Classic Forms of Culture

Enduring forms of human civilization

This is the link to my newly opened site.
It finally brings ALL of my online blogs and pages together, including this one, into an entire working network. It is devoted to the ongoing exploration of human experience.

From now on, I look forward to encountering everyone there.


Categories: Classic Forms of Culture | Leave a comment

VI. Belonging & the Scientific experience of life

belonging . . . and the Scientific experience of life

(On the physicalized emotion and mythic meaning that forms our bodies and fashions our lives — as found in the work of Stanley Keleman)

The more the organism  perceives itself the less we have to debate about truth. Much becomes self-evident in the process of living.

—Stanley Keleman

Once every now and then, somebody stumbles upon an exposed piece of something ancient, digs away the dirt of centuries and finds a door, pushes it open, and there discovers a hidden or long-buried part of human life. Then our views are changed and a new experience of life begins to sprout. Sprouts, by the way, have a lot in common with life. They are both strong and delicate at the same time, and so all-of-one- piece that when you pick their tops you pull their roots; yet, tender and tiny as they are, they can survive most anything. Ever see a spread of sprouts get trampled on?

Whoever uncovers such a door and gets it open, is likely to continue going in and out of it to deepen the discovery and show others the way they can do the same. Stanley Keleman made just such a find and spends his life doing this very thing.

Born of immigrant parents from Hungary and Romania, Keleman grew up in Brooklyn. His athletic prowess won him scholarships to a number of colleges, but he nevertheless turned away from the path most others would have followed because…

…the answers he wanted were not to be found in the academy.…His suspicion…led him  to  the  out-of-the-way institutions.…His teachers were all outlaws who denied the orthodox wisdom of the day: problems of the mind were to be dealt with by psychiatrists and problems of the body by physicians, and never the twain would meet…*


 * Sam Keen, who interviewed Keleman for Psychology Today and has conducted seminars and workshops with him, writes: “Stanley Keleman is a celebrant of biological life. If we had Earthfathers, he might be one.” (From Keen’s Voices and Visions, New York: Harper & Row, 1974, p. 154)



To find what others have not found, one must seek as others have not sought. This is risky and most who try it end up finding nothing, getting lost, or both; but Keleman, ever one of the few, did not. Not only did he find what he was looking for, he made his way back as well. In this he brings to mind the central figure in those stories who hears an old legend about  some wondrous lost place, a  sun-filled valley all green and growing, where life thrives as nowhere else on earth, but which is far away and surrounded by perilous hazards and dangers nobody dares to venture into. The main character, remarkably  average in every respect except for believing the tale to be true, sets out to find the place and is thus seen by everyone else as foolhardy or downright crazy. Encountering hardships unmet before, and suffering  losses never to be regained, the seeker eventually becomes lost and ultimately reaches the limit where there is neither anything to go on with nor enough left to get back, where all that remains is the final act of giving in and collapsing—and, right then and there, discovers it is all just as the legend described. Of course the temptation is to remain in that idyllic place forever, and some versions of the story make it clear that those who leave can never return again; so, a few in the party elect to remain, but the strongest, those most whole, are willing to jeopardize all to make the long trek back.

What a stunning sameness there is between such stories and what it is to find the Self and reach one’s soul. The ones who do this keep it from then on, even if they come back. Of course the recountings are scoffed at by those who do not leave their habitat and habits of home, for they can only hear these as fanciful tales which do not relate to anything they know as real. Nevertheless, those who return have a look about them, a certain unaccountable manner, which the skeptical stay-at-homers cannot explain, and which, in moments when they are alone and have nothing else on their minds, visits them to make them wonder if maybe there is something to it after all.

Keleman has  these marks. His  words and  ways show that  he underwent an experience such as this, seeking what so many myths and legends are all about, finding that greater wholeness of life, and making it back to show others a way they can get there on their own.



In the early part of my life, I sought a source of authority, a reference, a philosophy from which I could find values and purpose that would serve as a conduit for my energies. Many of the values of my culture at that time were unacceptable to me. They were either mechanistic, low-level  materialism or a pathetic religious dogma that  was no longer historically applicable. My feeling of awe and curiosity about the beginnings of things and the nature of existence found no home either in the world of science or in the images of the Orient.

…I began to have a whole range of experiences, which encompassed past and present, ideas and needs, thinking and feeling, urges to act and urges to wait, archetypal pictures and emotions, inner and outer space and time.

…I felt at home in this world of many dimensions, but of course this being at home was fraught with anxieties. I thought at the time that the strangeness I experienced was due to the releasing of old conflicts and energies that I had to resolve and become accustomed to. This was in line with then contemporary psychological thought. It was not until much later that I knew that I had stepped outside the realm of our society’s knowledge. We had no tradition of living a bodily life. (S. Keleman, Somatic Reality, Berkeley: Center Press, 1979, pp. 9-11)

The lowly body, which even St. Francis had referred to as “Brother Ass”—was this piece of common clay able to lead anyone on to a fresher view or a more whole experience of life?

I  don’t  deal with  interpersonal relationships. I  deal with  your relationship to  yourself, with  helping you  into  more  intimate connection with yourself—by working directly with your body. The way your body is, is the way you are. That is my working principle.

System-oriented scientists who  need  to  see the  body  as  a machine,  in  terms  of  genetic code,  feedback systems, organ organization and biochemical systems with predictable programs, do not seem to grasp that life includes mechanics, that it is living that is structured—that structure is a living function. (S. Keleman, The Human Ground: Sexuality, Self and Survival, Berkeley: Center Press, 1975, p. 20)



If Keleman is right about prevalent attitudes toward the body, then what he is saying will strike most people as making far too much of much too little. We in the West especially have persisted for centuries in making a molehill out of the mountain which the body truly is; and a mountain of meanings is exactly what Stanley Keleman sees whenever he looks at somebody. He can discern more of an individual’s character in how one speaks, stands, sits, and moves about, than many psychologists ever glean from full batteries of personality instruments, projection tests, and other diagnostic tools and techniques. This is not  so much an indictment of the “state of the art” of psychology, as it is an indication of the significance of what Keleman is working with and his genius at doing so.

Who you are as you stand in front of me is who you are in the world, is how you perceive the world, is exactly how you have learned to deal with the world. Your past in hereditary  as well as personal terms is living at this present moment as you the body. (S. Keleman, The Human Ground, pp. 19-20)*

One might assume this boils down to saying: the mind and the body are one. But doesn’t everybody already know this? All it takes is a look around to see for yourself what everybody knows. You may feel foolish doing this because at first you will only notice what you regularly see; however it does not take very long to spot that split between thought and action for which  Homo sapiens is famous.  Do not stop with that, though, but go on to look a little more closely. Can you make out how the body not only shows the split, but gives signs of the particular kind of thinking and doing that makes it up? If you cannot, then try again a few times.


* Do not mistake Keleman’s approach for any of the popularized versions of the “body language” phenomenon which erroneously leads people to imagine that every gesture is infused with a general but latent meaning. The one who has studied this aspect of life more carefully and in greater detail than anyone else reminds us, “I must emphasize that no position, expression, or movement ever carries meaning in and of itself.” (R. L. Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970, pp. 44-50)



Paying attention to this very separation in yourself may provide some good clues of what to look for.

Practice looking at and seeing things this way for about one week and it will already start to make less and less sense to regard the “mind” as one matter and the “body” as another. And for all our sophisticated stressing of things psychosomatic, most of the dominant views of human life found in our culture still reduce mind or body to the one or the other. It is easy enough to say a unity exists between the two, but the final test of actually holding this view is to be able to see it right before one’s eyes. Keleman does this, genuinely joining both in an organismic whole wherein the body is always speaking its mind—and this view opens the door to a broader approach to and deeper participation in the reality of our living and dying.* This underlying view is evident in a string of unpolished sayings that show the man at work.

The How—we shall pursue this relentlessly. How do you do what you do physically? This will discourage all psychologizing, and will restore to  you the  experience of yourself…No self-formation is possible unless you  start  by  experiencing who  and  what  you are…Behavior is always predictable, but growth never is…“Feeling” is not a great answer in itself, but some have as their profession getting you to do this. What we think is a “thought” or “feeling” is, literally, something we are doing…All of the body methods—and I know  them  all—pride themselves in  non-verbalness. This  is contempt for humanness. We think words even if we don’t  speak them…Growth is never an explosion. It is a symphony of forces pushing you…Every contraction is a statement of making one’s boundaries somewhere and is an alternative to collapsing…Endings signal that which has outlived its usefulness and which we must change our relationship to. Conflict is not so much what is going on between you and me, but  has to  do with what is ending and beginning in either or both of us…The split called “body-mind” is nothing  more than  a perception of where the  charge is…Self-repeating and self-experiencing are both very important; they are the two ways. If you know this, you can tell when you are tending the garden and when you are seeing the stars…I am always unified. When am I not? When I describe myself as not unified. That is why I push for the How, because a person will begin to describe how connected he or she is. The real question is how are you connected to  yourself. (From  the  author’s  notes at  a  workshop given by Keleman in 1974.)


* Keleman’s growing number of books clearly reflect this overall description of his view, two of which bear the titles Your Body Speaks Its Mind, New York: Pocket Books, 1976, and Living Your Dying, New York: Random House/Bookworks, 1974.



Despite his conceptualizations, it is not accurate to portray Keleman as one who proffers intellectual views; quite the contrary, he labors and watches as people are enlivened in flesh and blood, muscle and bone— and that is where one must look to witness who this man is and to see what he really does. An instance of this, taken from the occasion on which he made the remarks just quoted, provides a sample of what it is like when Keleman steps into the central arena of his life and work.

It happened in the summer of 1974 during an intensive three-week course entitled  “The  Life of  the  Body” held at  the  University of California in Berkeley. About fifty-five people were there, coming mostly from the United States, with a few from Italy, France, Denmark, Germany, and Canada. There was the normal silence following the period of information and  illustration, and  most participants were privately sifting through what had been said and sorting out some piece that applied to them personally.

“Anyone have anything they want to say?” asked Stanley. Almost everyone lowered their heads and averted their eyes.

“I do” a woman said suddenly, as all eyes turned her way, happy to have something to do. She sat erect, a rather short woman of very solid build, probably in her fifties. Her medium-length dark blond hair was kept in place as neatly as she herself seemed to be. Her manner was friendly yet formal, like that of those who regularly deal with the public in a politely civil way.

