DragonBall Z and the Development of My Intellectual Imagination

In my freshman composition course, I have students write about personal interests to discover the “Hidden Intellectualism” in their lives, as Gerald Graff calls it. This process helps them to discover that their own experience is not as far removed from the academic world as they think. To model the process, I wrote this “rough draft” of an essay about my youthful interest in DragonBall Z, along with commentary about the essay’s structure and how I might improve it if I were to revise it.

Growing up, one of my favorite shows was DragonBall Z. Now that I am an English professor, I sometimes feel embarrassed to admit that I am a fan of the show because I fear people will think my artistic interests are immature. However, as I will discuss, I believe the show actually does have more value than people realize. I use Gerald Graff’s essay, “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” to help clarify my reasons why I believe my interest in DragonBall Z has intellectual and academic interest. I also provide research which shows that DragonBall Z is part of a larger history of literature and art, which most academics would agree are legitimate subjects of investigation. Overall, I believe that DragonBall Z encourages teenagers to grow their imaginations and to use their abilities in a heroic way, and so I will argue that DragonBall Z can be appropriate for consideration in the classroom.

I remember seeing the name DragonBall Z on the TV program when I was in Middle School, and I was immediately interested. I did not know what the show was, but I liked dragons from an early age, and so I was curious to see how dragons played a role in the show. I had just arrived home from school, so when I turned the episode on, it had already been airing for a few minutes. As a result, I had no idea what was happening. The show was following a lost little boy with black hair through the woods, and he stumbled upon a green man in a turban meditating. As the green man meditated, it became clear that his meditation was creating some kind of physical reaction in the environment; he was changing his environment through sheer force of will. I thought that premise was interesting, so I began to follow the show regularly. It turned out that the little boy, Gohan, was the son of the main character, Goku, and the green man was Piccolo, once Goku’s enemy who was becoming Goku’s ally. Goku, I would learn soon, was one of the few remaining members of an alien species called the Saiyan, which explained why he had so much power. Piccolo was also an alien, which explained his green skin and super powers. DragonBall Z, for the most part, follows Goku’s quest to be a mighty warrior and his commitment to defeat evil, and also portrays the lives of his family, friends, and allies.


One of the most inspiring abilities some characters have in the show, including Goku, is the ability to transform their bodies through intense training and meditation.  Goku’s race, the Saiyans, in particular have the ability to become Super Saiyans, a transformation which turns their hair fiery white or blond and their eyes green or blue. When they turn into this state, they emit a golden aura that looks like fire glowing around a candlewick. Something about this theme in the show captivated me, though I could not quite understand why. A large part of it is, I believe, the circumstances under which the characters in the show are able to transform. When they are faced with horrible tragedy, often at the hands of villains, the characters find a way to overcome their own despair and limitations. By becoming something more than they once were, they are able to turn their wills into reality. As someone who grew up poor and who had few friends because I moved so often as a child, the idea of overcoming hard times and changing yourself to meet challenges inspired me. I did not realize that this was what the show was doing to my imagination at the time, but in retrospect, I think DragonBall Z gave me hope.

Some might argue that it is silly to take hope from a show that is so obviously imaginary. In fact, some people I knew did not like DragonBall Z at all, simply because the imagination it required was too ridiculous. My stepfather always made fun of me for watching the show, because he thought it was too immature for someone my age, especially as I entered into my college years. An adult should not watch cartoons, but should find something practical with which to occupy his time. I agree that being practical is important, but to even know what is practical, we need our imaginations to be developed. Furthermore, some things in life that matter the most, like having a puppy, falling in love, having children, or finding art beautiful are important exactly because they are not practical: they are meaningful on their own terms. Furthermore, sometimes the practical application of art and storytelling does not become apparent until years after you encounter it. For these reasons, although I understand where my stepfather was coming from, I still think DragonBall Z is worth my time. And I think it could be worth other people’s time too, for reasons I will discuss shortly.

One thing which my stepfather’s objection to my enjoyment of DragonBall Z introduced me to was what Gerald Graff would call the intellectual desire to argue for something which I found personally valuable, in spite of his disagreement with it. According to Graff in “The University Is Popular Culture, But It Doesn’t Know It Yet,” one of the things which all academic areas hold in common is the need to properly use persuasive argument. He explains that “all academics, despite their many differences, play a version of the same game of persuasive argument” (Graff 21-22). So this means that historians, scientists, philosophers, and film critics, even though they are studying different things and are asking different questions, all need to learn how to argue properly in order to become experts in their fields. As a matter of fact, I would go on to become a professional literary critic, and have written about thirty conference papers, several published articles, a Master’s thesis and dissertation about numerous pieces of literature. Each of my pieces of writing includes an argument about how one can better understand or appreciate one of those pieces of literature.


