Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'With What Eyes': Seeing Tragically at Colonus


'With What Eyes': Learning to See Tragically at Colonus
Socrates asks us to consider two states of the soul that look the same to those who see someone in them, and that feel the same for someone experiencing them. A person stumbles and gropes about, because the eyes the soul are bewildered and can find no familiar object on which to focus, no anchor of safety on which to rest. It may be that one has stepped down from the light into darkness. Or it may be that, 'having turned from darkness to day [one] is dazzled by excess of light' (Republic 7.518). Genuine learning does not happen without disorientation. As one takes the first steps out into a fuller, bigger, brighter, realer reality, things turn out not to be what and where you always thought they were; things that you thought were solid give way when you lean on them; you bump into objects you didn't know were there, you stumble about in 'a region of unlikeness'. In extreme cases—which we all may be headed for—the very ground seems to give way beneath our feet, and we are suspended flailing in a horrifying free-fall. If we can bear this state of disorientation, suffer through it, then, slowly, a new and deeper ground will rise out of the darkness to support us, things will come into new focus, we will live a different life, conversant with mysterious realities. We will draw near to sources of blessing and power to which many are oblivious.

Think of Oedipus at the beginnings and ends of his two tragedies. At the beginning of Oedipus Rex he appears an almost god-like figure, hearing the cries of his people with great-hearted sympathy, poised to become their savior for a second time. At the end of the play, the ground has been swept out from under his feet—his life, as he has now discovered, is not the life he thought it was. The most familiar and basic realities—mother, father, marriage, home, city, daughters, sons—turn a countenance of horror toward him which bansishes all comfort, all stability, all peace from his world. For his relationship to each of these basic human realities has concealed a horrible, perverting secret. Most horrible of all, that secret is somehow he himself, who he is, what he is—and there is nowhere he can go to escape it. We leave him at the end of the play cast down from his former serene authority, flailing about in the face of his fate, his eyes bleeding from self-inflicted wounds—wanting to look upon the world no longer. Though in an agony more excruciating than despair, he does 'not choose not to be'. He does not despair. There is something of the proud and great-hearted king still in him, something that cannot be beaten into quiet submission and despair. He suffers a rapture of agony and disorientation, humiliation and shame, but he goes on. He does not choose not to be. It looks like he has been plunged in darkness, but could it be he is taking the first steps 'from darkness to day, dazzled by excess of light'?

At the opening of Oedipus at Colonus, we see an old man, beggar, vagabond, with no home or city to call his own, an oucast 'from whom men shrink,' polluted as he is by incest and parricide. He has suffered twenty years of hunger, weather, sleeping out of doors—relying on the charity of strangers—consoled only by the presence of his loving daughter, on whom he must lean for support and guidance. Instead of eyes, uncanny pitted hollows gape upon his face. And yet he is unbowed by all his calamities. In the slow passage of time, he has achieved an inner quiet in which he takes pride; “suffering and time, / vast time, have been instructors in contentment, / which kingliness teaches too,” he says (Colonus, 6-8). At the end of the play, he exits, not guided or leaning on others, but leading them (as far as they can follow), by means of an inspired second sight, into the sacred darkness at the heart of the cosmos, crossing the threshold of mystery to a place of blessedness, honor, and power into which heaven or earth, opening with love, receives him. He now sees aright. He is no longer dazzled by the darkness or excessive light of reality, but moves through its dimensions with a marvelous liberty and assurance.

How has he arrived at this almost god-like condition, so different from that which he seems to possess at the beginning of Oedipus Rex? I want to return briefly to what seems to me a crucial turning point in the first play, one without which the events of the second play could never have happened. Having realized the full horror of his actions, Oedipus rushes with wild frenzy into the house, where he finds his wife Jocasta—whom he now knows as his mother also—swaying dead from the roof beam. His drawn sword is in his hand. But instead of taking his life, he drives Jocasta's brooches into first one eye, then his other. The chorus of Thebes' old men does not understand or approve: “I cannot say your remedy was good.” they say, “You would be better dead than blind” (Rex, 1368). But Oedipus defends his action, protesting, “What I have done here was best done—don't tell me otherwise, do not give further counsel. I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father, when I die and go under the earth, nor yet my wretched mother ...” (Rex, 1370 ff.). This is a sublime response. For one thing, we see that Oedipus is thinking of the afterlife, the otherworld. Unlike the chorus who only want to rid the city of pollution, put it away, put it out of sight, out of mind as fast as possible, Oedipus knows that realities, the truth of things, cannot simply be dismissed. “I do not know with what eyes I could look upon my father ...” “With what eyes?” Not with these eyes that have deceived me, luring me on to think that evils were goods, that the monstrous horrors in which I have in fact been snared were comforting, sweet, and noble relationships. With what eyes, then?

Oedipus's act of self-mutilation, in fact, is a cry to the gods to grant him an entirely new way of seeing, a resurrected sight that has passed through destruction and calamity. In the midst of his darkness, he grasps upon the seemingly flimsly hope, yet hope nonetheless, that one day—in the underworld—he will encounter his mother and father, his children, and be able to see and love them rightly, though up to now everything has been wrong, wrong, wrong. Moments later he says, “Yet I know this much: … I would not have been spared from death, if not for some strange ... fate. Well, let my fate go where it will” (Rex, 1455).

In our play for today, Oedipus at Colonus, the Tragic poet Sophocles, himself at the end of his life, returns to his most famous and total Tragedy to see it anew, and reflect on what Tragedy—the work of his life—most really and fully means. What is it for? In the play, we see various ways of undergoing tragedy represented by Antigone, Polyneices, and, of course, Oedipus himself—as well as patterns of witnessing Tragedy, in the responses of the citizens of Colonus, and the hero Theseus. Creon falls into both categories, because he thinks he is witnessing a Tragedy when in fact, through his unfeeling pride, he is falling into one of his own making (a dire warning for us).

Like Sophocles, Oedipus has been reflecting on Tragedy. For twenty years he has been wandering through Greece, in his own inner darkness, led on by a fate that—as he recognized in the earlier play, “goes where it will”—all the while reflecting on the Tragic experiences of his life. As any tired beggar might, the old king sits down to rest on a kind of natural park bench made of stone within a cool, dark grove. He does not know that he has stumbled on the grove of the Furies.

Who are these august, terrible ladies whose sacred grove he seems to have violated? They are ancient, primordial goddesses, older than the Olympians, daughters of that original Night that is at the beginning of all things. The Night from which light and all things first came into being, a night pregnant with possibility and mystery, the night of creation and generation, but also the night of unmaking and annihliation—a night that remains in background and waits to engulf us all. The special domain of the Furies, the all-seeing ones, is to haunt and pursue with calamity those who have committed sacreligous violations, oath-breach, kin-slaughter, parricide, infanticide, incest, cannabalism—Oedipus's own life has been well acquainted with the Furies. Yet they are also called 'the Holy Ones', 'the Kindly Ones'. In part, these are euphemisms, we call them 'the kindly ones' because we hope they will be 'kindly' to us. But it's more than that; for to those who regard them wisely and uprightly (to those who dwell in sober recognition of possibilities terrible, as well as possibilities deeply happy), they grant blessings: friendships and homes and marriages with a fruitful and rich inner life, cities capable of courageous action and self-defense, reverent communities who stand in right relation to the divine. These blessings are represented by the inhabitants of the Furies' grove: in this space of shelter, protected from the sun, and immune to weather, dwell clear-running water, blooming flowers, the singing nightingale, the rooted olive tree 'planted by running streams,' the threshold of the otherworld, and, in the end, Oedipus' himself.

