the dead” (Sophocles 559-560). For Antigone, the true life is not the life she has been living, and her future is found with the past, or more precisely, the passed. She hopes to rejoin her family, or as she puts it – “To my own people,” in the underworld. Antigone explains her logic to Ismene, “Longer the time in which to please the dead/than that for those up here. /There shall I lie forever” (Sophocles 75-78). Eternity cannot be not found “up here.” Rather, eternity is found in death. Antigone’s death drive is really a reflected life-drive since, for the Dionysian, eternal return is found in destruction of the individual.

Having established Ismene as an Apollonian figure and Antigone as a Dionysian figure, we can now examine their dynamic. Nietzsche characterizes the interaction of the Apollonian and Dionysian as thus: “And so, wherever the Dionysian broke through, the Apollonian was cancelled, absorbed, and annihilated” (53). Antigone tends to come off as a little cold to Ismene, but we note that this is hardly the same thing as “annihilation.” But, symbolically, annihilation might just be exactly what Antigone enacts on Ismene. We mentioned in the beginning that Ismene pales in comparison to her sister. In some sense, the presence of the Dionysian Antigone whittles away at the presence of the Apollonian Ismene. Other parts of the play seem to set up this dynamic as well. For example, the Chorus sings an ode about how man has conquered everything on earth except for death:

Language, and thought like the wind

and the feelings that make the town,

he has taught himself, and shelter against the cold,

[…] There’s only death

that he cannot find an escape from.

(Sophocles 355-360)

We have already demonstrated that the Apollonian Ismene is linked with language as well as the palace, which appears in this ode as the trappings of civilization (i.e. “the town” and “shelter against the cold”). We have also shown that Antigone is linked with death. Put those two affiliations together, and we infer from the ode that death in the form of Antigone smashes through the defenses of civilized life in the form of Ismene.

So does Antigone succeed in obliterating Ismene? Let’s go to Ismene’s last appearance in the play to check. Ismene claims to be Antigone’s accomplice, Antigone refuses to let Ismene join her doomed fate, Creon sends Antigone and Ismene into the palace, Antigone alone proceeds to the cave, and catch-all ruination ensues. And that’s it. Not only does Ismene not make a reappearance on the stage, but we never hear mention of her again in the play. I should say, we very deliberately do not hear mention of her again. Simon Goldhill argues in Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy that the “discourse of the play through Antigone’s language” essentially kills Ismene off (244). Antigone tells the Chorus, “I am last of your royal line,” an assertion that plainly ignores the fact that Ismene is A, alive, and B, also of the royal line (Sophocles 941). Ismene is no longer of the house of Oedipus – understandable. Perhaps Antigone feels that her refusal to bury Polyneices merited an excommunication from the family. Fine. That still doesn’t mean Ismene has been completely annihilated. But Antigone also sings, “Unwept, no wedding-song, unfriended, now I go” (Sophocles 878). Earlier on, the Chorus explicitly observes that Ismene mourns her sister with “tears on her lovely face” (Sophocles 530). With that in mind, the bemoaning about solitary fate sounds unwarranted and suggests an almost amnesic Antigone. Hello, has she completely forgotten Ismene? Her crying sister? Her mourning friend? Antigone doesn’t just speak Ismene out of her family; she speaks her out of existence. Antigone erases Ismene from the memory of the play.

Note that Ismene’s erasure occurs almost simultaneously with Antigone’s own death. Antigone “kills her off” in the speech right before she is led away to the sealed cave. We learn secondhand from the messenger later on that Antigone hangs herself in the cave, but her song with the chorus is her last onstage appearance. Nietzsche proposes that tragedy involves a clash between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, that these two forces are absolutely necessary to each other and the tragedy itself. If the Dionysian and Apollonian are inextricably bound to each other, then so are the fates of Ismene and Antigone. Antigone depends on Ismene, and Ismene depends on Antigone. Their natures can only be expressed in each other’s presence, and once one is gone the other cannot stay for long. The effect of their synchronous disappearances is that of mutual destruction. However, due to the abiding nature of the Dionysian and Apollonian, neither of the sisters are completely annihilated. Ismene may have been obliterated from the story, but she remains in the world. Similarly, Antigone has died, but her continuation lies in death. The two sisters are alive and dead at the same time. Hence, the Dionysian does not triumph over the Apollonian or vice versa. Rather, the two forces operate in tandem to form the tragedy. A Dionysian-Apollonian interpretation of Antigone reveals that Antigone and Ismene are in fact equal players in the world of the play.



Bonnie Honig. “Ismene’s Forced Choice: Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles’ Antigone.” Arethusa, vol. 44 no. 1, 2011, pp. 29-68. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/413524.

Friedrich Nietzsche. “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” The Nietzsche Reader, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson and Duncan Large, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Jonathan Badger. Sophocles and the Politics of Tragedy. Routledge, 2013.

Jonathan Strauss. Private Lives, Public Deaths: Antigone and the Invention of Individuality. Fordham University Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web.

Paul W. Ludwig. “Fraternity in Antigone.” Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver, edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merril, and Adam Schulman, Lexington Books, 2010.

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