“It’s a dream I just had” she continued. “I dreamed I was asleep and awoke to discover my house was burning. All I could think of was that I had to move fast to get my family out safely. I shouted to wake them, but as we ran out into the hall I saw the



front door was blocked by a wall of flame; so I looked around, and there at the other end of the hallway was a door I never noticed before; not a door in my real house, but it was in the dream. It was metal, and when I put my hands on it it burned them.”
Here she let her eyes take in some of the others in the group who by this time were all watching her every move, and then she looked back at Keleman.
     “You know,” she went on, gesturing toward the back of her neck and shoulders, which had a thickness that did not look muscular so much as tightly packed, “I’ve always felt like I had a lot of strength up in this part of my body; and in my dream I thought if I used all that to push the door as hard as I could, that I’d get it open and we’d all be safe. I tried, but it didn’t budge; then—I really ssshhhuuuuvvved it—and it opened. And so I got everybody out, but my dog died in the fire. So…it wasn’t what you’d call a happy dream, but somehow it was still a good dream.”
The dream needed no interpretation, but most leaders would have moved right then to do that. Everyone could hear it came out of a life where old ways were being sealed off and coming to an end; and finding new ways would require a considerable expenditure of strength if they were to keep loved ones linked together—and that in undertaking to make the passage, dear things would be lost forever. Keleman just sat there, eyeing the woman closely, letting the meaning of what she had presented start to leaven the whole lump of both her own life and also that of the group. When the significance had visibly seeped to the core, and thawed it, Stanley made his move.

     “Ever been to a revival?” he said surprisingly.

“Why, uhh, no.”

` “Oh” shrugged Keleman, as if about to leave the matter, but leaving instead an opportunity for the taking, which she lost no time in reaching for.

“But it is strange you should ask because…” she said, looking the way one does when some consciously concealed part of oneself has suddenly surfaced and is now capable of being seen and shown, “…because a hymn has been going through my head.”

“Would you like to sing it?” he invited.



“Oh  no.” she said so softly that only those close by could hear what she said. “Besides, I’m not sure I know the words.”

     “I bet he knows the words;” said Keleman, indicating the man next to her who happened to be a priest. “Go ahead and sing; he’ll join you.”

She started out in a very faint and quivery voice with the words: “Let us break bread together, Hallalu…”. All at once she stood up straight, and looking around in the manner of someone ready to do business, she continued: “What I’d like to do is really sing this.” Now her voice was starting to gather much more resonance and a touch of exuberance as she then turned to stand up in her chair, as if to say she wanted this to be seen by all the world. “…I mean sing it out loud; and just let everybody join in who wants to;…Let us break bread together, Hallalu. Let us break bread together, Hallalu.”

As her voice flowed like a fountain through her vocal chords, the sound coming deep from within her, she started to clap her hands—and others in the group began to do the same. Some whose English had not been able to keep up with the pace, and who had turned to others for a translation, now sensed what was happening, and most of them got on their feet to fully participate in what was now unfolding. When life intervenes this way, the only choice is to participate or to observe. There is no middle way.

Meanwhile, Stanley, who was standing and clapping at his seat, leaned over to better hear what one of the more brilliant intellectuals began to say: “Stanley,  that was beautiful. And the way you handled it when she…”

Interrupting without rudeness the laudatory comments being placed like a laurel wreath upon his head, Keleman said, still clapping, “God never therapizes—just  heals.” Then he turned and walked away.

The aim here is clear: to unite  as fully as possible with the realness of life. The effects of this are obviously therapeutic, but what is equally obvious is that  all this involves much more than  what is generally termed “therapy.” Keleman resists using this word as a label for what he does.



I don’t see what I do as therapy. I dislike the idea of fixing which the word “therapy” suggests.  It does not communicate what happens between me and people I work with. The words grounding, opening, and participating, connecting vital responsiveness, seem appropriate.* (S. Keleman, The Human Ground, p. 27)

     And what are we to call one who has such a goal and works in this way? In the Greece of Socrates’ time and for some centuries afterward, especially  at that  marvelous center of Greco-Roman learning which thrived at the Museum and Library in Alexandria, there is no doubt about it at all: Keleman would have been called a philosopher (a term he has used on occasions to refer to himself ). But that was when philosophy and science worked side by side and still spoke to one another. Part of this tradition survived in Europe up to the very end of the nineteenth century, though by that time it had come to use the word “science” more to describe itself.**

The one question science asks more than any other as it gazes upon the universe is How? How is such and such possible? How does this or that come to be? This is the very question Keleman most consistently asks of life and seeks to answer. How is life formed? How does it function? How does this person, or that one, come to be the particular being they are? It is only in the most genuinely dedicated scientists that one will find the zealous respect for “the natural order of things” that Keleman has.


*  When that formed, organismic whole  — that every human being is — is broken down into parts or reduced to some “problem” (or case), which is then  to  be “worked through” by means of a particular “therapeutic method”  in  order to  achieve an  “outcome” which has been somewhat arbitrarily defined as “healthy,” then those who split up both the process of therapy and the person of those involved in it (including that of the therapist) in this fashion, are likely to succeed only in dividing “therapists” into the-rapists instead.

**  At the end of the 19th century the German word for science, Wissenschaft, meant almost exactly what Plato and Aristotle meant by “philosophy.” Since then the meaning of both words has undergone a considerable change in which there is a mixture of both  gain and  loss (see Windelband’s  A  History  of Philosophy, I, New York: Harper Torch-books, 1958, pp. 1-2)



To experience life with the soul of a scientist is to be so convinced that part and whole belong together, that  one’s  life is given to  a continuing clarification of just how the two fit together and relate to one another. The  part and the whole of science, and the one and the many of philosophy, are closely related. To belong is “to be connected with in various relations” (OED). Belonging means fashioning one’s “more” into a scientific act and experience of life.

…we’re  part of an evolution toward a new subjectivity.  We are moving, as a culture, further and further away from the old scientific, distanced way of making objects of the world. We are moving toward more participation in it. (S. Keleman, Living Your Dying, pp. 139-40.)

Stanley Keleman is still on his most basic expedition: to make his way on to a new science of life itself.

*     *     *

Categories: Classic Forms of Culture, Science | Leave a comment

V. Besteading & the Political and Economic experience of life

besteading . . . and the Political and Economic experience of life

 (On the practicality and profuse productivity of Thomas Jefferson)

I am always mortified when anything is expected of me which I cannot fulfill.

—Thomas Jefferson

Those are clearly the  words of someone with a passion for the useful—for finding it and being it. The touchstone of such people is to identify both what must be done and the way to do it; consequently, they are likely to be constantly on the lookout for these two things: the ends and the means.

The first, of course, is the stuff of politics, and the second is that of economics. Either one without the other leaves a good bit to be desired. Politics alone degenerates into a ceaseless plotting of inter-affecting aims and influences, while economics dwindles to a continuous calculating of ever-shifting trends and commodities. But combine the two and it brings into being a critical mass from which explosive power can erupt; for when politics and economics merge so that ends and means can mix and intermingle, they then issue into what you do with what you’ve got—and that combination touches upon just about anything and everything that matters to humankind. It becomes, as we say, “a real going concern,” one going on now as it has for as long as there have been people, and one which will go on for as long as there shall be.

Thomas Jefferson was a man very much given to both of these things, and that involved him in almost every issue of consequence to the people of his time. He was so involved, in fact, that the historian Henry Steele Commager considered him the central figure of American history—and if democracy should survive, then perhaps a central figure in all modern history as well.

Jefferson’s  life was lengthy, managed with exceptional deliberation, and crammed with achievement.* It is as if someone took aside a lad with an unusually receptive mind and said to him in somber tones at the most impressionable age possible, “Now the whole purpose of life is for you to make yourself useful.”ψ To the very letter, that is what Thomas Jefferson did for eighty-three years.

No man in this or any other country in the Western world—excepting only Leonardo da Vinci—ever matched Jefferson in the range of his activities, in the fertility of his thinking, and in the multiplicity of his interests. The number of things Jefferson did, or knew how to do, still astonishes. He  was a mathematician, surveyor, architect, paleontologist, prosodist, lawyer, philosopher, farmer, fiddler, and inventor. He set up an educational system; he built a university; he founded a great political party; he helped design the national capitol; he was instrumental  in establishing America’s coinage; he doubled the territory of the United States; he invented machines and gadgets; he collected scientific materials in the fields of zoology, geology, and anthropology; he wrote a classic essay on poetry; he codified the legal system of his native State. Everything interested him; nothing was alien to his mind. (S. Padover,  Jefferson, p. 7)


* President  John F. Kennedy, when honoring the Nobel Laureates at the White House in 1962, said that what he saw before him was “…probably  the greatest concentration of talent in this house except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone.” (Adrienne Koch, Jefferson,  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1971, p.l)

ψ Jefferson’s father, whom he deeply admired, had taught the young Thomas to manage the farm, ride, plant, shoot, canoe, carpenter and do masonry, and judge livestock—all of which he began to do at age fourteen upon his father’s death. What Peter Jefferson had said to His son time and again was: “Never ask another to do for you what you can do for yourself.” (Saul K. Padover, Jefferson, New York: Mentor, 1970, p. 10)



Over  and  above all that,  Jefferson was a  member of  Congress, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador  to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and twice President of the United States, author of the Religious Freedom Act of Virginia and primary author  of the Declaration of Independence. In addition, he managed to exchange a staggering 50,000 personal letters (Betts & Bear, The Family Letters  of Thomas Jefferson, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1970, p.l).

People given to the useful and the effective carry what could be around inside themselves  like an unwrapped package—and they are generally happiest when occupied in getting that package opened—the sooner the better. When their mind’s eye has seen how to do something they believe ought to be done, then things already appear to be somewhat behind schedule, which is why such people often indicate a slight impatience. These pilgrims of the possible are so interested in working out some practical future, that they seldom take note of the past, experiencing it mostly as something that is simply over, whereas the present is always here for getting on with whatever can be gotten to now. (It is interesting  to note that Jefferson kept no diary, and upon retirement from the Presidency wrote in a letter that nothing could be more repugnant to him than to write the history of his life. Years later, at age seventy-seven, he tried writing his autobiography, but after about sixty pages he noted, “I am already tired of talking about myself,” and soon abandoned the whole undertaking.)