Oedipus' life has prepared him to receive the blessings of the Furies. When he learns from the scandalized citizen of Colonus that he has stumbled on the Furies' grove, he recognizes a providence in the action: “May they be gentle to the suppliant. / For I shall never leave this place” (Colonus, 44-5). This recognition is explained a few lines later in his prayer to the Furies to let him remain in their covert: “For when [Apollo] gave me oracles of evil,” he says “he also spoke of this: a resting place, / after long years, in the last country, where / I should find a home among the sacred Furies” (Colonus, 87 ff.). His whole life has been leading to this end, as he now sees. In that very oracle which before seemed to have foretold him only unspeakable horrors, he finds, after long reflection, a promise of blessedness. And to the people, the audience that can rightly receive him and his story—to those who can receive his Tragic wisdom—he will become a transmitter, a conduit and conductor, of the Furies' blessings. If we (the audience) reflect on his sufferings with openness and generosity, with pity and fear and growing understanding, his sufferings will deepen, strengthen, and bless our lives.

How then do we receive these blessed influences? In the citizens of Colonus and in Theseus, their king, we find a pattern of how to respond to the Tragic figure. When he first appears in Colonus, Oedipus seems to the citizens little more than a vagabond, the refuse of the earth—possibly a petty threat, likely harmless. Nevertheless, such people, beggars, outcasts, unexpected guests are protected by the gods—and a good city must try to do what it can for them. The lone stranger who first meets him challenges him for tresspassing, yet is courteous and informative, clearly proud of his little city and Theseus its Athenian King. He is interested in the stranger and recognizes that there is something out of the ordinary about him, “You're clearly well-born,” he says, “though obviously unfortunate” (Colonus, 76). Aristotle tells us that the tragic hero is someone “better than the average man, though not preeminently good,” and a person who suffers a terrible reversal of fortune. While not knowing his story, this citizen bypasser already senses Oedipus's tragic stature.

Perhaps because they appear in numbers—and a crowd is never as intelligent as its individual members—when the whole chorus of the townsfolk appear their response to the stranger is far more extreme, “Impious, blasphemous, shameless! / ... Not of our land!” they cry, “... Vagabond! Vagabond!” (Colonus, 120 ff.) They are indignant at his trespass, but they dread the inhabitants of the grove that he has made his own, and so fear to remove him forcibly. When they see him, they are initially struck with pity by his blindness, and ask him to come down from the grove to give an account. But, since they fear that he will contaminate them, they make him remain at a distance, still half in the grove, to speak with them. They are both attracted by pity and repelled by fear. His very presence makes them experience contradictory emotions.

But when they discover who he is, their repulsion is visceral and total. This is not just fear, but horror. And remember that Oedipus is horrible. He is polluted, unclean, 'one from whom men shrink'. Not only does he have monstrous hollows in place of eyes, he married and lay with his mother in love, re-entering the womb where his father, whose blood was on his hands, begot him; his sons are his brothers, his sisters are his daughters--”Away with you! Out with you! Leave our country!” “Wind not further your clinging evil upon us!” (Colonus, 226, 235-4)

Only the beautiful and faithful daughter Antigone, Oedipus' fellow sufferer, who has given up her life to care for him, manages to waken their pity again—she pleads with them and helps them see Oedipus not as grotesque monster, but a helpless man in need. Her eyes of love intercede with them to have pity on the eyeless father whom she has loved so selflessly. Such things as happened to Oedipus could come upon all of us, she says, “You will never see a man in all the world whom God has led to escape his destiny!” (Colonus, 237-50). This is a fellow human being like you and me—and what happened to him, could happen to you. The young Saint Francis could not bear to look upon, much less touch a leper, whose face and flesh were so horribly disfigured. When he learned to see a fellow human being in the leper, he took the first steps in the love of God. When he kissed him, he was flooded with peace and consolation and a new unshakable stability—and in the end he came to see, in the face of leper, the face of Christ. Tragedy makes us look at horrors that overtake and disfigure human life, things we recoil from, would prefer not to look, possibilities we would prefer not think about. It is okay, it is natural to feel revulsion (if you haven't felt it, that means you're repressing it—you will feel it eventually), but we must overcome that initial reaction and learn to look on monstrous suffering with kindness and a desire to understand.

Now the citizen-chorus is evenly poised between pity, fear, and horror—they can do nothing but listen, while Oedipus tells his story. He has gained new insight in twenty years, and now he can boldly insist on his innocence—he did horrible things, but he thought he was doing good and noble things—how could he have known otherwise? His horrible acts were things he suffered, not things he willed and performed. If the citizens of Colonus should add to his suffering by rejecting him (as the citizens of Thebes have done), they would commit a great injustice. Gesturing to the dark grove that looms ominously behind himself, he says, “In reverence to your gods, grant me this shelter. … Think, their eyes are fixed upon the just, fixed on the unjust, too” (Colonus, 275 ff.). With the Furies behind him, he warns them, “that he is one endowed with powers beyond nature” (Colonus, 287-6). Hearing this, the chorus allow that his is a weighty case, one that they are in no position to judge; they are content to wait until their King arrives.

As they wait, sitting and watching the blind Oedipus, their wonder and their curiosity grows. Though still in horror, they are no longer in shock—and their horror has been softened a bit by pity and awe. After a long silence, they address Oedipus again, with gently probing curiosity, “What evil things have slept since long ago, It is not sweet to awaken, and yet I long to be told ...” (Colonus, 510 ff.) Line by line, they draw his story out from him. This exchange is painful for him, and he suffers the old pain again in having it teased out in the open like this. And yet, to share it with a sympathetic audience is also healing. “You suffered” “Yes unspeakbaly” “You sinned!” “No! I did not sin! … Before the law—before God!--I am innocent!” We would like the sufferer to be guilty, because then we could separate himself off from us in our minds and hearts—we could pity him, yes, but from a position of superiority and immunity, in which we do not really enter into his fate with genuine compassion. Yet, bit by bit, these defences we throw up to seal ourselves off from the suffering creature, must be worn away, undermined, and we must see feelingly that we too are vulnerable to Tragedy. If we do not, we can neither truly see our world, or love each other genuinely, or act in it effectively—we will always be shying away from, resisting the truth of our lives. If you hide from the truth, the eyes of your soul will grow blind, your world will grow dim; within its blankets of self-protection, your heart will slowly, surely die. Watching a tragedy helps us be vulnerable and open to the action of the truth. And the truth will set you free.

