Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Do I Laugh Tonight - No Voice Will Tell

I came across this short poem by John Keats the other day, Why Do I Laugh Tonight - No Voice Will Tell. It is short, so I will repeat it without the risk of putting you, gentle reader, to sleep.

Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell
No God, no demon of severe response
Deigns to reply from heaven or from hell
Then to my human heart I turn at once:
Heart, thou and I are here, sad and alone,
Say, why did I laugh? O mortal pain!
O darkness! darkness! Forever must I moan
To question heaven and hell and heart in vain?
Why did I laugh? I know this being's lease
My fancy to it's utmost blisses spreads
Yet would I on this very midnight cease
And all the world's gaudy ensigns see in shreds
Verse, fame and beauty are intense indeed
But death intenser, death is life's high meed.
John Keats was a Romantic English poet who barely made it to his 25th year. He travelled to Italy because he suffered from tuberculosis. His death was rapidly aided by his doctors who treated him for this condition by starving him for a stomach condition and bleeding him to reduce the phlegm that the tuberculosis created. In part, Keats' obsession with mortality stems from the early deaths of his mother and father when Keats was 8 and 14 years of age. As a Romantic poet, Keats railed against the cynically objectivity of the Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire. Keats died in Italy in 1821. The hope of a rational age during the Enlightenment ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Some would argue it ended earlier when Napoleon exchanged the idea of "Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood" for Empire. Equally culpable, was the rise of Capitalism which mad rich men richer and the poor poorer. Life, as Thomas Hobbes had remarked earlier in another century, "Short, nasty, and brutish."

In Why Do I Laugh, Keats ponders the unknowable question of God's existence. He answers  with his own cynical existentialist response - because I am here.

A cynic is often described as one who is scornfully and habitually negative. There is nothing new in cynicism.The ancient Greeks coined the phrase. Voltaire as a pre-eminent philosopher of the Enlightenment, epitomized the word, combining it with his own touch of satire. For example, his phrase "It is the best of world's and couldn't possibly be better," from Candide, is in fact a statement of the opposite. The world is utterly cruel and deprived and all within it vile and self-possessed.

John Keats might have altered the delivery of the message, but the cynicism is still there. Death is intense in its effect than greater than the laughter that short life can bring.Where does all of this leave us. Does it matter what philosophy we adopt? Is life so short and so cruel as to not matter? Perhaps the answer lies in the last lines of another of Keats' poems, Ode on a Grecian Urn. "Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, that is all ye know, and all ye need to know." Laugh because it feels good.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Road Trips

Will Davis
Professor Barrier
English 101
16 June 2011
Road Trips
            Road trips with my father are always a unique experience, and the only thing I can expect on them is the unexpected. Most drive to go to a place for vacation. For my father, I believe the drive is his vacation. Even though I complained nonstop about his constant side trips and stops, it seems like the majority of my enjoyable memories of vacation are always ones of us on the road.
            Most kids on a road trip would either sleep, play a game, or maybe stair off into space to pass the time, but my father didn’t approve of any of these activities in his car. His approved activities included writing papers for him, listening to NPR, and discussing current events, not kid’s ideal activities. Another rule of his was no eating until we were on the high way. This does not seem like a big deal, but at the time it used to infuriate my sister and me. He would hold our McDonalds breakfast hostage in the front of the car, the wonderful smell wafting to the back of the car only fueled our rage as we futilely tried to convince him to give us our food. It was these little things that I remember most about our road trips.

            One thing you could expect about my dad’s road trips was that it was never about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible.  Every trip was accompanied by about three or four side trips. Any sign that advertized some attraction was a must see in my dad’s eyes. I must admit some of the places were fun, we often would stop at lakes to swim and I loved that. But other side trips were not so fun. We often went to many deserted towns with no more than a few hundred people living in them, and they always gave me a depressed feeling. Overall my father’s little excursions gave me a better insight into how people live, those small towns harbor a different kind of lifestyle and culture that often left me feeling alienated and foreign.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Childish Things

When I was a really young child, my father would bounce me on his knee and repeat a phrase - "Ignorance is bliss." Sometimes he would add a Bible verse.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:11

Growing up, this one leaves always left me a little puzzled. But then it should, for as a child I wasn't expected to know the whys and wherefores. Even now, at the age of seventeen, I am caught half way between childhood and adulthood. I half wonder what it is all about.

