"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Little Door

Carriage House in University City, West Philadelphia

Here is the Little Door
Lift up the latch; O lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift . . . "
~ Chesterton

"Strive to enter through
the narrow door:
for many, I tell you,
will try to enter
and will not be able."
~ Luke 13: 22

[L: The Cutest Playhouse
in all of Philadelphia!]

There are numerous symbolic doors in literature: opening, closing, revolving, inviting, forbidding, remaining locked forever. As I read on a poster once, "There are as many doors as there are desires." Here are four of the most meaningful doors that I have come across in my reading:

1. In Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird,
a door representing one's own humanity:

"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in the rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words -- not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

"You can't do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can't find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. . . .

"'Why, though?' my students ask, staring at me intently. 'Why are we supposed to open all these doors? Why are we supposed to tell the truth in our own voice?'

. . . And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home"
(198 - 200).

2. In Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnet "Bluebeard,"
a door representing privacy:

This door you might not open, and you did;
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed…. Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress,
But only what you see…. Look yet again—
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept
Unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room to-night
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I seek another place.

Lamott's words give me courage when my self - editor starts taking over. Her metaphor reminds the writer that keeping a lock on the door does not guarantee safety. Any more than opening it wide insures disaster. In fact, opening up may well put you in less danger, not more. So go ahead and grant yourself the freedom of self - acceptance. However, as Millay warns, just don't go bashing down doors that aren't yours to open. That's not the path to authenticity or humanity.

3. In Franz Kafka's parable, "Before the Law,"
a door representing the Law:

"Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. . . . the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but . . . he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for waiting for days and years."

Nearing the end of his life, the man asks the gatekeeper, "so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” And the gatekeeper answers: “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.” Can it be true? Following the parable, a discussion of its meaning takes place between K and a priest. The priest points out that perhaps the Door Before the Law can never be shut, and he reminds K that when the man "sits down on the stool by the side the door and stays there for the rest of his life, he does it of his own free will."

Of course my sympathy always lies with the Man Before the Law, never with the bossy, small-minded gatekeeper. Yet I can't shake my mixed feelings about the man's predicament. Yes, the Law can be contrary; we all know that. But how can he allow himself to sit so quietly, never growing impatient at the waiting, the impotence, the lack of useful information? Why doesn't his reach exceed his grasp? It should.

4. In E. B. White's essay, "The Door,"
a door representing (in)sanity:

"First they would teach you the prayers and the Psalms, and that would be the right door(the one with the circle) and the long sweet words with the holy sound, and that would be the one to jump at to get where the food was. Then one day you jumped and it didn't give way, so that all you got was the bump on the nose, and the first bewilderment, the first young bewilderment. . . .

"You wouldn't want me, standing here, to tell you, would you, about my friend the poet (deceased) who said, 'My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name'? (It had the circle on it.) And like many poets, although few so beloved, he is gone. It killed him, the jumping. First, of course, there were the preliminary bouts, the convulsions, and the calm and the willingness.

"I remember the door with the picture of the girl on it (only it was spring), her arms outstretched in loveliness, her dress (it was the one with the circle on it) uncaught, beginning the slow, clear, blinding cascade-and I guess we would all like to try that door again, for it seemed like the way and for a while it was the way, the door would open and you would go through winged and exalted (like any rat) and the food would be there, the way the Professor had it arranged, everything O.K., and you had chosen the right door for the world was young. The time they changed that door on me, my nose bled for a hundred hours--how do you like that, Madam? Or would you prefer to show me further through this so strange house, or you could take my name and send it to me, for although my heart has followed all my days something I cannot name, I am tired of the jumping and I do not know which way to go, Madam, and I am not even sure that I am not tired beyond the endurance of man (rat, if you will) and have taken leave of sanity. What are you following these days, old friend, after your recovery from the last bump? What is the name, or is it something you cannot name?"

If you have a moment, to read the entire essay, you'll find an eerily broken-hearted description of the disjunction between perception and reality. I have kept it in my folder of favorites for many years, something to reread periodically as I follow my own heart's quest for something I cannot name. As radio / telvision personality Clifton Fadiman summed it up, "E. B. White [better known as the author of Charlotte's Web] never again wrote anything like 'The Door.' Nobody has done so."

