The Tyranny of Nothing

The Great Eye
The Eye of Sauron

Many people suffer from chronological snobbery; they believe that because today is part of the 21st century and sixty years ago was part of the 20th century, today must be better and more enlightened than sixty years ago by the very fact of being today and not sixty years ago. What people believed and thought in the past is of no consequence to us today, aside from providing us with a whipping boy which will enable us to pat ourselves on the back in self-congratulations that we are better than our ancestors. The problem is that the past, more often than not, proves itself to be right. Miley Cyrus demonstrated this rule, again, when she declared in an interview last week that she considers herself to be “genderless” and “ageless.” She also said that, “I’m just a spirit soul, not divided by human being, even animals…There’s no me and them and there’s no us and you. I just want to be nothing.”

It was G.K. Chesterton who said that there are not so many new ideas as there are old mistakes, and this is the principle that Cyrus demonstrated in spades. Contrary to what some might think, these ideas that Cyrus expressed are not new or daring or provocative but are, instead, quite old and tried. The idea that the real “me” is some non-corporal spirit, a ghost in the machine of the body goes back to the sixteenth century where it was postulated by the French philosopher, Renee Descartes. Descartes arrived at this dualism (the idea that body and soul are two completely separate things) from his conclusion, “I think, therefore, I am.” Descartes came to this conclusion because of all the things in the world, he believed that the only thing that he could be utterly sure existed was himself and he could be sure of this fact because he could think. Since thinking was proof of existence, Descartes held that there was a deep divide between body and soul, contra Aristotelians, Thomists and Aristotelian-Thomists, who held to what is termed hylomorphism, the idea that the human person is not just a body and not just a soul but a body with a soul. As for Cyrus’s claim that “there’s no me and them and there’s no us and you,” such an idea comes from the ancient Greeks, specifically the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, who held that everything in reality is made from the mixing of an infinite number of primary elements. In this way, a blade of grass, a cup of water, a tiger-lily, a pickup truck, an octopus, and me at the most fundamental level are made of the same things; only the ratios are different. There also seems to be a whiff of Buddhism to this expressed desire from Cyrus, reminiscent of their desire for Nirvana, where everyone will lose their personal identity and be one.

If Cyrus were an actual pre-Socratic philosopher or an actual Buddhist, her expressions, while still wrong, might not be as bad. Given that she is neither, her words take on not just a silliness but a darkness that is best incapsulated in the words, “I want to be nothing.” There is a deep and sinister quality to a person wishing that they would cease to exist. If life is a good thing–and all sane people would have to agree that it is because, without it, how can we achieve the Good which all the great philosophers spoke–what can the wish for nothing, oblivion be? It is not a wish for death, for her spirit identity to be free from its material confines since Cyrus specifically claims that she wants to be nothing. That is the true terror of her words: Miley Cyrus, full of smiles and bubbliness, wants to be non-existent. Her words are a truer condemnation of contemporary culture than any analysis. How uneducated, how hollowed, how bored must a person become that non-existence seems to be an actually desirable end? C.S. Lewis once said that we laugh at honor and then are surprised to find traitors in our midst. Lewis’s principle applies here as well: we laughed at beauty, at truth, at home and family, at romance and adventure, at glory and honor, at God and religion. We were told, and continue to be told, that if we laugh hard enough, these ideas will go away and leave us to finally be completely unrestrained and completely free. And yet, almost sixty years after laughter became the sophisticated thing to do, we are bored; bored to the extent that now people actively wish that they would stop existing to be relieved of their boredom.  It turns out that hunting beauty, truth, and imagination from the world leaves the world a barren place that leaves us exposed to every element and storm.

That is the reason for Cyrus’s boredom and the boredom of our culture as a whole. But there is a result from this radical ennui and that is chaos. That might seem like a leap but, as Aristotle pointed out, small errors in the beginning lead to great errors in the future. If Miley Cyrus says that her identity is contained in the words “ageless” and “genderless” then this same conclusion must be a legitimate choice for others. So, already then, this is not a feeling that is contained to Cyrus alone, nor can it be. But what follows from this feeling of being ageless and genderless? For one thing, this feeling forces a serious person to ask: What am I? As humans, we exist in time; time is of such a fundamental part of our existence that we cannot conceive of a state of existence without time. If we are “ageless” though, or at least claim to perceive ourselves as ageless, time can have no meaning for us and one of the primary anchors that keeps us secured to reality is untethered. It is important to realize that ageless is not the same as immortal. Immortal simple means that one does not age, even though one is still passing through time; ageless, on the other hand, implies that one is outside of time itself, having no sense of or reference to past, present or future. But, since we cannot actually conceive of a state like this, what will making that claim mean for us? The same applies with the concept of genderlessness. If I am not a man or a woman–a very hard conclusion to come to, barring illness, since the fact of maleness or femaleness is rooted deep within us physically and metaphysically– and if I am not even any of the countless new “genders” that are being created and discarded then again, the question of what I am comes round to face us. The only logic answer is that I am nothing but being genderless and ageless, at least in the minds of Cyrus and others like her, cannot be the two methods by which nothingness is achieved since, by her own admittance, Cyrus sees herself as already being ageless and genderless and yet she still craves to be nothing. The answer to the question then, it seems, is that an individual thing–not a person anymore–must create its own essence exactly as Sartre said.

