Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBld9QYgtdE&index=2&list=PLYki0VzvSlPaRDk6tJfUxMRv4_jULLFyn

Warmth of Imagination: In Memory of C.S. Lewis, d. Nov 22, 1963

I can measure the epochs of my life in C.S. Lewis books. His refined quality of thoughtful expression, his talent for both arguments and stories of incredible profundity mixed with an ease of access, his well-meaning sarcasm and the general warmth of his paternal tone – even more than Tolkien, who is the finer storyteller, C.S. Lewis is the father of my longing for imagination, both metaphysical and literary. As an English major in my undergraduate years, I desired writers who combined philosophical acuity with enchanting narrative, and so my love for Boethius’s Consolation was immediate and riveting. But in retrospect, I realize it was a taste for Lewisian thought that had whetted my intellectual and aesthetic appetites in a way that made Boethius so fitting – no surprise, given the esteem in which Lewis held Boethius. I thought that today, in memory of his deathday, I would mention a few of how the titles by Lewis show up in my readerly autobiography.

The Chronicles of Narnia – I wrote in a previous blog about the garage sale man who had sold his literary gold to my mother when I was eleven years old. That summer, I read the entirety of the Chronicles in two weeks, and I consider that the moment in which I was made pointedly aware of an agonizing perception of beauty that lay behind the senses. Finishing The Last Battle and walking around the apartment grounds in Amherst, I felt as though I could see, hear, and smell that deeper layer of which the Professor spoke – the enrapturing and enfolding embrace of Providence.

Mere Christianity – I read Mere Christianity in Middle School, and had for the first time the most explicit experience of reading the mirror of my own thoughts, better articulated, voiced in the rich language of a far wiser mind that always has the effect of leading readers deeper into intellectual subjects. His thoughts were expressed so clearly, lucidly, and compellingly, it was less like considering an argument and more like discovering that an argument had been tailor made for me – I could slip into it and wear it comfortably around the house or take it to dinner parties and formal occasions (not that I was going to any in Middle School) just as well.

Out of the Silent Planet – Somewhat later than Mere Christianity but still in Middle School, I was assigned Out of the Silent Planet. I remember having a discussion with my math teacher about this book – she had tried to read it and couldn’t get into it. I found this troubling, and I think that moment was part of what began my desire to understand aesthetic reactions, or my own at least, well enough to articulate why I was having the pleasant or unpleasant reaction to a particular story.

The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – It had been a while since I had read any new Lewis, although I had revisited some of his other works I had read. But during my Master’s program, I was growing weary of certain aspects of academic discourse – particularly the postmodernism, the delight in uncertainty and in undercutting traditional modes of thought, which have in certain ways real value but which can leave one cold when trying to construct a satisfying account of meaning. I don’t mean to say that was what all of my professors were pushing or upholding, but that it was a strong enough subtext that it was proving tiresome to me. I had also not been reading as much in the way of theology, since I was in the midst of my lengthy fall away from the perspective of a certain denomination which had told me not to read CS Lewis anymore (a directive I had never followed). As I began to long for something sustaining, I remembered the profound effects Lewis had had on me when I was younger. By chance I reached for The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – and, to my surprise then though not so much now, Lewis gave me precisely the comfort I sought. I remember in particular the narrator of The Great Divorce noting that questions, like thirst, can be reasonably assumed to have something in reality which satisfies them, and Lewis’s deft social critique of our habit of mocking the source of virtue while being surprised at how vicious we act. I felt edified, nourished by these thoughts, and my love for Lewis was reawakening. Doubtful as I was of the Trinity, however, I pulled back from Lewis, hesitant to leap into another theological foray into debates about the divinity of Christ.

The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed and Til We Have Faces – I was finishing my Master’s thesis when I found, unexpectedly, that my relationship with my fiancée was over. I was broken hearted and unable to focus or find my way forward, and my mother kindly offered to pay for me to go on a retreat, at a little hideaway overseen by a nunnery. I brought with me these books, figuring that Lewis, who had so guided me in times of confusion, perhaps could comfort me now in what was at the time the sharpest pain of my life. I wept and confronted my grief as I read through The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, and confronted (as much as one can in a single attempt) how my own broken perspective on love and relationships had colored my own experience in Til We Have Faces.

Pilgrim’s Regress, The Space Trilogy, Surprised by Joy – In different ways, all three of these books (or sets of books) are about a restoration of faith. I didn’t know that, and yet I picked them up during the months after my conversion to Anglicanism in 2010. It was some kind of bizarre prophecy – I could see my own intellectual journey, albeit with its own idiosyncrasies, reflected in the struggling theological imagination of Lewis in Pilgrim’s Regress. I had just happened to have awakened to the theistic philosophy of George Berkeley, and could see Berkeley’s metaphysics acting as a sort of organizing beacon of light around which Lewis’s aesthetics of return to the Church had been designed. Although I had read Out of the Silent Planet, I had not yet read Perelandra or That Hideous Strength, and finally plunged in – and there I found myself again seeing the marriage of philosophy with narrative that I had always longed to experience. In Surprised by Joy I found Lewis, in explaining his own journey back to his ecclesiastical home, the cipher for how his voice was guiding my own meditations. I had avoided considering Anglicanism for some time because I knew my admiration for Lewis would make it seem as if I had converted merely for appreciating him – but I realized then that the reason why Lewis appealed to me so deeply was because his thought was fundamentally Anglican, and as such fit into the same grooves of where psychology, personality, and aesthetic inclinations meet that I had been discovering in myself. Lewis had not turned me Anglican: he had given me a mirror to see myself and a table at which to learn my tastes, and of all the writers who I have ever read I feel an intimate connection to his experience of God’s love.

The floodgates had opened, and I was reading everything by Lewis I could get my hands on: God in the Dock, The Seeing Eye, Miracles, The Four Loves, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, and The Weight of Glory. I became sensible of the fact, too, that since Lewis was a professor of English, a medievalist and Renaissance scholar, that since I shared his profession I ought to read his academic work. Studies in Words, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Spenser’s Images of Life – I delighted in finding my personal mentor at professional work, and then I rediscovered The Allegory of Love. I had read some bits of it in my undergraduate degree, but came to it with a newfound appreciation both of the material he was discussing and of my own need to forge an identity in my academic endeavors. As I reread The Allegory of Love I began to see more clearly just what my dissertation would be about, and I realized that Lewis’s desire to foster public intellectual discourse and to fight against the abolition of man, to reawaken imaginations to the wonder of the human experience of language and glimpses of divine love, was part and parcel with the project of literary interpretation of philosophical and psychological problems that so compelled me. In the world of ideas, which can feel so cold – usually unintentionally, but sometimes, I think, quite intentionally – Lewis casts a warming fire of imagination that melts away the snows of indifference and disappointment every time I reach for his beautiful pages.

