Honor, Dignity, and the Rage of Achilleus

I have been reading through The Iliad of Homer as part of the CiRCE Apprenticeship. This is my first time through the book and I am thoroughly enjoying the reading. Enjoying may not be a strong enough word. At the beginning of the journey we were asked one simple questions: Is Achilleus over-reacting? (I am using the translator Richard Lattimore’s spellings of the names.) What a little question, and yet it has sparked so much discussion. We are still answering it. The following short essay is an exploration, though obliquely, of that question.

Modern man struggles with the rage of Achilleus. We think we understand why he is upset, but after a few books of Homer’s Iliad, and a lot of pages with Achilleus sulking in his anger, our inclinations lean towards a “just get over it already” perspective. Sure, we know Achilleus has been wronged, we know he is mad, we know Agamemnon is a questionable character, but we also see the Achaians getting beat up by the Trojans, and we see Hektor reveling in the glory of his success. How is it that Achilleus will not set aside his rage for the sake of his fellow countrymen? Is not Achilleus over-reacting? Or might it be that what seems clear to us actually distorts how we should understand Achilleus’ rage and his choice to remain angry for such a long time? Can there be some inherent characteristic, some Weltanschuung, of the modern world that hides the true nature of this legendary rage?

Here is the crux of the issue: Achilleus has been publicly insulted but we live in an age that no longer understands insult. In other words, modern man lives and thinks within a social-historical context that does not fathom, and therefor does not value, honor. This is not to say we never act with honor, but it does mean that the structures and institutions that were once so crucial for the establishment of honor and ourselves are now considered impediments. We seek instead the dignity of the individual rather than the honor of the man. We have traded honor for dignity, but more on that later. First let’s look at some evidence that honor has become obsolete. Peter Berger says in The Homeless Mind:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor is revealed very sharply in the inability of most contemporaries to understand insult, which in essence is an assault on honor. In this, at least in America, there is a close parallel between modern consciousness and modern law. Motives of honor have no standing in American law, and legal codes that still admit them, as in some countries of southern Europe, are perceived as archaic. In modern consciousness, as in American law (shaped more than any other by that prime force of modernization which is capitalism), insult in itself is not actionable, is not recognized as a real injury. The insulted party must be able to prove material damage. (p. 84)

In other words, an injury of honor has no real reality. It is merely a matter of one’s feelings and should eventually be dismissed as fundamentally inconsequential. Why modern man should have arrived at such a position is probably too complicated to sort out here, but we can see the historical shift in the concept of man with the birth of modern democracies. In short there has been a shift in consciousness that began more than two hundred years ago (maybe closer to five hundred years ago). We can see it in some of our most important documents. Consider these examples:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, 1776)

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. (Article One of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution, 1789)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […] Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women… (From the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948)

The emphasis is on the human person alone, unencumbered. We see our dignity bound up in the idea of our real selves, that is, the self which is distinct from, and unbound by race, political views, skin color, gender, age, social status, geography, physical condition, sexual orientation, religion, or even actions. According to Berger:

There is an implicit sociology and an implicit anthropology there. The implicit sociology views all biological and historical differentiations among men as either downright unreal or essentially irrelevant. The implicit anthropology locates the real self over and beyond all these differentiations. (p. 89)

Modern civil society is based on this concept of human beings. We have inherent dignity in that we are all equal and have certain, even inalienable, rights. Ironically, this real self is a mystical self, unable to be seen or touched, produced or analyzed. It is one of our age’s most cherished beliefs yet is resides entirely outside the bounds of science.

We can get confused in the distinctions between dignity and honor, for both are goals of moral enterprise. They both require effort to attain, to defend, and protect. And they both achieve their attainment in the individual in relation to other persons. However, dignity, as Berger defines it, begins with the individual alone in the universe, inherently valuable yes, but requires a man find his own self from within himself. Honor, on the other hand, begins with the moral context and social fabric that man is born into, and a man must seek his place and accept his self within that world.

