Hard Things

I told myself years ago that I was not going to continue to beat my head against the words of difficult poets. I thought I had broken free, but for days now I’ve been reading Milton and Blake, Yeats and Keats. I told myself to keep my nose in the rhetoric of science in photography. It didn’t work. I can’t help but try to cut a few agates.

I was busy with a single art, that of a small, unpopular theatre; and this art may well seem to practical men busy with some programme of industrial or political regeneration—and in Ireland we have many excellent programmes—of no more account than the shaping of an agate; and yet in the shaping of an agate, whether in the cutting or in the making of the design, one discovers, if one have a speculative mind, thoughts that seem important and principles that may be applied to life itself. Certainly if one does not believe so, one is but a poor cutter of so hard a stone. (Yeats, Essays, 219)

Teaching today, I felt compelled to talk about how hard writing is. It is a social activity performed in private—essentially oxymoronic to the core. How one perceives the social aspect depends on the construction of an audience for the piece. In Paradise Lost, Milton was the vehicle for the heavenly muse to transmit his explanation to mortal man. However, in Areopagitica Milton was an author making a speech. Much is said of the prominence of his name on the title page; little is said of the fact that “speech” appears in boldface type larger than any other word. Books are born and have a life all their own; speeches can only be made by a human voice. The audience for the former breaks the boundaries of time; the latter speaks of responsibility. Books, it might be argued, have no real responsibility. However, it must be granted that some form of “social contract” applies to both.

Much can be made of the “oral” nature of the internet. However, when I think about the galvanizing nature of political debate and the inherently small and limited audience for moments of joy I find reading most personal blogs, I find myself chafing against the idea of blogging as a “movement” or anything which might be described by a unifying interest.

All movements are held together more by what they hate than what they love, for love separates and individualizes and quiets, but the nobler movements, the only movements on which literature can found itself, hate great and lasting things. (Yeats, Essays 249-250)

I feel more obligation to the lesser things; the trivialities of speech rather than the disembodied birth of some great networked “book.” I avoid the big hatreds intentionally.

The raging fire and the destructive sword are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man, wrote Blake, and it is only before such things, before a love like Tristan and Iseult, before noble and ennobled death, that the free mind permits itself aught but brief sorrow. That we may be from all the rest, sullen anger, solemn virtue, calculating anxiety, gloomy suspicion, prevaricating hope, we should be born in gaiety. Because there is submission in pure sorrow, we should sorrow alone over what is greater than ourselves, nor too soon admit that greatness, but all that is less than we are should stir us to some joy, for pure joy masters and impregnates; and so to world end, strength shall laugh and wisdom mourn. (Yeats, Essays 252-3)

Virtual associations are lesser than real ones. The “blogosphere” (and I loathe to use that word) scarcely ever admits that. Perhaps in that is where the joy truly resides; to constantly sorrow alone over the great and pressing hatreds consumes only part of the channel. To celebrate the small moments of light seems as important as the ability to rage blindly against the darkness. Writing is by its very nature narcissistic—but I think the greatest narcissism is in those who write not of themselves, but of the great injustices as if they were contributing to some monstrous book of life. These are all speeches that fade; moments were we think there is something important to be said. In the lesser things, I think, there is more joy.

I find great joy in reading and looking. Those experiences are virtual too. I suppose that is why my blog has transmuted into this. I find little things agates that intrigue me and chip away at them. It isn’t supposed to change the world. I can only be certain of changing me.