This leads to own shop of horrors. If I must create myself then I can recreate myself whenever I wish. In fact, I must recreate myself as my feelings dictate because my feelings are bound to change (assuming, of course, that I still have human feelings since I, in creating and recreating myself, can no longer be human). From that, comes a host of consequences. For one thing, the moral law or Tao, as C.S. Lewis termed it, that stodgy fossil of the past that refuses to limp quietly into the sunset, despite the numerous beatings that it has taken and continues to take, becomes nonexistent. Philosophers ranging from Aristotle and Aquinas to Plato and Lewis, have all argued that the moral law, or Tao, is written on the heart of every person. It is what we can’t not know, as J. Budziskwi, has described it. But, if the Tao is written on the human heart, can it still be there if one decides, through the process of “recreating” himself, that he is no longer human? Some will react to this with cheers and champagne; the moral, natural law is finally dead and there will be freedom! But, if there is no Tao, no standard, than anything possible. In his time, Lewis said gave the example that if there was no universal, moral and natural law, then there was no way to disparage Nazism for its evil since, if there was no standard, there could be no deviation from the standard and, as such, there could be no evil. The same is true today: if there is no standard of morality, then how can there be such a thing as racism or hatred in general? Your calling my views or my behavior hateful, is merely your exercising power over me because you are stronger than I. That is a fine arrangement for you, provided that the tables are not turned and I become the stronger party able to enforce my ideas upon you. Another result,  is that if there are no persons, there can be no relationships. A relationship exists between persons because it is assumed that the persons will be able to discover each other, which means that there is a someone to discover. But, in the process of recreation, the person cannot be discovered since there is no person to begin with and because the thing that you thought you knew at the beginning of the week might have completely changed by the end of the week. Friendship is impossible, as are any of the four loves.

In a world of this sort, where relationships are impossible, and so are friends and families, where there is no chaos because there is no law because there is no Tao, only a Leviathan, as imagined by Thomas Hobbes will be able to keep order. Ironically, the very false freedom that comes from the abolition of the Tao which people chase, leads to the very tyranny which they believe the Tao will impose upon them. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Sauron the Enemy says that there is no life in the Void…only death. There can be no life in nothingness either.



When Billie Joe McAllister Jumped Off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Note: Due to some malignant configuration of the stars, I have been suffering computer trouble for the last month which has meant that this little piece, celebrating (if that’s the right word) the 50th anniversary of Billie Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge is three weeks late. Hopefully, getting this post up will finally mean that my luck with my laptop is about to change. 


Bobbie GentryThere is something in the human heart that loves mystery. Oddities and coincidences, unsolved murders and disappearances, sightings of sea monsters, UFOs and Elvis, are always guaranteed things. This has been true from the beginning: the first sighting of a UFO took place in ancient Egypt and the legend of Atlantis was started by the Greek philosopher, Plato. So in the summer of 1967, it’s not surprising that here in the United States, the hot topic of conversation was not the acceleration of the Vietnam War or the threat of the long, hot summer, but what Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

Fifty years later, people are still wondering and also puzzling over the fact why he then committed suicide. The amazing thing about all this speculation is that Billie Joe–at least the one remembered–never existed except in a song entitled, “Ode to Billie Joe” which was written and performed by a relatively unknown singer named Bobbie Gentry.

When Gentry recorded “Ode” on July 10, 1967, her solo debut, the twenty-three year old Mississippi native (born Roberta Lee Streeter) had been playing in California clubs and Vegas shows and had recorded two duets with Jody Reynolds. Stars like Bob Hope and Hoagy Carmichael had seen her and encouraged her but a break had not yet come. Her luck changed with “Ode to Billie Joe” which captured something dark and exquisite from the start:

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day,

I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was balin’ hay

And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat

And Mama hollered out the back door y’all remember to wipe your feet

Then she said I got some news this mornin’, from Choctow Ridge,

Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

From the substance of the first five lines and from the general tempo, a suicide at the end of the first stanza is the last thing that someone would expect. The beginning of the song almost hypnotically puts you into a false sense of security. The choice of words–“choppin'” and “y’all”–helps, by setting you firmly in the deep South, or at least, what people think of as the deep South. By grounding the song in that particular place, the heat and languidity of the South–the sleepiness of the Delata–is made present. Only gentry’s guitar–ominous in its relentless and, in itself, innocuous tune–and her own husky, slightly graveled voice lets it be known that something is not quite right.

At the dinner table, the nameless narrator’s family starts discussing Billie Joe’s death. The narrator’s brother, in particular, finds it hard to believe:

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe

Put a frog down my back at the carroll County picture show

And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?

I’ll have another piece of apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right

I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctow Ridge

And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

With the rising of the story, the other instrument pieces–two violins and four cellos–make themselves known. The cellos’s three note descent at the end of the fourth line adds a good amount of foreboding, an anticipation of sorts before the reveal of the last two lines, something that is repeated in every other stanza as well. The narrator’s mother has noticed something else:

And mama said to me, child, what’s happened to your appetite?