Yet if you focus on what these people do, instead of on what they themselves focus upon, you will probably see little more than a blur of activity or a glint from their awards and achievements. What sustains them lies off in the distance, and their daily deeds, burdensome and overly industrious as  they  may  appear to  others,  throb  with  the enlivening satisfaction of getting at least a piece of tomorrow started today. Nor should one expect to find their hearts beating in their usually well-ordered minds. For to them, the mind—akin to the chief executive’s staff—is only the  more visible and accessible  attendant  to  the  real manager of it all. To reach this center, the true core, one must find that particular merging of ends and means by which each such person is both motivated and oriented. Frequently this will take the form of some dream or vision, one which sometimes remains wrapped up inside the



person forever. Jefferson, however, found the string, untied it, and let loose a dream of that by which all humans had a right to live:

…under the law of nature, all men are born free, and every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it  at his own will. (Howell  v. Netherland, April 1770.)*

…We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that  whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…{The Declaration of Independence, 1776.)ψ

…Almighty God hath created the mind free…the opinions of man are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction;…that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into  the  field of  opinion  and  to  restrain  the  profession or propogation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty…(Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786.)

…it is a heavenly comfort to see that these principles are yet so strongly felt…I pray God that these principles may be eternal.ζ


*  As a young lawyer turning twenty-six, Jefferson is here defending a mulatto seeking freedom in Virginia. Arguing against George Wythe, who taught him law, Jefferson’s remarks were found to be so radical that the judge cut short his argument and ruled against the defendant slave.

ψ  Written  at  the  age of thirty-three, this is his original draft, which the Continental  Congress altered only by striking “inherent and” and putting “certain” in their place.

ξ  Quoted  from Bernard Mayo, Jefferson  Himself, Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1973.



He held to this dream until the end of his life, writing the first statement here in his mid-twenties and the last at age eighty. Making it come true was the task for his head. Like so many stirred by the Enlightenment, his mind was metamorphosed  into that of a work horse to plow a given plot of ground until time and toil would produce a crop of principles to then harvest and put to use. These were usually seen as blendings of ends and means which, when sufficiently grasped, would enable the attentive individual to perform the essential operations of mathematics, masonry, music, or whatever. Little wonder, therefore, that Jefferson gravitated to law, a field that consists mainly of the pursuit and application of the  principles involved in  the  case at  hand,  and  an enterprise that could afford him a double-barreled satisfaction he would not likely find elsewhere.

It is a common mistake to assume that much head means little heart. Jefferson was well aware of that too:

Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness, while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth. Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly; and they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain. Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives…(B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 137.)

These words show someone who can think and feel, and those who would pry the head and heart of this man apart will only end up with a picture that  distorts the life he actually lived. To  see just how pronounced this other side of his life was, one only need look at his obvious love for his wife, Martha, and at the intensity of his grief at her early death; the  extent of  his caring for  his daughters; his earlier sentiments for Rebecca Burwell as well as his attraction to the married Betsy Walker (the latter being sensationalized to the point of national scandal after he became President); his deep involvement with the lovely Maria Cosway after he was widowed and had become Ambassador to France; and finally his extremely close and lasting relationship with Sally Hemmings. On the other hand, however, those recognizing



the signs of passion in Jefferson—amorous, political, for Nature, and, indeed, even for poetry (as in Macpherson’s Ossian and elsewhere)—and taking them to mean the same as they do today, overlook the differences between our time and his, and they too will fail to see his life for what it really was. Suffice it to say he was subjected to forceful tugs and pulls throughout his life, and the conflict he felt between head and heart was only one more conflict in the life of a man accustomed to living with several.

To be sure, the composure of Jefferson’s life was considerable, but that was because the swirls it was called upon to contain were considerable too. The inward and the outward influence each other, and an individual’s life turns on its axis as a movement of the two. Generally, Jefferson managed to intermingle the formidable aims and influences of his life remarkably well, but there were a few occasions when the control required to maintain his finely balanced rotation so overtaxed his mental powers that it would leave him with a headache which lasted for days. These were usually periods of identifiable stress during which, in the throes of personal or situational conflict, he sought for some slim pass over which he could safely cross without tumbling into the consuming extremes that always lay at either side.

In living life this way, everything hinges on being “in control,” which has little to do with domination and everything to do with managing to find the means. Again, the best way to accomplish this life-sustaining task is by discovering and applying all pertinent principles. That is what keeps the whole system running and going. In essence, this is the act of governing; it is government in operation, whether it be of the nation or of the self. In fact, to Jefferson, the government of the nation began with the government of the self. To govern oneself is to be free. That is why government and freedom become inextricably linked, and preserving this crucial union hinges on the ongoing ability to find the means. Jefferson personally valued this specific ability very highly, writing that it was “…part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty  by resolution and contrivance. In Europe there are shops for every want; its inhabitants, therefore, have no idea that their wants can be supplied otherwise. Remote from all other aid,



we are obliged to invent and to execute; to find means within ourselves, and not to lean on others” (B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 118). The three things that Jefferson wished to be remembered for all had to do with finding the means: the Declaration of Independence established means to pursue the principles of self-government;  the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom provided means of applying the principles he saw as necessary  to preserve the freedom of opinion; and the University of Virginia was a means of continuing the ongoing pursuit and application of both these and other valued principles. Each of these constituted a means to help achieve the ends of freedom. His life shows a soul always seeking to, as he put it, “fix in the principles” that mattered to him most, so that what he envisioned could be made to work.*

Being interested in making things work is but a step away from a basic curiosity in how things work, which often manifests itself in a special fondness for tools and gadgets of every kind. Those who possess  this curiosity learn quickly how this or that should be done, and are therefore easily enticed at the prospect of lending a hand to get the show on the road by making something work. If the matter or issue before them is important enough, then chances are good that such individuals can be totally lured into the fray—at least until the major obstacle is cleared, the riddle is solved, or the missing piece of the puzzle is found. Jefferson was lured like this more than once after he abandoned public life, and for him the underlying issue was always to make the grand dream work. As he reflected: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions” (D. Malone, Jefferson the President, V, Boston: Little, Brown, 1974 p. 668).


* This abiding trait of Jefferson’s shows itself in something he wrote when still in his twenties—“…I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue”—and is also visible in what he penned once while in his eighties: “The University will give employment to my remaining years, and quite enough for my senile faculties. It is the last act of usefulness I can render, and could I see it open I would not ask an hour more of life.” (B. Mayo, p. 28 and p. 336)



The station which we occupy among the nations of the earth is honorable, but awful…Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth.…All mankind ought  then,  with us, to  rejoice in  its prosperity, and sympathize in its adverse fortunes, as involving everything dear to man…to preserve from all danger this hallowed ark of human hope and happiness. (D. Malone, Jefferson the President, V, p. 667.)

Solving an issue at large can, curiously, leave it unsolved at home. Jefferson  kept slaves  at Monticello for as long as he lived, although opportunities presented themselves,  soliciting his support in ventures aimed  at  extending liberty to  ever-widening spheres, such  as  the courageous proposal put forward by Frances Wright, who sought to use her fortune to create a community where blacks and whites could live together in a manner truly integrated, educated, and free. Weakened by months of extreme illness, and now nearing death, Jefferson nevertheless gave a response indicating that even at the end of his life it was a struggle for him to resist the abiding inclination to make himself useful:

At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even the great one which is the subject of your letter, and which has been through life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable within the limits of time alloted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation.…The abolition of the  evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards its ultimate object. (F. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, New York: Bantam, 1975, pp. 625-26)

To bestead is “to be of service or use to; to avail” (OED). Besteading means fashioning one’s  “more” into  a political or economic act and experience of life.



Near the end of his life, Jefferson could draw some consolation from the fact that the means he had helped to create were all beginning to  work. Writing of the Declaration of Independence, he believed it

…will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the  free right  to  the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes were opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. (B. Mayo, Jefferson Himself,  p. 545)

A few days after writing this, he died. Like his close friend John Adams, he desired to live to the fourth of July. A little before midnight on July 3,

1826, Jefferson inquired of Nicholas Trist, his granddaughter’s husband, “This is the Fourth?” The next morning Trist wrote to his brother:

He has been dying since yesterday morning, and till twelve o’clock last night, we were in momentary fear that he would not live, as he desired, to see his own glorious Fourth.*

Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made it to July 4, the day of that dream they and others began to unfold when they had announced fifty years earlier that they were bringing into being something new. Jefferson had given his life to creating those means which others might use to achieve the end of a freedom also meant to be theirs.


* Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” (F. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson, p. 633)

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Categories: Classic Forms of Culture, Politics & Economics | 1 Comment

IV. Behesting & the Historical experience of life

behesting . . . and the Historical experience of life

(On the indomitable Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci)

Listen! A journalist  is a person who writes history in the same moment that history happens. And it is the damn best way to write history.

— Oriana Fallaci

Roots  are what we live from. We  humans have two kinds: our biological roots that ground us in what we are, and our historical roots that ground us in who. Both arise out of the distant reaches of the past and sink their tentacles into the present, where alone we can draw the sustenance to mold ourselves and shape the future. We carry these roots with us wherever we go.

Our past and present are always with us. At any moment both are real. But they are not at all alike. To know who and what you came from is not enough to know who and what you are. To find this out you must go further. You must look at how you now do or do not take a stand— that is where you can see what you have and have not been so far.

For human beings, being human does not come naturally or easily. It comes hard, with effort, and is met with the greatest reluctance because being human means making choices and taking stands. That is what transforms human life into human lives, births the glory and tragedy of humankind,  and starts all history—personal and universal. To  read history is one thing, but to live historically is quite another. The essence of the latter lies in taking stands. Those who know this live differently from those who do not. They are the ones who resist oppression and thus struggle for freedom, who value will and hence keep alive the moral, and who, therefore, can see and know the heroic. One of these is Oriana Fallaci.

I do not feel myself to be, nor will I ever succeed in feeling like, a cold recorder of what I see and hear. On  every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul; and I participate in what I see or hear as though the matter concerned me personally and were one on which I ought to take a stand…in fact, I always take one, based on a specific moral choice. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, New York: Liveright Publishing, 1974, p. 9. The title shows that history is as alive for her as she is alive in it.)