I offer this prayer of thanks to the Lord, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer in which Lewis found so much devotional power, for the marvelous means of grace which the work, thought, and deep warmth of Lewis has provided in my own life:

We bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Silent Musings

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared… disturb the sound of silence.

An old man sat under the shade of a tree by the riverbank, his knotted hands dancing on the strings of a beaten, worn guitar that he had played under that tree for more summer days than he could remember. His fingers danced and the strings sang, and his eyes wandered with passersby as they walked over the bridge past his house and bustled into the little town. He sang a simple song, a song about the blueness of blue skies and shadows scattered by tall grass blowing in an easy breeze, a song about hard work in the day and rest in the cool air of evening, a song about the melody of the song to which these things were set. Life is a song, and to sing about life is to sing about the river of all music.

“Still breaking the silence, old bard?” asked a voice with wearied disdain.

The old man kept strumming his guitar and didn’t draw his breath short on the last note of his song. He kept strumming as he replied. “Silence is an illusion, old spirit. No one who listens could ever believe in silence.”

The voice cackled. “Still listening for the Muse too, I wager. We have music too, you know. The Architect doesn’t hate all music.  Just the music that forgets the earth.”

The old man watched a young boy upstream land his fish line in the water. “The Muse could never forget earth. But when the music of the earth forgets her true song, then it becomes a violent silence and hurts the ears of those who make it more than the minds of those who listen. You make yourself deaf to the Muse with the noise you call music.”

A rhythmic percussion began to follow the guitar’s dancing strings, and the old man looked to see that his visitor had begun to play his drum.

“Whatever our theories, old bard, when we play together, we still make one melody,” he said with a sneer.

“That is actually my point,” said the old man, “not yours.”

The notes from the guitar lifted from the strings, and little flashes of light seem to gleam between their vibrating shivers and the floating motions of his heavy fingers. Between the skin of the drum and the sharp palm of the old man came little puffs of smoke. Da daladala ding dalalalalading, the strings were singing, and tumtum tadadadatum, the drum was dancing, and the sounds mixed and carried over the stream. The little boy fishing up stream began to notice their song and reeled in his line, and came over and sat down across from them on the other side of the river. He watched with big, dark brown eyes, his white teeth flashing in a smile stark against his dark skin.

Tumdatumdalatumdadingtum and the music played, and the flashes of light and the wisps of cloud began to grow as the sound grew and the strength of their music began to make a vision.

“We’re both bards, old spirit,” said the old man. “The lad can’t tell the difference, y’see?”

“I sing for silence and you sing for the Muse, old bard. We’re the same the way a cloud shaped like a man is the same as a man. The earth is real and the air longs to be real. The Muse is a wish to make air more real than earth, but such a wish is vanity.”

“Vanity, and striving after the wind,” said the old man with a laugh, and again he began to sing.

The power of his song met the flash of strings and the smoke of the drum, and billowing out now between the two figures was a cloud of bright and swirling mist in which the shapes of dreams were moving like a carousel, little men and little beasts moving in the likeness of living creatures, sparks of the music of the old man and the old spirit.

There were men who rode upon tigers and men who rode upon dragons, and in the field of smoke and light they clashed with mighty voices, for the tigers struck with fire in their claws and the dragons struck with lightning. And from their battle new shapes were born, the eagles and the ravens who drew up and away and shrieked at the battle below. But a deeper motion disturbed the earth of fire and smoke, for the sound of battle and the noise of those airy beasts had awoken a darksome sleeper, who began to shake all things. All rumbled and roared and shook and shattered, and at last in the horizon of the sky of the song-world a bright trumpet sounded out, and like a rising sun a melody burst from the burning clouds. Then she could be seen, her eyes ice blue and her hair like ropes of fire, and she was saying, “None shall unmake the music, for I shall send it out and you shall hear it and sing it back, and no melody shall be unreturned to its maker.”

There was a flash and for a moment the river and the tree, the old man and the old spirit, and the young boy, were lost in a white haze. Then sight returned, and their music was ended.

“Come here, boy,” said the visitor, his long teeth flashing in his grin. The boy obeyed, climbing onto the rail of the bridge and scurrying across with no concern for balance. Dust moved at his feet as he came and sat cross-legged before them.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “How did you make the music visible?”

The old man and the old spirit laughed and looked at each other.

“Well,” said the old spirit, “it is my belief that the music is an illusion, that the one truth is the silence of the earth. We can see the music because it is not music at all, but can be made still in pictures and images because it is made of air that steals the earth. Music is the wind’s parody of the silent land.”

The old man leaned his guitar against the tree. “What do you think, lad?”

The boy shook his head. “How could the music be an illusion of earth? It seems nothing like earth to me.”

The old spirit sighed and nodded. “That is to be expected. What is air but earth broken and scattered? What is the sea but earth unsettled and flowing back to its true home?” He began to tap a slow, measured beat upon the surface of the drum. “Music is a noise that longs for silence, and silence is from the earth. Because it mirrors the silence of the earth, music appears to prove that air has something to offer which earth does not. But what earth offers is greater than music. It offers the silence to which music points.

Confusion crossed the boy’s face, and a kind of understanding mixed with the confusion. “I guess I see what you mean. I don’t know if I can argue against it. But it still seems otherwise.” He looked at the old man. “What do you say?”

The old man smiled and picked up the guitar into his hand. “I say that music is the gift of fire from the Muse, and that fire is not earth or air or sea.” He began to strum the guitar and matched the pace of the old spirit’s drumbeat. “Some sounds, some melodies, break upon the soul in such total immersion that it overwhelms us in a kind of stillness that is silence become music, whereas the earth’s silence is merely able to become music. For even beyond fire there is something still greater, and that is the Voice who gave order to the Muse, mother of all flame. The silence of chaos completed in its course may seem like the silence of order given life in our ears, but that is the image of a finished work that one can glimpse even in an empty sheet of music. There can be no music without the stillness of earth, it is true, but stillness alone is death. Life is in the fire of the Voice, and cannot come from earth, or air, or sea.”

His final word ended with his final stroke upon the string of his guitar, and in time with the final beat upon the drum of the old spirit. Silence surrounded them, and they could hear the river washing itself out to the shore and the evening creatures beginning to chirp and stir. The bustle of the village was quieting and the loud trumpet of the sunlit sky was softening for the quiet clarions of starlight. The boy pondered what the old man and the old spirit had said as he looked and gazed upon the forest and the road that cut through it, away from their small village and on to other lands.

