William Meredith

On Healing

Address delivered at Harkness Chapel, Connecticut College, January 1977

My remarks this morning have to do with the problem of the ego; a matter on which most artists can speak with some au­thority, the problem of coming to grips with our own unique­ness. The vivid image of wrestling all night with an angel who at last gives a blessing, which we have just heard from Genesis32, is nevertheless obscure enough to suggest that this is a mystery. I am going to take two literary characters, Childe Harold and Moses E. Herzog, as examples of men who look for themselves, though perhaps I will be speaking rather about Lord Byron and Saul Bellow.

The insight of healing that I want to suggest has to do with a perception about human nature that David Robb offered last Sunday, when his text was the verse from the Sermon on the Mount: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect. He indicated that the word translated as perfect is more accurately rendered as whole or complete, a form of the Greek “telos.” Be ye therefore whole, as the Father is whole. The rage to be whole is part of everyone's nature, but no two people will be whole in the same way. In Christian terms, I think this probably means that if you are to praise God in a way that is acceptable in his sight, it will be because you have come to the unique and probably lonely position which is called you, where no other will ever stand.

The work of Saul Bellow, the part of it I am familiar with, comprises a gallery of characters who share a passion for self-­discovery, a rage to know who they are. This is true of Moses Herzog. You will remember we discover him, and leave him 350 pages later, in an abandoned house in the Berkshires, writing “endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his' own obscure dead, and finally to the famous dead.” He writes. notes to himself, like this one: "There is someone inside of me. I am in his grip. I feel him in my head, pounding for order. He will ruin me." Another note says, "That suffering joker."

The immediate occasion for this wise, instinctive curative insanity is the, collapse of his personal life—his second wife rejecting him for his closest friend. But in larger terms of his health, it is a function of his fate—as a human being and as Saul Bellow character—that he has a fever to know who he and what is his predicament.

This is something everybody has to find out, whether we find it out gradually or radically, once or a number of times, by some established exercise of our culture or religion, or like Herzog, by a regime of solitary amazement—walking the maze of ourself until we learn its plan and our way out. "And! when have we not preferred some going round. To going straight to where we are?" as Auden asks.

When we look for this identity, this who am I, and what is my predicament? the subjective part is as mysterious and as sacred; as the objective. The same creator created both. The subjective part of the question can be phrased this way: what is in character for me? what are my characteristic responses? The objective part: what is an appropriate life for such a character on the planet earth in the late twentieth century? Asking these questions, Moses Herzog found himself at odds with many of the accepted responses of his time, and found that he had never recognized or declared that quarrel. In the last pages of; the book we find this:

To God he jotted several lines:

How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too, good at it. But have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols. Everything of intensest significance. Especially if divested of me.
Looking for Herzog, he finds a characteristic and alienating optimism in himself which is repelled by the spirit of his time: "But what is the philosophy of this generation?" he asks. "Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks-and this is its thought of thoughts-that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that. And this is how we teach metaphysics to each other. ‘You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can do nothing! They were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love, as soft men think…' " This position offends his nature. Earlier he had spoken of such nihilism as a “mire of Post-renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the Void… The very "Himmelsteins” he cries out, naming the cynical and pragmatic lawyer who tries to befriend him, “the very Himmelsteins, who have never even read a book of metaphysics, were touting the Void as if it were so much salable real estate.”

He writes to an old teacher of his, about the concept of inspiration whose loss he laments: But you will be asking what 'has happened to "the inspired condition." This is thought (today] to be attainable only in the negative, and is so pursued in philosophy and literature as well as in sexual experience, or with the aid of narcotics, or in “Philosophical,” “gratuitous” crime… (It never seems to occur to such “criminals” that to behave with decency to another human 'being might also be “gratuitous.”) Intelligent observers have pointed out that “spiritual” honor, or respect formerly reserved for justice, 'courage, temperance, mercy, may now be earned in the negative by the grotesque. Elsewhere he says, “The world tells you to look for truth in grotesque situations.”