The chorus is opening itself to this truth when Theseus appears to show and teach them (and us) how finally to respond to the Tragic hero. Theseus himself is a hero, he has battled down bandits, robbers, and cruel outlaws. Though he himself was born in another city, he freely took Athens' curse upon himself, delivered himself up into the labyrinth, did battle with the horrifying Minotaur in the darkness, prevailed, and so saved the city. Such a man has undergone himself the depths of privation and uncertainty. Such a man fears nothing. Nothing can unsettle him beacause he has given himself to his mission so totally. He has left behind natural, self-protective impulses and has made a venture, a gift of himself. He knows there are dangers, and that victory and hapinness are not certain in our mortal life. Because he does not hide from reality, he can act in accord with it. He sees right. He acts decisively.

Even if on my way I was not informed,
I'd recognize you, son of Laius. The garments
and the tortured face make plain your identity.
I am sorry for you. And I should like to know what favor here
you hope for from the city and from me. …
Tell me. It would be something dire indeed
To make me leave you comfortless, for I
too was an exile. I grew up abroad,
And in strange lands I fought as few men have
with danger and with death.
Therefore no wanderer shall come, as you do,
and be denied my audience and aid.
I know I am only a man; I have no more
To hope for in the end than you have. (Colonus, 553 ff.)

Theseus alone will see the mysterious end of Oedipus. It takes place off-stage and neither we nor the citizens of Colonus (who stand in for us in the play) are given this final vision. Yet we hear something of it, and can receive something of its mysterious blessing.

But in what manner
Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men
Could tell but Theseus. It was not lightning
Bearing its fire from God, that took him off;
No hurricane was blowing.
But some attendant from the train of Heaven
Came for him; or else the underworld
Opened in love the unlit door of Earth.
For he was taken without lamentation,
Illness or suffering; indeed his end
Was wonderful if mortal’s ever was. (Colonus, 1655 ff.)


Even Theseus, who alone beholds this mystery, shades his eyes 'as if from something awful, fearful and unendurable to see' (1650 ff.). If we want to be prepared for an experience of the-more-than-human, the more-than-natural, if we want to have hearts open to God, we must be open to the wisdom of tragedy, we must create a place within our minds, hearts, and cities to behold and dwell upon imgaes of the utmost suffering to which our human state is vulnerable. We must learn to see with clear and steady eyes of compassion. We must love the sufferer that we meet even as we love ourselves, and in doing so, we will recognize that we too are balanced precariously over an abyss of possiblities, terrible, horrible some of them, and some of them filled with divine blessing beyond what our minds can conceive.

Let us retrace the reactions and responses of the people of Colonus to the Tragic figure of Oedipus, and internalize their succession and pattern, so that we can receive the same education in Tragedy that they do.

We challenge the stranger courteously, and see that he seems like a noble man who has undergone some nameless misfortune. Since he trespasses in places that we would fear to tread, we are indignant and afraid of him—we would like to write him off as a trespassing vagabond, and get the proper authorities to take him away. But when we are reminded, by one who loves and cares for him, that he is suffering something that we could suffer too, we feel pity once more, and sit to hear the story. Yet when we recognize the deep horror of his experience, we recoil once more and more deeply, frantically wishing that this monster be removed from our experience, yet dreading to do so ourselves for fear of becoming contaminated or committing a terrible injustice. So we sit and wait, helplessly poised between pity, fear, horror, and an almost religious awe, and as we sit, we eventually grow quiet within, and quietly looking on, we see another human being once more, and are moved by curiosity and wonder, ready now to hear and imagine his story more inwardly, putting ourselves in his place, acknowledging that we are no position either to judge the suffferer or to seal off our world from his. Suddenly, the possibilties of our world are opened, deepened—life is more dangerous but also resonates with divine voices. Now, we are ready to follow Theseus, the hero who generously makes the lot of suffering humanity his business, and receives the blessing of Oedipus for himself and his people.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Marriage as the Root of Comedy in the Odyssey: Hard for Mortal Men to Dig Out

Marriage as the Root of Comedy in the Odyssey: Hard for Mortal Men to Dig Out

In the Iliad, Achilles is revealed in his full stature and spiritual depth only in book 24 where, out of all eyes, he is moved to admiration and generosity by the fearless devotion of Priam, the bereft father and humiliated king, in whom he sees his spiritual peer. Achilles recognizes a startling beauty in the actions of this noble enemy—and tells him that life (ineradicably mingled with evil though it is) is a gift to be received, and its loss accepted, with deepening courage and reconcilement. He himself prepares the body of his hated enemy for burial (securing an armisitice of 12 days so that the city can mourn its hero and its own now certain doom), and sits, weeps, and eats with the father, sharing the manly consolation of his hard-earned wisdom. The warrior over whom death hovers (and for whom life had seemed to have nothing further to offer) gazes in wonder at the “brave looks” of the old man and “listen[s] to him talking,” while to Priam, the young man whose death-dealing hands his own appeal has made gentle and generous seems, “in his size and his beauty, … an outright vision of gods.” The glory that Zeus owes Achilles as the counterbalance to his mortality only now finally appears—in the night, in Achilles' shelter, unseen by many. It is only by compelling Achilles to suffer, as none has suffered before, the bitter terms of mortality with deepening rage, sorrow, and final acceptance, that Zeus has made his hero a true revelation of the divine image in man. Out of the inward hollow left by the loss of Patroklos in his soul flows a pure and mysterious kindness. In caring for Priam, he shows man's capacity for goodness. In wondering at him, he sees man's potential beauty. This transformation of Achilles from superb warrior to a soul inwardly open to the divine movements of love is the glory which Zeus, nodding, agreed to bestow on him in book 1—revealing this mortal man to be in the image of the unknown God who, walking mysteriously among heroes and guiding them in the immortal night, dwells beyond Olympus and deeper than the house of death. The Iliad's final revelation of its hero thus comes to pass in the poem's most concealed sheltering—in the night, in Achilles' underground shelter, unseen by any save Priam, Automedon, and Antilochos.

Like Achilles, Odysseus aspires to heroic deeds at Troy. In book 2 when, in longing for homes and wives, the army makes a stampede for the ships, he inspires his own commitment to heroism in them all, reminding them of the gods' promise that the taking of Troy will be “a deed late, late to be accomplished, but whose glory will perish never.” Athena shines at his right hand as he awakens his own resilient courage (lover of home and wife though he is) in the heart of each man, so that “now battle became sweeter to them than to go back in their hollow ships to the beloved land of their fathers.” As with Achilles again though, the steadfast root of Odysseus' shining deeds and the final revelation of his glory, must be sought in a concealed sheltering out of the eyes of many (in the second-to-last book of his own epic). Just as Achilles undergoes a thorough remaking in the crucible of anguish, Odysseus must lose all he has and is, become a kind of nobody among men, a wanderer on land and sea, cursed, pummelled, and scarred, seemingly abandoned by the gods who support him—in order to find and reveal the deepest, most providentially confirming movements of his spirit, shelterered and brought to fruition in his marriage to Penelope.

