Daily Archives: November 7, 2009

More on Thoreau


Further to Clayton’s and my own last post, there is another great passage from Thoreau, another powerful attack on moral and political compromise, from “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

This one, with its turning to the beauty of Nature in contrast with the ugliness of human-all-too-human-compromise, brings to mind one of the paragraphs Bob quoted in his post on Frye and The Funny: “A sense of humor, like a sense of beauty, is a part of reality, and belongs to the cosmetic cosmos: its context is neither subjective nor objective, because it’s communicable” (Late Notebooks, 1:227).

At the end of the Garden chapter in Words with Power, Frye writes: “The progress of criticism has a good deal to do with recognizing beauty in a greater and greater variety of phenomena and situations and works of art. The ugly, in proportion, tends to become whatever violates primary concern” (226-27).

Hence Thoreau’s recourse in the passage below to the aesthetics and beauty of nature, in contrast with which the violation of primary concern that is the morally disgusting reality of slavery appears all the more ugly and loathsome. Thoreau is always polarizing and separating. His images and rhetoric, to use Clayton’s words, ” cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit” and drive home what Frye calls the “black-and-white situation.”

Thoreau, being a true prophet, wasn’t in the habit of mincing his words, and he was seriously pissed when he wrote these ones, in response to the controversial arrest and “rendition” by the state of Massachusetts of a fugitive, Anthony Burns, to his oppressor in the South, which brought the army to Boston to shut down the abolitionists who had stormed the federal courthouse to free him.

His moral disgust in this case is primarily expressed through the nose: the odor of one’s actions, not the profession of belief, are what matters. It is the odor of one’s deeds that advertises one’s moral quality, and so let your deeds smell consistently sweet so as not to clash with the fragrance of the water-lily, which, like Nature, has made no compromise, Missouri or any other kind.

The reference to a “Nymphoea Douglasii” is an allusion to Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Fugitive Slave Act, who was later defeated by Lincoln in the presidential election. (If there is an analogy here to the Anglican Church’s attitude to homosexuality, Rowan Williams is perhaps more of a Lincoln than a Douglas, in his temporizing strategy, if that is what his strategy is.)

Here is the passage from Thoreau, the closing passage of the speech:

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.

And here are the great closing words, where what is finally polarized and separated are life and death, the sweet scent of life and the rot of decay and death:

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Thoreau is an excellent example of a writer whose writings go well beyond literature and the purely imaginative and are very much in the meta-literary dimension of the kerygrmatic, of spiritual proclamation.

Thoreau and Frye’s “Black-and-White Situation”


In response to Clayton Chrusch:

Yes, Clayton, that is a great quotation from Frye, and you articulate the issue so eloquently. I think, again, of the situation in antebellum America during the height of the abolitionist movement, and of the relentless compromising that led to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, a grotesque law that made it illegal, with severe consequences, to protect or harbor fugitive slaves in the North. All this to preserve the Union, a Union by this point completely corrupted by the pacts with the devil made to preserve it.

Even before that law was passed, another great visionary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote this, from “Civil Disobedience” or “Resistance to Civil Government,” which I thought of when I read the words you quote from Frye. It accords so beautifully with what you say about the expediency of crucifying Christ, in which society as a whole is complicit:

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

And here is another passage from the same essay:

Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the ‘Duty of Submission to Civil Government,’ resolves all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that ‘so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer’ — ‘This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.’ Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

The Demands of Primary Human Welfare


Another word from Clayton Chrusch:

A further note about Rowan Williams and the gay issue.

“The one adversarial situation that does not impoverish both sides is the conflict between the demands of primary human welfare on the one hand and a paranoid clinging to arbitrary power on the other. Naturally, this black-and-white situation is often very hard to find in the complexities of revolutions and power struggles, but it is there, and nothing in any revolutionary situation is of any importance except preserving it.”

