Hesperidean: An Apology
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
As a young man in graduate school I began keeping a journal. Like all journals kept by earnest graduate students in the arts, it quickly became a means of self reflection, of identity creation. It started out, oddly, with a bullet point list of all the things I loved. The list was self-consciously broad and eclectic – I included authors and poets, specific scenes in movies, people I’d met, music I was crazy about, situations I’d been in (or imagined), favorite foods, sexual peccadillos, etc.
In the second entry, I must’ve reviewed the list I’d made and wondered, because I began puzzling over what significances lie in the items on this list. It was the early days of computers; the journal really could only have been started on an old word-processor with a floppy disk for storage. And I began thinking of the list as data, and wondering what relationships and patterns a powerful computer – or an interested self – could find in it.
These were all things I loved, things that had shaped my affections and thus my perceptions, and thus my world. If I could trace the thread that joined these things, find the “rose in steel dust” that Pound had written of, what would I find? Something essential, I felt, writing (in my excitement) that in the pattern that might reveal itself I would find the footprints of God.
I called the journal “endeavor” and kept it on my hard drives for the next several decades, adding to it occasionally. Now, at the other end of my life, I’m taking another look my affections, keeping a weather eye out for that rose in the steel dust.
Walter Pater, the 19th century critic, had a novel idea for criticism: it should prioritize, first and foremost, what is touching and beautiful about a work of art. To point out the shortcomings of a work is a waste of time. Of course the work is lacking. It is the job of criticism to trace out where it fulfills, and ask why.
What thou lovest well remains, said Ezra Pound, and the rest is dross. What thou lovest well cannot be reft from thee. To love well is the obligation that our love demands of us.
When asked why he drew grotesqueries, Aubrey Beardsley answered that it was because “beauty is difficult.”
Beauty is difficult. It hides, and is easily camouflaged. It can be bootlegged, hijacked, stolen and broken and sold. It is profoundly and hopelessly subjective.
But beauty is also necessary and redemptive. It is the world's only claim on our impossibly subjective, alienated existence. Beauty is complicated and often ridiculous and, where it is real, always deeply rooted. It holds the power to draw us beyond ourselves.
We grow into this world divided, scattershot, fragmented and unwhole. But if we can trace out the ligaments of all of those things we most and truly love, mark our affections, take the temper of our enthusiasms: we might find a pattern, and thereby discern our truest selves, unified and whole. In our affections we might trace the footprints of God.
THE FOOTPRINTS OF GOD
Pre-modern humans spoke to Gods, and listened when God spoke to them. In his book The Great Shift, James Kugel writes that when God spoke to biblical characters for the first time, they may be surprised, but they’re not exactly bowled over. Kugel and others (Charles Taylor) describe pre-modern man’s sense of self as porous, or “semi-permeable.” People didn’t recognize a fixed, solid boundary between the self and nature. Rather than nature being perceived as something discrete, “out there,” everything interpenetrated. The river gods speak, there are faces in the wood.
That permeable self has been lost as man has struggled his way to the sad present; somewhere around the development of agriculture, and civilization, I’d say, when humans were forced to take up arms against soil and weather and each other, building walls and enforcing boundaries.
And some sought to recover something of that pre-modern permeability, the old intimacy with the world and nature in it. The Romantics, of course, and their late intellectual descendants: Walter Pater wrote an odd, difficult essay on “Diaphaneite,” seeking with that term to establish the true relationship between self and the world for aesthetic man: he described a character that “crosses rather than follows the main current of life,” like a translucent veil colors the light that penetrates it.
And Yeats spent his life sensing the “trembling of the veil,” the drape that had been drawn between man and the world, expecting, at any moment for it to be drawn back and the world enchanted once again.
I can no longer hear a God speaking directly to me. But by paying careful attention to the things that I love, I may be able to discern the footprints of one I've forgotten.