Suddenly the old man stood, and looked at his visitor. “It is time, isn’t it?”

The old spirit nodded, and something of his sarcastic poise seem to soften. “It is, old friend.”

“Then we must go,” he said, “but first I must speak with the young angler alone.”

The spirit also stood, though his feet scarcely stirred the grass at his feet as he lifted his white drum and slung it against his back. “Very well. I’ll be waiting for you just up the road. I’ll take you as far as I can, and then I will leave you to find out for yourself if the Muse still sings.”

Gently, like a cloud on a soft breeze, the old spirit went away, the scent of fresh tilled soil on his breath as he sang of rainstorms on wild fields.

The old man walked to the boy, guitar in hand. “Lad, do you ever catch fish in this river?”

“Sometimes,” said the boy,” but not today.”

Nodding, the old man bent down. “Play this guitar before you fish. If you play with a gentle heart, you will always find a lively tug on the hook. But when you play for men, play with fire in your heart and truth in your mind, for they cannot hear peace without a struggle.”

He stood up and turned to walk away.

“But wait,” said the boy.

“Yes?”

“How will you play music without your guitar?” The boy gazed down at the frets and strings and woodwork of the guitar’s body, realizing he had never played any music before.

“I am going to a country where music can be played on the winds and mountains by the joy of many hands,” said the old man, “though my friend, the old spirit, does not believe me.”

“How can a spirit not believe in such a place, but you can?”

“The sounds of silence have left him confused, but I think the Muse still calls him her child. We will see in the harvests of time if I am right.”

“I do not know how to play,” said the boy.

The old man looked at him and nodded. “Neither do I, and so I let my hands play for me, for they know the music when I forget it.”

So he walked from the boy towards the forest and the road to other lands, and his hands were still within his pockets, but he whistled long and low as he walked. In the distance and the softening light of twilight, it seemed to the boy that the old bard was growing larger and smaller, moving faster than the earth but slower in his own pace, and he could see a golden light in the old man’s body as he joined in the dark horizon the smoky and pale figure of the old spirit, like two men walking into another story.

The boy looked at the guitar in his hand, and as he felt the strings with his fingers, it seemed that some melody stirred in the grass and over the river’s waters. He stood up, turned, and walked onto the bridge that spanned the river. At its middle, suddenly, he saw a figure dressed in blue, with long blond hair framing green eyes. She smiled.

“Are you the Muse?” he asked.

“No, I am not her,” she said, “I am a young spirit, only thirty-three and one thousand years have I listened to the Muse. But I saw you with him and with the old spirit. You must be the new Bard, I am sure of it.”

“New Bard?” His dark eyes widened. “But I do not know how to play.”

She took his hand and smiled with a kind laugh. “I do. I will teach you.”

They walked then into the darkening night of the village, and the soft sounds of laughter and song disturbed no dreaming sleepers as they passed by.

8/6/2017

The Unnumbered Seal

By right of his dark whimsy
He cuts down through fields
Where final threshing announces
As white sudden wastes of signs
Telling what was left ahead
Was found behind hidden light
Straying into icy floods alone
Naked shards of ice flash slow
Above where trumpets sound.

He cuts through dark fields
where he darkly announces signs
Of the white sudden whimsy of naked ice
Lit by hidden light that strays behind
The flashing floods that shake beside
Left behind what was written before
Together Isolation and Solitude stand
Where by right of their telling
Below crash the trumpet sounds.

Above it naked straying where
Lit by the crashing ice flashing he
With the lights shimmering in the
Hidden dark of the flooding fields
Cuts between their hands before
They touched above the place of a song
For the signs were growing heavy
There where the glow began
Trumpets announcing all around.

4/17/2017

Top 10 Boethian Authors and Their Books

So you’ve just finished reading The Consolation of Philosophy, and you want to know what to read next (one of the first things people learn about Boethius is that he was enormously influential). Since you spent all day observing his Feast Day on this October 23rd, you’re looking for more reading material. Well, you’ve come to the right place.

  1. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight’s Tale, and, really, everything he wrote.
    Chaucer translated the Consolation himself into Middle English, a scholarly and careful translation that showed how much he admired the work. Chaucer was moved by many themes in Boethius, but above all it was the honest recognition of suffering and the struggle to deal with it intellectually that I believe moved Chaucer’s pen to compose some of the finest Boethian poetry in existence. He also had a magnificent handle on the humor in Boethius.
  2. Dante’s Commedia
    Dante mentions his debts to Boethius explicitly in the Convivio, and his use of Beatrice as a mentor figure, Virgil as the wise pagan, and the penetrating insight into the self-destructive effects of evil breathe fully in the wisdom of Boethian moral philosophy.
  3. Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
    Malory is to my mind the great captstone of Arthurian literature, looking back at a long line of poetic treatment of the Arthurian materials. Boethian philosophy, it has been shown, reached as far back as the original great Arthurian story, The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. As a work that meditates on the whole legacy of Arthuriana up to that point, Malory creates a City of Godesque survey of the mythology, bringing a beautifully Boethian understanding to the way in which religious truth can be illuminated by efforts of the imagination.
  4. Bernardus Silvestris’s Cosmographia
    This is a bit of an obscure one, but Bernardus Silvestris is a sadly underread author (I recommend the translation by Winthrop Wetherbee). His Cosmographia features a powerful, feminine personification, Nature, who contributed much to the medieval understanding of nature as a concept, and who integrated the Boethian view of education (and storytelling’s role in the liberal arts) into the pedagogy of the 12th century.
  5. C.S. Lewis’s The Great DivorceThe Silver ChairPerelandraPilgrim’s Regress
    Lewis himself put Boethius in the list of the top ten most influential writers on his thought (outside of the Bible), and integrates Boethian thought into many of his stories. How the texture of a philosophical argument can become inspiration for the journey of heroes is a powerful component of the Boethian legacy in Lewis’s writing.
  6. George MacDonald’s PhantastesAt the Back of the NorthwindThe Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie
    MacDonald was a sublime thinker on the subject of the imagination, and much of his meditation on the subject on “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture” resonates with Boethius’s consideration of the subject. What MacDonald picked up on more than almost any other writer, even more than Lewis but perhaps not so much as Tolkien, was that The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairy tale, and just so MacDonald has many fey maidens who instruct elfin knights in the truths of Faerie.
  7. Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsBeren and Luthien, and On Fairy Stories
    Tolkien’s OFS defines a fairy tale as a Fantasy, a product of the rational imagination, which produces the effects of recovery, escape, and consolation, which leads ultimately to joy. This is the precise pattern of the Consolation, and Tolkien knew the Old English translation written either by King Alfred or one of his courtiers. Tolkien’s Nazgul are drawn from Augustine’s and Boethius’s description of evil (especially book 4 of the Consolation), and the One Ring’s effects resonate with Boethius’s understanding of the negative effects of wealth. Also, the Consolation is a deeply theistic text rife with imagination which has an impressive female gift giver and yet never explicitly mentions Christian doctrine, in spite of Boethius as an author of Catholic theology. Just so, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings leaves religious doctrine deeply in the center rather than in the surface language of his work.
  8. John Kennedy Toole, The Confederacy of Dunces
    This is a bizarre, uncomfortable, wild read that highlights the humor in Boethius’s Consolation even more than Chaucer. It’s a bit of a narrative mess, but it’s a text that every Boethian should be familiar with. Just make sure you bring a strong stomach.
  9. John Milton’s Paradise Lost
    Like Boethius, Milton sought to justify God’s ways to men. He didn’t share some major aspects of Boethius’s theology, but ironically, though less orthodox than the theologically stern Roman philosopher, Milton actually worked more of Scripture into his poetic approach to the problem of evil.
  10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner
    Coleridge mentions Boethius just a few times in his massive Biographia Literaria, and yet does so in a context that directly implies favor for Boethian styles of writing. Perhaps the greatest Anglican poet of them all, Coleridge adopted a prosimetric style in the Rime, perhaps his most famous poem, and the Ancient Mariner’s curse to wander the world and tell everyone about his story whether they want to hear it or not sounds familiar to anyone who knows an ardent Boethius scholar (we’re all a little rabid). I recently showed this connection at a conference panel on Boethius, so you’re at the cutting edge of Boethian scholarship! Yay!