I’ve been cooking all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite

That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today

Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way

He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctow Ridge

And she and Billie Joe was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

And there is one of the greatest mysteries in song lyrics–what did she and Billie Joe throw off the bridge? The song never explained. The unanswered question didn’t stop “Ode to Billie Joe” from becoming an unexpected by dramatic hit. In August of 1967 “Ode” took the #1 spot on the music billboard, ousting the Beatles’s “All You Need is Love” and stayed there for three weeks (being the longest #1 of 1967, clocking in at four minutes thirty-four seconds). Today, “Ode to Billie Joe” still is ranked #418 on Rolling Stone’s list of the five hundred greatest songs of all time. One of the things that makes “Ode” timeless is that it is lightening in a bottle. The lyrics are Southern and set up the scene but are not so regional that the listener is left scratching his head over their meaning. The minimalism of the music helps in this regard too–Gentry’s guitar and the six strings are all that there is. When arranger, Jimmie Haskell, asked producer, Kelly Gordon, what instruments to put into the song, Gordon told him to only put in the minimum since, “No one will ever hear it anyway,” the thinking that had “Ode” put on the B-side of the original record, where the lesser song was put. Compare “Ode” to “Mississippi Delta” the A-side song; guitar, some bass and drums and even a harmonic make the song very busy while words such as “apple pan dowdy,” “scuppernons,” and “friderliss-farce-nickery-john-querry-quan” are so regional as to leave the listener in the dark. “Ode’s” lightening in a bottle status is also shown by the failure of any other singer to come close to re-creating what Gentry made in the summer of ’67. Not that they haven’t tried–Sheryl Crowe, Sinead, Nancy Wilson, Joe Tex, Tammy Wynette–have all recorded their own versions of “Ode” and none of come close to the original; without Gentry and her Southern, deep gravel voive and her earnest, even tempo singing, the song lost a lot of its power. Funnily enough, though, even Gentry couldn’t catch the lightening twice; when she song the song live with Ray Charles, the the slow, even tempo and the minimalist  instruments were replaced with a jazz beat for Charles’s piano. It was a version that definitely felt like a race The ode demanded that Bobbie Gentry sing it, but it also demanded that Gentry sing it like she had in 1967. The song was the perfect combination of voice, tempo, and music.

But what makes “Ode to Billie Joe” so timeless? It goes deeper than the combination. Like Bing’s “White Christmas,” “Ode” taps into a human emotion, in this case, curiosity and love of the unknown Throughout its five stanzas, the song actually incorporates several different mysteries. The first, of course, is what the narrator and Billie Joe threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. A lot of theories have been proposed–a baby, an engagement ring, a doll, a draft card. No solid answer has come, though. The only source for such a solid answer would be Bobbie Gentry herself but, it seems, she is just as mystified as the rest of us. At one point, she said that it wasn’t important what was thrown off the bridge; on a flight to Europe, she said that a baby was the only possible answer; still later, she confessed that she wasn’t sure, finding herself in the same position as Raymond Chandler when he was asked who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. The reason why Billie Joe jumped seems tied to what was thrown into the river before but, again, without knowing the first, only speculation can give answer to the second. Speculation, in fact, has abounded, with with whole websites springing up to answer the mystery. Everyone from Papa to Brother Taylor have been named as the culprits, as well as racism (on the premise that either Billie Joe or the narrator was black) and “homophobia” (based on the idea that either Billie Joe was a girl [even though Billie Joe is referred to as “he” several times in the song] or that he was a he but was actually attracted to men (which was the direction taken by Max Baer, Jr.’s very predictable 1976 move, Ode to Billie Joe). Everyone has their own theory but, when the composer herself says that there really no answer, what is left but “conspiracy mode” where everything is up for grabs? The very identity of the narrator, nameless and faceless throughout the entire ode, weaves itself into both of these mysteries, enhancing both and making itself its own mystery as well. It didn’t have to be that way. Contrary to what some say, Gentry did originally have a different opening stanza:

People don’t see Sally Jane in town anymore

There’s a lot o’ speculatin’, she’s not actin’ like she did before

Some say she knows more than she’s willin’ to tell

But she stays quiet and a few think that it’s just as well

No one really knows what went on up on Chowctow Ridge

The day that Billy Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

It’s certainly not bad but so much of the mystery is inadvertently revealed that a lot of the power is seeped away.

The South’s natural mysticism adds icing to the cake. The South is more romantic, Gothic and mysterious than, say, Mid-West Kansas. The South has voodoo queens, Scottian chivalry, moons over bayous, and the distinct feeling that it was, in a different time, an almost alien place. The tempo and music, again, infuse “Ode” with that natural, Southern mystique and place it inside that tradition of the “mysterious South.”

And then, of course, there’s the whole mystery of Bobbie Gentry herself. After the success of “Ode to Billie Joe” Gentry went on to record a number of records, she sang eighteen duets with Glen Campbell, appeared on the Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash’s show and even had her own show on television. And then, in 1979, she disappeared–no more songs, no television appearances, no interviews. Although she has apparently been sighted frequently around Los Angeles, no beside a handful of select people, knows where she lives. The situation is perfect, almost as if Judge Crater had written 95% of a brilliant mystery novel before his disappearance.