To conclude, I'll tag on a couple of German vocabulary words whose connection you will appreciate: the first, weltschmerz, particularly in relation to E. B. White's essay of pain and distortion; the second, torschlusspanik, to Kafka's Man Before the Law whose doomed life illustrates the very concept:

weltschmerz (VELT-shmerts) noun meaning world-pain or world weariness; pessimism, apathy, or sadness felt at the difference between physical reality and the ideal state.

torschlusspanik (TOR - schluss - panic) noun describing the door-shutting panic experienced at the thought that a door between oneself and life's opportunities is closing forever.

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How to Keep on Hoping

"Girl With Red Balloon: There is Always Hope"
By contemporary British graffiti artist, Banksy.

" . . . in a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart."
~Louise Bogan, 1897 - 1970
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1945-46

When my heart is aching for the world's lost heart, I turn to novels, essays, and poetry. If you are feeling sick at heart, one writer you can count on to repair some of the damage is Barbara Kingsolver. Never shamefaced, Kingsolver is a consistent advocate of common sense and social justice. Embedded within the narrative of her novel, Animal Dreams, are a number of letters written to the main character, Codi Noline, from her sister Hallie who has involved herself with life - risking work in Nicaragua. Codi, conflicted and searching for meaning in her life back home, wonders how it is that her sister is "not afraid of loving and losing," how she retains her composure and determination, always moving forward with certainty. Hallie writes back:

"What keeps you going isn't some fine destination but just the road you're on, and the fact that you know how to drive. You keep your eyes open, you see this damned-to-hell world you got born into, and you ask yourself, 'What life can I live that will let me breathe in and out and love somebody or something and not run off screaming into the woods?' . . .the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That's about it. Right now I'm living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides" (Animal Dreams, 224, 299).

Hallie's metaphor of being on the road and knowing how to drive reminds me of the E. L. Doctorow passage that Anne Lamott quotes in Bird by Bird: " 'writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you are going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you" (Bird by Bird, 18). Life can work that way too.

Even more compelling than the driving metaphor is Hallie's description of running down the hallway of hope, touching the walls on both sides. I can almost remember that sensation from childhood, the rush that came from stretching my arms out to touch both sides of a narrow corridor at the same time. Likewise, I recall the intoxicating sensation of running outside, trailing my fingers along the borders on either side of an overgrown path or between two rows of tall vegetables in the garden. The current summer movie, The Last Airbender includes a similar scene, filmed from overhead so that the audience can see Aang, the little Child Avatar running between two hedgerows, arms outstretched, fingertips spread wide.

Hallie's simple hope for the world -- elementary kindness -- resembles the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: "Please -- a little less love, and a little more common decency" (from the Prologue of his novel Slapstick). I guess calling it common decency is just an ironic play on words, since experience teaches us that it is one of the most uncommon sentiments available, despite being so necessary to peace and order. All we have to do is glance around -- international strife, national crisis, local incivility, anywhere at all -- to see how right Matthew Arnold was when he wrote in 1864 that "the general practice of the world" reposes not on common decency or common sense but on very inadequate ideas:

"The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into its vortex . . . But it is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service; and it is only by the greatest sincerity in pursuing his own course, and by at last convincing even the practical man of his sincerity, that he can escape misunderstandings which perpetually threaten him" (Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time").

It's helpful to remind ourselves that the world often seems crazy and inadequate because -- guess what? -- it is crazy and inadequate at certain times, in certain places. Speaking of inadequate ideas, too bad Arnold has to sound so classist and masculine, but what can we do at this point, aside from overlooking his gender exclusivity: "mankind," "himself," and so on? Perhaps he knew not what he did. It does seem that he's trying to say the same thing as Louise Bogan (above) about giving the world back its lost heart, about upgrading to "adequate," about leaving everything that we touch somehow better than the way we found it. We have to keep trying to do that, to stay collected and sincere, to stay within that small circle of seeing things as they are if at all possible, to keep running down the hallway touching the walls on both sides.

So how to keep hoping? How to figure out what to hope for? How to keep from selling out to the general churlishness?

Send answers soon!

Art Appreciation Sketch: Perspective Down the Hallway

Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading