(Image by Flickr user law_keven used under a Creative Commons license.)
I've been wrestling with how to respond to this, because it deserves a response-- only, responding to it, I fear, does violence to James and his project, which I most certainly don't want to do:
Part of the reticence on my part that Freddie takes for Helenism is an attempt at implementing a wisdom of due distance, in which the virtue of not closing the civilizing (and civilized) interdictory space between (and among) us is practiced not-too-reflectively. In that way it seeks to back off from the excesses, to take advantage of Dr. Ceaser’s schema, of both conservative virtue-ism and postmodern conservative manner-ism in their most pompous or obsessive or prideful self-awareness. It seeks, then, too, to avoid the complementary despair or envy that comes from excessive self-awareness of either (and any!) kind. The self, alone, is too empty for either to truly nourish the soul, no matter how hard we think about it or how deeply we strain to feel about it. And, finally, it seeks to privilege the secret, hidden, private, domestic site of virtue.I lack the wisdom or erudition to say what I think about this and not take conversation exactly where James doesn't want it to go.
The great question, for the existentialist, is where my duty to create the meaning of man through my action abuts the duty of my neighbor. Where does public good end and private virtue begin, and where does my terrible right to self-government encroach on the right of the other? This is what Scott Payne is trying to get at, what my commenters are unsatisfied with my answers to. This is why Daru only leads his prisoner to the edge of the mountain. Daru's abdication is necessary for his prisoner's acceptance, and yet it's bad faith, all the same. And it kills him.
I've felt a little lately like this is a vulgar enterprise, and I wonder if there's any sense in which I can undertake it without being guilty of precisely the self-obsession James warns about. Some can; but I suspect I haven't got the chops. It's helped to be busier lately.
I just don't think, in the end of the day, the politics of manners Helen prefers can create the society that she wants, and in the interim it makes this world a colder place. Not that I want a politics of love that's obvious, or easy, or cheap, or powerful, or assured, or certain. William Carlos Williams said that he thought of ee cummings like the prisoner in solitary confinement, who staves off madness by throwing a pin over his shoulder in the dark, to search for it for hours on hands and knees, only to find it and throw it away again. That's all I ask for, the same kind of grasping.
OK. Enough intellectual violence, intentional or not, from me for tonight. Karl Shapiro knows what I mean.
The Dirty Word
by Karl Shapiro
The dirty word hops in the cage of the mind like the Pondicherry vulture, stomping with its heavy claw on the sweet meat of the brain and tearing it with its vicious beak, ripping and chopping the flesh. Terrified, the small boy bears the big bird of the dirty word into the house, and, grunting, puffing, carries it up the stairs to his own room in the skull. Bits of black feather cling to his clothes and his hair as he locks the staring creature in the dark closet.
All day the small boy returns to the closet to examine and feed the bird, to caress and kick the bird, that now snaps and flaps its wings savagely whenever the door is opened. How the boy trembles and delights at the sight of the white excrement of the bird! How the bird leaps and rushes against the walls of the skull, trying to escape from the zoo of the vocabulary! How wildly snaps the sweet meat of the brain in its rage.
And the bird outlives the man, being freed at the man’s death-funeral by a word from the Rabbi.
(But I one morning went upstairs and opened the door and entered the closet and found the great bird dead. Softly I wept it and softly removed it and softly buried the body of the bird in the hollyhock garden of the house I lived in twenty years before. And out of the worn black feathers of the wing I have made these pens to write these elegies, for I have outlived the bird, and I have murdered it in my early manhood).