All of these mysteries tie into, perhaps, the greatest allure of the song; “Ode to Billie Joe” is a living fossil, causing the same reaction in many people they they would receive in seeing a T-Rex lumber across the road. All the elements that make it timeless are practically non-existent in music today. The tempo and minimalist music have given away to frenzied beats, electronic noise, chords and creaming. In place of a girl, sitting on a stool and singing, our singers now have to be acrobats. In place of an eerie and engaging story, we have emotions dealing with break-ups, despair, cynicism, and drugs. If Bing and Doris Day have no place in our society today because of their optimism, innocence and deep felt emotions (as compared to angst) Gentry has no place with her mystery and darkness:

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billie Joe

And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo

There was a virus going ’round; papa caught it and he died last spring

And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything

And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctow Ridge

And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

We don’t write songs like that anymore. maybe because, in large part, we don’t believe in mystery anymore, don’t believe that unforeseen and tragic events can strike us from out of a blue sky. maybe because all of our music now is uniform so a song that comes from Mississippi, and not just written by someone originally from Mississippi, can’t find a place by the fire anymore. All the more reason why we should remember when Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

The New Tabula Rasa

lee's statue

It is almost impossible, today, to become lost when we leave the comfort of our homes. Whereas, in the past, traveling to a new location involved, at least, the very real possibility of losing one’s way, now, with the advent of the smartphone, every driver now has the means of triangulating his position. Save for the absence of a signal for the phone, the modern man can never become lost. After purchasing my first car while I lived in Virginia, I had many golden opportunities for burning metaphorical incense to the altar of Steve Jobs in thanksgiving for his marvelous invention. With it, I managed to navigate myself and others across Virginia, through the twists and tumbles of DC and even took a fourteen hundred mile roundtrip between Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri.

But, in another sense, it is much easier for a resident of the 21st century to become lost than it was in the past. While geography and roads may no longer pose a challenge to the modern traveler, time and thought have so twisted many modern peoples’ thinking that, in a very true sense, our culture and our generation may be said to be lost. One of the anchors to keep men from becoming lost in the seas of time is History. Rather than being just a list of names, places, dates, and events–a chronological dictionary of entries–History is much more integral to us and our lives, whether it is recognized as such or not. We like to ourselves as the beginning of a glorious future when, really, we are the end of a long lines of people, decisions, events, ideas, beliefs, and actions that extends to the very beginning of history itself. History, thus, is vital for that crucial, but often forgotten faculty–memory.

The changing or the eradication of History, rather than a benevolent or, at worst, inconsequential act, only noticed and complained of by dusty professors in their crumbling towers, is something far more serious as it is a declaration of war against the past itself. Edmund Burke gave more than a hint as to why this was so when he gave his description of society. “Society” is a word which is used less and less frequently, perhaps because of the new and correct sensibilities that have come into fashion. Society, as a concept, implies a union of different people in pursuit of a common goal, or end, or good. It implies that all who are part of the society all have a stake in the success of the society. But today, with the dichotomy between thinking of each individual as an atomistic individual, with the power to create his own reality and the equally fashionable idea that every individual must be catalogued as part of some group, “society”, as a word and concept, cannot hold as much force. After all, if we are all, unequivocally, either aimless atoms or merely cells in some particular group, how can there be a common goal? Whenever the word is used, however, what is usually meant is the living as they stand today. Society is composed only of those who walk upon the earth. Contrary to this line of thinking, Burke stated that society is not composed only of the living in the present but also includes the dead of the past and the unborn of the future. What connects all three parts of society together is a shared culture and this shared culture can only be in the present and handed to the future through memory. That is the glue which holds the three parts together because it is through memory that the collective experience of a family, a city, a country, a people–their history and story–is kept alive,

The key word, besides memory, is “story.” People require a narrative, a structure by which they can make sense of the world. Of course, there must be a true narrative among all the different possible ones for, if there were not, relativism and all its contributions would rule the day yet again. But that is not the main point which I would like to bring up at the moment; the important truth at present is that people require a story by which the history which their memory informs them, makes sense. This is true even if the narrative is wrong. Whitaker Chambers, in his autobiography, Confessions, confessed that he believed that the Communists would win the Cold War for the sole reason that they not only had something to die for but also had something to live for. This “something” was the world wide Communist revolution followed by the promised and inevitable (in the words of Marx) Communist utopia. In other words, it was adherence to their story that made the Communists such a formidable enemy. This is why history is vital for, if it is changed, the story will be changed, as will memory, and, if these elements are changed, will not the people be changed too?

That, through a very roundabout way, brings me to the decision of the New Orleans city council to remove four monuments erected in the past to honor the old Confederacy which, in the Twenty-first century, has become a much greater bug-bear than it was in the actual Civil War. During the war, the Confederate battle flag was feared because it marked the position of Lee, or Jackson, or Stuart and yet, Union men still went out to face it and them. Today, rather than herald the presence of superb generals who have it in their power to change the course of history, the old flag is now regarded as so potent that it, by itself, will warp anyone who comes too near to it, or cause people to fly into apoplectic spasms  which is quite a feat for a flag that was used for four years by a country that has been gone for the last hundred fifty years. The less real–in a sense–the Confederacy becomes, the more power people give to its battle flag. The four monuments in New Orleans in questions are of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the Liberty Monument. Mayor Mitch Landrieu attempted to have his cake and eat it too when the construction men, flanked by snipers for their protection, began to take down the monuments; he declared that there was nothing political about the removals while, at the same time, declaring that it was necessary so as to show the world that New Orleans had moved from its racist past. No one, apparently, thought to ask how, if the four monuments had allowed the Confederacy to keep a grasp of New Orleans, how it had ever become a “chocolate city,” in the words of former Mayor Ray Nagin.