Although my stepdad did not know it, he was training me in what Graff calls Arguespeak. Graff writes, “Learning Arguespeak means not simply manipulating a set of mechanical skills, but becoming socialized into a way of life that changes who you are” (24). Instead of simply becoming angry when someone disagrees with us, Graff encourages his readers to learn how to investigate why we hold the opinions we do – we can explore our opinions with curiosity the same way we explored the original thing we were interested about. Then we learn to listen to what others have to say about our opinions; if they agree, they can teach us new things about our perspective, and if they disagree, they might actually help us to better articulate why we think our opinion is good. Besides, everyone should be able to admit that they are not always wrong, so learning to listen and participate maturely in debate grows us into better adult citizens of our communities. DragonBall Z is a show about epic battles, but it led me into an even better confrontation: I needed to learn how to deal with disagreement. Graff would say this was an intellectual experience, and as such had academic value. Besides, I also learned how to be a better literary critic, which would one day become my chosen profession. DragonBall Z, definitely popular culture, helped to lead me straight into academia, just as Graff predicted.


Of course, Dragonball Z connects to the academic subject of literary history, and literary history connects to research into real historical events. DragonBall Z was inspired by The Journey to the West one of the four most important pieces of classic Chinese literature (Clements 101-102). This helped me to understand that, even though it is a children’s cartoon, DragonBall Z is part of a profound cultural legacy of storytelling. Because DragonBall Z is about heroes who face evil, this also connects the show to what the scholar of comparative mythology Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. Throughout different cultures and modes of storytelling, Campbell argues, “the basic outline of the universal mythological formula of the adventure of the hero is reproduced, to the detail” (16). The hero’s imaginative symbols help us to meditate on our own personal crises and growth: “He is the hero of the way of thought—singlehearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free” (Campbell 18). Although Campbell knew nothing of DragonBall Z, that description of the hero applies precisely to the character of Goku. This led me to research heroes in animation, and one particularly interesting essay I found was called “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters,” which discussed the difference between American comic books and Japanese manga: “From the early 1950s forward, manga clearly played a far more significant role in Japanese society than American comic books… did in the United States” (Szasz 729). Because two major cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were hit by atomic weapons, the Japanese imagination had to contend with the real history of nuclear holocaust in a way that Americans had not: “Unlike their US counterparts, ever since 1945, manga artists have placed the atomic theme at the very heart of Japanese popular culture” (752). This helps to contextualize why Akira Toriyama, born only ten years after the US dropped the atomic bombs on his country, felt compelled to imagine a superhero like Goku, who could easily stop such a weapon.


Because DragonBall Z connects directly to Campbell’s belief that the literary hero helps us to find hope when faced with historical and personal crisis, it also supports Graff’s argument that popular culture is related to important questions academics must ask. After applying the idea of the hero’s journey to Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan, I realized that his ability to overcome his own abyss and become a greater hero was helping both American and Japanese audiences to form a richer, more heroic imagination. Goku’s transformation into a Super Saiyan in DragonBall Z is an invitation to open our imaginations to the wisdom hidden in the hero’s journey, and with rigorous academic and intellectual thought, maybe we can be transformed too.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.

Clemens, Jonathan; McCarthy, Helen. The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917 (1st ed). Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press. Web. 13 October 2017.

Graff, Gerald. “The University Is Popular Culture, But Doesn’t Know It Yet,” in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale University Press, 2004. 17-42. Print.

Szasz, Ferenc; Takechi, Issei. “Atomic Heroes and Atomic Monsters: American and Japanese Cartoonists Confront the Onset of the Nuclear Age, 1945-80.” Historian 69.4 (2007): 728-752. Web. 13 October 2017.

The Consolation Up in Here

The Boethius Rap (2012)

You gotta deal with Fortune’s wheel

Ignore the sadness it makes you feel

So read the Consolation of Philosophy

If you wanna know mankind’s teleology

‘Cause when it comes to Providence

you can’t just sit on your Muse’s fence

It’s kinda hard to understand the eternal

But you have a choice, so read Boe’s journal

In case you can’t tell, this is a parody of my own Boethian enthusiasm. Here lies the beginning and end of my career as a rap star lyricist. Even Boethians have to have fun.

Zombies, Dreams, and the Meaning of Music: A Tribute to The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan

It never occurred to me until I heard the heartbreaking news of Dolores O’Riordan’s unexpected passing this Monday that the two songs of hers I knew best, and returned to instinctively whenever my mind itched for the lovely oxymoron of her percussive and soothing vocals, were in direct contrast to each other.

Zombie, as many times as I heard it, sounded less lyrical than enchantingly cacophonous, a beautiful shriek like the eponymous monster, whose undead cries mirror with uncanny longing the sensuality that can only be found in life.