Human dignity is a good thing. As Christians we can affirm the inherent worth of each human being, know that God created each of us unique, placed in us His image, and sent His Son to die for each of us. Christians can also affirm this idea of the mystical self. It is very much like our understanding of the essence of God. We can know each others by what we do and what we look like, but we cannot ever truly know or define the essence of another. However, as moderns we must also realize what we deny and what we lose with each new so-called progressive step forward. Berger notes:

The institutional fabric, whose basic function has always been to provide meaning and stability for the individual, has become incohesive, fragmented and thus progressively deprived of plausibility. The institutions then confront the individual as fluid and unreliable, in the extreme case as unreal. Inevitably, the individual is thrown back upon himself, on his own subjectivity, from which he must dredge up the meaning and the stability that he requires to exist. Precisely because of man’s intrinsic sociality, this is a very unsatisfactory condition. Stable identities (and this also means identities that will be subjectively plausible) can only emerge in reciprocity with stable social contexts (and this means contexts that are structured by stable institutions). Therefore, there is a deep uncertainty about contemporary identity. Put differently, there is a built-in identity crisis in the contemporary situation. (p. 92)

But where does this leave Achilleus? The world of Achilleus is ancient. It is a world where honor ranks high in the social context. When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilleus this was not a blow to his dignity so much as a blow to his honor. Agamemnon publicly insulted Achilleus, and Achilleus became, therefore, not merely indignant but wept in his dishonor. We, who live in a world that prizes dignity but not honor, struggle to understand. We are inclined to say things like, “Just walk away.” “It’s no big deal, there are other women to take from you plundering.” “Think about the others.” “Get over it.” But for Achilleus this insult reverberates with a sound that may be beyond our hearing. Consider the scene where Briseis is taken away from Achilleus:

He led forth from the hut Briseis of the fair cheeks and gave her
to be taken away; and they walked back beside the ships of the Achaians,
and the woman all unwilling went with them still. But Achilleus
weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions
beside the beach of the grey sea looking our on the infinite water.
Many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother:
‘Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
honour at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.’
(Iliad, Book One, trans. Lattimore, lines 346-356)

Notice several things that strike us as odd. He gives up Briseis, but then weeps. Achilleus is a great man and warrior, but to us his weeping seems unmanly. He calls to his mother. Though she is a god, this also seems unmanly. He complains that Zeus should give him honor but instead Zeus has given not even a little. But we would claim his inherent dignity is more important than honor, and that one should not look to another for one’s self-worth. Finally, he complains that he has been dishonored by Agamemnon, who took away Briseis his prize. We think nothing of true personal value, nothing of our character, can be taken by another, and we bristle at the idea of a person being a “prize” of another. But here we have the great Achilleus weeping and complaining to his mother over losing his prize. In the words of a once popular song we might say to this whiny warrior, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” But should we?

What is it that makes a man? In our modern age a man is the product of personal, existential action. But the ancient world was not an existential world. Certainly the individual was important, and certainly people made existential decisions, but men did not seek to discover or to create their identity so much as they sought glory and honor within the prescribed contours of the existing world. Achilleus is not having an existential breakdown in the way we do today. He is not searching for himself. He is not in doubt as to who he is. Rather, Achilleus is raging over a breach in the institutional fabric of reality that defines him. His sociological context, from which he derives his honor, has been torn apart. Modern man tries to preemptively strip away the institutional roles that would define him, but pre-modern man accepts and relies on those roles. Modern man may even make fun of the old soldier pulling out his worn medals, or the civil servant in his uniform, or the wife in her kitchen. More than this, modern man sees in these roles trappings that are detrimental to the process of self-actualization and the nature of identity. Man must throw off the robes of honor that trap him in a self that belongs to another. It is better to live without honor and find one’s true self than play someone else’s game, or worse, society’s game. Berger takes this further:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor may now be seen in a much more comprehensive perspective. The social location of honor lies in a world of relatively intact, stable institutions, a world in which individuals can with subjective certainly attach their identities to the institutional roles that society assigns to them. The disintegration of this world as a result of the forces of modernity has not only made honor an increasingly meaningless notion, but has served as the occasion for a redefinition of identity and its intrinsic dignity apart from and often against the institutional roles through which the individual expresses himself in society. The reciprocity between individual and society, between subjective identity and objective identification through roles, now comes to be experienced as a sort of struggle. Institutions cease to be the “home” of the self; instead they become oppressive realities that distort and estrange the self. (p. 93)