In Europe Fallaci’s name is a household word. She lives in Italy in a villa outside Florence. Her father helps her tend the vineyards there since she is so often away, roaming the world as an international correspondent for L’Europeo. She keeps an apartment in Manhattan to occasionally “live in” in her love affair with America, which no longer burns as brightly as it once did. Her articles appear in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine on Sundays, the New Republic, Ms, and in other magazines and newspapers at home and abroad. From time to time she is interviewed on national television. There are also her many books that, regardless of their focus, whether on warring nations, warring sexes, the space program, powerful and poignant novels, or tough interviews are filled with passages of what it means to be one who does not flinch either at being human or being alive.

In If the Sun Dies, written in 1967, Fallaci typically immersed herself in all aspects of what she was then working on: NASA and the U. S. space program—laughing,  crying, sweating, hating, and loving her way through this science-fiction dream just then coming true, and one she believed was so crucial to the future of humankind—an assignment complete with Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Canaveral and Houston,  Dee O’Hara (chosen as the astronauts’  nurse because of her experience in obstetrics!); technical films; briefings on fuels and astronomy; John C. Lilly’s  work with dolphins on interspecies communication; scores of renowned scientists, technical experts and military officers; launching pads, countdowns, lift-offs; accidents and tragic pilot deaths; missile ranges and tracking stations—and after it all, found herself stopped cold by what she saw in the “third group” of astronauts turned out by NASA. So different were they from the original seven (Glenn, Shepard, Schirra, Grissom, Cooper, Slayton, Carpenter), that  it  seems as if they had skipped their thirties altogether, by jumping from their twenties to land in their mid-forties and full middle age. So she addressed them thus:

Because I’m having fun in my thirties…I’m not dulling them with a precocious carbon-copy old age.…They’re wonderful years… because they’re free, rebellious, untrammeled,  because the anguish of waiting is over, the melancholy of decline hasn’t begun, because we’re lucid, finally.…If we’re religious, we’re convinced of our religion. If we’re atheists, we’re convinced atheists…we don’t fear the mockery of the young because we’re young too, we don’t fear the reproof of adults because we’re adults too…We are a field of ripened grain…no longer green and not yet dried: lymph flows through us at the right pressure, full of life, and our joy is alive, and our grief is alive, we laugh and cry as we shall never be able to again…so then why isn’t it like this with you? {If the Sun Dies, New York: Atheneum, 1967, p. 307)

This piece is typical. Her interviews are much like the skirmishes in a fencing class as the instructor engages various students in mock matches throughout the floor. First, the formal stance is assumed that begins the engagement. There is that closely guarded, stalking and moving about by both contestants. Soon the fledgling, sensing an opportunity, seizes the chance to score a point, and suddenly—in a skillful motion that turns the other’s movement to her own advantage—the instructor executes a graceful SSSSSWWWWWOOOOOEEEEEEPP-THUNK  that  goes right to the heart. And it is all over. The two contestants know then just where things stand.

Yet  there is more to  Fallaci’s  interviews than  finding out  where someone stands. Interviews that boil down to “so-and-so said such-and- such about this-and-that” are only half an inch above gossip columns. Try as one may it is impossible to boil any Fallaci interview down to just that, for she always gets at something much more:  the person participating in the making of history. That is something which cannot be seen with the naked eye, nor can one take a picture of a person or catch history on film, because when it is developed both will be gone. Only images remain, pictures of people doing something—but both the subject and subjects are gone. No machine or piece of equipment can capture the subjectivity that makes history. It always takes a person to reach the realm of the personal. Those involved in history know that being a person is part of their trade.*

And what is this vibrant reality called  person? It is biology making history into identity. It is being and becoming molded into a self. Person can neither be given nor taken, it can only be lived or died. Person and freedom are found together. You are not born a person, you become one; you are not born free, you must win freedom. Do not expect this to be easy or to meet with applause. Those who applaud it do not clap so much for you as for what they would like to be able to do themselves. Thus their applause is only a wish, which evaporates  when it really counts, when it is time to take a stand—and so it counts for nothing. What does count are those who do not applaud, who do not need to wish because they already know, and who quietly stand with you. No, if you seek to become a person, then you must not only expect resistance, you must learn to thrive on it.

Don’t  let yourselves  be regimented by dogma, by uniforms, by doctrines, don’t let yourselves be fooled by those who command you, by those who promise, who frighten, by those who want to replace one master with another, don’t be a flock of sheep, for heaven’s sake, don’t hide under the umbrella of other people’s guilt, think with your own brains, remember that each of you is somebody, a valuable individual, responsible, his own maker, defend your being, the kernel of all freedom, freedom is a duty, a duty even more than a right. (O. Fallaci, A Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980, p.2)

*  Personal concern and involvement with issues has everything to do with history. As Allan Nevins wrote in The Gateway to History: “For above all, it is the historical point of view, the historical method of approach—that  is, the spirit of critical inquiry  for the whole truth—which, when applied to the past, makes history” (Garden City, Anchor Books, revised 1962).

And the English historian, R. G. Collingwood, pointed out in his autobiography, “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ’real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.” (The Idea of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970)

Is it really this hard? Yes. Then is it worth the trouble? You  must consider the alternative and answer that for yourself. But why is it like this? Because most people decide to finish with life before life finishes with them. They start to drift, and gradually begin to sink from the weight of their own unspent vitality, until they come to settle in its residue. And if you decide not to do this; if you choose to take a stand that shows you will not join in the hoards and herds of the half-alive, then you have made it clear that you will not go with them, that you will stand all by yourself if necessary, and that will threaten them—and you will have exposed them too, and that will anger them, and they will see you as the enemy…and that is right. For if your way prevails, theirs will die. And if their way prevails, you will die. That is how it is and how it has always been.

To take a stand is to cut away from the crowd. Those who do so never number more than a few and never like crowds. If you do like crowds or if the crowd likes you—beware, lest you sell your soul. Person and freedom are always found together, but crowds and taking stands are not. It is very hard to take a personal stand in a crowd. Crowds try to work their way with numbers; crowds oppress, and oppression survives in the world only because the crowds do not resist it.

I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born. I have always looked on the silence of those who do not react or who indeed applaud as the real death of a woman or a man. And listen: for me the most beautiful monument to human dignity is still the one I saw on a hill in the Peloponnesus. It was not a statue, it was not a flag, but three letters that in Greek signify No. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, p. 13)

 When one is moved, humanity is stirred, no matter how slightly. To fail to stand up then for something one has been stirred by kills the possibilities it may have offered for a better way to live. Something  is lost for everyone when a person capitulates at the given hour. But to those who try, though later it may seem like a floating island in some uncharted sea which they are now at a loss to find or  reach again, they nevertheless will know that once, for just a moment, they actually stood upon it and felt its soil beneath their feet—even those will never forget what it is like for a person to stand. Because of who and what she is, Oriana Fallaci is deeply moved at the sight of someone who has the dignity to stand and speak in the face of impossible odds. To be so stirred, as she was here and is still, is the surest sign that what she is stirred by is in her too. It is a signal from her own soul. And it is in these stirrings of the soul that we begin to discern that movement in life which is the will.

Life, Francois, is a death sentence. But you’re right not to tell me so. And just because we’re condemned to death we must cross it well, we must fill it without wasting a step, without sleeping for a second, without being afraid of making mistakes or smashing ourselves—we who are men, not angels or beasts but men.**

And what would freedom be but empty if it did not have within it the carrying out of what one wills? This movement of will is what makes the self, and, eventually, a life. They arise out of the two most fundamental human choices of all: to do what one really wants to do, and not to do what one really wants to do—and both of these are acts of will. These acts make all human history what it is and isn’t.

Not by chance, if you are aware of it, does it consume you with a hundred feelings of inadequacy. Not by chance, when I find myself going through an event or an important encounter, does it seize me like anguish, a fear of not having enough eyes and ears and enough brains to look and listen and understand like a worm hidden in the wood of history. (O. Fallaci, Interview with History, p. 11.)

Other  journalists marvel at what Fallaci is able to get out of an interview. When Mike Wallace, interviewed her for CBS’s 60 Minutes, he asked: “You’re the only one who gets this special quality from—whether it is Henry Kissinger or Nguyen Van Thieu or the Shah of Iran. Why are you able to do this?” And she answered, “Because I do not go to them as a journalist…I am a person who goes to speak with another person sincerely curious, not in a superficial way. I really want to understand them.” The reason she gets so much out of people is that she puts so much into life. She acts as the full person she is, with all her doubts, desires, arrogance and humility, hesitancy and brashness.

Those who live their humanity to the hilt never need to demand respect because they already command it. Their commanding presence is the direct result of their being so in command of their own person—and these are the ones who know the true magnitude and range of human responsibility. Their very lives summon others to account for what they have done or will do with theirs. A behest is a command, injunction, or bidding, and to behest formerly meant “to vow or promise” (OED). Behesting means fashioning one’s  “more” into  an historical act and experience of life. Those who do this not only have a sense of history, and are thus able to write about it, but they can make and live it too. Only those who are able to live with a No are free to ask for any Yes in the world.

But you had clearly understood it would end like this, and if ever you had a doubt, it vanished the moment you took the deep breath that sucked you to the other side of the tunnel: into the well where those who would like to change the world are regularly thrown, those who would like to bring down the mountain, give voice and dignity to  the  flock that  bleats inside its  river of  fleece. The disobedient. The misunderstood and solitary. The poets. The heroes of senseless fables but without which life would have no meaning and to fight knowing that to lose would be pure madness. And yet for one day, that day that counts, that salvages, that often comes when you’ve given up hoping, and when it comes it leaves in the air a microscopic seed from which a flower will bloom: even the flock understood this, bleating within its river of fleece.


*  Personal concern and involvement with issues has everything to do with history. As Allan Nevins wrote in The Gateway to History: “For above all, it is the historical point of view, the historical method of approach—that  is, the spirit of critical inquiry  for the whole truth—which, when applied to the past, makes history” (Garden City, Anchor Books, revised 1962).