Dreams is the properly Romantic perception of the transcendent in the arms of infatuation – the place where foolish young love (as stupefying to the elderly as it is to the youthful at whom they scoff) glimpses at wisdom that the most universal truths are the ones that seem the most private and particular.

I realized that these songs are in a real sense two sides of the same coin. Appearing on No Need to Argue, Zombie is the clarion call of the Abyss to the wide-eyed threshold of departure articulated in the ideal-espousing reach of Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, a title which petulantly asserts meaning forward to the same voice that will sadly accuse your head of propagating a world of bombs, and bombs. And guns.

Written in response to an IRA bombing in 1993, Zombie is a protest song, but not just to the violence and the deaths it caused. It is a protest against a mind embedded in the self-emptying throes of ideology:

It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen
In your head,
In your head they’re still fightin’
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head they are dyin’

It’s a protest against Modernism’s first war, that set the tone for those who would refuse to look outside the text and stay in their head – to write on the mind an internalized myth of violence that rejects responsibility for involvement in the root cause of mayhem:

But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your
Head they are fighting

These tightly wound lyrics brilliantly accuse with guilt for that very accusation. The problem isn’t me – it’s you. Chesterton wrote a book entitled What’s Wrong with the World, and in the dedication he wrote, “…this book is what is wrong and no mistake.” This is where Modernism, like the Ouroboros, eats itself into becoming Postmodernism and sees the meaning we seek to find in the world as the violence that causes such silence.

Like the “How am I not myself?” scene in I Heart Huckabees, the question “Who are we mistaken?” is the hinge upon which modernism and postmodernism turn, or perhaps better a coin flipped with the rules “heads we lose, tails we don’t win,” with a pitiful hope that the coin might land on its edge, like a zombie caught between life and death. Or a vampire. [Skip to 6:05]

In Maps of Meaning, Jordan Peterson articulates the existential psychologist’s bid to land the coin on its edge, to find the thin line of meaning between chaos too brutal and order too binding, meditating on the fact that all the seeds of Nazism and suchlike evil ideologies are not flukes or freaks of nature but dangerous possibilities hidden in the subterranean dreams of everyone – “their” tanks, and “their” bombs, and “their” bombs, and “their” guns are in your head. The human mind crafted, painstakingly, those technologies, and the sleeping desire for the violence they promise is something our Zombie self reach for even as it labels that violence as theirs and not of ourselves and our families and the shadow of our ideals.

Peterson writes, “It has been almost twelve years since I first grasped the essence of the paradox that lies at the bottom of human motivation for evil: People need their group identification, because that identification protects them, literally, from the terrible forces of the unknown. It is for this reason that every individual who is not decadent will strive to protect his territory, actual and psychological. But the tendency to protect means hatred of the other, and the inevitability of war—and we are now too technologically powerful to engage in war. To allow victory to the other, however—or even continued existence, on his terms—means subjugation, dissolution of protective structure, and exposure to that which is most feared. For me, this meant ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t”: belief systems regulate affect, but conflict between belief systems is inevitable” (Peterson, Maps of Meaning 460).

In your head, the identities are crying. The heart of belief is taking over…. In your head, in your head…. They are fighting. But in its rhythmic structure, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” despairingly true as the thought seems about the danger of believing thought (making us dangerous) or disbelieving it (making us helpless to danger), it is a colloquial codification of ugly truth in a balanced positive and negative: it’s music, and music is harmony between things which properly produce a tension that could be disharmonious. Zombie is a Petersonian celebration of tragedy.

Dreams, for that same reason, is a Petersonian comedy, because it roots transcendent meaning in an asymmetrical balance between the mystery of the nocturnal personal theatre (where the psycho-spiritual realm whispers gripping mythologies beyond the capacity of the individual to formulate while awake [internal formulations that couldn’t be ideological, because ideology is a tyranny of interpretive will] – but dreams are never quite what they seem, and so their encoded messages slip out of the easy bifurcations of waking oversimplifications) and the infatuation of the beautiful Other who opens the mind to external existence that brings dream into the visible world.

Life becomes transformative in the presence of dreams and romance because both are so subjectively impressed that they are far more objective than the emotions and even more so than the senses, which any Zombie can casually turn into tools of tanks and bombs and bombs and guns. Zombies can put the world into their head and force their head into the world, but you can’t be a zombie and really dream or really perceive a romantic Thou. Zombies can only see things, but dreamers and lovers want to ignore the impossibilities attendant upon the ever changing business so rudely stuffed into the monosyllabic title of Life.