Concealment seems congenial to Odysseus. Unlike Achilles, he is a man of many turns, a beautiful liar, a spinner of tales—he wears disguises, contrives strategems, gains his goals by dissembling them. His habit is to harbor his thoughts and feelings deep in his chest, to spring from cover and take enemies by surprise. In book 10 of the Iliad, he slips past Trojan lines wearing his grandfather's robber-helmet, extracts information from the cowardly Dolon with false assurances of clemency, spies out the enemy encampment, and steals the shining horses of Rhesus. It is his devices that ultimately take the city, playing cruelly on the unsuspecting piety of the Trojans. From beneath his disguise as “nobody,” his manipulation of anonymous possibilities concealed in the things of the world overpowers the much mightier Cyclops—and helps him escape peril after peril with his skin. But, for nine years, from the fall of Troy to when he is washed up on the shore of Scheria, Odysseus seems to wander farther and farther from his spirit's true home. It is precisely the endless versatility of his mind, both to see through and project persuasive concealments, to deploy appearances to achieve hidden goals, yes, to manipulate the base and noble dispositions of others, that threatens to usurp his inmost being, deplete and frustrate his deepest concealed longings and powers.

Odysseus' affinities for the kinds of concealment that can be practiced on others for the sake of victory, gain, survival, and dramatic effect are his heroic signature. (And wherever the stranger arrives in Homer's world, he is greeted with the challenge, “From where do you come sailing over the watery ways? Is it on some business, or are you recklessly roving as pirates do, when they sail on the salt sea and venture their lives, bringing evil to alien people?”) Yet what distiguishes our hero from a mere predator is his commitment to larger goods that gain and survival subserve—goods that can be prepared for, but cannot be attained by planning and execution alone, goods which surprise the soul in its inmost covert. Ends that the strategist does not give to himself, but the intuition of which transforms the record of his deeds into a story, and reveal a divinely bestowed pattern in his life. Beneath Odysseus the adventurer, the contender, the warrior, the trickster, the thief, the beguiling speaker is Odysseus the man, the sufferer. Not the “famous name” he has made for himself and is as anxious to proclaim to the defeated Cyclops as he is reluctant to share with the kindly Phaiakians. Rather, the nobody who is at the mercy of the elements, vulnerable to the kindness of a host, who—when listening to the words of the poet, cannot hide his tears over the victims of his own famous strategy at Troy but weeps like “a woman weep[ing], lying over the body of her dear husband, who fell fighting for her city and people as he tried to beat off the pitiless day; … she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her, hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders force her up and lead her away into slavery.” Who, when the girl Nausikaa stands up to his unpromising, near-naked and sea-beaten appearance on the beach, is so moved by her courageous welcome that, even while he takes advantage of her hospitality and plays on her hopes, “wonder takes [him] as [he] looks on her,” and a simile for her person rises unbidden from his memory, “yet once in Delos I saw such a thing, by Apollo's altar. I saw the stalk of a young palm shooting up … and as, when I looked upon that tree, my heart admired it long, so now, lady, I admire you and wonder.” Who tells to Alkinoos and Nausikaa and their people his whole unfinished story, both what is flattering and what is not, trusting in their goodness to help him, and in the gods to give a good ending. Who returns to his home not guided by the steering plots of his conscious mind, but ferried sleeping over sea, so that his return seems to come over him out of the deepest reaches of his heart, the concealed and artless center of his being.

This interior vulnerability, readiness, and receptivity belong to his God-given identity (perduring beneath and darkly shining through every disguise he adopts). It is this which his long trials and sufferings serve to expose, making him fruitful and wise. It is this that makes the man of many similes profoundly like himself in the end, empowering him to take possession of his own being, his household, kingdom, wife, and son. And this identity is protected and guaranteed most of all by his marriage to Penelope, to whom he has entrusted his uninvented being, his heart. His marriage to Penelope embeds his Zeus-like mind in the world, making it fruitfully rooted rather than aimlessly wandering and playing over it. The fact that she—called periphronos, minded all around—keeps the wanderer in the center of her mind as he, wandering all around, longs after her, shelters the inmost man and provides him with inner resilience, genuine invention and intelligence; it gives him something to live for, and preserve in himself. When he washes up naked and gasping on the island of Scheria, it enables him to see the covert made by two olive trees as the place of preserving concealment where a man “buries a burning log in a black ash heap in a remote place in the country, where none live near as neighbors, and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light from,” so burying, preserving the bright seed that is his very self. It extends a saving grip for him in the shape of a fig tree as he hangs for life over the horrible, faceless, feminine mouth of the whirlpool Charybdis. It provides the root out of which the Delian palm shoots forth into his memory when he wonders at the pure-hearted courage of the Phaiakian princess, and it wins him her succour, and his own homecoming.

When Odysseus' wanderings approach their turning point, this concealed rootedness of Odysseus' being—on which the whole poem rests and turns toward comedy—appears in a Hermetic sign which will receive its fulfillment only in the poem's penultimate book. Marooned on a secluded island, unprovisioned, and lost, Odysseus gets word that half his crew have been snared by the goddess Circe, and he sets out to dare the peril alone. He is met by Hermes, the god of double meanings, concealed truths, and the interpretive genius that discloses the nexus of human and divine purposes. “Where are you going, unhappy man, all alone, through the hilltops, ignorant of the land-lay?” says the god, gently mocking the now helpless man of devices. But to secure him against the spells of the witch goddess, Hermes gives him a “good medicine” that “he picked out of the ground”: “it was black at the root, but with a milky flower. The gods call it moly. It is hard for mortal men to dig up, but the gods have power to do all things.” When Circe tries to enchant Odysseus she is baffled by the moly's counterspell: “There is a mind in you no magic will work on,” she says. “You then are Odysseus.” Where Circe expects Odysseus to become a boar or some other beast, he only turns into himself, Odysseus. This moly is mysterious, and its name only conceals its nature, since “moly” is not a Greek word, or a human word at all, but from the language of the gods. That language's roots are unknown. The roots of the moly too are hidden, “black” and “hard for mortals to dig up,” but they produce a beautiful flower. The moly grants Odysseus the power of remaining like himself. Your cleverness cannot ultimately save you, Hermes suggests, but something hidden, something grounding at the roots of you (deeper than your intentions but giving them sustenance and strength) will allow you to retain the form of your humanity—the white flower of yourself.