And the English historian, R. G. Collingwood, pointed out in his autobiography, “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ’real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.” (The Idea of History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970)

** Fallaci’s words here run very much in the same vein as those of another great solitary soul, Pascal: “It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly apart from his bruteness. It  is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both.”

Categories: Classic Forms of Culture, History | Leave a comment

III. Beholding & the Philosophic experience of life

beholding . . . and the Philosophic experience of life

(On the systematic thinker and classic thologian Paul Tillich)

There is no truth without the way to truth.

—Paul Tillich

Wordsto a few they matter as much, but to none do they matter more than they do to . . . a philosopher. There are not very many of these in our midst. There never have been nor are there ever likely to be. Several people teach philosophy—read, think, lecture, and maybe even write about it — but that isn’t enough to make anyone a philosopher.

That happens only when someone, sauntering through life, stumbles one day upon the astonishing fact that his or her picture of the world is just that: a picture and nothing more. He then feels what he had always stood on start to crumble and give way beneath him—and right there he experiences that hiatus, that crack or gap, in which philosophy is born.

Discovering this  gap does not  make one  a  philosopher either, though it does create the possibility for it. Only if the individual turns to  face the  uncertainty, to  take it  in  and  digest it,  so that  it  is reconstituted into a question that sends him out into the world to seek its answer—only then does he become a philosopher. From that time on he will pay the closest attention to words so he can phrase his questions and share his answers. Others without this experience are likely to look upon such a person as much too preoccupied with this or that, and far too picky about his points. If such an individual should go on to become a good philosopher, he or she will convey, as much by manner as message, the reason for the carefulness: namely, the outcome of these questions and answers will make a difference in how they live their  lives. That  is why words matter  so much  to  such persons. Moreover, if, as they make use of them, they struggle hard to keep them on to what matters to them most—having the courage to show that forth, whatever it may bring or lead to—then their words will have an unusual genuineness that will resonate in other human beings with issues genuinely their own. A philosopher good enough to do all this becomes great. Paul Tillich stumbled upon the philosophic gap early in life, took in the experience of it, and became a philosopher— a good one, and a great human being.

Shortly before he died in 1965, Tillich was at the University of California in Berkeley for a short unpublicized stay. By little more than word of mouth, seven thousand people showed up to hear him speak. The turnout is no surprise to those who had heard him before. They had seen the  same thing  for themselves. That  slow, ponderous, thickly accented voice, positioning each thought as carefully as the medieval stonemasons picked and patted into place each stone to construct the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Tillich lectured without gesture or fanfare, yet to hear him was gripping; because his presence was that of one who himself was grasped by something.

When I was of the age to receive confirmation…I  was told to choose a passage from the Bible as the expression of my personal approach to the biblical message…When I chose the words “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden,” I was asked…why I had chosen that particular passage…I could not answer at that time; I felt a little embarrassed, but basically right, indeed: every child is right in responding immediately to those words…They are simple; they grasp the heart…disturbing the mind of the wise…Returning for the first time in my life to the passage of my early choice, I feel just as grasped by it as at that time . . .” (P. Tillich, Perspectives on 19th and 20th  Century  Protestant Theology, New York: Harper & Row, 1967)*

Paul Tillich molded his natural vitality as a  human  being into thought. It became his way of life as thinking became his most characteristic activity. But thought is much like an underground river that widens and deepens as it winds its way without being seen—which is why this un-hurryable gift can pass undetected even by those who have been given it—until it eventually breaks through the surface and gushes out in an unstemmable flow of worded deliberations.

On the surface, the path of his life showed nothing uncommon as he was reared in the German town of Schönfliess, and later boarded away in Königsberg for two years to attend the humanistic Gymnasium there. In 1900, at age fourteen, his family moved to Berlin, where he graduated from school, went on to pursue theological studies, acquired both his Doctor of Philosophy and Licentiate of Theology, and was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. After World War I, in which he served as a chaplain, he was finally able to launch his academic career at thirty- three years of age by becoming a teacher at the University of Berlin in 1919.

It was beneath the surface, and only with time, that the great flow of his thought developed. It started in his childhood as the trickle of a spring in Schönfliess, a setting of the past in which he had early and lasting “experiences  of the holy” amidst its medieval city-walls  and Gothic church. As a brook it then babbled its way along through the young Paulus’s years of instruction, with classical antiquity stretching along its one bank and Christian tradition along the other, before turning into the tumbling stream of a romanticist involvement in all nature, heightened by annual family visits to the North Sea. This stream grew into  a young river cascading into  the  virile fascinations and cultural enticements of such a worldly sprawl as Berlin, with the onrushing waters gathering unto themselves the impact and residue of his mother’s  death when Tillich was seventeen. The  river widened quickly as it spilled out onto the broad terrain of a world at war, of politico-economic clashes in  postwar revolution, and  of collapsing intellectual and religious beliefs and ideas. In full view for the first time, the depth and power of this river of thought attracted the first real attention  to  itself in  Berlin, continued on  to  traverse a somewhatobscure bend through the city of Marburg, coming fully into its own at Dresden, there settling into the channel and current that would carry it to its ultimate destination.

Paul Tillich did not think as he did because of what he lived; instead, he lived as he did because of what he thought. He didn’t try to mold the “more” into expressive form, as art does; nor, like religion, use it to forge some new tunnel or pathway into life; instead, he employed it to discern the form there in life and existence. And so, he commenced — and continued — to experience life philosophically.

That means participating in the form of things. Readable things have a form. The substance, the dynamics, you cannot read; they are dark; they are the drives. Reading, which is here meant metaphorically, is only possible where there is form. The word “understanding” has a similar metaphorical meaning. Standing under or reading between have the same meaning. They refer to a position in which we are in the reality itself and are able to become aware of its particular form. (P. Tillich, 19th 6? 20th Century Protestant Theology, p. 196.)

Whenever he wrote or spoke about life, in general or his own, he portrayed it as a dance of ideas. For him, ideas were like living things that came and went, lived and died, and either led a person toward more life or away from it—though he usually found them to be “ambiguous,” a mixture of both. Nevertheless,  he did not  come at ideas the way a scholar, a Gelehrte, attempts to “master” them by exhausting awareness alone. He was after something more: he wanted to actually connect with the life and power of an idea. Unwilling to settle for its husk, he wanted its heart. Instead of stopping after grasping the form of an idea—as most all modern scholarship does—he would press still further to be grasped by its substance too. In other words, he was interested in both the idea and the experience that lay beneath it.

First, he would let the words of some great figure point toward something that mattered; then, not deigning to describe it from there, he would try to move on into the experience out of which it came, and from there speak of what he beheld. In this way, the words he used became an arena in which the listener could, if he or she so chose, experience something of the reality of those very ideas they and he were seeking to illuminate and understand.** His wife recollects:

From my seat, I watched him walking around greeting friends, talking, asking questions, appearing clumsy and unsure about what he  was going to  say. He  was certainly unimpressive—shabbily dressed and wearing strong glasses. I was anxious, fearing he might be unable to give a good lecture, but with his very first words at the podium, he was transformed. His voice rang out clearly; indecision had fled. He became the instrument of the powers of thought; he was the word. (H. Tillich, From Time to Time, Stein and Day, New York, p. 102.)

Tillich connected with life through beholding. As an individual, he gave his life to trying to see. In order to do this to the utmost he needed to get the fullest possible view of life and all existence. His Systematic Theology, which he undertook in 1925 at the outset of his career in Marburg, was what he built for himself to stand on. Sometimes the “little things” that people do have in them most of what one finds as well in the “big things” they do. Tillich went about building his system of thought  in much the same way he built those incredible castle-like platforms, several feet high, when he went to the beach for a stay—with sloped ramps up them for easy walking up and down, and complete with drainage ditches to help withstand the onslaught of the elements. There he would sit, high atop his perch, and take in the invigorating expanse stretched out before him. That is also the same function his system served. He of all people knew such things as this do not last forever, and so, when the rains of time began to wash it away near the end of his life, he did not try to pretend to himself or others that it was not happening.

True to his chosen path, he would struggle to take even that fact into himself and go on from there.***

Finally, in October 1965 in a hospital in Chicago, Paul Tillich entered into the last major experience of his life: death. It began with the horror familiar to him: “Every thing is slipping away under my feet…” Showing the impulse most characteristic of him, and then checking himself in it, he said: “…let men not attempt to see what the gods cover with night and horror…” His wife, Hannah, listened for the next ten days as he recounted dreams, voiced new fears, and asked for her forgiveness; walking with him as he went ever farther and deeper into what was before him, until at last he came upon death face to face. At that point he made his way forward to meet it as he had always tried to meet the major realities of human existence before—moving  to grasp as best he could that which was also grasping him.

We cranked the bed up and held him, and then it happened—one gasping breath, the oxygen gurgled in his mouth, which was open. I held his hand…all of a sudden he let go, his body pranced as if in ecstacy, his bowels let go and his hand let go, he fell back…(H. Tillich, From Time to Time, pp. 221-24.)

Tillich had met the terminus, the utter end of life. It had been the life of one who wanted to know, one whose constant endeavor was to see what he could see. To behold is “to hold or keep in view, to watch; to regard or contemplate…” (OED).  Beholding means fashioning one’s “more” into a philosophic act and experience of life. And this is what Paul Tillich did supremely, as few others can, and he thrived on that as on nothing else.

There  are some among us  for  whom theoretical problems are existential, are matters of “to be, or not to be,” because theoria means “looking at” things and being united with them in this way. My statements are primarily addressed to these. I myself belong to them. For us, the question of the cognitive encounter with reality, the question of the absolute and the relative in this encounter, is an existential concern—a concern that involves our whole existence. I should like it to be so for many, because ultimately knowing is an act of love. (P. Tillich, My Search For Absolutes, p. 83.)


*  It was this same quality of being grasped that led Henry Sloan Coffin to comment to Rollo May, upon hearing Tillich’s first lectures in this country, “I don’t understand what he says, but when I look at his face I believe.” (R. May, Paulus, New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

**  Paul Tillich remained fond of the Pre-Socratics throughout his life, and it is little wonder, for his approach had much in common with them, as for example, in Heraclitus’, “Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.” H. Frankfort puts his finger on the full significance of this: “Here, for the first time, attention is centered, not on the think known, but on the knowing of it. Thought . . . controls the phenomena as it constitutes the thinker.”