“The soul departs from the face of beauty, when the eye begins to doubt if there be any soul behind it.” – George MacDonald, A Sketch of Individual Development, 34

Peterson’s book, Maps of Meaning, has on its cover an image called The Meaning of Music, which you can see here: https://jordanbpeterson.com/meaning-of-music/

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” is the message you receive if you attempt to fix the image into a solid, rational pattern, where lines and angles stand in frustrated near-irresolution, but behind it, if you let your eye dream over the edges, you find the tensions impossible to ignore, the uncompromising incompatibilities resolving into life. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is the sacred language of the profane catch-22, like a song about which you can say, “I know I’ve felt like this before, but I’m feeling it even more.”

46 is too young for a talented artist to die, and the raw meeting place of tragedy and beautiful music cannot and should not be contained in our heads. Tragedy cannot be explained because it is the actual place where reality breaks down and explanation loses coherency. But tragedy can be dreamed into meaning if we can set the coins to spinning instead of trying to make them still on their edges.

“The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists.” – George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination 195

Science must give way to metaphysics if we let the dreams do their work. True psychology, soul-study, is the flight from the mistaken silence of zombies to the music of the most fully possible way, impossible to ignore.

A powerful dreamer sleeps, yet her voice still echoes to those who mourn. I pray that you rest in peace, Dolores O’Riordan.

Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves: Tolkien’s Taming of the Romantic Imagination

Tolkien shares his understanding of the imagination in On Fairy Stories, where he defines it as “the mental power of image-making” (47). He sternly yet with gentleness reproves those who would conflate the term with “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.” This is, no doubt, a reproof of the Romantic movement’s enthusiasm for the imagination and defense of the attacks the faculty had endured at the hands of Enlightenment thinkers. We can see this Romantic sensibility in, for example, Emerson in Poetry and Imagination:

“For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form. All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms.”

Tolkien certainly would not object to the idea that the imagination is key in reading what medieval writers referred to as “the book of the world,” but I think his critique here is akin to Boethius’s ordering of the mental faculties: the imagination extracts patterns from the senses, and then reason fits those patterns to judgments. The great effort of continually matching sensory experiences, imaginative perception and rational assessment constitutes a Vision of a given subject matter – the experience of “an inner consistency of reality.” This process is as necessary to undergo in order to understand economics and gravity in the real world as it is the relationship between dragons and knights in fantasy literature, but it is in the realm of Fantasy that we in particular learn to develop and hone our skills of image-making – the craft of imagination, as I like to call it.

This means, I think, that Tolkien is critiquing, but not rejecting, the Romantic insight that imagination is more than just a stepping stone in the process of making meaning in the world (the goal to which fantasy is an indispensable adjunct). But it is the sustained application of Reason to imaginative creations which results in the sub-creation, and that process is where the Artistry lies, not merely in one’s ability to think up a dragon. This, I think, is where so much fantasy falls short – it gluts the reader on imaginative productions, but to little end or to bad ends altogether. The imagination is a perilous realm, let us not forget, and to think it is unequivocally good would be to treat it as wholly unlike anything else we experience (and if we are vigilant, unlike the imagination as we have experienced it in our lives). There’s a deficient account of perversity, as Poe would call it, in the Emersonian view, and that I think is what Tolkien’s regard for craft ameliorates in his vision of the imagination.

Chapter 2 of the Silmarillion, “Of Aule and Yavanna” presents, I believe, this critique in narrative form. Aule creates Dwarves in an act of genuine imagination, and yet something is off given his desire to keep the act secret: “But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret” (43). Reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Aule attempts to defend himself when Iluvatar confronts him for the improper deed: “And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” He calls himself a “child of little understanding” although he intended “no mockery” of his father – he realizes that he had acted upon his imagination with no regard for the greater artistic vision of the reality for which he was in part to steward responsibly. In grief, Aule moves to destroy the Dwarves and Iluvatar stops him from so doing, merely requiring that the Dwarves be sent into a profound slumber until after Iluvatar’s children have awoken. The dignity of Aule’s imaginative homage to his father’s creative power (the father here being of course God, but also as such the voice of his duty to his community beyond his own imaginative pleasures) is made all the more pleasurable by his earnest repentance and the wonder of his work, which has already taken on a life of its own. (There is a whiff of Abraham and Isaac here, too, which I’m sure the Tolkien scholars have remarked upon.)

We see here the theme clearly: imagination is a productive, powerful, and beautiful force, but its creative powers must be employed with a reasoned duty to the larger concerns of propriety. Creating new living beings who (as the ensuing drama with Yavanna underscores, even after Iluvatar’s blessing) will have an impact on their environment, as well as now have the burden of existence foisted upon them, is no small decision, and the manner in which our imaginative flights of fancy might take on form in the world is likewise worth its own consideration. Careless making, or for that matter careless unmaking, in our personal fantasies may have unimaginable consequences beyond what we can immediately conceive.