Beginning to know who he is not, through these pronounced dis-affinities, Herzog finds it not easy to say who, then, he is, what then is the truth. “A man may say, ‘From now on I'm going to speak the truth,’” he complains. “But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he's done speaking.

What he settles for is that, first of all, he is a man of terrible curiosities: Dear Professor Hoyle, I don't think I understand just how the Gold-Pore Theory works. How the heavier metals-iron, nickel-get to the center of the earth, I think I see. But what about the concentration of lighter metals?

And next, that he is a man of promiscuous human concerns: Dear Sirs, The size and number of rats in Panama City, when I passed through, truly astonished me. I saw one of them sunning himself beside a swimming pool. Another was looking at me from the wainscoting of a restaurant as I was eating fruit salad. Also, on an electric wire which slanted upward into a banana tree, I saw a whole rat-troupe go back and forth, harvesting. They ran the wire twenty times or more without a single collision. My suggestion is that you put birth-control chemicals in the bait…

And positively, he recognizes himself for an unfashionable optimist, he thinks hopefully:
“He now set down,” Bellow tells us, “Not that long disease my life but that long convalescence, my life.”

He quarrels with the approved gloom. “I venture to say Kierkegaard meant that truth has lost its force with us, and horrible pain and evil must teach it to us again. . . . I do not see this. Let us set aside the fact that such convictions in the mouths of safe, comfortable people playing at crisis, alienation, apocalypse and desperation, make me sick. We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time, that we are waiting for the end, and the rest of it, mere junk from fashionable magazines. Things are grim enough without these shivery games. People frightening one another-a poor sort of moral exercise.”

This is not a philosophical sermon I am giving but something a good deal folksier. I don't urge Herzog's creed on anyone for whom it is not instinctive truth, though it is for me. Rather I urge the lonely work by which each of us must attire at the self from which we can dispense all we have in life-love and attention. This self, this fabric of one's personal affinities, can be seen as an overcoming of foreign antibodies in the soul, the achievement of one's own healthy nature. "Things: change but from what they are not to what they are," as Thoreau has it. Once located, to be forgotten. Once located, you are at the point where Herzog exclaims, Everything of intensest significance. Especially if divested of me.

What you do with the map of self, after you’ve found it, is the point I want to make finally about Lord Byron. In the poets we are reading this morning-Hopkins, Thomas Merton, Berryman-the divesting of self is so complete that the poetry is interchangeable with prayer.

The point I want to end with, about Childe Harold, which I take to be a more serious and perfect work than Herzog, is, that Byron was never able, or only at the end of his life when attempted to free the Greeks, to divest himself of the charm of being Lord Byron. He didn’t even try. In 1818, Walter Scott (whose accomplishment is probably nearer to the scale of Bellow’s-no mean writer; either of them) reviewed Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He is generous to Byron, but his criticism is moral, and with his words I will finish this paradox, that the ego is where you set out from, after you find it. “Certain it is,” Scott writes, "that whether as Harold or as Lord Byron, no author has ever fixed upon himself personally so intense a share of the public attention. His descriptions of present and existing scenes however striking and beautiful, his recurrence to past actions however important and however powerfully described, become interesting chiefly from the tincture which they receive from the mind of the author… our ideas of happiness are chiefly caught by reflection from the minds of others, and hence it may be observed that those enjoy the most uniform train of good spirits who are thinking much of others and little of themselves… The poetry which treats of the actions, and sentiments of others may be grave or gay according to the light in which the author chooses to view his subject, but he who shall mine long and deeply for materials in his own bosom will encounter abysses at the depth of which he must necessarily tremble. This moral truth appears to us to afford…a key to the peculiar tone of Lord Bryon.”

It was not a Victorian tone. It was a tone very like the prevailing one of our time, Harold's self-centered pessimism, where Scott can be charged with some of the dishonest cheerfulness we ascribe to the Victorians. But what Scott is saying, and what Bellow through his character Herzog is saying, about the ego is that after it has been discovered it should be divested. Dr. Johnson quoted a common saying of English physicians: “A cucumber should be well-sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing.”