The sign of the moly recieves its interpretation in the marriage-chamber of Odysseus and Penelope, a sacrament into which human effort, artifice, and intentions all enter but which is spoken into being by the language of God. When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, converses with Penelope in the night, he sees her melt with the longing his tales stir in her. Then, she weeps for her husband who sits beside her and pities her in his heart but sets his eyes like flint. Thoughout their interview he finds many ways to conjure and probe the memory of Odysseus she preserves within her. When she wakes later that night, she says, “For on this very night there was one who lay by me, like Odysseus as he was when he went with the army, so that my own heart was happy. I thought it was no dream, but a waking vision.” She is full of the memory of the man who left her 20 years ago. But is the stranger-Odysseus that appears the next day in the hall, sitting on his throne, bloody with the slaughter of the suitors—magnificent and somewhat horrifying—her Odysseus? Is he still “as he was when he went with the army”? She will not melt before him again, not until she knows not only that he is the factual Odysseus, but that he is her Odysseus: that he still loves her, that he remains true to the commitment that shelters the root of their shared participation in being. Like Nausikaa, Penelope neither runs nor turns away from Odysseus as he confronts her bloody and sullen—but treats him as the stranger his outward appearance may in fact conceal. Though Telemachos scolds her for having “a heart harder than stone,” Penelope replies that “she is full of wonderment, and I cannot find anything to say to him, nor question him, nor look him straight in the face. But if he is truly Odysseus, and he has come home, then we shall find other ways, and better, to recognize each other, for we have signs that we know of between the two of us only, but they are secret from others.” Odysseus sends their son out. He asks for the sound of wedding music in the hall, buying the time he and Penelope need to renew their marriage. He washes the filth of slaughter off himself, and the gods grace him with the beauty that is his. And when Penelope remains distant, he tells her, “You are so strange,” and then in words that comically echo Achilles' wonderment at Priam, “this woman has a heart of iron within her.”

Concluding in consternation that she will not welcome him that night, he asks the nurse Eurykleia to make a bed for him in the hall. Penelope, matching him word for word, replies, “You are so strange. I am not proud, nor indifferent, nor puzzled beyond need, but I know very well what you looked like when you went in the ship with the sweeping oars, from Ithaka,” indicating that she wishes to test the reality beneath his appearance, to probe the unseen root of this fair-seeming flower of a man. And so, she provokes him, saying, “Come then, Eurykleia, and make up a firm bed for him outside the well-fashioned chamber: that very bed that he himself built. Put the firm bed here outside for him.” Given what Odysseus calls “the character” of his bed, to have had it removed would imply a serious and deliberate act of infidelity on Penelope's part. The very suggestion makes him angry and confused—and shows that he is as much at her mercy, as she is at his. She shows herself his equal, too, in her capacity to “tell lies that are like truth,” lies that bring the heart of things to light. “What you have said, dear lady, has hurt my heart deeply. What man has put my bed in another place? But it would be difficult for even an expert one, unless a god, coming to help in person, were easily to change its position. But there is no mortal man alive, no strong man, who lightly could move that weight elsewhere. There is one particular feature in the bed's construction. I myself, no other man, made it. There was the bole of an olive tree with long leaves growing strongly in the courtyard, and it was thick, like a column. I laid down my chamber around this, and built it, until I finished it, with close-set stones, and roofed it well over, and added the compacted doors, fitting closely together … and decorated it with gold and silver and ivory. There is its character, as I tell you; but I do not know now, dear lady, whether my bed is still in its place, or if some man has cut underneath the stump of the olive, and moved it elsewhere.” Into the construction of the bedchamber goes Odysseus' purpose, pride, and skill. The tree on which it is founded comes not from him but the rocky soil of Ithaca, from the givenness of his native world. This trunk looked to him like a column when he chose it—we remember that Penelope stands, whenever she appears in the hall, beside the household's central column, a formula repeated so often that it becomes an embodied simile or epithet to her person. On the bed is built a sheltering, concealed room where two may welcome and foster each other, and around it the whole noble household builds itself up. Its roots, like those of the moly, are hard for mortal men to tear up, and its language—the language of human lives supporting, ennobling, guarding, and marvelling at each other—is a language spoken only by God. This olive stump is the rooted center of Odysseus' being. It is what gives him the will to survive, and a mind on which no magic will work. It is sacred to him—so that he cannot help but be hurt by Penelope's suggestion that it has been (or could be) uprooted or cut down. This is the proof she needed. She recognizes him. He is her Odysseus in truth. “You then are Odysseus,” as Circe said. Penelope's gladness that her Odysseus has indeed returned is wonderfully compared to the joy of a shipwrecked man who finds himself on home ground once more, for it is only in her welcome that his homecoming is won, even as she returns to herself in him. Athena holds back the dawn for them and, in the communion of their hearts, time opens inward. They go together to bed and to “their old ritual.” After their lovemaking, they tell each other their stories. Penelope recounts everything that she endured in his absence. And Odysseus—ignoring the advice of Agamemnon's shade—tells Penelope all that he has done and endured. He tells her the whole Odyssey. It's the only time in the poem when we hear his whole story in its proper order from beginning to end. In telling all, Odysseus experiences a full and redemptive reordering and release, made possible by the total confidence and total vulnerability of the married couple before each other in their sacramental sheltering. 

The confidence of their encounter is protected by the wise and wonderful disguises and indirections under which they approach each other. Its redemptive power stems from the total honesty with which (led on by nature and their own like-mindedness) they open their hearts, hiding nothing. Here hidden in the heart of their household, apart from their people, their servants, even their son—they shelter each others' souls, and stand before each other like the first couple “naked and unashamed.” This total confidence of Odysseus and Penelope before the stranger each encounters in the other, has power to renew a culture and civilization of hospitality from within, and restore the divine image in it. It is this mutual sheltering that has preserved Odysseus in war and wandering, not only directing his brilliant schemes to a noble end, but also enabling his heroic generosity and graciousness along the way, making him susceptible to divine influences from the minds of the many men and women he encounters. It is his dwelling in the heart's shelter of his marriage to Penelope that enables him to honor Nausikaa, for instance, with words that speak to her heart's desire and reveal his own: “May the gods give you everything that your heart longs for; may they grant you a husband and a house and sweet agreement in all things, for nothing is better than this, more steadfast than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious household; a thing that brings distress to the people who hate them and pleasure to their well-wishers, and for them the very best glory.”

*Quotations of the Iliad and Odyssey are from Richmond Lattimore's translation (the last slightly adapted). 
Even though I don't refer to any secondaries above, there are a few that have shaped my reading in substantial ways. I owe my understanding of the Homeric poems as wholes to Glenn Arbery's excellent essays ("Against the Belly of the Ram: the Comedy of Deception in the Odyssey" in a collection called The Terrain of Comedy, and "Odysseus' Nostos: Concealment and Revelation" in Classic Texts and the Nature of Authority, as well as his essay on the Iliad, "Soul and Image: The Single Honor of Achilles" in The Epic Cosmos, and a chapter of his book Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation called "The Sacrifice of Achiles"). My thoughts about the the moly-flower and Odysseus' and Penelope's marriage bed were also helped by two essays of the odd poet, Anne Carson--though she does not connect them herself--"Every Exit is an Entrance" from her book Decreation (essay available here, https://fleurmach.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/anne-carson-decreation-every-exit-is-an-entrance-2005.pdf) and "Variations on the Right to Remain Silent" (available here, http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_carson.php).