That is just a small taste of the good things one can read as a Boethian – and if you’ve read some of these already, congratulations – Boethius is already in your life. Maybe when I get a chance I’ll write on some more Boethian authors. In fact, looking at this list i notice they’re all men, so next time I do this, I’ll make it exclusively female Boethians! Gotta love lists.

Hold your tongue

“At that word the devil took his time and
whetted her tongue against her teeth; and
when it was well sharpened, she swore to
him in very fierce anger.” – Thomas More

I held my tongue and walked away
and went down, down into the earth
eyes narrow and fists clenched and
went to the fiery forge with the ringing
in my ears and I opened my mouth
and pulled forth my tongue and I held
my tongue and rolled it out and
set it against the anvil and could taste
the years of grime and flinty steel where
men had worked with great labors for ages
and I stretched my tongue and felt the ripping
the jolting agony as it tore away and flat
against the anvil lay like the sole of a brown
shoe and I began to stretch it out and took
in hand the hammer and hefting it
I stood in sweat and shivering
from the pain I paused and prepared
and swung the steel to the soft flesh
and made from my own mouth
my sword and up I stood and sent
my wordless cries writhing to the world
and holding my tongue I walked away,
armed to the teeth and silent.

Vera pax nomine interficiam, dixit Moros.


ca. 2012

Reflections upon waiting in the Waiting Room

I was walking in the realms of the dead

Where old pyramids hide forgotten gods

And empty lakes stand open with motionless

Biers once aflame, now only ashen treasures

Their worth unwritten in the sands

Which stretched on around open, still hands.

Sarcophagi stood ajar, the memory of eyes

Gazing off into no worlds.

 

Rows of tombstones under leafless maple trees

Whose roots took in no water stood cracked

Like the rounded backs of old men seated

At the cafeterias of unvisited nursing homes

Barely aware of the loneliness created by

The visible memory of their once lives.

The grass wilting before the old tombs,

Memoirs not reminding.

 

In some places in those realms the dead still

Walk but they are not the happy ones for

At least those who lay at rest do not feel

What they do not feel but those who walk

Still hear the sound of their deafening lies

More dead than the dead whose company,

Shambling, rambling, muttering without breathing,

They keep without keeping.

 

I could not remember why I had come here

And I saw the crypt where I had been buried

And walked inside to see if I was still there

But came out on the other side; it was empty

Within, and I saw a hill and a valley and

Mounted on the walls I saw mirrors reflecting

A hollow light bouncing that lit

Without brightening.

 

I saw other forms standing before the mirrors,

Those who had walked through tombs like mine

Their hands raised to the mirrors in confusion

The light bouncing off their dry tongues

And they seemed to want to drink it, but the

Light would not satisfy but only hint

Only promise a drink of vision

But would not give.

 

Before me rose a mirror and it spoke to me in

Strange somber sounds silvery, seductive, silent,

More silent for the softness of its sounds,

But I could not see my own face, only the dull

Pulse of a false light behind a glass and I could see

A form that was not mine behind, far away in the glass,

Whose hands reached, and I shuddered

And the glass shattered.

 

And the hands came through and they burned as

They touched me and I heard a chorus above me

As I burned and was pulled through and the glass

Breaking was my skin bleeding as I screamed

And I was hushed and told to look back at

Those who stood at mirrors, thirsting without

Relief for the dead cannot see the purpose

Of the drink they do not desire.

 

I thought to return and break their glass but

Instead I rose and a current and a sweet smell

Lifted me away as the brightness began to burn and the pain

Was like knives stabbing in and through and

I thought I was screaming, I asked for mercy.

“This is Mercy,” I heard, and I thought I was screaming

but then I heard myself

and I was laughing.


Composed in 2014, on the occasion of listening carefully to The Waiting Room on the recommendation of a dear friend and Genesis enthusiast. Listen yourself below:

Toothbrush (Twilight Parody)

Chapter 1.  Initial Discovery

 

I was sitting in the car, which was being driven by the woman that I call mother, since she gave birth to me.  Looking out at the window, I felt as though the world simply couldn’t understand me or the deepest feelings reflected in the iridescent pools of my sparkling eyes.  I sighed or grimaced, since I wasn’t sure which I was feeling.

“Things in our past have been rough,” said my mother, “and things in our past have been tough, but the past is past, and . . .”

She just couldn’t say any more, and I just couldn’t hear any more.  She turned her eyes back to the road, probably since she was driving, and I turned with a sigh back to the rolling expanse of that green place out there.  We were leaving the place we had left, left as if it had never happened.  But it had, and it would never, ever go away.

“Amora Bird,” my mother said, “remember that I love you.  That’s why I named you Amora.  Because I love you so much.”

I felt my stomach tighten at those words, words that should have meant something to me, and which almost did, but I was not one given to intense intercommunion with the inner veils of even my own parents.  I was in high school, and always felt so distant and aloof, so very different from people who weren’t like me.  Oh, it is such a burden to be so different!