The mayor would have been more correct if he had said that the statues remaining where they were was not political. The statue of Lee was erected in 1884, the work of fourteen years fundraising and negotiating on the part of the Robert E. Lee Monument Foundation, which formed a month after Lee’s death in 1870 to preserve his memory. The statues of Davis and Beauregard were erected to honor these men because both died in New Orleans; Davis in 1889 and Beauregard in 1893. The most political monument of the four is the Liberty Monument , erected in 1891, to commemorate the Battle of Liberty Place which occurred between the desegregated city police department and the state militia and the Crescent City White League. Although the fight had racial components (the desegregated police force being hated by the League) it was caused, primarily, by the contested gubernatorial race of 1872. It is true that in 1932 an inscription was added to the monument that possessed overt racism:

[Democrats] McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

But what is not stated is that numerous changes have already been made to the Liberty Monument. In 1974, a marker was added to the Monument by the city government which acknowledged the events of the past while giving the contemporary city’s disapproval of those events; in 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed so that the Monument now read,

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place…A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

Not only that but also in 1993, the Monument was moved from its prominence on Canal Street to the river end of Iberville Street where it was placed between a parking garage and a floodwall. This seems to tear a hole in Mayor Landrieu’s claim that the Monument was glorifying the Confederacy. Rather than be apolitical, the decision to remove the statues seems to have been decided by nothing other than politics.

By making this political decision, New Orleans has decided not merely to remove some pieces of stone; rather, it has opted to change the story of its past and, thus, to obliterate it. This dire-sounding but unescapable fact follows logically from what was proposed regarding history, memory, society and story. By removing the four statues, the city is attempting to change its history and story; by erasing the monuments from the city’s landscape, New Orleans has declared war on its own memory and, to an extant, the memory of the whole country. Some might protest by arguing that history is still preserved in museums; anyone can enter museums and immerse himself in the history and stories therein. But public landmarks are a very potent memorial to history as they declare some person or event public–one does not have to squirrel oneself away in a museum in order to remember the story since society keeps the story open. Imagine if Monticello or Mount Rushmore were enclosed in a building so that only those who entered would be able to see them. Ask yourself, which is more conscious in the public memory: Mount Rushmore or Charlie McCarthy in the Smithsonian? The memory is destroyed because, as the old adage says, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Without the memories and the history attached to them in the public mind, the public mind will, naturally, forget about them. This might seem ridiculous; who, after all, would ever forget the Civil War and its causes? But, it is true that without vigilance, memory fails. In the seven years that I took violin lessons, I memorized fifty pieces. Today, I only remember one or two completely, with a few scattered bars from various other pieces tossed in. I did not practice and so the music left my memory. This assurance invites another question: Who is supposed to remember? Historians and experts may always remember but, to be healthy, a society cannot just rely on these guardians, as indispensable as they are. A society must remember itself through all its members.

Another question is raised: Can a society really survive without its history? On the practical side of the question, there is the observation of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If knowledge of the Civil War is lost, for example, this is not to say that we will find ourselves thrust into the same situation that we were in the 1850s and 1860s. But we definitely will forget the rhythms which brought us to the Civil War; as Mark Twain observed, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.” What Twain meant was that human nature, being constant, causes history to fall into broad, repeatable patterns–the circumstances and accidentals may differ–and often will–but the substance is eerily similar. If we d not remember the accidentals, though, will we remember the substance? Will we recognize the familiar ebb and flow f history in order to have it as the lamp of experience?

There is a deeper issue as well. If history can be erased and changed, can a people, a society, have a solid identity? Much as how the past helps to form a man, the past does the same on societies and nations. This does not just include the good but the bad as well. And if history cannot help to form people, who will? A people needs an identity; nations require an identity; and nature abhors a vacuum. If history is thwarted from being a teacher, something else will take its place. More likely than not, what will take its place will be the leviathan of the state. George Orwell, in 1984, painted a picture of this very scenario. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth which is charged with altering history so that Big Brother and the Party will never be wrong. When the chocolate ration is reduced from thirty grams to twenty grams, the story is rewritten so that the party had always promised an increase of the chocolate ration to twenty grams. The people, the society, is nothing but wet clay in the hands of the Party. Some will scoff but when Thomas Jefferson–a pivotal member of the Founders–is denounced at his own university, a scenario such as Orwell painted does not seem so far fetched.

T.S. Eliot described history as a pattern of timeless moments. In trying to control those timeless moments, men, confined to time, are trying to become masters of the timeless and, thus, gods. The problem is that man is not a god. As unpleasant as it may be, as it will include all the warts, history must be allowed to do what it does so that men will be free to learn from it and to be men.


The Banning of Beauty



                         Perhaps, in the future, historians will ponder why the later 20th and the 21st century felt compelled to make everything of national importance. Completely made up “holidays”—such as National Bosses’ Day and National Mustard Day—will be fodder for many future doctoral dissertations and historical debates. It may even be wondered why some of these “holidays” spilled out from their twenty-four hour bed and infected an entire month, such as what has happened now with the month of April being consigned to “National Poetry Month.”


                Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry per se; poetry is a very beautiful art form when it is done correctly. The irony, though, is that now that “National Poetry Month” is an official purpose for April, the quality of poems and the poets who pen them have declined compared to when poetry was not seen as having to be given a month in which to be commemorated but was a universal art form that was appropriate and heralded throughout the year. This thought was recently placed in my head when I stumbled across a piece by Diana Whitney on the website Miss Whitney listed five women poets that, according to her, should be read because their work will inspire “the resistance.” The common theme running through these five poets is the unapologetic dedication to contemporary, left-wing politics. Evie Shockley’s poetry addresses race, gender, “stands up” for “gay marriage” and Black Lives Matter, and “exposes Thomas Jefferson’s racism,” while JP Howard has declared that her identities as a black woman, a lesbian, a “wife” and a mother, inform and inspire her poetry, which she has read in front of one of President Trump’s tower during “a recent vigil.” Even when there may not be a particular, political message in the poetry or book, the climate of the poetry is still definitely in the realm of the political. Sharon Olds, who is so well secluded from the general public’s gaze that she won a Pulitzer Prize, pens poetry that, “[t]hough not explicitly political…refuses to play by patriarchal rules” since her new collection, Odes, “celebrate[s] the clitoris and hymen praise[s] stretch marks and withered cleavage.”