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Word of Introduction to Vergil's Georgics

A Word of Introduction to Vergil's Georgics

     Each book of the Georgics--ploughing and planting fields (book 1), growing vines and trees (book 2), herding sheep, goats, horses, and cattle (book 3), and beekeeping (book 4)--takes place within a lover's quarrel between the farmer and the earth. And each book is filled with hypnotically clear and loving transcription of the particulars of its realm. The farmer's world appears in its bright, raw, naked thingliness and always alive with suggested feelings, analogies, and thoughts.
     Vergil's theme is not merely the natural order and the goods and beauties it offers, nor merely that order in fruitful tension with human effort, making, and civilization, but something active within both of these: the intuited radiance of the divine creation that fills the poet's eye and heart with light. Vergil's realism gives us soils and ruminating or stamping creatures, birds and stars, a leaf unfurling, the rich textures of human crafts, the waxen wicker of the hive humming with its communal life, all as lit up by the active presence of their Creator, with the breath of God still on them, freshening them.
     That is why the world appears to him as a radiant, gigantically strange, and ever-proceeding gift, to be newly received again and again. One could prove this by quoting almost any line of the poem! But one thinks especially of the passage that recalls the first Spring of the rising world, of the wild trees of hills and forests that offer themselves to our sight and use in a ceaseless, prodigious free gift, and of--that first line of book 4--"heaven's gift of honey, pure as air."
     This intuition is why Vergil can so delight in the world, even as he acknowledges and feels deeply that nature, culture, and human history include terrible pain, ugliness, futility, frustration, and inexplicable evil. Witness his cry of despairing prayer over the Roman future at the end of book 1; his reflection on the corruption of urbanized manners in contrast to the piety and steadfastness that characterize the family farm, his many-sided meditation on human lots--blessed and unblessed--the farmer's, the philosopher's, the public man's, his own (the poet's)--at the end of book 2; the brutal plague he pursues in brutally exhaustive detail at the end of book 3; the unsettling picture he paints of the inundations of animal love that sweep over animal and human herds; his exploration in the Orpheus and Eurydice-story of the haunting power of poetry, but also its impotence in the face of death, and the unknown destiny of human loves.
     It is books 2 and 4, the world of trees and vines and the virtuous society of the bees (both which realms are blissfully free of animal passions, heat, blood, and sex), that most unmistakeably communicate the undying light of the first creation, but even here blight, unruliness, toil, war, plague, and death have made inroads. Between himself and the powers of darkness, Vergil interposes not the intellectual life (not the philosopher's visionary detachment) nor optimism about the civilizing project of Rome--though both hold great interest and attraction for him--but the native stoicism, practical wisdom, and piety of the surefooted Italian farmer on the one hand and, on the other, his own peerless poetic gift, whereby he sees--even if he cannot explain it--the world in its thisness and whatness charged by the grandeur of God.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Two Poems of Rome by Hildebert of Lavardin

Par tibi Roma and Rome's Reply by Hildebert of Lavardin (Circa AD 1056 to 1133)

     Par tibi, Roma
Par tibi, Roma, nihil, cum sis prope tota ruina
     Quam magni fueris integra fracta doces.
Longa tuos fastus aetas destruxit, et arces
    Caesaris et superum templa palude iacent.
Ille labor, labor ille ruit quem dirus Araxes
     Et stantem tremuit et cecidisse dolet;
Quem gladii regum quem provida cura senatus,
     Quem superi rerum constituere caput;
Quem magis optavit cum crimine solus habere
     Caesar, quam socius et pius esse socer,
Qui, crescens studiis tribus, hostes, crimen, amicos
     Vi domuit, secuit legibus, emit ope;
In quem, dum fieret, vigilavit cura priorum
     Juvit opus pietas hospitis, unda, locus.
Materiem, fabros, expensas axis uterque
     Misit, se muris obtulit ipse locus.
Expendere duces thesauros, fata favorem,
     Artifcies studium, totis et orbis opes.
Urbs cecidit de qua si quicquam dicere dignum
     Moliar, hoc potero dicere: Roma fuit.
Non tamen annorum series, non flamma, nec ensis
     Ad plenum potuit hoc abolere decus.
Cura hominum potuit tantam componere Romam
   Quantam non potuit solvere cura deum.
Confer opes mamorque novum, superum favorem
     Artificum vigilent in nova facta manus,
Non tamen aut fieri par stanti machina muro,
    Aut restauri sola ruina potest.
Tantum restat adhuc, tantum ruit, ut neque pars stans
     Aequari possit, diruta nec refici.
Hic superum formas superi mirantur et ipsi,
     Et cupiunt fictis vultibus esse pares.
Non potuit natura deos hoc ore creare
     Quo miranda deum signa creavit homo.
Vultus adest his numinibus, potiusque coluntur
     Artificum studio quam deitate sua.
Urbs felix, si vel domnis urbs illa careret,
     Vel dominis esset turpe carere fide.




Dum simulacra mihi, dum numina vana placerent,
     Militia, populo, moenibis alta fui.
At simul effigies arasque superstitiosas
    Deiciens, uni sum famulata Deo,
Cesserunt arces, cecidere palatia divum
     Servivit populus, degeneravit eques.
Vix scio quae fuerim, vix Romae Roma recordor,
     Vix sinit occasus vel meminisse mei.
Gratior haec iactura mihi successibus illis:
     Maior sum pauper divite, stante iacens.
Plus aquilis vexilla crucis, plus Caesare Petrus,
     Plus cunctis ducibus vulgus inerme dedit.
Stans domui terras, infernum diruta pulso;
     Corpora stans, animas fracta iacensque rego.
Tunc miserae plebi, modo principibus tenebrarum
     Impero: tunc urbes, nunc mea regna polus.
Quod ne Caesaribus videar debere vel armis
     Et species rerum meque meosque trahat
Armorum vis illa perit, ruit alta senatus
     Gloria, procumbunt templa, theatra iacent
Rostra vacant, edicta silent, sua praemia desunt
     Emeritis, populo iura, colonus agris.
Durus eques, iudex rigidus, plebs libera quondam
     Ista iacent ne forte meis spem ponat in illis
Crux aedes alias, alios promittit honores,
     Militibus tribuens regna superna suis.
Sub cruce rex servit, sed liber; lege tenetur,
     Sed diadema gerens; iussa tremit, sed amat.
Fundit avarus opes, sed abundat: foenerat idem,
     Sed bene custodit, sed super astra locat.
Quis gladio Caesar, quis sollicitudine consul
     Quis rhetor lingua, quae mea castra manu
Tanta dedere mihi? Studiis et legibus horum
      Obtinui terras: crux dedit una polum.
     Rome Was
     Even in nearly total ruin, Rome,
You have no peer; though shattered, teach us yet
Your pristine magnitude. Slow time unbuilt
Your prideand Caesar's works, and shrines of gods,
Lie down in so much swamp. That giant work
Is overthrown which made the grim Araxes
Tremble while it stood, and weep its fall;
Which swords of Kings, the Senate's prudent care,
And gods above made head of all the world;
Which Caesar sought to make his own by crime,
Betraying public trust and wedded faith;
Which, rising by three arts: her foes by force,
Her crimes by law, her friends by wealth—subdued,
Pursued, and bought. Her fathers watched her grow. Her site, her river's pious welcome helped.
The world sent craftsmen, costs, materials,
Her own hills offered quarry for her walls.
Her generals poured out spoils, kind fates their gifts,
Her artists loving pains, the world its wealth.
The City fell—and when I strain to say
A fitting word for her, there's only this:
Rome was ... and flying years, and fire and sword,
Cannot efface the glory that was hers.
Man's giant efforts to construct a Rome
The gods have proved unable to undo.
     Get wealth! new marble! brighter auspices!
Let hands of artists toil upon new works—
But how will you contrive to match the wall
That stands, or even to restore its ruins right?
So much still stands, so much lies in collapse,
That what remains cannot be levelled, nor 
What's lost rebuilt. Here the gods themselves
Gaze awestruck on the images of gods,
And long to mime their own imagined looks,
Gods such as nature had no power to make—
For whom a man wrought likenesses divine,
So nameless powers found a countenance ...
Revere the artist's gift, and not his god.
     Blest Rome! If only free of overlords,
Or if your lords thought scorn not to be true.