There is a class of people who discuss theological issues including homosexuality at a very high level. These are people of liberal and conservative and moderate persuasions, but they have enough in common that they can speak to each other at conferences, in academic institutions, and on the internet ad infinitem. Rowan Williams is their high priest. These are generally people who hate the brutishness of popular homophobia, but nor do they accept the popular progressive call to immediate change. They are plagued by a tentativeness that sends them back into discussion, back to scripture, back into theological studies of all kinds. The prose they produce is elegant, reasoned, intelligent, clear. Their expressions of concern for gay people and for the various sides of the debate are clearly sincerely felt. To them, the gay issue is an issue affecting real flesh and blood people, and they make a point of never forgetting that, and yet they also know that sincerity is in bed with self-deception, and so there are no easy answers and the discussion must continue, and no one should do anything disrespectful of anyone else, most certainly should not cast the issue in black and white terms or generally be loud, brash, or make a nuisance of themselves. They are the height of the intellectual world. They have every spiritual and cultural attainment except truth and obedience.

What I love so much about Frye is that he also operates at the very highest intellectual level (and spiritual level), and yet he has a conscience and guts and is not afraid to cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit that happens there:

More on Homophobia and The Anglican Communion


Matthew Griffin writes:

It worries me, Joe, but I think that’s one of the better analogies of the position of the Anglican Communion that I’ve encountered–and worse, I find it accurately captures my own anxiety for the Communion’s future.

While this blog focuses its gaze upon Frye and his work, the Anglican Communion and the issues Clayton mentions offer a parallel to some of the conversations we’ve had, particularly around the line of criticism Joe condemns in his post. One of the reasons for the lack of condemnation of the current attack on homosexuals in Uganda seems to me to stem from a facile use of post-colonial thought: because of past bad acts, many areas and leaders of the Church fail to speak out against what is and should be condemned.

Thanks for sharing those bits of Rowan’s new book, Joe; my copy is sitting on a shelf, waiting for me to scratch out some time for it. I should bump it up on my to-read list.

Clayton Chrusch writes:

Matthew, as you know, it’s not just post-colonial thought but also thought about homosexuality itself that ties the hands of the Anglican hierarchy. Homosexual relationships are incompatible with scripture according to the official doctrine of the Anglican Communion. Rowan Williams himself reiterates this on occasion, not so much to agree with it, but to make the point that it is the progressives and not the conservatives who are moving away from the church. (I for one think that what Rowan Williams believes in his heart of hearts is of no interest–either to me, to gays in general, or to God. His actions are what matter. I remember about 8 years ago when some gays were insisting that George W. Bush was not personally a homophobe.)

Joe Adamson writes:

Yes, that is exactly how Frye sees it: belief has nothing to do with what you say you believe, but what your actions reveal you believe.

In response to a question about belief an interview with Don Harron, Frye responds:

“I would be less interested in what people say they believe than in how people behave. I think a genuine belief is an axiom of behavior. If you want to know what a man believes you watch him, you see what he does. What he really believes will be what his actions show that he believes.” (Interviews, 393)

A House Divided: In Response to Clayton Chrusch


In response to Clayton Chrusch on Rowan Williams:

I certainly don’t accept the whole of what he says, if that is his position concerning gays, Clayton. I certainly liked what he had to say in his preface to his Dostoevsky book. I thought it was quite impressive, and therefore I am looking forward to reading the book further. Having checked his bio out on wikipedia I can also see that he has more than just that position I don’t necessarily agree with.

What you have to say reminds me, as a student of American literature, of the increasingly untenable and morally disgusting compromises on the issue of slavery that were made by the Northern States with the slave power in the South in order to avoid “schism.” Any compromise was seen as preferable to the sundering of the Union, and it was all to no avail in the end anyway. The Union had to be broken.

Primary Concerns, Gay Rights, and the Anglican Communion


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Frye, Alter, and Rowan Williams:

I have no doubt that Rowan Williams is one of the smartest people on the planet and a prayerful and spiritual man. And yet he is a homophobe. He chooses the unity of the Anglican communion over the blessing of same-sex couples, secondary concerns over primary concerns. He has a very sophisticated and compelling theory of the body of Christ that justifies all this. I’m not saying that he is obviously wrong. He is smarter than I am. But to accept the whole of what Rowan Williams says is to deny Frye the primacy of primary concern.

Rowan Williams reminds me of Frye when he says the the crucifixion of Christ is not only something that “bad” people are responsible for, but is the considered conclusion that we all come to because it is expedient for one man to die for the people. Of course he turns this around and says that it is schism, and not the destruction of human beings that is the real analogy to the crucifixion of Christ. Two kinds of Christians. It is expedient that gays should be executed in Uganda as long as the church remains unbroken.