Yavanna, aware that Aule’s work is not unlike Melkor’s in some ways and that it has impact on the environment about which she cares so deeply, thus goes to Manwe for permission to create guardians of the trees. Manwe is skeptical of the notion of these beings; “Yet it was in the song,” she tells him, “ For while thou wert in the heavens and with Ulmo built the clouds and poured out the rains, I lifted up the branches of great trees to receive them, and some sang to Iluvatar amid the wind and the rain.” Yavanna’s act of imagination, recourse to the great shared Vision of the Song of the Ainur, is circumscribed by consideration of her community, the authority of Manwe and the needs of the flora but also of her own internally cultivated wisdom. She is the Tolkienesque poet who speaks for the trees and their shepherds, but does not, unlike Aule, become tunnel-visioned by the enchantment of her own imagination. Her imagination follows the craft of art, a reasoned meditation on the vision provided by Iluvatar’s book of the world.

Manwe, inspired by her request, then has his own memory of the Song which leads to his conception of the Eagles, and here we see Tolkien conceding to the transcendentalist notion of the Romantic reverie: “Then Manwe sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded… Then it seemed to Manwe that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before.” This, after all, is the mark of the great Songs – the music that we listen to again and again discovers to us new visions we had not guessed even when we judged it beautiful. This genesis of Eagles, Ents, and Dwarves is the philosophical and community-revivifying vision through which Tolkien emphasizes his narrative critique and recalibration of the Romantic imagination. Reasoned art lifts imagination out of the threat of narcissistic image-making, shepherding us into communion with unheeded glimpses of significance in the artistry of Being, forging us through the hammer of symbol and anvil of life to become children of the Song.

“Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds?”

The Liberal Arts Philosophy of Frederick Douglass


I presented this talk in PowerPoint format at St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Sanborn, NY in the Spring of 2017. This is a localized application of the classic liberal arts pedagogy which I set forth in a previous post, The Role of Literature within the Liberal Arts Philosophy. I have admired Frederick Douglass since I first encountered his writings as an undergraduate student, specifically in My Bondage and My Freedom, the second of his three autobiographies. This talk, however, focuses on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the first of the biographies published in 1845. In today’s culture, where the modern university is struggling financially and ideologically to find its place in the world, taking a moment to understand how education requires both proper motivation and suitable conception to be valuable, I think pausing to reflect over the impact education had upon Douglass’s life has value for all of us. Douglass was not educated within the institutions of the Liberal Arts curriculum, and yet he develops, through the occasions of grace which he seized upon with impressive energy, effort, and conviction, a philosophy of the liberal arts which would have earned the admiration of any classic liberal arts pedagogue.

A good liberal arts perspective recognizes the importance of defining terms before using them in conversation, because basic vocabulary is what we build our thoughts upon, and our thoughts shape our lives. So we must begin with philosophy – which in Greek means “the Love of Wisdom.”


Of course, this presents us with other difficulties – what do we mean by Love, and what by Wisdom? As we shall see, although Douglass had many critical things to say of those Christians in America which did nothing to oppose slavery (or, shamefully, even supported it), at the root of Douglass’s philosophy was the essence of the Christian understanding of Love: that it is the primary mode of being by which we ought to engage both God and man. The two halves of the Great Commandment from Christ sets out a framework that applies to every aspect of human endeavor, which would include education. To learn math well, for example, does not just require a rational effort: you must engage the challenges of math with all you’ve got, especially if you’re terrible at it like I happen to be. Then you must be able to find local application for that math – to simply know it is not enough.

This is where neighborliness comes into play – Is your checkbook balanced, and do you help your friend who needs a financial hand? The theory and practice of any subject in education must be brought together if they are to be wise, or else they can become mindlessly “useful” (which might leave aside the question of whether it is good) or pointlessly intelligent (the vice of sloth about which academics must always be careful). It is Love, the desire for wisdom, the universal truth applied and directed to the concrete particular (the individual submitting to God and loving his neighbor), which converts such knowledge into wisdom. And it is the lifelong pursuit of this conversion of subject matter into a better life which makes one a philosopher. We see Frederick awakening to the duties of loving his neighbor in the following, horrific experience which imprinted itself upon him as a child:


Douglass’s fear is an intertwined terror that this could happen to him too, as well as the overwhelming feeling of helplessness in the face of such monstrous abuse. Seeing such abuse might well render one monstrous – after all, for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Yet there is a choice involved: do you become like the violence around you, or do you choose to rise above it precisely because you saw first-hand how horrible it was? Although Douglass does later learn to wield the strength of his arm, it is in defense rather than in vicious offense. But what awoke in him at that moment was a recognition that something was terribly wrong with the world in which he lived, and he developed a thirst to transcend it. The inarticulate cries of the abused female slave were juxtaposed with Douglass’s own acute perception of the knowledge he lacked which white children his age had and took for granted.