     Rome's Answer:
     Long time content with idols and false gods,
I rose aloft on warfare, people, walls.
But since I smashed my superstitious shrines
and images, I serve the one true God;
My forts have yielded, palaces collapsed,
My nobles become base, my people slaves.
I hardly know the thing that was—I Rome
Retain the faintest memory of Rome.
     But this downfall is sweeter than success.
For I am greater poor than rich, brought low
Than proud. Peter is more than Caesar was,
A helpless flock than all my generals,
And nobler than my Eagles is the Cross.
Standing I dominated earth, brought low
I pummel Hell; I governed bodies once,
But, humbled and cast down, I shepherd souls.
Then my commands were to the wretched plebs,
But now to powers of hell. My rule was felt
In cities then, but now among the spheres.
    And lest all this appear the prize of wars,
Of Caesars, and lest superficial things
Beguile both me and mine, that force of arms
Expired, the glory of the Senate fell,
The temples crumble, theaters lie still,
The rostra vacant, silent all decrees,
And public virtue lacks its due reward;
The people, civic rights; the farmer, fields.
The knight was hardy once, the judge severe,
The people free—and lest I set my hope
On these, the Cross proclaims another home,
And other honors, promising its hosts
New realms on high. Beneath the Cross the King's*
A serving man, yet free; restrained by Law,
Yet wears a diadem; he dreads yet loves
His orders; greedy to pour out his wealth,
And it abounds, forsafe-deposited
Beyond the stars—it yields him rich returns.
     And what did Caesar's sword, the Consuls' care,
The tongue of Cicero, the steel of camps,
Win me that can compare? Their efforts, laws
Gave me the world. The Cross gave Heaven too.

*I am not sure whether the Christian King in general is meant, or the Pope (monarch, of sorts, in Rome).