If we live within this worldview then the presuppositions that undergird Achilleus’ actions will be foreign to our minds and his rage will seem grossly misplaced. We will, in short, misunderstand Achilleus.


Here is one of my oldest and dearest poems. I used to think it was quite good, now I no longer know. But it keeps coming back to me. If it succeeds at all I believe it is in evoking the mystery of death within life, life becoming memory, and of what I was thinking about at that time in my life.


Along the shiny edge of a scar
There are no nerve endings.
Along the desert road
There is only the desert and the road.

I rose to standing in the still air;
Blue sky, circling hawk,
The smell of pine trees and gasoline,
The dust slowly settling.

Watersheds come like the molting of birds
And snake skins,
Like pulling teeth and peeling scabs.
Sometimes they come slowly
Like the blue ice of a glacier.
Sometimes they come quickly
Like flames leaping to touch a hand.

Later we calculated the distance.
Thirty paces in the air,
Then another ten.
How fast had I been going?
The impact still hides in shadows,
Memories concealed like a hilltop in fog.

But there,
Eighty feet from the half buried stone
I stood,
Traces of a struggle before me,
A vivid recollection without images,
A dream in darkness.

There is no moment
Like the moment you can’t remember,
Like the mind waking from
The anesthetic, alone, with
Only white sheets and stitches.

I leaned over,
Lifted the motorcycle
To its proper position.
Blood coming through my shirt sleeve,
Adrenaline rushing away in waves,
My broken foot
Secretly swelling inside my boot,
Still days from home and hospital.


The severed tails of lizards grow back
And shoots sprout from old roots
And some things never return.

The clouds finally cleared,
Emerald valley pulsing with music and incense,
Trampled grass, the smell of oils,
Burnt shoulders gyrating by the stage,
Honey colored sun reflecting
On drums.

I balanced carefully,
Blue bike handlebars,
Left tennis shoe, aluminum crutch,
Evening light in the trees,
A landscape lush with life,
And the two of us
Pedaling to the campus festival.

How far from here to the desert road,
Now glowing in moonlight,
To the place where it curves right, then left,
Under a sky now filling with stars?
How far back to the hilltop in fog,
Through the shadows of fragility and anguish
And mortality?

Recklessly I danced on one foot
the other turning black, purple, yellow,
Mottled image across tight skin,
The misshapen appendage
Now a symbol of transition,
Suspended above the earth.

Leaves turn in the wind
Like faces turn from suffering,
Like water turning into wine,
Like a young man, turning in the rhythm
Faces the sky’s constant rotation
And a childhood turning into memory
Like dust settling on a desert road.

(June 1998)

Humility and the Homeschooling Father

This post was first published as a Classical Conversations guest article here.

First words

I offer this essay not from a place of success, rather from failure. If a Christian Classical Education is predicated on imitation then do not imitate me. Instead, if what I say be right, then think on what I say and not on what I do.

