Last week I spoke about the subversive power of literature and poetry and explored this in Shelley, Shakespeare and Dickens. This week we have just experienced some of the most amazing practitioners of this subversion, the Americans Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and the German Arthur Schopenhauer, the Persian Shamsu d-Dīn Muhammad, Hafiz and the French Jules Renard. All in their various ways celebrate the quest of the human spirit to free itself from the shackles of constraint (internal and external).
Most memorably Emily Dickinson describes herself as an “inebriate of air” and a “debauchee of dew”. A rollicking drunk, yes! But drunk on what? On her capacity to see, touch , feel, listen, be open to the miracle of what is around her and not be eaten up by her reactions.
Here are the first two stanzas of her amazing poem:
I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
And Walt Whitman (in “Song of Myself”),, made a religion out of accepting with joy the simple, earthly and earthy reality of just what he was and what was immediately around him:
Seeing hearing and feeling are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from;
The scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,
This head is more than churches or bibles or creeds….
I believe a leaf of grass is not less than the journeywork of the stars….
So Whitman had and was able to express this immense gratitude for the simple fact of his being alive. This is something worth being reminded of again and again as we lose touch with the miracle of our own lives and find ourselves consumed by fears and worries of all kinds.
It has been said of the Dalai-Lama and of Nelson Mandela that here are two people in the world today who have most to complain about (rejection from and destruction of their countries), and yet they demonstrate an amazing strength in their capacity not to complain, not to react. They have an internal stability that is akin to that found in the writers we have been exploring. It is for this reason that people from all around the world continue to draw such strength from both these individuals.
The Persian medieval poet Hafiz expresses the same idea in his ironically titled poem “What Should We Do About That Moon?” in which a beetle’s crazy worry about the rising moon, becomes an occasion for reflecting on the useless things that distract us from the joy, the music of our one and only given life. Hafiz’s poem ends with the lines:
Seems to Hafiz
Most everyone has laid aside the music
Tackling such profoundly useless
By which I understand Hafiz to say that in order to connect again with “the music” we need to be more simply here, now, and disconnect from the “useless questions”. And what are these? Everyone has their own examples I am sure, and we all share in this common human condition: all the mental rubbish that keeps us locked up, unable to simply step out and experience with hope and joy the miracle of this given life. It is expressed also in Whitman’s lines from “Song of Myself”
There was never any more inception (new beginning) than there is now…
And will never be any more perfection than there is now…
The most powerfully subversive author we found this last week was Arthur Schopenhauer who dares to remind us that while we might be students of other’s ideas, unless we enter deeply into our own thinking and try and connect with our own experience we are nothing more than a rattling cardboard box full of bits of information (Bitzer!). I think Mr Keating (Dead Poets’ Society) would have heartily resonated with this comment from Schopenhauer’s journal:
…Therefore the mind is deprived of all its elasticity by much reading as is a spring when a weight is continually applied to it; and the surest way not not have thoughts of our own is for us at once to take up a book when we have a moment to spare. This practice is the reason why erudition makes most men more stupid and simple than they are by nature and also deprives their literary careers of every success. As Pope (Alexander Pope the 18thC poet) says, they remain:
For ever reading, never to be read. The Dunciad, 3:193-94.
Scholars are those who have read in books, but thinkers, men of genius, world enlighteners, and reformers of the human race are those who have read directly in the book of the world.
This coming week the Shakespeare group is going to the Shakespeare Room in the State Library and on to the Renaissance painting holdings in the New South Wales Art Gallery. Here our connection with Shakespeare’s life and times will be made physically immediate. We can even touch the chair made from a tree in Shakespeare’s garden, look at paintings that reflect Shakespeare’s imagination and stare up at the statue build in honor of Falstaff (and others) by the people of Sydney the century before last!
Introduction to Literature students will continue their journey through a range of poetic voices from the Polish Wislawa Szymborska, the Nigerian Wole Soyinka to the Black American poet Langston Hughes and finally to the contemporary Latino poet Martin Espada. Here is a very interesting interview with Espada that sheds light on the contemporary Latino poetry and music scene:
Those still sauntering through the Nineteenth Century will confront the heavily bearded, soulful and profoundly confronting Leo Tolstoy in his stories “The Death of Ivan Illych” and “Master and Man”. These are two of the greatest stories ever written, so tighten your seat belts for an extraordinary ride.
Incidentally subversion is alive and well in all the wonderfully creative responses to literature that are appearing in no less than 275 WordPress Literature (Blog) Journals making their debut right now. Some of the material emerging here is extraordinary and illustrates that Literature does not need to remain a merely academic discipline, but can become the creative spark for imaginative minds. Great work all!