We were going somewhere, that was for sure.  Somewhere else, that wasn’t home, wasn’t the place we had left.  It would never be the same, because things had changed.

“I’m trying,” my mother said with tears into my silence and my sighing.  “I want you to try too.”

I looked into those eyes and saw the intense obfuscation of turmoil deep within her trying soul.  “I know, mom.  I’m sorry.”

That was all I could say, so I didn’t say anything else.  We pulled into the driveway of our new home, and suddenly it all became so real.  Everything had really happened, and here we really were.  I just hoped I could survive this place, where people didn’t know how fantastic I was.  I sighed as I helped my mother bring our luggage into our most recent domicile.

 

That night, I was asleep in my bed, thinking about all of the things that had happened that day.  I couldn’t think very clearly for some reason, so I decided to stop, so I just kind of lay there with my eyes closed and my mind drifting through a whole bunch of complex dreams.  As I slept, I felt a little more rested than I did while I was awake, and when I woke up I was tired, but not as tired as I was without sleeping.  I stood onto my feet and stretched, and realized that it was still dark outside.  The clock read 4:50 a.m.  Still a few hours of sanctuary from the cold, tomblike halls of high school that stretch ever on, trying to consume my soul in a swath of morbid conformity.

I looked out of my window into the street below, where the moon was glowing like a big, round lamp, a lamp that someone hung every night so that the sky wouldn’t be so dark.  I saw things moving out there, things that moved with insidious purpose.  It was then that I knew.  It was as if somehow I forgot to think rationally about anything; I just knew.  These things, they weren’t just people.  They were vampires.

Yeah, they looked like people, but they were outside at night.  And they were walking thirstily.  And I read in a book somewhere that vampires walk thirstily in the moonlight, and it sent a chill creeping up my spine, the kind of chill you get when you look out into the street and think that bloodsuckers are running around your neighborhood.  I was so terrified.

But then, I saw him.  I didn’t just see him.  It was like my soul danced out of my bones and did the cha-cha right up to his soul, which came out and then our souls waltzed in the moonlight across the lawn in a spiraling ascent of incredible, instantaneous passion and understanding.  His eyes were like big blue birds, flying in the glint of the sunlight, passionate and real and cool.  His muscles were strong and muscular, and he was wearing a black trench coat that covered his body.  He looked like the kind of neat movie star who wore sunglasses on cloudy days and smiled in the face of horrible danger.  I knew that I loved him, and that he loved me.  He gazed up at me and I knew that he knew what I knew.

May I come inside, his eyes asked me.  Yes, you may, my eyes replied.  And suddenly, he wasn’t in the lawn.  Suddenly, he was in my room.  He leaned close to me and brushed my hair aside.  I ached for him.  I knew he was a vampire, but I figured, hey, nobody’s perfect.

“I am falling in love with you,” I said.

“You don’t even know my name, Amora Bird,” he said, smiling, his fang glistening like two sharp pearls of perfect love.

“Oh, but you know mine, and I will learn yours!” I asserted with all of the vigor of my beating heart.  “I don’t know what is in a name, but what is yours, if we must insist upon Shakespeare, my love?!”

“My name,” he breathed, standing close, his body against mine.  “My name is a thing I do not give out lightly.  Few mortals have heard my name.  Those who have shake at it, they tremble, they fear.  They know what I am and what I like to do in my spare time, and it scares them.  Amora, my name, my name is . . . Bob.”

Bob.  It sent a chill up my spine.  I shivered with love for Bob the vampire.  I put my arms around him.

“Bob, I know you are a vampire!  Please, do what you need to do,” I begged.

“You don’t understand what you’re saying!” he argued, his eyes pleading with desperation.

“No, but I understand what I feel!” I cried passionately.

To that he could brook no argument.  And so, he leaned his head to my neck.  I felt teeth begin to press against my skin.  Then, he stopped.

“Wait . . . wait . . .” he whispered.  “This . . . this is your first time.  I have to brush my teeth first.”

“No, I am ready,” I said, hot tears staining my face.  “You do not need to brush your teeth!”

“I do.  I just . . . I love you, Amora!  That is what your name means, Amora.  It means love.  And love means doing the thing that’s best for you, even if you don’t understand everything.  You have to let me do this.  Please!”

My chest heaved with indecision and an overwhelming sense of ambiguous, floating signifiers.  “Very well.  Come with me.”

So, I took him into my bathroom.  His skin looked like perfection in the brilliant light of the bathroom.  I put the sparkling toothbrush with the glistening toothpaste on those little, amazing bristles, and I said, “There.  Do what you have to do.”

I turned from him then, in that moment, knowing that it was his moment and that I had to leave him to do what he had to do.  He only said, “If I’m not back in five minutes, don’t wait for me.  Save yourself.”

Those words might sound like they were meaningless, but they weren’t meaningless.  They were the most breathtaking words I had ever heard.  My chest heaved with love for the vampire man who would think to say such a thing for me.  I waited in my room.  Thankfully my mom was a heavy sleeper and didn’t expect a vampire to visit me late at night, so she kept her door closed and didn’t hear any of this.  I sat on my bed, aching for my love, my precious Bob.  Even being a part from him was like being apart from someone who was actually not someone else, but a piece of me.

Then he returned, and that feeling I just described went away because it wasn’t true anymore.  Now he was there, not gone.  I sat there, looking at him with my sparkling eyes on his glittering teeth and glistening eyes.  He stood there, looking at my sparkling eyes with his glittering teeth and glistening eyes.

“Is it secret?  Is it safe?” I asked him with passion.

“It is.”

“Please,” I said, “please.  Do what must be done!!!”

“I shall,” he whispered.  Suddenly he was there, holding me, drawing me close, and I knew that for the first time I was truly alive, here in this dead man’s arms.  I felt a flutter in my heart as the bloodsucker jammed his teeth into my neck.  “He truly cares for me,” I sighed.

And that is how I came to be in love with someone I didn’t think I’d ever love, when I didn’t think I could ever love at all.  But I could love, and I did love, and I loved someone I wasn’t supposed to love.  I loved a hygienic vampire!

The Grendel Crawling in Our Skin: In Memory of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington

“I woke up in a dream today to the cold of the static and put my cold feet on the floor.”

I don’t know how to write this post. It’s about the sound of a voice painted in my memories since Middle School. But if I don’t try to walk the talk now that I commit to every time I speak in the classroom, then I will be a hypocrite. So here’s a shot.