                It is very true that poetry can be quite political. James Ryder Randall, for example, penned his poem, “Maryland! My Maryland!” after he learned that the Union Army had entered that state in order to keep it from linking hands with the growing Confederate States. No sane man could accuse Randall of being unpolitical as every stanza screams against the perceived injustice committed against his home state:


The despot’s heel is on thy shore,




His torch is at thy temple door,




Avenge the patriotic gore


That flecked the streets of Baltimore,


And be the battle queen of yore,


Maryland! My Maryland!






Hark to an exiled son’s appeal,




My mother State! to thee I kneel,




For life and death, for woe and weal,


Thy peerless chivalry reveal,


And gird thy beauteous limbs with steel,


Maryland! My Maryland!




Thou wilt not cower in the dust,




Thy beaming sword shall never rust,




Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,


Remember Howard’s warlike thrust, –


And all thy slumberers with the just,


Maryland! My Maryland!




Not only was Randall’s poem political but it was also powerfully contemporary for 1861; Randall was not reaching out for universals at first glance but was speaking in the context of a very specific event. But, it cannot be denied that though the motivation and the event which birthed the poem were specific, many of the themes woven throughout the poem were completely universal. There is the love of homeland, which moved Randall to write his poem in the first place; there is the continuation of history and tradition, seen in the reference to Charles Carroll and John Eager Howard, both Revolutionary patriots; and then, there is the certainty that Maryland is the defender of goodness and truth, since she is seen as having “peerless chivalry” and her limbs are to be bound with steel and her sword—the weapon of the knight—will never rust. Randall’s poem is actual poetry then, because it was beautiful, as it spoke of beautiful things.


                Beauty is a concept that can be tricky to pin down. We are often are—or at least were—assailed with the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but like with subjectivism in general, it cannot stand on its own two feet. One person may look at a golden sunset after a thunderstorm in the middle of summer and see beauty; another man may look at a pile of garbage or a rotting corpse and see beauty. According to the well worn saying, both objects of admiration, the sunset and the garbage or the corpse, are equally beautiful because they find their worth thrust upon them by their gazers. But it should not take much to see that every real person should and would choose the sunset over the garbage, just as we would expect a person to accept a gold brick in payment instead of a mud brick. But the question then, still remains: What is beauty? The philosopher, Roger Scruton, is correct when he says that beauty is a sense of the sacred and of the sublime. This is more correct than even Sir Roger may be aware of since beauty must tie in somehow with the sacred since it is one of the three transcendentals that, ultimately, lead to God. Peter Kreeft, another of the few true giants of our time, following in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis, has said that the three transcendentals are Truth, Goodness and Beauty  with each one being related to an aspect of humanity. Truth, which is the revelation or the showing of Being (What Really Is), is related to the mind and in allowing the truth inside, the mind can see what truly is; Goodness relates to the will and Beauty to the heart. Not only are the three transcendentals related to different aspects of a person but they are also intimately linked with one another. Truth is true because it conforms to reality; Goodness is good because it is true; Beauty is beautiful because it is good. This leads to an interesting detail; if Truth is universal (which it must be or else it is not truth) then Beauty, being so intimately related to Truth, must also be universal. Beauty must be able to cut across time and space and present itself to be seen by every man who has and ever will live. O course, the different paths taken by history in the different parts of the world, as well as the different languages and cultures that dot the world and its past, mean that there have been different expressions of Beauty over time. The poetry of the Orient and the Occident is one obvious example, but even in Europe, poetry differed between ages. But does not follow from this that there are no universals at all. Although the expressions were different, they show each culture approaching the sacred. To take honor as an example: both the medieval knight and the samurai believed in honor but each had a different way of expressing their honor. The knight was to protect the weak and defenseless while the samurai was to ritually kill himself to regain his honor in case of defeat or dishonor.

      Poetry, as one of the arts, has, as its goal, the expression of Beauty. Its end is to give expression to those universal truths that tie humanity together and to allow people to encounter the sacred. Of course, authentic love is one of those universal truths of which the poets have sung the most. Even a poet of lesser quality can be inspired to compose a masterpiece when love overtakes his heart. The Cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, is not one of the brightest names in the book of poets but his “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” is a tender expression both of the love he possesses for his Lucasta and the love he has for higher things:





TELL me not, Sweet, I am unkind,


  That from the nunnery


Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind


  To war and arms I fly.



True, a new mistress now I chase,


  The first foe in the field;


And with a stronger faith embrace


  A sword, a horse, a shield.



Yet this inconstancy is such


  As thou too shalt adore;


I could not love thee, Dear, so much,


  Loved I not Honour more.