*** In his final lecture, the night before the severe heart attack from which he died ten days later, Tillich noted a shortcoming of his three-volume system and expressed his hope for the future of theology (The Future of Religion, p. 91). But he had already begun moving beyond his system in his later deeply probing books, Love, Power and Justice, and Morality and Beyond.

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Categories: Classic Forms of Culture, Philosophy | 3 Comments

II. Believing & the Religious experience of life

believing . . .  and the Religious experience of life

My purpose in writing was not beauty, it was deliverance

— Nikos Kazantzakis

Anyone unwilling to grapple with spirit had better leave Nikos Kazantzakis alone—for it emptied his life and fills his works. And those who regard ‘spirit’ as merely a figurative term or hollow concept will be unable to grasp either the man or his works. But should they wish to try . . . let them pick up something—any work at all —that this son of Crete ever wrote. Then, holding it in their hands to take in its words through their eyes, let them see what happens inside them when, as with those not expecting visitors who suddenly hear the front door open and someone enter — their own soul rushes out to see who it is. When any arresting sentence or pungent passage kindles a recognition in their soul, then let them wonder at that quiver of life inside them—at what it is and where it comes from.

When Kazantzakis was born, the old midwife brought him close to the light and examined him with great care. Then, as if seeing some mystic sign on him, she lifted him high up and said, “Mark my words: One day this child will become a bishop.” Later, when he learned of this prophecy, Kazantzakis believed it because it matched his most secret yearnings. So from then on he set out to do only what he thought a bishop might do — until the day he came to see what bishops really do and changed his mind. “Thenceforth, in order to deserve the sainthood I so craved, I wished to avoid all things that bishops do.” And he did. Throughout his life he would reject anything not big enough to be lived — and the power of life within him would batter and smash against whatever wasn’t. And how would he know what was big enough to allow spirit the breathing room without which it will surely die? There was really only one way—risky, but sure; and he set out doing it about as soon as he learned to walk.

One day in school we read in our primer that a child fell down a well and found himself in a fabulous city with gilded churches, flowering orchards, and shops full of cakes . . . My mind caught fire. Running home, I tossed my satchel in the yard and threw myself upon the brim of the well so that I could fall inside and enter the fabulous city. My mother…uttered a cry, ran, and seized me by the smock just as I was kicking the ground in order to hurl myself headforemost into the well.

All his life, when there was no one to protect or stop him, Kazantzakis would hurl himself into the deepest wells of humankind: Art, Religion, Politics, Philosophy … to find out where it led, or drown. He did not calculate shrewdly or bargain like Faust, holding out until the terms were right; but instead simply handed over his whole existence— body, mind, soul, and spirit—to trying the way of those who have pointed the way for humankind, to see if their paths did indeed lead to life: Homer, Moses, St. Theresa, Buddha, Dante,  Christ, Nietzsche, Muhammed,  Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, Don  Quixote, Lenin, El Greco, and others. Kazantzakis struggled in his spirit to meet theirs with no holds barred. Each encounter left a mark on his soul, giving to him and taking from him something, so that he would never be quite the same again.

Few humans treading this earth ever risk the total abandonment of a true pilgrimage, let alone undergo the danger and disintegration of a journey so vast in scope as that undertaken by Kazantzakis. Few who set out on such a journey persist to the end, and of these, only a handful produce anything that transcends their personal search and passes on something that others can use to advance further still. Had he been a man of thought or a man of action, he might have chosen to walk either path to distinction—as thousands of other genuinely outstanding people have done. But both strivings were in him, as they are to a degree in everyone, and they turned up early in his life, when he was still a schoolboy. His response hinted even then that he was one who would choose to live them both.

So audacious did my mind become, that one day I made the harum-scarum decision that next to every word in the French dictionary I would write the Greek equivalent. This labor took me months…and when I finally finished…I took it and proudly showed it to Père Lau rent, the school’s director, a learned Catholic priest. “What you have done, my young Cretan, shows that one day you will become an important man. You are fortunate in having found your road while so young. Scholarship—that is your road. God bless you.”

Filled with pride, I ran as well to the assistant director, Père Lèlievre, a well-fed, fun-loving monk with playful eyes. “Shame on you!” he screamed. “Are you a boy or a doddering old graybeard? Out of my sight! Take it from me that if you follow this road, you’ll never amount to anything—never! You’ll  become some miserable round-shouldered little teacher with spectacles.  If you’re  really a Cretan, burn this damnable dictionary and bring me the ashes. Then I’ll give you my blessing. Think it over and act. Away with you.”

I went away completely confused. Who was right, what was I to do? Which of the two roads was correct? This question tortured me for years, and when I finally discovered which road was the correct one, my hair had turned gray.

This  happened  when  Kazantzakis was a  boy; but holding  fast to both strivings, he wandered the world and became a man. When one striving persisted, content in being tended to and followed, then discontent and at times even disease would drive the other one into a resounding lament that soon swelled into a piercing temple-cracking cry that would make him turn and follow it.

Thought and action taunted him like two seductive sirens. Untied to any mast, he took the cotton from his ears, and then followed, living the torment of conflicting lures and screams—until he found, amidst the swell of rage and clamor, the still small voice of his own soul. At times the tension nearly tore his life apart. To ease the wrenching pain, most people would let one of these mighty strivings go, and lob it out of awareness, holding from then on with both hands fixed firmly to the other. But Kazantzakis didn’t. Like a man trying to tame two steeds, each lunging in a different direction, Kazantzakis held onto both. This guaranteed that his life would thus become a pilgrimage, for that is what a pilgrimage is: a journey combining thought with action, a sustained living of both. He undertook this pilgrimage, persisted in it to the very end, and in so doing created the unfolding journey of his life.

And journey he did, starting with Greece —“the filter which, with great struggle, refines brute into man, eastern servitude into liberty, barbaric intoxication into sober rationality”—where,  “The spirit has trodden upon the stones…for many, many years; no matter where you go, you discover its divine traces”; Italy and Assist—where “For the entire extent of this honeymoon with my soul I felt, to a greater degree then ever again in my life, that body, mind, and soul are fashioned of the same clay. Only  when a person ages or falls into  the grips of illness or misfortune do they separate and oppose one another”; Mount Athos— “…since I myself could not become either a saint or a hero, I was attempting  by means of writing to  find  some consolation for my incapacity”—where he and his poet friend, thinking they were a team of oxen, yoked together and, plowing the earth, “plowed the air” in youth’s needful Quixotic assault upon  life; Jerusalem—“the  sun-baked land where once upon a time a flame had bounded out of a poor cottage in Nazareth, a flame which burned and renewed man’s heart”—the place on the voyage to which, “The ship’s hold seemed like a new catacomb in which slaves had assembled once more—today’s slaves—to conspire to blow the world up all over again…High up in first class, the carefree faithless talked politics…while here below, deep down in the hold, we were carrying as a terrifying gift the seed of a new, dangerous, and as yet unformed cosmogony”;  The Desert  and Sinai—where an old monk, about to die, entrusts him with the fruit of the monk’s apprenticeship in life to flesh and spirit…“You are rendering up the flame of your entire life. Will I be able to carry it still further and turn it into light?”; Crete— where his father, unsatisfied with his only and wandering son, said, bidding  him  farewell at  the  waterfront, “I  think  you’re  like your grandfather…I don’t mean your mother’s father, but mine, the pirate. But he rammed ships…What ships are you ramming?”; Paris—where he studied under the philosopher Bergson, and dove into that martyr to truth, Nietzsche; Vienna—where he discovered Buddha, and was also afflicted by a tormenting illness that swelled his face so that his eyes shut almost completely, which the  renowned Freudian, Wilhelm Stekel, diagnosed as “ascetic’s disease,” common in the Middle Ages but almost unheard of in modern times…“because  what body today, obeys its soul?”…and which  cleared, as  Stekel said  it  would,  as  soon  as Kazantzakis left behind both Vienna and the woman he had met there; Berlin—where  his Buddhism was punctured by the great misery of human  suffering, hunger,  oppression…shaming him  into  a responsibility which linked him  from then  on  with all the  rest of humankind—and where he first met Albert Schweitzer; Russia—Lenin, Marx,  and  the  Slavic soul  and  land  where the  awesome bloody experiment was taking place…“Miracle butts against reality, makes a hole, and enters” The Caucasus—where he moved completely into action in taking, as he was asked to, the directorship of Greece’s Ministry of Social Welfare, in order to rescue 100,000 Greeks endangered by the Bolsheviks on the north and the Kurds on the south…“The moment was ripe to test whether action, by slicing its sword through the insoluble knots of speculation, was alone capable of giving an answer”; Crete— returning home…“Having just returned from Russia, I too wished to make this microscopic attempt to emerge from my ivory tower and work with human beings.” And then…“as if fate was in a mood to play games”…he met  Giorghos Zorba…“this  dancer  and  warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.” (The account of  this  pilgrimage, filled with  rare and  truly  magnificent discoveries, is laid out before the reader in Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco; New York: Bantam, 1966.)

Then he stopped to catch his breath from the grueling pace of the spiritual marathon he had been on for forty years. The air he now breathed in blew like wind across a field of grain, and it shook loose the seed of his soul, which fell to the ground within him, took root, and began to sprout. For years he had had a definite aim.

My aim is not Art for Art’s sake, but to find and express a new sense of life…In the process of writing I feel increasingly relieved. And yet I know that this is by no means enough. To attain my aim, I must make a leap. As soon as this leap is accomplished (which can only be an example of life and not one of Art and writing), I shall find the expression of my soul…

Now that aim took shape. As he began to find his soul, a living form emerged, an actual man . . . Zorba . . .

“Giorghos Zorba …this  dancer  and  warrior, the broadest soul, surest body, freest cry I ever knew in my life.”

. . . whom he then used to refashion an ancient form into a figure big enough to pour his forty years of thought and action into, which was “…Odysseus; he was the mold I was carving out so that the man of the future might flow in.” In this act and work, his “Obra,” a remarkable metamorphosis occurred: what he was struggling to create now began to actualize itself within him. In the fourteen years he was metamorphosing Odysseus from the issue and happenings of the past, his own substance was transubstantiating itself into the stuff of the future. Sitting down to write out of the odyssey he had lived, he commenced to live the odyssey of which he wrote—and arose a different man.