The reason it’s important to read Beowulf is because the monsters it describes exist. It’s pure arrogance of the intellect to believe that trolls and dragons aren’t real just because they aren’t visible like sharks or drowning. We don’t need to invent horrors in this world anymore if all we need monsters for is to tell us about physical threats of the animal kingdom or the natural world, or even that other people might hurt us. We tell stories about monsters because we are huddled in the middle of the darkness of our private minds. Stand in the doorway with your back to a dark basement, and without fail your imagination tells you that a Grendel is watching from the shadows. “Then out of the night came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift, the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,” explains the Beowulf poet. Of course that’s when monsters come. It is so unfathomably stupid that we have, as a culture, tamed the monster, made dragons cute and trolls into toys.

Just this morning I was teaching Beowulf to my students and telling them that an essential part of the hero’s journey is the encounter with death. It’s the encounter with the Abyss, the breaking point where the hero doesn’t just test whether he will shatter. He shatters. He breaks. He is unmade by gazing into the face that dwells inside his skin, like burying the one he loves on Valentine’s Day. And if he is going to become the hero, he needs to integrate the devastation of death into the strength of his arm and the beat of his heart and return to life, having killed the dishonest part of himself, bringing only the truth and leaving out all the rest. And then I open Facebook and see a news link explaining that Chester Bennington has committed suicide.

Grendel and his devouring mother are the kin of Cain, the murderous son of the parents of the whole human race. He’s a cannibal who eats his own. Cain killed his brother, Abel, because he chose to ignore his own failures and foster resentment instead. The descendants of Cain are caught in the flood, and cursed already, they become water monsters. The Grendelkin are just one species of many denizens of the underwater darkness. But see, that’s the thing – monsters are submerged humanity, denied honesty, not merely broken and tragic but having gorged on the delightful premise that they might spread that tragedy to others.

The most tragic question, the real gnawing monster crawling in our own skin, is whether existence can justify the burden of suffering. “I’ve given up. I’m sick of feeling. Is there nothing you can say?” When Chester sang those lyrics, he wasn’t trying to be edgy or melodramatic. He sang them with the power he did because he could feel the Grendels in his papercuts. A papercut is a small wound that insults as it stings, because it’s such a minute reminder of how painfully fragile we are. And no number of first world comforts can hide us from the fact that we aren’t safe alone in our rooms from the real question of whether life is actually meaningful. Some people who don’t have those comforts are grateful for what they do have, because they don’t have the illusion that Grendel isn’t lurking in the basement anymore.

Grendel attacked the mead-hall in Beowulf because the warriors there were listening to the music and song that celebrated creation and the glory of the God who made it, while he suffered from the grievous wound of a cursed loneliness. This is not naïve character creation, because monsters have a point: whether in mind or body, some people do have wounds of loneliness that will not heal. It is rational to resent unhealing wounds. It makes sense. Something inside you is, with disturbing legitimacy, pulling beneath the surface, something that consumes and confuses your self-control, when it actually feels like the walls are closing in, the ugly weight of despair and depression whispers: Be a monster. And that whisper becomes louder until it screams.

That is the Grendel crawling in our skin, and it is the one that we are all battling. We all are. Some people roll their eyes when suicide is linked to mental disorder, but what they are really doing is not denying the mental disorder. They’re afraid. And they should be. Because the fact that suicide can happen means that every single person they love is capable of the same brokenness. Something can go wrong, maybe in one bad day or maybe in a series of inward refusals to face the Abyss and an even worse series of refusals to leave it, and then they’ll be completely unable to help.

I was always mesmerized by the performance of Chester, the red-faced, full-bodied, lung-stretching howl of violent melody that he brought to each song. He did more than perform; he battled the song into existence, admitting the brutal fight was happening even as he fought it – told us, though “nobody’s listening,” that we need to listen to music and fight existential resentment too, because the face is right beneath our skin.

chester-bennington-2ba58e5b5dc528ad

Sometimes heroes fall in the fight. But that they fell doesn’t make them Grendels. It makes them our fallen comrades, and we have to honor them properly: we have to fight all the harder against the crawling Grendel that tells us that we don’t matter, that we can’t overcome, that our feelings and our frustrations are pointless and aren’t worth hearing, that we are less than conquerors and that there’s nothing inside of us that is greater than the monstrous ingratitude and deep grief of Grendel.

We need to get a little further and try a little harder to not let ourselves or others be alone anymore. We have to listen to our own haunting wail that says it doesn’t even matterwe need to hear ourselves say it doesn’t matter so that we can actually know that it does. We have to stop hiding the Grendel in our papercuts. We have to keep killing the Grendels before they kill us.

I like to think that, for a while and most of the time, Chester had learned to become to become so numb to Grendel that he couldn’t even feel him there, and that he performed his song right in Grendel’s stupid, evil face, resisted him and made him flee. I don’t understand my own grief about the death of a celebrity I never met – some part of me feels silly about it even now. But that’s a Grendellish part, one that thinks humans can’t really connect over art. Of course they can. And Linkin Park has given us a tool, a sword to put some blood in the demon’s cuts – it acknowledges that the Grendel is crawling in our skin. And like cockroaches, those disgusting lies haunting our minds don’t like to be brought to light. Good. Let there be light on all the ugliness inside.

The least heroic thing about Beowulf is actually that he fought the monsters alone. The most heroic thing about Beowulf is that when Hrothgar gave him wisdom, he listened, and when Weahltheow gave him a cup, he drank from it, and when God gave him a sword in the darkness of the underwater cavern, he brought it to bear. Fighting suicide isn’t about being tougher or stronger, it’s about fighting the temptation to be strong alone. The dragon takes all of us eventually, but the greatest lie the dragon’s minion tells is that we have no allies in the fight. Kings and queens and all the heroes of the hall are everywhere, and the memories of those loved ones who die in Grendel’s deceptions can numb us to dragonfire long enough to make us able to sacrifice death to the pursuit of a meaningful life.

My prayers are with those who survive Chester, especially the Bennington and Linkin Park families. And my prayer is with you, if you feel the crawl in your skin, to not give up and not try to do it alone anymore. Whatever the face inside is telling you, your life matters. Even if you’re not with me, I’m with you.

http://chester.linkinpark.com

Communication Theory, Cognitive Sense Analogues, and American Sign Language as a Foreign Language

UPDATE: Wonderful news! The ad hoc committee members in favor of accepting ASL as a legitimate foreign language, with all institutional benefits that implies, were successful in making their case to the SUNY Student Mobility Steering Committee and Office of the Provost. My opinion piece, presented here, appeared in Appendix E of materials submitted by the subcommittee. It’s an honor to have contributed to such a worthy cause, small though my role was. Photos included at the bottom of the post.

Please note, in this piece I do not claim expertise in ASL or in linguistics. This is an opinion piece which I wrote to be consulted by an academic committee.