There is the universal love of man for woman expressed but also the equally important duty of men to love honor and ideals as well, the need to stand and fight for what is right, a sentiment that often seems overclouded today. But Lovelace’s inspiration was to see that these loves are not in opposition but that his love for Lucasta demanded that he go to war for, if he did not stay true to his principles, would he stand up for her? Of course, when it comes to the theme of love, Shakespeare is the undisputed master. Many of his plays—comedies and tragedies—have love as their central force. It is also, unsurprisingly, the theme of many of his sonnets, with Sonnet 29 being one of the most well remembered:


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


The Bard had a keen understanding into human nature and knew that a man could always be envious of another man’s successes and often would be. But, even in all that, the love of the lover is supposed to bring him back to the world, in a sense, and remind him of what he has and not of what he does not. And what he has is infinitely more precious than anything that he does not.


                Not all truths, of course, are happy. Some are quite sad. That may be why death is also such a constant theme in poetry since it is the one thing that every inhabitant of the world will have to encounter. There is dispute in literary circles whether Edgar Allen Poe was moved to write “Annabelle Lee” because of the death of his wife, Virginia, or whether another woman acted as the muse for. At the end, it really does not matter from the perspective of the beauty of the poem as Poe ably put to paper the sorrow felt of having lost one’s love. If Shakespeare and Lovelace’s poems gave quiet assurance of love and its power, Poe displayed the truth of pain after the love is lost by death:


The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,


Went envying her and me—


Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,


In this kingdom by the sea)


That the wind came out of the cloud by night,


Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.




But our love it was stronger by far than the love


Of those who were older than we—


Of many far wiser than we—


And neither the angels in Heaven above


Nor the demons down under the sea


Can ever dissever my soul from the soul


Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;




For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams


Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;


And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes


Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;


And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side


Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,


In her sepulchre there by the sea—


In her tomb by the sounding sea.




But even though a poem may express an unhappy truth, that does not mean that death and loss are the only subjects which the poet can speak. Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandias” is an elegant and sobering laugh in the face of hubris and the belief that momentary greatness will somehow shield one from death or from the sands of history and, more generally, what occurs when man makes himself the end of his own existence:


I met a traveller from an antique land,


Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone


Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,


Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,


And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,


Tell that its sculptor well those passions read


Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,


The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;


And on the pedestal, these words appear:


My name is OzymandiasOzymandias Pharaoh Rameses II (reigned 1279-1213 BCE). According to the OED, the statue was once 57 feet tall., King of Kings;


Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!


Nothing beside remains. Round the decay


Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare


The lone and level sands stretch far away.”




Allowing the reader to come near to the sacred by expressing universal truths is not the only thing that makes a poem beautiful though; the elements of composition, such as rhyme, meter, rhythm, also play a hand. This has to do because of what Aristotle taught concerning beauty, that beauty is that which is pleasing to the senses because the parts are proportionate to the whole which they make. To give the obvious example of the Mona Lisa: da Vinci’s most famous painting would not have lasted in the mind of the world for as long as it has if the painted woman possessed warts, crossed-eyes or a balloon nose. Instead, since every part of her fits in proportion to the rest of her body, the Mona Lisa is not a freak or an oddity but a beautiful woman whose small smile has enchanted and puzzled people for centuries. The same principle holds in poetry. Language is musical, in that it can flow and dance with a magic and energy that one usually does not find in the commonplace college textbook. In order to flow, however, the words cannot be thrown into a bag and mixed in the hopes that it will come out right. Just as in a musical composition, where the notes must follow the tempo and the key of the piece or movement, so, in poetry, the words and rhythm must fit together. An illustrative example of this is Percy Shelly’s “Ode to the West Wind” in which Shelly recreates the wind itself through the chosen words:


O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,


Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead


Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,




Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,


Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,


Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed




The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,


Each like a corpse within its grave, until


Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow




Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill


(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)


With living hues and odours plain and hill:




Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;


Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!




Through the use of alliteration (the repetition of a consonant sound) coupled with the use of single syllable words in the opening, “O wild, West Wind,” the sound and the feel of the west wind itself is placed into the poem; the rhymes hold the poem in audible unison and their placement in the poem, in a more erratic style (compare it to the placements of the rhymes in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29), the unpredictability, the sudden starting and stopping of the wind is made manifest.


Poetry, in its greatest and most pure essence, if we may give over to hyperbole for one moment, is a combination of matter and form, in true Aristotelian fashion: the matter is the words, chosen for their rhythm, rhyme, meter and tempo and the form is the universal truth or truths which the poem deals with. With that very technical definition expressed, it might be better seen why the five women poets, uplifted by Ozy, are not really poets at all. This is not merely to attack them since there may not be very many actual poets left in the West. Last year, the UK Daily Mail ran a story detailing how the Poet Laureate of Britain, Carol Ann Duffy, instead of celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday in verse, as was customary with other laureates, had announced that she was writing a poem about the coin fed gas meters that were going to be completely replaced by 2020. As the author of the piece, Christopher Hart, said at the time, other laureates, such as Tennyson and Mansfield, had written of beautiful things, England being one of those beautiful things. But, in the modern age, where universal things such as love of one’s country or the love of natural things, such as the sea, is viewed with suspicion and scorn, there really is nothing left to talk about. And that is the rub: the modern poets have dismissed the reality of beauty and universal truths in general. This phenomena extends back prior to the Second World War; Roger Scruton says that the desecration of beauty began sometime after the coming of modernism when expression, not beauty, was made the primary end of art. Scruton says:


In a seminal essay—“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” published in Partisan Review in 1939—critic Clement Greenberg starkly contrasted the avant-garde of his day with the figurative painting that competed with it, dismissing the latter (not just Norman Rockwell, but greats like Edward Hopper) as derivative and without lasting significance. The avant-garde, for Greenberg, promoted the disturbing and the provocative over the soothing and the decorative, and that was why we should admire it.