If he had allotted fourteen years to model his Odysseus, the “future man,” Odysseus, in his turn, had allotted fourteen years to model the future Kazantzakis. And when the umbilical cord was cut, ed, there were two men—mature,  serene, walking hand in hand along the rim of the  abyss. The  osmosis of life and  death took  place gently, “admirably,” open-eyed. (Helen Kazantzakis, Nikos Kazantzakis, New York: Simon and Schuster: 1968, p. 384.)

This, by far, was the most critical period of Kazantzakis’ life. During this time he was sure he was wasting his life, was thunderstruck in totally different  ways by his mother’s death, and then his father’s, lost some of his closest friends, had the deepest doubts about his writing, experienced a series of severe setbacks with publishers, and  underwent extreme personal and financial hardship. Yet at the same time, he focused his life’s elusive purpose in a single sentence, (“It is not  human beings that interest me, but the flame that consumes human beings.” Ibid, p. 214.), found his most natural style, heard the cry of the future, entered fully into his Age, wrote The Odyssey, and then launched forth, unencumbered and renewed, into the future. He had made it through life’s straits.  To be sure, there in the narrows much had washed overboard and tumbled into the rough dark waters of the deep. But like the little skiff he saw in a dream, his heart kept scudding along in the narrow crack left between the menacing sky and pitch-black raging sea, billowing full-sail toward the open waters.

Kazantzakis had found vitality in a form he thought he was unsuited for and not able to handle: the novel. A torrent of novels then rushed forth. Still true to his aim, his primary thrust in this venture of body, mind, and soul was not artistic but religious—genuinely  religious. As Martin Buber defined it: “The realer religion is, so much the more it means its own overcoming. It wills to cease to be the special domain ‘Religion’  and wills to become life” (The Eclipse  of God, New York: Harper & Row, 1952). Instead of using life’s power to create expressive forms, he came at it the other way around, seeking to find expressive forms that the power of life might use. While art is a movement of life into form, religion is a movement of form into life. In the first, spirit becomes matter, and in the second, matter becomes spirit. He was after a way to extend spirit, to stretch it in order that life could have the breathing room in which to form him and all humankind anew, thereby lifting man higher and planting him with both feet on the new ground of the age just dawning.

I used to believe that there must be a great difference between vital literary work and action. A genuine novelist can live only in his own time, and by living this reality he acquires consciousness of his own responsibility and assumes the duty of helping his fellowmen to envisage and solve, as far as possible, the crucial problems of his era. If he acquires consciousness of his mission, the novelist endeavors to compel the reality that is flowing formlessly to take on the form he regards as most worthy of man….

As Kazantzakis  labored in the vineyard of this unfamiliar genre, thought and action joined and produced offspring. Each novel was a furthering step in his pain-filled yet joyous ascent, and meant another trip to the rim of the abyss, to look into it unflinchingly and leap, so that he would have to sprout wings to keep from perishing. Each new novel was thus a stretching of his outermost boundaries, a making of still more of his soul into spirit; so each one, a little odyssey in itself, drained more of his life from him. Eleni could plainly see the exhaustion hollowing out the face of her companion as he continued along his chosen path:

I’ve struggled, that’s true, throughout my life. And I’m still struggling to keep my soul from dying. I know how the mortal becomes immortal. And this is precisely the great torment of my life. For it is not enough that you know. You must also become…

Finally, on October 26, 1967, sick with fever, while Eleni was at his side, he made his final leap into the abyss and rendered the last bit of his life into spirit.

Confronting death as he had lived, he had just given up his soul. “Like a king who had taken part in the festivity, then risen, opened the door and, without turning back, crossed the threshold.

“I had been struggling for a lifetime to stretch my mind until it creaked at the breaking point in order to bring forth a great idea able to give a new meaning to life, a new meaning to death, and comfort to men.”

What he had been struggling to do in his lifetime, Nikos Kazantzakis achieved. Faith is that upon which one is willing to act. To believe is to be and live more and more in the light of the ultimate, so that one’s life becomes filled with it. Believing means fashioning one’s “more” into a religious act and experience of life. For Kazantzakis, the élan of life came through this ardent desire. “We call ‘nonexistent’ whatever we have not desired with sufficient strength.” Thus his life was an enactment of adoration, and it is the efficacy of his ever-transcending act that pours into the lives of thousands of others as spirit. Early in his life he had wanted to found a new religion. He failed in that, yet succeeded in doing much  more.  Because far  greater than  that  which  only  brings in the new, is something strong enough to make even the old new once more. The tremendous might of his spirit broke the crust of what so much religion had hardened into for centuries, exposing again the good bread it held underneath, so it could be eaten and nourish to life the hungry souls of the world once more. And the power of his life, with all its far-reaching  effects, showed in what happened at his funeral on the island of Crete, which both the church and the state sought, unsuccessfully, to suppress.

They were here from every village and city…50,000 of them, to pay final homage to the writer who had wandered the earth and always returned home to squeeze a clod of Cretan soil in his palm and draw strength from it…

Everything went as planned—the tributes, the placing of flowers— until it came time to lower the coffin into the grave. Then a giant of a man, a veritable Zorba, stepped out  of the crowd…Captain Mamousakas…his  mustache was large, sweeping, ferocious…“Such a man as this,” he rumbled, “must be put into his grave by heroes.” So saying, he picked up the head of the coffin by himself. His three friends took hold of the other end. Together they lowered Nikos Kazantzakis into  his  personal abyss. (Frank  Riley, “A Cross In Heraklion,”  Saturday Review, October 14, 1967, pp. 47-48.)

His life — long since turned into spirit — was stirring the lives here just as it was elsewhere around the world. And that same spirit is found there in the flame his work kindles in souls living today.

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A post script

Nikos Kazantzakis died October 26, 1967 at seventy-four.  His wife Eleni (in English, “Helen”) lived to within a few months of her hundred-and-first birthday. She first wrote me in 1977 in response to what I’d written about Nikos. Prompted by him many years earlier, she had written a book about Gandhi and several other things (and, after Nikos’ death, the definitive biography on him). With her living in Geneva (photo above) and my living in the U.S., there seemed no viable way that we would ever meet. But eleven years later, in 1988, when I was in Europe on sabbatical for the entire summer in what became the second sunrise of my soul, we did meet. Greeting me at the door, she took the flowers I’d brought in her one hand, entwining her other in my arm, and said, “Come to my kitchen table. I treat you like family!”  And over the lemon cake she’d made and the hot tea she’d prepared, we exchanged personal tales and told life stories for over five hours. Later, when I emerged from her door to hail a taxi on the street in order to make it back to the station and catch the train to Italy, I felt like the fountain in the photo above. That day stands as one of the most sun-basked glistening summits in all my life. -G.R.

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Categories: Classic Forms of Culture, Religion | 1 Comment

I. Bespeaking & the Artistic experience of life

bespeaking . . . and the Artistic experience of life

(On the actor, dancer, and film star James Cagney)

Basically, Im really just a hoofer.

—James Cagney

The TV picture was on, but the volume was off. An awards banquet, it looked like, with celebrities in tuxedos and long evening gowns. Everything  was glitter, glisten, and shine—strictly Show Biz at its fancy usual. I was packing to catch an owly-bird flight across the country and had no time to get distracted by anything such as that. Starting to click off the set, I noticed George C. Scott flash onto the screen. But he never went to such banquets, and would let it be known if he were given an award he would not receive it. Why was he there? I upped the volume just as he was ending his few remarks. Since not a word was wasted and all were on target, I give you the whole of what he said.

James  Cagney? That was quite a while back. All of those gangster, tough-guy, rat-a-tat roles like Cody Jarrett, who goes crazy at the end in White Heat when he hears his mother died, so he blows himself up by shooting holes in the flaming fuel tank he was standing on. Was he still around? The TV camera answered affirmatively, zooming in for a close-up of Cagney’s  face. And there it was, that still recognizable, slightly pugnacious mug, topped now by a thick crop of snow-white hair. He sat there unmoved without a ripple of expression.

As the show went on, one famous star after another came forth to pay tribute (“Oh her; yeah, she was in …; and that guy, didn’t he play …”). The remarks were both written and spontaneous, silly mixed with sentimental, but regardless of the particular wrappings, what each package held was honest-to-God respect. Each time the camera zoomed back in on that leonine head, hoping to catch some bit of feeling—a responsive nod maybe or memory-filled smile—there was that  same blank  face (“They wouldn’t have invited him, would they, if senescence…aw, he’s not that old; but still, he is awfully quiet”). His expression had the general effect of an empty theater marquee. The director and switch men in the control booth must have been tearing their hair out.

At last, they showed some of his song and dance numbers as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. As the houselights came back up and the audience was still reverberating with such tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and others, Cagney began making his way down the main aisle toward the front. Just then the crowd, finding a channel for its brimming enthusiasm, burst into a rhythmic clapping to the beat of “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy,” to which the honored guest, showing the first recognizable  signs of his old self on  camera that evening, started a slight bouncing to the beat as he continued down the aisle, up the stairs, — at the top of which he tried to jig a little dance step — and then crossed the stage to the speaker’s stand. There he stopped, turned, and blurted somewhat breathlessly into the mike, “I’m a wreck.” And everybody laughed and settled back into their seats.

He went on to say that when he’d been told about the plans for the evening, he asked his friend A. C. Lyles, “But what will the people expect of me? It’s  not the kind of thing I do everyday.” To which Lyles had replied, “All you have to do is…uhm…uhh…uhmm.” And Cagney said, “What’s that?” Lyles gave the same uhms and uhhs again. “So…” Cagney continued, “with the inflection appropriate to the occasion, I say to you here, one and all, uhm, uhh, uhm, uhh.” Everyone howled.

In an instant Cagney had punctured the pretension of a setting where everyone is “on” and playing roles, thus creating a little clearing—and he did it as effortlessly and naturally as that splendid gesture he improvised on the spot in The Oklahoma Kid, when he reached up to “feel the air.” Having made that clearing, he now stepped into it, and then James Cagney, that experienced old hand, reached out to take the “more” provided by the  occasion, and  there shaped and  molded it  into  a moment that unleashed his own vitality and evoked that of others. He did it by speaking about art:

Art. Now, I’m a little bit hipped on the thing myself and have been for a long time. William Ernest Hocking said, “Art is life—plus caprice.” But  it  also brings to  mind  a  work written  by  John Masefield, the English poet laureate. He wrote it with a pen dipped in a bit of vitriol. I’m going to read it to you now.