As an English professor whose concentration is in medieval literature and language theory, I bring a perspective that I believe illuminates some important reasons why ASL should be regarded as a foreign language. My academic research in the connection between the senses as an analogue for knowledge is primarily the expertise I draw upon below. Personal experience also informs the perspective I set forward here. I myself am mildly hard of hearing in one ear, but my grandmother, with whom I live, is severely hard of hearing, and struggles with conversation in person and on the phone even with sophisticated hearing aids. The argument I provide is that, because of its integrity as a language in terms of the classical paradigm of language structure (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and because of the cognitive shift in understanding required by someone from the hearing community (including a deaf or hard of hearing individual previously unexposed to ASL) to truly learn an essentially different way of processing experience, ASL ought to be considered fundamentally as a foreign language. I will, after elucidating this argument, include responses to some objections.

In my academic work, I focus on the intersection of two relevant sites of inquiry: the trivium and the sensorium. The trivium, in the classic liberal arts tradition, are the comprehensive arts of language, which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Put simply, grammar is the study of correct use of language; logic is the use of language in a valid and sound chain of reasoning; rhetoric is the use of language in a persuasive way to produce emotions or persuasion in the audience. From an ancient, medieval, and Renaissance perspective (and one endorsed by many modern liberal arts pedagogues), the capacity to write is a powerful tool for refining these disciplines, but what constitutes the essential nature of a particular language is the most natural mode of communication combined with the best practices for communication within that mode. Spoken words, in most communities, therefore constitute a primary quality in understanding a given language because writing is an artificial technology which refines possible discourse. What is primary about language, then, is not its capacity to produce writing, but its capacity to produce community through its unique structures of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (which is why Braille or computer coding, for example, may be communicative but are not truly independent languages). As Miriam Joseph explains in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, “Communication, as the etymology of a word signifies, results in something possessed in common; it is a oneness shared” (Joseph 7). It is hard to imagine a deeper oneness shared between people than by words they agree upon as the ones which constitute goodness, truth, and beauty, and by which they make themselves and their ideas known to each other.

That being the case, a deaf person who learns to communicate through ASL is not learning a replacement “basic communication” instead of American English (or whatever other spoken language). They must learn the most natural word order to express ideas (which is different from English word order), a simple but powerful obstacle to overcome. It is a challenge similar to the difficulty English speakers might have, for example, in learning German word order or a case system in Latin (both of which I have studied and, in the case of Latin, designed a placement test for Saint Louis University’s Latin program). This type of cognitive shift also implies a different approach to logical expression, which means that ASL diversifies the experience of fitting meta-discursive ideas together. Furthermore, because of the stress of physical movement to create emphasis, intimacy, or other expressions, ASL exhibits a motor-based rhetoric, meaning that persons signing to each other must be sensitive to emotional cues and volitional requests or demands just as in any spoken rhetorical situation. This means that an ASL interpreter is not simply “transcribing” a spoken talk as a stenographer does, for example, but actually translating it – they must accommodate, in real time, not only the words but the ideas and emphases of the speaker to the communicative norms of grammar, logic, and rhetoric which are particular to ASL. Such an attempted “transcription” would be impossibly slow and complex to the point of uselessness, because ASL does not function at the most basic level the way a spoken language does. Nonetheless, ASL interpretations are as rich and communicative as the spoken utterances they relay, and as such are independent translations rather than simple non-verbal reiterations. This leads, I believe, to understanding the foreignness of ASL, as distinct from, say, English.

As someone who has translated from several languages (particularly ancient languages such as Latin and Old English), I am familiar with the notion of something being “lost in translation.” This is why learning a foreign language is particularly useful – the nuances of meaning are deeply particular to the form of communication, and so reading Homer’s Iliad in Greek cannot be replaced by reading it in English (even if it is still a worthwhile endeavor, especially if the translator is good at her job). In speaking with Kathleen Vollmer, a deaf professor of ASL at Erie Community College, it became immediately clear to me that this “lost in translation” problem (symptomatic to my mind of encounter with foreign modes of thought) is one which affects, mutually, communication between deaf ASL signers and hearing English speakers. It is not simply that deaf people cannot hear words from the hearing community, which I discovered in my own interactions with my grandmother when she received improved hearing aids. Oftentimes, she can hear me, but cannot understand me, because the pure sensory information of sound requires a strategy of interpretation which, as a result of us learning this information during infancy, we do not even realize we are employing. I have to adopt different cues (often with certain gestures or facial cues) that are not a language but are communicative aids to putting my grandmother’s listening anxieties to rest before she can hear me. I must also speak differently in order to accommodate how she thinks language works, which even as a hard of hearing person (rather than a deaf person) is nonetheless significantly different from those without significant hearing impairments think it does. For example, my grandmother takes offense when I am confused by what she means when she mispronounces a word, because she does not think the quality of its sound but the quality of her intent that controls meaning. Helping her to assimilate new knowledge requires a mode of explanation that must shift not because she cannot hear me (she can, with her hearing aids), but because she thinks of the language game as primarily about emotional successes or failures of sympathy (visibly relayed through gesture and facial cues) rather than about exchange of ideas. Once I adopt her mode of interaction, I can help her to understand the ideas. She does not know ASL, but she already exhibits what I would say is a different cognitive strategy (manifested in lip reading instead of listening, for example, even when she can hear my utterances) than I, as essentially a member of the hearing community, normally use. Events like going to church or social gatherings are highly stressful (she is avoiding going to a Bingo night with a friend even as I write this) not because she cannot “hear,” but in her own words, “those experiences just feel so odd to me – they stress me out.” She lacks comfort not with hearing (which she can do), but hearing-based patterns of cognition.

The point of cognitive strategies as related to sense analogues for thought is not a minor one, and has been the subject of much intellectual inquiry. The term “Enlightenment,” for example, one used in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, uses visual cues for the sense of sight to explain what it is to understand something. We “throw light on subjects,” or provide a “vision” of our goals for an academic institution. But as the scholar Walter J. Ong has pointed out, these sense analogues for thought processes are, though rooted in human biology, also a matter of social variability:

It is useful to think of cultures in terms of the organization of the sensorium. By the sensorium we mean here the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex. The differences in culture which we have just suggested can be thought of as differences in the sensorium, the organization of which is in part determined by culture while at the same time it makes culture… for abstract thinking the proximity senses—smell, taste, and in a special way touch (although touch concerns space as well as contact and is thus simultaneously concrete and abstract)—must be minimized in favor of the more abstract hearing and sight. Growing up, assimilating the wisdom of the past, is in great part learning how to organize the sensorium productively for intellectual purposes… The sensorium is a fascinating focus for cultural studies. Given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects. (Ong, The Presence of the Word 6)

It makes sense that human communities would arrange their culture making strategies around the senses of hearing and sight – they cannot help it, because as a pair they are the fundamental way we learn about something without having to risk touching or tasting it (which could be fatal in the wrong circumstances). But as Ong discusses elsewhere, as an oral culture (one which does not have written words) attempts to understand something, they would not classify information the way a post-writing culture would. They would see, for example, wood, fire, flint and meat as a reasonable group (because they all imply the same action), but would not see hammers, axes, and flashlights under the same category (they are tools, we would say) because categorical thinking is more highly developed in a print-based world. More on this can be seen in Ong’s Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word, but the point here is that even between hearing communities, the one oral and the one based on the written word, fundamental cognitive differences exist not only in the structure of communication, but in the relationships conceived between those structures (the grammar and rhetoric), and thus what will seem like a persuasive idea (rhetoric).

