Jun 17, 2009


Recently I suggested to some guests on another blog that the visitors needed to offer some specifics to support their rather definite, blaring opinions. Though I doubt it had anything to do with my urging, specifics began to show up over the next few days. Both the phrasing and the logic were sometimes awkward, but a few folks were tossing out information and websites while clinging to their penchant for insults. Maybe it was innocent fun, like barroom banter; maybe it was the most we can hope for. I don’t know if anyone’s understanding or opinions were changed, but at least some opportunities were born.

One of my favorite images in Yeats's poetry occurs in “A Prayer for My Daughter: “an old bellows full of angry wind.” It’s probably directed at the love of his life, Maud Gonne, who had rejected him—in part because he was not the fervent Irish nationalist that she was and wanted him to be. He speaks of Maud as once great beauty that has “bartered” itself for opinions and become transmogrified into “angry wind.”

The poem has been called a sentimental and sexist prayer, a plea for the daughter to be not just other than Maud, but also to become a submissive air-head, not a plea that any father would issue for his son. I see the basis for that criticism, but I cannot dismiss the gorgeousness in many of the poem’s lines and phrases, as the father prays that his child will have only the beauty that arises from modesty, courtesy and a good heart. I hear him longing for all that’s gentle, harmless, loyal and self-effacing—that kind of beauty.

In our own time, here and abroad, multitudes worship at the Altar of Roar—from fundamentalist clergy to oppositional journalists and politicians who know everything to family, friends, next-door neighbors and bloggers who know everything. With all that omniscience hanging around, who needs a god to pray to?

In the U.S. in 2009, is it wrong-headed to stand—tentatively, conditionally—with Yeats, hoping a daughter’s thoughts will be like the linnet, a finch, a small, sweet singer but one which can apparently cling fiercely to a tree in a storm off the Atlantic. May we be permitted to choose for our daughters and ourselves modesty and innocence over “an old bellows full of angry wind,” created by “an intellectual hatred,” a politically fixated mind that’s become cemented against all that’s courteous, delicate, understated, generous?

Almost certainly, we need politically hardened idealists, or there will be no decisions, no action, none of the progress in intellect, courage, or moral strategy that can save people. Note, however, the potential oxymoron: can the same person be both hardened and idealistic? Isn’t there something inherently soft, young, hopeful and na├»ve about idealism? Is idealism gone once it begins to harden—into dogma, propaganda, strategy, slaughter? And an even more sweeping question: can morality exist as a conscious strategy or is it a state of being, a sensitivity, from which conscious operations might or might not develop?

An American version of the linnet might be the purple finch or house finch in today's picture. Is he idealistic? Listen to his song. Would you choose it over just about any sermon or speech?

But we must have hardness in order to create and sustain conditions like liberty and justice for all. We offer to hardened idealists such titles as Founding Father, or martyr, or visionary. They deserve the honors they receive . . . if their cause is just. And who determines that? Who knows whether the pilot--while he's at the helm--is George Washington or Napoleon?

If you listen to the squawk, everyone knows—and can’t wait to tell you. How many times have you been taught a lengthy lesson you hadn’t asked for, on a subject that bored or offended you?

And based on all this knowing, everyone sounds ready to go to war—that is, to send the neighbor’s kid to war—because everyone knows the cause is just, often because someone’s god told him so, according to some middleman with a divinity degree.

How come I’m never the one who knows? Every time I start spewing and spouting, voices arise in my head—from the recent or distant past, from the left, middle or right, and they challenge, “But what about this? What about that?” Ignorance in the name of thinking hard—how quickly the inner life becomes an hallucinogenic burden.

On the subject of knowing, remember again the truism that America’s Founding Fathers were committing treason against their nation’s government and near-genocide against the people whose land they had invaded. And how could they have known they were right, in any sense beyond—and loftier than—their own immediate needs? Hadn’t they been told it was the king, not they, who had a direct line to the Lord and therefore to Truth?

So I’m astonished at how cheap omniscience has become. Everybody and his uncle’s got the damn stuff, and pretty soon you won’t be able to give it away.

Well, even if we all know a lot, most of us are in no danger of becoming heroic. Sometimes it seems, however, that we also give up on the linnet’s song and other quiet beauty available to us because we’d rather opine, crank up the volume, and mute all evidence counter to the tilt of our intellectual hatred--which is, therefore, not very intellectual at all.

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