Three Reasons for Humility

My wife and I homeschool our children. We are also part of two local Classical Conversations campuses, which we find a blessing and a great resource. When our eldest was born over eleven years ago we faced some tough choices. Do we choose for one of us to stay home and one to be the so-called breadwinner, thus reducing our monthly income? Do we take advantage of our local government schools, for which we already pay? Do we homeschool, or private school, or un-school, or something else? After much discussion we decided that my wife would quit her job outside the home and be a full-time homemaker. We also decided we would homeschool. We take each year as an experiment. We do not know what God will bring into our lives from day to day. We have gone through a lot in the past eleven years. It has not been easy. We do a lot of praying. And I must say that when it comes to teaching our children and running the home my wife does most of the heavy lifting. This is what I want to talk about. As a homeschooling father I face the reality that it is my wife who is the star. I like the theory side of things, my wife is in the nuts and bolts of it all. I dream a lot, but my wife makes it happen. And sadly, I pontificate a lot but my wife embodies the logos of teaching better than I ever could. I believe something like this is true for many homeschooling families: One parent, usually the mother, does most of the teaching, the other parent, usually the father, picks up what he can and tries to offer support. I must say, therefore, the most important characteristic of the homeschooling father is humility.

There are at least three reasons (I’m sure there are many more) why humility is important to being a homeschooling father:

  1. Teaching is fundamentally an act of humility.
  2. Responsibility is fundamentally an act of humility.
  3. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church.

Reason One: Teaching is an Act of Humility

If we are to imitate Christ then trying to be a good teacher is not a bad place to start. Teaching is an act of humility for at least four reasons. First, we will always struggle to know just what to teach and how to teach it. Even with a carefully laid out plan we will always be faced with questions of what to included, when to include it, and how to best to teach it. This is the nature of teaching; it is part of what keeps teaching interesting, but it also requires humility; we will struggle, we will fail, and still God will use us. Second, even if we figure out what to teach and how to teach it, we cannot make a student learn. This can be discouraging, but if a student does not want to learn she won’t. Sure, as parents we can force our children to go through the motions and even retain some information, but is that the way any of us want to teach? A teacher only has so much power over a student, if any, and that power is most lacking in the very area a teacher most desires, that is, to get the student to truly learn. Third, even if we could make our students learn, we cannot make any student love and take into her soul what she has learned. If we strip away all our curricula, all our plans, all the worksheets and papers, all the books lists and assignments, we find that teaching and learning are really two sides of a mystery. We teach from love, and we also teach on faith, faith that maybe because of us, and probably in spite of us, our students take what is good and true into their souls. Finally, and most specifically for fathers, our wives are probably better teachers than are we. This is true in my life and I am convinced it is true for many others.

Reason Two: Responsibility is an Act of Humility

We live in an age when many men do not assume their natural responsibility as men. Boys naturally desire to become men, but these days men are often too afraid to become truly men and so they remain boys. But being a man, a father, a husband, and a teacher all require taking and owning one’s natural responsibilities, which requires humility. I see at least five reasons why responsibility requires humility: First, we are responsible for our children and our students, but they are truly unique human beings separate from us and their souls are ultimately in God’s hands. The responsibility of a father is simultaneously a holding tight and a letting go, and one is bound to err in the balance of the two. Second, being responsible and acting responsibly are not the same thing, and one will confuse these two eventually. We must seek to know fully what we are responsible for and act accordingly. This is not easy and we will fail. Third, responsibility requires knowledge, and you just can’t know everything, least of all the future. In some situations to say, “I don’t know” is one of the most responsible things a father can say, but this requires humility. I must pause and say this is a powerful humility. Fourth, responsibility requires imposing obligations and restraining actions, both of which, because of our sin and our lack of knowledge, are eventually bound to fail or even cause harm. True humility will often require a heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” This is the most powerful kind of humility. And fifth, responsibility is a form of leadership and the best leadership is a form of service, and service is an act of humility. If Christ is our king then let us imitate Him. Remember He washed His disciples’ feet. Remember He went to the cross. In our lives, as we embrace the responsibility of being fathers and teachers, there might be times when we ask God if it is possible to “let this cup pass” from us. Remember Christ also asked that question, but He also said, “not as I will, but as You will.”