Frederick’s experience of a deeper, spiritual reality within his private meditations opened him to the world of ethos – the inborn predisposition to rhetoric that comes with being a person, an undeveloped yet intuitive attachment to a truth within his mind, heart, and soul that could not be quenched even with all the adversity to which he was subjected. Powerful as this insight was, however, he knew it was an inkling and knew he needed to find a way to develop this deep conviction from an intuition to articulated truth which shaped and sustained his identity, and could be shared with others. For this, he needed the arts which refine and develop the natural gifts of human beings – the arts.


Arts relate to particular subject matters, but also show how those subject matters integrate into other subjects, as well as how they weigh upon real life. Access to these arts was something Douglass realized demarcated a profound difference between him and his fellow slaves, and between those who had liberty.


It is an unfortunate and heartbreaking truth that even in its conception, education was crafted by men who often held slaves or even argued for its existence. Yet it is sometimes to the credit of people that often they are not entirely consistent in their beliefs – ordinarily inconsistency would be considered an intellectual vice, but the slaveholder who espoused education had in his grasp the very lens by which he might see his own folly. Since ancient times, it was believed that the effect of learning was to free the soul, to make it less dependent upon the chains of Fate, the fickleness of social descriptions and capriciousness of unjust abuses of authority. Just as slavery was antithetical to the institution of the Constitution’s philosophy even though, for a time, it was permitted under the Constitution, in the same way there is a deep and unsustainable tension between the belief in the edifying power of education upon the human soul and the belief that humans can be treated as property. This was Frederick’s fundamental realization.

[It must be realized here that “liberal” ought to be rigorously separated in this context from politically liberal, because I believe that the liberal arts philosophy is one that ought to form a common ground between all members of a Democratic Republic, rather than one political party. The politicization of the University, a process which has been under way for sometime, has exacerbated negative feelings between political Liberals and Conservatives, undermining in my view the power education has to create productive dialogue between people with different political temperaments and beliefs. This is, to my mind, a very sad state of affairs.]


Mrs. Auld was not an abolitionist – it was her husband who owned him as a slave, after all. But her belief in slavery was at natural, and unrecognized, odds with her identity as a teacher – without any subversive intent, she simply began teaching him how to read. Mr. Auld, however, was aware of the implications (and so more wicked in his actions) when he put a stop to the lessons. Frederick realizes that it is the withholding of knowledge that was a major supporting structure in the power which slaveholders held over their slaves, and so his longing for knowledge went from a spark to a flame. He would stop children in the street and challenge them to reading contests in order to extract their schoolroom knowledge from them, a brilliant sleight of hand. What Douglass realized, as perhaps the children did not but as Mr. Auld did, was that becoming knowledgeable is an inherent value, and as it instructs the individual into greater refinement of identity, being subject to lower order desires for good things on the behalf of others becomes, in proportion, less tolerable.


When someone asks you, “Why do you want to be healthy?”, the right reaction is to give them a puzzled look. It is not for anything which we desire health, not initially anyway. It is simply something we desire, and other actions we take (exercise and dieting for example) are explained by the desire to be healthy, not the other way around. So it is with cultivating wisdom through the absorption of knowledge. The soul wants it, more than anything useful or pleasant, and just needs the right motivation to realize it. In the case of Douglass, the manner in which slavery caused a conflict between higher and lower order goods was what caught his attention and motivated him to begin to educate himself.


To destroy a family for profit, as had happened to Frederick in his inability to know his mother (and indeed to be separated from his father, who was probably his first slaveholder), was a destructive subordination of a higher order good to a lower order one. We do, even in less dramatic circumstances, sometimes get confused about which goods to privilege in life, which is why, in the liberal arts philosophy, it is necessary to cultivate the virtues, which are those inborn capacities that can be developed and refined through the arts.


A life is not complete if it has not to some degree cultivated both the life of the mind and the life of action, as well as the sub-virtues associated with each. We are all, of course, going to be better at certain virtues and be disposed, for a variety of reasons, to different uses of them, but some manifestation of reason, imagination, and sensory sophistication integrated with discipleship to that which we deem worthy of development, practicing leadership when we have absorbed an appropriate amount of discipleship in the particular arenas in which we participate, caring for our bodies and pursuing a meaningful career of some kind, is necessary regardless of profession. But slavery is deleterious to every dimension of self-development, as we can see in Douglass’s account:


Slaves betray their reason by being forced to lie, have their imaginations hounded by the fears involved in seeking liberty, and have their senses deprived of essential experiences of physical development (seeing mother’s face). They were cut off from the life of action by being refused discipleship, punished for exercising leadership when they had obtained appropriate skills for doing so, prevented from caring from their bodies, and being arbitrarily and maliciously prevented from productive labor since it would loosen the bindings of servitude. It’s worth considering that if this is the external condition under which slavery occurs, then when we assault or neglect these virtues in ourselves, we create a sort of internal slavery. A slaveholder, Boethius would say, would himself be a slave to the irrational, unimaginative, and insensible desires that make him even want to hold such power over others. Douglass says as much in many places. And it is in language where the tools for combating slavery can be found, as well as the perversion of those tools in which the promotion of slavery was made possible.


