Friday on the Ponderosa

We look back, we reminisce, and in the process we shape, suppress, edit, & deform everything.  For the sake of an idea or an argument, we oversimplify.  But it's unavoidable - and sometimes it's useful.  Sometimes a confusing series of events long ago can be summarized, characterized... maybe illuminated.


What is the ground of civilization?  What makes for a peaceful, free, happy & just world?  Good will toward others.  The ability to transmit as much goodness & kindness to others as we would like to receive ourselves.  The sense of universal justice.  The recognition of the dignity of persons.  The sense of responsibility toward nature & the sustaining earth.

The words alone sound Pollyanna-ish - a wishful, sentimental pablum.  But that's how it is sometimes with words.  One way to think of the poetic notion of "incarnational speech", or the idea of "the Word made Flesh", is with a moral recognition of the limitations of mere words.  "Words made flesh" are words materialized in deeds, in action.  So we have the saying "a man/woman of his/her word".  To "keep your word" is to acknowledge the responsibility for the promise of a commitment.  A covenant of words "underwritten" by deeds.


In ordinary & contemporary everyday life - and setting aside for a moment those times of real suffering and crisis -  we are made constantly aware of the friction and trade-offs and anxieties and irritations involved in our interactions with others.  Other drivers, other shoppers, other co-workers, other neighbors... the little frictions & frayings which result from opposing territorial rights.  "It's my turn to go at the stop sign."  Road rage, etc.  The spirit of community, the sense of fellow-feeling, the willingness to be flexible, to give way, to respect others.... how fragile these things sometimes seem in a competitive world of demanding, self-interested, sometimes arrogant & selfish people...

These bourgeois realities of wear & tear have their parallels in the macrocosm of politics.  We live in a country split between two major parties, whose central dividing line appears to be a dispute over the boundaries of private and public interest.  Republicans stand for liberty and small government.  Democrats stand for equality and big government.  On this disagreement over the proper territories of the private & the public, the individual & the collective, property rights & social rights, the whole country seems to be slowly grinding to a paralyzed standstill, or stand-off.

Mine & yours.  Ours & theirs. The two parties divide the country by way of a mimesis, a magnified mirror of ourselves : ourselves at an intersection, having lost our temper.  Angry, stupid, self-righteous grumps, unwilling to give an inch.  My way or the highway... my way or the highway...

& it's all about the common good.  Except the two parties agree to disagree, since it means so much for their fundraising & public relations.


Jesus in the Gospels somewhere says you have to choose.  "No man can have two masters : you must serve God or Mammon (riches, wealth)."

Doctrinaire dogmatists of various stripes have often interpreted this in ways that serve their own absolutist political aims.  We see the same thing in the propaganda wars between extreme enthusiasts of both Left & Right.  Left dogmatists idealize the State, the Collective, the Common Good.  Right dogmatists extol Liberty, Property, & Privacy.

I'm a conservative liberal, a liberal conservative.  I hold with the "incarnational" idea that mere words & theoretical formulae with regard to political principles have to be tested & confirmed in actual, working, unspoken, normal, active life.  (I won't call this pragmatism, however, because I think that word is often used as a cover for expediency.)

It's possible to imagine a humane community of persons who, in their own ways, set aside pure selfishness (Mammon) on behalf of better, more altruistic goals (the social pursuit of happiness, for example).

Call it a global civil society.  When people are just - when they rise above their own narrow self-interest on behalf of love, charity & the common good - they work together to solve common problems.  The common good does not necessarily entail or require the surrender of property rights.  Collectivism, in general, does not serve human happiness any more than private greed does.  They  both (in opposing ways) detract from human rights & dignity.  But we all need to seek the right balance of public & private : both in our personal lives & in society at large.

Many ideological enthusiasts will certainly describe this as a lamentable form of sentimental delusion.  Maybe.  I just call it "the pursuit of happiness."

In fact the two faces of private greed & collective statism - let's call them Mammon & Cyclops - coincide in the Janus-face of Theft (like the two thieves hanging on either side of the crucified Son of Man).  "Behold, I am coming like a thief."   The current government of China, for example, has masterfully welded private greed & authoritarian collectivism into a seamless whole.  Meanwhile, of course, we in the U.S. have our own thriving cults of Mammon & Ideology, with all their down-home refinements of hypocrisy & fraud.  (Mark Twain & Herman Melville anatomized our special talents in this area 150 years ago.)  This is the world of force, not consent.  The Iron Age, not the Golden.  The Tower of Babel, not the Kingdom of God.


French thinker Jacques Rancière has an eloquent, subtle essay on the poetry of Mandelstam in his book Chair des mots (Flesh of Words).  He interprets poems from Tristia (& others) within a political-historical context, the movement from 19th-cent. republicanism & romanticism (Wordsworth), to the revolutionary 20th century.  It's about the impasse of lyric poetry in general & Mandelstam's particular (& in Tristia, definitely elegiac) "resolution" (comprehension) of this impasse.  I think  Rancière offers only a "partial" Mandelstam in this essay, which seems suffused (the essay) with a fairly pessimistic consciousness.  (Understandable, really, when you acknowledge 20th-cent. history.)

But his reading brings out elements of Mandelstam's own "program" (which R. describes as more idealistic than the poetry itself) : the Acmeist concepts of "domestic hellenism", which he traces back in part to M.'s allegiance to the Russian language itself, and its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some of these threads emerge in M.'s short (truncated) essay "Pushkin & Scriabin" : the freedom of the poetic word runs parallel to human cultural freedom generally, which is, in its "Western" manifestation, underwritten by the Redemption.  The free gift of love of the "Word made Flesh" sets art free (along with everything else) - to play "hide & seek with the Father" (but see Robert Paul's great, & rather darker, neo-Freudian interpretation of all this in his book Moses & Civilization).

Maybe you can see how this particular shaping of a sense of Mandelstam's "incarnational" poetics has echoes, parallels, with the general "liberal conservative" political stance I've been sketching out here.  This was all laid out in the first (biographical) chapters of Clarence Brown's early study (Mandelstam) : the Acmeists emerged from the last vestiges of an "ordinary", church-going,  pre-Revolutionary Russian middle class.

Maybe some things come back around again...


When we reminisce about our own remote past, we select, we over-simplify.  40 years ago I went through a psychological crisis which brought on, or was triggered by, a sort of upwelling of uncanniness & inexplicable, irrational experiences.  I've written about it several times before.  I think a sort of "rational" way of analyzing that crisis would be to think of it as an adolescent vocational impasse.  I was a poet, of all things - a poet in America - & I couldn't handle it.

As a result I had an "encounter" with the Bible & Shakespeare.  You could say I was thrown back on the literary foundations of Western culture - I had to reiterate them, recapitulate them in terms of my own breakdown.  Somehow I kept my head about water - but it changed me.  The ground had shifted : you could say I became intellectually committed to the notion of a spiritual Presence or subjectivity.  Thus words to the wise like "No one can serve two masters - you must serve either God or Mammon" (along with the rest of the Bible) seemed to manifest a real "living" imprint : a personal charisma.

My "encounter" with Mandelstam a few years later had nothing irrational or uncanny about it.  I didn't feel Mandelstam's personal "spirit" drawing near.  Instead, his life & words seemed to help me actualize or realize or amend the original break between everyday reality and religious enthusiasm.  Because, perhaps, for me it all began - the crisis itself - in a specifically literary context.  It was a problem for a poet, a problem of poetry.  It was a local iteration of the story - of the Word made Flesh...

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