Reason Three: Husbands are to Love their Wives
as Christ Loves the Church

This brings me to my final reason why humility is important to being a homeschooling father. With apologies to single fathers, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. This is humility itself, and trying to love our wives this way is to court failure at the outset which, ironically and fortunately, brings more humility. I have to reiterate that my wife and I are a team and yet she does most of the teaching in our family, and I trust that is true for most homeschooling fathers. As followers of Christ we husbands are called to love and serve our wives, to give and not to expect, to seek their good and their virtue. If the husband does not take on this task it is all too easy for a homeschooling family to get out of balance. We homeschooling fathers must look to Christ as our example, and if that doesn’t bring about humility then I don’t know what does.


Any good and true education comes with tears. To become truly educated is the result of many moments of repentance. But before repentance comes humility. I have argued that Fathers must have humility, but it is more than that. Fathers must embody humility as well. Students need humility in order to be good students. Thus, homeschooling fathers not only teach their children the topic at hand, whether it be math or science or writing or whatever, but fathers must also and always teach humility by their example. Humility is a foundational quality to becoming wise and virtuous, which is to become truly educated.

I said at the beginning that I write this from failure. I also write these words because I needed to remind myself of the importance of humility. Though I have plenty of reasons to be humble it is all too easy to twist out of them and get prideful and self-absorbed. What I want is to be a great husband and father. And I also want to be a great teacher, but I know that none of that is possible if I refuse to take the logos of humility into my soul and embody it in my life. In other words, I must imitate Christ.

fear and trembling

tell me of the fear
for I know it too
I know the darkness intimately
and the open doors
and the thresholds
and the infinite expanse
though I know only so much

remind me of the trembling
but I know that too
the shaking in my boots
the falling on my face
hoping against hope
wanting, wanting, wanting
I so know that call
for it embraces me

this is where I do theology
I begin with both weeping
and self satisfaction
I end with inheritances
and more weeping

that is how I know
the heart is a place
(could be at dusk or dawn)
where I saw
the branches bending
in the wind
but I could not see the wind

tell me, friend,
of the darkness
at midday
(for I believe that too)
when the graves opened
and the dead walked in Jerusalem
when the earth shook
and the holy of holies opened
to the world

tell me all that again
for here I am
walking in streams
standing on shoulders
crawling in corners
wavering in doorways
wandering back roads
and all I have left
is knowing that maybe I too
saw the sky go dark
and felt the earth move

(April 2009)

little boats & troubled dreams: a meager exploration of mystery and art

This post is a (re)working of another.

Let’s begin here with this video:

Arvo Pärt struggles to put into words what is so natural to him in music. At the end he says, “I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.” It is that searching that points to a kind of depth not found in much artwork. Pärt is one of the greatest living composers. His music is the result of struggle and faith. His music also points to something beyond, something transcendent, something objective yet unknowable. However, this is not a post on Arvo Pärt per se, rather it is a post on mystery.

I am drawn to mystery.

Gerhard Richter
Two Candles 1982 Oil on canvas
55 1/8″ x 55 1/8″ (140 x 140 cm)
Private collection

What is mystery? More than mere confusion or lack of clarity, mystery is the intimation of a reality beyond the physical or psychological. In its ultimate sense, mystery is the nature of the truly transcendent as it either interfaces with our contingent reality, or as we perceive, at some level that may not yet (or ever) be describable, the truly transcendent. In short, it is when and where we encounter the eternal.

