Birches and Books

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William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.

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During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:

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To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.

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Panaceas and Toxins (and Their Discontents)

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Throughout my adult life (and some of my childhood as well), I have objected to the worship of panaceas and toxins, which now has reached screeching peaks in private, social, and political life. There’s a human temptation to swoon before all-encompassing solutions and all-destroying poisons, or things that claim such status. In reality, grand solutions and grand destructors are rare; most things fall short of such extremes.

I have known people who believed in a single answer to all of life, be it Amway, herbal medicine, or a political stance. Similarly, I have seen national leaders blame a single enemy (say, George Soros or the media) for many if not all of the country’s ills. I have seen self-help books by the dozens that claim to help you get rid of toxic people, find your true fulfillment in six steps, and so forth.

It is easy to see how sweeping solutions can do more damage than good. It’s more difficult to figure out why they have such wide and profound appeal. Part of the reason is obvious: people want answers for the difficulties they encounter in life. Big answers seem to promise big relief. But there’s a more fundamental reason: such solutions offer their believers an identity. If you believe in a panacea, then you automatically become part of the in-group, not part of the problem. Likewise, if you call out a “toxic” person or thing, then you are one of the non-toxic, one of the worthy members of humanity. In both cases, you get to identify with a group of “acceptables” and to join with them against the enemy. Such group membership, whether subtle or overt, offers definition and comfort.

No one escapes this entirely. Probably everyone, at some point, has subscribed to some solution or pinpointed some enemy. Nor is this always wrong; such clarity and simplicity can allow for important action. The danger, or part of it, lies in doing this for the sake of an identity rush or a sense of vindication. Identity does not come from here, and vindication can bring new grief.

Worldviews that depend on panaceas and toxins leave no room for “discontents”–that is, those who object and those who fail to be contained. Throughout history, the dissident who has said “I am not contained, and I refuse to be contained, in this plan of yours” has revealed an ideology’s narrowness and insistence on conformity. There are dissidents today whom few recognize as such; they speak courageously against false formulas. (I do not herald myself as one of these; to be a dissident, I would need to speak up a bit more.)

A few of the essays in Mind over Memes–“Take Away the Takeaway,” “Social and Unsocial Justice,” “The Toxicity of ‘Toxic'” (also the title of a blog post), “In Praise of Mixed Mindsets,” and “A Good Misfit”–challenge our penchant for big solutions and ostracisms. I take it up elsewhere as well: for instance, in “The Folly of the Big Idea.”

Yet my contributions are minuscule compared to what has been done; literature, by its nature, resists reduction, whether subtly or explicitly, whether thematically or through its syntactic turns. I think of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Here Hardy does much more than to say that “people can find sustained happiness in adulthood, even after unhappy childhoods.” He takes the reader through subtlety after subtlety: Elizabeth-Jane recognizes her good fortune but is not demonstrably thankful; her life experience does not call for effusiveness, yet she also realizes that others have deserved far more than they received. She is thus “forced to class herself among the fortunate,” but even within this stricture, she wonders “at the persistence of the unforeseen.” Even this tracing of the paragraph does little justice to it; the phrase “Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself” must be understood in light of the previous paragraph, which in turn reflects on what comes before.

I think of many other stories, poems, songs–Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” comes to mind now–that in some way break out of their summaries. When you read them,  you break out of your own, “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.”

I took the photo yesterday.  Please click on it for the full-size image; if you zoom in, you can see the stork in flight. At least one stork frequents the Zagyva these days; he (or she) pecks at things in the water and grass, struts around, and soars over the water.