Our human capacities cannot but manifest themselves, and as George MacDonald says of the imagination, if we do not develop them to the good or repress them entirely, it is only a matter of time before our inherent qualities manifest themselves in negative ways. Thus one may use language to harm, but the art of language, to truly be a philosophically liberal use of that art, must promote the good for individuals with authentic and careful wisdom.


The law is in a sense the grammar of society, and defining individuals in such a way as to ensure that sexual abuse and slavery will not only come into conflict but will actually help to propagate each other is one of the most evil strokes of diabolical genius in American history. This is definition externally and illberally imposed by capricious society, and we can see a philosophical, artful realization of grammar when Douglass, by contrast, apprehends the powerful grammatical reality of his own identity as an abolitionist. Definition here is no mere textbook set of words, but the creation of unity between Douglass’s universal convictions and his practical goals in life.


The logical fallacy used by Mr. Gore, a type of slippery slope, is rooted in the psychology of projection – he assumes that black people would act as white people actually were. It is literally a pathological argument: he uses fear to abrogate the duties of reason. In the second case we see the proper use of logic – to order our perceptions to a better conception of human nature.


Rhetoric is the master discipline of the trivium because it takes the meaning of grammar and the truth of logic and uses it to evoke in the will an appropriate response – to properly feel as one ought to feel about a true and meaningful idea, and to act in accordance with that meaningful experience of truth. Mr. Covey’s words could certainly produce effects in the will, but he did it in a literally Satanic manner, for he militated against the truths of the mind, body, and soul. Meanwhile, in the midst of the enforced and lived lie which constituted the American institution of slavery, the strain of enslaved voices who could envision their freedom properly excites the passions to sympathy for the human condition of these people.


Douglass’s autobiographies, which I strongly recommend reading in their entirety, share this basic message: authentic education frees us from the maliciousness and capriciousness of unjust society, and incorporates us into an edifying world of scintillating ideas and purposeful actions. The effort to nourish our virtues through the study and practice of the arts is nothing less than the endeavor to become ourselves, and if we each sought truth with love with our whole power, and lived lives more responsibly with duty towards our neighbors, we would become philosophers such that we never ask, “What should I do today?”, but rather, “What can I be today?” We can let the uplifting and glorious light of truth into our souls and begin the self-fashioning work to which it calls all of us.

Anti-Freudian Postulation, Revisited

Talking to her was like a bad metaphor
It was putting on warm underwear
Fresh out of the dryer.
Which I know sounds sexual
But nobody puts on clean warm underwear that way.

We used to listen to the same kind of music
And I guess for some reason I thought
That meant we had an understanding.
The nodding head and the tapping toes
Moving, back and forth together, to the same sounds.

I know that sounds sexual,
But nobody listens to music that way.
We drank coffee together, and we both drank it black
Because that’s the right way to drink the right coffee,
Audacious flavor awakening on our lips.

We always made love after we drank coffee together
In the evenings, coffee we had made together
With a French press and I guess the music and the caffeine
Had us feeling excited and good.
And I know that sounds sexual.

But we didn’t make love like that.
It was conversation in low light with remnants of cigarette smoke
And the memories and the music turned into feelings
Articulating with bodies what we couldn’t put into words.
I wish we had just had sex, you know?

But we had conversations with our bodies
And that is hard to forget, when you knew what the words meant
When it didn’t sound sexual.
When sex is more than innuendo about itself,
That’s when heartbreak hurts.

Clarity of Imagination: C.S. Lewis’s Birthday

“Reason is the natural organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” – C.S. Lewis

On the anniversary of Lewis’s death earlier this week I wrote a partial reader’s autobiography of how Lewis’s works integrated into the span of my own life. Now, for the anniversary of his birthday, I want to celebrate how I believe Lewis’s attitude towards the imagination can edify human life.

My first time teaching Introduction to Literature left me somewhat disappointed. This was for a few reasons. One was entirely my fault – I overloaded the reading list and let my enthusiasm cloud what was practical. Also, I provided readings electronically, which I regard as an error for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the effect I think it has on the imagination: there are so many texts on the internet, and these just happen to be the ones our nutty professor assigned. Why are they due any special attention? As the course neared its end, I decided I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of this semester. In addition to hard copies and a lighter reading load, though, I realized that I had not clearly defined for myself the precise goal of what I wanted my students to get out of the course. Naturally it’s frustrating when they don’t like what I like, especially with the attention and devotion that goes into appreciating a text, but it’s more than that. Even when they did like the text, they often seemed to miss the larger purpose in why it was assigned. What were my students missing that I wanted them to see? What was it that I cared about and wanted them to care about, too? I wanted them to have meaningful, rich reactions to beautiful literature – not because I had assigned it or because I happened to like the particular piece of literature, but because I earnestly believed (as I told that class and still tell my students) that profound literary experience is profoundly important for a full life.