I have often wondered what it is about certain artworks that I love so much, and what it is that draws me towards these kinds of art and, in particular, these kinds of films. I believe that the kinds of artworks and the kinds of films one seeks out and enjoys is directly related to why one views such art or watches films in the first place. Consider watching films: for some, watching films has everything to do with lighthearted, end-of-the-day escapism. For others it may be a kind of testosterone drug fix. And for others it might be some kind of romantic battery re-charging or escapism. Of course, for most of us it is a combination of many reasons. But I have to say that over and over I find myself seeking certain kinds of films and certain kinds of film experiences. Much of the time these experiences, at least the ones that stay with me long after the immediate viewing is over, are what I might call transcendent, or sublime. Another way of saying it might be that the more one digs into the realities of life, death, love, and suffering, the more one keeps coming up against mystery. This mystery is not a Gnostic sort of knowledge for only a select few, for only those with the “secret knowledge,” rather the mystery is there for everyone to experience and contemplate; it is fundamentally human.

Some might say this mystery is the experience of getting a kind of semi-translucent glimpse of the hand of God creating everything, including us, moment by moment. Others might say it is the place where the limits of reason and emotion converge at a kind of metaphysical precipice. Or it could be the place where one merely has the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality only to discover rationality is a bigger thing than one previously imagined. And maybe, finally, the goal is about arriving where one started and knowing that place as though for the first time.

What fascinates me is the ability of artforms and, in particular cinema for me, but also poetry, photography, music, etc., to evoke mystery. Some examples might include the painting by Gerhard Richter at the beginning of this post and the photograph below by Minor White. But there really are countless examples. Why is it that certain images can bring about deep, almost indescribable emotions from within my soul?

Minor White
Pacific, Devil’s Slide
California 1947

In my opinion a great example of a film that does this for/to me is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969). There are so many powerful images from that film, and so many moments that produce powerful feelings that I am drawn to re-watching the film repeatedly. This post is not a review of Rublyev; my point is to say that art works can evoke strong feelings of mystery that seem to point to more important aspects of human existence, but do so via a kind of internal mystery, a mystery inherent within art itself. Again, that mysteriousness one finds in certain films is one of the powerful cinematic draws for me.

But what do, or can, we mean by this term mystery?

I am troubled, I must say, at trying to explain the sense of mystery in art. I have come to believe, however, that maybe it arise from the tension between life and death, and the reality that life comes from death. In art we often refer to beauty. But what is beauty and does it have a place anymore in art? As a kind of doorway to an answer, I like this quote from an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky about his, as then yet to be made, film Andrei Rublev:

I am not going to say anything directly about the bond between art and people, this is obvious in general and, I hope, it’s obvious in the screenplay. I would only like to examine the nature of beauty, make the viewer aware that beauty grows from tragedy, misfortune, like from a seed. My film certainly will not be a story about the beautiful and somewhat patriarchal Rus, my wish is to show how it was possible that the bright, astonishing art appeared as a “continuation” of the nightmares of slavery, ignorance, illiteracy. I’d like to find these mutual dependencies, to follow birth of this art and only under those circumstances I’d consider the film a success. (from Nostalghia.com)

Maybe it is only through suffering that true mystery in art appears. I don’t know.

If I could point to an artwork that offers for me one of the best examples of the mystery of art, the feeling of mystery in the receiver of that art work, and also describes the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality or coming into contact with some kind of cosmic mystery, it would be from a tiny section from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, The first time I read this section I was floored. I continue to be floored each time I read it, but I also recognize that my response is a personal one. And so will be yours.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
first published in 1850

I can think of no better way to express why it is I am drawn towards some kinds of films more than others, why it is I love the mystery of art, and why it is I come away from some films with the film still burning in my soul. There is a sensibility in that poem that perfectly describes that feeling of being overcome with awe, fear, and joy all mixed together. This mystery, this feeling, is often referred to as the sublime.

But then I wonder. For I am convinced that the source of mystery is not merely a feeling, even if that feeling is objectively located in the work of art causing the work to function as a kind of talisman of sorts. Mystery must, I am certain, have its roots in God, pointing to, then through, the energies of God towards the essence of God, which is the ultimate mystery. Therefore we have a choice: do we seek mystery as a feeling, attempting to conjure it in our choice of artworks, and using it as a kind of replacement for a more ultimate mystery, or do we seek the ultimate mystery and, therefore, more carefully chose works of art that might point to that mystery, the true mystery?