The value of abstract art, Greenberg claimed, lay not in beauty but in expression. This emphasis on expression was a legacy of the Romantic movement; but now it was joined by the conviction that the artist is outside bourgeois society, defined in opposition to it, so that artistic self-expression is at the same time a transgression of ordinary moral norms. We find this posture overtly adopted in the art of Austria and Germany between the wars—for example, in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu (a loving portrait of a woman whose only discernible goal is moral chaos), and in the seedy novels of Heinrich Mann. And the cult of transgression is a leading theme of the postwar literature of France—from the writings of Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre to the bleak emptiness of the nouveau roman.


Because Beauty is intimately tied to Truth, when Beauty was run out of the world of art, so was Truth. The result is that poetry cannot be about anything really substantial but can only be about the subjective feeling of the poet. Now, poetry has often been fueled by feeling but, again, those feelings were tied to the universal truths that poetry also expressed. The poet’s feelings were his own experiences with those universal truths. But now, with the eradication of Beauty in favor of “expression,” there is nothing holding poetry except to the poet’s own will to power. This can lead–and has lead–to several deteriorations in poetry.


One such deterioration, as mentioned previously, is that much poetry today is fueled by politics. Again, poetry before modernity could delve into politics to some degree but the difference is that the politics was relative to the universal truth which the poet was giving voice. Without those universals, however, politics can be seen as all that there is in the world, the only thing that we scattered, atomistic, pieces of humanity can share in common. Art can only be about politics and from there, it is only a short step to saying that poetry can only be about the right sort of politics which is why so much modern poetry concerns the affairs du jour of the left today. But there is another deterioration. If poetry, and art in general, is only about expression, then we are quickly taken to very strange places. In her poem, “Any Lit,” Harryette Mullins writes:


You are a ukulele beyond my microphone
You are a Yukon beyond my Micronesia
You are a union beyond my meiosis
You are a unicycle beyond my migration
You are a universe beyond my mitochondria
You are a Eucharist beyond my Miles Davis
You are a euphony beyond my myocardiogram
You are a unicorn beyond my Minotaur
You are a eureka beyond my maitai
You are a Yuletide beyond my minesweeper
You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird


Perhaps my mind is not sophisticated enough to understand the meaning of the poem but it seems to be held together by chaos. In fact, chaos seems to be at least one of the points since the author highlighting Mullins, Adam Fitzgerald, praises “the mayhem” of the poem, asking, “Who else writes like this?” What is the connection between a unicycle and a migration and how is the poet the former and the person to whom she is speaking the latter? Or, again, what is the connection between “a Yuletide,” and a minsweeper? Why is the poem only a series of comparisons between the poet and a second person made of incomprehensible comparisons? With objective Beauty, these would be serious questions but with expression as the only end of art, and expression that transgresses especially, these concerns fade into the distance and disappear. But things do not just remain chaotic with the inversion of art. They can become evil. In the same piece, Adam Fitzgerald also highlights Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, a self proclaimed, “trans poet.” The poem which Fitzgerald chooses to highlight reads:

sometimes in a moment of deja vu

I forget where I am and my hands bleed

into the bed and the bed bleeds into the wall.

there are colors becoming other colors

and it doesn’t mean anything.

this is always happening and we never notice.

one layer

what’s a layer?

we’re touching through layers.

two tin cans and infinite strings in all directions.

talk to me. say something.

use words I don’t have to go back

to college to understand.

do you care that the world is trash?

I do. I am trash.

I’m in love with the feeling of it.



The same cacophonous mixture is present here but, mixed in, is the idea that the world is trash, the poet is trash and that he loves the is in love with the feeling of the world and himself being trash. The world can be uncaring; it can be cruel; it can be harsh. All great poets have acknowledged that fact. But to describe the world as trash is to say that all is ugly, corrupted and rotted, and that there is no goodness at all to be found in the world. Not only that, but to say that one loves the feeling of the world being nothing but trash is to rebel against the natural longing for Beauty and Goodness which we all hold. It is to make oneself ugly in the service of ugliness.


Compare the poetry of today, one more time, with “Sea Fever,” which John Masefield, another Poet Laureate of England, wrote:


I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,


And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;


And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,


And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.



                                I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide


Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;


And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,


And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.




I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,


To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;


And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,


And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.




                What so many of the modern poems and poets lack is a sense of wonder, which Aristotle said was the beginning of wisdom. They have been so consumed by their own cynicism and by the lie of expressionism that wonder has shriveled and withered away. It is another paradox that in trying to be free of wonder, modern poets have restricted themselves to the point where they are the prisoners, trying to hold the rest of the world hostage. G.K. Chesterton wrote poems ranging from doggerel to epics, a feat he was able to accomplish because he saw the wonder and Beauty of the world, and captured that wonder and Beauty in his verse. What Chesterton and all the great poets understood was that man needs Beauty, just as surely as he needs air and water. As Roger Scruton, again, argues, the fact that we take extra time in setting the family table for the Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, bringing out the good silver and dishes and table clothes, demonstrates our need for beauty that goes beyond beautiful paintings and poems. We need beauty in our everyday humdrum lives. We require this beauty because he are heads and hearts. Rationality encompasses both. We need Beauty in order that our rationality may be more fully fulfilled. And we need Beauty to guide us along the path to Being itself.