It is specious, therefore, to think that the fundamental marker of foreignness of a language is rooted in geography. I imagine that a Native American language such as Tuscaroran, which is only recently being codified into a written language here at Niagara University, and despite the appellation “American” would not, I think, be disbarred from the reasonable recognition that Tuscaroran is a foreign language to American English speakers. Advances in ASL in the U.S. and Canada, for that matter, might contribute to sign languages being developed further on the global scene, given our visible status on the international scene. The foreignness of cognitive strategy becomes apparent even in the most basic of interactions between hearing and deaf individuals. Without even thinking of it, I told Professor Vollmer that I was “listening” to her concerns – what I meant (although I also meant that I was hearing her) was that I was intently regarding her ideas with respect and sympathy. We load so much significance into that word – when we tell someone that we “hear” them, we often mean something like, “I can feel the persuasive power of what you’re saying,” even if we do not agree. Should it be argued that foreign languages are studied into appreciate a diversity which expands beyond our horizons, then the cognitive shift required in moving from a hearing-based to a deaf-based way of communication (which is also a way of contemplation and community building) achieves that end in a way that does not merely extend beyond American shorelines but beyond cognitive biases we may harbor about what constitutes real intellectual work. Deafness is not like other disabilities, which require accommodations, often in the form of particular tools; ASL is not a tool, but a dynamic facility of expression which can enrich even a hearing person’s conception of communication. It would seem strange to argue that deaf culture is not exotic enough because it is formed within a particular region, when something as fundamental as a culture’s cognitive patterns, which necessitate a different approach to expression, is what is at stake in learning ASL.

Concerns, furthermore, that conferring the dignity of a foreign language to ASL will harm other foreign languages strike me as unnecessarily alarmist and even ableist (discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). The only reason someone might take ASL instead of Spanish, for example, under this view is that they are under the illusion that ASL is “easier” than Spanish, which given the reasons above (the differences in grammar between ASL and American English, and the fundamental shift in mental strategies involved in communication) is not the case, as any first year ASL learner (such as my mother) realizes immediately when communicating with someone fluent in the language. Advocacy of the importance of learning foreign languages is the responsibility of those who teach them, and they do so well. Student choices in such matters in any case are typically overseen by advisors, and advisors will be able to help students to decide which foreign language is best suited for their particular career goals. In many cases, this will not cause students en masse to stop taking other foreign languages in favor of ASL, especially if part of the rationale for giving ASL foreign language status is that it presents the type of challenging cerebral efforts involved in learning a fundamentally different way of communicating, which it is. Furthermore, any concern that more people with facility for ASL would harm the job market for ASL interpreters would be an argument that could be applied as easily to any other foreign language, and yet it is not used against the idea of having a baseline foreign language requirement to preserve the job market for French ambassadors or translators. Such an argument would, again, be based only on the naïve assumption that ASL is easy and that basic facility with it equips one as much as someone who has devoted a major or minor to it (which is, to be clear, not a possibility). A skillset does not equal a career, but may enrich that career, and just as it is good for the Spanish speaking community in America for more students to have some working knowledge of Spanish (however basic), it is good for the deaf community to have awareness of their culture and modes of communication manifested in a less marginalized way.

Finally, the foreign language requirement stresses in most case not only speaking and listening in a given language, but reading and writing. It may be argued that reading and writing do not exist in ASL and therefore that it does not have the depth or rigor of learning other foreign languages. But writing is in fact an externalization of auditory processes, as has been discussed by Walter Ong in “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The illusion that words, such as the words you are reading now, are fixed and silenced is an illusion of imaginative habit, because in fact every time you read you sound a word to yourself. The neural systems which allow members of the hearing community to hear are still at work when reading. Currently, writing is primarily a visual extension of an auditory facility, and so of vital importance to learn in other foreign languages, but preventing ASL from being a language on the basis that it does not operate like a hearing-based language is effectively to bar it from foreign language status on the basis that it is foreign from cognitive strategies familiar to hearing communities.

Perhaps a more rigorous ASL writing system, along with an improved ASL curriculum, texts, certification, and other foreign language benchmarks are nonetheless desirable, but these things exist for other foreign languages because foreign language speakers have had the benefit of development at institutions of learning since at least the universities of the Middle Ages. The curriculum of any foreign language emerged when figures such as Dante and Boccaccio, for example, strengthened the need and desire for a curriculum in the medieval Italian university, at a time when someone might have well argued that Latin is all one needs to be a true intellectual. The rise of the very vernacular languages which a foreign language department hosts required a willingness to design, develop, and institute such disciplinary advantages. ASL is at the beginning of this process, and it would be an injustice, I think, to halt the process on the grounds that it is not yet the discipline it could be (to say little of what it already is, which is quite a lot). Many institutions, such as my own, have adopted ASL as an option, but more work needs to be done, institutionally and personally, in providing the language with the status it deserves. For these reasons, I believe that American Sign Language should be classified as a foreign language, on the basis of both sense-based cognitive theory and classic conceptions of the distinctiveness of one language’s fundamental operations (how it is used correctly as regards grammar, rhetoric, and logic). Therefore, I recommend that institutions which host ASL learning embrace it fully in the foreign languages community and curriculum.

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Images from the report:

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The memorandum to the SUNY Academic Officers from the SUNY Provost announcing the Student Mobility Steering Committee’s recommendation that the pro-“ASL as a foreign language” side be taken by the SUNY academic system, and that this recommendation would be duly implemented in SUNY programs.

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Table of contents for the many appendices submitted by the committee, in which my opinion piece appears as the second item under Appendix E, “Language Theory.”

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First page of my piece as it appears within the report.

 

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The wonderful ECC professor who asked for my contribution gave me this penguin USB stick as a gift. Aww!