William Meredith

In Praise of Instinct

Address delivered at Harkness Chapel, Connecticut College, Sept. 1972

The instinct that I want to praise is the troublesome human pulse to love one another impractically, socially, brother and sisterly. The reason it seems appropriate for me to talk about it in chapel is that I find in this instinct a kind of argument from design: there appears to me to be, for each man and woman, a created identity to be found in his own working out of this mode of relationship. By learning how we belong to one another, we learn who we are, no two alike.

A society can make this discovery very difficult for some or all of its members. I think of Wilfred Owen. A Company Commander in the First World War, he was awarded the Mili­tary

Cross for exceptional bravery in the field before he was killed at twenty-five. Toward the end of his brief life he wrote a version of the Abraham and Isaac story which we have just heard. He seems to have had an instinct for sacrifice-that is what bravery meant in the citations of that war-and an in­stinct for peace, and he fulfilled both of these drives to love his fellow man, the one by his death, the other by his poems. This poem is called "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young."

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lot an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in.a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Another statement about how hard we make the finding this lover's role is in Dostoyevsky's “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” The narrator is telling of a dream he had about how men fell from the perfect love which their instinct had once made natural. He says, “There arose men who began to think how to bring all people together again, so that everybody, while still loving himself best of all, might not interfere with others, and all might live together in something like harmonious society. Regular wars sprang up over this idea.”

What Owen attributed to the Great War (as for twenty year we naively called it, thinking was the last one), and who Dostoyevsky attributed to self-love on a general scale, Kurt Vonnegut has recently blamed on simply the size of our society, saying that we evolved as an animal chemically equipped for tribal life in small units, and are incapable of tribal brotherhood on the scale we are forced to engage one another today. He recalls an old teacher of his from whom he learned this and he quotes him:

“In a folk society, says Dr. Redfield…“behavior is personal, not impersonal. A “person” may be defined as that social object which I feel to respond to situations as I do, with allied (sentiments and interests which I feel to be my own; a person is myself in another form, his qualities and values are inherent within him, and his significance for me is not merely on utility. A ‘thing,’ on the other hand, is a social object which has no claim upon my sympathies, which responds to me, as I conceive it, mechanically; its value for me exists in so far as it serves my end. In the folk society, all human beings admitted to the society are treated as persons; one does not deal impersonally (‘thing fashion’) with any other participant in the little world of that society.” “And I say to you,” Vonnegut goes on, “that we are full of chemicals that require us to belong to folk societies, or, failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water…”

Chemicals make us furious when we are treated as things than persons. When anything happens to us which not happen in a folk society, our chemicals make us feel fish out of water. Our chemicals demand that we get back water again. If we become increasingly wild and preposterous in modern times-well, so do fish on riverbanks, for a little while.

If we become increasingly apathetic in modern times-well, so do fish on river banks, after a little while. Our children often come to resemble apathetic fish--except that fish can’t play guitars. And what do many of our children attempt to do? They attempt to form folk societies, which they call “communes.” Wars, greed, impersonality: no one can deny these forces make the response of brotherhood difficult, though the more history one has, I suspect, the less sure one is we have increased the jeopardy to love. It has always been a perilous quest, men and women have always had to bet their lives on it. Many of our soundest instincts are reckless, one perhaps most of all. The instinct of the artist seems to me one of reckless generosity. We let our artists look in the chasm for us and come back and tell us what they see: we can bear the vision better for what they show us, but the cost to them is sometimes very great: suicides, insanity, the induced insanity of alcohol and drugs-these are not, I think, weaknesses or self-indulgences for such men, but rather a kind of sacrifice.

I want to speak finally about the response of love in two of our time, both now dead, who were friends of mine, Robert Frost and John Berryman. The attraction, or affinity; I felt for Frost and Berryman had a quality of discipleship. I knew them for my betters, that is. I'm proud that I had the instinct to recognize and learn from, if not my moral betters, at least my artistic largers. They gave to us, their brothers, great testimony of love. Let me say a poem of Frost's (“The Draft Horse”) and part of a rejoinder to it by Berryman.

With a lantern that wouldn't burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of the broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to hate.

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

It's a story, isn't it, about how love can turn evil around? bears that witness. Not long before his death, Berryman wrote a poem that appears in the posthumous book. It testifies to the communication of Frost's poem, in case anyone doubted that, and to the joy that we take, as loving animals, in the generosity of the artist. I read the opening and closing lines:

Felled in my tracks by your tremendous horse
slain in its tracks by the angel of good God,
I wonder toward your marvelous tall art

I said the same goddamn thing yesterday
to my thirty kids, so I was almost ready
to hear you from the grave with these passionate grave
last words, and frankly Sir you fill me with joy.

I think what I learned from these two men, that I see witnessed in this exchange of poems, is that there is an appropriate response to anything that befalls us. It is a response that has to do with the love of our fellow man. It is prompted by a personal instinct of love. Its working is mysterious because this instinct is different in each of us. We are constantly being astonished, if we pay attention, at how differently people take their brotherhood. People who can't take it are non-people: we have cast-out names for them: monsters, zombies, self-lovers. And we can't dogmatize anything very important about love. What's true for me isn't exactly true for you: your instinct has another person for data. It would be dogmatic for me to assert that, at some level, the appropriate response to any crisis is affirmative, though I believe that. It would be dogmatic to assert that the prompting voice is creative, a manifestation of the creative force in the universe, but I believe that. Instinctively I have come to the role of an affirmative witness. Some lines I wrote this summer about another artist, a painter, are groping with this:

Gnawed by a vision of rightness
that no one else seems to see,
what can a man do
but bear witness?

And what has he got to tell?
Only the shaped things he's seen--
a few things made by men
a galaxy made well.

It's still more of a hunch than a creed. Richard Wilbur, who is a card-carrying Christian, said to me once that he prays to God because he has to have some place to take his gratitude. I suppose I am still at the stage where Mistress Quickly found herself at Falstaff’s deathbed. “Now I (she says) to comfort him, bid him’ a should not think of God, I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.”

But I hope you will observe that for an agnostic, I am a deeply superstitious man.