Sunday, December 28, 2008

`To Glorify Things Just Because They Are'

The cusp of the new year is ripe for inventorying the old and counting one’s blessings. Nothing is so easy as displacing gratitude and substituting discontent, so an occasion, even one fixed arbitrarily by the calendar, is welcome. Time to say with relief: Once again, I didn’t get what I deserved. Instead: health, new friendships, deepened old ones, books new and old, Shakespeare and Chekhov, a new city in a new state with new trees and birds. I’d like to echo Czeslaw Milosz’s “Blacksmith Shop”:

“It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.”

No gratitude, no equilibrium. A life of unsatisfied demand ensures misery. The point is central to religion as even I, a non-believer, understand it. Theodore Dalrymple would agree. In “What the New Atheists Don’t See” (collected in Not With a Bang But a Whimper – a Christmas gift, thank you) he writes:

“If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.”

1 comment:

Joe(New York) said...

From The Times Literary SupplementFebruary 12, 2008

Presence of an External Master of Knowledge
by Wallace Stevens;
introduced by Mick Imlah

"If one no longer believes in God (as truth)", Wallace Stevens once wrote, "it is not possible merely to disbelieve; it becomes necessary to believe in something else."

For Stevens, born into an affluent family in Pennsylvania in 1879, that "something else" was poetry, conceived of as an independent quest for meaning. This "belief" underpins his late poem, "Presence of an External Master of Knowledge"; the poem also relates to Tennyson's "Ulysses" (1842), whose ageing narrator resolves to "follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought".

TheTLS published "Presence of an External Master of Knowledge in Stevens's seventy-fifth year, in 1954. He died the following summer.



Presence of an External Master of Knowledge

Under the shape of his sail, Ulysses,
Symbol of the seeker, crossing by night
The giant sea, read his own mind.
He said, "As I know, I am and have
The right to be." He guided his boat
Beneath the middle stars and said:

"Here I feel the human loneliness
And that, in space and solitude,
Which knowledge is: the world and fate,
The right within me and about me,
Joined in a triumphant vigor,
Like a direction on which I depend . . .

A longer, deeper breath sustains
This eloquence of right, since knowing
And being are one – the right to know
Is equal to the right to be.
The great Omnium descends on me,
Like an absolute out of this eloquence."

The sharp sail of Ulysses seemed,
In the breathings of that soliloquy,
Alive with an enigma's flittering,
And bodying, and being there,
As he moved, straightly, on and on
Through clumped stars dangling all the way.

WALLACE STEVENS (1954)