At my age, the best interpretation I have of the words "ignorance" and "bliss" are that my daily experiences are a fleeting glimpse of the promise and happiness of life or "not". Life now is one long blissful summer day. There is  nothing more to do than swim, lounge, eat, and play. Worry is not a part of my vocabulary. Like another passage from the Bible, Matthew 6:26, I feel and think as God sees the birds in the sky, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and "yet the heavenly Father feeds them".

I say I am a little puzzled, should say ignorant, for it seems that St. Paul's words imply something is coming. Something is on the way and I am in for a big awakening. I picture a game show, you know the one - three curtains on the stage, you pick one. Behind one is either a million dollar prize or a trash can full of garbage. But does life's answer come down to just plain dumb luck? If that is the case, then why prepare at all for the future. Why not remain ignorant and, at the same time, blissful?

Life is a journey, dad says. But, journeys can be frightening, like in the Stephen King novella, The Girl who loved Tom Gordon.You know the kind. A teenage girl is deep in the woods of Maine - King's stomping grounds. She is with her mom and her older brother. It is a beautiful day and they are hiking through the woods. But mom and brother constantly bicker, so she lags behind and when she stops for a call of nature, she gets lost. Day becomes night and the journey becomes fraught with danger, the girl's very survival is at risk.  You can't see around the corner, you can't see in the bushes and something lurks there. Childhood's innocence ends, reality awaits.

What could this new reality be? Is it possible that I shall at some point be responsible for my own fate? Do I see that God does not always provide and that I must seek out my own fortune and fate? Is there hard work in my future? As I said, I am seventeen. For the first time in my life, I anticipate that in a year or so I will be looking for a new roof to place over my head. Whether this is at college, in the military, or somewhere else, I don't really know.

I search for direction, for guidance, fore enlightenment. At church I ask my youth leader a thousand questions, but his answers are no better than Paul's message in Corinthians  - It is coming, be prepared.

St. Paul continues his message to the Corinthians with words that are equally disheartening.

 For now we see thorough a glass darkly; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.  
1 Corinthians 13:12

I want an answer, but Paul tells me that  the truth is obscured by a glass darkly. Dark glass - I picture going down the highway in my car at night. It is raining and the bugs have splattered all over the windshield so that I can barely make out the road. Now and then a bolt of lightening arcs across the sky revealing the outlines of the landscape. Or, I picture a coke bottle, you know, the old kind that is thick and wavy. You hold it up to your eye and try to see through it but the world is distorted and vague. Either way you look at it, it is all a mystery to me.

 Let's take a slight detour here and get back to St. Paul. Here was a man of faith and that is a bit like saying "ignorance is bliss". Enough said, my dad would say. But then who was this St. Paul was and who were these Corinthians he was writing to. Those seem the better questions. We all know that  St. Paul was a Jew and that his epiphany came on the road to Damascus. Damascus is the capital of Syria, my dad explained to me not long ago. Well, anyway, St. Paul's message did not play well to the Jews and so he took to preaching on the road. He had gone to Athens, Greece, but found them not to his liking. Next he traveled east to Corinth. My dad would have me learn all about ancient Corinth, but I would think "ignorance is bliss". Still, it is helpful to know that at St. Paul's time Corinth was a major trading post. Corinthians were famous for trade and the pursuit of money that came with trade. As a trading port it was filled with Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews. All of these people would be searching for an answer and St. Paul had one to give. Money is not the answer.

Now that I am seventeen, my dad has quit saying "ignorance is bliss". His new mantra goes something like this - "It is the question and not the answer that matters."

So, it strikes me that even if I am ignorant of the answers to life's questions, at least, I can enjoy the ride. The phrase is cliche, but apt - It is is the journey, not the end of it that matters. The pursuit of life makes living worthwhile. And as for ignorance, well that is a fact of life.