What is the hardest task of art?

To clear the ground and make a start

‘Midst wooden head and iron heart;

To sing the stopp’d adder’s ear

To fill the tale with none to hear,

And paint what none else reckon dear;

To dance or carve or build or strive

Among the dead or half alive

Whom greeds impel and terrors drive.

Now you, my English dancers, you

Began our English joy anew

In sand with neither rain nor dew,

Dance was despised and held in shame

Almost something not to name

But that lovely flower came.

Oh, may you prosper till the race

Is all one rapture at your grace,

And England Beauty’s dwelling place.

Then you’ll know what Shakespeare knew

That when the millions want the few

They can make heaven here—and do.

As he spoke, he created the very thing the poem was about—before  the audience’s very eyes. James Cagney knew what he was doing; so well, in fact, that he didn’t have to even think about it while doing it. He had done it so often in his life that for him it had become a means of heightened presence. Richard Southern, another man who understands this underlying act of the artist, penned this vivid description of it in another work:

Whenever an individual addresses  a group…then he is facing a strength  that  is  capable of  overpowering his  own…This  very strength is the power which the individual can, provided he has the personality and skill, take to his advantage…That is why behind all the essentials of technique which should be in his equipment as regard voice, gesture, costume and the rest, there lies one deeper essential still, the essential of feeling that audience-reaction and of responding to that feeling, but of also being able to engage it to convey to the public whatever happens to be the subject of his address to them…It is a twofold opportunity; the opportunity to take the power of a gathering to oneself and to dominate; this is a proud and selfish motive, and it is very characteristic  of a player to show himself off. Or the opportunity to give, to seize the power of a gathering to convey to them…what?  A vestige of the godhead. This, curiously, is a very humble motive; and even more curiously it is equally characteristic of the  player…to give of himself without return.

Thus we have the roots of the player’s two major characteristics: his selfishness and his generosity. These will affect the theatre forever.

In just the same way, since so many of these things are concerned with fighting against death, and with birth and resurrection, so the player will unleash another characteristic, that of his or her vitality as a man or woman. (R. Southern, The Seven Ages of the Theater, New York: Hill & Wang, 1963, pp. 24-27)

Cagney shows this understanding too by putting this original verse at the very beginning of his autobiography: “Each man starts with his very first breath, To  devise shrewd means for  outwitting  death.” This delightful autobiography, modest yet masterful,*  shows a man given to the artistic experience of life. There is his continually being struck to the quick by beauty, as in a moment when he burst into tears at seeing a ballerina alight from her ascent; his being deeply stirred at the sight of total effort in both foot races and horse races; his never having to “psych up” to play a scene—for he never got himself into the phony position of believing he had to be the part he was playing (therefore, he would have no difficulty accessing and using what he had and who he was); his fifty-year ongoing effort to preserve the natural beauty of the land; his distaste for directing other actors (“I have no interest in telling other people their business”); and his dislike of bad directors—all of which shows his overwhelming respect for the natural and his unceasing resistance to whatever pollutes it; his exquisite sense of timing, found in his pacing of a dialog or scene, and in his ability to pinpoint the moment, knowing when it was over and time for the curtain (which, it seems, even told him during the filming of One, Two, Three that his career in pictures had come to its natural end: “I knew at that moment that I would never bother about acting anymore.”); his taking up painting at age sixty and staying engrossed in  it;  his  poetry; and,  throughout,  his  abiding involvement in simple wonder, one which continues to grow; and…more.

He is a man who knows what he is and what he isn’t. A dancer, a hoofer, he truly was. No Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but the dancer and individual that he was. And neither of them could pretend to match the overriding dynamism of his personal flair — and the way he styled it. That is why in his films so much vitality comes through. And it was for that, and for the spark such genuineness ignites in others, that Cagney was not only being honored but acclaimed as well. And the reach it covered was expansive.

James Cagney bespeaks the artistic experience of life in a soul ever reaching out to grasp the “more” that is inherently there, and then to render it into expressive form. To bespeak means “to be the outward expression of ”  (from  the  Oxford  English Dictionary). Bespeaking means fashioning one’s  “more” into  an  artistic act and experience of life.**  He once wrote the following words about a friend’s poem. They fittingly point to the soul of the actor, the artist—and, therefore, the very life of James Cagney as the man he truly was.

From first to last, it bespeaks life involvement and that wonderful gift that comes free to us all if we will only take it—and with which life is enriched beyond all description—wonder.

There was nothing high-flown or fancy to be found in the genuineness of his art. Nor is there a trace of false humility in it anywhere. It all rings with the simple truth art always held for him. In the fitting words of his biographer John McCabe, “He was fond of saying that if ever art was practiced in his part of Hollywood, he never saw it. But if art is both the conscious and unconscious development of one’s deep creative instincts in the service of lasting truth, Cagney was not only an artist but a very great one.” ***


* Modest in magnitude because it is a third the size of most film-star autobiographies, and as modest in manner too as Cagney himself, despite his “unmistakable touch of the gutter,” is known to be (for many actors and artists handle their person in much the same way they as they handle creating the roles they play: keeping them under wraps or behind the curtain until that time—and it doesn’t always come—when they believe they are rightly formed); and masterful because he wrote it himself, and so his personal quality clearly shows through.

**  Shakespeare, to be sure, highlighted this configurative act in the work of the poet: “As imagination  bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name.”

***  In a personal letter to me, Cagney touched on the very sources of his creating the George M. Cohan role. “Aside from the hard physical work of the dancing he was relatively easy to do, but your observations gave some moments in the picture values to me.” Only someone as honest as he was (And how many of those are there?) could have found this to be so simple — and managed to keep it so. But he had long since come to learn and know from his own experience that nothing simple is ever easy. (-G. Ruyle)

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Categories: Art | Leave a comment

Glimpsing each mode in particular . . .


It is more  difficult to describe one actor than to write a whole philosophy  of art, and more  difficult to describe  one of his performances than to describe the actor.

—Soren Kierkegaard

If you look at lives in particular you can begin to see life in general.  When you want to see a whole forest, you start by looking at some of its trees.  This may seem to be an awfully slow and roundabout way to go about it, but if you were to begin with a satellite picture of the whole thing, you still wouldn’t know what things actually looked like when you’re close enough to touch them. You couldn’t pick out a single item by looking at it in your photograph.

Delving into these modes one by one, by looking at the lives of six people as an example of each, gives us a glimpse into what it means to live in the world in their particular way.

What is of utmost importance to keep in mind about these modes is that they are not mere abstract formulations having only a conceptual reality instead of a “real-life” and actual one. They occur only in the lives of actual human beings, and there only in those individuals actively engaged in transforming themselves into something they had not been before.

Beyond all a human being has ever done in life, at any single given moment, any individual is more what they are becoming . . . and growing themselves into being from that point on. To fail to take this burgeoning into account seriously distorts our understanding of anyone’s life (our own included) by omitting the that growing edge there is to everything that lives.

This is why we must look into the life lived by actual human beings to glimpse the modes as they are found to occur in human existence. Without this, our understanding of ourselves, others, and all human life in the universe will forever remain incomplete.

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Categories: Classic Forms of Culture | Leave a comment

When first we come upon these

Around the world, gateways of human culture have left lasting marks on human civilization. Their timeless forms arise, take shape, and fade away, only to re-emerge and repeat the cycle all over again.

We come upon these first before we can walk well or even talk — when sound, movement, gesture, and facial expression make up our only vocabulary — and where, usually in the tow of someone older leading us by hand, we toddle up to the edge of a patch of trampled ground or cleared open space where crowds assemble, and we stop there teetering a moment to take in the eery fullness and felt presence such places harbor. All at once, nudged by an inaudible “Use me!” they whisper to us from deep within, we squeal our glee as our tiny legs trip-toddle out into the beckoning expanse. As the years of youth roll by, these and other forms continue to reappear, in towering civic structures at the heart of most any sizable town, or on some college campus maybe, in the guise of things dubbed “academic disciplines” or “fields of study,” from which we are urged to select a major or perhaps even pick a profession.

In those to whom this happens, another discovery soon comes to join it: these structures lead to grand undertakings in interesting places far away. And for the ones fortunate enough to actually follow these further, they become still more, deepening and broadening into vivid and varied passageways into the world at large and a bigger way of living in it. Taken all together, these gateways sketch in bold-stroke outlines things that confront humanity currently, giving representative pieces of “the big picture” of whatever is going on in human civilization at any one time.

When seen this way, these gateways lead not into the past but into the future, stretching into the world at large and revealing formative aspects of human culture both east and west. Take the origins of theater in the west in Greece, for instance, at a place like the amphitheater in Epidaurus, as seen from the very highest seats . . .

Epidaurus (Epidauros), Greece: Theatre

from another angle . . .

Amphitheater in Epidaurus

Image via Wikipedia

or, as felt when seen from the open playing space of those in the chorus below . . .

Epidaurus ancient theater

. . . it towered above and around everyone there in a gigantic semicircle that seated a rousing throng of 12,000 to 14,000 people.

But what do these enduring forms signify?

The world has long had its share of archeological and architectural wonders, but what we are dealing with here is of a major difference on every significant count. Not only were they of an impressive size to show the importance they held in their varying cultures, but the forms show themselves in countries around the world, and continue manifesting themselves across the ages right on up to today.

We’ve already noted they are portals to far-reaching places and formative undertakings the world over, but that doesn’t sufficiently explain their pervasive prominence. But on closer inspection, they also reveal basic ways in which human beings go about the business of living out their lives day after day. And this, surely, is what points more directly at deeper reasons why these forms keep recurring in cultures around the globe: for they are nothing less than fundamental modes of human becoming.

The chief aim of this blog is to explore these underlying gateways — delving into them one by one — to identify the way each mode embraces a particular activity, constituting a pronounced and distinctive way of experiencing things generally, and therefore of also living one’s life in the world.

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Copyright © 2012 by Gene Ruyle

Categories: Classic Forms of Culture | Leave a comment

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