Sunday, August 27, 2017

Monica and Augustine: An Introduction for Students to Confessions' Book Nine


     Augustine's mother, Monica, was a native African. Married to an unfaithful, and even abusive husband—she possessed a grounding center and refuge in two realities: the consolations and promises of the Christian religion, in whose teachings and rituals she placed a total, simple, and unquestioning belief; and in the love of her children—Augustine, his brother, his sister. When Augustine came to despise Christianity, she experienced this as a rift in her own being not to be consoled or healed. Indeed, her tears and prayers, the suffering that he caused her, exerted a constant weight in Augustine's life quite other than the attractions of various intellectual paradigms.
     Augustine was an ambitious, precocious, willful, hot-blooded young man. As a boy he fell in love with Latin poetry—and as a young man wanting to cut a figure in the world, he studied for a legal career. He so excelled in school, that he remained there to teach rhetoric (first in his hometown, later in Carthage), consistently admired by his peers for his intellectual capacity and commanding intensity.
     “To Carthage then I came, into a cauldron of unholy loves.” The school was dominated by a superficial love of prasie, the pleasing victories of public debate, and the vain desire to be best in the eyes of teachers and fellows. The culture of Carthage too, was permeated by the decadence of the late empire: the gladiatorial games, the pornographic rites of the theater.
     In Carthage, Augustine became attached to a mistress, with whom he lived for ten years, and had a son, Adeodatus. He also entered the sect of the Mani—a Gnostic mixture of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The Manicheans' rather mystical spirituality, and the sense that they were guarding a secret knowledge, was enticing. They spoke in riddles that had special meaning for an elite inner circle—but they basically believed that there were two Gods, two equal and opposite powers that permeated the universe, constantly at odds with each other: good and evil, light and darkness, spirituality and matter.
     Human beings were sparks of the good God that had been trapped in bodies, enmattered, by the evil God. The key to life was to undergo certain moments of enlightenment in which one would come to know one's spiritual being as pure and apart from embodied experience. Since the material world was considered evil, natural passions, affections, and desires were fundamentally irredeemable. Once you recognized that your body was not "the real you," it could be allowed to do the works of its evil God, without staining the soul, or derailing the process of enlightenment.
     You can see the attraction here. On the one hand, Manicheanism allowed one to feel that one was participating in experiences that were pure and spiritual—and, on the other, it gave one license to indulge lower desires without worry that this would damage one's soul.
     It also allowed one to feel that one had an enlightened perspective from which to look down on traditional religion. As a Manichee and a master dialectician, Augustine positively delighted in running intellectual circles around believers, refuting the teachings of Christianity, and skilfully construing bible passages to mean what he wanted them to mean.
     Even more than his licentious life-style, this argumentative scorn for the faith tore Monica's heart. Here was her charming, witty, intelligent, sensitive Augustine (the son of her heart) enlisting his powers and talents to deconstruct the faith in which she rested, in which she had found—in all her life's very real difficulties—consolation, liberty, and strength. She did not attempt to refute his arguments with arguments but met them with the solidity of her person. At this phase she was given two signs of hope, a dream and word of encouragement from a thoughtful and perceptive pastor:
     "In her dream she saw herself standing on a sort of wooden rule, and saw a bright youth approaching her, joyous and smiling at her, while she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But when he inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping (not to learn from her, but to teach her, as is customary in visions), and when she answered that it was my soul's doom she was lamenting, he bade her rest content and told her to look and see that where she was there I was also. And when she looked she saw me standing near her on the same rule.
     "Whence came this vision unless it was that thy ears were inclined toward her heart? O thou Omnipotent Good, thou carest for every one of us as if thou didst care for him only, and so for all as if they were but one!
     "And ... when she told me of this vision, and I tried to put this construction on it: 'that she should not despair of being someday what I was' she replied immediately, without hesitation, 'No; for it was not told me that "where he is, there you shall be" but "where you are, there he will be".' I confess my remembrance of this to thee, O Lord, as far as I can recall it -- and I have often mentioned it. Thy answer, given through my watchful mother, in the fact that she was not disturbed by the plausibility of my false interpretation but saw immediately what should have been seen—and which I certainly had not seen until she spoke—this answer moved me more deeply than the dream itself. Still, by that dream, the joy that was to come to that faithful woman so long after was predicted long before, as a consolation for her present anguish. ...
     "But thou gavest her then another answer, by a priest of thine, a certain bishop reared in thy Church and well versed in thy books. When that woman had begged him to agree to have some discussion with me, to refute my errors, to help me to unlearn evil and to learn the good—for it was his habit to do this when he found people ready to receive it—he refused, very prudently, as I afterward realized. For he answered that I was still unteachable, being inflated with the novelty of that heresy, and that I had already perplexed divers inexperienced persons with vexatious questions, as she herself had told him. 'But let him alone for a time,' he said, 'only pray God for him. He will of his own accord, by reading, come to discover what an error it is and how great its impiety is.' He went on to tell her at the same time how he himself, as a boy, had been given over to the Manicheans by his misguided mother and not only had read but had even copied out almost all their books. Yet he had come to see, without external argument or proof from anyone else, how much that sect was to be shunned—and had shunned it.
     "When he had said this she was not satisfied, but repeated more earnestly her entreaties, and shed copious tears, still beseeching him to see and talk with me. Finally the bishop, a little vexed at her importunity, exclaimed, 'Go your way; as you live, it cannot be that the son of these tears should perish.' As she often told me afterward, she accepted this answer as though it were a voice from heaven."
     Meanwhile, Ausgustine—always a questioner and a seeker at heart—was becoming dissatisfied with Mani's dualistic account of reality. The intelligibility of the world and the possibility of human communication and communion rest on an underlying coherence that permeates reality, giving it stability, order, proportion, and above all the radiance of, at moments, piercing beauty.
     Dualism puts incoherence, opposition at the center of reality. And its consequences for one's view of the human will—caught between two powers neither of which it can wrest free from—destroy the nobility of human life. Augustine kept asking questions, and always from the higher members of his cult he got the same answer. A distant look would come into their eyes, and they would say, “Wait till Faustus comes, he knows, ask him."
     When the Manichean bishop Faustus did come but could not answer his questions—and even, in an ironic turn, enrolled in Augustine's rhetoric class—Augustine gave up Manicheanism, and began the search for truth all over again.
   For a time he became a skeptic, one whose principle it is to doubt everything. The skeptic maintains that the ground of reality is unknowable, it may be coherent or incoherent. Probabilities alone and not knowledge are possible. As members of the New Academy, the skeptics claimed to be followers of Socrates—who was wisest because "he knew that he did not know"—but in fact they had abandoned the quest of the man they revered, and became mere caricatures of him.
     They would have been startled to hear the flesh and blood Socrates say:
     "Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to seek and inquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know;—that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power."
     In this period of doubt, Augustine who had broken with his first mistress (of ten years) in order to be betrothed to a young girl (who could not marry till she was older), now despite his betrothal fell in with a second mistress. He was as dejected and unmanned as Odysseus on the island of Calypso—and could find no guiding Hermes in his skepticism. Though his mother came to Carthage to offer him support, he could not listen to her either. In desperation, he gave mother and mistress the slip and left for Rome, taking another teaching post—in which, giving an uncharacteristically lackluster performance in order to support himself, he tried to solve the riddle of his existence: Who and what was he? What to do? How to live?
     Through reading Cicero, Augustine found his way to the books of Plato and the Platonists, which presented a very full view of philosophy's liberation of the mind. Unlike the school of the skeptics, such books did present a coherent image of reality—a reality whose underlying ground is one and eternal, perfect and stable, the cause of the existence and form, the intelligibility and radiance of all things. Everywhere in this philosophy Augustine seemed to hear an echo of the Christianity he had received from his mother as a boy. But when he turned to the Bible, it seemed to be full of old wives' tales, contradictions, superstitions, and to the rhetorician its style seemed so plain as to be embarrassing.
     After leaving Carthage, Augustine met the bishop Ambrose, whose golden tongue and clear calm intelligence (immediately winning Augustine's ear) nevertheless flowed from his faith and intimate knowledge of Scripture. Ambrose showed Augustine how Scripture is a layered work, that its stories while literal and simple—speaking so to the everyday life of each human being—also carry deeper and higher meanings. These higher meanings are not concealed behind simple things as if something alien to them, a secret teaching for which the literal story could be thrown away; instead they permeate the common matter of human life, lifting it into its own highest and deepest meanings and possibilities.
     By Ambrose Augustine was persuaded that, in Chirstianity, the God whom the Platonists understood to be the ground of things had in fact actively spoken and revealed himself to human beings. Had entered the limits of human existence, had had a mother, a body, a death—had redeemed our human life from within. But he hesitated to become Christian because he knew that this would require him to give up certain indulgences of the flesh. So that he would famously pray, “Lord, make me chaste, self-mastered ... but not yet.” Augustine knew such a prayer was shameful hypocrisy, and bitterly felt how his heart was set in conflict with itself. Yet he could not muster the will to launch into the new life that he now was convinced (at least with the top of his intellect) was the true life. In the garden of his house at Rome (where he was staying with his mother and his friend Alypius), he was agonizing over these contradictions—when suddenly he heard a voice:
     "I was praying and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl—I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, 'Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.' Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: 'Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.' By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.
     "So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle's book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: 'Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.' I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away."
     Augustine finished teaching his courses and withdrew with his mother and his best friends, who became Christians with him, to a country villa in Cassiacum, where they spent their time in prayer and philosophical conversation—in which Monica too took an active part. At one time, the group had come to an agreement that to be happy a person must have the things he desires. Monica interrupted with an important distinction: “If he wishes to possess good things, he is happy; if he desires evil things, no matter if he possesses them, he is wretched.” Augustine told her that she spoke like a master philosopher and compared her to Cicero himself.
     After this retreat, Augustine concluded that he should begin his work for God in Africa, his home, and he and Monica made the journey down to Ostia where we find them in Book Nine, "refreshing themselves from their journey, and preparing for the greater voyage"—for Monica the voyage to the other world, for Augustine the Herculean work of his life, as teacher, pastor, bishop, and thinker. He was to face the collapse of the Roman empire and the sweeping away of the world of Classical antiquity, and lay the groundwork for a new culture. He is perhaps the single most important thinker, laborer, and architect for the founding of the new Europe whose rich and radiant humanity was to shine in the works of Dante, Aquinas, and Shakespeare, a culture grounded (as Pope Benedict has said) in the profound rapport between what is Greek and Roman—in the best senses of those words—and what is revealed in Scripture.