Historically we have inherited a stream of thought, a modern shift, that has reduced God to nothing and, therefore, reduced the nature of being, of what was once called the true glory of man, to mere narratives of the sublime. The sublime, then, becomes a way of describing the absence of God. Rather than be in awe of true mystery, we rejoice in the ever liminal, psycho-emotional stories of personal and anti-personal contingency. We rejoice in différence and violence, taking them for both something greater than us and something ultimately insignificant. I worry that I would love the sublime only to find that I have been merely playing with mystery and avoiding God. Pointing to that shift, David Bentley Hart says this:

The event of modernity within philosophy (which arrived, at least visibly, in the age of nominalism) consisted in the dissolution of being: the disintegration of that radiant unity wherein the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its variable participation in their gratuity; and the divorce between this thought of being, as the supereminent fullness of all perfection, and the thought of God (who could then no longer be conceived as being and the wellspring of all being, revealing his glory in the depth of splendor in which created things are shaped and sustained). This vision was so thoroughly and quickly forgotten (long before Heidegger would diagnose it, ineptly, as just another mode of the “forgetfulness of being”) that being itself could now be conceived only in absolute opposite terms: as a veil or an absence, thought or un-thought, but in either case impenetrable—the veil that veils even itself, the empty name that adds nothing to the essence of beings, sheer uniform existence. And God’s transcendence, so long as nostalgia preserved philosophy’s attachment to “that hypothesis,” could be understood now only as God’s absence, through perhaps, but only as an alienum or an explanatory cause. Being, no longer resplendent with truth, appearing in and elevating all things, could be figured then only as the sublime. (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 44)

I am convinced Tarkovsky points beyond the sublime to the transcendence of God, and thus the transcendence of being. I am not fully convinced Wordsworth does that consciously, though I think he may do sounitentionally. Richter, I believe, may be merely exploring narratives of the sublime. And yet, I love the artworks of all three. What is one to do?

If we seek mystery, if we seek works of art that take us to a metaphysical precipice, or create the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality, or drop us in the deep-end of the sublime as it were, then it only makes sense that we ought to stake our experiences to the infinite and permanent things lest we be swept away into the prison of false transcendence. Another way of putting this is that we should seek something other than a life of amusements, even so-called serious ecstasies, and prepare ourselves for for both death and the life that can come only by death. I wrote about this previously here, but I would add that as we might seek mystery, let us seek God first, seek to imitate one who is inimitable, and let us know that we are, as yet, only shadows of our future selves. It is there, and only there, that we find the true mystery that does not disappoint.

Finally, there are many artists exploring the boundaries of mystery and transcendence. Below is a short documentary hosted by Björk that looks at several minimalist musicians/composers. What I find most fascinating is to consider how each of these artists may or may not exemplify a search for true mystery. Some, I fear, are only playing with a false mystery for the sake of the merely sublime, while others may go further. And, or course, Arvo Pärt comes last, and that’s the real reason to watch.

the unnameable

Northeast Oregon sunrise, summer 2011

What life is this?
What hope and what death
and what desire?
What of any of it can I know?

It is human nature
to take the unspeakable
and speak of it,
to take the unnameable
and name it.
Reduction is a game we play,
a line drawn,
a list made,
a story told.

We are reductionists.

And what is love?
Is love a reduction
or something other?
And what lives within love,
what event shimmers there?

I have heard many things.

I have heard chaos
is a butterfly,
and war is a success of death.
But you don’t need war
for death to succeed.

What do I know anyway?
I do not know butterflies,
not really,
but I do know death,
I do know that.

I also know love.

And I know this too: When we have love
we have more than knowledge can ever reveal.

So I live by the grace of God
in the place between,
where the earth and heavens meet,
where I can say the words
“I love you”
but I cannot name the event
that is love
for it remains, as always

(April 2009)