I remembered, as I was puzzling over this question, something C.S. Lewis had said about George MacDonald’s Phantastes – that it had baptized his imagination. Thinking about that phrase, I recalled that one of my favorite philosophical meditations on the imagination was MacDonald’s essay, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture.” It was then that I realized that this was exactly what was missing, in our culture, in my students’ perspective, and in my own pedagogy (which I have since developed and posted on this blog): a craft of imagination that doesn’t just treat the imagination as a given, overlooked and taken for granted, but instead sees it as an inborn capacity with a range of potential applications. Like every other inborn ability, the imagination must be developed – you need a method. From there, I designed my introduction to literature course, and it has been far better as a result. And I have realized that the philosophy of imagination I developed was centrally Lewisian in character, and stemmed from two basic texts: “Meditations in a Toolshed” and “On Stories.”

In the first essay, Lewis meditates upon a beam of light that enters into a slim crack in the toolshed door. He realizes the difference between looking at the beam of light as an object, versus along the beam of light as a tool for seeing the world. This is the fundamental issue with the imagination: we look at it as a curiosity, maybe a diverting source of entertainment – we look at products of imagination instead of looking through the imagination as a source of meaning-making. And when we do that, we lose out on the primary effect of imagination: to render a coherent picture of value out of our experiences in the world. After all, the imagination makes an image of our world, something Lewis knew medieval thinkers had developed into a sophisticated structure of rich interpretation that he discusses in The Discarded Image, to this date one of the finest introductions to the Middle Ages (and to the history of imagination in that period) which I have ever read.

Along with this meditation on how imagination fits into human life, Lewis’s “On Stories” more specifically analyzes how narrative attempts to capture in “a net of words” the things which mere words cannot capture unless they are embedded in an imaginative approach to the reactive power symbols can have on the human mind. Lewis’s essential point in “On Stories” is that the purpose of reading a story is not to have an emotional reaction – excitement, for example – but to isolate the emotional reaction itself and recognize it as rife with imaginative potential. We should not fear death: we should imagine what the fear of death means for life. Only stories can provide this enchanting distance, and the essay breathes in the air of Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, an essay which Lewis deeply appreciates and alludes to frequently in many of his own works.

I have an abiding fondness for Romanticism, but am sensible of the critique that Romantic ways of thinking can sometimes muddle the imagination. We must “inquire into facts,” as a fictional naysayer critiquing MacDonald’s perspective on imagination points out, but what Lewis makes clear in his toolshed meditation is that you cannot meditate on facts, let alone upon Truth, without an enriched imagination. Lewis brings together what is often in direct opposition for many people: a rigorous analytical process of thinking with an enraptured experience of wonder at the realities about which one thinks. The philosopher is worried that the poet might sweep us all away into sweet nothings at best and destructive falsehoods at worst, and the poet is worried that the philosopher will render us into nothing more than rationalistic and empirical events in a coldly objective world. Lewis, most poetic of philosophers, knew with a rare clarity of imagination that the height of poetic feeling could be found in the most careful of intellectual thought, and that robust rational effort was necessary to nourish a lively and Romantic experience of real meaning. The warmth of Lewis’s imagination came from its clarity of thought, from his ability to think crisply and carefully about both the mundane and the mysterious. That is the glorious weight of the divine imagine Lewis believed we all carry in the secret halls of our minds and that calls to us when we see wonder in the sacred book of creation within which all of our stories live, move, and have their being.

I remember once playing the videogame, Spyro the Dragon, and had an uncharacteristically cynical thought: well, after all, this dragon is just an abstraction we came up with from seeing a lizard, a bat, a dog, a fire…. And then I laughed. For what wondrous imagination it would take to conceive of a lizard, a bat, a dog, or fire – none of which is as complex as a mind which could consider or invent such things! That is the enchanting distance of story, as Lewis saw it, which reminds us to have joy in the creation of which we are a part. I can think of no better way to conclude this consideration of Lewis’s philosophy of imagination than with a joyful prayer – for even Lewis saw himself as a ruddy-cheeked, loud-voiced announcer of jovial wonder.

For Joy in God’s Creation. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

O HEAVENLY Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him by whom all things were made, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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 girlfriend 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.

Earth’s 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.


“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.


This story is a sample “B-Side” for the anthology “Of Gods and Globes,” in which my short story about Saturn appears! Preorder here:

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.